Halloween at the Pink Palace is a lot like any other time of year. The house is old and tired, which means that sometimes things don’t work great. The pipes seem to groan unhappily every time she has to shower, and sometimes the power goes out for no reason at all.
It’s hot in the spring and summer, then cold in the winter and fall. The house is drafty, and no amount of weather proofing seems to stop the chill from finding its way inside. The floorboards creak, the walls groan, and sometimes the ceiling leaks. Coraline spends years mapping out those creaks. When you’re scared of something, the only way to chase that fear away is to make a place yours. So she does. She finds all of the nooks and crannies, and every day, just before bed, she checks that strange, small door. Just to be sure.
She knows that her parents hadn’t planned on staying here. The Pink Palace was always a stop gap for them. Fix the place up, show people what they could really do. Write their book. But Coraline thinks that they like it more than they let on, because the years creep on and they find more and more things to fix. The book does well. The second book does even better. The garden is lush and gorgeous, so colorful that it reminds her every day of that other place, where snapdragons snapped and pumpkins floated huge and bright and orange in the pond.
She is fifteen before she gives up on leaving, welcoming the quiet solitude of the place. The forest, the house, the school, the people.
Wybie helps. Nothing brings two people closer together than trauma, and even if he hadn’t been by her side for all of it, he’d been there at the end. He’d seen that spindly hand with its razor blade fingers, fought it for her, then helped her kill it.
She’d told him the rest after, about button eyes and food so good that sometimes she thinks real food will never taste the same again. She told him about the Other Mother, her wide round button eyes and pretty red smile, and how she’d changed into something more monster than woman when Coraline wouldn’t give her what she wanted. Coraline told him about the ghosts, about the rats, and the strange, gorgon-like creatures that Miss Spink and Forcible turned into when everything was dark. She told him about the cat, and how in that other world, he’d had a voice.
Wybie listened to her, and when she was done, he kept listening. He’s been at her side ever since, dogging her through the years. She’s had friends before. Had best friends even. But she’s never had a friend as loyal as him. He meets her in front of the Pink Palace for school each morning and walks her home each night. On her thirteenth birthday, he’d gotten her a dice set, which was weird and a little nerdy, but that night, they had gone on an adventure together. Just because it was in their heads didn’t make it any less fun. Coraline was good at telling stories, and as it turned out, so was Wybie.
Some nights, she’ll wake up from nightmares of that other place. The other Wybie with his sad, quiet smile or the other father in those last few minutes, both her creations, helping her right up until the very end.
The night before Halloween of her sixteenth year is one of those nights. She wakes up gasping in her bed, and can’t seem to separate the worlds. She’s made this room her own, painted glow in the dark stars on the ceiling and the walls orange instead of purple. Filled it with baubles and glowing things and stuffed animals that don't speak. But the bed is the same, and the grip of her sheets in the middle of a nightmare feels just like it did back then.
The next morning at school, she tells Wybie about it. He listens quietly, most of his attention on the pudding cup in his hands, but when she’s done, he sets the cup down and smiles at her.
“We should go trick or treating tonight,” he tells her, like they aren’t too old for it. Like they don’t live far enough away from the rest of the world that trick or treating would be limited to Spink, Forcible, and Bobinsky, whose treats they probably wouldn’t want anyway.
He laughs when he sees her face. It’s an awkward laugh, more of an afterthought, a sheepish thing that creeps out of him when he doesn’t seem to expect it. She likes his laugh.
“Not like that,” he says. “We’ll go exploring. I’m sure the woods would have some tricks and treats for us.”
She blinks at him for a moment. “You don’t think that going into the woods at night is a little dangerous?”
He doesn’t even bat an eye, going back to his pudding cup. “Yeah, but when have you ever shied away from a little bit of danger?”
Under his eyelashes, he gives her a sly, goading look and sticks the spoon into his mouth.
Before Coraline can respond, the bell rings.
“Tonight,” he calls as he’s hurrying away to his next class.
All right, she thinks. Tonight.
Coraline’s mother thinks it’s a great idea.
“I don’t like you being cooped up in this old house all the time,” she tells Coraline fretfully, frowning down at the casserole she’s just pulled from the oven. Her oven mitts are old and worn and yellow, stretching all the way up to her elbows. Coraline had gotten them for her when she was eight, because she hadn’t known then that yellow was her mother’s least favorite color, too bright, too jarring, too sunny. But her mom had worn them, year after year.
Coraline makes a face when she gets a good look at the casserole. It’s tuna. She hates tuna.
“I’m not cooped up all the time,” Coraline protests. “I go to Wybie’s.”
Her mother gives her a look and then says, in a droll voice, “Yes, because being cooped up in another person’s house is just what the doctor ordered.”
“We go on walks?” Coraline offers.
Her mother scoffs.
“Yes, to the bus stop.” Then she sighs. “Look, Coraline. I’m very fond of Wyborn. I just wish that you would go out every once in a while. Most girls your age are at the mall or doing each other’s hair.”
“So you want me to make girl friends,” Coraline says flatly, crossing her arms over her chest. Her mother sighs again, her shoulders drooping. She looks exhausted, and for a moment, Coraline feels bad. Her mother is trying, more than she ever did before. It’s not all her fault.
“That’s not what I said,” she says, wearily. “I just think that it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if you had a bit more of a social life.”
“So, we’re going trick or treating. There, social life expanded.”
Her mother shakes her head, turning a fond look on her. She reaches out, and carefully, strokes Coraline’s hair back from her face. It’s just once, and the movement is awkward and stilted, but it’s there, proof that she is trying.
“What am I going to do with you?” she asks, affection clear in her voice. Then, “Now go get your father. Dinner’s ready.”
She greets Wybie at her door that night with two round buttons balanced precariously against her eyelids.
“That’s not funny,” he tells her, and she laughs, shaking the buttons off.
He’s wearing an all black jumpsuit with a glow in the dark skeleton printed across it. There’s paint streaked across his face in the shape of a skull. If she looks hard enough, she can tell where the paint’s already smudged or where his hand must have been shaky while applying it.
“What are you supposed to be?”
She flings her arms out and does a little turn. “Isn’t it obvious?”
He snorts at her. “If it was, I wouldn’t be asking.”
Coraline is wearing a yellow rain jacket and a pair of worn, blue jeans. On her feet are bright yellow rain boots. They’re rubber, and horribly uncomfortable. She’s used her mother’s makeup to stretch her smile wider, foundation to make her face even paler than it already is. The buttons should have clued him in.
“I’m Coraline doll,” she tells him with a brilliant smile.
“Really,” he drawls. Then, more whiny, “Really?”
Well, she’d thought it was perfect anyway.
“You’ve got a real sick sense of humor, you know,” he tells her as they’re walking down the porch. The boards creak under their feet.
“Maybe,” she says agreeably, trying to make her smile go smooth and mysterious. Mostly, she thinks she just looks like she’s trying really hard not to laugh.
The night is chilly and dark. It had been threatening snow earlier in the week, and she thinks that it might make true on its promise tonight. The sky is dark save for the dots of glitter-bright stars, and the woods are quiet.
They haven’t gone walking in these woods in awhile. Probably not since they were twelve or thirteen, when they could still play at water witches and warlocks, when every shadow between the trees promised an adventure instead of a hidden terror.
An owl hoots somewhere, and there’s a rustling noise that speaks of something small moving in the grass. Then the cat leaps up from the brush, landing lightly on her shoulder.
He’s gotten older, but no less skinny. When she pets him, she can feel his ribs under his fur, his hipbones under her palms like sharp, jagged points, shards of bone trying to break free. He purrs, rubbing against her face.
“Hello, cat,” she says.
Wybie glares back at them. “Traitor.”
“Nonsense,” Coraline tells him. “You’re still his favorite.”
The cat stays perched on Coraline’s shoulder as she walks though, his claws pinpricks of discomfort against her skin. She doesn’t shake him off. He’d helped her through a lot, and she’s grateful for that. If he’s here now, a little discomfort might be worth whatever warning he might provide. Sometimes, she misses the sound of his voice.
They’ve only been in the forest for a half an hour, but already it feels like it’s closing around them. She doesn’t remember being this scared of it before, but maybe that was because she’d seen other things, scarier things, dressed up all pretty and nice. Maybe it was just because she was a kid, immortal and unafraid.
“So far this is a pretty boring adventure,” she whispers against Wybie's ear just to see him jump.
He narrows his eyes at her. “You got a better suggestion?”
She shrugs, because she doesn’t, not really. And she is enjoying herself. She likes the quiet, and if she’s honest, likes the lingering sense of terror too. She likes the slow rumble of the cat against her cheek, and she likes Wybie. It’s a new feeling, one she’s been ignoring for a while now.
“Let’s go to the well,” she hears herself say, and Wybie stops moving. Abruptly, the cat stops purring and leaps down from her shoulder, glaring back at her as he twists himself around Wybie’s ankles.
“Wow,” he says. “Let’s not do that.”
“Come on,” she coaxes, dancing backwards a few steps. “It’ll be fun.”
In truth, she hasn’t been back to the well since that night. Living in the Pink Palace was hard enough at first. In the weeks after, she’d spent every night jumping at every creak and groan, checking the doorway to her parent’s room before she went to bed just to make sure they were really there.
She’s never gone back to check on the well, and now, she wants desperately to make sure that it’s still the same as it was before, undisturbed.
Wybie watches her for a moment, his eyes shrewd and calculating. He doesn’t want to do this. She can tell. But he’ll do it for her, because he always does things that he doesn’t want to for her sake.
“If you’re sure,” he says eventually.
The well sits in the same place that it did before. The mud has gummed up around it again, the ring of mushrooms having grown larger. She takes a seat on the tree stump next to it and stares, her chin in her hands.
After a moment, Wybie takes a seat next to her, his bony hip nudging against hers.
“Sorry,” she tells him. “Guess this isn’t much fun either.”
She can feel the motion as he shrugs. “It’s okay.”
She swallows. “I just… I’ve never checked, you know?”
“I did,” he says, and she blinks in surprise, glancing up at him. He looks a little sheepish, rubbing the back of his neck as his cheeks go red under the paint. “Just at first. I wanted to make sure you were safe.”
That’s surprisingly sweet. A little ember of warmth blooms to life in her chest. “When did you stop?”
“Maybe a year or two later? I didn’t come here often. To be honest, it still creeps me out.”
Coraline snorts. “Yeah, well.”
Well. She understands. She’s lived that fear every time she passes by the bookcase blocking that little door. Sitting here, so close to the last remnant of the Beldam, that terror is close and all too real.
She’s about to ask if he wants to go - back to her house, into town, back into the woods - when she hears it. A faint, scrabbling sound. All the hairs at the back of her neck come to attention, prickling as goosebumps break out across her skin.
“Did you hear that?” she whispers, but can tell from the way that Wybie’s gone still next to her that he heard it too. She gets to her feet, approaching the circle cautiously. The sound is louder here, and she stoops, kneeling in the muck. The damp immediately seeps into the knees of her jeans, but she can’t be bothered by that. Not when she’s here, and hearing this. She tips her head to one side, pressing her ear as close as she’s willing to the lid of the well.
There’s a faint splash, then more scrabbling, like fingertips on stone.
Wybie is at her side. He’s breathing heavy, his eyes wide and round in his face. “Is it-”
She nods, heart in her throat. “Did you hear anything when you checked before?”
He shakes his head furtively. “No, I would have told you.”
Shakily, she gets to her feet, taking his hand when he offers it. She licks her lips.
“I don’t think it’s getting out.”
He laughs, disbelievingly. His hand in hers is clammy, cold, and damp with sweat. She doesn’t let go.
“Say that like you really believe it,” he says.
“I don’t think it’s getting out any time soon,” she amends, trying not to think of that spidery hand climbing the walls. It could do it, she thinks. It could get up and out, because it’s got all the time in the world to try. It’s got the key down there with it.
“Do you even think she’s still alive?” Wybie asks her. “She could be dead. She said she’d die without you, right?”
She had. But she’d also survived for a very, very long time between meals. Coraline isn’t willing to bet on her being dead, not when this small part of her is trying so very hard to get out.
“She’s not dead,” she says, and they sit in the silence for a while, listening to the sounds of it trying to escape.
“What should we do?” he asks her.
Coraline straightens, steeling her shoulders. “We come back. We keep checking. Every day, until we’re sure it’s dead.”
He presses closer to her, so close that she can feel the heat of him seeping into her bones. It’s comforting, and gives her the strength to really think about it. About doing this, committing to it, coming back to this terror every day until they're old and gray.
“That could be a really long time,” he warns. “We-”
She swallows down her fear and turns to him, a bleak smile on her face. Whatever he sees in her eyes startles him into silence.
“We’ve got time,” she tells him, squeezing his hand.
This isn’t a good place for a first kiss, so she doesn’t kiss him. But she thinks about it. His lips would be chapped, but warm and good, and she thinks that he’s probably touch her hair, because he’s always liked it. She thinks about growing old in this little town, with him, with the Pink Palace, with this nightmare lurking in her backyard and another hiding behind a doorway in her living room.
She would never have kids, Coraline realizes. Not in that house.
But kids are a very far away thought, and she can’t think to mourn them right now. Right now, it is Halloween, and she is sixteen years old, alone in the woods with a beautiful boy that she very much wants to kiss.
She squeezes his hand again, and this time, he squeezes back.