“No,” said Coraline. “Why do you do it? You’re torturing it.”
“Mm,” said the cat. It let the rat go.
The rat stumbled, dazed, for a few steps, then it began to run. With a blow of its paw, the cat knocked the rat into the air, and caught it in its mouth.
“Stop it!” said Coraline.
The cat dropped the rat between its two front paws. “There are those,” it said with a sigh, in tones as smooth as oiled silk, “who have suggested that the tendency of a cat to play with its prey is a merciful one—after all, it permits the occasional funny little running snack to escape, from time to time. How often does your dinner get to escape?”
And then it picked the rat up in its mouth and carried it off into the woods, behind a tree.
Coraline walked back into the house.
All was quiet and empty and deserted. Even her footsteps on the carpeted floor seemed loud. Dust motes hung in a beam of sunlight.
At the far end of the hall was the mirror. She could see herself walking toward the mirror, looking, reflected, a little braver than she actually felt. There was nothing else there in the mirror. Just her, in the corridor.
A hand touched her shoulder, and she looked up. The other mother stared down at Coraline with big black button eyes.
“Coraline, my darling,” she said. “I thought we could play some games together this morning, now you’re back from your walk. Hopscotch? Happy Families? Monopoly?”
“You weren’t in the mirror,” said Coraline.
The other mother smiled. “Mirrors,” she said, “are never to be trusted. Now, what game shall we play?”
Coraline shook her head. “I don’t want to play with you,” she said. “I want to go home and be with my real parents. I want you to let them go. To let us all go.”
The other mother shook her head, very slowly. “Sharper than a serpent’s tooth,” she said, “is a daughter’s ingratitude. Still, the proudest spirit can be broken, with love.” And her long white fingers waggled and caressed the air.
“I have no plans to love you,” said Coraline. “No matter what. You can’t make me love you.”
“Let’s talk about it,” said the other mother, and she turned and walked into the lounge. Coraline followed her.
The other mother sat down on the big sofa. She picked up a shopping bag from beside the sofa and took out a white, rustling, paper bag from inside it.
She extended the hand with it to Coraline. “Would you like one?” she asked politely.
Expecting it to be a toffee or a butterscotch ball, Coraline looked down. The bag was half filled with large shiny blackbeetles, crawling over each other in their efforts to get out of the bag.
“No,” said Coraline. “I don’t want one.”
“Suit yourself,” said her other mother. She carefully picked out a particularly large and black beetle, pulled off its legs (which she dropped, neatly, into a big glass ashtray on the small table beside the sofa), and popped the beetle into her mouth. She crunched it happily.
“Yum,” she said, and took another.
“You’re sick,” said Coraline. “Sick and evil and weird.”
“Is that any way to talk to your mother?” her other mother asked, with her mouth full of blackbeetles.
“You aren’t my mother,” said Coraline.
Her other mother ignored this. “Now, I think you are a little overexcited, Coraline. Perhaps this afternoon we could do a little embroidery together, or some watercolor painting. Then dinner, and then, if you have been good, you may play with the rats a little before bed. And I shall read you a story and tuck you in, and kiss you good night.” Her long white fingers fluttered gently, like a tired butterfly, and Coraline shivered.
“No,” said Coraline.
The other mother sat on the sofa. Her mouth was set in a line; her lips were pursed. She popped another blackbeetle into her mouth and then another, like someone with a bag of chocolate-covered raisins. Her big black button eyes stared into Coraline’s hazel eyes. Her shiny black hair twined and twisted about her neck and shoulders, as if it were blowing in some wind that Coraline could not touch or feel.
They stared at each other for over a minute. Then the other mother said, “Manners!” She folded the white paper bag carefully so no blackbeetles could escape, and she placed it back in the shopping bag. Then she stood up, and up, and up: she seemed taller than Coraline remembered. She reached into her apron pocket and pulled out, first the black door key, which she frowned at and tossed into her shopping bag, then a tiny silver-colored key. She held it up triumphantly. “There we are,” she said. “This is for you, Coraline. For your own good. Because I love you. To teach you manners. Manners makyth man, after all.”
She pulled Coraline back into the hallway and advanced upon the mirror at the end of the hall. Then she pushed the tiny key into the fabric of the mirror, and she twisted it.
It opened like a door, revealing a dark space behind it. “You may come out when you’ve learned some manners,” said the other mother. “And when you’re ready to be a loving daughter.”
She picked Coraline up and pushed her into the dim space behind the mirror. A fragment of beetle was sticking to her lower lip, and there was no expression at all in her black button eyes.
Then she swung the mirror door closed, and left Coraline in darkness.
SOMEWHERE INSIDE HER Coraline could feel a huge sob welling up. And then she stopped it, before it came out. She took a deep breath and let it go. She put out her hands to touch the space in which she was imprisoned. It was the size of a broom closet: tall enough to stand in or to sit in, not wide or deep enough to lie down in.
One wall was glass, and it felt cold to the touch.
She went around the tiny room a second time, running her hands over every surface that she could reach, feeling for doorknobs or switches or concealed catches—some kind of way out—and found nothing.
A spider scuttled over the back of her hand and she choked back a shriek. But apart from the spider she was alone in the closet in the pitch dark.
And then her hand touched something that felt for all the world like somebody’s cheek and lips, small and cold; and a voice whispered in her ear, “Hush! And shush! Say nothing, for the beldam might be listening!”
Coraline said nothing.
She felt a cold hand touch her face, fingers running over it like the gentle beat of a moth’s wings.
Another voice, hesitant and so faint Coraline wondered if she were imagining it, said, “Art thou—art thou alive?”