Coraline patted its hairless head. Its skin was tacky, like warm bread dough. “Poor thing,” she said. “You’re just a thing she made and then threw away.”
The thing nodded vigorously; as it nodded, the left button eye fell off and clattered onto the concrete floor. The thing looked around vacantly with its one eye, as if it had lost her. Finally it saw her, and, as if making a great effort, it opened its mouth once more and said in a wet, urgent voice, “Run, child. Leave this place. She wants me to hurt you, to keep you here forever, so that you can never finish the game and she will win. She is pushing me so hard to hurt you. I cannot fight her.”
“You can,” said Coraline. “Be brave.”
She looked around: the thing that had once been the other father was between her and the steps up and out of the cellar. She started edging along the wall, heading toward the steps. The thing twisted bonelessly until its one eye was again facing her. It seemed to be getting bigger, now, and more awake. “Alas,” it said, “I cannot.”
And it lunged across the cellar toward her then, its toothless mouth opened wide.
Coraline had a single heartbeat in which to react. She could only think of two things to do. Either she could scream and try to run away, and be chased around a badly lit cellar by the huge grub thing, be chased until it caught her. Or she could do something else.
So she did something else.
As the thing reached her, Coraline put out her hand and closed it around the thing’s remaining button eye, and she tugged as hard as she knew how.
For a moment nothing happened. Then the button came away and flew from her hand, clicking against the walls before it fell to the cellar floor.
The thing froze in place. It threw its pale head back blindly, and opened its mouth horribly wide, and it roared its anger and frustration. Then, all in a rush, the thing swept toward the place where Coraline had been standing.
But Coraline was not standing there any longer. She was already tiptoeing, as quietly as she could, up the steps that would take her away from the dim cellar with the crude paintings on the walls. She could not take her eyes from the floor beneath her, though, across which the pale thing flopped and writhed, hunting for her. Then, as if it was being told what to do, the creature stopped moving, and its blind head tipped to one side.
It’s listening for me, thought Coraline. I must be extra quiet. She took another step up, and her foot slipped on the step, and the thing heard her.
Its head tipped toward her. For a moment it swayed and seemed to be gathering its wits. Then, fast as a serpent, it slithered for the steps and began to flow up them, toward her. Coraline turned and ran, wildly, up the last half dozen steps, and she pushed herself up and onto the floor of the dusty bedroom. Without pausing, she pulled the heavy trapdoor toward her, and let go of it. It crashed down with a thump just as something large banged against it. The trapdoor shook and rattled in the floor, but it stayed where it was.
Coraline took a deep breath. If there had been any furniture in that flat, even a chair, she would have pulled it onto the trapdoor, but there was nothing.
She walked out of that flat as fast as she could, without actually ever running, and she locked the front door behind her. She left the door key under the mat. Then she walked down onto the drive.
She had half expected that the other mother would be standing there waiting for Coraline to come out, but the world was silent and empty.
Coraline wanted to go home.
She hugged herself, and told herself that she was brave, and she almost believed herself, and then she walked around to the side of the house, in the gray mist that wasn’t a mist, and she made for the stairs, to go up.
CORALINE WALKED UP THE stairs outside the building to the topmost flat, where, in her world, the crazy old man upstairs lived. She had gone up there once with her real mother, when her mother was collecting for charity. They had stood in the open doorway, waiting for the crazy old man with the big mustache to find the envelope that Coraline’s mother had left, and the flat had smelled of strange foods and pipe tobacco and odd, sharp, cheesy-smelling things Coraline could not name. She had not wanted to go any farther inside than that.
“I’m an explorer,” said Coraline out loud, but her words sounded muffled and dead on the misty air. She had made it out of the cellar, hadn’t she?
And she had. But if there was one thing that Coraline was certain of, it was that this flat would be worse.
She reached the top of the house. The topmost flat had once been the attic of the house, but that was long ago.
She knocked on the green-painted door. It swung open, and she walked in.
We have eyes and we have nerveses
We have tails we have teeth
You’ll all get what you deserveses
When we rise from underneath.
whispered a dozen or more tiny voices, in that dark flat with the roof so low where it met the walls that Coraline could almost reach up and touch it.
Red eyes stared at her. Little pink feet scurried away as she came close. Darker shadows slipped through the shadows at the edges of things.
It smelled much worse in here than in the real crazy old man upstairs’s flat. That smelled of food (unpleasant food, to Coraline’s mind, but she knew that was a matter of taste: she did not like spices, herbs, or exotic things). This place smelled as if all the exotic foods in the world had been left out to go rotten.
“Little girl,” said a rustling voice in a far room.
“Yes,” said Coraline. I’m not frightened, she told herself, and as she thought it she knew that it was true. There was nothing here that frightened her. These things—even the thing in the cellar—were illusions, things made by the other mother in a ghastly parody of the real people and real things on the other end of the corridor. She could not truly make anything, decided Coraline. She could only twist and copy and distort things that already existed.
And then Coraline found herself wondering why the other mother would have placed a snowglobe on the drawing-room mantelpiece; for the mantelpiece, in Coraline’s world, was quite bare.
As soon as she had asked herself the question, she realized that there was actually an answer.
Then the voice came again, and her train of thought was interrupted.
“Come here, little girl. I know what you want, little girl.” It was a rustling voice, scratchy and dry. It made Coraline think of some kind of enormous dead insect. Which was silly, she knew. How could a dead thing, especially a dead insect, have a voice?
She walked through several rooms with low, slanting ceilings until she came to the final room. It was a bedroom, and the other crazy old man upstairs sat at the far end of the room, in the near darkness, bundled up in his coat and hat. As Coraline entered he began to talk. “Nothing’s changed, little girl,” he said, his voice sounding like the noise dry leaves make as they rustle across a pavement. “And what if you do everything you swore you would? What then? Nothing’s changed. You’ll go home. You’ll be bored. You’ll be ignored. No one will listen to you, not really listen to you. You’re too clever and too quiet for them to understand. They don’t even get your name right.