“The other mother. She plans to break her promise. She won’t let us go,” said Coraline.
“I wouldn’t put it past her,” admitted the cat. “Like I said, there’s no guarantee she’ll play fair.” And then he raised his head. “Hullo . . . did you see that?”
“Look behind you,” said the cat.
The house had flattened out even more. It no longer looked like a photograph—more like a drawing, a crude, charcoal scribble of a house drawn on gray paper.
“Whatever’s happening,” said Coraline, “thank you for helping with the rat. I suppose I’m almost there, aren’t I? So you go off into the mist or wherever you go, and I’ll, well, I hope I get to see you at home. If she lets me go home.”
The cat’s fur was on end, and its tail was bristling like a chimney sweep’s brush.
“What’s wrong?” asked Coraline.
“They’ve gone,” said the cat. “They aren’t there anymore. The ways in and out of this place. They just went flat.”
“Is that bad?”
The cat lowered its tail, swishing it from side to side angrily. It made a low growling noise in the back of its throat. It walked in a circle, until it was facing away from Coraline, and then it began to walk backwards, stiffly, one step at a time, until it was pushing up against Coraline’s leg. She put down a hand to stroke it, and could feel how hard its heart was beating. It was trembling like a dead leaf in a storm.
“You’ll be fine,” said Coraline. “Everything’s going to be fine. I’ll take you home.”
The cat said nothing.
“Come on, cat,” said Coraline. She took a step back toward the steps, but the cat stayed where it was, looking miserable and, oddly, much smaller.
“If the only way out is past her,” said Coraline, “then that’s the way we’re going to go.” She went back to the cat, bent down, and picked it up. The cat did not resist. It simply trembled. She supported its bottom with one hand, rested its front legs on her shoulders. The cat was heavy but not too heavy to carry. It licked at the palm of her hand, where the blood from the scrape was welling up.
Coraline walked up the stairs one step at a time, heading back to her own flat. She was aware of the marbles clicking in her pocket, aware of the stone with a hole in it, aware of the cat pressing itself against her.
She got to her front door—now just a small child’s scrawl of a door—and she pushed her hand against it, half expecting that her hand would rip through it, revealing nothing behind it but blackness and a scattering of stars.
But the door swung open, and Coraline went through.
ONCE INSIDE, IN HER FLAT, or rather, in the flat that was not hers, Coraline was pleased to see that it had not transformed into the empty drawing that the rest of the house seemed to have become. It had depth, and shadows, and someone who stood in the shadows waiting for Coraline to return.
“So you’re back,” said the other mother. She did not sound pleased. “And you brought vermin with you.”
“No,” said Coraline. “I brought a friend,” She could feel the cat stiffening under her hands, as if it were anxious to be away. Coraline wanted to hold on to it like a teddy bear, for reassurance, but she knew that cats hate to be squeezed, and she suspected that frightened cats were liable to bite and scratch if provoked in any way, even if they were on your side.
“You know I love you,” said the other mother flatly.
“You have a very funny way of showing it,” said Coraline. She walked down the hallway, then turned into the drawing room, steady step by steady step, pretending that she could not feel the other mother’s blank black eyes on her back. Her grandmother’s formal furniture was still there, and the painting on the wall of the strange fruit (but now the fruit in the painting had been eaten, and all that remained in the bowl was the browning core of an apple, several plum and peach stones, and the stem of what had formerly been a bunch of grapes). The lion-pawed table raked the carpet with its clawed wooden feet, as if it were impatient for something. At the end of the room, in the corner, stood the wooden door, which had once, in another place, opened onto a plain brick wall. Coraline tried not to stare at it. The window showed nothing but mist.
This was it, Coraline knew. The moment of truth. The unraveling time.
The other mother had followed her in. Now she stood in the center of the room, between Coraline and the mantelpiece, and looked down at Coraline with black button eyes. It was funny, Coraline thought. The other mother did not look anything at all like her own mother. She wondered how she had ever been deceived into imagining a resemblance. The other mother was huge—her head almost brushed the ceiling—and very pale, the color of a spider’s belly. Her hair writhed and twined about her head, and her teeth were sharp as knives. . . .
“Well?” said the other mother sharply. “Where are they?”
Coraline leaned against an armchair, adjusted the cat with her left hand, put her right hand into her pocket, and pulled out the three glass marbles. They were a frosted gray, and they clinked together in the palm of her hand. The other mother reached her white fingers for them, but Coraline slipped them back into her pocket. She knew it was true, then. The other mother had no intention of letting her go or of keeping her word. It had been an entertainment, and nothing more. “Hold on,” she said. “We aren’t finished yet, are we?”
The other mother looked daggers, but she smiled sweetly. “No,” she said. “I suppose not. After all, you still need to find your parents, don’t you?”
“Yes,” said Coraline. I must not look at the mantelpiece, she thought. I must not even think about it.
“Well?” said the other mother. “Produce them. Would you like to look in the cellar again? I have some other interesting things hidden down there, you know.”
“No,” said Coraline. “I know where my parents are.” The cat was heavy in her arms. She moved it forward, unhooking its claws from her shoulder as she did so.
“It stands to reason,” said Coraline. “I’ve looked everywhere you’d hide them. They aren’t in the house.”
The other mother stood very still, giving nothing away, lips tightly closed. She might have been a wax statue. Even her hair had stopped moving.
“So,” Coraline continued, both hands wrapped firmly around the black cat. “I know where they have to be. You’ve hidden them in the passageway between the houses, haven’t you? They are behind that door.” She nodded her head toward the door in the corner.