After some deliberation, Libby decided to buy the ability to draw. “This one,” she said. “I’ve never been able to manage anything more than stick figures. This would be nice.”
Alfred Corrigan smiled at her. “Yes. Very good.” He coughed before continuing in his high, papery voice. “Let me remind you, however, that this only guarantees the ability to draw recognizable pictures, not the talents of a master artist. These are only–”
“–ninety-nine cent dreams,” she finished along with him. It was the name of the store, and he had given her the patter when she had first come in. Ninety-nine cents could only buy small dreams, not miracles.
“Precisely. That said, your satisfaction is guaranteed. You shouldn’t find yourself reverting to, ah, stick figures. One moment, please.” He shuffled through the door in the back. Libby kept her eyes on the catalog, not wanting to watch the way he moved. He was a young man, clean-cut and broad-shouldered, but his slow, fumbling movements reminded her of her grandfather; the way he’d limped toward her when she first entered the store had almost caused her to mumble an excuse and go outside again.
She flipped through the pages idly, glancing at the glossy stock pictures of laughing, photogenic couples and families. All items just 99¢! Make your partner a dog person! Item 13A. LIMITED TIME ONLY! Maintain weight over the holidays–LOSS NOT GUARANTEED. Item 13B. Have the baby sleep through the night once a week. Item 13C.
That picture was of a sleeping baby, his little mouth relaxed into a faint pout. Libby bit her lip–she’d been doing a lot of that in the past month, and it was starting to taste chapped and bloody–and rested her fingertips on the baby’s face. In the back of her mind, she could hear Sasha screaming, “If you want kids so fucking much, find a man! I’m not your goddamn brood mare!”, could hear the glass bowl shattering against the wall behind her head. Sasha had apologized in tears the next day, of course, and Libby had forgiven her, of course, and they had made desperate love and promised that they would never fight again, just as they always did. But that time it had been true, because now Sasha was gone.
She had to turn the page. Blindly, she flipped to the tab in the back. FREE SAMPLES!
“Here you go.” Corrigan’s dry voice made Libby jump. She turned and saw him holding a cobalt blue bottle about the size of her little finger. “Stir this into a beverage and drink it just before going to bed. I’ve found the flavor complements an English tea wonderfully.”
“Great. Thanks.” She gestured at the page of samples. “What are these?”
Corrigan peered over her shoulder, and she saw his eyes go bright. The eyes were old, too, she thought; it wasn’t just his gait. There was a tired, stretched look around the edges, and she hadn’t even noticed until that eager brightness took it away. “Ah. These are from my new supply. Ninety-nine cent dreams fill a necessary niche, but my current stock is rather, ah, modest. I’m hoping to expand. I haven’t dealt in larger dreams in a long, long time.”
“Can I look?”
She turned the page. This was more what she had expected when Corrigan had explained to her that he didn’t run a fancifully named dollar store, but a shop dealing in dreams themselves. Regain sight for the blind! Item 47A. Recover a missing heirloom! Item 47B.
She turned the page again, and her heart swelled to a huge size in her chest. She couldn’t move. All she could do was stare at the page, hands trembling. It was a generic photo of a man and a woman embracing in front of a sunset. Bring back the affections of a lost love! Item 47C.
Sasha. She could bring Sasha back. Oh, God, if this place was for real. . . . She imagined the faint, spicy smell of Sasha’s shampoo, the way she hummed in the back of her throat when she was falling asleep, the rich alto of her voice as she sang along with Libby’s cello. All the times in the past month with she’d felt frightened and she’d known that having Sasha near her would make her brave, because without Sasha she was just a timid little mouse. All the times she’d seen bridal magazines or women with strollers and thought, That’s not for me, that’ll never be for me; it’s what drove Sasha away, but she’s the only one I’d ever want to have any of it with.
It could have been a thousand dollars and she would have taken it. But a free sample…
“Ms. Morell? Did you find something of interest?”
Libby had almost forgotten that Corrigan was there. She looked up and saw him smiling benignly. “This.” She pointed to the picture. “This is free?”
He glanced down. “An excellent choice. A simple modification of Item 7D, stop your lover’s passing attraction to another. It should run wonderfully.”
“Great. I’d like to buy it also, please.”
Corrigan twiddled his tie between two fingers. “I should warn you, Ms. Morell, that the word ‘free’ is misleading. There’s no monetary cost for these dreams, but . . . well, I have to get my supplies from somewhere, especially if I want to upgrade. It’s a trade. A dream for a dream.”
“So you’d stab out my eyes so a blind person can see?” It would almost be worth it.
“No. A dream, Ms. Morell. You don’t dream of sight. You take it for granted. I’d want a dream from you.”
Libby bit her lip, tasting blood again. Sasha… “Let me–let me try this one and come back if it works.”
“Of course you may. And it will work, I assure you. I sell no monkey’s paws.” He punched a few numbers into the chunky gray cash register, and it thought for several seconds before displaying “$1.05” on its screen. “Tax, you understand.”
“Right.” Libby fished through her purse and placed the money on the counter.
Corrigan smiled blandly, a smile that didn’t touch his old, old eyes, and handed her a receipt. “Thank you, Ms. Morell. Enjoy your dream.”
Sasha had been a coffee drinker, so that was all gone, but the apartment still had tea in abundance. “Black as night, sweet as sin,” Sasha would sometimes say as she dumped what seemed like half a cup of sugar into her mug. Lord, that was pretentiously bohemian. Libby knew it, but it didn’t stop her from loving Sasha for it. Not a little bit.
She brewed herself a cup of tea, then pulled out the bottle, unscrewed the top, and sniffed it. The smell was flowery, as though the bottle were full of incense or perfume.
Libby tipped the bottle over the teacup. Its contents oozed out in thick white globs that dissolved in the tea, more like a salve than a liquid. She wrinkled her nose, but took a tentative sip. It had a sharp, smoky flavor. It was good. Encouraged, she drank more deeply.
This wasn’t going to work. But if it did . . .
I’ll be unselfish for once. That was what Sasha’s note had said. It had been two weeks after their last fight, the fight where Sasha had thrown the bowl at her, and Libby had been doing her best to tread carefully. No more mentioning the ads for the fertility clinic in the newspaper–that would just invite more screams of “brood mare.” No glancing at Sasha whenever there was talk of possible civil unions in Maryland on the news–if she was lucky, Sasha would roll her eyes and change the channel, and if she wasn’t, Sasha would throw down the remote and leave the room. Libby didn’t want to give up. She loved Sasha, dammit, and “girlfriend” or even “partner” was too weak a word. She wanted a wife, and she wanted a family; she wanted to feel life growing in her womb, to coo with Sasha as their baby uttered its first “mama.” So Libby had waited until one final opportunity had fallen into her lap.
As they had finished eating their dinner one night, Libby said, “Oh, I, um . . . I found something online that you might be interested in.” She smiled brightly and pressed a printout into Sasha’s hands. “Check it out! It’s a position for an assistant director of graphic design at an ad firm.”
“Really?” Sasha dropped her fork, and Libby watched her eyes rapidly scan the paper, slow down, scan it again. Finally, Sasha looked up. “It’s in Toronto.”
“I know. But it’s perfect for you, Sasha! How long have we been waiting for an assistant director position to open up at your job? Toronto’s a great city, really great, you should hear my cousin rave about it. And I’ll bet that a big city has more opportunities for a musician than Baltimore, so it’s good for both of us, you know? I can finally get out of that stupid bank. This could be our chance.”
Sasha regarded her for another minute, and Libby kept her smile pasted in place, trying to hide her trembling hands under the table, trying not to glance down to see whether Sasha was going to ball her hands into fists or start reaching for items to throw. After what seemed like forever, Sasha’s face softened, and she opened her arms. “Come here, Libby-Lu.”
A bright hot flash of joy exploded in Libby’s chest, and she ran into Sasha’s arms. Sasha held her, stroking her hair with one hand and kissing her softly on the temple. “I love you, Libby-Lu. I love you so much, you know that?”
“I love you too,” Libby said, and then she couldn’t hold back the tears anymore.
That was the worst part–how happy she’d been. It was almost easier to think about coming home the next day and finding the note. I’d never have the courage to do this to your face, it had said, and I will NEVER be the girl you want, and find yourself a nice girl to marry in Toronto, and I’ll be unselfish for once and stay here.
Unselfish. Like hell. If she were unselfish, she would have stayed. Libby bolted down the last of the tea, which was now starting to grow cold at the bottom of the mug. This had to work. It had to. She hadn’t been herself since that night where she’d curled up next to the woman she loved, feeling Sasha’s hand stroking her hair and hearing that sweet voice whisper “I love you, I love you” over and over again.
She tried to draw a picture later that night, but her hands were awkward, clumsy. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t manage anything much better than a stick figure. Still, she tried to encourage herself. Some things took time to work. Why should this be different? She finally put the pencil down around midnight and curled up to sleep, arms around Sasha’s pillow.
The bank was busy the next day. Libby barely had the chance to breathe until her mid-morning break rolled around, when she finally grabbed the pencil and notepad she’d left in her locker and headed for the break room.
She sat down and looked at the pencil for a moment. It seemed so stupid now, the thought that a man could sell her the ability to draw, let alone the ability to win back Sasha. Still, she remembered the rich, smoky taste of the substance in the bottle, the shambling way that Corrigan had moved despite his obvious youth . . .
“Stupid,” she muttered.
But she put the pencil to the paper, and she drew. It was absentminded, a little doodle, really. She had no idea what she was trying to draw, but she let her hand move across the paper, watching as the lines and curves took shape.
Libby looked up. Mark was standing over her, smiling, his hands in his pockets. She forced a smile in return; whenever her breaks coincided with Mark’s, forcing smiles became a common practice. Mark was nice enough, but he still thought that the photo of Sasha in her wallet was a picture of her favorite cousin. “Hey.”
“Can I join you?”
Libby made a show of checking her watch. “Oh, gosh, my break’s almost over. I’m sorry.”
Mark’s face fell, but he shrugged. “Good luck. It’s a jungle out there.” He peered over her shoulder. “Hey, that’s really good. That’s your cousin, right?”
Libby looked down. The lines and curves that she had randomly chosen had come together into a rough sketch of Sasha’s face. She had to take a second look–it was good. Not really good by any stretch of the imagination, but it had depth and shading, and Sasha’s hair was clearly frizzing into a corona of curls the way it did on a humid day. “Yeah, it’s her,” she said, unable to keep the surprise from her voice. “Thanks.”
“I didn’t know you could draw like that.”
Mark gave the picture another look, then grinned at her. “So, hey, you doing anything after work today?”
“Um . . .” Suddenly, nothing Mark said seemed to matter anymore. Libby’s face was hot, and she could hear her blood thrumming in her ears. “Look, I have to get back to my shift.” She stood up so quickly she almost knocked her chair over.
“You okay, Lib?”
“Yeah, I’m great.” She smiled, the first genuine smile she’d had in weeks. “I’m great.”
When Libby arrived at 99¢ Dreams after work, Corrigan was at the desk, adding a new sheet to the catalog.
“Ms. Morell.” He flashed her a smile, his teeth blindingly white, as though he had a mouthful of snow. Libby hadn’t noticed before how white his teeth were.
“Hi. It worked!”
“Of course. It’s been thoroughly tested. Quite foolproof, and quite safe.”
Libby stepped up to the counter and flipped through the catalog to the picture of the man and woman embracing before the sunset–Item 47C. “I came back for this. I want this sample, please.”
Corrigan’s smile didn’t change, but his eyes sharpened. For one uncomfortable moment, she thought he looked hungry. “Are you certain?”
For the first time since she had drawn Sasha’s face, Libby faltered, a knot of fear twisting in her stomach. Corrigan’s face was wolfish, and she could see from this distance that his teeth weren’t white but translucent, almost blue like fine china, lined with tiny fissures. But then she thought of Sasha’s hand stroking her hair. “Yes.”
“Very good. Very good.” He reached behind the counter and pulled out a brass sign that read Back in 15 Minutes. “Will you come with me, please?”
He led her into the back room. Libby hung back for a moment, half-worried that she’d step in and see a bubbling cauldron full of eye of newt. Instead, she saw another desk and two overstuffed chairs. The only unusual thing was the long set of shelves lining the walls, covered in tiny bottles and candles and bundles of incense, each labeled with a number and a letter. “Sit down, please, Ms. Morell,” Corrigan said, taking his place behind the desk. Libby did. “Now. I believe I mentioned that these samples are not entirely free.”
“And you’re willing to make the transaction? A dream for a dream?”
The knot of fear twisted tighter, but she nodded again.
“Very good. Sign your full name here, please.” He pushed a contract covered in tiny print toward her. Libby didn’t look at it. She knew that if she did, she’d change her mind–she’d just go home and cry herself to sleep, alone. Instead, she signed it. “Excellent,” Corrigan said, popping the contract into a desk drawer. “Thank you, Ms. Morell.” He rose and pulled a red candle off the shelf. “Now, burn this–”
“Wait,” she said. “The dream. What dream am I trading? I, um, I sort of had one in mind. See, I’ve always wanted to be a professional musician but I’m not very–”
Corrigan raised a hand to silence her. “Forgive me, Ms. Morell, but your offer won’t be necessary.” His voice was bright and crisp. “The dreams that people offer in exchange tend not to be potent enough–if a dream is strong enough to be of any use to me, it’s too strong to be sold willingly, you understand. But I have your signed contract here. I’ll find something to extract from you.”
Libby blinked. “What?”
“You have willingly consented to trade dream 47C for another dream of equal or greater value, and have given me your true name. I need nothing more from you.” He set the candle down on the desk in front of her. “As I was saying, burn this before sunset in a non-metal holder next to some personal item of hers, or an image of her–creating an image shouldn’t be too hard for you now, hmm?” He smiled, a ghastly smile, translucent blue and full of cracks. “The rest should take care of itself.”
Libby’s mind was in a whirl. “Yeah, I already drew . . . but, I mean, but what if I change my mind?”
“Oh, I doubt that will be an issue, Ms. Morell. I doubt it very much indeed. Never once have I had a return.” He shook her hand briskly. His skin had an earthy smell, like mushrooms, but underneath there was a faint current of rot. “Enjoy your dream. Do come again.”
It was barely noon by the time Libby unlocked the door to her apartment, the candle zipped securely into the inner pocket of her jacket–she had patted the pocket again and again on the way home, though there was no way it could have fallen out. She had the picture, but adding a personal item might make things safer. That wouldn’t be difficult. Sasha had taken most of her things with her, but a few had been forgotten, and Libby had hoarded those–breathing the sweet spicy smell of her from the shirt tucked between the couch cushions, riffling through the loaner copy of The Buddha of Suburbia, stroking the imprint of Sasha’s toes in the sandal with the broken strap.
She went through the pile and ultimately selected a feathered pendant that Sasha had bought during her native art phase. She placed the candle in a little bowl on the dining room table between the pendant and the sketch, then took a deep, shaky breath and lit it. The wick glowed orange, then flamed. It had the same faint, flowery smell as the salve she’d poured into her tea.
Please work, she prayed silently, never taking her eyes off the table, the candle, the pendant, the drawing. Please, please work. She didn’t know who she was praying to. She didn’t care.
In an hour, the candle had burned away. She stared at the bowl and the congealed red mess at the bottom of it, unsure of what to do next. She didn’t want to wash the wax out–that seemed like inviting failure. Even moving the pendant or the picture might ruin something.
Finally, she decided that the safest thing would be to leave them on the table. She’d figure out what to tell Sasha when she came back. When she came back! Libby couldn’t bite back a squeal of joy. She thought about doing something special–making an elaborate dinner, maybe whipping up Sasha’s favorite eggplant roulade recipe–but that would imply that she knew her lover was coming back, and that would be much harder to explain than a pendant and a bowl of melted wax.
She sat down and played through a few pieces on her cello to try and clear her head, but she couldn’t make herself concentrate. Anxiety turned her fingers into sausages on the strings and made the bow shake in her hand. A low but intense cramp was beginning to throb in her belly, and she knew that it was at least a week early for her period. She put her cello away and made herself a cup of tea–Sasha had always said that there was nothing like a good cup of raspberry tea for the curse–and drank it down, barely tasting it. She paced. She waited. Dinnertime rolled around, but by now her stomach felt as though it were being squeezed by some cruel child’s fist and she had no appetite. She curled up on the sofa with an old blanket and a hot water bottle, turned on the news, and fell asleep in the flickering light of the television.
“He’s beautiful, isn’t he?” Libby said, nodding to the bassinet in the corner of the hospital room.
“He looks like a constipated old man. All babies do.” Sasha smiled and tousled Libby’s hair, which still felt sweaty from labor even after a bath. “I bet he’ll be beautiful, though. Just like his mom.”
“I want to hold him,” Libby said, holding out her arms.
“Hell yes. I’m milking this mommy thing for all it’s worth.”
Sasha picked up the baby, barely more than a bundle of blankets. As she did, he began to wail, a thin, plaintive sound.
“Shh,” Libby cooed. “Come here, little one.”
Sasha cradled the baby, but did not bring him any closer to Libby’s bed. “He looks good, Libby-Lu. Healthy. Strong. I’m sure someone will take very good care of him.”
Libby’s heart began to pound. “What do you mean?”
Sasha stepped up to the bedside and smiled, her teeth brilliantly white, almost translucent. The baby’s wails were growing louder, turning into rapidly choked-out screams. “This is a good dream, isn’t it?”
Panicking now, Libby snatched at the bundle of blankets in Sasha’s arms. “Let me hold him!”
Still smiling, Sasha placed him in Libby’s arms, and his screams died away.
Libby pulled back the blanket, but there was no baby there, just a bundle of dried leaves that crumbled in her hands…
She awoke to the sound of a key turning in the lock.
It took a moment for Libby to remember where she was, lost in the space between dreams and waking, not quite knowing what she had just dreamed or why her heart was beating so fast. Then she remembered, and immediately clicked off the television. The apartment went dark. She tried to get up and turn on a light, but the fiery agony in her gut laced down to her legs, and she settled back into the couch with a groan.
The door opened, and she saw a figure silhouetted by the streetlights. The light clicked on, and there was Sasha, a suitcase in her hand, tears streaming down her face. “Libby-Lu?”
It was music, hearing her name in Sasha’s mouth again. Libby rose too quickly, winced, and hobbled across the room, hardly able to believe that it was all real. “It’s you,” she said, touching Sasha’s face, her hair, her shoulders, anything she could get her hands on to prove that it was really true.
Sasha clung to her, crying. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry–I couldn’t stay away–I’m selfish–I told you, I’m selfish–” and those were all the words she could say for quite some time.
It wasn’t the passionate reunion Libby had been dreaming of–the cramping in her belly was too intense. Sasha insisted that they call an ambulance, but Libby wanted to go to bed and see if she felt better in the morning. She hadn’t slept beside Sasha in a month. She wasn’t going to lose that.
She lay in their bed, Sasha’s arm wrapped around her, hearing the soft breathing of the woman she loved. It was perfect, wasn’t it? It was everything she had wanted.
And yet, she felt like she was forgetting something, something important. She felt empty, as though the cramp were somehow hollowing her out.
“We can talk later about everything,” Sasha murmured, her voice thick with sleep. “When you’re better . . . about Toronto. . .”
Libby looked at her. “Toronto? What do you mean?”
But Sasha had fallen asleep.
Libby stared up at the ceiling, biting her lower lip, tasting blood. Toronto. They’d had some conversation about Toronto, she was sure of it, but she couldn’t remember what it was, like a dream . . .
There was another twist of pain inside her as her womb continued to unravel like a skein of yarn.
She couldn’t remember. It must not have been important.
For one last night, Libby cried herself to sleep.