Coraline pulled up a sagging sock, adjusted her backpack, tucked the folder more securely under her arm, and knocked on the door.
For a moment there was silence. She rocked from one foot to the other. She tucked a piece of hair behind her ear. She played with her bracelet.
“Coming!” someone called from inside the house. Coraline could hear footsteps, slow and muffled, coming closer to the door. She pulled up the other sagging sock, tapped her sneakers on the welcome mat, and squeezed her foam fish keychain.
The door opened.
“Hi, Mrs. Lovat!” Coraline said. “I’ve got Wybie’s homework.”
“Well, thank you, Coraline,” Mrs. Lovat said, opening the door a little wider. “Come in, dear. Wyborne’s just upstairs. You can go up and give it to him.”
“Thanks, Mrs. Lovat,” Coraline said, stepping past her into the house. She didn’t go over to Wybie’s much, but she liked it when she did. His house was big. It wasn’t as old as the Pink Palace, but it still smelled old, in a nice way, not damp and kind of weird like her apartment sometimes smelled.
“Just up the staircase to the right, dear,” Mrs. Lovat said, shuffling past her in her house slippers. “You know where to go.”
“Right,” Coraline said, smiling at her and tripping up the wide staircase near the door to the kitchen. On the wall there were tons of old pictures of people, in stiff collars and black stockings, looking unhappily at the camera. As the stairs went up, the pictures got progressively newer—first a teenaged Mrs. Lovat, then a boy with an afro in a pair of bellbottoms, then a woman in a puffy-shouldered wedding gown and surrounded by bridesmaids in teal with teased hair. At the very top there was a photo of baby Wybie in the arms of a girl in pigtails and striped stockings, grinning at the camera.
At the top of the stairs, Coraline turned to the right. She stepped across a runner on the floor, kicked aside a chemistry set on the floor, and shoved open a door with a “Keep out!” sign taped on it.
“Good afternoon, Why-were-you-born,” she sang out cheerfully. Wybie, sitting in bed, looked up.
“Hey, Coralide,” he said, sounding stuffed up. “Whad’s ub?”
“I’ve got a present for ya, Wybie,” Coraline said, grinning and waving the folder as she waded through the toys and other debris strewn across the floor. “Math homework. Exciting, huh?”
Wybie groaned and flopped back into the pillows. “Nod math homeworg,” he said. “Adythig but thad.”
“You and me both, Wyb.” Coraline put the folder on the bedside table next to a pile of tissues and sat on the edge of the bed. “Still feeling pretty bad, huh?” she asked.
“Yed,” Wybie said from the mound of pillows. “I wand to die. Also, I can’d breade.”
Coraline experimentally toed what looked like a bag of slime on the floor near the bed. “We could do the math homework together, if you want,” she said.
Wybie sat up like a shot. “Really?” he asked, sounding almost like his normal self.
“Sure,” Coraline said. “I hafta do it anyway, don’t I?”
Wybie threw off the covers and scrambled out of bed. He was still in his pajamas. “Come od,” he said, grabbing the folder. “We cad do it downstairs.”
Coraline followed him out of the room and to the stairs. As they walked down, she noticed again the picture of Wybie and the girl. “Who’s that holding you in the photo?” she asked. Wybie looked back.
“Oh,” he said. “By older sister. She’s at college right dow.”
“I didn’t know you had an older sister,” Coraline said thoughtfully as they arrived on the first floor and went through the door to the kitchen. “I bet you’re a really annoying little brother, huh, Wybie?”
“Her friends hade me,” Wybie said, with pride.
In the kitchen, Mrs. Lovat was reading a knitting magazine at the table. She looked up suspiciously as they entered.
“You had better not be magically better now that your friend’s here, Wyborne,” she said. Wybie sighed.
“I’b nod,” he said. “Me and Coralide are just going to do the homeword together.”
Mrs. Lovat raised her eyebrows at him. For a little old lady in a pink dress and house slippers, she looked pretty intimidating. “Don’t go sneezing on her, child,” she said. “I do not want a call from Mr. and Mrs. Jones telling me you gave her your cold.”
“I’m nod going to sneeze on her, Grandba,” Wybie said.
“And anyway, I’ve got a very good immune system,” Coraline added, cheerfully.
Mrs. Lovat went from looking suspiciously at Wybie to smiling at Coraline. “Well, all right, dear,” she said. “You two can work in the dining room.”
“Thanks, Mrs. Lovat!” Coraline said.
“Thankds, Gramba,” Wybie said. He lead the way through another door on the other side of the kitchen to the dining room as Mrs. Lovat went back to her knitting magazine. Coraline hefted off her backpack and set it on one of the chairs placed around a large, oval table.
“Do you use this room a lot?” she asked, pulling out her math folder as Wybie grabbed a pencil from a sideboard. Wybie shrugged.
“Whed my cousins and stuff visid, yeah,” he said, sitting up at the table next to her. “Or if by grandma has people over for dinner. Bud not a lod otherwise.”
“Do your cousins visit a lot?” Coraline asked, sitting down. Wybie sat next to her.
“Duh,” he said. “Why do you think we have so mady rooms?”
“Well how was I supposed to know?” Coraline asked. “Jeez.” She pulled the worksheet out of her folder and wrote her name on the top. “Okay, Why-were-you-born,” she said, as Wybie did the same, “first question.”
For about half an hour all they talked about were fractions, although there were a few minutes where Wybie tried to draw a skull on Coraline’s paper and Coraline tried to draw a heart that had “Wybie + Mrs. Hamner” inside it on his. They finished eventually, however, and Coraline packed her backpack up and went to leave.
In the kitchen she said goodbye to Mrs. Lovat and in the front hall she waved goodbye to Wybie.
“You coming to school tomorrow, Why-were-you-born?” she asked, opening the door.
“Maybe,” he said, sniffing. “I dunno. Thankds for helping me, Coralide.”
“No problem!” she said, waving at him again, and walked outside.
The next day Coraline rang the bell again and waited again for Mrs. Lovat to open the door, again.
“Hey, Mrs. Lovat,” she said when the door finally opened. “He’s still sick, huh?”
“Yes, he is,” she said as Coraline walked past her into the front hall. “And he’s got a fever, otherwise I’d be sure that boy was faking. Thank you again for bringing his homework, Coraline.”
“Yup!” Coraline said and started up the stairs again as Mrs. Lovat shuffled back into the kitchen. She passed the same progression of pictures—old guy in stiff collar, old little girl in black stockings and stiff collar, old family looking drearily at the camera in stiff collars—
Suddenly Coraline stopped. She hadn’t noticed it yesterday, but one of the pictures was blank. It had a frame, and a photo inside it, but it wasn’t a photo of anything. It was just a vaguely gray background.
“Weird,” Coraline said to herself, and continued up the stairs.
When she opened the door to Wybie’s room, she was greeted with the same mess, the same clutter, the same bag of slime on the floor, but this time instead of being propped up on pillows, there was a Wybie-shaped mound under the covers. Coraline skipped over and jumped onto the end of the bed.
“Wyyy-bieeee,” she said, bouncing up and down. “I’ve got a supri-iiise for youuu.”
“I don’d feel good,” Wybie said from under the covers. Coraline poked him.
“Come on, Wyb, it’s language arts this time. Fun right?” she said. Wybie didn’t budge. Coraline sighed and sat back on the bed. ‘Fine, don’t get up. I’ll leave it here and you can do it all by yourself.”
“Fide,” said Wybie.
“Alone,” Coraline repeated. “Without me.”
“Okay,” Wybie said.
“Hmph,” Coraline said, crossing her arms. She looked around the room. On the wall, there was an school picture from a couple of years back of Wybie. Which reminded her—
“Hey, Why-were-you-born,” she said, poking him again. “What’s the blank photo on the wall in the stairs for?”
For a moment Wybie didn’t respond, then suddenly his head poked out of the top of the covers. “Huh?”
“The picture. In the stairway,” Coraline said. “Why is it blank?”
‘Whad are you talkind about?” Wybie said. Coraline rolled her eyes.
“Look, do you want me to show you?” she said, getting off the bed. Sniffling and dragging the comforter with him, Wybie followed her out onto the landing and then to the middle of the stairway, where the blank picture was. Coraline pointed to it. “That one,” she said. “See?”
Wybie stared. He stepped back. He cocked his head to one side. He looked kind of pale and ashy, although Coraline wasn’t sure if that was because he was sick or not. “Thad’s . . . thad’s not supposed to be blank,” he said. “Thad had a picture of my gread-grandpa in id yesterday.”
Coraline looked from him to the picture and then back to him. “Nah,” she said finally. “You’re pulling my leg.”
Wybie shook his head slowly, still staring at the picture. “Nobe,” he said. Coraline looked at the picture again.
“But people don’t just leave pictures,” she said. “That isn’t possible!”
Wybie shrugged. “Maybe nod, but . . .” he trailed off, sounding shaky. “He did. And we gotta—we gotta find him.”
“What are you talking about?” Coraline said. “What do you mean, ‘find him’? How’re we going to do that?”
“I dunno,” Wybie said. “But we gotta do id. My gramba’ll kill me if she finds out he’s gone.”
“Why would she do that?” Coraline asked. “You didn’t do anything.”
“Maybe nod on purpose,” Wybie said, mysteriously. Coraline looked at him, and he looked back at her seriously. “Coralide, whad if this has something to do with . . .” he nodded in the direction of the old well, “you know?”
Coraline stared at him. “You don’t think?” she said, in hushed tones. Wybie nodded slowly.
Coraline nodded as well. “Then you’re right,” she said. “We gotta find him.”
They searched for hours. They searched the frame. They searched the wall behind the photograph. They searched the staircase. They searched the parlour. They searched the attic. They searched Wybie’s room. They searched his older sister’s room. They searched his grandma’s room. They searched everywhere, although neither of them were even really sure what they were looking for.
“Something weird,” said Wybie.
“Something wrong,” said Coraline.
But no matter how hard they searched, all they found was a five-dollar bill behind a chair, and the photo stayed empty.
Finally, around five thirty, Mrs. Lovat’s voice rang up to the third floor, where Coraline and Wybie were searching a guest room closet and Wybie was sneezing wildly.
“Coraline!” she called. “Wyboooooorrrnne!”
Both Wybie and Coraline jumped.
“She knows,” Coraline hissed.
“I’b dead,” Wybie groaned.
Together they made their way downstairs to where Mrs. Lovat was waiting in the front hall.
“Coraline, child,” she said, as Wybie and Coraline stood guiltiy before her. “I thought you went home hours ago. Your parents just called wanting to know where in the world you were. What have you two been doing for so long?”
Coraline hung her head and sniffled a little. “Mrs. Lovat,” she said. “We have to tell you something.”
“It wasn’d my fault!” Wybie interjected. “I swear!”
“It’s just that, Wybie’s great grandfather? In the picture? Well . . .” Coraline looked at Wybie, and he nodded. “He’s gone.”
For a moment Mrs. Lovat stared at them. “Gone?” she said finally. “Well, of course he’s gone!”
Coraline and Wybie looked up. “Huh?”
“I brought that picture to the photo place to see if I can get it restored,” Mrs. Lovat said. “I’m picking it up tomorrow.”
“But,” Coraline said. “But—”
“But there’s a picture id the frabe!” Wybie said. “And id’s blank!”
“Oh, that’s just the picture they have in the frame when you buy it,” Mrs. Lovat said, waving her hand. “They must have printed wrong or something. Now,” she said, walking towards the kitchen, “I’ll just go tell your parents you’ll be right on your way, then, Coraline. Wyborne, you see her out and then get right back into bed, you hear?”
“Okay, Grandba,” Wybie said. As she disappeared into the kitchen, he turned to Coraline. For a moment, they just looked at one another. Coraline had a cobweb in her hair from the attic. Wybie had spilled nail polish on his pajamas in his sister’s room. They were both dusty and disheveled. Finally, Wybie spoke. “Uh,” he said. “Whoops.”
Coraline grinned. “Nice job, Why-were-you-born,” she said, and punched his arm lightly and sniffling again. “If we had just asked your Grandma in the first place we wouldn’t have had to do any of that.”
“Well, sorry,” Wybie said, following her as she walked over to the door. “Are your parends going to be mad?”
“Eh, probably not,” Coraline said. “We probably won’t have dinner for another hour anyway, and—oh my god!”
“Whad?” asked Wybie, looking alarmed. Coraline glared at him.
‘Thanks to you, I haven’t even done my homework yet!” she said, punching his arm again. He grinned and rubbed it a little.
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “Sorry aboud thad.”
“Well, whatever,” she said philosophically. “It shouldn’t be too hard.” She turned and opened the door, and then looked back at Wybie. “Coming to school tomorrow, Why-were-you-born?” she asked. Her words were punctuated with another little sniffle. Her nose had started running a lot suddenly. Wybie shrugged.
“Probably nod,” he said. “I’m feeling even sicker than before. Because of all thad exercise, I guess.”
Coraline laughed. “Nice job, you dork,” she said, waving. “See ya!”
“See you,” Wybie said, waving back as she walked out the door and headed home.
The next day, Mrs. Lovat got a call from Mr. and Mrs. Jones. Coraline, apparently, had the same cold as Wybie and was staying home from school. Fortunately for Wybie, the picture of his great-grandfather had been restored wonderfully, and Mrs. Lovat was in too good of a mood to bother punishing him beyond a light smack upside his head, which she later kissed when she sent him back to bed, anyway.