Norman’s head bobbed against the window of Mitch’s car as the scenery rushed past. He wasn’t certain if the unfamiliar trees lining the road were the source of his sense of unease, or the knowledge that he was barreling toward another place plagued by hauntings. This had been his idea, but he was beginning to realize that dealing with the restless dead on a regular basis was draining; he was beginning to miss the friendly dead of Blithe Hollow.
He hit his head against the glass, banishing the thought. He was just tired of driving, he knew. The long stretches of boring road wore on him. Neil had shown much less resistance to road fatigue, and was snoring against the far window, while Courtney flicked aimlessly between radio channels in the passenger’s seat up front.
“There is absolutely nothing worth listening to. I officially hate Oregon.”
“You said that about Wisconsin and Colorado, and you ended up having good times,” Mitch said from the driver’s seat.
“Well, duh, because there were cool kids hanging around,” Courtney retorted. “The states as a whole? Blech.”
“There’s a lake in Gravity Falls. You could fish or swim or something when we get there,” Mitch suggested.
“If I hadn’t already seen every movie that came out this summer like twelve times, I’d just hole up in the movie theater.”
Mitch straightened and glanced slyly at Courtney. “We could see Tying the Not again.”
“I have seen that 15 times, and listened to you recount the whole movie to your boyfriend after every showing. No thanks.”
Norman shifted his attention away from the bickering teenagers who were allegedly his supervision for this trip. He was certain he was imagining that the trees looked sinister; he’d seen one too many haunted mansions this trip not to feel uneasy at even the most innocuous things. He’d spent all last night staring at an abstract painting hanging over his bed at the hotel, certain one of the triangles was staring at him.
A flash of white against the endless brown and green made Norman sit up and take notice. “Hey, we’re here!”
Indeed, a sign out of any stereotypical movie loomed on the edge of the road, welcoming them to Gravity Falls, Population ???
Neil proved to be less asleep than previously seemed when he sat bolt upright in his seat. “Hey, look, there’s a Mystery Shack! Can we go?”
Courtney groaned. “Gah, no. We’ve been to every stupid little tourist trap we’ve passed and they’ve all been a waste of time. Wall Drug, that stupid place in Wichita, and need I remind you of the Triskedecatorium?” They all shuddered in unison. “So forgive me if I don’t want to traipse through another underwhelming menagerie of horrors before someone tries to sell me overpriced snowglobes.”
Courtney stiffened and spun on Norman. “No. You may be in charge of this stupid expedition, but you do not get to find some reasonable way to drag me into another dank shack.” She slumped back against her seat, breathing hard.
“You okay, dude?”
“I am fine,” Courtney retorted, a statement contradicted by her muttering, “I should have taken the job at the pool.”
They drove in silence for another minute before Norman risked speaking up again. “I was going to say that there’s bound to be someone at the Mystery Shack who knows something about any weird stuff that goes on here.” Not that they would need any help; Gravity Falls was reliably one of the weirdest places in the country (regardless what that kid in Indiana thought). While Norman had suggested this trip ostensibly for the purpose of touring haunted locations across the country, he’d really wanted a way to end up here. He’d found hints of stories and rumors about a place where the dead rose, where monsters haunted the woods, and where a pint-sized telepath had made his living.
Something that big had to have one angry spirit behind it.
Courtney sighed. “Fine. You can go quiz the staff at the Mystery Shack about weird stuff for fifteen minutes while I stay in the car, and then we’re getting to the hotel. I want to take an hour-long shower to get all this travel sweat off.”
“Plus your hair’s a little frizzy.”
Courtney rounded on Mitch, pointing an accusing finger at him. “Don’t. Or I will end you.”
Mitch obediently followed the signs on the side of the road until they reached a rambling, run-down A-frame building set at the back end of wide unpaved lot. Neil exploded out of his seat the moment they stopped, Norman following at a more sedate pace. He stepped gingerly around a large plaster ‘S’ that appeared to have fallen from the sign on the building’s roof, making it a “Mystery Hack”, not certain if the sign of disrepair was a bad sign or not.
Norman reached his friend as Neil stopped in the shadow of the Mystery Shack’s front porch, staring at the unremarkable door to the shack’s gift shop. “It’s so beautiful,” Neil whispered.
Norman chuckled and slapped the other boy on the back. “Well, go on. I’m going to do reconnaissance.”
“Come on!” Neil grabbed onto Norman’s arm, propelling both of them into the store in his rush. The interior was pretty much what Norman had come to expect of these sorts of tourist traps: shelves stuffed to overflowing with tchotchkes of dubious origin, ranging from snowglobes, skulls, and crystals to bumper stickers and hats with stupid designs on them. A teenager sat behind the counter staring at her phone and looking for all the world that this was the most boring place in existence.
Neil, of course, thought it was fantastic. “Oh my gosh, do you have a tour here?”
“We start in five minutes, my little mark.” A wide, unshaven man in a black suit and fez stepped out behind a rack of T-shirts, his arms spread wide.
“My name’s Neil.”
The man winked at him. “Of course. And I’m Stan, owner of this fantastic establishment. Come on, I’ll show you around.”
Norman let him go, because Neil had a talent for bumbling into useful tidbits while Norman was investigating. Besides, he hoped Neil ended up keeping that Mr. Pines occupied for more than their allotted 15 minutes.
“Hello!” A brunette a little shorter than Norman popped up over a rack of preserved squirrels and waved at him. She was grinning so widely it would have been creepy if her brown eyes didn’t radiate exuberance and good will to such a degree Norman didn’t believe it possible. She was wearing a bright green sweater with a unicorn cavorting on it. “Who are you?”
“Norman.” Norman didn’t have to reach out a hand, because the girl seized it and shook it vigorously.
“I’m Mabel! I work here - or my Grunkle Stan makes us work here while we’re staying with him - and I’m the public face of our new customer appreciation campaign, so I wanted you to know we appreciate you.”
She let go of Norman’s hand and stepped back, folding her arms behind her as she continued to grin. “How did I do? Are you feeling appreciated?”
“I’d have to say yes,” Norman replied. “You’re very enthusiastic.”
“And does that make you want to buy something? Grunkle Stan said I have to ask that.” Mabel offered the last with a brief weakening to her grin.
“Um, I guess? I was sort of looking around anyway. Hey, is all this stuff around here real?”
“Haha, no. The only really cool thing I’ve seen in here was a grappling gun, and you’re too late to get that, Norman.” She cocked her finger at him like a gun and blew at the tip. “I mean, if you like horns stapled to bunnies and junk like that, you can totally go with Grunkle Stan. Or you can stay here! With me!”
Her eyes abruptly widened and her gaze drifted past Norman’s right shoulder. He turned to see Mitch letting the front door slam behind him as he knelt to examine a mug with Bigfoot plastered on it. “Oh. My. God. He’s amazing.”
“Mitch? I guess he is pretty cool sometimes.”
“You know him?” Mabel grabbed Norman’s hands and dragged him close. “Could you introduce us? No, wait, it’ll be better if I run into him spontaneously by the ice cube trays. I hope you enjoy your time at the Mystery Shack!”
“Wait!” Mabel was gone before Norman could save her the trouble of flirting with a gay boy three years older than her, leaving him to browse through a box of Magic 8 Balls. He picked one up and shook it. “Am I going to help the spirit in Gravity Falls?”
The ball must have been broken, because Norman didn’t get an answer, just a little bubble of air suspended in the center of the window.
“Those give really unhelpful advice.”
Norman glanced up. A brown-haired boy in a blue vest was standing next to an Employees Only sign. Unlike Mabel, who looked so much like him Norman estimated that the chance of them not being siblings to be roughly negative, the boy had a serious expression that put a few years on a face that probably wasn’t older than Norman’s. The boy stepped forward and plucked the 8 ball from Norman’s hand and tossed it back in the box. “Grunkle Stan says they’re junk, but they keep telling people to burn the world.”
“Well I just got an air bubble, so I’ll take that as a good sign.” It was, in truth, a lot more promising than visions of flame and terror. “Do you work here?”
“Yeah,” the boy replied with a shrug. “It’s pretty cool, even if Grunkle Stan doesn’t keep anything real around here.”
“You mean like ghosts and stuff?”
“Yeah...stuff.” Something about the boy’s demeanor closed off at that point, and Norman knew he’d been right to come to the Mystery Shack. Only someone who’d dealt with the supernatural in a world that didn’t believe could look so hunted at the mention of spirits.
“Well, I’ve been touring the most haunted places in America, and Gravity Falls kept popping up. You ever met any ghosts?”
“Did he ever.” The girl at the front counter vaulted it and wandered over toward the two of them. She was smiling predatorily. The other boy’s face paled as she approached. “There was a haunted convenience store; he kicked them right to the curb.”
Norman’s heart sank. He’d actually gotten excited about the prospect of meeting someone else who’d experienced the spirit world the way he did, but now he could see this kid knew absolutely nothing. He was, he decided, probably trying to impress the cashier, or possibly just trying to keep up with Mabel. Anyone with any real experience with ghosts would know kicking them to the curb was worse than useless; you’d only upset them more that way.
“Anyway, I gotta find my friend and go. Mitch! We’re leaving!”
“Okay, little dude!”
It took a few moments to get out of the shop and find Neil bouncing just outside a door that proved to be the exit to the tour area. As they pulled away from the Mystery Shack, Norman caught sight of Mabel waving to him; he offered a wave back.
“What is that? Were you talking to a little girlfriend in there?” Courtney swiveled around to grin at Norman.
“Hey! That’s a - a het-er-o-norm-a-tive question!” Neil’s face was crinkled in concentration as he recited a longer word than he was used to.
Still concentrating, Neil continued. “Just because Norman was talking to a girl doesn’t mean he wants to date her. It’s like when you spent all that time hanging around because you liked Mitch.” He grinned as Courtney, flushing, snapped her head away from him, and, thankfully, dropped the subject.
Neil grinned at Norman and raised his hand to bump fists. Norman complied, some of the tension in his chest easing. His sister meant well - the fallout from Agatha’s appeasement proved that - but she spent a lot of time quizzing Norman about every girl he interacted with, like, ever. Anything that distracted her from the topic at hand was worth a fist-bump.
“So, you get any leads?”
Norman rolled his eyes and dropped his head back against the headrest. “No. They were bragging about beating up ghosts. I doubt anyone in there has even met a ghost, much less gotten rid of one.”
“Well, were there any ghosts around the Mystery Shack you could ask?”
Norman’s heart skipped a beat at Neil’s question, because he realized why he’d been uneasy as long as they’d been near Gravity Falls.
Everywhere in the world, the dead lingered near their places of death or burial. In time, they all faded away, moving on. Norman could see those lingering spirits, and could converse with them. As a result, the green specters were a natural part of any scene Norman saw. And because the sight of the dead was familiar, Norman hadn’t noticed it was gone until someone called attention to it.
Norman hadn’t seen a single spirit since they’d entered Gravity Falls. It couldn’t possibly mean that no one had ever died here.
Which meant, instead...what?
Nothing good, Norman would bet.