99-Cent Dreams

by Erin Della Mattia

Erin Della Mattia is a writer and doctoral student in the English department at the University of Toronto. She is also the managing editor of Sewer Lid, an online journal of urban art and literature.

We pass the bottle between us, push it from her lips to her lips to hers, drop it to the sidewalk and form a new galaxy. We try to count the stars but can’t get past eight . . . nine . . . ten on a night like this. It’s one of those bonfire nights when the air tastes like crushed leaves and marshmallows, and children sit in circles under streetlights playing truth or dare, while their beer-gutted fathers stand in garages analyzing power tools and their mothers drink coffee from chipped floral mugs as they muse over telephones to other mothers in other sagging houses, their front doors open to let in the sounds of the night: music playing somewhere, a call, a yell, a booming laugh of recognition, the crackle of fireworks. Except for that one mother in that one house where the paint is new, the roof is new, the lawn is trimmed, and there is no dust on the portrait of the son that drowned in the lake. His still-living sister tries to teach her dolls to play Monopoly because no one else will play with her, not the girls sneaking into movies or the girls rolling glitter on their cheeks or the girls doing their data-management homework, and definitely not the girls setting garbage cans ablaze near the parks where tweens dangle from monkey-bars and smoke their first cigarettes, pretending they don’t see the couples making out in the darkest shadows that they can find—shadows that are never dark enough, as anyone can tell you. Just ask the newly-licensed teens as they pick up their friends and drive to nowhere, looking for a hook-up, a party, a reason not to fall asleep, a single moment away from their own heartbeats. Walking through the streets, we buoy on all the secrets we know but will forget to tell each other later. Someone’s shoe gets caught in the sidewalk and she falls. The trees hold their breath, waiting to see what we’ll do next.

We trip in and out of shadows, clutching each other’s shoulders for support. One of us is goose-bumped. One of us is slick with glitter. From the curtained faces of living-room windows come the blue-green glares of endless televisions. How can they be inside? Even the cemetery is alive tonight, all those too-mortal teens and stillborn babies buried in unmarked graves throughout town. We counted them once. No, you didn’t! Uh-huh, 562. Tonight, they’ll rise to watch and cheer the devil’s-hour crowning of the Home-Coming Queen—our favourite murdered school girl, forever sweet 16.

Stand before a mirror.

Turn off the lights.

Hold up your lighter.

Call on her thrice.

A weeping, bloodied face—the girl we’ve been searching for, and the one we fear we will become: another legend of a girl gone missing to be passed from one kid to another, the story changing a little each time until they don’t even get her name right anymore. In one version, her not-yet-fully-grown skeleton found years later in the forest, dug up by scavenging animals; in another, only a week after she didn’t come home from school, her corpse half-tumbling out of a dumpster behind a grocery store, where everyone could see and know, fueling the stories our grandmothers told us to keep us safe—terrified, yes, but safe.

What the hell is that?! Bodies weave between headstones. Oh, shut up, don’t let them see us. No, let them! says Bianca, her gold bangles clanking every time she moves, drawing the attention of the grave walkers, those kids always in black. They Sharpie pentagrams onto their knees at the back of classrooms in every high school, murmur druidic chants to rouse the ghosts or, maybe, just to give our parents something new to be scared about. Devil horns spray-painted on real estate agents’ posters, red candles abandoned in public bathrooms—all of it freakish fodder for newspapers (Has Your Daughter Turned to Satan? Thirteen Signs Your Child’s in a Cult). Those kids we know but act like we don’t, pretend we didn’t go to their birthday parties when they turned ten, just like they pretend they didn’t go to ours when we turned 11.

Tiny pops come from around the corner as boys throw snappers at each other in the plaza parking lot. Mr. Wong—of Wong’s Convenience—watches them through the gap between missing person’s posters in the window, and Paul Trembley, in grade 12, walks out with a plastic bag of something slung on one arm. The boys catch us under the street lamp and go to pelt us with snappers but Paul is tall enough to tell them to screw off. They throw snappers at our feet anyways, before getting on their bikes and riding away to do whatever it is they do. We make the mistake of hollering after them—Bath time already?—and now all the men smoking outside the Beer Store are looking at us, licking up our skin from afar. Their grimy baseball caps hide their eyes so all we see is their crusted lips and stubble, muttering and laughing the kinds of laughs we don’t want to hear. One of them, the youngest, a real boney guy wearing a black beanie, flicks his cigarette to the ground, cups his hands around his mouth and yells, Hey! How much? Jill, with a big purple flower falling out of her hair, demands five pints of his own blood. Everyone knows about that guy: he’s got Thug 4 Life tattooed on the inside of his bottom lip. I tell the girls and Paul that we should leave. Can’t you just chill out? But didn’t you hear what he did to Maggie Saunders? She was lying. I saw the bald patch from where he pulled out her hair! Okay, okay. Paul has his car.

Me, Jill, Angela, and Steph squeeze in the back, half sitting on one another’s laps. Bianca sits up front with Paul who starts the ignition and simultaneously launches into his usual 20 questions, looking for a rundown of the night so far, because he’s been at work at the car shop till about ten minutes ago and is hoping for some fun before the inevitability of tomorrow morning: the sun through the shutters, the search for clothes that don’t reek of sweat. Don’t even mention the word tomorrow, says Angela. There is no tomorrow, there is only tonight. Is that a song? He doesn’t get it. We tell him to bring us to The Calypso. The Calypso? Why’re you going there? We tell him we’re bored, which is a lie, but he doesn’t seem able to understand anything else. Did you hear Chip is having a house party? We know, we came from there. And there’s some field party across the lake. We saw the fireworks. Paul is probably going to Chip’s. They’re just getting drunk and playing Super Mario Kart in the basement. Well, what else do you expect them to do? Steph fumbles with her compact mirror. I whisper that it’s okay, we can’t see anything.

Breath on a window, footsteps, photographs, the flakes of skin that swirl into dust, things we see out of the corner of our eyes—all ghosts. Everything is a ghost, see? Everything.

Stopped at a red light, we all jump when a scraggily man slaps his hands on the hood of the car. We scream, but we might just be pretending. The man howls and shakes his head like his beard is wet. Open the window, he chants, smacking the car with every syllable, o-pen-the-win-dow. Just run him over, Jill says casually. But we all slide down our seats a little when Paul hollers that the window’s already open, dude, and how can we help you tonight? The man comes around to Paul’s side of the car and sticks his head in as far as it’ll go. He asks, What kinda trouble you kids getting up to tonight? Jill leans over the front armrest and tells him that we’re looking for ghosts. Ghosts? Boo and white sheets and all that? Yeah, them’s the beasts, says Jill. Well, ghosts, they’re easy. They’re everywhere, see? No. They are indeed. Look, here. He breathes on the windshield. See that? That’s a ghost. Jill says it’s not. It is! Breath on a window, footsteps, photographs, the flakes of skin that swirl into dust, things we see out of the corner of our eyes—all ghosts. Everything is a ghost, see? Everything. We’d be hard pressed to find a thing that ain’t a ghost. But that’s not right, Steph says, is it? How come not? I’m not a ghost, and he’s not a ghost, and they’re not ghosts. How do you know for certain? The man might be scrunching up his face questioningly behind his beard. Is that it then? asks Bianca. That’s your trick? You freak people out and then demand money? The man reaches past Paul to wag a finger at Bianca. Money? Did I ask for money? No! Do you know what your problem is? You assume too much. Acting like you know everything don’t make it true, does it? Eh? Or, are you one of them that thinks perception is reality? Look old man, says Bianca, she said we were looking for ghosts, not hobos. Ah, he says. Ah. I understand now. See you around, then, Paulie. Paul waves sure, lateskies, as the man limps away. You coulda been a bit nicer to him. Why? we ask. You know him? Yeah, Paul says, he’s my uncle.

Two heartbreaking radio ballads later, we pull up to The Calypso, in all its subterranean glory. A place we used to fear but now long to enter, though I couldn’t tell you why: shifting eyes and feet stumbling through cigarette fog and desperate laughter, flickering neon palm trees illuminating the faces of people trying to find hope again to a soundtrack of forgettable pop songs. Paul tells us that this is our last chance to turn around and go to Chip’s, an offer that we decline, waving goodbye and blowing sarcastic kisses to Paul as he pulls out of the parking lot, because we’re here, we’ve made it!

The bouncer, an older guy wearing a black muscle tee without the muscles, eyes us while fiddling with the crowd-control railing—useless, because there is no crowd, just some people smoking on the patio. We could be them in a few years: older girls in their leather pants, back home for the weekend, always wondering if they’ll ever find a place to feel at home for good. They point at us, their city manicures scratching our spines, they say those girls don’t belong here, and it turns out they’re right. IDs? the bouncer asks, almost laughing. Bianca insists that we’ve got cash; the bouncer tells us to find someone who cares. He’s sure we won’t have any difficulty. In fact, there might be some guys inside who can help us out, after all.

Let’s go bowling, Jill says, ignoring the bouncer. Um, no, says Bianca. I have to pee, says Steph. They have a bathroom in the bowling alley, says Jill. No. Yes! Come on! It’ll be fun! Me and Jill link arms and skip across the mostly-empty parking lot while Angela and Steph each grab one of Bianca’s arms and drag her, complaining loudly, behind us. Our clattering footsteps echo off the concrete siding of the bowling alley, keeping beat with its flickering neon letters: DI MOND B WL.

Inside, ratty haired children run in circles, trying to catch the funny-shaped lights that dart around on the floor. In a corner, some older guys hide their drug dealing in the glow-in-the-dark confusion of the Friday-night cosmic bowl. Angela, Steph, and Bianca go on up to the counter to twirl their hair at the shoe-boy, a pimple at least one grade below us, while me and Jill lean against the vending machines, laughing at the Love-O-Matic coin-ops, mimicking the Gimme a Quarter I Read-a Your Palm voice, wondering exactly what kind of parent would let their child wear those press-on tattoos. Jill says hers, and she’s probably right.

There’s one of those bigger machines, the type where you move a claw around and try to snatch up stuffed animals. It’s got flashing light bulbs, like from an old movie theatre marquee, running along the top, and unlike the other games it’s completely quiet. We move closer to it and see that inside the glass tank, instead of stuffed animals, there’s about 1,000 fist-sized plastic capsules in garish shades of red, blue, and green, and instead of the claw there’s a kind of sucker tube. The machine is labelled 99-Cent Dreams. It costs 99 cents to play and only accepts pennies. Neither of us can remember seeing it before.

The pimple shoe-boy screeches at us, It don’t work! He’s got his thickly skeletal elbows up on the counter, his hands folded mock-casually under his chin. Jill says that since it’s lit up it must work because why else would it even be plugged in? It don’t work, it just don’t, see, Kenny—he owns this place—he bought it off some guy, thought he got a good deal on it, brought it all the way over here, then finds out it don’t work and he was pissed, like, real pissed, so now it’s just waitin’ for Alf to come round with his truck and take it away—he’s doing it for free, Alf is—might owe Kenny some money or somethin’—anyways, it don’t work. Like, non-operational.

We all nod like we know what he’s talking about because we want to bowl without paying.

Jill asks, Does anyone have 99 pennies? Bianca, clicking her fingers on the counter, wants to know who the hell would have that many pennies. She keeps looking at Steph, who’s looking at no one but herself in her compact mirror, reapplying concealer underneath her right eye. Angela tuts, You don’t have to do that in here, it’s dark enough. Jill orders us to dump all our change on the counter and we do, upturning coin pouches and pockets, except Bianca who’s still trying to work over the pimple, asking him his life story. Were you nine’rd yet? Have you ever been trapped in a locker? Do you have geography with Mr. Morales? Watch his face whenever he drops the chalk, she tells him. Watch where his eyes go when he bends down to pick it up.

We separate the pennies from the other coins and start grouping them in clusters of ten, Steph counting out loud, which must screw Angela up because soon she’s counting out loud too. There’s $1.37 in pennies, and Jill takes 99 cents from that and begins to load up 99-Cent Dreams.

Because it’s a bonfire night we all get a feeling like something’s going to happen, it just has to. Something has to happen sometime, right?

Because it’s a bonfire night we all get a feeling like something’s going to happen, it just has to. Something has to happen sometime, right? So why not tonight? Bianca and Steph start dancing as if they like the bad disco music that always gets played for Cosmic Bowl nights, and even the pimple is so excited he might pop. Jill finishes loading the pennies then looks down where there should be a joystick but isn’t. That seems to be all right, though, because the translucent sucker tube starts moving on its own, circling the tank and pausing a couple times until it stops and lowers itself in the back right corner. Without a sound it sucks up a red capsule and deposits it in the drop. Jill lifts the metal flap to pull it out, and the capsule has changed to blue. No one seems to notice except me and her. As she stares at the capsule, I stick my hand up past the flap of the machine, feeling something hard and convex. I think our capsule got stuck up there, I say. That blue one belongs to somebody else. I told you it don’t work right, says the pimple. The others are jumping at Jill to open the capsule already. She does. We exhale. Sand mixed with shards of pink glass. Maybe it was something once but it isn’t anymore. What is this supposed to be? Jill asks, rattling the capsule in our faces. Look at it! Look! Why would this be inside? She pokes her finger in the sand, searching for something more. What does it mean? asks Angela. It’s not our dream, I say. It’s somebody else’s. It’s a safety hazard, says the pimple with an official tone. Better put the lid back on. Don’t want it all on the floor. I take the capsule from Jill, close it up, and shove it in my purse. We don’t have 99 more pennies to get our own dream out.

The pimple jumps the counter and tries to push against the machine, maybe to reach the plug. Can ya give a guy a hand? But we don’t work here. Bianca and Steph run to the bathroom, while Angela, Jill, and I start launching bowling balls down random empty lanes until the pimple screeches that our lane is number nine, number nine!

We try to be happy bowling but it doesn’t last long, as these things never seem to, and soon Jill is making snowless angels on the carpet to the beat of some song that’s probably by the Bee Gees and shouting above it all that when life gives you garbage make more garbage, and Angela is strutting down the gutter. She kicks over the pins and whirls a bowling ball back towards me at the top of the lane because she’s mad that I was actually playing a good game for once and I’m mad because she’s ruining it. We all stop when Bianca and Steph come running out of the bathroom, arms linked, faces flushed, screaming, We saw it! We saw it! We saw the School Girl’s Ghost! What? No, you didn’t! Yes, we did! Lights off, Steph’s lighter lit, they swear they saw that long-dead Queen-for-a-Day, tears of blood and mascara forever staining her puffy cheeks, her pink dress smeared with mud. She was crying for help, they say. She said she needs our help. Doesn’t she know it’s too late? asks Angela, while me and Jill go dashing to the bathroom, creeping around the curved tile walls of the hallway, the fresh fluorescents burning our eyes after the inside-out world of the Cosmic Bowl’s black lights.

The bathroom is empty. Jill kicks open all the stall doors while I touch my hands to each mirror, blurring finger prints and water stains on the solid surfaces. We look for hidden messages in the decaying graffiti of the toilet stalls: phone numbers that add up to nothing, J+C Forever, a partly scratched-out kill list. Bending down, we trace old blood stains along the floor and walls. This here, it looks sticky. It might be fresh. Neither of us will test it. In the mirror, we only see ourselves. But I feel something, I think. Back in the dark and whoosh of the bowling lanes we don’t tell the others, because sometimes it’s enough to you think you saw something, to feel it. We all agree that we’re ready to leave, but still no one says what each of us must be thinking, about not being ready for what’s out there, because we know a beer bottle will smash, a chain-link gate will clank, and our shadows will reach home before us.


Erin Della Mattia is a writer and doctoral student in the English department at the University of Toronto. She is also the managing editor of Sewer Lid, an online journal of urban art and literature.