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with quiet courage

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Something feels...wrong.

She can’t explain it, can’t even fully comprehend it herself, but the house feels different tonight, like it’s just waiting for the right moment to pounce. Every creak sends chills down her spine. This isn’t right.

Coraline glances out the kitchen window at their garden, but finds that she can’t really see it, despite the fact that the moon is close to full, last time she checked. She raises her gaze to the sky, squinting in confusion, and her heart nearly stops at what she sees: a shadow passing over the moon in the shape of a button, holes and all.

Gasping, Coraline pushes herself away from the window, every inch of her suddenly on high alert. That’s when she hears it: a familiar metallic skittering across the floor, a sound she knows all too well.

She bolts out of the kitchen and up the stairs, leaping into her bedroom and slamming the door shut behind her. Her blood rushes in her ears.

It only gives her a few moments’ reprieve before she hears the skittering again, even closer and louder than before. Coraline backs away from the door, frantically searching her room for anything she could use as a weapon. She digs underneath her pillow for the pocketknife she bought in secret a year or two ago, but inexplicably, it’s nowhere to be found. Her heart nearly stops when she sees the hand crawl in from underneath.

The hand is severed at first, but from its wrist seems to grow an arm, a torso, another arm, all made out of needles. Coraline steels herself as the Beldam materializes before her eyes.

“You are my daughter,” she hisses, as something else appears in one of her hands. “You’re going to stay with me forever.”

In one hand, she holds another needle, already threaded. In the other is a gift box, and inside it sits a pair of black buttons.

“Hold still,” the Beldam continues. Coraline tries to move, to fight, to do anything, but her whole body is suddenly frozen. “This will only hurt a bit.” She takes a step forward, needle pointing at Coraline’s face, and then—

Coraline jolts awake and sits up rapidly, trying to catch her breath. The morning light streams through her bedroom window, a reminder of where she is: not the Other World, but the real one. Reaching under her pillow, she feels for her pocketknife. She is seventeen now, but still the events of her childhood plague her dreams.

She still has her stuffed animals. Most of the time, they sit on her shelf, watching over her like guardian angels, ensuring that danger doesn’t even make it through the doorway. Sometimes, though, on nights where the house creaks more than usual, on nights where Coraline swears she can feel a sinister gaze burning into her back, she grabs a few of them and sleeps with them in her bed, holding them tight against her chest, as if they will cast a bubble around her body that protects her from any harm. Sometimes she doesn’t even sleep, just lies awake in terror for hours on end. She’s far too old to sleep in her parents’ bed, but some nights, she tiptoes over to their bedroom and cracks the door open, just enough so she can see that they’re still there, safe and sound.

Coraline loves her parents, but they don’t completely understand everything. It’s not their fault; they have no memory of being kidnapped by the Beldam, and they weren’t witness to anything else that happened that fateful year. She tried to explain bits and pieces when she was younger, but they dismissed it as a child’s wild imagination or particularly vivid dreams, and she’s not sure she can really blame them. After all, it hardly sounds believable.

She’s made some other friends at her new school, and they’re wonderful, but none of them get it, either. They don’t understand why she cringes every time they point out the tiny door that leads to nowhere when they come over to her house. They don’t understand why buttons and dolls disturb her to this day, or why when she looks at a snow globe, it always takes her a moment to register that there is nothing frightening inside of it. “Something happened to me when I was a kid,” she told them once, to allay their concerns. “It was really scary. I could’ve died. So if I ever do something...weird, that’s probably why.” None of them questioned her, then, when she bought that pocketknife. If nothing else, she’s grateful for that.

Wybie and his grandmother are the only ones she can actually talk to about what happened, and she’s not going to come to them every single time she has a paranoid thought (which is, unfortunately, fairly often). Usually she can calm herself down, anyway; she just has to take deep breaths and remind herself that the key is gone, at the bottom of a bottomless well, and the Beldam can never open that godforsaken portal ever again.

It takes lying there for another ten minutes, eyes closed and focusing on nothing but the sound of her own breathing, for Coraline to finally muster up the energy to pull herself out of bed. At least it’s a Friday, she tells herself. She has to work a bit this weekend, but her job involves more stocking shelves than interacting with other people, so it’s still better than school.

It’s not that she hates school. She likes learning when it’s interesting, and she likes seeing her friends. It’s not even that she dislikes other people, because she doesn’t, really. Even people she thought were weird or annoying at first, like Wybie, have grown on her with time. It’s just that she fears she’ll have a flashback or a panic attack in the middle of class and embarrass herself. It’s happened before—in middle school she was branded a freak when a sewing project in her home economics class brought her to tears for reasons she didn’t know how to explain. Strangely enough, she feels safer in her neighborhood. It’s an environment she knows well, and as odd as her neighbors are, she trusts them to protect her, even if they might not be aware of it. She remembers Mr. Bobinsky’s warning not to go through the little door, and she remembers the adder stone given to her by Misses Spink and Forcible—and, of course, she remembers Wybie, who once called her crazy before he saw the Beldam’s severed hand for himself, before he helped her dispose of the key for good. Technically, he’s the one who found the Coraline doll that spied on her in the first place—a fact that she hates him for on her worst days—but she knows that he had no idea, and it doesn’t do any good to blame him. After all, even if he may have inadvertently introduced Coraline to the Other Mother, he also helped to defeat her.

While Coraline is choosing her outfit for the day, her phone buzzes: a text from Wybie. Hey Jonesy, it reads, meet me outside then. I got something for ya.

Coraline raises an eyebrow. That could mean anything. Still, she sends him a quick Ok and slips her clothes on. If it happens to be a slug or something, at least she can say her day got off to an interesting start.

Being writers, her parents don’t have to wake up as early as she does, so Coraline usually fixes her own breakfast—often something quick, like a muffin—and heads out the door. Today is no exception, her meal a bowl of cereal and a glass of orange juice. It sort of makes her feel like a kid again, in a good way. Sitting alone at the kitchen table, Cheerios in her spoon, the sun rising over the foggy mountains, a feeling of quiet peace and even innocence settles over her like dust on a bookshelf. In this moment, there is no fear, no nightmares, no flashbacks. In this moment, she is not a teenager doing her best to survive even while her mind begs to differ. She is the little girl she once was, before she was forced to be brave in the face of true horror. The sky glows pink and orange, a phenomenon unknown to the Other World. She’s grown to appreciate daylight more since then.

Finally, Coraline vaults her backpack over her shoulder and pushes the front door open, saying a silent goodbye to her parents in her head. Sure enough, at the bottom of the hill, leaning up against the Pink Palace sign, is Wybie, who looks like he’s playing a game on his phone. When he hears the sound of her footsteps, he looks up and waves to her.

“You’re back,” she says once she’s close enough to him to talk without having to shout. For the past two weeks, Wybie has been on a school trip to Germany. (Coraline couldn’t go because she’s taking Spanish instead of German.) It’s pretty stupid for them to get back on a Friday and then have to go to regular school for one day, in her opinion, but that’s just how it worked out. “You said you have something for me?” She can’t help but wonder if it’s a souvenir of some sort. She’d joked about him getting her one, but she didn’t actually expect him to do it.

“Yeah,” Wybie says. As they start to walk down the path that leads to town and their school, he pulls something small out of his jeans pocket, holding it in both hands so she can’t see what it is. His voice sounds strangely solemn. “So, you know how you said Miss Spink and Miss Forcible gave you that stone that one time? The one with the hole in the middle?”

Coraline remembers it well: the adder stone that helped her find the ghost children’s eyes all those years ago. When she read up about them later on, she found that rocks with naturally occurring holes in them, called adder stones or hag stones, are said to have magical properties. One of them is the ability to see through a witch or fairy’s disguises or traps, but others include the prevention of nightmares and curing whooping cough.

Coraline certainly doesn’t have whooping cough, but she does have nightmares, and she’s already seen the power of an adder stone for herself. “Yeah,” she says slowly. “They’re pretty rare. The Other Mother destroyed the one I had.”

Wybie flashes her a little half-smile and opens his palms, revealing a round, grayish stone with a medium-sized hole in it. “We visited the north coast one day,” he says as she takes it from him, “and I just happened to stumble across it. Apparently that’s one of the places where they’re more common, in northern Germany.” He shrugs. “I saw it, and I knew I had to give it to you. Not like you’ll need to find any more ghost children’s eyes, but…”

Coraline holds the stone up to her eye, feeling an odd comfort when she looks through the hole, even though nothing seems different. Feeling a soft smile spread across her face, she slips the stone into her pocket and says, “Thank you, Wybie.” Then, to lighten the mood, she adds, “I guess taking German was a good decision after all.”

Wybie blows a raspberry at her. “Hey, who got to go to a foreign country? Not you.”

They banter back and forth like that for a while, but part of Coraline is still focused on the stone in her pocket and the thoughtfulness behind it. It’s so small, but both the stone and the gesture give her the burst of courage she needs to get through the rest of the day, the week, the month. It’s a different kind of courage from what she had to muster up to stop the Beldam. It’s subtler, quieter. It’s the courage of a girl who has seen real ugliness, who has felt the deepest and most primal sort of fear, who went through hell and came out alive but unsure where to go from there. How do you keep on going when you’ve been face to face with death?

The answer, she realizes, is simple: it takes courage. It might be the kind that only a few people can see, but it’s courage all the same.