Oregon might become the first state Stan banned himself from. Cold, dark and creepy – yes, the whole state, all the time.
He opened the car door calmly, set his bag down in the passenger seat without hurling it, got behind the wheel and closed the door without slamming it. The wind howled outside and snow beat against the windshield. Snow that had snuck in under his jacket melted and trickled down his body. Chunks of the stuff crumbled off his boots and pooled in the foot space.
He brought his fist down on the steering wheel. “Shit!” His forehead fell against the cold plastic. “Get it together, Pines. Get it together.” Breathe. Breathe. Alright.
He started the engine, leaving Ford’s house behind him.
The Stanleymobile was the closest thing Stan had to a home, and he knew all her quirks and limitations. If he hadn’t been so busy being pissed off, he would have noticed the difference in weight quicker.
The windshield wipers were going as fast as they could, just barely keeping the view clear enough. The insistent thwum-thwum-thwum set his teeth on edge and snow kept piling up outside the edge of their reach, limiting his view on the sides.
Something hit the windshield with a squeak and a thud, and was wiped away a second later, before Stan got a good look at it – some kind of bird. It’d left an explosive blood stain behind that didn’t go away even after a few rounds from the wipers. He could have flicked on the wiper fluid, if the tank hasn’t been empty.
The stain was about the size of the palm of his hand and, mostly, partly see through. He could manage.
No sooner had he thought that, than a shower of whatever-it-was pummeled the windshield in quick succession.
He stepped on the break, not bothering to move to the side of the road. If some idiot was out driving at this time they only had themselves to blame. He tried clearing the blood off with the scraper he kept in the car door, but it was tough work. It had a weird consistency, like syrup mixed with gum and it stuck to the glass and the scraper and his gloves like glue.
He muttered several verses of foul language until the window was finally clean enough to see through. The headlights threw long shadows over the snow, like rivers running into the darkness.
What kind of bird had purple, sparkling blood? “Who gives a shit?”
Back in the car, he allowed himself a moment to sit on his hands until some of the ache went away. He flicked the wipers back on, glaring at them as they got stuck and dragged through the blood splatter. The irregular beat was going to be impossible to tune out.
Between the snow and the dark and the (purple glitter) blood splatter, Stan only noticed the tree a hair's width before it was too late. The car screeched to a halt, so close to the log that the headlights were all but blotted out by it.
For a moment he just sat there, staring at the enormous log laying across the road.
It was as thick as he was tall, and blocking off the entire road. He must’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere, because there was no way that thing could’ve come down in the short time he’d been at Ford’s. It’d take a full hurricane to bring down a trunk like that. So why was there no snow on top of it?
Stan put the car in reverse to get a better view. He twisted around to look where he was going. When he looked back around, the tree was gone.
The tree was gone. “What the fuck.”
The massive log that had been laying across the road had vanished into thin air without a peep, in the seconds he hadn’t had his eyes on it. He stepped out the car. “What the actual fuck!?” His voice echoed through the woods.
His mind clamped down on whys and hows and whats. It didn’t matter. He just had to get away. Back to Ford’s? No. He slipped back in the car, keeping his eyes fixed on where the log had been. Just go – anywhere out of this hell-forest.
He made it all the way into town without incident. Out of the woods in both senses. It wasn’t that late in the evening yet, but most of the lights were already turned off, and the streets were dead.
Something stepped into the road straight out of nowhere, and it was lucky for the person-like cat-faced old woman that Stan had been ready on the breaks. The woman smiled at him – which he did not care for – and waved. Like they were two friends casually bumping into each other.
“Yeesh.” Stan kept still until the old woman had disappeared around the corner. From the pep in her step, nearly getting run over hadn’t done much to ruin her mood. Seemed like the woods wasn’t the only weird thing around these parts.
A weak laugh escaped him. “Looks like you found the perfect place for yourself.” Nope, not thinking about that. He looked around, eyes falling on a run-down convenience store. He hadn’t stopped a lot on his way up here, so he was almost out of food. Might as well get the restocking over with now.
He peered through the door before entering. The store was empty but for the woman behind the till. All the lights were turned on, and the hot dog grill was going like this was a truck stop off the interstate, and not a town that apparently went to bed at six.
The woman looked normal, more or less. Maybe a bit too excited for how dead her store was. Her eyes snapped to Stan the second the bell above the door jingled, like she’d been waiting for it. Stan gave a nod and a strained smile. The trick was to look like you didn’t mind anyone noticing you.
If there had been at least one other person in the store he could’ve gotten away with more, but a loaf of bread and a jar of ‘Mystery Surprise Jam’ – yikes – wasn’t nothing. He picked up some chips and strolled up to the counter.
“Evening, stranger,” said the woman.
“Evenin’,” Stan muttered back. “A pack smokes as well.”
“Not a lot of people like wandering about this late at night,” said the woman, in a cheerful tone. She set the cigarettes down next to the chips. “I’d be careful about these woods if I were you. Strange things can happen at night.”
“Little late for that warning, palerella,” Stan muttered, sticking his legally acquired wares in his pockets.
The woman squinted at him for a moment, before her eyes went wide. Stan’s heart stuttered. “Say, aren’t you that scientist living up in the woods?”
Stan clenched his teeth together. “Don’t know who you’re talking about.”
“No, no, you look just like him!”
“Must be one of those ‘strange things’,” Stan said with air quotes before making for the door.
“Do take care now!” the woman called after him as the door swung shut.
The small roads in the forest had been somewhat sheltered from the elements, but the conditions of the main road were, honestly, fucking terrible. The falling snow was wet and heavy – like driving through thick soup. Under it, the road was covered in ice. It made every pedal push utterly unpredictable, but he’d take it over disappearing trees.
The road went on in a dead-straight line, descending into darkness and blizz. Trees stood on both sides of the road, tall and dark and featureless. He drove and drove, and it felt like he was getting nowhere. Like one of those nightmares where you’re running and running, and when you stop to look behind, you’re right where you started. Between the engine and the window wipers and the wind, he shouldn’t be able to hear his own breath. The world shouldn’t feel so quiet.
It was only when he was taken off guard by a turn that came out of nowhere that he noticed that the weight in the car didn’t move like it should when he hit the breaks. His mind wanted to race with images of what could have possibly caused the added bulk, but speculation wasn’t going to do anything now.
He took a breath and kept going until he came to a rest stop with a pair of blinking streetlights, parked the car and grabbed his trusty baseball bat from behind the passenger seat.
Snow was still coming down in heavy clumps and his fingers ached as they gripped the bat. He shut the driver door and peered through the backseat window. Everything looked to be in order. Or rather, in the same kind of mess he’d left it in. He opened the door quietly and used the bat to poke around in the clutter, ready for some rabid animal (or whatever else) to jump out at him.
There came a small “ow” from the back of the car, and he knew better than to assume he was imagining things. He moved to the trunk, bat raised as he threw it open.
Bright voices screamed back at him. It took Stan a split second to realise that it wasn’t some freaky animal, but he was too confused to feel any relief. Kids? What the he-y?
Two round faces stared up at him from between the cardboard boxes. They were hugging each other protectively. The boy one looked terrified, while the girl was quickly regaining her composure.
“Ooo, love your hair!” she said with a grin full of metal.
Stan lowered the baseball bat. “Get the heck out of there,” he said in a aggressively flat tone.
The kids climbed out the car on wobbly legs. Stan noted of how similar they looked – same face shape and fluffy brown hair – and then firmly shoved that observation to the back of his mind. The girl leaned back against the bumper, looking around with unhealthy curiosity. Her clothes could’ve taken an eye out with how colorful they were – a bright pink sweater with two glitter-gold hands in clasped in a heart shaped handshake, paired with chunky rainbow socks and gloves, and pink earmuffs hanging around her neck.
The boy took one steadying step to the side and slipped on the icy ground. Stan snatched him up by the back of his vest jacket. This one was wearing a brown knit cap and blue and white sweater under the jacket.
“Look, you little brats, I don’t know what you think you’re accomplishing here, but I do not have time for runaways.”
“We’re not runaways!” said the boy, swatting at Stan’s hand like an angry kitten.
“Sure you ain’t, kid. Now, where did you get in?”
The kids shared a talkative look. “Not telling,” they said, in almost perfect unison.
Stan let go of the boy so he could pinch the bridge of his nose. It would be twins, wouldn’t? Two annoying little peas in a pod. Because the universe’s favorite pastime was kicking the ever living carp out of Stanley Pines.
They must’ve gotten in in Gravity Falls, while he stopped for food. No way they’d been running around the forest this time of night. No way he wouldn’t have heard them while trying to clean his window, or staring at the giant log like an idiot.
It wasn’t like him not to remember to lock his car, though. He tried to think back to the last time he’d checked the trunk of his car, and how many stops he’d made after that. Over the years, he’d developed the habit of sticking things he was using in the back or passenger seats, whereas the trunk had become more of a long-term storage type of deal. It could’ve been days since he last opened it. The kids could have snuck in before he went to see Ford even. He hadn’t stopped a lot on the way up, but when he had, he’d been away from the car for minutes at a time.
“I’m sure your parents are real worried about you and want you home soon as possible. I’ll take you as far as the next town and we’ll find a nice cop to take you home.”
“You can’t!” the boy exclaimed.
“We’re... going somewhere.”
“Yeah, I got that from you sneaking into my car.”
“We can’t tell you why, but it’s really important that you don’t take us to the police.” His little face had a laughably serious look on it.
Stan glanced over at the girl, who was brushing away snow from her hair in tight, nervous motions. When she noticed him looking, she plastered on a friendly smile and tucked both hands behind her back.
So something was definitely up with these two. He just had the puzzle out what. “This weather isn’t really right for standing around in. Let’s sit in the car.”
He opened the backseat door to clear enough space for one of the kids to sit. Turning your back to anyone was risky, but as long as he stayed aware of his surroundings, he’d be fine. The kids were whispering away, but they hadn’t moved from the back of the car. Stan had to let go of the baseball bat for a second to untangle the seat belt from the clothes pile.
“Where are you going?”
Stan hit his head against the roof and bit off a curse. The girl had managed to sneak up on him. How could a person move so quietly and talk so loudly?
“None of your business.”
“Maybe we’re heading the same way. We could make it a road trip!” she said with way more confidence than any stowaway had any right to. Seemed like she’d forgotten her earlier nervousness. Something niggled at Stan in the back of his mind.
“Not a chance, kid.”
The boy took the seat in the back. He’d dug a green duffel bag and a blue backpack out of the trunk and was holding them tightly against his chest. At least it wasn’t a polka-dot bindle.
Little Miss Happy-Go-Lucky jumped into the front seat.
“Right,” Stan said the moment all the doors were shut.
“Nice window decorations,” the girl said, pointing to the glittery stains on the windshield. “I wanted to make some of those for our car but everyone said it was a ‘terrible idea.’”
“Thanks.” After a beat. “Great. So, who are you working for and what do they want.” Always exploit the element of surprise. Although he had slightly lost it at this point. “You won’t get in trouble for telling me.”
The kids stared at him with blatant confusion. Stan tended to trust his instincts, and he didn’t really get a robbery bait vibe from these two, but better safe than sorry.
“We’re thirteen,” the boy said. “We’re not working for anyone.”
“Plenty of thirteen-year-olds with jobs.” And that was all Stan was going to say on that subject. No need to traumatize these kids more than necessary. Or, well, that was an idea… Maybe what they needed was to be scared straight enough to run back to mommy.
The sensible thing to do would be dropping them off at the next police station. He had things to do – like doing his brother’s bidding like a sad dog. What was he in such a hurry for again?
“So, what’s your story, then?”
The boy started. “We- uh…” He made a few more false starts before the girl cut in.
“We’re looking for our uncle,” the girl said.
The boy flinched and started gesticulating for her to shut up. He stopped and tried to smile when he noticed Stan looking at him through the rear view mirror.
“And what, you thought he might be hiding in the trunk of my car?”
“No, silly!” She said it in a cheerful, casual tone. “We just don’t know where he lives yet, so we might as well go wherever you’re going and start looking there.”
“Well, that makes no sense.”
She shrugged. “It just seemed the quickest.”
“The quick- In what world is that the quickest way? You don’t even know where I’m heading.” To tell the truth, which he tried never to do, he wasn’t sure himself where he was headed.
This story was nonsense, which either meant these two were even dumber than they looked, or they had a secret to keep. The possibility that someone was using them as bait seemed less and less likely. If that was the case, they’d be stood on the side of the road waiting for well-meaning idiots to stop and ask if they were okay, and whoever they worked under wouldn’t wait several minutes to pounce.
“Could it be that you’re actually running from something.” He’d been thirteen once, and wild and stupid as he’d been, he wouldn’t have crawled into a strange car in the middle of the night unless something really serious had happened.
The girl frowned. “What? No-”
“That’s right!” the boy leaned between the front seats, voice cracking with nervousness. “We just to- need to put some distance between us and- here. Doesn’t really matter where we go.”
“And why can’t you just go to the cops?”
“Well, the reason for that is that they- this isn’t something they can help with.”
They really were desperate not to tell him what was actually going on. “You didn’t kill someone, did you? ‘Cause I don’t have time to get tangled in that sorta thing.”
“What?” The boy furrowed his brow like that was the dumbest thing he’d heard. Apparently he couldn’t hear himself talking. “Of course not. We’re not going to cause you any trouble. We just need a ride, okay?”
The girl had gone very quiet all of a sudden. She was looking straight ahead at the snowfall outside the windshield, chewing her lip. Stan couldn’t tell if she was still listening. The boy was looking straight at him, trying to stand still but twitching with nervous energy – or from leaning his full weight on his noodly arms.
There was no way to guess what they were running from without more info. But if they didn’t want to go to the cops, it was probably because they thought they’d just get sent back to whatever it was. That’s what any smart person would do with a pair of runaway kids. It was probably what Stan oughta do. Kids were stupid and overly dramatic, so whatever they’d ran away over probably wasn’t a big deal – a spat with a parent or a sibling, or having to eat vegetables before desert, or something.
But there was a possibility – no way of knowing how slim or broad – that they’d actually run from something messed up. If that was the case, could he really risk sending them back to it?
And if he couldn’t, what was he gonna do instead?
People tended to make decisions quickly, Stan had found, and then spend however much time they needed finding reasons to justify what they had already decided on. He liked cutting out as much humming and hawing as possible, once he knew what he was gonna do. “Fine. You can hitch a ride.”
The boy sat back down with a sigh.
“But I’m not a babysitter or a taxi. So, no complaining, or yelling, or asking to stop every five minutes for whatever dumb reason. Go it?”
“Got it,” the boy said.
The girl nodded. Weirdly, she seemed less cheery now than before Stan had agreed to let them come along. Maybe she was just tired. It was getting to be pretty late – for kids.
“For the record…” Stan started the car and rolled back on the road. “You really shouldn’t make a habit of getting into strange vehicles with people you don’t know. No way of knowing what kind of person’s driving.”
There was a heavy pause.
“Not that I’m gonna do anything to you. But you shouldn’t take my word for it. ‘Cause, I could easily be lying. Alright?” What was he going on about?
“We know that,” the girl said with a wave. “But this is different.”
“Different how?” Stan said but his voice was drowned out by a violent coughing fit from the backseat. “You alright there, champ?”
“Yeah. Me? Fine, yes. Hey, uh, mister, I don’t think we ever got your name. I’m- Tyrone and this is my sister...”
“Destiny Hope Clementine.” Back to smiley. This kid changed direction like a bouncing ball.
“Yeesh, your parents hate you both or something?”
“Hey!” the boy exclaimed. “Tyrone is a cool name.”
Stan grinned at the rear view mirror. “Yeah, for a boxer, maybe. Not for a wimpy kid with noodle arms.”
Tyrone shot his sister a pouty glare. He crossed his tiny arms, then became self conscious and tucked them into his sides instead. “What’s your name, then? Mr. Normal.”
“Craig,” Stan said without missing a beat. Always safer to use a fake name. In this case, he was pretty sure he was committing some kind of crime by transporting to kids that weren’t his. Was it still kidnapping if the kids asked him to do it?
He noticed the girl looking at him with crossed arms and squinty eyes. “What?”
“I dunno. You just don’t look like a Craig to me.”
He snorted. “Yeah? What how do you figure that?”
Tyrone kicked the back of his sister’s seat. She effortlessly went on as though the backrest wasn’t shaking like a springboard. “I have future vision.” The kicking intensified. “And I predict that you’re going to tell us your real name when we’ve become best friends.”
Stan didn’t get the chance to even start processing that bizarre statement.
“I wonder what’s on the radio!” Tyrone half-shouted, throwing himself between the front seats. Fizzy voices and tunes filled the car as he rolled through the frequencies.
“Hey!” Stan slapped his hand away. “Don’t mess with that. I’ve got it how I want it. And sit down, before you make me crash.” He turned it to a clear signal rather than turning it off. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Destiny gesticulating at the backseat.
By the time they rolled into the motel parking lot, the kids were pretty much asleep – which was a worrying level of trust to put in a stranger. Stan gave Destiny a gentle shake. She batted at his hand and muttered something. He briefly considered carrying her instead of forcing her to wake up, but immediately squashed the idea.
“I feel ya, kid, but you really don’t wanna sleep in the car in this kind of weather.” Never mind that Stan might’ve considered doing just that if he had been on his own.
Tyrone started awake when Stan opened the door. He looked around, eyes wide with terror. “Where are-?” His eyes fell on Stan and confusion quickly followed by recognition flittered across his face.
“Idaho,” Stan answered, even though he knew that that wasn’t exactly the question the kid had been asking.
He had expected to get more of a look from the night clerk when he rocked up to the front desk with two kids in tow. They were clean and wore new-looking clothes, while Stan looked like a dumpster made human. But either the guy didn’t notice or didn’t care.
“Right, you’re two can share a bed. With how tiny you are, a whole bed to each of you would be a waste of money.”
Destiny was leaning on her forehead against the front desk. It reminded Stan of a sleeping horse. She gave him a thumbs up without looking up or opening her eyes. “Me and Dip-Dop can share.” How had that nickname come about?
The room was drab but at least it was warm. The kids crawled on to one of the bed, arranging themselves head to toe with one another in the way of two people who’d done it many times before. It stung to see.
The last few days had been a tangled, uniquely painful nightmare. He’d’ve rather spent another day and a half tied up in the trunk of a car than suffer through arriving at his brother’s house, thinking that Ford might actually want to see him, only to be told to sail to the end of the Earth. But he wasn’t going to think about that.
And he wasn’t going to think about what a stupid thing he’d gotten himself talked into. Or what would happen if he was stopped by police with questions about the random kids in his car. Or what would happen if they ran into some of his old pals. Or where exactly he was going and for what.
He looked over at the other bed. From their breathing, they were already deep in sleep, real without a care in the world like. It didn’t add up. They seemed serious about getting away from whatever they were running from, but their clothes were nice and new and Destiny’s braces looked like a proper job. So whatever – or rather whoever had driven them to the point of running away was apparently very concerned with keeping up appearances.
The fact that they didn’t look neglected wasn’t that weird. But the fact that they had felt like they had to run away and were scared of being taken to the authorities, but blindly trusted the first random bum they came across, now that was puzzle.
Stan wasn’t going to be able to crack it just by thinking on it, so he might as well quit it for the day.
He leaned over the side of the bed and dug a battered paperback out of his bag. The last chapter had ended with Miss Caroline meeting the snooty rich broad engaged to Lord Silfverschiold for the first time. Exciting stuff.