“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.”
“Well,” said Coraline to the thing that had once been her other father, “at least you didn’t jump out at me.”
The creature’s twiglike hands moved to its face and pushed the pale clay about, making something like a nose. It said nothing.
“I’m looking for my parents,” said Coraline. “Or a stolen soul from one of the other children. Are they down here?”
“There is nothing down here,” said the pale thing indistinctly. “Nothing but dust and damp and forgetting.” The thing was white, and huge, and swollen. Monstrous, thought Coraline, but also miserable. She raised the stone with the hole in it to her eye and looked through it. Nothing. The pale thing was telling her the truth.
“Poor thing,” she said. “I bet she made you come down here as a punishment for telling me too much.”
The thing hesitated, then it nodded. Coraline wondered how she could ever have imagined that this grublike thing resembled her father.
“I’m so sorry,” she said.
“She’s not best pleased,” said the thing that was once the other father. “Not best pleased at all. You’ve put her quite out of sorts. And when she gets out of sorts, she takes it out on everybody else. It’s her way.”