Coraline received her first kiss shortly after turning thirteen.
Actually, it had been on Christmas Eve when she was eleven. There was a Christmas party at the Pink Palace. She and her friend Wybie had somehow wound up in a doorway with mistletoe, her parents were watching, as were the elderly neighbors and even Wybie's grandmother. With everybody pushing them the two had no choice but to go along with the silly tradition. Coraline had planned to tilt her head in time to miss his lips and get his cheek instead. But Wybie had the same idea and tilted his head the same way. Their lips touched, both of them panicked, and they ran off to rinse their mouths with Listerine as quickly as possible.
They agreed it didn't count as a real kiss and never spoke of it afterward. But the adults did, especially Misses Spink and Forcible. The way those two went on about it, Coraline thought they were expecting a wedding. They kept saying what a cute couple they made and how they always knew they would end up together and had they gone any further then kissing.
Coraline always said the same thing to this. "We're not a couple, we're just friends."
Miss Spink would giggle.
Miss Forcible would smirk very smugly. "Darling, men and women can never be 'just friends'. Sooner or later one will want more from the other, and it isn't kissing."
Coraline would want to say she wasn't a woman yet, but she didn't want to know what the old lady meant by 'more'.
Wybie's grandmother gave him the same treatment. When she visited them Coraline would sometimes hear her saying things very much like what the other old ladies had said to her. Wybie's face always turned a brilliant shade of red and he'd stutter. Coraline always found this amusing.
Besides all this nonsense, Coraline's life was very normal. She went to school, she made new friends, and kept in touch with her old friends. Life soon became so normal that it was as if nothing unusual had happened when her family first moved to the Pink Palace. Sometimes she wondered if the whole Other World was just a very long, very frightening dream. But then she would talk to the cat and wait for an answer, or see the fragments of broken orbs in her old jewelry box, or scratches on the paper covering the little door in the living room, or go out to the old well to make sure nothing had crawled out of it. Then she was sure the dream had been no dream.
Now, two years later, it was her thirteenth birthday.
Coraline woke up and got dressed early even though it was a school day. Turning thirteen was too exciting to sleep through. She was now a teenager, which was almost an adult. And, best of all, it meant she was the same age as Wybie again. He was older then her by a month and a half, but he was still about as mature as an eleven year old. She'd found it highly unfair when he became a teenager before her, especially since as a girl she'd naturally hit puberty first. Now they were on equal footing again for about ten more years. She couldn't wait to see him at school and rub it in his face.
Just as she finished putting her shoes on and brushing the lint from her gray skirt, Coraline heard a paws scraping at her window. It was a large black cat, and it was holding something bright and feathered in its mouth. She went to the window and opened it. "Good morning, cat. Is that for me?"
The cat lowered its prize to the windowsill and blinked at her. The prize was a dead blue jay, much bigger and prettier than the usual sparrows and shrews. He brought her a blue jay once every year, but whether he was observing her birthday or not was a mystery. Coraline patted him on the head and scratched his ears in gratitude. "Thanks, it's very nice."
Looking pleased with himself, the cat meowed once, then turned and hopped off with his tail held high. As soon as he was gone Coraline wrapped the dead bird in tissue paper and put it in a shoebox. Rather than throw the corpse away she would bury it in the backyard with all the other trophies the cat brought her. She had no use for little dead things but she appreciated the thought anyway.
Coraline's father made her favorite waffles for breakfast that morning. She liked it when he cooked on her birthday because he always made her favorite things. He still added his own touches to the food, like strange berries or syrup, but Coraline was too happy to care about strange fruits. Well, all but the blueberries.
Her mother took her to school. When they drove up in front of the old brick building, she surprised Coraline by saying they were going to the jewelry store afterward. When she asked why her mother said it was because she was finally old enough to get her ears pierced. Coraline then hugged her mother in front of all the other students. She had not done that since she was a little girl.
Coraline practically skipped her way to her locker. Sure enough Wybie was there waiting for her. The plain gray uniform didn't suit him at all. He was still awkward and hunched over with it and even with the two inch growth spurt he still looked short. They began walking together, and she had to step quickly to keep up with him.
"I hope you remembered what day it is today." Coraline said to him.
Wybie rolled his eyes and smiled that sideways smile of his. "How could I not remember? You've been talking about it since last month. Have you been bugging your other neighbors about this, too?"
"No, they remembered from last year. They all promised to give me presents again."
The boy thought a moment, remembering what the elderly neighbors had given Coraline the years before. They weren't pleasant memories. "What about your folks?"
"Dad promised to buy me some new earrings."
"But your ears aren't pierced."
Coraline grinned brightly. "That's going to be Mom's gift. So, what about you, Wybie? Do you have a gift for the birthday girl today?"
"Yup, but it's not finished yet. I'll have to bring it over to you sometime after school."
"Ooh, you're making something? What is it? Give me a hint!"
"Nope, no hints. It's gonna be a surprise and I'm not gonna ruin it for you by running my mouth off."
"That'll be some trick."
But somehow he did it. No matter how much Coraline pestered or bullied him, Wybie's resolve remained firm. She frowned about it, but in truth she was rather impressed that he really could keep quiet about something. Then again, he'd kept quiet about the whole Other World incident and about the thing at the bottom of the old well. Wybie had certainly earned the title of best friend then.
When classes ended Coraline's parents took her to the jewelry store to get her ears pierced. When the shop woman produced the piercing gun her breath stopped and her hand tightened instinctively around her mother's.
"It's okay to wait another year, Coraline." her mother said.
Her father was standing behind her, gripping the back of her chair. "Yeah, you don't have to get this done right now."
Coraline watched as the woman cleaned her tool. Squeezing her mother's hand again she shook her head. "I'm old enough. I'm doing it today."
As the woman punctured a single hole in both her earlobes, Coraline held her breath and bit down hard on her lip to keep from screaming. When it was over she felt some cold fluid being dabbed on the holes with a cotton swab.
Her mother smiled a proud smile at her. "Well, you did it. It's all over now."
Her father was hovering over her now, looking very worried. "Are you okay? Does it hurt? You're not going to faint, are you?"
"I'm fine." Coraline said, smiling back at him very bravely. "It wasn't so bad."
The shop woman gave Coraline a free bottle of sanitary fluid to keep the new holes from getting infected. Her father bought her a pair of round silver studs. She felt very grown up wearing them home in the car, and couldn't wait to show her friends how pretty they looked.
When they arrived at the house Misses Spink and Forcible were outside walking their dogs. As soon as they saw Coraline they bustled over to meet her. "Welcome back, Caroline!" Miss Spink said brightly. "Oh, my! Are those your new earrings? How lovely! Oh, Miriam, come closer and look at them!"
Miss Forcible peered at Coraline's ears through her opera glasses. "Ah, you have good taste, luvvy. Diamonds are a fine chose for a young lady's first bangles."
"They're silver, actually." Coraline said, trying to keep the three Scottie dogs from knocking her bottle of cleaning fluid from her hands. She didn't bother correcting them about her name. If they weren't going to get it right after two years, they never would.
"Won't you come inside, Caroline?" said Miss Spink. "We made you a surprise while you were out!"
Coraline looked to her parents for permission. They looked at each other and shrugged. "Be back in time for dinner, okay? Dad's making something special tonight." Her mother winked and took the cleaning fluid inside for her.
Coraline followed the two old ladies back to their flat, helping them with their dogs as she went. Inside the dogs sniffed her legs and fingers while Miss Spink shuffled about the room asking Miss Forcible where the surprise was.
"Where did you put it? You were in charge of wrapping it, Miriam!"
"It's right where you left it, April! In your bedroom, on the dresser!"
"Why, there it is. Oh dear, couldn't you have used better paper?"
"We didn't have anything better! What did you expect? We're retired!"
Coraline was then presented with a lumpy package wrapped in brown paper and tied up with twine. Both women smiled at her as though their bickering had never happened. Coraline eagerly untied the twine and tore up the paper, careful not to drop any where the dogs could eat it.
She stopped and stared.
Inside the package was the most horrifyingly ugly sweater she had ever seen. It was a red, blue and yellow monstrosity with little black Scottie dogs all over it. No doubt Miss Spink had spent weeks knitting it, and Miss Forcible had critiqued it the whole time. After the shock had passed Coraline looked up at the two women and gave the most convincing smile she could. "Uh … wow. You really shouldn't have …"
Miss Spink clasped her chubby hands joyfully. "Try it on, dear! Let's see how it fits!"
The sweater was fastened with little clasps in the front. Coraline had to undo all six of them before she could slide her arms through the sleeves and stand up. It hung down past her hips and all but covered her hands. "It's a little bit big."
"That was my idea." Miss Forcible said. "It would be silly to make it fit you exactly. You're still a growing girl, after all, and it'll shrink up in the wash."
"I guess you're right." said Coraline. Then she thanked them again for the sweater and promised to show it to her parents right away. She was also planning to hide it in the back of her closet until she had to wear it the next time they got together.
Outside she heard a familiar accented voice shout from the rooftop. Seconds later a giant, mustachioed man dropped out of the sky and landed five inches away from her face. She tilted her head back to look at the old man with the big mustache, totally unfazed by his dramatic entrance. "Hey, Mr. B."
"Privet, Caroline! Ho! What is this thing you are wearing? Did yarn store explode on you?"
"It's a present from Misses Spink and Forcible. They made it for me."
Mr. Bobinsky arched his bushy eyebrows in amazement. "They really should not have."
Coraline nodded. "That's what I said."
"Well, anyways," the old man said, dropping to one knee so that he was at her level. "I have something much better for you! Here, take look at this!"
He pulled a thick, rolled up magazine out of his back pocket and handed it to her. It smelled funny and had pictures of cheese on the cover.
Coraline read the title aloud. "Cheese Lovers Monthly?"
"Best source of quality cheese in United States! The mice love it so much they make dance every time new issue come, and do back-flips and cartwheels. Happy birthday, Caroline! Or as they say in my country, S dniom roždenija!"
Coraline smiled the same way she had upon receiving the sweater. She was about to say a very stiff 'thank you' when the sound of a familiar bike horn blared noisily. Coming down the hill was a lone figure on an electric bike, wearing a heavily modified welding mask that was painted like a skull. It skidded to a stop in front of them. Then the rider lifted his mask and immediately began chattering. "Hey, guys! Whoa, Coraline! What are you wearing? No, wait, let me guess. Spink and Forcible's birthday present, right?"
Bobinsky grinned at the two young teens and patted Coraline's head as though she were a child. "Well, I must be returning now! You have fun with neighbor boy, Caroline! Das vidanya!" He stood up straight and saluted, then swung himself from the drainpipe onto the roof and was gone again.
Wybie watched him with some amazement. "I'll never know how a guy that old can do that." Then he smiled at Coraline again. "So, Jonesy, you ready for your present now?"
"Is it another ugly sweater or a catalogue for stinky cheese?" she asked dryly.
"Better!" He tossed something large and round to her, and she had to drop the cheese catalogue in order to catch it. It was a black bike helmet. "For you. You can decorate it how you want, but don't use paint or the plastic'll crack. "
Coraline stared at the helmet blankly. "I don't get it. This is what the big surprise was?"
"No, it's just part one." Wybie then patted something behind his bike seat. It was another bike seat. "This is part two."
Coraline's eyes grew wide. "You added an extra seat for me! Wybie, you're awesome! Can we try it out?"
He winked. "Of course! How else can I get you to surprise number three?"
A third surprise? Wybie was truly pushing the limits of best friend status. Coraline put on the helmet and climbed on the seat behind him. He pulled his mask over his face and soon they were flying away from the house. She wrapped her arms around his waist to keep from being blown off and ruining her ugly new sweater in the dirt.
As they rode she wondered at how the rocks and trees blurred past. She'd never ridden on Wybie's bike before and was amazed by just how fast they were going. She also wondered where he was taking her. Wybie had grown up here and knew these hills like the inside of his own messy bedroom. He had shown Coraline much of the forest behind her house before, but they were in a part of the woods she didn't recognize. They were climbing uphill along a little used dirt path, the trees were taller and thicker, and the rocks were bigger and rougher.
Finally Wybie pulled to a stop in a clearing and popped the kickstand. "We gotta go on foot from here." he said, removing his mask and laying it against the front wheel. "The terrain's too steep to ride on."
As she removed her helmet Coraline noticed her arms felt sore. She must have been clinging to him pretty hard, but he hadn't complained at all. He took her hand and helped her get down. Then he started leading her toward a path covered with vines and weeds. A lump tightened her throat and threatened to cut off her air supply. She'd held Wybie's hand before, but not like this.
Coraline decided to start a conversation. "So, uh, where are we going?"
Wybie looked at her with a secretive smile. "You'll see when we get there."
They kept walking. The lump grew bigger.
The undergrowth was so thick here that they had to walk single file. Wybie led Coraline over ditches, creeks, and fallen tree trunks. The whole time he was still holding her hand, and keeping unusually quiet. If he spoke it was to point out some patch of poison ivy to step around or a low branch to duck. Coraline began feeling hot. The new sweater's work, she told herself.
Finally there was a break in the trees ahead. Coraline thought she heard water flowing and realized she was thirsty. Then she saw that the sound was coming from a very high, slender waterfall shooting down a rocky ledge and splashing into a pool about thirty feet below.
"Surprise!" Wybie said.
Coraline hardly noticed when he released her hand. She took a few steps forward to see this new place better. The pool was on a ledge, too, and a short distance away it spilled its contents over the rocks down an even steeper drop. Beyond the ledge was the forest where they had just been and the rest of the valley stretched out beyond. At the horizon were more mountains and an endless blue-gray sky.
"This place is beautiful!" Coraline said at last. "Why didn't you bring me here sooner?"
He put his hands in his pockets and shrugged. "Too much walking. I figured it would be smarter to adjust my bike first so we could ride instead of hike the whole way." He scratched his head with one hand. "So, um, do you like it?"
She spun to face him, grinning from ear to ear. "Yeah! This is really cool, Wybie! But you still get a punch for making me wait two years."
He didn't try to dodge when she bumped her fist against his shoulder. Then he straightened and looked at her more closely. "Hey, you've got earrings now!"
"Yeah, didn't you notice before?"
"Well, the sweater was kinda distracting."
This time she swung harder. "Not my fault Miss Spink is colorblind! And you didn't give me much time to change when you showed up."
Wybie chuckled and rubbed his sore shoulder. "Oh, I almost forgot! When I told Gramma you were getting your ears pierced today she asked me to give you this."
He pulled a small paper box from his coat pocket. Coraline carefully lifted the lid. Inside was a pair of silver star-shaped earrings studded with tiny diamonds. They were slightly tarnished with age but still sparkled in the sunlight. "Oh … my … god. Wybie, I … I can't accept these!"
She tried to give the box back to him but he pushed it back to her. His face was unusually serious. "Yes you can. Gramma used to wear them when she young. Now she wants you to have them."
Coraline looked back at him. When it came to his grandma Wybie never lied. If their hands weren't touching again she might have protested harder. As it was she could hardly remember what she was protesting about. Somehow holding his hands and looking into his eyes like this was making her forgetful.
Finally she had to pull away and look down at the box. Her head felt clearer now, but her face was warm again. "Okay, you win. I'll … I'll try them on now." She carefully removed the studs from her father and replaced them with the stars. It didn't hurt as much as she'd expected since her ears were healing quickly. "How do they look?"
Wybie stood back and took a long look at her. "They look good." he said, another unusual look on his face. "Very pretty."
Something about his tone made Coraline think he wasn't really talking about the earrings. Something about him bringing her all the way to this remote place made her think it wasn't just a birthday gift. Something about this whole situation made her think something different was going on, something she never thought would really happen.
Wybie crouched at the edge of the pool. He picked up a pebble and skipped it across the water. It went plip, plip, plip, plunk.
Coraline replaced the earrings with her first pair. She tucked the box into the pocket of her skirt and sat down next to Wybie. Neither of them spoke for a while.
"Coraline …" he said. "I was … um, thinking … You remember that time at the Christmas party, when we got stuck under the mistletoe?"
She pulled her knees to her chest and tilted her head so her blue hair covered her reddening face from view. "Yeah."
More silence. Wybie tossed another pebble into the pond. He scratched his head. "Have you ever wondered what it might be like to do it again?"
The lump returned to her throat, bigger and tighter than before. She forgot about her red face and stared at him, mouth slightly agape. "What?"
He cringed and shrank back, expecting her fist to come flying at his head this time. "I didn't mean it like that! I swear! What I meant was, uh, we're both teenagers now and … and kissing's something teenagers do, and, uh, and it's okay if you wanna punch my lights out for bringing it up!"
Coraline just sat there like a statue and let him ramble and tried to make sense of what he was rambling about. "Wait a minute, Wybie. Are you just talking about kissing? Or are you talking about kissing me?"
Wybie's face turned several shades of red. He stammered. He stuttered. He sputtered. Then noises like words came out of his mouth. "I-I-I … uh, w-well, that's not exactly what I was trying to say … b-b-but if it's okay with you, then I … I wouldn't mind …"
Coraline turned her blank stare from him to their shifting reflections in the water. She was still trying to make sense of all this. How had she not noticed it before? How had she not seen that Wybie liked her as more than a friend? It had to be that. There was no other reason he would bring this sort of thing up. How long had he liked her this way? Had it started when he hit puberty or was it sooner?
But it was pointless to think about Wybie's feelings like this. She knew what they were. The only real question was about her feelings. Did she like Wybie back as more than a friend? Should she punch him for bringing up such a stupid thing? Or did she really want to kiss him?
Coraline considered the last question carefully. If she kissed him here and now, it would be just the two of them and the trees. It would be without any pressure from the adults. It would be the way she had thought a first kiss should be.
She looked at Wybie, who was fumbling with some pebbles in his hands. He had acne and a creaky voice and a perpetual slouch. His hair was just as thick and frizzy as always, there were always twigs and leaves in it, and he still loved picking up banana slugs on misty days.
Coraline didn't want him any other way.
"It's okay, Wybie." she finally said. "I don't mind, either."
Somewhere behind them, up in the branches of a tree, a black cat watched and purred.