Vitamins, Supplements, Sport Nutrition

III.

T HE NEXT DAY THE sun shone, and Coraline’s mother took her into the nearest large town to buy clothes for school. They dropped her father off at the railway station. He was going into London for the day to see some people.

Coraline waved him good-bye.

They went to the department store to buy the school clothes.

Coraline saw some Day-Glo green gloves she liked a lot. Her mother refused to buy them for her, preferring instead to buy white socks, navy blue school underpants, four gray blouses, and a dark gray skirt.

«But Mum, everybody at school’s got gray blouses and everything. Nobody’s got green gloves. I could be the only one.»

Her mother ignored her; she was talking to the shop assistant. They were talking about which kind of sweater to get for Coraline, and were agreeing that the best thing to do would be to get one that was embarrassingly large and baggy, in the hopes that one day she might grow into it.

Coraline wandered off and looked at a display of Wellington boots shaped like frogs and ducks and rabbits.

Then she wandered back.

«Coraline? Oh, there you are. Where on earth were you?»

«I was kidnapped by aliens,» said Coraline. «They came down from outer space with ray guns, but I fooled them by wearing a wig and laughing in a foreign accent, and I escaped.»

«Yes, dear. Now, I think you could do with some more hair clips, don’t you?»

«No.»

«Well, let’s say half a dozen, to be on the safe side,» said her mother.

Coraline didn’t say anything.

In the car on the way back home, Coraline said, «What’s in the empty flat?»

«I don’t know. Nothing, I expect. It probably looks like our flat before we moved in. Empty rooms.»

«Do you think you could get into it from our flat?»

«Not unless you can walk through bricks, dear.»

«Oh.»

They got home around lunchtime. The sun was shining, although the day was cold. Coraline’s mother looked in the fridge and found a sad little tomato and a piece of cheese with green stuff growing on it. There was only a crust in the bread bin.

«I’d better dash down to the shops and get some fish fingers or something,» said her mother. «Do you want to come?»

«No,» said Coraline.

«Suit yourself,» said her mother, and left. Then she came back and got her purse and car keys and went out again.

Coraline was bored.

She flipped through a book her mother was reading about native people in a distant country; how every day they would take pieces of white silk and draw on them in wax, then dip the silks in dye, then draw on them more in wax and dye them some more, then boil the wax out in hot water, and then finally, throw the now-beautiful cloths on a fire and burn them to ashes.

It seemed particularly pointless to Coraline, but she hoped that the people enjoyed it.

She was still bored, and her mother wasn’t yet home.

Coraline got a chair and pushed it over to the kitchen door. She climbed onto the chair and reached up. She got down, then got a broom from the broom cupboard. She climbed back on the chair again and reached up with the broom.

Chink.

She climbed down from the chair and picked up the keys. She smiled triumphantly. Then she leaned the broom against the wall and went into the drawing room.

The family did not use the drawing room. They had inherited the furniture from Coraline’s grandmother, along with a wooden coffee table, a side table, a heavy glass ashtray, and the oil painting of a bowl of fruit. Coraline could never work out why anyone would want to paint a bowl of fruit. Other than that, the room was empty: there were no knickknacks on the mantelpiece, no statues or clocks; nothing that made it feel comfortable or lived-in.

The old black key felt colder than any of the others. She pushed it into the keyhole. It turned smoothly, with a satisfying clunk.

Coraline stopped and listened. She knew she was doing something wrong, and she was trying to listen for her mother coming back, but she heard nothing. Then Coraline put her hand on the doorknob and turned it; and, finally, she opened the door.

It opened on to a dark hallway. The bricks had gone as if they’d never been there. There was a cold, musty smell coming through the open doorway: it smelled like something very old and very slow.

Coraline went through the door.

She wondered what the empty flat would be like-if that was where the corridor led.

Coraline walked down the corridor uneasily. There was something very familiar about it.

The carpet beneath her feet was the same carpet they had in her flat. The wallpaper was the same wallpaper they had. The picture hanging in the hall was the same that they had hanging in their hallway at home.

She knew where she was: she was in her own home. She hadn’t left.

She shook her head, confused.

She stared at the picture hanging on the wall: no, it wasn’t exactly the same. The picture they had in their own hallway showed a boy in old-fashioned clothes staring at some bubbles. But now the expression on his face was different-he was looking at the bubbles as if he was planning to do something very nasty indeed to them. And there was something peculiar about his eyes.

Coraline stared at his eyes, trying to figure out what exactly was different.

She almost had it when somebody said, «Coraline?»

It sounded like her mother. Coraline went into the kitchen, where the voice had come from. A woman stood in the kitchen with her back to Coraline. She looked a little like Coraline’s mother. Only...

Only her skin was white as paper.

Only she was taller and thinner.

Only her fingers were too long, and they never stopped moving, and her dark red fingernails were curved and sharp.

«Coraline?» the woman said. «Is that you?»

And then she turned around. Her eyes were big black buttons.

«Lunchtime, Coraline,» said the woman.

«Who are you?» asked Coraline.

«I’m your other mother,» said the woman. «Go and tell your other father that lunch is ready,» She opened the door of the oven. Suddenly Coraline realized how hungry she was. It smelled wonderful. «Well, go on.»

Coraline went down the hall, to where her father’s study was. She opened the door. There was a man in there, sitting at the keyboard, with his back to her. «Hello,» said Coraline. «I—I mean, she said to say that lunch is ready.»

The man turned around.

His eyes were buttons, big and black and shiny.

«Hello Coraline,» he said. «I’m starving.»

He got up and went with her into the kitchen. They sat at the kitchen table, and Coraline’s other mother brought them lunch. A huge, golden-brown roasted chicken, fried potatoes, tiny green peas. Coraline shoveled the food into her mouth. It tasted wonderful.

«We’ve been waiting for you for a long time,» said Coraline’s other father.

«For me?»

«Yes,» said the other mother. «It wasn’t the same here without you. But we knew you’d arrive one day, and then we could be a proper family. Would you like some more chicken?»

It was the best chicken that Coraline had ever eaten. Her mother sometimes made chicken, but it was always out of packets or frozen, and was very dry, and it never tasted of anything. When Coraline’s father cooked chicken he bought real chicken, but he did strange things to it, like stewing it in wine, or stuffing it with prunes, or baking it in pastry, and Coraline would always refuse to touch it on principle.

She took some more chicken.

«I didn’t know I had another mother,» said Coraline, cautiously.

«Of course you do. Everyone does,» said the other mother, her black button eyes gleaming. «After lunch I thought you might like to play in your room with the rats.»

«The rats?»

«From upstairs.»

Coraline had never seen a rat, except on television. She was quite looking forward to it. This was turning out to be a very interesting day after all.

After lunch her other parents did the washing up, and Coraline went down the hall to her other bedroom.

It was different from her bedroom at home. For a start it was painted in an off-putting shade of green and a peculiar shade of pink.

Coraline decided that she wouldn’t want to have to sleep in there, but that the color scheme was an awful lot more interesting than her own bedroom.

There were all sorts of remarkable things in there she’d never seen before: windup angels that fluttered around the bedroom like startled sparrows; books with pictures that writhed and crawled and shimmered; little dinosaur skulls that chattered their teeth as she passed. A whole toy box filled with wonderful toys.

This is more like it, thought Coraline. She looked out of the window. Outside, the view was the same one she saw from her own bedroom: trees, fields, and beyond them, on the horizon, distant purple hills.

Something black scurried across the floor and vanished under the bed. Coraline got down on her knees and looked under the bed. Fifty little red eyes stared back at her.

«Hello,» said Coraline. «Are you the rats?»

They came out from under the bed, blinking their eyes in the light. They had short, soot-black fur, little red eyes, pink paws like tiny hands, and pink, hairless tails like long, smooth worms.

«Can you talk?» she asked.

The largest, blackest of the rats shook its head. It had an unpleasant sort of smile, Coraline thought.

«Well,» asked Coraline, «what do you do?»

The rats formed a circle.

Then they began to climb on top of each other, carefully but swiftly, until they had formed a pyramid with the largest rat at the top.

The rats began to sing, in high, whispery voices,

We have teeth and we have tails

We have tails we have eyes

We were here before you fell

You will be here when we rise.

It wasn’t a pretty song. Coraline was sure she’d heard it before, or something like it, although she was unable to remember exactly where.

Then the pyramid fell apart, and the rats scampered, fast and black, toward the door.

The other crazy old man upstairs was standing in the doorway, holding a tall black hat in his hands. The rats scampered up him, burrowing into his pockets, into his shirt, up his trouser legs, down his neck.

The largest rat climbed onto the old man’s shoulders, swung up on the long gray mustache, past the big black button eyes, and onto the top of the man’s head.

In seconds the only evidence that the rats were there at all were the restless lumps under the man’s clothes, forever sliding from place to place across him; and there was still the largest rat, who stared down, with glittering red eyes, at Coraline from the man’s head.

The old man put his hat on, and the last rat was gone.

«Hello Coraline,» said the other old man upstairs. «I heard you were here. It is time for the rats to have their dinner. But you can come up with me, if you like, and watch them feed.»

There was something hungry in the old man’s button eyes that made Coraline feel uncomfortable. «No, thank you,» she said. «I’m going outside to explore.»

The old man nodded, very slowly. Coraline could hear the rats whispering to each other, although she could not tell what they were saying.

She was not certain that she wanted to know what they were saying.

Her other parents stood in the kitchen doorway as she walked down the corridor, smiling identical smiles, and waving slowly. «Have a nice time outside,» said her other mother.

«We’ll just wait here for you to come back,» said her other father.

When Coraline got to the front door, she turned back and looked at them. They were still watching her, and waving, and smiling.

Coraline walked outside, and down the steps.