They came out from under the bed, blinking their eyes in the light. They had short, soot-black fur, little red eyes, pink paws like tiny hands, and pink, hairless tails like long, smooth worms.
“Can you talk?” she asked.
The largest, blackest of the rats shook its head. It had an unpleasant sort of smile, Coraline thought.
“Well,” asked Coraline, “what do you do?”
The rats formed a circle.
Then they began to climb on top of each other, carefully but swiftly, until they had formed a pyramid with the largest rat at the top.
The rats began to sing, in high, whispery voices,
We have teeth and we have tails
We have tails we have eyes
We were here before you fell
You will be here when we rise.
It wasn’t a pretty song. Coraline was sure she’d heard it before, or something like it, although she was unable to remember exactly where.
Then the pyramid fell apart, and the rats scampered, fast and black, toward the door.
The other crazy old man upstairs was standing in the doorway, holding a tall black hat in his hands. The rats scampered up him, burrowing into his pockets, into his shirt, up his trouser legs, down his neck.
The largest rat climbed onto the old man’s shoulders, swung up on the long gray mustache, past the big black button eyes, and onto the top of the man’s head.
In seconds the only evidence that the rats were there at all were the restless lumps under the man’s clothes, forever sliding from place to place across him; and there was still the largest rat, who stared down, with glittering red eyes, at Coraline from the man’s head.
The old man put his hat on, and the last rat was gone.
“Hello Coraline,” said the other old man upstairs. “I heard you were here. It is time for the rats to have their dinner. But you can come up with me, if you like, and watch them feed.”
There was something hungry in the old man’s button eyes that made Coraline feel uncomfortable. “No, thank you,” she said. “I’m going outside to explore.”
The old man nodded, very slowly. Coraline could hear the rats whispering to each other, although she could not tell what they were saying.
She was not certain that she wanted to know what they were saying.
Her other parents stood in the kitchen doorway as she walked down the corridor, smiling identical smiles, and waving slowly. “Have a nice time outside,” said her other mother.
“We’ll just wait here for you to come back,” said her other father.
When Coraline got to the front door, she turned back and looked at them. They were still watching her, and waving, and smiling.
Coraline walked outside, and down the steps.
The house looked exactly the same from the outside. Or almost exactly the same: around Miss Spink and Miss Forcible’s door were blue and red lightbulbs that flashed on and off spelling out words, the lights chasing each other around the door. On and off, around and around. astounding! was followed by a theatrical and then triumph!!!
It was a sunny, cold day, exactly like the one she’d left.
There was a polite noise from behind her.
She turned around. Standing on the wall next to her was a large black cat, identical to the large black cat she’d seen in the grounds at home.
“Good afternoon,” said the cat.
Its voice sounded like the voice at the back of Coraline’s head, the voice she thought words in, but a man’s voice, not a girl’s.
“Hello,” said Coraline. “I saw a cat like you in the garden at home. You must be the other cat.”
The cat shook its head. “No,” it said. “I’m not the other anything. I’m me.” It tipped its head to one side; green eyes glinted. “You people are spread all over the place. Cats, on the other hand, keep ourselves together. If you see what I mean.”
“I suppose. But if you’re the same cat I saw at home, how can you talk?”
Cats don’t have shoulders, not like people do. But the cat shrugged, in one smooth movement that started at the tip of its tail and ended in a raised movement of its whiskers. “I can talk.”
“Cats don’t talk at home.”
“No?” said the cat.
“No,” said Coraline.
The cat leaped smoothly from the wall to the grass near Coraline’s feet. It stared up at her.
“Well, you’re the expert on these things,” said the cat dryly. “After all, what would I know? I’m only a cat.”
It began to walk away, head and tail held high and proud.
“Come back,” said Coraline. “Please. I’m sorry. I really am.”
The cat stopped walking, sat down, and began to wash itself thoughtfully, apparently unaware of Coraline’s existence.
“We . . . we could be friends, you know,” said Coraline.
“We could be rare specimens of an exotic breed of African dancing elephants,” said the cat. “But we’re not. At least,” it added cattily, after darting a brief look at Coraline, “I’m not.”
“Please. What’s your name?” Coraline asked the cat. “Look, I’m Coraline. Okay?”
The cat yawned slowly, carefully, revealing a mouth and tongue of astounding pinkness. “Cats don’t have names,” it said.
“No?” said Coraline.
“No,” said the cat. “Now, you people have names. That’s because you don’t know who you are. We know who we are, so we don’t need names.”
There was something irritatingly self-centered about the cat, Coraline decided. As if it were, in its opinion, the only thing in any world or place that could possibly be of any importance.
Half of her wanted to be very rude to it; the other half of her wanted to be polite and deferential. The polite half won.
“Please, what is this place?”
The cat glanced around briefly. “It’s here,” said the cat.
“I can see that. Well, how did you get here?”
“Like you did. I walked,” said the cat. “Like this.”
Coraline watched as the cat walked slowly across the lawn. It walked behind a tree, but didn’t come out the other side. Coraline went over to the tree and looked behind it. The cat was gone.
She walked back toward the house. There was another polite noise from behind her. It was the cat.
“By the by,” it said. “It was sensible of you to bring protection. I’d hang on to it, if I were you.”
“That’s what I said,” said the cat. “And anyway—”
It paused, and stared intently at something that wasn’t there.
Then it went down into a low crouch and moved slowly forward, two or three steps. It seemed to be stalking an invisible mouse. Abruptly, it turned tail and dashed for the woods.
It vanished among the trees.
Coraline wondered what the cat had meant.
She also wondered whether cats could all talk where she came from and just chose not to, or whether they could only talk when they were here—wherever here was.
She walked down the brick steps to the Misses Spink and Forcible’s front door. The blue and red lights flashed on and off.
The door was open, just slightly. She knocked on it, but her first knock made the door swing open, and Coraline went in.
She was in a dark room that smelled of dust and velvet. The door swung shut behind her, and the room was black. Coraline edged forward into a small anteroom. Her face brushed against something soft. It was cloth. She reached up her hand and pushed at the cloth. It parted.
She stood blinking on the other side of the velvet curtains, in a poorly lit theater. Far away, at the edge of the room, was a high wooden stage, empty and bare, a dim spotlight shining onto it from high above.
There were seats between Coraline and the stage. Rows and rows of seats. She heard a shuffling noise, and a light came toward her, swinging from side to side. When it was closer she saw the light was coming from a flashlight being carried in the mouth of a large black Scottie dog, its muzzle gray with age.
“Hello,” said Coraline.
The dog put the flashlight down on the floor, and looked up at her. “Right. Let’s see your ticket,” he said gruffly.
“That’s what I said. Ticket. I haven’t got all day, you know. You can’t watch the show without a ticket.”
Coraline sighed. “I don’t have a ticket,” she admitted.
“Another one,” said the dog gloomily. “Come in here, bold as anything. ‘Where’s your ticket?’ ‘Haven’t got one,’ I don’t know . . .” It shook its head, then shrugged. “Come on, then.”
He picked up the flashlight in his mouth and trotted off into the dark. Coraline followed him. When he got near the front of the stage he stopped and shone the flashlight onto an empty seat. Coraline sat down, and the dog wandered off.
As her eyes got used to the darkness she realized that the other inhabitants of the seats were also dogs.
There was a sudden hissing noise from behind the stage. Coraline decided it was the sound of a scratchy old record being put onto a record player. The hissing became the noise of trumpets, and Miss Spink and Miss Forcible came onto the stage.
Miss Spink was riding a one-wheeled bicycle and juggling balls. Miss Forcible skipped behind her, holding a basket of flowers. She scattered the flower petals across the stage as she went. They reached the front of the stage, and Miss Spink leaped nimbly off the unicycle, and the two old women bowed low.
All the dogs thumped their tails and barked enthusiastically. Coraline clapped politely.
Then they unbuttoned their fluffy round coats and opened them. But their coats weren’t all that opened: their faces opened, too, like empty shells, and out of the old empty fluffy round bodies stepped two young women. They were thin, and pale, and quite pretty, and had black button eyes.
The new Miss Spink was wearing green tights, and high brown boots that went most of the way up her legs. The new Miss Forcible wore a white dress and had flowers in her long yellow hair.
Coraline pressed back against her seat.
Miss Spink went off the stage, and the noise of trumpets squealed as the gramophone needle dug its way across the record, and was pulled off.
“This is my favorite bit,” whispered the little dog in the seat next to her.
The other Miss Forcible picked a knife out of a box on the corner of the stage. “Is this a dagger that I see before me?” she asked.
“Yes!” shouted all the little dogs. “It is!”
Miss Forcible curtsied, and all the dogs applauded again. Coraline didn’t bother clapping this time.
Miss Spink came back on. She slapped her thigh, and all the little dogs woofed.
“And now,” Miss Spink said, “Miriam and I proudly present a new and exciting addendum to our theatrical exposition. Do I see a volunteer?”
The little dog next to Coraline nudged her with its front paw. “That’s you,” it hissed.
Coraline stood up, and walked up the wooden steps to the stage.
“Can I have big round of applause for the young volunteer?” asked Miss Spink. The dogs woofed and squealed and thumped their tails on the velvet seats.
“Now Coraline,” said Miss Spink, “what’s your name?”
“Coraline,” said Coraline.
“And we don’t know each other, do we?”
Coraline looked at the thin young woman with black button eyes and shook her head slowly.
“Now,” said the other Miss Spink, “stand over here.” She led Coraline over to a board by the side of the stage, and put a balloon on top of Coraline’s head.
Miss Spink walked over to Miss Forcible. She blindfolded Miss Forcible’s button eyes with a black scarf, and put the knife into her hands. Then she turned her round three or four times and pointed her at Coraline. Coraline held her breath and squeezed her fingers into two tight fists.
Miss Forcible threw the knife at the balloon. It popped loudly, and the knife stuck into the board just above Coraline’s head and twanged there. Coraline breathed out.
The dogs went wild.
Miss Spink gave Coraline a very small box of chocolates and thanked her for being such a good sport. Coraline went back to her seat.
“You were very good,” said the little dog.
“Thank you,” said Coraline.
Miss Forcible and Miss Spink began juggling with huge wooden clubs. Coraline opened the box of chocolates. The dog looked at them longingly.
“Would you like one?” she asked the little dog.
“Yes, please,” whispered the dog. “Only not toffee ones. They make me drool.”
“I thought chocolates weren’t very good for dogs,” she said, remembering something Miss Forcible had once told her.
“Maybe where you come from,” whispered the little dog. “Here, it’s all we eat.”
Coraline couldn’t see what the chocolates were, in the dark. She took an experimental bite of one which turned out to be coconut. Coraline didn’t like coconut. She gave it to the dog.
“Thank you,” said the dog.
“You’re welcome,” said Coraline.
Miss Forcible and Miss Spink were doing some acting. Miss Forcible was sitting on a stepladder, and Miss Spink was standing at the bottom.
“What’s in a name?” asked Miss Forcible. “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
“Have you got any more chocolates?” said the dog.
Coraline gave the dog another chocolate.
“I know not how to tell thee who I am,” said Miss Spink to Miss Forcible.
“This bit finishes soon,” whispered the dog. “Then they start folk dancing.”
“How long does this go on for?” asked Coraline. “The theater?”
“All the time,” said the dog. “For ever and always.”
“Here,” said Coraline. “Keep the chocolates.”
“Thank you,” said the dog. Coraline stood up.
“See you soon,” said the dog.
“Bye,” said Coraline. She walked out of the theater and back into the garden. She had to blink her eyes at the daylight.
Her other parents were waiting for her in the garden, standing side by side. They were smiling.
“Did you have a nice time?” asked her other mother.
“It was interesting,” said Coraline.
The three of them walked back up to Coraline’s other house together. Coraline’s other mother stroked Coraline’s hair with her long white fingers. Coraline shook her head. “Don’t do that,” said Coraline.
Her other mother took her hand away.
“So,” said her other father. “Do you like it here?”
“I suppose,” said Coraline. “It’s much more interesting than at home.”
They went inside.
“I’m glad you like it,” said Coraline’s mother. “Because we’d like to think that this is your home. You can stay here for ever and always. If you want to.”
“Hmm,” said Coraline. She put her hand in her pockets, and thought about it. Her hand touched the stone that the real Misses Spink and Forcible had given her the day before, the stone with the hole in it.
“If you want to stay,” said her other father, “there’s only one little thing we’ll have to do, so you can stay here for ever and always.”
They went into the kitchen. On a china plate on the kitchen table was a spool of black cotton, and a long silver needle, and, beside them, two large black buttons.
“I don’t think so,” said Coraline.
“Oh, but we want you to,” said her other mother. “We want you to stay. And it’s just a little thing.”
“It won’t hurt,” said her other father.
Coraline knew that when grown-ups told you something wouldn’t hurt it almost always did. She shook her head.
Her other mother smiled brightly and the hair on her head drifted like plants under the sea. “We only want what’s best for you,” she said.
She put her hand on Coraline’s shoulder. Coraline backed away.
“I’m going now,” said Coraline. She put her hands in her pockets. Her fingers closed around the stone with the hole in it.
Her other mother’s hand scuttled off Coraline’s shoulder like a frightened spider.
“If that’s what you want,” she said.
“Yes,” said Coraline.
“We’ll see you soon, though,” said her other father. “When you come back.”
“Um,” said Coraline.
“And then we’ll all be together as one big happy family,” said her other mother. “For ever and always.”
Coraline backed away. She turned and hurried into the drawing room and pulled open the door in the corner. There was no brick wall there now—just darkness, a night-black underground darkness that seemed as if things in it might be moving.
Coraline hesitated. She turned back. Her other mother and her other father were walking toward her, holding hands. They were looking at her with their black button eyes. Or at least she thought they were looking at her. She couldn’t be sure.
Her other mother reached out her free hand and beckoned, gently, with one white finger. Her pale lips mouthed, “Come back soon,” although she said nothing aloud.
Coraline took a deep breath and stepped into the darkness, where strange voices whispered and distant winds howled. She became certain that there was something in the dark behind her: something very old and very slow. Her heart beat so hard and so loudly she was scared it would burst out of her chest. She closed her eyes against the dark.
Eventually she bumped into something, and opened her eyes, startled. She had bumped into an armchair, in her drawing room.
The open doorway behind her was blocked by rough red bricks.
She was home.
C ORALINE LOCKED THE DOOR of the drawing room with the cold black key.
She went back into the kitchen and climbed onto a chair. She tried to put the bunch of keys back on top of the doorframe again. She tried four or five times before she was forced to accept that she just wasn’t big enough, and she put them down on the counter next to the door.
Her mother still hadn’t returned from her shopping expedition.
Coraline went to the freezer and took out the spare loaf of frozen bread in the bottom compartment. She made herself some toast, with jam and peanut butter. She drank a glass of water.
She waited for her parents to come back.
When it began to get dark, Coraline microwaved herself a frozen pizza.
Then Coraline watched television. She wondered why grown-ups gave themselves all the good programs, with all the shouting and running around in.
After a while she started yawning. Then she undressed, brushed her teeth, and put herself to bed.
In the morning she went into her parents’ room, but their bed hadn’t been slept in, and they weren’t around. She ate canned spaghetti for breakfast.
For lunch she had a block of cooking chocolate and an apple. The apple was yellow and slightly shriveled, but it tasted sweet and good.
For tea she went down to see Misses Spink and Forcible. She had three digestive biscuits, a glass of limeade, and a cup of weak tea. The limeade was very interesting. It didn’t taste anything like limes. It tasted bright green and vaguely chemical. Coraline liked it enormously. She wished they had it at home.
“How are your dear mother and father?” asked Miss Spink.
“Missing,” said Coraline. “I haven’t seen either of them since yesterday. I’m on my own. I think I’ve probably become a single child family.”
“Tell your mother that we found the Glasgow Empire press clippings we were telling her about. She seemed very interested when Miriam mentioned them to her.”
“She’s vanished under mysterious circumstances,” said Coraline, “and I believe my father has as well.”
“I’m afraid we’ll be out all day tomorrow, Caroline, luvvy,” said Miss Forcible. “We’ll be staying over with April’s niece in Royal Tunbridge Wells.”
They showed Coraline a photographic album, with photographs of Miss Spink’s niece in it, and then Coraline went home.
She opened her money box and walked down to the supermarket. She bought two large bottles of limeade, a chocolate cake, and a new bag of apples, and went back home and ate them for dinner.
She cleaned her teeth, and went into her father’s office. She woke up his computer and wrote a story.
THERE WAS A GIRL HER NAME WAS APPLE. SHE USED TO DANCE A LOT. SHE DANCED AND DANCED UNTIL HER FEET TURND INTO SOSSAJES THE END.
She printed out the story and turned off the computer. Then she drew a picture of the little girl dancing underneath the words on the paper.
She ran herself a bath with too much bubble bath in it, and the bubbles ran over the side and went all over the floor. She dried herself, and the floor as best she could, and went to bed.
Coraline woke up in the night. She went into her parents’ bedroom, but the bed was made and empty. The glowing green numbers on the digital clock glowed 3:12 A.M.
All alone, in the middle of the night, Coraline began to cry. There was no other sound in the empty flat.
She climbed into her parents’ bed, and, after a while, she went to sleep.
Coraline was woken by cold paws batting her face. She opened her eyes. Big green eyes stared back at her. It was the cat.
“Hullo,” said Coraline. “How did you get in?”
The cat didn’t say anything. Coraline got out of bed. She was wearing a long T-shirt and pajama bottoms. “Have you come to tell me something?”
The cat yawned, which made its eyes flash green.
“Do you know where Mummy and Daddy are?”
The cat blinked at her, slowly.
“Is that a yes?”
The cat blinked again. Coraline decided that that was indeed a yes. “Will you take me to them?”
The cat stared at her. Then it walked out into the hall. She followed it. It walked the length of the corridor and stopped down at the very end, where a full-length mirror hung. The mirror had been, a long time before, the inside of a wardrobe door. It had been hanging there on the wall when they moved in, and, although Coraline’s mother had spoken occasionally of replacing it with something newer, she never had.
Coraline turned on the light in the hall.
The mirror showed the corridor behind her; that was only to be expected. But reflected in the mirror were her parents. They stood awkwardly in the reflection of the hall. They seemed sad and alone. As Coraline watched, they waved to her, slowly, with limp hands. Coraline’s father had his arm around her mother.
In the mirror Coraline’s mother and father stared at her. Her father opened his mouth and said something, but she could hear nothing at all. Her mother breathed on the inside of the mirror glass, and quickly, before the fog faded, she wrote
with the tip of her forefinger. The fog on the inside of the mirror faded, and so did her parents, and now the mirror reflected only the corridor, and Coraline, and the cat.
“Where are they?” Coraline asked the cat. The cat made no reply, but Coraline could imagine its voice, dry as a dead fly on a windowsill in winter, saying Well, where do you think they are?
“They aren’t going to come back, are they?” said Coraline. “Not under their own steam.”
The cat blinked at her. Coraline took it as a yes.
“Right,” said Coraline. “Then I suppose there is only one thing left to do.”
She walked into her father’s study. She sat down at his desk. Then she picked up the telephone, and she opened the phone book and telephoned the local police station.
“Police,” said a gruff male voice.
“Hello,” she said. “My name is Coraline Jones.”
“You’re up a bit after your bedtime, aren’t you, young lady?” said the policeman.
“Possibly,” said Coraline, who was not going to be diverted, “but I am ringing to report a crime.”
“And what sort of crime would that be?”
“Kidnapping. Grown-up-napping really. My parents have been stolen away into a world on the other side of the mirror in our hall.”
“And do you know who stole them?” asked the police officer. Coraline could hear the smile in his voice, and she tried extra hard to sound like an adult might sound, to make him take her seriously.
“I think my other mother has them both in her clutches. She may want to keep them and sew their eyes with black buttons, or she may simply have them in order to lure me back into reach of her fingers. I’m not sure.”
“Ah. The nefarious clutches of her fiendish fingers, is it?” he said. “Mm. You know what I suggest, Miss Jones?”
“No,” said Coraline. “What?”
“You ask your mother to make you a big old mug of hot chocolate, and then give you a great big old hug. There’s nothing like hot chocolate and a hug for making the nightmares go away. And if she starts to tell you off for waking her up at this time of night, why you tell her that that’s what the policeman said.” He had a deep, reassuring voice.
Coraline was not reassured.
“When I see her,” said Coraline, “I shall tell her that.” And she put down the telephone.
The black cat, who had sat on the floor, grooming his fur, through this entire conversation now stood up and led the way into the hall.
Coraline went back into her bedroom and put on her blue dressing gown and her slippers. She looked under the sink for a flashlight, and found one, but the batteries had long since run down, and it barely glowed with the faintest straw-colored light. She put it down again and found a box of in-case-of-emergency white wax candles, and thrust one into a candlestick. She put an apple into each pocket. She picked up the ring of keys and took the old black key off the ring.
She walked into the drawing room and looked at the door. She had the feeling that the door was looking at her, which she knew was silly, and knew on a deeper level was somehow true.
She went back into her bedroom, and rummaged in the pocket of her jeans. She found the stone with the hole in it, and put it into her dressing-gown pocket.
She lit the candlewick with a match and watched it sputter and light, then she picked up the black key. It was cold in her hand. She put it into the keyhole in the door, but did not turn the key.
“When I was a little girl,” said Coraline to the cat, “when we lived in our old house, a long, long time ago, my dad took me for a walk on the wasteland between our house and the shops.
“It wasn’t the best place to go for a walk, really. There were all these things that people had thrown away back there—old cookers and broken dishes and dolls with no arms and no legs and empty cans and broken bottles. Mum and Dad made me promise not to go exploring back there, because there were too many sharp things, and tetanus and such.
“But I kept telling them I wanted to explore it. So one day my dad put on his big brown boots and his gloves and put my boots on me and my jeans and sweater, and we went for a walk.
“We must have walked for about twenty minutes. We went down this hill, to the bottom of a gully where a stream was, when my dad suddenly said to me, “Coraline—run away. Up the hill. Now!” He said it in a tight sort of way, urgently, so I did. I ran away up the hill. Something hurt me on the back of my arm as I ran, but I kept running.
“As I got to the top of the hill I heard somebody thundering up the hill behind me. It was my dad, charging like a rhino. When he reached me he picked me up in his arms and swept me over the edge of the hill.
“And then we stopped and we puffed and we panted, and we looked back down the gully.
“The air was alive with yellow wasps. We must have stepped on a wasps’ nest in a rotten branch as we walked. And while I was running up the hill, my dad stayed and got stung, to give me time to run away. His glasses had fallen off when he ran.
“I only had the one sting on the back of my arm. He had thirty-nine stings, all over him. We counted later, in the bath.”
The black cat began to wash its face and whiskers in a manner that indicated increasing impatience. Coraline reached down and stroked the back of its head and neck. The cat stood up, walked several paces until it was out of her reach, then it sat down and looked up at her again.
“So,” said Coraline, “later that afternoon my dad went back again to the wasteland, to get his glasses back. He said if he left it another day he wouldn’t be able to remember where they’d fallen.
“And soon he got home, wearing his glasses. He said that he wasn’t scared when he was standing there and the wasps were stinging him and hurting him and he was watching me run away. Because he knew he had to give me enough time to run, or the wasps would have come after both of us.”
Coraline turned the key in the door. It turned with a loud clunk.
The door swung open.
There was no brick wall on the other side of the door: only darkness. A cold wind blew through the passageway.
Coraline made no move to walk through the door.
“And he said that wasn’t brave of him, doing that, just standing there and being stung,” said Coraline to the cat. “It wasn’t brave because he wasn’t scared: it was the only thing he could do. But going back again to get his glasses, when he knew the wasps were there, when he was really scared. That was brave.”