Mystery Lights by Lena Valencia: Part 3
Lena Valencia’s “Mystery Lights” appears in four parts this week.
The full story will be published on Friday, March 29.
This is Part 3. Part 2 is here.
Previously on “Mystery Lights” — To distract herself from family drama, Wendy joins Katie and Paul at the Dead Horse Saloon for too many drinks. There, they encounter a group of Maria Montecito groupies, who warn of “serenity through disorder.” Back at the hotel, Wendy accidentally drunk-likes Emma’s latest Instagram post, and is met with silence from her daughter. The next morning, Katie and Wendy head to Chinati Foundation, and Katie can’t keep a guilty secret from her boss…
Donald Judd created the structures at Chinati Foundation to outlast him, the bespectacled tour guide told them, he was obsessed with permanence. She spoke with profound reverence for the work, a priest sermonizing, as she led them through arid repurposed artillery sheds full of waist-high aluminum boxes polished to a mirrored sheen, variations on the concrete ones outside. Wendy noticed several young women in wigs on the tour, surreptitiously snapping pictures of themselves with the art, despite the no-cellphone policy. Judd had installed floor-to-ceiling glass windows facing the structures in the field. Plastic buckets caught water that leaked from the roof. So much for permanence, thought Wendy.
The group was filing out and walking toward the next building, which was nearly identical to the first. Inside were more rows of aluminum sculptures. The tour guide told them that this particular building had been a German POW camp during World War II. The remnant of a German phrase encouraging productivity was still visible on one of the brick walls.
Her phone rang, then. It was Irv. She signaled to Katie to step outside with her.
“Wendy,” he said, “how are things?”
“Fantastic!” she lied. She and Katie sat down on a bench, the phone between them, speaker on.
“Great,” he said. He launched into an anecdote about his dog’s groomer.
While he talked, Katie gnawed on her thumbnail. Instinctively, Wendy put a hand on her assistant’s arm to stop her. Katie folded her hands in her lap.
Irv shifted topics. “I saw the Montecito gal’s video.” Wendy braced herself for him chewing her out about getting Maria involved in the first place. “The network loves it. What a concept! I don’t know how you come up with these things.”
Relief surged through her. He thought it was all part of the campaign. Wendy played along. “She’s great, isn’t she?”
Katie started to say something, but Wendy held up her hand.
“You’re a true artist.” He went on, telling them his twelve-year-old granddaughter was obsessed with Maria and had a wig that she never took off. “You’re gonna do great tonight,” he said. “You always do.” He had another call on the line and excused himself.
Wendy hung up. “That went better than expected,” she said to Katie.
Katie sighed. “Does Irv know that this was my concept?”
“Does he need to know?” Wendy was annoyed now. Couldn’t the girl see that Wendy had her best interests in mind?
Katie stood up.
“Sit down,” said Wendy sternly. Katie did as she was told. She looked like she was about to cry. “You work for me. Irv doesn’t need to know who does what. You’re on my team.”
There were tears now. Wendy hated tears. She pitched her voice up a register and spoke quietly, like she used to do to end fights with Emma. “I would have been the one to get in trouble if he didn’t like it, you know. It goes both ways.” She wasn’t sure if this was the case. “The network wouldn’t have gone for your idea if it wasn’t a great one.”
“Thanks,” Katie sniffed. Katie was mature. Katie knew her place. Katie would go far in this industry. Wendy had been that way too, in the beginning. Had let countless male supervisors take credit for her work. But this was different. She was protecting Katie.
Wendy stood up. “Want to ditch the tour and grab brunch?”
“Sure,” said Katie.
They walked, then ran towards the car as a heavy rain began to pelt down on the two of them.
Wendy clutched the handle above the passenger seat window as their rented Prius bounced along the dirt road to where the drone pilots were preparing for tonight’s event. Her stomach churned with hunger—nothing had been open for brunch. “A Marfa thing,” Katie had said, nothing being open when it was supposed to. She stared at her phone until the signal disappeared, then turned her attention to the window. The storm had passed and the barren land made her feel uneasy, exposed.
A half-moon was visible in the blue sky. “Afternoon lunar observation,” she whispered to herself. It was something Emma used to shout from the backseat on road trips when she saw the moon in the daytime. At first, Wendy assumed that astronomy was one of the many fleeting hobbies of Emma’s that Chris had insisted they indulge. She had lobbied against the pricey telescope, and to do what—gaze into the marine layer? But when Emma got obsessed with something, Chris did too. He would stay up online, reading about stars or planets, reciting bits of trivia back to her. Wendy could still remember the deep flush of anger that one Christmas at his parents’ house as Emma unwrapped the quarreled-over telescope—a gift from her grandparents—and threw her little arms around her grandmother’s neck. It was betrayal, was what it was, Chris going behind her back and asking his parents to buy it for Emma. Making Wendy look, once again, like the bad guy, the one who always said “no.”
But she’d been wrong. Astronomy had not been fleeting. For two years, there were multiple trips to the Griffith Park Observatory, and monthly sojourns to JPL in La Cañada. Then, finally, in middle school, it was left behind. Deemed “nerdy” by the girls Emma started hanging around with, girls who were more into soccer and boys than telescopes. So when Emma asked her parents if maybe she could get a guitar, and lessons, it was Wendy who said yes. Wendy who wanted to be the good mother. And if Emma hadn’t been so good with a guitar, if her singing hadn’t come so naturally, a hidden talent ignored throughout most of her childhood, then Wendy wouldn’t be in this predicament: waiting for a message, a phone call, a sign of life from her girl.
Paul drove, cursing as he steered to avoid rocks and potholes. She turned to look at Katie in the backseat, who was staring at her phone. How often did she call her mother? Maybe what Emma was doing was totally normal.
“Hey,” said Wendy, and Katie looked up, pert and expectant. They came to a stop next to a wooden post with a tattered piece of black cloth around it, fluttering in the wind.
“We’re supposed to stop here,” said Paul. Here was the middle of nowhere. The viewing station was a spec. Wendy could barely make out Marfa’s church tower in the distance. She stepped out of the car, her blisters sending tingles of pain up her legs.
“Where are the pilots?” asked Katie. She’d returned to her bubbly self since her confession to Wendy.
“About a half-mile that way,” said Paul, swinging his backpack over his shoulder. In the distance was an ancient barn, its façade the color of dust.
“Are you kidding me?” Wendy snapped. “You should have told me we’d be walking.”
“I told you we should have gotten a four-wheel drive,” said Paul. “You said it wasn’t environmentally friendly.”
Wendy was furious. “I didn’t know we’d be walking across the desert!” she said.
“I definitely said that the pilots were only accessible by four-wheel drive,” Paul insisted. He started walking in the direction of the barn. “You don’t have to come,” he called out behind him.
Wendy noticed that he and Katie were both wearing hiking boots. Had he told her? She couldn’t remember. She made a mental note to have a talk with him about his attitude when all this was over.
“I’ll go,” said Wendy. “Lead the way.”
They trudged through the dust, each step a knife to Wendy’s ankles. She was reminded of Cinderella, the Grimm’s version that she’d read to Emma as a child, how one of the evil stepsisters sliced off her toes to fit into the slipper and the slipper filled with blood. The sacrifices women made to escape their situations.
“Give me a minute.” She sat down on a boulder. Katie handed her the Nalgene from her pack and Wendy drank.
“Those shoes look painful,” said Katie.
“What size are you?”
Katie’s face brightened. “Me too!” She unlaced her hiking boots.
“You really don’t have to do that.”
“Don’t worry about it, seriously.”
Paul lit a cigarette and fidgeted with his ponytail.
Wendy winced as she peeled off her shoes. She’d bled through her socks and there were small dark specs on the leather interior. She slid Katie’s bulky boots on and stood up. They fit.
“These are cute,” said Katie, turning her ankles to admire Wendy’s boots.
“We’re going to be late,” said Paul.
“Right,” said Wendy. “Onward.”
To be continued…
Next time, on “Mystery Lights” — The team is unraveling. Will all their tireless planning for the Marfa Lights reboot premiere pay off? Will the drone pilots launch on time? Will the event at the Marfa Lights Viewing Area draw the crowd they need? In the seemingly endless hours waiting for darkness to fall, Wendy can’t help herself, leaving a voicemail for Emma. When the team finally makes it to the viewing area for the launch, they are not prepared for what they find there.
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