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Next Best Thing to a Miracle photo

Casey is sitting on a stoop outside the ampm in smog-smudged Studio City, strappy sandals with jean shorts ripped to the cheeks. We stretch our bronzed legs across unrecognizable pavement, lean like statues, unbreakable, but our bodies ache from here to Kalamazoo. We’re the age where we can pass—the store clerk sells us smokes—but we can’t vote, not like we would. Not like it’d make one goddamn difference for us. For our lives.

The streets here are lined with citrus trees, but we’re still starving. Casey hasn’t talked since Butterman dropped us off, but I like that she’s contemplative. I imagine there will be questions later and she will taste my every word like I am the flower and she’s the bee. All I really know about Casey is that she dyes her hair Fuchsia Shock, is from some Dakota rez, and once had a dog she loved, a Shiba Inu named Sparkles. I feel like I know her, though. Sat so close in the semi, I had to remind myself that her body was her body and not mine.

Butterman made nice, easy small talk. The weather, cracked jokes. He was pale and lean, gaunt-cheeked, black leather jacket, dad undercover. He asked if we were sisters and of course I said yes and made up a story about how we ran away from our abusive stepfather, but it was Casey who got the worst of it. Butterman nodded and said, A damn shame. Over and over again, he said it, and I started to feel it, and it felt real. The care.

Casey didn’t seem to mind that I molded her into my made-up creation. A story easy to tell. Now, I can’t stop imagining her away. I dream up a Casey who’s a perfect big sister, an overcomer of adversity, someone who is A Good Person, who’s just experienced some hard knocks, someone who has it together and can take care of me.    

There are no lemon trees in Bozeman. Here, they’re everywhere. They share space with all the concrete and gates and security systems. Branches bend into frowns under the weight of sunshine. I’ve been staring at the trees since we arrived, but I’m stunned-anew every time my gaze falls on the shock of yellow. There’s too much traffic, but somewhere, not far off, someone can hear the perfect birdsong.

Casey must be a changeling. Her birth story doesn’t add up. She’s a tramp, and if I were a lady, I’d scold her. I’d put her in her place because what I secretly want is for someone to put me in my place. Still, I don’t blame her. Casey is the kind of girl who will be whatever girl fits your story. It’s survival. I get it. I just wish she’d stop bullshitting me. Still, I’m thankful that she was the one who gave Butterman a hand job, even though it’s like whatever.

Close your eyes, Casey tells me on the stoop. I do what I’m told. I imagine she will tell me the fairytale about the tiny girl who thwarts marriage-minded toads, but of course she doesn’t. This was the story my mother told, and Casey, this changeling, is many things but she is so not my mother, nor is she my sister. Already, I’m having to remind myself. I listen to Casey explain our next transaction. Her voice is a guppy—wet and pretty. She explains bartering, simple economics, but I don’t want to hear it. I’m imaging some far-off tropical place, a version of Hawaii. I’m imagining Hawaii so hard that my body is a palm tree, a tall drink with a wedge of sunset-colored fruit. Women sing me to sleep with uke lullabies. My body dissolves into sand.

Casey says close your eyes and I do it because I’m in love with dreams, next best thing to a miracle. Casey was raised by people who believed in spirits, so it’s always felt like a rebellion to get her hands on something she can hold. Cash money, she craves it. It’s a story I make up in my head. It helps me understand why Casey is gone, and my purse is gone, and my cell is gone, and my water bottle is gone, and why everything is gone when I open my eyes.


image: Will Hattman