Riley Nelson

        She looked like a cowboy walking with a waltz in her head. She looked like she ate her dinner under the stars and drank moonshine with a sprig of rosemary. She looked like the man had got her down, but she’d just tipped her hat. She came into my shop and only left her scent. Saddle soap and lavender. No doubt about it. I’d seen her round the little diner some nights. Always alone. In the corner. Working on something greasy. She kept her hat down low, even inside. I don’t like to stare, never have. But, I noticed her. My husband doesn’t like her much. Says it’s weird she’s alone. Weird she likes her horse more than people. Weird she wears an old ruffled shirt and a heavy tweed coat fit for a man. I suppose he’s right. She is weird. But I still notice when she walks in my shop. She runs her fingers down the line of tallow candles, almost like she’s counting them. She sniffs the flowers in the vase, freshly cut from that morning. She picks up the blown glass and bounces sunlight off it. I watch her watch it sparkle. Normally she doesn’t buy anything. Just peruses, as some of my customers say. She doesn’t say anything neither. Just looks. And wanders. Then she leaves. She only comes in every month or so — usually when the sun is out, and all the school kids are outside playing. 

I always want to say something, but what would I say? When I see you on the street you look like you’re caught in the world’s sandstorm, brow all furrowed and shoulders all hunched against something invisible you feel, but I can’t see, but I know must be real.  But when you’re in my shop, you look like you’ve got the world turning all peaceful in your hand. You look like you’re above it all, and below it all, and to the side of everything. 

I never see her out at night. Only in the sunlight, or the humming fluorescent lamps in the diner. It’s not something I’ve really paid attention to or catalogued, but when I think of her I think of light. Sun-soaked cheeks and a halo of backlit hair wrapped in a tight bun. I wasn’t even aware of the connection — between her and sun — until I saw her hanging outside the bar one night, leaning against the wall outside, foot propped up, looking all cool-like. The picture looked wrong, somehow. I was with my husband, we were on our way to see a play in the town over. We passed by the bar, I looked, I saw, then we were speeding away. I haven’t forgotten that glimpse I got. She looked like a shirt turned inside out — the same general essence of the thing, but a little warped and wrinkly in places it wasn’t supposed to be. I’d never seen her in the shadows. How could you see her cheeks in the shadows? How could you see her bounce light off of glass in the dark? But I knew it was her. I would recognize that low-turned hat and dappled horse anywhere. 

I often wonder if it was my fault. I should’ve said something, but what would I have said? Officer, there’s a lady standing outside the bar right now, and I think she’s in trouble because she’s not supposed to be in the dark. No, I don’t know why. I don’t know her. I just know. Even to my ears now, as I stand behind my little wood counter and watch a pair of customers whisper by the candles, I know it sounds crazy. Some boys saw it happen. Saw it happen, or made it happen, I don’t know. They said she looked like a cougar crouching in the shadows, just waiting to pounce. They said she looked like she had a gun on her. They said it was only self defense. I haven’t seen her since. I don’t see her at the diner. I don’t see her on the street. I don’t see her wander through my shop and only leave her scent. It’s been almost a year now, and the sun’s sliding in through the back window, just like it always does, but the blown glass is gathering dust on the shelf.

Riley is a fourth year creative writing and theatre major from Austin, TX. She is disappointed to announce that she, unlike William Shakespeare, failed to produce any great works of literature during the pandemic. Perhaps next time.