Dipper’s phone burst to life, blaring a Sev'ral Timez song, almost a decade old now. He cringed in embarrassment, but the only other person in the study room—a girl whose face he recognized but whom he didn’t know by name—had her earbuds in and barely glanced up.
He’d forgotten that Mabel had set this song as her ringtone on his phone when they were home for Christmas. Dipper and Mabel texted frequently, and skyped sometimes. But phone calls? Virtually never.
“Dip?” Her voice through the phone sounded subdued somehow.
“Hey. What’s up?”
“Hey.” She drew in a breath. “Um, I know you’re probably busy and whatever, but… could I come directly? Like next week, instead of next month? I know you’re still in the dorm ‘til next Friday, but...”
“Yeah,” he agreed instantly, without even thinking. “Of course. I’ll make it work.”
He heard her sigh with relief. “Thanks. ‘K, I’m changing my ticket right now.” He heard the clatter of a keyboard over the phone, and realized that Mabel must’ve already had the airline’s website pulled up before calling him.
“Where are you right now?” she asked somewhat distractedly, the keyboard still clicking.
“The study room on my floor. Jackson sexiled me.”
“Yeah. But we’re moving out in nine days, and then I’ll never have to deal with him again. It’s not worth fighting about it now.”
“Hang in there.”
“Yeah,” he agreed. Then, as gently as he could, he asked, “What prompted this flight change?”
“A bunch of things. Look, I’ll tell you when I get there, but right now it’s late and I’m exhausted, so…”
“Yeah, of course. Go to sleep.” There was a moment’s pause. “I’m really glad you’re coming, Mabes.”
He could hear the smile in her voice. “Me too.”
“See you then. Night.”
“Night. Know I’m blindly hating Jackson on your behalf even though I’ve never met him.”
“You’re the best.”
Eight days later, Dipper met Mabel at the airport. It took a moment for him to recognize her. She was struggling under the weight of an enormous duffel bag, and his first thought was that she looked wilted somehow. But then she saw him. Her face lit up, and she was his sister again, yelling his name, dropping her bag where she stood, and running to him, wrapping him in an exuberant bear hug.
He’d known Mabel had cut her hair a few months ago, and she’d sent him a selfie, but it was still something of a surprise to see in person. Throughout their teen years, Mabel’s hair had always been long, bobbing somewhere between her shoulder blades, occasionally reaching as far as the small of her back before getting cut back. Now it was cropped slightly above her chin. On impulse he reached out and ruffled it.
“What’da’ya think?” she asked, shaking her head in demonstration.
“I like it! You look like—don’t take this the wrong way, but you look a little like Ms. Coulson?” Ms. Coulson had been their high school art teacher. Dipper had taken her class once, as was mandated by gen ed requirements. Mabel had taken her class every year.
Mabel considered this. “So like… artsy, but grown up and competent?”
She grinned. “I’ll take it. Now, could you help me with my bag?” She gave him puppy-eyes, and Dipper groaned.
Each holding one end, they managed to lug the duffel bag out to the cub, where Dipper had the car parked. When Mabel saw the old car she dropped her end—leaving Dipper sputtering in indignant protest—and ran to meet it.
“Rust Bucket!” she cried, scratching the car’s hood as if it were a dog. In high school they had shared this car. Come college, their parents had ruled—for a list of reasons that were practical, if not satisfying—that Dipper had more use for it.
“Mabel! Help me with this bag of fucking bricks! Open the trunk at least!”
“Oh! Yeah! Sure. Um… where are the keys?”
“In my back pocket.”
She fished in the back pocket of Dipper’s jeans for the keys.
“Stop groping my butt! The other pocket!”
Laughing, and finally finding the keys, Mabel unlocked the trunk and helped her brother drag the enormous duffel into it.
Wincing as they straightened up and grimacing as they flexed their strap-imprinted hands, the twins paused a moment to catch their breath.
“Hey.” Dipper caught Mabel’s eye, suddenly serious. “I’m really glad you’re here.”
“Aww.” She grinned, pulling him into another hug. “So am I, you sap.”
Dipper picked her up for a moment, making Mabel squeal with laughter and cling to him for purchase. Setting her down, he made an expression of feigned contemplation then declared with mock solemnity, “I can conclusively say that your bag weighs more than you do.”
Rolling her eyes and tossing Dipper the keys, Mabel and went around to the passenger seat. As the engine roared to life and Dipper pulled out, she kicked off her sandals and put her feet up on the dashboard, flexing her toes. Her chipped glitter nail polish sparkled in the morning sunlight.
Both kept quiet as Dipper pulled out of the maze of lanes that made up the airport. Once he’d pulled onto the freeway, Dipper glanced sideways at Mabel, who had rolled down the window, her short hair fluttering in the wind.
“So,” he began. “You gonna tell me the story of why you’re here a month early?”
Mabel did not reply right away, taking a moment to gather her thoughts. “I’ve already made this decision, Dip, and I’m sure about it, so I need you to not give me shit for it, ok?”
Dipper inclined his head. “Alright,” he agreed cautiously.
She drew in a breath, let half of it out, and then the words came tumbling out. “I dropped out of college.”
Dipper said nothing for a moment. Then, “Have you told Mom and Dad yet?”
She shook her head. “I want to have a plan for what I’m going to do next before I tell them.”
“Which is why you came here directly, instead of going home first?”
“Partly? Mostly I just wanted to see you, but—yeah, I guess that’s part of it too.”
Mabel opened her mouth to speak, then closed it. She took a moment, drew in a deep breath. “So, I—” she began, before breaking off. “The main thing was—” she tried. “Fuck! I rehearsed this all in my head. Bleurgh!” She shook her head, like a dog shaking off water, and began again. “Um, so. You know how I was having trouble in some of my class, right?”
“Yeah. But it wasn’t that bad, right?”
“Ehh… so yes and no? Basically, um—” She groaned again. “So basically, I left because no matter how long I stayed there, it wasn’t going to amount to anything—not anything I wanted, anyways. So I decided to cut my losses short and leave.”
She glanced over at Dipper. He just nodded.
“You remember how I was kinda iffy on the idea of being a studio arts major at the very beginning, when we were first looking at colleges, right?”
“But Mom and Dad were like, ‘College!’ And the school counselor was like, ‘College!’ And even you were all like, ‘College!’ So then I was all like, ‘…college? Yeah, I guess, college.’ ”
“Sorry about that.” Dipper looked sheepish.
Mabel waved a dismissive hand. “You didn’t do anything wrong. You were excited for college! That’s totally fair!” She waved her hand again. “I’m hungry,” she announced as an aside.
“I’mma take you to that sandwich place when we get back to campus—you’ll love it.”
“Food!” Mabel declared approvingly, before going back to her story. “So anyways, my class credits… I didn’t fail anything—well, except for that math class, and that one other one—but even the ones I passed, a lot of them I didn’t get high enough grades for the department to let me go to the next class. And it’s stupid—like one of them I did the work, and the professor said it was really good, but I missed a deadline for this huge project, and the professor was really strict about that so I only got half-credit. And then there was this class that’s deliberately designed to weed students out of the program. So then cause of all that, my GPA was low, and my counselor said not to worry about my major classes; take a break and focus on my gen ed requirements and built it back up. So I did. But then that meant that by the end, I was two years in, and I only had a couple credits that actually counted toward my major. I was over a year behind.”
“You never told me this before.”
“I told you about the petty requirements.”
“Yeah, but not like this.”
Mabel sighed. “I thought things were about to turn around. And even I didn’t realize how bad it was until I went in for a meeting my counselor and she said, all cheery, ‘If you take summer classes you can graduate in only five years,’ Like that was good. I didn’t realize how far things had gotten.” She paused for breath. “And yeah, I know—lots of people take five years, and its fine, bla bla bla. But that got me thinking, and I realized I really didn’t want to be there for three more years. I didn’t even really want to be there for one more year.”
It was as if something had loosened, and all the words she had been unable to get out now came pouring out.
“Did you know there are professional mermaids, Dipper? People who wear mermaid tails and swim, and that’s their job.”
“How do they make money?”
“People hire them! Parties, aquariums, photo shoots—that kind of stuff.”
“So you want to become a professional mermaid?”
“No, Dipper.” Mabel rolled her eyes. “That’s not the point.” She waved her hand. “And even if I was going to be a professional mermaid, I don’t stand much of a chance unless I grow my hair out again. The point is there’s people who do stuff like this and make a living doing it. I could sell sweaters on etsy. I could become a youtuber!” She sighed. “Dip, you know that degrees are worth less than they used to be.”
He nodded his head in acquiescence. “In some fields.”
“And art degrees were never worth that much anyways. No one wants to see your degree before they let you make pottery.” She hesitated. “Right before I made the final decision to actually go through with it, I called Grunkle Stan. I talked to him and told him what I was thinking, and he said of course—it was a no-brainer. You’re like Ford—you’re the brainy one who academia works for. Me, I’m more like him—the wacky entrepreneur.” Mabel glanced nervously at her brother. “You’re not saying much.”
Dipper suddenly looked up. “Wait, I was supposed to say that, ‘I support you no matter what,’ stuff, right? I support you no matter what!”
Mabel threw her head back and laughed. “No, but… thanks, brobro.” She groaned. “Ugh—is that enough for now?” There was a note of pleading in her voice.
“Yeah,” Dipper agreed. “Put on some music?”
She took his phone from the cup holder, swiping past the lock screen (a picture of them as four-year-olds), unlocking it with the old familiar keystroke, and pulling up his music.
“You’ve been listening to Sev'ral Timez?!”
Dipper flushed. “Oh, um… yeah? It’s that song you set as your ringtone over Christmas, ‘member?”
“ ‘It'll Be This Way Forever’!”
“I don’t like it!” he argued defensively. “I don’t, honestly. But it was stuck in my head after you called last week, and I just… I dunno. It feels like summer and it reminds me of you,” he finished all in a rush, looking sheepishly.
“Aww, Dipper!” She reached across and squeezed his hand. “I love you too, you goob.”
Refusing to put her sandals back on and declaring, “It’s summer!” Mabel plopped down at a table outside the sandwich shop. “Get me whatever your favorite is,” she instructed Dipper as she began to scribble on a napkin. “I’m starving, I don’t care.”
When Dipper returned with the sandwiches, she presented him the napkin with a flourish. “So here’s my working list of ideas.” Pointing to several entries on the list, she explained, “One idea I keep coming back to is trade school—culinary school, cosmetology school, something like that.”
“Is that where the haircut came from? You went to ask about cosmetology school?”
“Opposite, actually—I went for the haircut, and got the cosmetology school idea while I was talking to my stylist during the cutting. No, the haircut…” She looked at Dipper with a sheepish smile. “Does it totally seem like a post-traumatic stress haircut?”
“No, no! Just… just asking.”
“It’s not—I swear it’s not. Or at least, not very much. I just realized I’d spent so much of my life telling you not to hide behind your hair that maybe I hadn’t realized I was doing that. I dunno. I don’t think I was—not really—but still, I like it. I’m glad I did it. Cutting off all that dead weight and starting fresh, y’know?”
Dipper suddenly started laughing hysterically.
“Remember when you cut my hair when we were little?” he choked out, sending Mabel into a fit of giggles as well.
“I wanted you to stop hiding your constellation!”
“And it traumatized me! Maybe that’s why I hid it all these years!”
As the laughter subsided, Dipper shot Mabel a sideways look, then shook his head. “I can’t believe I’m about to tell you this, but—”
“—but,” He gave her another long look, teetering on the edge of confession, “…lately I’ve actually been thinking about cutting it shorter. Don’t say anything!” he warned with a raised finger, as Mabel’s eyes lit up.
She nodded mutely, positively bouncing in her chair, face glowing with undisguised glee.
He cautiously lowered his finger. After a second, Mabel got up and threw her arms around his shoulders. “Eeeeeee!”
Despite himself, Dipper found himself grinning. “You cannot do it!” he warned. “Not even if you’re going to be a cosmetology student!”
Mabel nodded obediently, before finally opening her mouth and cautiously asking, “…can I come along, though?”
“…yeah,” he acquiesced. “You can come along.”
She gave him one last excited hug before returning to her own chair.
Dipper continued down the list. “ ‘Open a pig sanctuary.’ ”
“Perhaps not the most practical option,” she conceded.
“ ‘Become a costume designer,’—you’d be really good at that,” he added instantly.
“I know—it’s kind of perfect, right?”
“ ‘Knit sweaters and sell them on etsy and at street fairs.’ ”
“You know how much I love street fairs.”
“So,” Dipper said, checking the time on his phone, “I’ve got my very last final at 2. While I’m doing that, d’you want to…?” He trailed off, unable to think of anything to suggest.
“Could I just go to your room and take a shower? I still feel kinda airplane-y.”
“Ugh, airplanes.” He shuttered reflexively. “Yeah, I’d want to wash that off too. Um, we probably should get going now then, so I can show you where my dorm is before the exam.”
Back in the car, Dipper slowly made his way through the web of walkways and roads that intersected campus, stopping in front of an unassuming three-story dorm. With much effort, they dragged Mabel’s duffel bag into an elevator, then down a hallway.
“How is it so heavy?!”
“I literally packed my entire dorm room into it.”
Dipper’s room was mostly dismantled by now. His own suitcase sat on the desk, along with a few cardboard boxes. The only thing left untouched was the bed, still covered in sheets for one more night’s sleep until the move tomorrow.
“Shower’s down the hall. If Jackson comes back…” He sighed. “I dunno, just… pretend you’re my girlfriend and make it really awkward so he’ll leave.” He waved a hand vaguely.
“He doesn’t know I’m your sister?”
Dipper shook his head. “I mean, I think he knows I have a sister, but, like, he wouldn’t recognize you from a picture.” He shrugged. “We don’t… talk, really.”
“Got it,” she nodded sympathetically, then grinned with mischief. “Pretend I’m your girlfriend and drive him away—I can do that. I make a great fake girlfriend.”
“You make a terrible fake girlfriend!” Dipper countered. “You know how my friend Isaac is deaf in one ear? When we first met it was the beginning of college—wait, I haven’t told you this story before, have I?—it’s the very beginning of last year and we were all desperate to make friends and Isaac… he didn’t want to feel like he was being an imposition on people or something? So when he’d miss something in conversation, he’d just play along and pretend like he’d heard everything. So anyways, I’d told my friends about you, but Isaac’d missed bits. So then one day I mention you and Isaac calls bullshit on me. He’s like, ‘I don’t really believe you have this girlfriend Mabel back home; she sounds way too awesome, you’re making it up.’ And everyone else is like, ‘Dude, Mabel’s his sister,’ and Isaac is like, ‘What?!’ And that’s when the thing about him being deaf in one ear finally came out.”
“I’m sorry for being so unrealistically awesome.” Laughing and shaking her head, Mabel pushed him out the door, calling, “Now go! Good luck on your test!”
When he returned, three hours later, Mabel, was sitting at his desk. She’d move his suitcase to the floor, and had her sketchbook open before her.
“Hey! How’d it go?”
“Ok, I think, but I won’t really know for a few days. What’cha drawing?”
“Uh, so I’ve been thinking of getting a star tattoo.”
“A star tattoo?”
“Yeah—not all of us were lucky enough to be given one by nature, broseph. Some of us gotta get a tattoo artist to do it.” Suddenly her eyebrows shot up. “Ooh, a tattoo artist. Now there’s a type of artist who can get hired.” She finished her phone out of her pocket and added tattoo artist to her list before putting it away and continuing. “At first I was thinking a constellation like yours—”
“Do not. Get a tattoo. Of stars. On your face.”
“Jeez, Dip, I know—not that that wouldn’t be awesome,” she amended. “No. Like I said, at first I thought a constellation, but now I’m thinking a shooting star. Look,” she beckoned.
He came to look over her shoulder. “Oh, I know that one—that’s that star you’re always doodling.”
“Yeah! It started out as a design on a sweater when we were little, and they’ve been a bunch of permutations of it over the years, but the basic design tends to stay the same. It’s kinda my thing, y’know?”
“Where would you get it?”
“I dunno, I haven’t decided yet.”
“Mabes? Um—don’t take this the wrong way, I actually really like that design—but don’t you think you should like… wait?”
“I just mean—you did just make a huge decision with college and everything, and—I’m not saying that’s why you want this tattoo, but just… if you waited a little and got it later, d’you think you’d feel better about it? Like you wouldn’t look back years later and wonder if it was part of the leaving college thing after all?”
Mabel was quiet for a long while, considering.
When she didn’t respond after a moment, Dipper waved his hand. “Never mind. That’s probably just a ‘me’ thing. You don’t worry and second guess yourself the way I do—you’d probably be fine.”
“I dunno. You do kinda have a point though,” she admitted. “Maybe the haircut’s enough for now. We don’t want Mom and Dad to think I went off the deep end.” She shook her head, dismissing the topic. “Anyway! Speaking of haircuts, do you have any idea of what kinda cut youuuu wanna get?”
“Like… short, but not shaved. I don’t know the words to describe it—one byproduct of having the same haircut literally my whole life is that now I don’t have any haircut vocabulary.”
Mabel’s eyes suddenly lit up, making Dipper instantly wary.
“I know you said I couldn’t cut your hair—”
“—but what if drew you! Like drew some pictures of you with a few different haircuts!”
“That… would actually be pretty cool,” he admitted. “I’m not saying this is quintessentially an eight-year-old’s haircut, but cause it’s the haircut I had when I was eight…”
“…it kinda is an eight-year-old’s haircut,” she finished.
“I mean, yeah.”
Flipping to a clean page in her sketchbook, she gestured him over. “Sit here by the window, where the light’s good.” Pulling out her phone, she asked, “Can I take a few pictures?”
“It’s easier to draw from a photo than from real life. D’you really want to sit there for half an hour with me saying, ‘Don’t move! Don’t move!’ ”
“That’s what I thought. Now gimme your best Instagram model pose!”
“…I literally have no idea what that means.”
“Like… look animatedly toward something that’s not the camera, but that’s near it!”
He tried, and failed miserably.
“Or… ooh, lean dramatically against the window!”
He obeyed, but leaning tentatively against the glass he had never looked more pitiful. “Glass is hard, Mabel,” he pleaded.
She frowned, her eyes scanning. Suddenly, she had an idea—he knew the symptoms well. First a flicker in her eyes, then a beam coming over her face, and then excitement overtaking the whole room like a tidal wave. “Disco girl,” she tried, “Coming throuuugh! That girl is youuuuu!”
He was helpless to resist as mirth overtook him. He joined in for the, “Ooh ooh, ooh ooh!” and Mabel’s phone flashed in rapid succession.
She flipped through the pictures. “Got it, broseph,” she announced. “Ooh, these are actually pretty good.”
He moved to her side, and she flipped through the series again for him to see. The first, bemused affection. The second, an earnest grin. The third, caught in motion, his singing mouth open and ridiculous.
“Not that last one,” he begged.
She sucked in a breath between her teeth. “Dipper,” she winced. “Dipper. You shouldn’t have said that. You really shouldn’t have said that. If you hadn’t said that, I could’ve just not picked that one because I love you. But now…”
She shrugged helplessly. “I gotta!”
“You don’t gotta!”
“I really gotta.”
Eyes scanning wildly for some advantage, he leapt for her sketchpad. For a moment they were caught in tug-of-war.
Dipper had the side with the spiral binding, and he managed to pull it free of her grip. Brandishing it up in front of him like a shield, he grinned, eyes wide and waiting for the counter-attack.
“Dip!” Mabel pleaded, “Seriously! I’ve got important shit in there!” It wasn’t her play voice.
“Oh.” He lowered the book instantly, looking bashful.
“Sorry. S’just—stuff like that,” she gestured as a page of pig sketches fell out of the bottom. “Lotta loose-leaf stuff and taped-in stuff.”
“Sorry,” he repeated. “Didn’t know.” He turned away, kicking off his shoes and sitting down on his bed.
God, being an adult sucked sometimes.
“Just… not that,” she clarified. “That doesn’t mean…”
He heard it in her voice ever before she’d finished, and they were both on their feet in an instant, scanning the mostly-packed up room for anything that could be used as an advantage.
Mabel snatched the towel from her shower, now hung over the back of the chair, and held it taut between both hands. Dipper floundered, desperately looking for something, anything, but there was nothing. And then she was upon him, lunging and throwing the towel over him as if he were a cat.
Testosterone had not reneged on its promises, as he had once believed, so much as it had arrived late and half-assed them. Was he stronger than Mabel? He couldn’t be sure, but was bigger than her now, that much was certain. An advantage she quickly sought to neutralize by pouncing on him, knocking him back onto the bed.
Had the angle been different, his head would’ve squarely hit the wall, but at a diagonal he was spared. He still winced internally, before his attention snapped back.
Mabel was positioned squarely on his chest, the entirely of her weight on him, arms pinning arms. She wasn’t sitting on his lungs, but it was hard to breathe anyways. In the span of a moment she might switch to blithe and carefree again, but in this instant she was all competition, muscles tensed and eyes flashing.
“Alpha twin,” she taunted, and those were fighting words.
His kidneys might be getting bruised, but his legs were left free, and he kicked them wildly. He was gaining momentum, and just when he thought he was on the brink of being able to flip her, the door opened.
Mabel yelped in surprise.
Jackson stood in the doorway and just stared at them for a moment, eyes wide—his roommate pinned to the bed and the girl astride him, both of them flush and laughing. They stared back, and for an instant, no one moved.
Then Mabel grabbed for the towel that had been cast aside, pulling it over her and Dipper as if they were not both fully clothed—as if someone’s modesty needed preserving.
That motion jarred Jackson into action, flushing crimson and fleeing the scene with a rapid chain of, “Sorry, sorry, sorry!” He pulled the door shut behind him but it didn’t latch, forcing him to open it just a crack before pulling it shut again. There was the click of a tumbler falling into place, then the sound of footsteps fleeing down the hall.
The twins stared at each other for a long moment, then broke into uproarious laughter.
“You are brilliant,” Dipper proclaimed, holding up the towel in triumph. “Fucking brilliant, Mabel!”
Mabel absolutely cackled. “Am I a great fake girlfriend or what?”
“The cafeteria closes at 6. We gotta get there before that.”
“I thought the cafeteria sucked.”
“It does, and tomorrow I’m moving into a house, with a kitchen. So I gotta go one last time to appreciate how I’ll never have to go again.”
The cafeteria had a large smorgasbord of everything they’d ever served. “They’re trying to get rid of everything before the end of the year,” Dipper explained.
Once they’d gotten their food, he led her through the maze of tables. A boy with tight curls and a contagious smile stuck his hand up to flag Dipper down. Sliding into seats at the table, Dipper made the introductions. “Guys, this is my sister Mabel. Mabel, this is Isaac, Aiden, and Jenny.”
Smirking, Aiden kicked Isaac under the table not so subtlety.
Elbowing Aiden and trying not to giggle, Jenny asked smiled welcomingly and asked, “So you’re the one who’s in art school?”
“Uh.” Mabel looked to Dipper for backup, and he shrugged helplessly. “Um, not anymore. I just dropped out.”
Jenny, to her credit, adapted gracefully. She grinned broadly, raising one hand for a high-five. “Nice!”
Laughing, Mabel high-fived her—and then Aiden and Isaac, who followed suit. “So you guys are the future housemates?”
“Yeah. Well, us plus Meo. You’ll meet her later.”
“So when do I finally get to see this house?”
“Tomorrow,” Dipper confirmed.
“Ooh, Dipper, can we borrow her as a pack mule while we’re moving?”
Mabel swatted him in mock outrage. “I am not a beast of burden for rent!”
“But I’m your little brother!” Dipper pleaded. “I need help!”
Mabel stared at him incredulously.
“You don’t only get to be five minutes older when it suits you!”
“Since you finally admitted I am alpha twin… ok, I’ll help.”
Dipper’s eyes widened. “I did no such thing!”
“Dipper, shut up and don’t cost us our helper!”
Mabel grinned. “Yeah, Dip! Listen to Isaac!”
After dinner, Dipper led the way up to the roof of the dorm; through a stairwell, past a door that he unlocked with a magnet, and up a maintenance ladder. On the roof, they settled themselves against the rectangular metal cover of a fan, facing west to where the sun was setting.
They waited a minute, watching the last of the sun slip under the horizon, then Mabel began to speak without preamble.
“By the end, Kate had ghosted me, and Lizzie had left, and Cameron and I just kinda drifted apart. Matthew got in to study abroad, so he’s going to be gone next semester.” She held up a hand. “And I want to be clear: I didn’t leave because I was lonely. I know I can make new friends. I left because being there wasn’t amounting to anything for me. But at the same time… yeah, I was pretty lonely at the end, and honestly, yeah, that probably was a straw on the camel. Not the straw, but…” she waved her hand vaguely.
Dipper put his arm around her shoulders. “Kate’s an asshole.”
“I dunno,” she sighed, leaning against him. “She was going through her own shit.”
“You be all fair and understanding if you want—I’mma blindly hate this person I’ve never met for mistreating you.”
Tucked against his side, he couldn’t see her face, but he could hear the grudging smile in her voice. “Thanks.”
“Always,” he said with a side-hug.
She picked up a pebble from the roof and fingered it. “I just need some time to figure out what I actually want to do. And a high-stress environment that I know our parents are hemorrhaging money to send me to is not the place to do that.” She sighed again. “I know they tried to downplay it and all, but—I mean, my school cost twice as much yours ‘cause you got the scholarships and all. We know this. And just—knowing it was costing them so much, I felt like it had to make it worth it. And it once I realized it wasn’t, it was really hard to look past that. I wasn’t getting anything out of it. Like the three purposes of college are, one,” she held up a finger, “to prepare you for a job; two,” she held up another, “as this ‘learning for learning’s sake’ academia thing; and three,” a third finger, “as some ‘college experience,’ exploring, finding yourself type thing. And it wasn’t doing any of those.”
Mabel stared at the orange smear of the along the horizon for a long moment, then shifted, positioning herself more comfortably against Dipper.
Finally, Dipper asked, “Why didn’t you tell me, Mabel? Why didn’t you reach out? You called Grunkle Stan; why not me?”
She frowned. “I told you I was struggling.”
“But you didn’t mention you were thinking about dropping out.”
“Because you’re really happy at college,” she replied honestly. “It works for you, and I was afraid you’d tell me to stay.”
“I mean… yeah I might’ve, but you wouldn’t have to listen to me about it. Just… why didn’t you talk to me about it? You didn’t have to be alone through all this.”
“I think I did, though. I decided to go to college because I was being influenced by literally everyone. I needed to decide to leave all on my own.”
“Still. You could’ve told me.”
“Yeah. I could’ve.” She tossed the pebble and it bounced once, then skidded over the roof’s edge. “D’you remember the very beginning of college, when you were having a hard time? And you’d text me that you were struggling and hurting, I was a thousand miles away and I couldn’t do anything to help you, and I felt like my heart was caving in.”
Dipper went pale. “I never meant to burden you.”
“You didn’t! You didn’t! I’m glad you told me! And—” she groaned, “—I know that the reversal of that is if I’m glad you told me, then you would’ve wanted me to tell you—I know that. But just… it hurts, to know you’re hurting and I can’t be there with you. It hurts like all hell.” She let out a breath. “I guess I didn’t want to make you hurt uselessly just because I was.”
The arm around her shoulders squeezed again. “Too bad. We’re twins; it’s halfsies all the way. 50% of your pain is mine.” He elbowed her. “Hand it over.”
For a moment she fought it, but the budding smile won out. “Ok,” she acquiesced. “Ok.”
They lapsed into silence.
“Mabes? I don’t want to push, but… would you be ready to take a second look at possibly taking meds? Not as related to you dropping out,” he clarified hurriedly, “Just… to help you with whatever it is you decide to do next?”
She sighed. “I dunno, Dip. You said that after you started taking them it became a lot harder to do things you used to be able to do without them.”
“Yeah, and I’m sure it was a lot harder to make yourself sew by hand after they invented the sewing machine.”
“Dip—I don’t wanna be dependent on them.”
“And I get that. But,” he shrugged, “I’m dependent on a lot of things I probably shouldn’t be. I’m dependent on my phone. I’m dependent on Wikipedia.”
Simultaneously they took on the inflections of their old middle school teacher, Mr. Valdez, and chorused in unison, “ ‘And I will be going on Wikipedia and adding fake information to the page, so I will know if you cheat!’ ”
When their laughter died down, Dipper continued. “Seriously though. Why is this one thing so different?”
“Because it’s my brain.”
“All the more reason to make sure you’re giving it every advantage you can.”
She didn’t respond to that.
He continued. “I mean, maybe I should be able to wake up at dawn on my own like some Amish farmer or something—”
“I don’t know, ok? Maybe I should be able to wake up at dawn on my own like some person who manages to do that—is that better?—but I can’t. So I use an alarm clock. And just because doing it without this tool is potentially possible doesn’t mean I have to become a Spartan warrior and do it. I don’t shower in cold water either, even though I theoretically could, because that would be really hard and miserable and it wouldn’t really accomplish anything.” With the arm he had around his sister, he hugged her close once again. “It’s up to you. I don’t mean to pressure you, I’m just saying… my meds really helped me. And because ADHD is super genetic, I’ve gotta think the same meds might work well for you too.” He leaned his head on her shoulder, “And I love you. And I hate to see you struggle like this.”
Mabel was quite for a while. “I’ll think about it,” she said finally. “And I didn’t mean to make you feel bad about not being some badass Spartan warrior.”
“S’ok. Just… I dunno, what you were saying, it sorta reminds me of the kinda shit I told myself back in high school. Like if I was tougher or more manly or whatever, I wouldn’t need it.”
Mabel winced, and squeezed her brother’s hand. “Sorry,” she whispered.
Dipper did not speak immediately. “Something I heard once that really stuck with me was, ‘Boys don’t have to be brutalized into manhood.’ ” He stubbed his toe at the roof's pebbles, searching for the right words. “Like… that feel-good stuff in the same vein—‘boys don’t have to be strong all the time,’ ‘men can ask for help,’—that stuff? It always felt so patronizing and it made me feel like shit. Like not only was I weak, but I had to be coddled about feeling weak. But ‘you don’t have to be brutalized into manhood’—that stuck with me. Like there’s a difference between the useful kind of toughness, and enduring senseless shit just to prove you can.”
They were quiet for a moment.
“I mean even if you can do it without meds, Mabes… why? Who is it helping? Do you really need to exhaust and frustrate yourself doing it that way just to prove you can?”
“I’ll think about it,” she repeated. “Really, Dip, I will.”
“Ok,” he agreed, and let it drop. “D’you remember third grade?”
Third grade was known notoriously between the twins as The Year They Split Us Up, and Mr. Anderson—the lead voice behind the decision—had, in the years since then, been painted in their joint telling as some demon from a folktale. In his more rational moments, Dipper was willing to concede that Mr. Anderson had not been a villain. He had merely observed—not incorrectly—that Mabel soaked up all the attention in any situation they were in. His framing of this as poor little Dipper is constantly being ignored, was not wrong per se, but ignored the far more common situation: Mabel shields shy little Dipper from attention he does not want. “I dunno if I ever told you this, but one time I wrote you a note—this must’ve been near the beginning of the year, but it was definitely after I wanted to tap messages to you on the joint classroom wall in Morse, but you got bored with Morse after five minutes and wouldn’t learn it.”
“I was eight!” she protested.
“So was I! Anyways, the note—so when Mr. Anderson was distracted, I snuck outside and went next door to deliver it to you. I felt like a secret agent on a mission, or maybe like I was part of a jailbreak. But when I got to the door of Ms. Rosales’s room, you were in the center of this group of kids, little miss social butterfly, practically holding court. And I got all embarrassed and went back to my class and I threw the note away.”
“You have told me this story before,” Mabel gently amended.
Dipper nodded, blushing slightly. “I guess… I’ve always felt like I needed you more than you needed me? That was the moment it really hit me for the first time.”
“And here we are now,” Mabel mused. “You’re the one doing awesome and I’m the one standing in the doorway of the classroom like a little lost disaster.”
Dipper frowned, opening his mouth to defend her.
“I don’t mean that in a self-deprecating way!” she corrected quickly, before Dipper could speak. “I just mean, right now, it is kinda objectively true. And I’m ok with that! I’m gonna turn things around, just you watch.”
“I can’t wait to watch that.”
“You better. I’mma be so freaking awesome you won’t even believe it.”
“On the contrary, I wouldn’t believe anything less—why are you laughing?”
“Nothing! Nothing. Just—I’ve missed you.”
Their eyes met, laughing, and they didn’t look away. They held each other’s gaze for a long, hovering moment, and then somehow Mabel’s eyes were on his lips and she was asking, “Can I?” —barely more than a whisper—and he was nodding and leaning forward to meet her.
Kissing Mabel was—more than anything else—like finding a word on the tip of his tongue: discovery of something which was already known, accompanied by a sense of triumphant revelation. A profound confluence of the familiar with the unprecedented. For a moment the world is spinning and trembling, then solid and sure, then alight and burning.
When his sister finally drew back, she ran her fingers through his hair, pushing his bangs up to reveal his forehead. This was Mabel—the one person he’d never hidden his birthmark from. And yet, even after kissing her, something about the gesture was so unwontedly intimate it sent shivers down the length of his spine. Holding his hair back with the other four fingers, she rested her thumbs on freckles at either end of the constellation.
The skin tingled under her touch. “Mizar and Dubhe,” he told her.
“Alkaid, Mizar, Alioth, Megrez, Phecda, Merak, Dubhe,” she recited in agreement, and tipped her face up to the sky.
“Alkaid, Mizar, Alioth, Megrez, Phecda, Merak, and Dubhe,” he confirmed. Pausing, he asked, “You have no idea where the word breaks between them are, do you?”
“No clue,” she grinned. “I just know it rote from all the times you’ve said it.”
The sky was vast and arching over their heads, and suddenly Dipper found himself laughing, free and unfettered. Mabel was laughing too.
“Let’s stay,” she said. “Let’s stay until the stars come out.”
“Mabes… I’m not saying it wouldn’t be romantic as all hell and cosmic and shit to make out on the roof under the stars, but I am saying these pebbles are really digging into my ass even through my jeans, and it’s getting kinda cold, and other people come up here a lot too…”
“Fair points,” Mabel laughed. “Let’s go in.”
They did. Down the maintenance ladder, where Dipper noticed he was faintly dizzy and deliberately stilled himself. Down the stairs, where he held the stairwell door open for Mabel with a theatrical bow. (“Why thank you, Sir Dippingsauce.”) Down a hallway with no windows, and the same wall-fixture lights that were on 24-7, where there was no sign that it was red twilight outside. Back into his dorm room, with Mabel holding the door open for him with no less flourish than he had. (“Why thank you, Lady Mableton.”)
The door clicked shut. Mabel pulled her brother in to kiss him again and—
“Do you think this is a bad idea?”
She grinned. “Does it matter?”
But then he was pulling back and she was groaning.
“Yeah? Yeah, it does.”
She sighed, turning away, but he took ahold of her wrist to keep her facing him. “It’s—you know me, Mabes. You know that as soon as you leave, my brain is gonna wig out and start over-analyzing, playing back everything, scrutinizing every moment, and telling me I'm a piece of shit.”
She glanced sideways at him. “It still does that?”
“Yeah,” he admitted. “Sometimes.”
She squeezed his hand. “I thought you were doing really well here.”
He squeezed back. “I am, and that gives it less ammo. Really,” he reassured her, “I’m happy here—this place is good for me. But this? It would have a field day with this.”
“If I could do it without hurting you, I’d punch your mean ol’ brain in the face for treating you like this,” she murmured.
He grinned—a moment of levity before the solemn weightiness returned. “This—it needs to be a decision I can live with for the rest of my life.”
Not meeting his eyes, she quietly asked, “And I’m not a decision you can live with?”
“No! No, Mabes, that’s not it at all. It’s not about the decision, it’s about how I make it. The context, y’know?”
She didn’t reply, but her shoulders scrunched in. It was her Sweater Town position, though lacking an actual sweater.
“Mabel. Mabel, hey—look at me. That came out wrong, ‘kay? It’s not a decision; it’s never been a decision. You’re the foregone conclusion of my life.”
She met his eyes.
“There’s a whole world out there ready to tell me this decision is wrong, and I’ve got a mean ol’ brain up in my head that likes to bully me. I just need a little help to make sure I have the resources to tell it to shut the hell up. It’s like—” He fumbled for an example. “It’s like when we go hiking and I bring a snake bite kit and you think it’s stupid and overly cautious but you humor me anyways. Humor me, Mabel.”
She sighed, but her face was writ with fond indulgence. “Alright,” she agreed. “Alright.”
“So, um… what does that actually mean? Like not as a metaphor?”
“It means I’d really love to make out with you sometime when you didn’t just—you know—literally show up on my doorstep after suddenly dropping out of college.”
“It wasn’t sudden! I thought about it for months before dropping out!”
“Because that’s the proper way to make big decisions like this.”
“You know what I mean,” Dipper pleaded.
“Yeah, I know what you mean,” Mabel admitted. “Like the tattoo thing.”
“Exactly. I need to be able to look back on this and not regret it when I’m old.”
“Like when we’re seventy?”
Dipper snorted. “Pwshaw— when I’m seventy I’mma be like the grunkles and not give a shit about anything. No, it’s when I’m like forty that I’m worried about.”
And finally she was smiling again, wrapping her arms around him. He did the same, holding her close. Kissing the top of her head seemed unlikely to inspire decades of misgivings, and so he did.
Half an hour after sunset, the sky was dark, and the exhaustion from being on a plane half the previous night finally caught up with Mabel. Resisting his usual tendency to stay on his laptop until 2 am, Dipper called it a night too. Jackson had not returned, so Dipper hung a sock on the door and climbed into bed alongside her.
Mabel squirmed, rolling over and then immediately rolling back. “There’s no space,” she complained.
“It’s a twin bed. Make do, twin.”
“Easy for you to say, Mr. On The Wall Side—you’re not the one falling off the edge. Who the hell named ‘twin mattress’? They suck for sleeping actual twins.” Her annoyance suddenly turned to interest. “Ooh—I bet a mattress store could make a really great Game of Thrones themed ad around that. ‘Are you and your twin feeling squashed on your old twin mattress? Upgrade to our new Super Ultra Deluxe Mattress! If you don’t have all the gold of Casterly Rock, no worries—currently on sale for only nine ninety-nine! Hurry down, offers end soon.’ ” Dropping her voice, she added, “ ‘Some exclusions may apply.’ ”
Smothering his laughter, Dipper was hit with another wave of fuck, I missed you.
“Bro-ccoli?” she murmured drowsily.
“What’da’ya think about me being a camp counselor?”
“You’d make an amazing camp counselor.”
“Summer camp is like what, maybe a month? I could go do art with kids, practice my swimming for my mermaid career, and by the time I got back maybe you’d be ready to rail me.”
“Oh my god.” Dipper buried his face in his pillow, smothering his laughter.
“When Abigail was a camp counselor, she had to do like first aid training or lifeguard training or something, right?”
“I dunno. Text Aunt Christina.”
“Awww Dip can you imagine: a mermaid lifeguard?!”
“This mermaid thing doesn’t have anything to do with Mermando, does it?”
“Are you jealous?” She sounded possessively delighted at the prospect.
Dipper groaned into his pillow.
“Dip, the only step above ‘secret incestuous lover’ is ‘vampire’s mistress.’ I wouldn’t cast you aside for any less!”
“What about a werewolf?”
“Not even a werewolf.”
“An elf? No. Fae… maybe.”
“What’s the difference?”
“Fae trick you into eating stuff. Elves are just annoying and smug.”
“So the way to your heart is through your stomach?”
“Good to know.”
“Pshaw—you’ve always known that.”
Sometime in the middle of the night, Dipper found himself saying, “I’m not running away, Mabel.”
“Who said anything about running away?”
“No one. Just… I need you to know that. Things are good here; they’re really good. I have good friends, and good classes, and a good part-time job, and I’m about to move into a good house. I’m not gonna turn my back on this.”
She twisted to face him in the dark. “Where’s this coming from?”
“I don’t know, I just—”
“Is that what you think I did, Dip? That I ran away?”
“I never said—”
“ ‘Cause I didn’t. It wasn’t about that; it was about cutting my losses and moving on.”
“I never said—sorry, that came out wrong. I didn’t mean that. I meant… I dunno? Like the dramatic kind of running away?”
“Ooh like the romance novel kind?”
“I guess?” he squirmed.
“If we went to Taiwan,” she mused, “we could totally pass off our family resemblance as ‘all white people look alike.’ ”
“And the night markets there are supposed to be amazing.” She shook her head, banishing the thought. “But really, though, Dip—I get it. And I’m not asking for that. That’s one of the reasons I came here, y’know? Cause you do have your shit together, and roots down, and I was feeling untethered, kind of like I could float away, and I needed you to ground me.”
He said nothing to that, only pulling her a little closer.
She’d been quiet for so long Dipper though Mabel was deep asleep when she said, “I think it does have something to do with dropping out.” She spoke so softly he could barely hear her. “The whole ‘rejecting the prefabricated idea of what my life should be like and taking a good hard look at what I actually want’ thing, y’know?”
“That makes sense.”
“That’s not an issue, right?”
“No, it’s not. But thanks for telling me.”
She was quiet for a minute. “Brobro? You’re not thinking, like—moralizing about it… right?”
“Not really? I kissed you and the sky didn’t even fall.” There was a tinge of a chuckle in his tone. “We have a pretty laissez-faire universe.”
“You're trying to bait me into asking what ‘laissez-faire’ means. I’m not gonna ask.”
“Then I won’t tell you.”
She held off for the span of perhaps fifteen seconds before curiously overcame her. “Fiiiine!” she groaned. “Tell me what ‘laissez-faire’ means!”
“Let do. Like in the sense of, ‘live and let live.’” He rolled over. “It not about puritanical morality. More I’m worried about… responsibility, I guess.” He sighed. “And I dunno, when the majority of world’s civilizations across the majority of history actually agree on something, it makes me wonder if maybe they had a reason, y’know?”
“The majority of world’s civilizations across the majority of history had some form of slavery and an awful lot of sexism. They weren’t ‘onto anything’ there.”
“That… is a really good point, actually. That is the kind of thing that will help my brain stay shut up.” He pressed his forehead against her hair and whispered, “Thank you.”
“You know that thing they say, about how—since all elements except hydrogen and helium are created in the heart of stars—we’re all made of stardust?”
“That’s a thing people say?”
“I mean, I think the human body is like 10% hydrogen or something, but yeah.”
“90% stardust,” Mabel mused. “I’ll take it.” Suddenly she switched tracks. “Wait. That’s a thing people say? There are enough other sappy nerds that you have idioms?”
“No—it—” Dipper spluttered.
Mabel only laughed. “D’you remember that time a friend of Grunkle Ford’s got married and sent him this video of the wedding? And Grunkle Ford couldn’t figure out how to open the attachment and yelled for us to come in there and teach him ‘how to do the email’?”
Dipper snorted, remembering. “Uh-huh.”
“Did you ever watch that video?”
“Uh, I think so. Why?”
“D’you remember the bit where Grunkle Ford’s friend gave a speech, and said something about how marriage is turning two separate lives into a single joint narrative?”
“That sounds vaguely familiar, yeah.”
She snuggled closer. “We’re already a joint narrative.”
“You’re sappy,” he chuckled. “And you’re right.”
“You and me. Like two pine needles,” she mused. “I wonder if I could draw a pair of pine needles without it looking those rubber-banded-together chopsticks they gave us when we were kids.”