Mystery Lights by Lena Valencia: Part 4
Lena Valencia’s “Mystery Lights” appears in four parts this week.
The full story will be published on Friday, March 29.
This is Part 4. Part 3 is here.
Previously on “Mystery Lights” — While touring the Chinati Foundation on the morning of the Marfa Lights reboot launch, Wendy and Katie receive the call from the Irv, who thinks the Maria Montecito video is part of their marketing program. Wendy chooses not to set him straight. Later, hungry and irritable, Wendy bickers with Paul when the team are forced to hike across the desert to meet the drone pilots. Emma’s silence is on her mind. Katie offers up her own shoes to appease Wendy, and the team must carry on…
The drone pilot was a pudgy bald man around Wendy’s age who patiently explained to them the logistics of the evening. They stood around a plastic folding table covered in computers and wires and watched a video of the drone formation plan on one of the tech’s laptops. Wendy was too anxious to pay attention. She ground her heels into Katie’s boots, feeling the sturdy, orthopedic spring of the insole. How much had they cost? What kind of twenty-five-year-old invests in something so practical?
The pilot led them outside to what had once been the corral of the old barn. There, glinting in the late-afternoon sunlight like giant insect robots at rest, were the drones. Their neat rows reminded Wendy of Judd’s painstakingly arranged aluminum sculptures. Two technicians in black jeans and T-shirts moved from machine to machine, turning each over, and making notes on their clipboards.
“Do you guys want to see them in action?” said the pilot.
“Um, yes,” said Katie, grinning.
“You won’t be able to see the shape as well, since it’s not dark out, but it should give you an idea,” he said. “Guys!” he called to the techs. “Let’s bring them up.”
The techs wordlessly walked through the barn doors and began typing on the laptops. A hum emerged from the drones in the corral as the swarm ascended through a cloud of tan dust and folded into formation.
“Nice,” said Paul.
“Thank you,” said the pilot.
“These will go up at 9:14, right?” Wendy said. “We really can’t afford another fuck-up.”
The pilot gave her a weary look. “Yes, ma’am,” he said. “On the dot.”
The drones began their descent as Katie took pictures with her phone.
“That’s so cool,” said Katie.
“This is small beans compared to what we’ve done for some of our private clients.”
“Really?” Katie’s eyes widened. “Like who?”
“We really need to get going,” said Wendy. “You guys are doing great, though. Thank you.” She shook the pilot’s hand.
“You’re welcome,” he said. “Jason can give you a ride back to your car.” Jason, one of the techs, nodded and led them to the Jeep parked in front of the barn.
They took a detour and cruised by the Marfa Lights Viewing Area. The parking lot was nearly full. People milled around, many of them wearing garishly colored wigs.
“Holy shit,” said Paul. “Jason, can you stop for a second?”
Jason did as he was told.
“That can’t be for us, can it?” Wendy looked at Katie, who was franticly typing something on her phone.
“It’s the Montecito video,” Katie said, glumly.
“Oh, Christ,” said Paul. “Of course it is.”
“I’m looking on Twitter and I guess all these people actually think that something’s happening here tonight. They think she’s going to be making an appearance or something?”
Wendy sighed. “It’s a publicity stunt for Maria.”
Paul spun around, “Look, you wanted to get people here, didn’t you? And that’s what we did.”
“Guys,” Jason blurted out, “no offense, but I’ve got to get back so that we can finish prepping for tonight.”
“Sorry,” said Wendy, “take us back to the car.”
Wendy lay in the hotel room with the curtains drawn, phone in hand. Emma had posted a new picture to her Instagram, or, rather, an old picture. In it, lanky fourteen-year-old Emma hunched over an acoustic guitar. Chris sat next to her, holding a ukulele, his mouth open in song. Like father… #tbt read the caption. Wendy had taken that photograph on one of the rare Sunday afternoons when they weren’t at each other’s throats. Mother’s Day, of all days. Chris and Emma had put on a show for her, performing the songs that Emma was learning in her guitar lessons, simple three-chord rock numbers. Some Nirvana. Some Police. Had Emma seen her Like? Was this a message? She thought of calling Chris and asking him about it but knew he would just laugh at her for spending time on Instagram in the first place. She texted Emma instead, even though she’d promised him she’d give her daughter space.
Honey it’s mom. Please call me.
Maybe the brevity of the text would indicate some emergency, scare her out of her youthful revelry for just enough time to call her mother and check in.
Two hours later, Katie came to her door to tell her that it was time. She still wore Wendy’s boots and, despite the serene expression on her face, the nails on the hand that clutched her clipboard were bitten to the quick. She smiled a tight-lipped smile and handed Wendy a lanyard with a “STAFF” badge clipped to it.
The three of them drove out to the now-congested viewing area. The glow of their headlights illuminated clumps of willowy girls in peasant dresses and wigs holding cardboard trays of tacos and sodas in glass bottles from the nearby taco truck that had decided to capitalize on the crowd, which was now spilling onto the highway.
“These chicks are crazy,” said Paul, as they passed by a circle of wigged girls, eyes closed, holding hands and humming.
“A little confusion is fine,” said Katie, “we just need them to be here, to document this.” Wendy raised an eyebrow, surprised at this level-headedness.
“Katie’s right,” Wendy said. “It’s already a story. We can spin it however we’d like after the fact.”
“Whatever you guys say,” said Paul, parking the car.
There was an electric anticipation in the air as they headed toward the viewing station. Wendy lost sight of Paul and Katie. She pressed into the crowd of wigs shimmering in the dim orange glow of the viewing area lights.
She was nearly to the viewing platform when she heard sirens. At first, she ignored them, momentarily forgetting that she was no longer in the city. It wasn’t until bright white floodlights lit up the parking lot that she turned and pushed her way through the girls toward the highway. There, the Presidio County Sheriff’s Department had set up a quick perimeter with two cruisers shining their lights on the crowd. An officer with a megaphone commanded them to disperse.
Chants of Fascist pig and Fuck the police rose in response. Wendy held her staff pass skyward, as if the ridiculous piece of laminated cardstock on a lanyard would protect her from the impending riot.
“Officer!” she called to a cop who now stood on top of his car. He looked down at her, squinting in disgust. “Please,” she said. “We have a permit.”
Two more officers helped him down. She saw from his badge that this was the sheriff.
“Ma’am, your guests are blocking the road,” he said, adjusting his cowboy hat.
Katie appeared at her side, with Paul. “We’ll be bussing them out of here shortly, Officer,” said Paul. “Just give us twenty minutes.”
The sheriff seemed to be willing to comply, until something across the parking lot caught his attention.
Wendy followed his gaze. First, all she saw was a group of girls standing still, phones in hand, recording. Then the food truck, swaying as girls hurled themselves into it. The cooks were out of the truck and trying to restrain them, but they were two against forty. It toppled with a crash. The crowd let out a cheer and jumped onto the truck’s side, dancing and whooping. Wendy felt sick to her stomach. The deputies at the sheriff’s side drew their guns and made their way toward the overturned truck. More sirens sounded in the distance.
The girls were throwing whatever they could get their hands on—tortillas, onions, raw meat. A soda bottle nicked the sheriff’s head, knocking off his hat.
“Ow!” he shouted, clutching his forehead and putting his hand to his holster.
He dusted the hat off, put it back on his head, and drew his gun. It all happened so quickly after that. More cops showed up. The girls shouted, taunting them. One girl, who Wendy recognized from the bar the previous evening, stood videoing with her phone as a group of them jumped on the sheriff’s car, cracking the windshield. The deputies were overpowered, helpless. Two shots went off.
The sharp, dry smell of gunpowder brought her back to hunting trips with her father and brother in the Vermont woods. Wendy dropped to the ground, just like her father had taught her. She felt violently nostalgic, choking up with emotion even though his death was years ago. He’d never really understood why Wendy had left Vermont, thought there was something smutty and pagan about Los Angeles.
“The cops are shooting at us!” one girl shrieked, racing past Wendy’s spot on the ground. A man’s outstretched arm appeared in front of her and she took it. It was Paul’s, his face twisted into a look of panic.
“Get in the car,” he hissed at Wendy, pressing the keys into her hand. “Katie and I will deal with this.”
Katie stood next to him, sobbing. Wendy felt her phone buzz in her jacket pocket.
“Hang on,” said Wendy, dusting herself off, heart pounding. As she took out her phone, the screams amplified, the girls ran out into the desert and down the highway, yelling. There were multiple texts. One from the shuttle bus driver, saying he couldn’t get past the police barricade that had been set up. One was from Irv, saying that the Marfa Lights hashtag had gone viral, that the sponsors were all happy, and congratulating her. Then there were texts from Emma:
Mom, saw the vids from Marfa
She felt a lightness, a joy. Purity through chaos. Serenity through disorder.
“Check your phone in the car!” barked Paul. “It’s not safe here.”
Katie let out another heaving sob. “I told you guys,” she said, to no one. “I told you guys.”
But Wendy’s attention was elsewhere. “Look,” she said, beaming, pointing past the mob. Over the horizon, glowing like hundreds of tiny stars, were the words Look Up.
It was, truly, her best work.
We hope you’ve enjoyed “Mystery Lights” this week! Please tune in tomorrow for Lena Valencia’s author’s note accompanying the full piece!
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