Vitamins, Supplements, Sport Nutrition

XII.

H ER MOTHER SHOOK HER gently awake.

„Coraline?“ she said. „Darling, what a funny place to fall asleep. And really, this room is only for best. We looked all over the house for you.“

Coraline stretched and blinked. „I’m sorry,“ she said. „I fell asleep.“

„I can see that,“ said her mother. „And wherever did the cat come from? He was waiting by the front door when I came in. Shot out like a bullet as I opened it.“

„Probably had things to do,“ said Coraline. Then she hugged her mother so tightly that her arms began to ache. Her mother hugged Coraline back.

„Dinner in fifteen minutes,“ said her mother. „Don’t forget to wash your hands. And just look at those pajama bottoms. What did you do to your poor knee?“

„I tripped,“ said Coraline. She went into the bathroom, and she washed her hands and cleaned her bloody knee. She put ointment on her cuts and scrapes.

She went into her bedroom-her real bedroom, her true bedroom. She pushed her hands into the pockets of her dressing gown, and she pulled out three marbles, a stone with a hole in it, the black key, and an empty snow globe.

She shook the snow globe and watched the glittery snow swirl through the water to fill the empty world. She put it down and watched the snow fall, covering the place where the little couple had once stood.

Coraline took a piece of string from her toy box, and she strung the black key on the string. Then she knotted the string and hung it around her neck.

„There,“ she said. She put on some clothes and hid the key under her T-shirt. It was cold against her skin. The stone went into her pocket.

Coraline walked down the hallway to her father’s study. He had his back to her, but she knew, just on seeing him, that his eyes, when he turned around, would be her father’s kind gray eyes, and she crept over and kissed him on the back of his balding head.

„Hullo, Coraline,“ he said. Then he looked around and smiled at her. „What was that for?“

„Nothing,“ said Coraline. „I just miss you sometimes. That’s all.“

„Oh good,“ he said. He put the computer to sleep, stood up, and then, for no reason at all, he picked Coraline up, which he had not done for such a long time, not since he had started pointing out to her she was much too old to be carried, and he carried her into the kitchen.

Dinner that night was pizza, and even though it was homemade by her father (so the crust was alternately thick and doughy and raw, or too thin and burnt), and even though he had put slices of green pepper on it, along with little meatballs and, of all things, pineapple chunks, Coraline ate the entire slice she had been given.

Well, she ate everything except for the pineapple chunks.

And soon enough it was bedtime.

Coraline kept the key around her neck, but she put the gray marbles beneath her pillow; and in bed that night, Coraline dreamed a dream.

She was at a picnic, under an old oak tree, in a green meadow. The sun was high in the sky and while there were distant, fluffy white clouds on the horizon, the sky above her head was a deep, untroubled blue.

There was a white linen cloth laid on the grass, with bowls piled high with food-she could see salads and sandwiches, nuts and fruit, jugs of lemonade and water and thick chocolate milk. Coraline sat on one side of the tablecloth while three other children took a side each. They were dressed in the oddest clothes.

The smallest of them, sitting on Coraline’s left, was a boy with red velvet knee britches and a frilly white shirt. His face was dirty, and he was piling his plate high with boiled new potatoes and with what looked like cold, whole, cooked, trout. „This is the finest of pic-nics, lady,“ he said to her.

„Yes,“ said Coraline. „I think it is. I wonder who organized it.“

„Why, I rather think you did, Miss,“ said a tall girl, sitting opposite Coraline. She wore a brown, rather shapeless dress, and had a brown bonnet on her head which tied beneath her chin. „And we are more grateful for it and for all than ever words can say.“ She was eating slices of bread and jam, deftly cutting the bread from a large golden-brown loaf with a huge knife, then spooning on the purple jam with a wooden spoon. She had jam all around her mouth.

„Aye. This is the finest food I have eaten in centuries,“ said the girl on Coraline’s right. She was a very pale child, dressed in what seemed to be spider’s webs, with a circle of glittering silver set in her blonde hair. Coraline could have sworn that the girl had two wings-like dusty silver butterfly wings, not bird wings-coming out of her back. The girl’s plate was piled high with pretty flowers. She smiled at Coraline, as if it had been a very long time since she had smiled and she had almost, but not quite, forgotten how. Coraline found herself liking this girl immensely.

And then, in the way of dreams, the picnic was done and they were playing in the meadow, running and shouting and tossing a glittering ball from one to another. Coraline knew it was a dream then, because none of them ever got tired or winded or out of breath. She wasn’t even sweating. They just laughed and ran in a game that was partly tag, partly piggy-in-the-middle, and partly just a magnificent romp.

Three of them ran along the ground, while the pale girl fluttered a little over their heads, swooping down on butterfly wings to grab the ball and swing up again into the sky before she tossed the ball to one of the other children.

And then, without a word about it being spoken, the game was done, and the four of them went back to the picnic cloth, where the lunch dishes had been cleared away, and there were four bowls waiting for them, three of ice cream, one of honeysuckle flowers piled high.

They ate with relish.

„Thank you for coming to my party,“ said Coraline. „If it is mine.“

„The pleasure is ours, Coraline Jones,“ said the winged girl, nibbling another honeysuckle blossom. „If there were but something we could do for you, to thank you and to reward you.“

„Aye,“ said the boy with the red velvet britches and the dirty face. He put out his hand and held Coraline’s hand with his own. It was warm now.

„It’s a very fine thing you did for us, Miss,“ said the tall girl. She now had a smear of chocolate ice cream all around her lips.

„I’m just pleased it’s all over,“ said Coraline.

Was it her imagination, or did a shadow cross the faces of the other children at the picnic?

The winged girl, the circlet in her hair glittering like a star, rested her fingers for a moment on the back of Coraline’s hand. „It is over and done with for us,“ she said. „This is our staging post. From here, we three will set out for uncharted lands, and what comes after no one alive can say....“ She stopped talking.

„There’s a but, isn’t there?“ said Coraline. „I can feel it. Like a rain cloud.“

The boy on her left tried to smile bravely, but his lower lip began to tremble and he bit it with his upper teeth and said nothing. The girl in the brown bonnet shifted uncomfortably and said, „Yes, Miss.“

„But I got you three back,“ said Coraline. „I got Mum and Dad back. I shut the door. I locked it. What more was I meant to do?“

The boy squeezed Coraline’s hand with his. She found herself remembering when it had been she, trying to reassure him, when he was little more than a cold memory in the darkness.

„Well, can’t you give me a clue?“ asked Coraline. „Isn’t there something you can tell me?“

„The beldam swore by her good right hand,“ said the tall girl, „but she lied.“

„M-my governess,“ said the boy, „used to say that nobody is ever given more to shoulder than he or she can bear.“ He shrugged as he said this, as if he had not yet made his own mind up whether or not it was true.

„We wish you luck,“ said the winged girl. „Good fortune and wisdom and courage-although you have already shown that you have all three of these blessings, and in abundance.“

„She hates you,“ blurted out the boy. „She hasn’t lost anything for so long. Be wise. Be brave. Be tricky.“

„But it’s not fair,“ said Coraline, in her dream, angrily. „It’s just not fair. It should be over.“

The boy with the dirty face stood up and hugged Coraline tightly. „Take comfort in this,“ he whispered. „Th’art alive. Thou livest.“

And in her dream Coraline saw that the sun had set and the stars were twinkling in the darkening sky.

Coraline stood in the meadow, and she watched as the three children (two of them walking, one flying) went away from her across the grass, silver in the light of the huge moon.

The three of them came to a small wooden bridge over a stream. They stopped there and turned and waved, and Coraline waved back.

And what came after was darkness.

Coraline woke in the early hours of the morning, convinced she had heard something moving, but unsure what it was.

She waited.

Something made a rustling noise outside her bedroom door. She wondered if it was a rat. The door rattled. Coraline clambered out of bed.

„Go away,“ said Coraline sharply. „Go away or you’ll be sorry.“

There was a pause, then the whatever it was scuttled away down the hall. There was something odd and irregular about its footsteps, if they were footsteps. Coraline found herself wondering if it was perhaps a rat with an extra leg....

„It isn’t over, is it?“ she said to herself.

Then she opened the bedroom door. The gray, predawn light showed her the whole of the corridor, completely deserted.

She went toward the front door, sparing a hasty glance back at the wardrobe-door mirror hanging on the wall at the other end of the hallway, seeing nothing but her own pale face staring back at her, looking sleepy and serious. Gentle, reassuring snores came from her parents» room, but the door was closed. All the doors off the corridor were closed. Whatever the scuttling thing was, it had to be here somewhere.

Coraline opened the front door and looked at the gray sky. She wondered how long it would be until the sun came up, wondered whether her dream had been a true thing while knowing in her heart that it had been. Something she had taken to be part of the shadows under the hall couch detached itself from beneath the couch and made a mad, scrabbling rush on its long white legs, heading for the front door.

Coraline’s mouth dropped open in horror and she stepped out of the way as the thing clicked and scuttled past her and out of the house, running crablike on its too-many tapping, clicking, scurrying feet.

She knew what it was, and she knew what it was after. She had seen it too many times in the last few days, reaching and clutching and snatching and popping blackbeetles obediently into the other mother’s mouth. Five-footed, crimson-nailed, the color of bone.

It was the other mother’s right hand.

It wanted the black key.