Mystery Lights by Lena Valencia: Part 1
Lena Valencia’s “Mystery Lights” will appear in four parts this week.
The full story will be published on Friday, March 29.
This is Part 1.
It takes forty-five minutes for your eyes to adjust to the dark.
Wendy repeated her husband Chris’s instruction in her head. It was something he’d say stargazing in the Sonoran Desert with their daughter, Emma, back when they would do things like that as a family. No porch lights. No flashlights. No screens. Just look up and the sky would unfold, each constellation becoming more visible as the three of them sat in camping chairs in the desert dust, necks craned skyward. Now, nearly a decade later, his advice came back to Wendy as she squinted across the flat darkness of Marfa, Texas.
The Marfa Lights Viewing Area was little more than a roadside rest stop with telescopes and a couple of covered benches that looked out over the desert. The tiny orbs of light that appeared floating above the horizon from time to time were an unexplained phenomenon. UFOs. Ghosts. Heat lightning. They happened enough for the viewing area to be landmarked with a plaque. Tonight, there was a simple explanation: drones, paid for by the network. She sat with the rest of the tourists and paranormal enthusiasts, cameras on tripods and phones in hand, whispering. The man next to her held a camera in his lap and took swigs from a hip flask. He offered some to Wendy but she declined.
She was with her team. Katie, the administrative assistant, an ambitious, pudgy-for-LA twenty-five-year-old, scrolled through emails on her phone. Paul, Wendy’s producer, sat next to her, tapping the ash from his cigarette and taking his baseball cap off every so often to run his hand through his thick blond hair, something he did when he was nervous. Paul and Katie had been here for days now, monitoring the campaign. Wendy had only arrived late last night to supervise the conclusion, the campaign’s finale, which was scheduled for tomorrow evening. She turned her wrist and looked at the tiny glow-in-the dark numbers on her watch. 9:30. Sixteen minutes late.
“Any word?” she whispered to Katie.
“No,” said Katie, frantically scrolling, trying to refresh her mail. “Service sucks out here.”
When Wendy looked up she saw the blue-green afterimage of the phone screen’s glow in the sky. Her eyes would need to readjust. Damn. Then, off in the corner of the horizon, something else. A faint white circle of light, like a single headlight, but not anywhere near the road. It rose higher and higher up into the sky, glowing a bright white. More lights rose, twinkling from white to yellow to pale green, splitting apart in amoeba-like dances. The whispers of the people around them turned to excited chatter as they snapped pictures with their phones and cameras.
“Isn’t it great?” murmured Katie.
“They’re late,” said Wendy. She pulled her phone from her purse to take a picture but the man with the flask pushed past her, his camera making tiny beeps and whizzing noises as he attempted to capture the last visible orb, which rose higher and finally flickered out. The crowd applauded.
“Thanks,” said Paul, taking a bow.
Katie elbowed him in the ribs. “Dude, don’t blow our cover.”
“These idiots aren’t paying attention.”
“Kids,” said Wendy, “let’s get back to the hotel. We’ve got a big day tomorrow.”
When Wendy was assigned the Marfa Lights reboot, she was perplexed. The show hadn’t been cool, or even all that good, in the nineties. It was contrived—basically The X-Files meets Twin Peaks with the Texas flair of corrupt oil-baron-villains and a pair of overly attractive Texas Rangers (a skeptic and a believer) solving the supernatural mysteries. So why bring it back? According to the notes she’d received from the network, it had a “fiercely devoted cult following.” Katie, who’d squealed when Wendy had told her about the reboot, was one such devotee. Wendy had let her come up with some concepts, provided she did it on her own time. Like Katie, she had started out as an administrative assistant for a marketing agency.
She’d submitted Katie’s concepts alongside her own. The network had gone for one of Katie’s. The wackiest, most expensive one.
They would create their own Marfa Lights episode, in real time. In the weeks leading up to the show, they’d partner with various social media influencers who would post cheeky doomsday videos claiming the world was going to end on September fourteenth, the night the show premiered. That it would be known by the lights in the sky. They’d sent interns out in the cover of night to stencil the show’s tagline, “9/14 LOOK UP” in the place of the usual teaser print campaigns in New York and Los Angeles. They’d make their own Marfa lights in Marfa. “With drones!” Katie had chirped. It had been Wendy’s idea to have them show up at 9:14 p.m. Then, the night of the first episode, three hundred drones would take to the Marfa sky to spell out “LOOK UP.” Shuttles would be on hand to bring ticketholders to a drive-in movie theater down the road, where they would watch the Marfa Lights premiere.
There were all kinds of reasons the network should have said no. First off, it was happening not in New York or Los Angeles but in Texas, and seven hours outside Austin, at that. Secondly, it took place at night, and with these kinds of experiential campaigns you depended on people to take pictures and post them. Smartphone pictures just didn’t turn out that great at night. Thirdly, after all the permits and flights and hotels were taken into account, it was expensive. But the network didn’t seem to care about this. The network was obliging. The network had money to burn, apparently. It still made Wendy a little uneasy. She was nearing fifty-five, aging out of her industry, which meant that any day she could be dropped for someone younger and cheaper. Andrew Jacobsen had warned her.
Andrew was a copywriter, and a good one—the only one at the agency who’d been in the business for longer than she had. Andrew had been laid off six weeks ago. He’d received smaller and smaller jobs until finally they’d let him go, saying that they were eliminating the staff position entirely and outsourcing the work to freelancers. “I asked if I could freelance for them and they said I was overqualified,” he told her over drinks in a merlot-scented whisper the night he was laid off. “I think they just want young blood.”
She could not fuck this up.
“Paul,” said Wendy, sitting in the passenger seat of the car on the ride back into town, “can you figure out what happened? Why were they late?”
“Do you think anyone will even notice?” This was typical Paul. Passive-aggressive Paul. Asking questions instead of stating his mind. Making you disagree with him instead of the other way around.
“Find out what happened and make sure it doesn’t tomorrow,” said Wendy.
“Um, Wendy?” Katie uptalked from the backseat.
“There’s another email from Maria.”
Maria. One of the influencers they’d hired to help promote the show. “What does she want?”
“A walk-on role.”
The entitlement! “Shooting wrapped weeks ago. We don’t even know if we’re getting a second season yet.”
“She’s threatening to shut down our premiere.”
Paul let out a sharp croak of a laugh.
“Don’t respond to her,” said Wendy. She had been opposed to the idea of working with the influencers all along. Too many variables, too little control. But Irv, her boss, had loved it. Paul pulled into the hotel parking lot.
“This is your stop,” he said.
“Aren’t you getting out?” said Wendy.
“Grabbing a drink.”
“You too?” She turned to a frightened-looking Katie.
“Just one drink,” said Katie, smiling apologetically. “Want to come?”
Wendy deliberated for a moment. “I’ve got work to do.”
“We’ll be at Dead Horse Saloon if you change your mind,” said Katie.
“See you in the morning, Mom,” said Paul, smirking, as Wendy stepped out of the car. Their taillights disappeared down the empty street.
Wendy, Paul, and Katie were staying in what had once been a Bates-ish all-American roadside motel that had been renovated into an uber-hip hotel with poured cement floors, cowhide rugs, and record players in each room. This was, Wendy had come to learn in the short time she’d been in the tiny town, classic, self-aware Marfa. Catering to the desert-minimalist-chic trend that millennials were so enamored with these days. Wendy sat on the bed and took off her boots, brushing dust off the soft leather. Her feet throbbed and blisters were developing on both ankles. She’d forgotten her hiking boots in Los Angeles and had spent the day trudging through the desert grassland of the drive-in theater in her city shoes, a pair of soft suede ankle boots that were totally inappropriate for the job.
She walked across the chilly floor in her tights, pulled out a can of sparkling water from the mini-fridge, and called Chris.
“Howdy,” he said. His voice was far-off and she could hear the sound of a game in the background. Chris was a sports fan in the purest sense of the word. With no loyalty toward one team or another, he just loved to watch the games. Soccer was his favorite, and she’d sometimes wake up in the middle of the night to the ambient stadium roar punctuated by goaaaaaall coming from the TV room.
“Hey,” she said.
“How’s the trip?”
“The drone pilot fucked up.”
“Oh, no,” his attention elsewhere, “I’m sorry.”
“Have you heard from Emma?”
The game sounds switched off then.
“Yeah,” said Chris, “she’s fine. Just figuring things out right now.”
Their daughter Emma had, without telling either of her parents, dropped out of her expensive east coast liberal arts college and moved in with a friend in Brooklyn. After two weeks of successfully evading their calls, she’d admitted everything to them over the phone, saying she needed money to work on her music. Wendy had told her no, that if she was going to do what she was doing she’d need to find a job. Chris eventually talked Wendy into sending Emma a month’s rent to tide her over, but Emma had refused to speak to her mother since that conversation.
“Honey,” said Chris.
“What? I just think that moving to the most expensive city in the world is unwise if one doesn’t have a job, don’t you?”
“You know what the job market is like for kids her age.”
“Yes, which is why she needs to finish school and get that diploma so that we won’t be paying her rent for the rest of our lives.” It was an argument they’d had many times before. With Chris out of a job, they couldn’t afford to do rich-parent things, like pay the rent on their daughter’s ridiculously overpriced Bushwick loft. She took a furious sip of her sparkling water, wishing it were something stronger. It dribbled down her chin and she wiped it off. “Chris?” she said.
“It was one month. What did you want her to do? She’s not going to make rent busking.”
“She’s busking?” This was new. She imagined her daughter on a subway platform wearing the studded fire-engine red motorcycle jacket—Emma’s favorite, a relic from the eighties that had once belonged to Wendy—strumming the Springsteen and Dylan songs Chris had taught her as tourists passed, throwing quarters at her.
“Can we talk about this when you’re home?”
“I miss you. Bring me back a Stetson hat, can you do that for me?”
“Good night, Wen.” He hung up.
Wendy stared at the phone, her heart thumping with rage. She scrolled to her daughter’s number. It was after midnight in New York. What kind of mother calls their child after midnight? She pressed the call button. The phone rang, then went to voicemail. “You’ve reached Emma. Just text me, okay?” her daughter’s voice implored. She hung up.
The air conditioner switched off with a click. Muffled giggles and splashing came from the hotel pool. She typed the name of the bar into the mapping app on her phone. Like most establishments in Marfa, it was a five-minute walk. Katie and Paul, Angelenos through and through, had driven there. Grabbing her bag, Wendy set off into the night.
To be continued…
Next time, on “Mystery Lights” — Wendy heads to Dead Horse Saloon to join Katie and Paul for some drinks. There, they encounter a group of young women in matching wigs behaving strangely, speaking of “purity through chaos.” Back at the hotel, Wendy accidentally drunk-likes Emma’s latest Instagram post. The next morning, Katie and Wendy head to Chinati Foundation for a tour of Donald Judd’s art, and Katie can’t keep a guilty secret from her boss.
LENA VALENCIA’s writing has appeared in Joyland, 7x7LA, The Masters Review, and elsewhere. She has an MFA in fiction from The New School and is the recipient of a 2019 Elizabeth George Foundation Grant. She is the managing editor of One Story and teaches writing at Catapult and the Sackett Street Writers Workshop. For more information, visit lenavalencia.com