home, like noplace is there
It’s late evening when Dipper descends the rubber-coated steps of a hissing, grumbling bus just after it has arrived at 2103 San Pablo Avenue in Oakland, California. It feels like the first step on the moon.
The air is different somehow, and it’s not just the exhaust that thickens it. He can’t quantify it, exactly. It’s less filling. It lacks substance. Cars course down the nearby street; behind them, apartments rise five, six floors. People gather nearby outside the bus building, waiting for everyone to depart. Suburbia stretches out around him with all its uniformity, streetlights and paved roads and even lines. Through a chain-link fence he sees there are pine trees just across the road. They strike him as unimpressive, arranged. Fake.
He thinks, This isn’t real.
Mabel stumbles blearily out behind him, Waddles held tightly in her arms. The pig is drawing more than a few stares from passersby. Waddles stares back.
Then their parents show up and it’s all hugs and ‘I missed you’s and ‘Mabel, Stan called about the pig, but we still need to talk about it.’ Six hours ago, Dipper was saying goodbye. Now he’s saying hello, but the part of him that allows him to keep himself together has been flexed and warped and torn in half from overuse. He wraps his arms around his mother’s waist and puts his face to her shoulder and feels like he’s four years old. Mabel soaks their father’s chest with tears. He’s vaguely aware of the concerned looks his parents are trading. To them, it’s only been three months. Just a vacation (with maybe a bump in the road, when Stan was having money problems). Nothing to be that upset about.
They pile into the car and start the short drive back home. Mabel hugs Waddles to herself and drifts off to sleep again, cheek pressed to the window. Their parents become even more visibly worried, no doubt having expected a chatterbox deluge from his sister. Mabel sleeps easily on trips, but always comes alive on arrival. They don’t understand what she’s left behind, and what it cost her. Dipper’s tired silence draws much less attention. He can hide behind expectations.
California is just outside the window, and for a place that’s been the focus of so much media, it looks utterly unremarkable. Before long they are in Piedmont and in their driveway in front of their two-story house that looks more or less like all the other two-story houses on the street, and there isn’t a single trap door, bizarre attraction, or secret room to be found within. When Dipper steps inside, he’s struck by the scent of clean carpet and air conditioning; after three months in the Shack, it smells like a hotel. He drops his bag and Mabel’s suitcase in the entryway and feels as if he’s just shed his skin.
“Glad to be back home?” his mother asks him, one warm hand on his shoulder.
He doesn’t know how to tell her that home is six hours away and everything old is alien. “Yeah, I’m just tired,” he says.
“It was a long trip,” she agrees sympathetically. “You should go to bed early, okay? You and Mabel can tell us all about it tomorrow.”
She smiles down at him, happy to see her son back in their neat suburban home with its white walls, three beds, and two baths. And Dipper’s heart squeezes with so much horror it nearly brings him to his knees when he thinks of how close she came to annihilation.
She must see some of that in his eyes, and she pales. “Dipper?”
He pushes the feeling as far down into his gut as it will settle and stretches his mouth into a smile. “What’s there to tell?” he says with an awkward laugh, voice cracking. “Just… helping out at the ol’ Mystery Shack, fleecing rubes!” When his mother’s eyes widen, he hastily corrects himself. “Selling to tourists. We learned a lot about business, and… fiscal things. Fiscality?”
His mother sighs. “I just hope Stan wasn’t a completely terrible influence.”
Stan had been willing to lose everything he was and ever would be to save his family. Dipper doesn’t know what kind of role model would be better than that. “No way, Grunkle Stan was awesome. We had fun,” he says instead.
“That’s what worries me,” she says wryly. “All right, to bed with you. You need to get up at a decent time tomorrow, we’ve got school shopping to do.”
Dipper chooses not to think about that, not yet. He plods his way upstairs and makes a stop at the bathroom to brush his teeth. When picking up his toothbrush he reaches towards the wrong side of the sink and automatically leans a bit to his left to account for the crooked floorboard that isn’t there. The tile room smells of towels, bathmats, and all-purpose cleaner. Dipper’s nose still remembers the burn of sulfur, blood, and boiling water.
He looks into his own reflection and freezes, toothbrush prickly against his gums. He has the unshakable sensation that he’s looking through a window, not a mirror, and another Dipper (Tyrone?) is staring back at him, caught in the same moment. For a long, shuddering second, he’s terrified to move because the reflection might not move the same way. And then what would that mean?
It doesn’t happen, of course. He’s almost four hundred miles away from the place where something like that could happen. He spits in the sink and rinses the mint from his mouth. Downstairs, he can hear Mabel explaining that Waddles is an indoor pig. He pauses in the hallway to listen just long enough to determine if he’ll have to intervene. Their parents are used to dealing with and often shooting down Mabel’s ever-shifting whims, and sometimes Dipper can lend her the weight of a rational argument. It’s their first night back and the pig is still something of a surprise, so Mabel wins without his help; the contest ends with the stern declaration that if Waddles does his business in the house, she’ll be the one cleaning it (which was also the case at the Shack, so it’s not much of a threat).
When he walks into his room, he turns on the light and stands near the door, surveying the scene. It’s his bed, his shelves and books, his computer. But there’s a copy of The Elegant Universe lying on his pillow with a piece of tissue fluttering out the top as a hasty bookmark, and it’s like someone else put it there. He remembers reading the book; he even remembers leaving it on his bed just before he left for vacation, but he is still so overwhelmed by a crushing sense of disassociation that it might as well have been one of the paper clones who put it there.
Feeling something close to panic, he makes a fist and pushes it into his left thigh. The pain is immediate and intense. He’s pressing on the deep bruise left by… well, he doesn’t actually know how it happened. When it comes to moments of injury, he’s spoiled for choice. But whatever its source, the bruise is proof. He’s not crazy. His old home can’t make him crazy. He’s just coming back to the way things were when he is not the way he was (or something). Then again, he sort of wants to stick his head out the window and scream until everyone knows how close they were to Armageddon. So maybe he is crazy.
He sighs and pulls Wendy’s hat off his head, running his fingers through his hair in agitation. “C’mon, man, get it together!” he mutters. “Not talking to yourself would be a good start…”
He’s dislocated something, and it’s not physical. The room, the house, the quiet street; he knows them all, but they aren’t his. He’s fallen through the mirror. He is surrounded by a ghost who wore his clothes and lived in this space, went to his school, ate in his kitchen. There are memories in every corner, attached to every object, but he can’t touch them like he used to. He reaches out and finds his hand swiping uselessly in the gulf between where he was and where he is, who he was and who he’s become, and the disconnect leaves something unbearably hard behind in his heart.
He falls into his bed and stares upwards, taking in the flat expanse of white-painted drywall instead of the vaulted ceiling and wooden beams he expects. He blinks. He’s falling upward; it’s like vertigo. He blinks again. He clenches his comforter in his hands to steady himself.
At some point, he falls asleep.
He wakes up when his mattress sinks to the left. Outside the window, the moon is shining through the curtains, giving them an eerie translucence. Mabel is crouched over him, her bright brown eyes next to a beady black pair. He’s staring straight up into Waddles’ chubby visage, which is not actually an unusual awakening for him.
“Waddles didn’t get to say goodnight,” Mabel tells him, and presses the pig’s hoof to Dipper’s cheek.
The sight of her toothy, sparkle-metal smile eases something in Dipper’s chest that he didn’t even know had been tightened.
“Goodnight, Waddles,” Dipper says sleepily.
“Oink oink!” Mabel says, giving Waddles a verbal assist, and then she retreats to her bedroom.
She’s just across the hall and he already misses her. He’s become accustomed to the constant sleepover of the summer. He picks Wendy’s hat off the mattress and holds it up to the dim light from the window. He’s suddenly terrified that he’ll never see her again, though he has no reason to think that’s true. He fights the insane urge to run back to the bus station and make sure she’s where he left her, that they all are. He wants to sleep in his attic bed. He wants to go downstairs and sit in front of the television where Grunkle Stan is probably sleeping. He wants…
He wants Great-Uncle Ford to reassure him that he’s not inside a prison bubble. Because he feels like he is. Because he feels like at any moment someone will show up to make him see reality, and he’ll look out the window to witness the world in flames.
He sits up and looks outside. The street is briefly illuminated as headlights scroll by, then there is only the dark and the suburban sprawl dotted with the pools of streetlights. It’s a quiet corner of a city where people get up early and come home in the evening to their houses perched on their allotted patch of grass. Streets become roads become highways. The distant sound of traffic is constant and low.
“Agh!” He collapses and presses the heels of his hands against his eyes with a great deal of force, as if he can push the sensations out of his head. What is wrong with him? He’s home. He’s fine.
His door opens again and startles him from his frustrated reverie. It’s Mabel, carrying Waddles and an armful of sheets. “So, Waddles and I were talking,” she says, depositing the pig on his bed, “and we decided that it’s the perfect night for a sleepover!”
Dipper can’t help but smile. “Waddles, you are full of good ideas,” he tells the pig, scooting to make room.
“And leftover spaghetti!” Mabel playfully pokes Waddles in the stomach until the pig rolls over with a grunt.
Dipper closes his eyes while she settles in with Waddles at the foot of the bed. He tries to precisely remember the sound of the wind through the pine trees that so often lulled him to sleep. It must work, because it’s the last thing he remembers.