Maybe: Cowboy

by Haley Z. Boston

art by  Sepide Afsheen Khanbolooki

Everyone in the whole world is asleep now except the four of them, going on and on, telling ghost stories, trying to scare each other, ending up scaring themselves. 

Everyone in the whole world, or at least this suburb, could float off into the ether – into all the abandoned malls and asylums and theme parks of death – and these girls would never notice, because now, this is all there is. 

Four girls telling ghost stories around the firepit. 

Only they aren’t allowed to turn on the firepit without adult supervision, and Doctor’s parents already went to sleep in some other wing of the house. So there’s actually no firepit. 

Four girls telling ghost stories in the kitchen, around the stove. 

Two burners lit, sitting cross-legged on the island countertop, with all the lights off, whispering, roasting marshmallows on plastic chopsticks and eating sour candies until their mouths go raw. 

Four girls nearing the end of girlhood, full of uncomplicated summers, not yet knowing just how complicated a summer could become. 

Just doing what girls ought to do in the middle of the night – revel in their haunting. 

One girl tells the story where, at the end, the man’s in bed, and it’s dark, and his hand’s laying off the side of the bed, and the dog’s licking it, which feels warm and right. Good dog, good doggy dog. But, then. The door creaks open, and he feels something heavy climb onto the other side of the bed, and he freezes, too scared to do anything. But, oh, he relaxes, feeling the familiar snout of his dog nuzzle into his neck. He cuddles his dog with his free hand. Good dog, good doggy dog. 

But.... wait. If the dog just climbed into bed, then who – or what – is still licking his hand? 

The girls squeal, and then get quiet again. Someone tells the one about the clown clock. Someone tells the one about Bloody Mary. Three of them want to try it in the mirror. One of them really doesn’t want to do that. 

Doctor’s brother has a friend over, too. They’re seniors, and they have facial hair and acne scars and devious inner monologues. The girls have given everyone codenames. These boys are Popsicle and Drugstore. They’re playing computer games in Popsicle’s room, their deep voices distant, humming. 

Popsicle and Drugstore come into the kitchen to get more snacks. Two of the girls flirt with them. Two of them roll their eyes at each other. The boys are more interested in the girls who don’t pay them any attention. This is a lesson the girls will learn again and again. 

Drugstore touches one of the girls’ shoulders, and she punches him in the arm. 

The boys leave. Now the haunting can continue. Someone tells the one about the dead kid in the water slide. Someone tells the one about the guy who snapped. 

Around three in the morning, everyone’s getting tired. Now it’s time for bed. Now, Cowboy says, I’ve got a good one. So, listen.

This is a true story. She says. And I haven’t told it to anyone.

All the girls have codenames, too. Hers is Cowboy. Everyone either admires Cowboy or finds her intimidating, a powerful position to hold. The other three are Baby, Dahmer, and Cherry. Cowboy looks at Cherry when she says this part, about having not told the story to anyone. 

Cowboy and Cherry have become close, even though Cherry just moved to town eight months ago, and Cowboy’s always been here. They’ve started to share things like stories they haven’t told to anyone. Cherry feels hurt that Cowboy’s chosen this forum to tell a story she hasn’t told to anyone. How many anyones is Cowboy telling stories to, that she hasn’t told to anyone? 

I keep seeing this... woman. I’ve seen her three times. She’s following me. 

The first time was a couple weeks ago, when me and Doctor went to a midnight movie and we were the only ones in the theater, and the movie sucked, it wasn’t even scary. But like halfway through, this woman came in. And she just stood there looking at us. Like, not looking at the screen or anything. We were in the back row. And she was just... staring at us. It freaked me out. I grabbed Doctor’s arm like this – 

She demonstrates on Cherry, holding her wrist through her sweatshirt. Cherry feels special again, especially when Cowboy keeps her hand around Cherry’s wrist for longer than the story warrants. 

Cowboy gave Cherry her codename. It wasn’t because she could tie a cherry stem with her tongue. It wasn’t about losing her virginity or about the color of her lips. It meant more than that. 

The woman went to pick a seat, near the front, and the whole theater’s empty, but, she did something weird. She stopped at every seat and looked back at us. Like, trying out every seat, and then looking at the screen, and then turning around, and looking at us. Every seat. Like she was checking where we were in relation to her. Eventually she picked one... one where she’d have the best view of me. 

I couldn’t stop watching her. Every once in a while, she’d turn around and look at me. I stopped paying attention to the movie, all I thought about was this woman and what she was doing. But when the movie ended, she was gone already, even though I hadn’t seen her leave. 

There’s a creaking noise that keeps coming from upstairs, though no one is up there. This scares them. Every noise starts to scare them. 

Doctor saw her too? – Baby asks. Doctor saw her too – Cowboy says. 

Doctor is asleep right now in the living room. She didn’t want to tell ghost stories. She doesn’t like scary things. 

The second time I saw the woman was after the swim meet last Friday. She was just across the street, watching me when we were getting on the bus. 

Shut up – Baby says, scared. Cowboy nods. Cherry gets freaked out, knowing Cowboy well enough to know she isn’t lying, but not well enough to know how the story ends. 

Who is she? – Dahmer asks. She’s old. Like, sixty – Cowboy says. 

The third time I saw her was at my house, last night. It was late but I was awake. I didn’t hear a noise, I just suddenly felt like I wasn’t alone. Like I just knew she was there. For a couple minutes I didn’t want to look. I imagined what her face would look like up close. 

And then I did look. Her eyes were really wide, like really really wide. And she opened her mouth, really really wide. And, like, my room’s on the second floor, I mean, I don’t know how she was doing that, standing there. Was she really really tall? And I just ran to my bed and got under the covers, and my heart was pounding. And like, if she’d pressed her face up against the glass, she could’ve seen me in my bed, she could’ve been watching me, but I didn’t look again. I thought she’d go away. 

But then I heard her voice in the room. 

Everyone is quiet. They look around the kitchen, and into every dark corner that extends beyond the kitchen, and the empty corners feel suddenly like knives ready to slice the girls down the center. They look at the windows that look out on Doctor’s sprawling, dark, wooded backyard. Cowboy doesn’t live far from here, only a half a mile, maybe. What if the woman showed up now? If she was following Cowboy, couldn’t she be here, too...? Couldn’t she? 

And her voice said something. And I can’t get it out of my head. 

The lights turn on in the backyard, all at once. 

Dahmer and Baby and Cherry all scream. Cherry hides her face in Cowboy’s shoulder. Cowboy doesn’t scream, she just scans the backyard, looking for the woman. 

Doctor wakes up. She tells the girls in the kitchen to shut the fuck up, or her parents will be mad. And why are the burners on? Jesus Christ, isn’t that how Sylvia Plath died? (No). 

The woman from Cowboy’s window is not outside. It’s just two coyotes running through the yard. 

The lights are motion-activated, you assholes, Doctor says, annoyed. 

The girls join Doctor in the living room, becoming a pile of bodies, blankets, pillows, irreversible fears, and couch cushions. Cowboy lays with her back to Cherry. Cowboy is still. Cherry sidles up to her and whispers – What did the woman say? Cowboy doesn’t answer for a long time. 

Then she turns over, and she looks into Cherry’s eyes, and her own eyes are all welled up, and for the first time she looks terrified, and she says, slowly, as if saying it aloud makes it truer – 

She told me what’s going to happen to everyone. 

What does that mean? Cherry asks. 

Cowboy says it again, slowly. Their faces are sideways. Cherry wonders if this is what the woman looked like, face pressed against the window. She told me what’s going to happen to everyone.

You mean us? All of us? Cherry motions to the pile of sleeping girls.

Cowboy nods. Cherry swallows. She thinks, what’s going to happen to us? But she doesn’t say it out loud. I don’t want to tell you. Cowboy says. Cherry nods.

They lay in silence for a while. There’s only the faint sound of the boys in the other room, killing things on the computer.

Jessie, Cowboy says, using Cherry’s real name, What if she comes back?

What if she doesn’t? Cherry says.

Cowboy doesn’t know which one is worse. 


Eight years go by. Jessie tells the story of that story sometimes, to new friends at dinner parties, or around firepits, real firepits. She embellishes a little, to give the story a better ending, because there isn’t really one. 

Most of Jessie’s made-up endings involve more visits from the woman. Sometimes, the woman would get close enough to touch. Sometimes, the woman was a dream, a nightmare. An apparition. A feeling. A trick, a lie. Evil, angelic, disfigured. Sometimes, the woman was an escaped convict, a witch, her mom. Sometimes she was you. Sometimes she was me. Sometimes, the woman wouldn’t be able to find Cowboy. She’d stalk the nights saying, Cowboy, Cowboy, Cowboy. 

But in reality – nothing ever happened with that woman. She never came back. Or if she had, Billie never talked about it again while they were still friends. 

Though Jessie does still think of Billie often. Their friendship got closer after that night. They spent every day together. Every waking second, every dreaming one. It felt like hurdling through time. It felt like snow days at dawn, and like hot molasses, too.

And then their friendship became complicated, as things tend to. You get close, and everything gets clearer, everything speeds up. And then you get too close, and what was once simple becomes jagged and blurry, and you end up wandering around empty amusement parks, looking for each other. Standing in the wrong lines, getting on the wrong rides, wasting all your tickets. 

And then Billie went to college on the other side of the country, and Jessie still had another two years of high school, and she tried to stay in touch, but their communication dwindled from monthly to quarterly to yearly birthday texts that turned into simple emojis back and forth – a cowboy hat, a pair of cherries – to nothing at all. 

Except once, after three years of nothing, when Jessie was twenty-three and got drunk at her cousin’s wedding, and she texted Billie and said: Cowboy, cowboy, cowboy. You can’t run off into the sunset without me! 

The text sent in green, and Billie never replied, and Jessie was so embarrassed the next day that she deleted Billie’s contact from her phone. 


Two more years go by. Jessie goes by Jess now. She’s twenty-five. She’s been through things like saying I love you for the first time and not meaning it, the death of a childhood pet, discovering a new favorite author, the purchasing and installation of a window A/C unit, the totaling of a car, becoming obsessive about her weight, saying I love you for the first time and meaning it. 

She’s on her way home for Thanksgiving but her flight gets canceled because of the weather. She ends up in a foreign airport in the middle of the night, in a city she’s never been to, waiting for her next flight. It’s so empty here, so full of buzzing florescence. Until…

Jess would recognize that blonde hair anywhere. 

Billie’s in a different terminal, going the other direction. Just landed. Not coming home for Thanksgiving – going. Going somewhere else. 

Jess stands there watching Billie. Billie’s on her phone, talking to someone. Not animated, not upset. Just normal. Billie has red-painted nails. Billie looks the same, is the same. 

Billie turns and turns, absently. Jessie gets that same old feeling she always used to – the click-click-click of the rollercoaster car, the peak, etc. 

Billie turns and turns, heel to toe, and then notices something. 

A woman watching her through the window. 

Billie’s mouth falls open. She smiles, she tells the person on the phone to hold on, and she gives a big wave to Jessie, jumping up and down. Jessie waves back. They stand like this, just waving at each other for longer than normal, even while Billie goes back to her phone call. 

Billie’s still smiling while she talks. They wave and wave, like ending it would mean something. 

But Jessie has to go, her plane is taking off now. She waves goodbye to Billie. It looks the same as all her other waves. 

She gets a text twenty minutes later from an unknown number that her phone decides is “maybe: Cowboy.” It says – CHERRY??????????

Cherry responds, Cowboy??

Cowboy doesn’t respond. 

Cherry texts her a few days later, Happy Thanksgiving Cowboy. I think of you a lot. Do you remember that story you told us all those years ago? About the woman.

Cowboy responds, a day later, with three cherry emojis and text underneath: jackpot, baby.

Jessie reads it several times, not totally understanding. A slot machine reference? She toys with responding, but doesn’t know how to speak Cowboy’s language anymore. She wonders if she ever knew. Something about this feels sharp, like a needle prick. 

Cowboy sends another text, though, days later. It just says – of course.

Is she still there? Cherry asks. 

Cowboy never responds. 


Three more years go by. Jess is twenty-eight and she’s just gotten dumped, and she’s just moved into a new apartment. She lives alone, in a big city, feeling small sometimes, and not small other times. She can hear her next-door neighbor snoring some nights through the walls. She finds this comforting. 

Jess stops at a secondhand store near her apartment. She needs a new coffee table. She doesn’t find one. Instead, she finds a red cowboy hat. It looks almost identical to the hat Cowboy always used to wear. 

She feels it. Worn, soft, a stray white dog hair clinging to it. She smells it. It doesn’t smell like Cowboy, but Jessstill carries the hat around the store. She walks slowly down all the aisles, aimless. The shopkeeper, a woman, following her. 

Jess feels a distinct feeling that she can’t really describe. Later she tries to describe it to her best friend as thirsty, but for a drink that doesn’t exist.  Or maybe one she’s never tasted before. Her best friend says, like nostalgia? But that’s not exactly it.

Jess turns to face the woman. The woman comments on the hat. She says, that one’s got a story.

In all of Jess’s made-up endings, the woman from Billie’s childhood was never a shopkeeper with Dr. Pepper flavored eyes. Jess decides this woman simply can’t be the woman. She is not friendly, but not unfriendly either. She is just there. 

Jess asks this woman for the story about the hat. She looks at it and shakes her head. I don’t know the story. I just know it has one. Look at it!

Jess looks at it. She looks at the woman. The woman looks at the hat. 

In between the airport incident and now, Jess had rarely thought of Billie. She’s stopped telling the story of Billie’s supernatural stalker, stopped finding it satisfying to come up with different endings, even stopped believing it entirely. 

But then – something happens the night of the hat. 

Cowboy. Cowboy. Cowboy. 

Jess hears these words in her room while she’s falling asleep. She doesn’t know who said them, there’s no one else there. She turns the light on and looks around the room. There’s no one. And the thing that haunts her most is that this –  the voice sounds familiar. 


A couple weeks later, Jess gets a DM from Leah whom she hasn’t spoken to since high school. Leah used to be called Dahmer. Leah asks Jess if she’s going next Saturday.  Jess doesn’t understand. Oh. Leah says. I’m so sorry you didn’t know. What’s your email? She forwards an email from Billie’s parents. 

Jess goes back to the secondhand store. The hat is gone. The shopkeeper isn’t there, either. 

Jessie flies home. She can’t believe she’s really here – for Billie, for Cowboy. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Billie was only thirty. Jessie sees Leah there, and Nina – who once was called Baby. Other girls from high school. Teachers, and parents, and siblings. 

Jessie doesn’t even know how Billie died. She tries to put together clues. There aren’t many. 

People speak vaguely. They focus on Billie’s life, not her death. Jessie drinks Bloody Marys and wonders if any of these people were Billie’s lovers. There are no obvious lovers here, no husband or wife, boyfriend or girlfriend. No one donning a cowboy hat, or even boots. Then she asks Nina, when they find themselves alone together in the bathroom, how Billie died. 

Nina whispers, Well. I think she, like... you know...

Nina makes a hand motion. Jessie understands. 

You know, I ran into her a couple years ago, at Christmas. She asked about you. She asked, do you ever talk to Cherry anymore? But you and I hadn’t talked in a while so I didn’t really have anything to tell her. I told her I thought you looked happy on Instagram. 

Did she say anything else? 

Not really. Nina says. She looked good. Still pretty, you know, and skinny. She got that horrible tattoo redone. She filled it in with red. I could see her ribs.

Jessie smiles. She and Billie had gotten tattoos together, sometime when they were still riding the same rides. It was a shady operation, neither of them were eighteen yet. Billie got a pair of cherries on her wrist. Jessie got a cowboy hat on her ass, high up enough that you wouldn’t be able to see it at swim practice. 

Nina seems to want to move on. She brings up her own problems, an ex-boyfriend, drama with her sister, a hint at an ongoing eating disorder. Jessie touches her arm, not listening, and asks if she remembers the story Billie told them at that sleepover, all of them sitting around the stove. Nina remembers being scared, but doesn’t remember the details. 

I always thought we would mean more to each other, me and Cowboy, Jessie says at Nina. Jessie’s drunk on Bloody Marys. Nina just nods. Did she seem haunted? Jessie asks. Nina stares at her, not understanding her at all. 

I mean. Do you think she’s really dead? 

Well, yeah.
Nina says. Where else would she be?

Jessie flies back to the big city. She falls asleep on the plane and dreams of Cowboy in an amusement park, surrounded by other dead people, making snow cones, operating the rides, conning people out of their money. Don’t cowboys always find their way back to the places that matter? Cowboy. Cowboy. Cowboy, with her broken tooth, with her tattoo filled in, with her story, and her ending. 

Jessie’s plane lands, and at the airport, she passes a bridge that looks out on another terminal. She texts Cowboy, What was it like, to fly off the tracks?

Cowboy, obviously, doesn’t respond. 

Jessie texts Nina, too. She says, but it wasn’t supposed to end like this. And Nina writes back, hours later, after Jessie has already gone to sleep – maybe it was.


Time passes. Jess gets a promotion at work. She goes through things like a minor health scare, a bachelorette party, a romantic tryst with a narcissist, a bachelorette party, a drawn-out fight with her mother, a bachelorette party, the end of an era, the beginning of another. 

It’s cold in the city when Jess receives an envelope in the mail. It’s from Billie’s parents. There’s a note inside that says: Dear Jessie. We found these in Billie’s things. Maybe you’d like them back.

The envelope is stuffed with girlhood love letters, from Cherry to Cowboy. Jessie doesn’t read them, too embarrassed. She puts them in a drawer. There are also photos, photos of them together at swim meets, afterward at the mall, smiling, cheeks pressed together, Cowboy in her obvious cowboy hat. 

But there’s one more thing. An unopened envelope. It says: For Jessie, if something happens. 

Jessie opens it. Inside is an old, folded piece of paper. It’s light blue. Jessie recognizes this paper from a specific notebook that Billie had in high school. It says this, in urgent teenage handwriting: 

Dahmer: 2076 
Baby: 2054 
Cherry: 2052 
Doctor: 2049 
Cowboy: 2023

The first thing Jessie does surprises her. She cries. 

And the second thing surprises her even more. She calls Baby. Baby doesn’t pick up. She leaves a message. She doesn’t call Dahmer, because dying at 82 doesn’t seem so bad, at least not compared to the others. 

And as for Doctor... Jess can’t even remember her real name. 

That night, Jessie thinks about the time she and Cowboy went to an amusement park in the town next over. Everyone else had gone, and it was just the two of them. They’d ridden dozens of rides together, screaming, nails digging into each other’s skin, pressed together by the forces of gravity, speed, mystery. 

Jessie and Cowboy sat at a picnic table, surrounded by fried foods, rigged games, and unwanted attention. They were talking about their biggest fears. Jessie didn’t have any that she felt she could say out loud. 

But she did have this. This thing she’d never told to anyone. She told Cowboy she had this weird fantasy sometimes, that she’d be on the biggest rollercoaster, and when the rollercoaster hit its hardest and fastest turn, the car would fly off the tracks, and all the fabricated danger would suddenly become real, and experiencing that switch would be the most honest feeling in the world.  There couldn’t be anything else like it. 

Cowboy was eating a cherry when Jessie told her this, and she was so taken by this truth that she’d bitten down hard, and cracked her tooth on the pit, and it hurt so bad, and it bled. And at the first aid tent, Cowboy had said, But, if that fantasy came true, you’d be dead

Jessie had shrugged, then, so unafraid of death. Well. Jessie said, that’s my answer.  Cowboy had smiled, satisfied with that. Well, Cherry, Cowboy said, looking Jessie right in the eye, your freaky little death fantasy broke my tooth.

Cherry became Cherry, then. And Cowboy never fixed her tooth. She liked to run her tongue along its jagged edge, believing one day, it would become smooth, like ocean pebbles do. 


Five years go by. Jess gets married on New Years Eve. She marries someone who in some ways really reminds her of Billie, and in some ways really does not. 

After the wedding, they pack up their apartment to move somewhere more grown-up. Jessie finds the envelope while packing. She sits down on the dusty apartment floor and reads all the silly love letters that Billie had kept for all these years. 

She’s no longer embarrassed by them. They feel like a path set in motion long ago.

That night, she tells her wife about Billie, about the story from the sleepover, about the subsequent radio silence, sometimes static, sometimes music. About Billie’s ending. About the note that predicts Jess’s own death, at age 58. 

Her wife listens patiently, but tells Jess that she shouldn’t read too much into a note that a seventeen-year-old wrote, based on a thing someone said to her in a dream. 

It wasn’t a dream, Jessie thinks, but doesn’t say aloud. 

Jessie and her wife are laying in bed, the same way Cherry and Cowboy had laid together on the floor that night, with the future looming over them so imminent, so certain. And then, Jessie’s wife says, Maybe she did it so she could be right. So all of it would make sense.

Jessie doesn’t like this answer. Cowboy wasn’t known for making sense. 


Many years pass. Jess does things like have daughters, two of them. She does things like get a divorce, lose a parent, work too much, mourn a cat, teach her girls about death, and joy, and meditation. She takes them to playdates and sleepovers and amusement parks, watches them ride the rollercoasters, again and again, making friendships with girls and boys who might end up at the end of the world with them, or might end up mattering very little, after it all. 

She does things like get a tattoo removed (not that one), get remarried, inherit a step-daughter, say vows, run a marathon, sit on the countertop with her wife in the middle of the night, gossiping, roasting marshmallows over the stovetop. 

Jess’s daughters graduate college. They’re doing things like saying I love you for the first time, and mourning childhood pets, and getting tested for STIs, and smoking cigarettes for the novelty of it, and wearing suits to jobs, and fantasizing about their futures, their futures all around them with magnificent uncertainty. 

Jess’s stepdaughter turns fifteen. She’s doing things like learning how to skateboard, discovering Polaroids and flip phones, going to dances, and dancing. 

Jess does things like drop her stepdaughter off at sleepovers and pick her up in the morning. 

Jess’s stepdaughter tells her everything that happened at the sleepover, and Jess listens closely, listening for signs of Cowboy. But these sleepovers don’t have ghost stories, they have the Internet. 

Jess hasn’t told her wife about Billie. 

Or about the woman who’s been following her. 

This woman doesn’t feel sinister. It’s more like the feeling of having older brothers in the next room over, playing video games, deep voices humming through the wall. You know they’re there, but you can’t see them. And it’s not bad, actually. It’s warm, safe. 

Maybe that’s the difference between Cherry and Cowboy – that Cherry never looks, never sees the woman standing very, very tall outside her second-story window... 

But she can feel the woman getting closer...

She goes to the grocery store one unremarkable night. The night becomes remarkable. 


So, the rollercoaster car flies off the tracks. 

But it doesn’t feel like Cherry expected. 

Not sudden, or harsh. No, it feels like a necessary glass of water, like finding that your jagged tooth-bits have become impossibly smooth. Like she’s walking through an amusement park, and it’s nighttime, and the lights are pretty, flashing different feelings all around her. And the carousel sounds become soothing, endless.  And everything can be understood, and tasted, and everything is complete. 

In the far, far distance, by the tallest ferris wheel, Cherry can see the woman walking toward her. The woman is eating cherries, spitting their pits onto the ground. 

Cherry would recognize that blond hair anywhere.