“I’m not running away,” said Coraline. “She has my parents. I came to get them back.”
“Ah, but she’ll keep you here while the days turn to dust and the leaves fall and the years pass one after the next like the tick-tick-ticking of a clock.”
“No,” said Coraline. “She won’t.”
There was silence then in the room behind the mirror.
“Peradventure,” said a voice in the darkness, “if you could win your mamma and your papa back from the beldam, you could also win free our souls.”
“Has she taken them?” asked Coraline, shocked.
“Aye. And hidden them.”
“That is why we could not leave here, when we died. She kept us, and she fed on us, until now we’ve nothing left of ourselves, only snakeskins and spider husks. Find our secret hearts, young mistress.”
“And what will happen to you if I do?” asked Coraline.
The voices said nothing.
“And what is she going to do to me?” she said.
The pale figures pulsed faintly; she could imagine that they were nothing more than afterimages, like the glow left by a bright light in your eyes, after the lights go out.
“It doth not hurt,” whispered one faint voice.
“She will take your life and all you are and all you care’st for, and she will leave you with nothing but mist and fog. She’ll take your joy. And one day you’ll awake and your heart and your soul will have gone. A husk you’ll be, a wisp you’ll be, and a thing no more than a dream on waking, or a memory of something forgotten.”
“Hollow,” whispered the third voice. “Hollow, hollow, hollow, hollow, hollow.”
“You must flee,” sighed a voice faintly.
“I don’t think so,” said Coraline. “I tried running away, and it didn’t work. She just took my parents. Can you tell me how to get out of this room?”
“If we knew then we would tell you.”
“Poor things,” said Coraline to herself.
She sat down. She took off her sweater and rolled it up and put it behind her head as a pillow. “She won’t keep me in the dark forever,” said Coraline. “She brought me here to play games. Games and challenges, the cat said. I’m not much of a challenge here in the dark.” She tried to get comfortable, twisting and bending herself to fit the cramped space behind the mirror.
Her stomach rumbled. She ate her last apple, taking the tiniest bites, making it last as long as she could. When she had finished she was still hungry.
Then an idea struck her, and she whispered, “When she comes to let me out, why don’t you three come with me?”
“We wish that we could,” they sighed to her, in their barely-there voices. “But she has our hearts in her keeping. Now we belong to the dark and to the empty places. The light would shrivel us, and burn.”
“Oh,” said Coraline.
She closed her eyes, which made the darkness darker, and she rested her head on the rolled-up sweater, and she went to sleep. And as she fell asleep she thought she felt a ghost kiss her cheek, tenderly, and a small voice whisper into her ear, a voice so faint it was barely there at all, a gentle wispy nothing of a voice so hushed that Coraline could almost believe she was imagining it. “Look through the stone,” it said to her.
And then she slept.
T HE OTHER MOTHER looked healthier than before: there was a little blush to her cheeks, and her hair was wriggling like lazy snakes on a warm day. Her black button eyes seemed as if they had been freshly polished.
She had pushed through the mirror as if she were walking through nothing more solid than water and had stared down at Coraline. Then she had opened the door with the little silver key. She picked Coraline up, just as Coraline’s real mother had when Coraline was much younger, cradling the half-sleeping child as if she were a baby.
The other mother carried Coraline into the kitchen and put her down very gently upon the countertop.
Coraline struggled to wake herself up, conscious only for the moment of having been cuddled and loved, and wanting more of it, then realizing where she was and who she was with.
“There, my sweet Coraline,” said her other mother. “I came and fetched you out of the cupboard. You needed to be taught a lesson, but we temper our justice with mercy here; we love the sinner and we hate the sin. Now, if you will be a good child who loves her mother, be compliant and fair-spoken, you and I shall understand each other perfectly and we shall love each other perfectly as well.”
Coraline scratched the sleep grit from her eyes.
“There were other children in there,” she said. “Old ones, from a long time ago.”
“Were there?” said the other mother. She was bustling between the pans and the fridge, bringing out eggs and cheeses, butter and a slab of sliced pink bacon.
“Yes,” said Coraline. “There were. I think you’re planning to turn me into one of them. A dead shell.”
Her other mother smiled gently. With one hand she cracked the eggs into a bowl; with the other she whisked them and whirled them. Then she dropped a pat of butter into a frying pan, where it hissed and fizzled and spun as she sliced thin slices of cheese. She poured the melted butter and the cheese into the egg-mixture, and whisked it some more.
“Now, I think you’re being silly, dear,” said the other mother. “I love you. I will always love you. Nobody sensible believes in ghosts anyway—that’s because they’re all such liars. Smell the lovely breakfast I’m making for you.” She poured the yellow mixture into the pan. “Cheese omelette. Your favorite.”
Coraline’s mouth watered. “You like games,” she said. “That’s what I’ve been told.”
The other mother’s black eyes flashed. “Everybody likes games,” was all she said.
“Yes,” said Coraline. She climbed down from the counter and sat at the table.
The bacon was sizzling and spitting under the grill. It smelled wonderful.
“Wouldn’t you be happier if you won me, fair and square?” asked Coraline.
“Possibly,” said the other mother. She had a show of unconcernedness, but her fingers twitched and drummed and she licked her lips with her scarlet tongue. “What exactly are you offering?”
“Me,” said Coraline, and she gripped her knees under the table, to stop them from shaking. “If I lose I’ll stay here with you forever and I’ll let you love me. I’ll be a most dutiful daughter. I’ll eat your food and play Happy Families. And I’ll let you sew your buttons into my eyes.”
Her other mother stared at her, black buttons unblinking. “That sounds very fine,” she said. “And if you do not lose?”
“Then you let me go. You let everyone go—my real father and mother, the dead children, everyone you’ve trapped here.”
The other mother took the bacon from under the grill and put it on a plate. Then she slipped the cheese omelette from the pan onto the plate, flipping it as she did so, letting it fold itself into a perfect omelette shape.
She placed the breakfast plate in front of Coraline, along with a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice and a mug of frothy hot chocolate.
“Yes,” she said. “I think I like this game. But what kind of game shall it be? A riddle game? A test of knowledge or of skill?
“And what is it you think you should be finding in this hide-and-go-seek game, Coraline Jones?”
Coraline hesitated. Then, “My parents,” said Coraline. “And the souls of the children behind the mirror.”
The other mother smiled at this, triumphantly, and Coraline wondered if she had made the right choice. Still, it was too late to change her mind now.
“A deal,” said the other mother. “Now eat up your breakfast, my sweet. Don’t worry—it won’t hurt you.”
Coraline stared at the breakfast, hating herself for giving in so easily, but she was starving.
“How do I know you’ll keep your word?” asked Coraline.
“I swear it,” said the other mother. “I swear it on my own mother’s grave.”
“Does she have a grave?” asked Coraline.
“Oh yes,” said the other mother. “I put her in there myself. And when I found her trying to crawl out, I put her back.”
“Swear on something else. So I can trust you to keep your word.”
“My right hand,” said the other mother, holding it up. She waggled the long fingers slowly, displaying the clawlike nails. “I swear on that.”
Coraline shrugged. “Okay,” she said. “It’s a deal.” She ate the breakfast, trying not to wolf it down. She was hungrier than she had thought.
As she ate, her other mother stared at her. It was hard to read expressions into those black button eyes, but Coraline thought that her other mother looked hungry, too.
She drank the orange juice, but even though she knew she would like it she could not bring herself to taste the hot chocolate.
“Where should I start looking?” asked Coraline.
“Where you wish,” said her other mother, as if she did not care at all.
Coraline looked at her, and Coraline thought hard. There was no point, she decided, in exploring the garden and the grounds: they didn’t exist; they weren’t real. There was no abandoned tennis court in the other mother’s world, no bottomless well. All that was real was the house itself.
She looked around the kitchen. She opened the oven, peered into the freezer, poked into the salad compartment of the fridge. The other mother followed her about, looking at Coraline with a smirk always hovering at the edge of her lips.
“How big are souls anyway?” asked Coraline.
The other mother sat down at the kitchen table and leaned back against the wall, saying nothing. She picked at her teeth with a long crimson-varnished fingernail, then she tapped the finger, gently, tap-tap-tap against the polished black surface of her black button eyes.
“Fine,” said Coraline. “Don’t tell me. I don’t care. It doesn’t matter if you help me or not. Everyone knows that a soul is the same size as a beach ball.”
She was hoping the other mother would say something like “Nonsense, they’re the size of ripe onions—or suitcases—or grandfather clocks,” but the other mother simply smiled, and the tap-tap-tapping of her fingernail against her eye was as steady and relentless as the drip of water droplets from the faucet into the sink. And then, Coraline realized, it was simply the noise of the water, and she was alone in the room.
Coraline shivered. She preferred the other mother to have a location: if she were nowhere, then she could be anywhere. And, after all, it is always easier to be afraid of something you cannot see. She put her hands into her pockets and her fingers closed around the reassuring shape of the stone with the hole in it. She pulled it out of her pocket, held it in front of her as if she were holding a gun, and walked out into the hall.
There was no sound but the tap-tap of the water dripping into the metal sink.
She glanced at the mirror at the end of the hall. For a moment it clouded over, and it seemed to her that faces swam in the glass, indistinct and shapeless, and then the faces were gone, and there was nothing in the mirror but a girl who was small for her age holding something that glowed gently, like a green coal.
Coraline looked down at her hand, surprised: it was just a stone with a hole in it, a nondescript brown pebble. Then she looked back into the mirror where the stone glimmered like an emerald. A trail of green fire blew from the pebble in the mirror and drifted toward Coraline’s bedroom.
“Hmm,” said Coraline.
She walked into the bedroom. The toys fluttered excitedly as she walked in, as if they were pleased to see her, and a little tank rolled out of the toy box to greet her, its tread rolling over several other toys. It fell from the toy box onto the floor, tipping as it fell, and it lay on the carpet like a beetle on its back, grumbling and grinding its treads before Coraline picked it up and turned it over. The tank fled under the bed in embarrassment.
Coraline looked around the room.
She looked in the cupboards, and the drawers. Then she picked up one end of the toy box and tipped all the toys in it out onto the carpet, where they grumbled and stretched and wiggled awkwardly free of each other. A gray marble rolled across the floor and clicked against the wall. None of the toys looked particularly soul-like, she thought. She picked up and examined a silver charm bracelet from which hung tiny animal charms that chased each other around the perimeter of the bracelet, the fox never catching the rabbit, the bear never gaining on the fox.
Coraline opened her hand and looked at the stone with the hole in it, hoping for a clue but not finding one. Most of the toys that had been in the toy box had now crawled away to hide under the bed, and the few toys that were left (a green plastic soldier, the glass marble, a vivid pink yo-yo, and such) were the kind of things you find in the bottoms of toy boxes in the real world: forgotten objects, abandoned and unloved.
She was about to leave and look elsewhere. And then she remembered a voice in the darkness, a gentle whispering voice, and what it had told her to do. She raised the stone with a hole in it and held it in front of her right eye. She closed her left eye and looked at the room through the hole in the stone.
Through the stone, the world was gray and colorless, like a pencil drawing. Everything in it was gray—no, not quite everything: something glinted on the floor, something the color of an ember in a nursery fireplace, the color of a scarlet-and-orange tulip nodding in the May sun. Coraline reached out her left hand, scared that if she took her eye off it it would vanish, and she fumbled for the burning thing.
Her fingers closed about something smooth and cool. She snatched it up, and then lowered the stone with a hole in it from her eye and looked down. The gray glass marble from the bottom of the toy box sat, dully, in the pink palm of her hand. She raised the stone to her eye once more and looked through it at the marble. Once again the marble burned and flickered with a red fire.
A voice whispered in her mind, “Indeed, lady, it comes to me that I certainly was a boy, now I do think on it. Oh, but you must hurry. There are two of us still to find, and the beldam is already angry with you for uncovering me.”
If I’m going to do this, thought Coraline, I’m not going to do it in her clothes. She changed back into her pajamas and her dressing gown and her slippers, leaving the gray sweater and the black jeans neatly folded up on the bed, the orange boots on the floor by the toy box.
She put the marble into her dressing-gown pocket and walked out into the hall.
Something stung her face and hands like sand blowing on a beach on a windy day. She covered her eyes and pushed forward.
The sand stings got worse, and it got harder and harder to walk, as if she were pushing into the wind on a particularly blustery day. It was a vicious wind, and a cold one.
She took a step backwards, the way she had come.
“Oh, keep going,” whispered a ghost voice in her ear, “for the beldam is angry.”
She stepped forward in the hallway, into another gust of wind, which stung her cheeks and face with invisible sand, sharp as needles, sharp as glass.
“Play fair,” shouted Coraline into the wind.
There was no reply, but the wind whipped about her one more time, petulantly, and then it dropped away, and was gone. As she passed the kitchen Coraline could hear, in the sudden silence, the drip-drip of the water from the leaking tap or perhaps the other mother’s long fingernails tapping impatiently against the table. Coraline resisted the urge to look.
In a couple of strides she reached the front door, and she walked outside.
Coraline went down the steps and around the house until she reached the other Miss Spink and Miss Forcible’s flat. The lamps around the door were flickering on and off almost randomly now, spelling out no words that Coraline could understand. The door was closed. She was afraid it was locked, and she pushed on it with all her strength. First it stuck, then suddenly it gave, and, with a jerk, Coraline stumbled into the dark room beyond.
Coraline closed one hand around the stone with the hole in it and walked forward into blackness. She expected to find a curtained anteroom, but there was nothing there. The room was dark. The theater was empty. She moved ahead cautiously. Something rustled above her. She looked up into a deeper darkness, and as she did so her feet knocked against something. She reached down, picked up a flashlight, and clicked it on, sweeping the beam around the room.
The theater was derelict and abandoned. Chairs were broken on the floor, and old, dusty spiderwebs draped the walls and hung from the rotten wood and the decomposing velvet hangings.
Something rustled once again. Coraline directed her light beam upward, toward the ceiling. There were things up there, hairless, jellyish. She thought they might once have had faces, might even once have been dogs; but no dogs had wings like bats or could hang, like spiders, like bats, upside down.
The light startled the creatures, and one of them took to the air, its wings whirring heavily through the dust. Coraline ducked as it swooped close to her. It came to rest on a far wall, and it began to clamber, upside down, back to the nest of the dog-bats upon the ceiling.
Coraline raised the stone to her eye and she scanned the room through it, looking for something that glowed or glinted, a telltale sign that somewhere in this room was another hidden soul. She ran the beam of the flashlight about the room as she searched, the thick dust in the air making the light beam seem almost solid.
There was something up on the back wall behind the ruined stage. It was grayish white, twice the size of Coraline herself, and it was stuck to the back wall like a slug. Coraline took a deep breath. “I’m not afraid,” she told herself. “I’m not.” She did not believe herself, but she scrambled up onto the old stage, fingers sinking into the rotting wood as she pulled herself up.
As she got closer to the thing on the wall, she saw that it was some kind of a sac, like a spider’s egg case. It twitched in the light beam. Inside the sac was something that looked like a person, but a person with two heads, with twice as many arms and legs as it should have.
The creature in the sac seemed horribly unformed and unfinished, as if two plasticine people had been warmed and rolled together, squashed and pressed into one thing.
Coraline hesitated. She did not want to approach the thing. The dog-bats dropped, one by one, from the ceiling and began to circle the room, coming close to her but never touching her.
Perhaps there are no souls hidden in here, she thought. Perhaps I can just leave and go somewhere else. She took a last look through the hole in the stone: the abandoned theater was still a bleak gray, but now there was a brown glow, as rich and bright as polished cherrywood, coming from inside the sac. Whatever was glowing was being held in one of the hands of the thing on the wall.
Coraline walked slowly across the damp stage, trying to make as little noise as she could, afraid that, if she disturbed the thing in the sac, it would open its eyes, and see her, and then . . .
But there was nothing that she could think of as scary as having it look at her. Her heart pounded in her chest. She took another step forward.
She had never been so scared, but still she walked forward until she reached the sac. Then she pushed her hand into the sticky, clinging whiteness of the stuff on the wall. It crackled softly, like a tiny fire, as she pushed, and it clung to her skin and clothes like a spiderweb clings, like white cotton candy. She pushed her hand into it, and she reached upward until she touched a cold hand, which was, she could feel, closed around another glass marble. The creature’s skin felt slippery, as if it had been covered in jelly. Coraline tugged at the marble.
At first nothing happened: it was held tight in the creature’s grasp. Then, one by one, the fingers loosened their grip, and the marble slipped into her hand. She pulled her arm back through the sticky webbing, relieved that the thing’s eyes had not opened. She shone the light on its faces: they resembled, she decided, the younger versions of Miss Spink and Miss Forcible, but twisted and squeezed together, like two lumps of wax that had melted and melded together into one ghastly thing.
Without warning, one of the creature’s hands made a grab for Coraline’s arm. Its fingernails scraped her skin, but it was too slippery to grip, and Coraline pulled away successfully. And then the eyes opened, four black buttons glinting and staring down at her, and two voices that sounded like no voice that Coraline had ever heard began to speak to her. One of them wailed and whispered, the other buzzed like a fat and angry bluebottle at a windowpane, but the voices said, as one person, “Thief! Give it back! Stop! Thief!”
The air became alive with dog-bats. Coraline began to back away. She realized then that, terrifying though the thing on the wall that had once been the other Misses Spink and Forcible was, it was attached to the wall by its web, encased in its cocoon. It could not follow her.
The dog-bats flapped and fluttered about her, but they did nothing to hurt Coraline. She climbed down from the stage, shone the flashlight about the old theater looking for the way out.
“Flee, Miss,” wailed a girl’s voice in her head. “Flee, now. You have two of us. Flee this place while your blood still flows.”
Coraline dropped the marble into her pocket beside the other. She spotted the door, ran to it, and pulled on it until it opened.
O UTSIDE, THE WORLD HAD become a formless, swirling mist with no shapes or shadows behind it, while the house itself seemed to have twisted and stretched. It seemed to Coraline that it was crouching, and staring down at her, as if it were not really a house but only the idea of a house—and the person who had had the idea, she was certain, was not a good person. There was sticky web stuff clinging to her arm, and she wiped it off as best she could. The gray windows of the house slanted at strange angles.
The other mother was waiting for her, standing on the grass with her arms folded. Her black button eyes were expressionless, but her lips were pressed tightly together in a cold fury.
When she saw Coraline she reached out one long white hand, and she crooked a finger. Coraline walked toward her. The other mother said nothing.
“I got two,” said Coraline. “One soul still to go.”
The expression on the other mother’s face did not change. She might not have heard what Coraline said.
“Well, I just thought you’d want to know,” said Coraline.
“Thank you, Coraline,” said the other mother coldly, and her voice did not just come from her mouth. It came from the mist, and the fog, and the house, and the sky. She said, “You know that I love you.”
And, despite herself, Coraline nodded. It was true: the other mother loved her. But she loved Coraline as a miser loves money, or a dragon loves its gold. In the other mother’s button eyes, Coraline knew that she was a possession, nothing more. A tolerated pet, whose behavior was no longer amusing.
“I don’t want your love,” said Coraline. “I don’t want anything from you.”
“Not even a helping hand?” asked the other mother. “You have been doing so well, after all. I thought you might want a little hint, to help you with the rest of your treasure hunt.”
“I’m doing fine on my own,” said Coraline.
“Yes,” said the other mother. “But if you wanted to get into the flat in the front—the empty one—to look around, you would find the door locked, and then where would you be?”
“Oh,” Coraline pondered this, for a moment. Then she said, “Is there a key?”
The other mother stood there in the paper-gray fog of the flattening world. Her black hair drifted about her head, as if it had a mind and a purpose all of its own. She coughed suddenly in the back of her throat, and then she opened her mouth.
The other mother reached up her hand and removed a small, brass front-door key from her tongue.
“Here,” she said. “You’ll need this to get in.”
She tossed the key, casually, toward Coraline, who caught it, one-handed, before she could think about whether she wanted it or not. The key was still slightly damp.
A chill wind blew about them, and Coraline shivered and looked away. When she looked back she was alone.
Uncertainly, she walked around to the front of the house and stood in front of the door to the empty flat. Like all the doors, it was painted bright green.
“She does not mean you well,” whispered a ghost voice in her ear. “We do not believe that she would help you. It must be a trick.”
Coraline said, “Yes, you’re right, I expect.” Then she put the key in the lock and turned it.
Silently, the door swung open, and silently Coraline walked inside.
The flat had walls the color of old milk. The wooden boards of the floor were uncarpeted and dusty with the marks and patterns of old carpets and rugs on them.
There was no furniture in there, only places where furniture had once been. Nothing decorated the walls; there were discolored rectangles on the walls to show where paintings or photographs had once hung. It was so silent that Coraline imagined that she could hear the motes of dust drifting through the air.
She found herself to be quite worried that something would jump out at her, so she began to whistle. She thought it might make it harder for things to jump out at her if she was whistling.
First she walked through the empty kitchen. Then she walked through an empty bathroom, containing only a cast-iron bath, and, in the bath, a dead spider the size of a small cat. The last room she looked at had, she supposed, once been a bedroom; she could imagine that the rectangular dust shadow on the floorboards had once been a bed. Then she saw something, and smiled, grimly. Set into the floorboards was a large metal ring. Coraline knelt and took the cold ring in her hands, and she tugged upward as hard as she could.
Terribly slowly, stiffly, heavily, a hinged square of floor lifted: it was a trapdoor. It lifted, and through the opening Coraline could see only darkness. She reached down, and her hand found a cold switch. She flicked it without much hope that it would work, but somewhere below her a bulb lit, and a thin yellow light came up from the hole in the floor. She could see steps, heading down, but nothing else.
Coraline put her hand into her pocket and took out the stone with the hole in it. She looked through it at the cellar but saw nothing. She put the stone back into her pocket.
Up through the hole came the smell of damp clay, and something else, an acrid tang like sour vinegar.
Coraline let herself down into the hole, looking nervously at the trapdoor. It was so heavy that if it fell she was sure she would be trapped down in the darkness forever. She put up a hand and touched it, but it stayed in position. And then she turned toward the darkness below, and she walked down the steps. Set into the wall at the bottom of the steps was another light switch, metal and rusting. She pushed it until it clicked down, and a naked bulb hanging from a wire from the low ceiling came on. It did not give up enough light even for Coraline to make out the things that had been painted onto the flaking cellar walls. The paintings seemed crude. There were eyes, she could see that, and things that might have been grapes. And other things, below them. Coraline could not be sure that they were paintings of people.
There was a pile of rubbish in one corner of the room: cardboard boxes filled with mildewed papers and decaying curtains in a heap beside them.
Coraline’s slippers crunched across the cement floor. The bad smell was worse, now. She was ready to turn and leave, when she saw the foot sticking out from beneath the pile of curtains.
She took a deep breath (the smells of sour wine and moldy bread filled her head) and she pulled away the damp cloth, to reveal something more or less the size and shape of a person.
In that dim light, it took her several seconds to recognize it for what it was: the thing was pale and swollen like a grub, with thin, sticklike arms and feet. It had almost no features on its face, which had puffed and swollen like risen bread dough.
The thing had two large black buttons where its eyes should have been.
Coraline made a noise, a sound of revulsion and horror, and, as if it had heard her and awakened, the thing began to sit up. Coraline stood there, frozen. The thing turned its head until both its black button eyes were pointed straight at her. A mouth opened in the mouthless face, strands of pale stuff sticking to the lips, and a voice that no longer even faintly resembled her father’s whispered, “Coraline.”