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Norman Babcock's Guide to the Unexplained

Chapter Text

The first stop on their way through Gravity Falls is the Mystery Shack.

It’s veritable quicksand as far as tourist traps go. A slick-talking old man with an eye patch spends the better part of an hour trying to sell Norman’s father a jar of fake eyeballs, then a set of overpriced Mystery Shack dishware, then a life-sized replica of something called the “Bewielderbeast” that looks like the passion project of a particularly troubled novice taxidermist. Norman’s mother pays thirty-five dollars and ninety-nine cents to have her picture taken with the Sascrotch, and Courtney spends the entire time holding her phone outstretched from her body and sighing melodramatically as if her angst alone will summon some decent cell service.

There’s a freckly redheaded girl - college-aged, a little older than Norman but probably not quite as old as Courtney - behind the counter who glances up exactly once from her glossy magazine and spends the rest of the time studiously ignoring them. She deigns to look away from her gossip column for an entire fifteen seconds when Norman purchases a possibly-human brain in a flask of possibly-formaldehyde that he found gathering dust on a high shelf. “Congrats,” the girl says, sounding about as bored as she looks, and maybe grudgingly impressed. “You found the only thing in the whole place with a maybe-reasonable price tag.”

“Yeah, well,” Norman says as she gives him his change, “if it was my brain in a jar I’d want it to get out and about more, I guess.”

“Huh. When you put it like that, I guess.” She gives him a once-over before picking up her magazine again.

When they finally extract themselves from the Mystery Shack and pile back into the car, Norman’s father turns the key in the ignition, the engine makes a woeful sort of keening sound, and smoke begins to billow out from under the hood in thick black plumes. Norman’s pretty sure the noise his dad makes can be heard all the way to California.

oregon hates our car Norman texts Neil. or gravity falls likes us so much it doesn’t want us to leave.

any hot grls??? ;);) is Neil’s extremely sympathetic reply, and Norman doesn’t dignify that with an answer.

“You’re getting service?” Courtney whines as though Norman has just taken a leaf blower to her carefully styled hair. “Oh my god. I want to go home!”

Their last stop on their way through Gravity Falls is also, for better or worse, the Mystery Shack.

x

The Rachet Mattress Inn is about as quality as it sounds. There is a severely obese woman’s ghost haunting the bathroom of Room 104.

“Her name’s Mrs. Lovett,” Norman informs his family. “She pulled an Elvis.” His mother is unscrewing the lightbulbs in the bedside lamps and then twisting them back in hoping to make them work, and Courtney is lying spread-eagled on one of the beds, face down, her bare feet hanging off the mattress. Norman’s father has gone back to the lobby to negotiate with the gum-chewing man behind the desk, although Norman doesn’t know what he intends to accomplish.

“And the fridge doesn’t work,” Norman discovers. It does, however, house a bunch of extremely overripe bananas and a tub of melted ice cream. He puts his brain-in-a-jar between them for the novelty of it.

“At least the wallpaper is nice,” Norman’s mother says, petting the sunbleached paisley. “It's just one night anyway. It’s all part of the adventure!”

Courtney makes a muffled sound of unequaled misery. All of her college friends are in Florida right now, probably drinking margaritas on the beach in bikinis and burning themselves six degrees shy of skin cancer while Courtney is spending three weeks in June on a transcontinental road trip with her family. Norman thinks the noises she’s making are some sort of distress signal meant to summon any buff twentysomething guys within a couple mile radius, but it doesn’t seem to be working. Maybe if she stopped trying to suffocate herself with a pillow.

“Where are you going, dear?” Norman’s mother asks when he pockets a room key and makes for the door.

“Exploring. I won’t go far.” It may be bigger than Blithe Hollow, but he doesn’t think he could get lost in Gravity Falls. He still lets his mother shout her obligatory “Be safe!” before shutting the door behind him.

The Rachet Mattress Inn has one floor and thirteen rooms. There is paisley wallpaper and burnt orange carpet on every spare surface and a ghost sitting in the lounge. He’s wearing a weird hooded robe like a particularly sinister monk, but he waves when Norman catches his eye. Norman waves back; his father, arguing with the greasy man at the desk, doesn’t notice when he slips out the door and into the afternoon sunshine.

The sidewalk is cracked under Norman’s worn sneakers, and he waves at the ghost of a girl in a floppy sun hat who offers him a hushed hello as he passes, her little white dog straining at its leash. Gravity Falls feels good in Norman’s bones. The Babcock Family Expedition, as it’s been dubbed, hit the two week mark yesterday, but of all the tiny towns he’s seen in the last fourteen days Gravity Falls is the first to send something electric and familiar crackling up the vertebrae of his spine. It feels like television static buzzing in the cluster of nerves, and he imagines it as blue as the humming neon sign that blinks above the Rachet Mattress Inn.

Their malfunctioning car (the “Babcock Machine” is its official title, although nobody except Norman’s father is so lacking in self respect as to breathe the moniker out loud) is parked outside the mechanic’s garage where they left it an hour ago, temptingly conspicuous with its Massachusetts license plates and fuzzy dice dangling from the rear-view mirror. Norman’s grandmother is sitting in the backseat where she has spent the entirety of the road trip thus far.

“How are you doing, Grandma?”

She watches Norman approach, her eyes shrewd even in death. “It’s nice to have the place to myself for a while,” she tells him through the window. “I forget how awful your father is until I’m trapped in a car with him for eight hours a day. He’s gotten worse at driving since I died. He should get his eyes checked.”

“You can come to our motel room, if you’d like. It’s really not that bad.” That’s a lie, but he supposes she’ll find that out for herself if she comes.

“That sounds like an awful idea. I’m going to stay here and practice my backgammon, you kids have fun,” she says dismissively, and Norman smiles in spite of himself as he maneuvers his bike off of the rack on the back of the Babcock Machine.

“Hey! Is that your car?”

A girl’s voice. Norman turns and looks at her - at them, because there are two, a boy and a girl, climbing out of a rusty pickup truck. They are too similar to be anything less than siblings, with the same thick hair and heavy freckles against suntanned skin.

“I really hope it’s my car,” Norman says, “otherwise I’m stealing somebody’s bike.”

The girl laughs, big and honest. She’s made of little but long, long legs and waves of shiny hair, and she’s dressed in a big knit sweater that hangs off her shoulders in a way that must be stylish, because it reminds Norman of how Courtney wears hers. (This girl has an enormous sparkly clownfish on the front of her sweater though, and Norman knows absolutely nothing about fashion but he doesn’t think tropical fish are in this season. It suits her.) Her brother doesn’t crack a smile; he looks thoughtful, his eyes flicking from Norman to the bike rack to the out of state license plates and back again. Cataloguing, maybe. He’s not quite as tall as his sister, and he’s got a shadow of stubble haunting his jaw and his hair shoved under a baseball cap. Norman makes a point to not notice the way his t-shirt pulls tight across his upper torso. Absolutely not.

“You’re funny! I like you,” the girl says approvingly, her hands on her hips. It makes Norman vaguely self-conscious: she's tall, but he is taller even without the added inches of his hair, wiry and narrow and packing permanently horrible posture. Norman’s not quite the same brand of bizarre he was as a preteen, but people will always stare.

“Is it going to take long for your car to get fixed?” she asks.

“Uh,” Norman says. Her interest is disproportionate to her involvement and he’s not quite sure where this is going. “The mechanic said it’d be ready by tomorrow.”

“You’re going to be here for a week, man,” the boy says flatly.

“Mechanic Manny doesn’t really follow a linear timestream, if you get my drift, especially with engine jobs,” his sister says, lowering her voice to a stage whisper and leaning towards Norman conspiratorially. “Your car will be fixed when it’s fixed.”

Norman thinks about this for a second. “Thanks for the tip,” he says. “How did you know it was an engine job?”

“Weeeellll,” the girl deflects, and her voice pitches up an octave and holds the note sustained while she glances at the sky.

The boy scratches the back of his neck. “About that. So we were maybe kinda sort of the ones who -”

“Tell Mechanic Manny to check your gas tank for maple syrup!” his sister squeaks out in a rush. There are several beats of silence between the three of them, and then she sticks out her hand to shake.

“Hi,” she says, “I’m Mabel Pines. The nerd is Dipper.”

Norman stares at her smile, and then her outstretched hand. “You put maple syrup,” he says slowly, “in the gas tank of my dad’s car?”

“Yes! Not on purpose - well, yes on purpose, but not willingly - well, I guess it was willingly too, but it wouldn’t have been if we’d known -”

“Our great uncle is a greedy weird fraud of an old man who goes out of his way to get tourists to stay in town longer so he can make more money off them,” the boy - Dipper - says in a tone that’s both long-suffering and apologetic. The tips of his ears have turned strawberry red. “For the record, we didn’t know. And we were bribed.”

“We live at the Mystery Shack!” Mabel informs him, and Norman finally fits the pieces of their backwards conversation together.

“Your great uncle,” he says, “the one-eyed salesman at the Mystery Shack, bribed you sabotage our car so we’d get stuck in Gravity Falls and, hypothetically, spend more money.”

“His eye patch is fake,” Mabel whispers at the exact same time Dipper winces and goes, “Sorry.”

“Oh,” Norman says thoughtfully. Then he offers his hand to Mabel. “Norman Babcock,” he says, and she beams as she shakes his hand with more enthusiasm than his introduction generally elicits from strangers.

“Norman?” she tests the name on her tongue with the slightest of giggles. Norman catches a look loaded with something he doesn’t understand flash between the Pines siblings, like an inside joke. It doesn’t feel malicious or aimed at him, precisely, so he lets it go. “Norman suits you,” Mabel says jovially. “Do you like pie?”

“Do I like...?”

“Here!” Mable picks up his bike with one hand, hefts it onto her shoulder and makes for the rusty truck. “We’re going to get pie,” she says matter-of-factly as she tosses the bike over the tailgate and into the bed of their truck with absolutely no effort, her hair and her hips swinging.

“Um, you don’t have to -”

Dipper shakes his head. “Man, we stranded you in Gravity Falls. We probably owe you pie.” He looks up at Norman from under the bill of his hat, bangs scattered across his forehead and the blush not quite completely faded and oh no, oh no oh no -

“Okay,” Norman agrees, for a lot of reasons. But mostly because he wants to.

In the truck, Dipper drives and Mabel perches between him and Norman, adopting the role of tour guide: “On the left, up the winding driveway to the top of the creepy random hill in the middle of town, you may glimpse the grandeur of the Northwest Mansion, an awe-inspiring place known among locals as a symbol of crippling wealth disparity, unattainable dreams, and death by manual labor…”

lucky you, turns out there are hot girls in oregon Norman texts Neil discreetly, mostly for the other boy’s benefit.

pix or it didnt hppen Neil replies almost immediately.

no, creepy. go back to freeze-framing your mom’s yoga dvds like a pervy old man

He looks up again at the sleepy town rolling by outside the window, and something lurking briefly at the very edge of his vision catches his attention. When he turns his head to look, it’s gone.

x

By title alone Greasy’s Diner makes exactly the same kind of first impression as the Rachet Mattress Inn. However, the interior seems as though it would score decently in a lenient health inspection, even if there is some suspicious carnival contraption named the “Manliness Tester” in the far corner. The pie is excellent, as promised.

The Pines twins sit across the table from Norman and share a milkshake. Mabel produces constant, cheerful chatter: introducing the locals as they wander by; telling Norman a story about a whirlwind love affair between her great uncle and the lazy-eyed waitress; poking fun of her brother with affectionate ruthlessness. Dipper chews the end of his straw and occasionally interjects, but mostly he scribbles in a battered leather-bound notebook, tapping a stubby No. 2 pencil with the eraser worn to nothing against the tabletop when he stops to think. Norman glances up from his pie once to find the boy already watching him. They both look away too fast.

“Where in Massachusetts are you from?” Mabel asks eventually, smiling over the rim of the milkshake glass.

“Uh, Blithe Hollow?” Norman says. His voice tips up to become a question at the end because nobody knows where Blithe Hollow, Massachusetts is with any more specificity than that it is somewhere in Massachusetts. “It’s really small.”

“Never heard of it,” says Mabel. “What brings you to the great state of Oregon?”

“Family bonding, or something. My mother just wants more pictures for her scrapbook before I graduate and go to college, I think,” Norman says fondly at the thought of his mother snapping photographs of Courtney sulking on the motel bed with the prehistoric digital camera she had bought for $1.25 at a garage sale on their way through Ohio.

Mabel perks up.”Ooh, we’ll be seniors too! We live in California, but we come here to stay with Grunkle Stan in the summer. We might spend a gap year here after we graduate.”

“Maybe,” says Dipper, whose pencil began tap-tap-tapping against the tabletop at the mention of Blithe Hollow.

Maybe,” Mabel amends with a great roll of her eyes. “I might take a gap year, anyway. Dipper could get into any boring prep school he wanted to though! He’s got braaaaiiiins,” she giggles, her voice dropping to a moan on the last word in a mildly impressive imitation of the undead. Dipper shoots her a capital-L Look, but the tips of his ears are turning red again and Norman quirks a merciful smile at him.

“That’s cool. My friend Salma wants to go to Princeton next year. She’s losing hair over it already.”

“I don’t really know what I want to do yet,” Dipper says. “You have to get accepted first though, I think that’s how it works.” He scratches the back of his neck and offers a smile of his own, the first since Norman has met them. It's a smaller, less toothy version of his sister’s that dimples on the left side, as opposed to her right. Norman tells himself it isn’t cute at all and he’s lying.

Mabel has commandeered the milkshake, which she sucks on with a noise like an overwhelmed vacuum cleaner. “I heard you bought the pickled brain that’s been sitting in the gift shop since, like, 1984,” she says.

Norman shrugs. “It looked sad,” he says, only kind of kidding. Now that the late afternoon sunshine is spilling across their booth he’s noticed what he really hopes is soap residue catching the light on his fork.

“It’s a brain,” Mabel laughs at him. “What are you gonna do with it?”

“Um, leave it in the fridge until I think of something better, I guess.”

She wrinkles her nose. “Gross! Are you a zombie or something?” she asks, and Norman smiles, about to protest that he’s not that dry, until he meets Mabel’s eyes.

At some point it became quiet in the diner. Norman is suddenly less aware of the gold of the afternoon sun and more of the deep shadows that fall where it doesn’t touch. The tapping of Dipper’s pencil against the tabletop has stopped, and his gaze is darker than Mabel’s under the bill of his hat. They don’t blink as often as normal people do, Norman realizes, and they’re watching him. He thinks about movement in his peripheral vision and electricity up his spine, how pine forests swallow the sound of footsteps, the pale shadows of scars that slice through the freckles on the backs of Dipper’s hands.

“You get a lot of zombies in Gravity Falls?” he asks.

“We get a lot of everything in Gravity Falls.”

It’s not a real answer. Norman takes a moment to study Dipper’s expression and decides not to push. “I’m not a zombie,” he promises, mildly surprised by how unoffended he is by the assumption. He did buy a brain.

The corners of Mabel’s lips twitch upward and the sunny smile comes back in full. “Oh good. We didn’t think so, but best to be sure. I’d hate to have to kill you again,” she says with what Norman assumes is complete honesty.

“Thanks? If you need to prove it by trying to rip off one of my limbs or something, don’t warn me. I’ll probably chicken out.”

“What are you, then?” Dipper asks with no preface whatsoever. “If you’re not a zombie.”

Norman looks at him. “Human,” he says wryly. “I can see ghosts, though.”

“Everyone can see ghosts.” Dipper’s pencil goes tap-tap-tap against the table and he’s watching again.

“Only the ones that want everyone to see them,” Norman says, his gaze falling to a single strip of sunshine spilling down the middle of the table like streak of paint, butter-orange and rich. Dark thunderheads have rolled in from the west to pad the sky and obscure everything but the very edge of the horizon, not visible through the forest but implied by the stray beams of sunset filtering between the pines. Norman is almost certain that the sky was crystal clear less than ten minutes ago. “I should probably get going,” he says.

“We can give you a ride!” Mabel chirps, but Norman shakes his head as they slide from the booth, shrugging his sweatshirt back on and returning the farewell wave from the lazy-eyed waitress.

“I’ll just bike. I’ve kind of spent a lot of time in the car recently.”

Dipper leans his shoulder against the driver’s-side door when they get to the truck. “You should come to the Mystery Shack tomorrow,” he tells Norman.

“Ohmygosh yes.” Mabel plunks Norman’s bike down in front of him. “We have to work in the store all day, come hang out with us! Dip will have an entire categorized list of purely scientific questions for you by then, I’m sure. We don’t meet a lot of friendly mediums. Or a lot of mediums at all.”

“Um." Norman clears his throat awkwardly. "Sure."

Mabel reaches up to pat his face the way one would pet the head of a dog. “Better go! The rain doesn’t always play nice,” she warns, shooing him off with exaggerated pinwheeling of her arms. “Run, Forrest!”

Norman returns Dipper’s little wave and slings a leg over his bike. “Thanks for the pie,” he says, and pedals off through the parking lot, jumping the curb and coasting away down the gritty heat-cracked sidewalk. He can feel two pairs of eyes on the back of his neck until he turns the corner, and he beats the rain by seconds.

x

“Did you find anything interesting out there?”

Norman’s mother is reclining against the headboard, compulsively polishing the television remote with an antibacterial wipe and flipping through old magazines. He’s been informed that there is a grand total of three TV channels: one is nothing but reruns of The Laurence Welk Show, one is the local news channel, and the third plays the same twenty second commercial for some gaudy roadside tourist attraction called the “Tent of Telepathy” on a loop.

“Yeah, I guess,” says Norman, staring out the window. “I met some people.”

“Nice people?”

“Yeah. Kids my age. They bought me pie.”

“All the locals are so freaky,” Courtney whispers. She’s curled into a fetal position on the second bed, her cell phone clutched against her chest so tightly that her knuckles have turned white and Norman doubts she’s moved so much as an inch in well over an hour. Their father is snoring in the reclining chair in the corner, drooling down the side of his face and onto the faded pinstripe cushion. The ghost of Mrs. Lovett occasionally peeks out of the bathroom to glare at them.

Outside, the rain is falling at an sixty degree angle even though there’s no wind to speak of. Norman presses his forehead against the cool windowpane and thinks that ‘freaky’ is a relative term. you’d like gravity falls he texts Neil. He gets no reply, but Wednesday nights are enchilada and Monopoly nights at the Downe house, so he doesn’t know what he was expecting.

His dream that night is full of triangles.