Mystery Lights by Lena Valencia
Who didn’t love the original X-Files? Which Gen Xers among us did not devour the original Twin Peaks? We hope you enjoy the Marfa Lights experience as much as we did on our first reading. Originally serialized in four parts, Lena Valencia’s cinematic “Mystery Lights” appears here in full. A delightful imaging of a reboot for a nineties-era cult classic show, Marfa Lights, this is the kind of story in which form and function work together seamlessly, that breaks neatly into episodes. We had a wonderful experience with Valencia editing this piece into serial segments. In “Mystery Lights” Valencia does many things well, including dialogue, subplot, and setting as character: the town of Marfa, TX is more than a backdrop here.
In Wendy, Valencia has created an unforgettable, wonderfully flawed main character. Through Wendy’s struggles with her family, her team, her job she is on the downhill side of, and all the forces of modern media infatuation that are well outside of her control, we see her raw humanity. If you’ve been following along all week, treat yourself to the author’s note, in which Valencia discusses the origins of this story and of Wendy. If you’re just joining us, we recommend dipping into the author’s note when you’re done reading, to get a taste for Valencia’s Marfa. —CRAFT
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.
Dead Horse Saloon was a tourist’s dive bar. Whoever had designed it had done so by focus group, ticking off all the boxes. Neon beer signs, check. A jukebox playing Hank Williams, check. Dark varnished wood everywhere, check. Dartboard, check. Dilapidated pool table, check. There were craft beers, though, and a cocktail menu, and instead of an old grizzled barkeep there was a clean-shaven young guy who would have fit in at any coffee shop in Silverlake. Wendy could see Paul and Katie sitting at the bar in front of him, looking at their phones. The rest of the room was empty except for a booth of girls around Emma’s age, all wearing brightly-colored bobbed wigs and taking selfies with one another. When had this narcissistic ritual replaced conversation?
Paul looked up and caught her eye, “Shit. The boss is here.”
“You came,” said Katie.
“I thought we may as well celebrate.” She examined the cocktail menu and ordered a tequila drink called a Green Goblin. “What’s up with those wigs?”
Katie inhaled sharply, as if about to say something, but instead looked down at her beer.
“They’re high as fuck,” Paul said.
Katie glared at Paul.
“What? They are! They told me—hang on, I wrote it down—” he pulled out his phone and read, “We are here to bring purity through chaos. Serenity through disorder.”
Wendy glanced over her shoulder. One of the girls was caressing the tabletop with her hands, a beatific expression on her face.
“Sounds like they’ve been watching our campaign,” she said.
The bartender set her drink down in front of her. “Seven bucks,” he said. She dug her AmEx out of her wallet and set it on the bar.
“Open or closed?”
Wendy hesitated. “Open,” she said.
“All right!” said Paul, giving the bar a slap.
The Green Goblin tasted tart and sweet and gave her heartburn, but she drank it anyway and ordered a second and a third one as Paul prattled on to her about bad Tinder dates, television shows, and a new bar in Highland Park that served only Texas beers. She’d never really spent time with Paul outside work. This is good, she told herself. Morale-building. But Katie’s morale looked like it could be better. She was ignoring them, mesmerized by something on her phone. After several minutes of this, she left, muttering something about a call she needed to make. When she was gone, Wendy took the opportunity to ask Paul what was wrong with her.
He shrugged. “She’s probably just tired,” he said. “Sick of me.” He smiled, his green eyes dancing, and brought his bottle to his lips. She thought of young Chris, driving her around the city in his gas-guzzling baby blue Ford Bronco, bottle of beer between his legs.
The girls behind them were playing the jukebox, singing along to a country song about a daughter forced into prostitution by her mother. One voice carried louder than the others, deep and breathy. Wendy gasped and gripped the bar to steady herself. It was Emma’s voice.
She spun around in her stool and stood up, clenching her cocktail napkin, inspecting the faces of the girls in the wigs. The one singing had her eyes closed and was belting out the chorus, Here’s your one chance Fancy don’t let me down, her face contorted in a passionate snarl. Not Emma. But the voice was nearly identical. The song ended and her wigged friends clapped.
“You okay?” said Paul.
She stared at the cocktail napkin she was holding and unclenched her fingers, letting it fall. The floor swayed beneath her and she realized she was drunk.
“I should get home,” she said. “Big day tomorrow.”
“Need a ride?” said Paul, eyeing the wigged girls.
“I’ll walk,” she said. “I could use some air, honestly.” The bartender brought her the tab and she paid it, then stumbled through the door and walked through the night back toward the hotel.
In bed, she opened Instagram and typed emmaraldcity into the search bar. A bunch of tiny square-framed Emmas sprang to the screen. In the most recent photo, she sported an asymmetrical haircut, long chunks of platinum hair framing half of her face. Her heavily lined eyes held a defiant squint, her dark lips in a pout. The caption had no words, just one of those little cartoon pictograms of a yellow girl smiling with scissors in her hair. Where was she? The photograph was taken outdoors—there was a street sign in the background. Wendy tried to zoom in, but accidentally double-tapped the image, causing a white heart to bloom and disappear over her daughter’s face. Crap. Her own account had no images—she used it only to monitor the various social media campaigns for work. It was her name, BendyWendy, that Emma might recognize. Some doll that Chris had found once at Toys-R-Us and bought for Emma, and the two of them could not stop laughing. She was still Bendy Wendy whenever she went to yoga, whenever either of them wanted to disarm her in her bursts of temper. She looked at the likes underneath the picture. 476. There was no way her daughter would notice one more, was there? She put the phone down and let herself drift to sleep.
The tour of the Chinati Foundation, with work by Donald Judd and several other minimalist artists, was supposed to be time off, a bit of culture before their final meeting with the drone pilots in the afternoon. Wendy had booked tickets for Katie and Paul, but Paul had texted moments ago declining, saying he had too much work. Probably just had a hangover, thought Wendy, sipping her third cup of coffee in the hotel café as she watched a group of girls pose for selfies in front of the mural across the street that said, simply, “See Mystery Lights” in bold white letters on a navy-blue background. It had rained overnight, and was threatening to continue on and off today. Wendy prayed it would let up by the evening. Her head throbbed. She had hardly slept the night before. Katie walked into the café at 8:15, fifteen minutes early. She looked tired, or tired as a girl her age can look, as she ordered a large coffee to go.
They walked out to the parking lot. “Rough night?” asked Wendy.
“Just some jitters about the premiere,” she said, forcing a smile.
Katie’s nervous silence throughout the short drive was punctuated by gulps of coffee at every red light and profanity at the wrong turns she took despite the GPS’s directions. They still arrived at the Foundation early enough before the tour started to wander the grounds, a cluster of military buildings surrounded by a field dotted with Donald Judd’s rectangular concrete structures—picnic tables for giants. Their sharp lines stood out against the rippling yellow grass, alien and imposing.
“What do you think?” said Katie finally, inspecting the sculptures.
“I don’t know yet,” said Wendy. The blisters on her ankles burned. The truth was she didn’t understand what the big deal was about minimalist art. Chris loved it. Used the word “sublime” to describe a painting that was nothing more than white paint on canvas. It felt out of reach to Wendy, who had spent her life in marketing, trying to make ideas accessible to the masses. Chris was the one who had insisted she book the tour.
“I think they’re magnificent,” Katie said.
They moved closer to one of the sculptures. It was taller than it had seemed from a distance—big enough for Katie and Wendy to stand inside, which they did, the concrete radiating a musty cool.
“Feel this,” said Katie, running her hand along the sculpture’s wall. “He poured the cement into plywood molds.”
Wendy ran a hand over the concrete. It was textured with a swirling woodgrain. A jackrabbit bounded by them, nose twitching. Thunder sounded in the distance.
Katie glanced at her phone. “There’s something you need to see,” she said, and handed her phone to Wendy.
On it was a YouTube video titled TURN OFF MARFA LIGHTS.
“Is this one of ours?” asked Wendy.
“Just watch it.”
“Greetings,” said the young woman in a purple bobbed wig. She sighed heavily, her entire body deflating as she exhaled. Her blue-painted lips were turned down in a somber expression. “Sometimes, we are taken advantage of. Our youth, our beauty used to make others wealthy.” She paused, nostrils flaring. “They’ve corrupted our language. Words like ‘radical’ are selling organic hand creams. ‘Disrupt’ is used by tech executives peddling apps. We’re sedated by mediocre narratives that keep us in our beds and on our sofas, keep us from engaging with reality. You have the opportunity to stop one before it starts, friends. I’m asking you to disrupt, to spread your radical beautiful energy around the small desert city of Marfa, Texas, where one of these shows is having its premiere. Hit them where it hurts, friends. Do what needs to be done. Purity through chaos. Serenity through disorder. Meet here on September 14,” GPS coordinates flashed across the screen. “This is Maria Montecito, signing off.”
Wendy glanced at the views. It had nearly six hundred thousand. More than any of their own promos. She handed the phone back to Katie. “I don’t understand.”
“Those girls in wigs last night, those were some of her fans.” She looked close to tears now, her face bright red.
“Katie,” said Wendy, placing a hand on her back, tentatively. “What’s wrong?”
“Her followers—her fans—they’re kind of unstable.”
Katie winced and typed something into her phone. “See for yourself.”
MARIA MONTECITO FANS LOSE IT, read the title of the video. In it, a group of wigged twenty-something girls were gathered outside an office building, chanting something inaudible. Two of them lit the contents of a trashcan on fire. The shaky camera panned to a cluster of girls throwing bricks. “Watch this,” one shouted at the camera, “I was in varsity softball.” Cheers erupted as the building’s front window shattered. The clip ended.
“That was outside the Denver Post newsroom after one of their columnists wrote an op-ed about Maria’s negative influence on young girls,” Katie said. “Maria sent a hand-written letter to each of those girls in the video, thanking them.”
“Did you tell Irv?”
Katie looked down and kicked a rock free from the dry dirt. “He’s going to call you about it this morning.”
“Christ,” said Wendy. It wasn’t my idea, she imagined herself saying to Irv. But that wasn’t the way things worked. Katie was her employee, therefore the work she came up with belonged to Wendy. And Irv didn’t care about details like that.
“We should go,” said Katie glumly. “The tour’s about to start.”
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.”
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.
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