Lights in the Atmosphere: A Short Story
SARAH GRACE VILLARREAL
Highway

The highway road stretched on and on through the dusty terrain. It faded into the horizon in the rear-view mirror as Krista sped on. Krista liked this almost autopilot feeling of going 75 mph on a mostly empty stretch of interstate. It felt like floating in an inner tube on a lazy river while staring at the clear summer afternoon sky. Calming. She pushed the thoughts of her parents begging her to stay home a little longer further down, deep inside her mind, into her being. She knew they were worried about her, but she wasn’t a baby bird anymore and she needed to leave the nest. 

Dad kept telling her to try to find a job in town, “Take another year off, I’m sure you’ll find something you like.” As if her lack of employment resulted from Krista not having a taste for said profession.

Mom begged her to stay in town at the very least, “Your cousin is looking for a roommate, why don’t you move in with her?” But they didn’t understand that Krista needed room to spread her wings. She needed to live life and feel the sun on her face and the wind in her hair, and she wanted to feel free.

A low rumble began rolling in her stomach demanding attention. Krista grabbed her water bottle and drank two large gulps. She didn’t want to stop yet. The water satiated her empty stomach for a total of 2 minutes. She let out a sigh loaded with her frustration.  A sign up ahead displayed a logo for a gas station and a fried chicken establishment with the words “Exit 259 in 10 miles.”

Krista spoke out loud to her unruly gut, “You can wait 10 miles. There’s really no other choice.” She sped up slightly and grabbed her water bottle to gulp down some cold water once again. As water slid down her throat, she visualized its journey down her esophagus, to splash into her empty stomach. She thought about her long scar that ran from her collarbone down her chest. It used to be a badge of honor when she was younger but now it burned hot with guilt and shame under her white T-shirt. She was breaking her parents’ hearts. She thought about turning around but the sign for the gas station exit popped up ahead of her at that exact moment.

The gas station was one of those large road stop affairs. Teens gathered around at the entrance slurping their multicolored slush drinks. They were only a few years younger than Krista, but they seemed like babies as they laughed and joked with each other. The cool air from the gas station washed over her as she entered. The smell of frying grease wafted towards the left side of her face.

Krista turned and walked over to the fried chicken area and ordered a meal that consisted of three breaded chicken strips, a cup of white peppercorn gravy, a cup of almost liquid instant mashed potatoes, a scoop of soggy fried okra, and a honey glazed biscuit. She sat down in a corner booth and faced the window. Krista pulled out her phone to let her parents know she was safe and in wherever the heck she was, and to see how much further she had before she reached Marfa. She figured a detour wouldn’t be so bad, and maybe she’d rather stay in West Texas, than go all the way to California. She checked her location. It read Fort Stockton, Texas.

She snapped a selfie while holding the styrofoam cup with the logo of a bizarrely happy cartoon chicken and texted it to her parents, “Hey, Mom and Dad, I’m grabbing some lunch and I’m about four hours away from El Paso in Fort Stockton. I’ll let you know where I’m staying tonight. Love you!”

Krista wondered if her old college friends had to do the same thing with their parents when they moved out. Of course, most of them left home at 18, went to school out of town, and basically grew up while she was still trying to convince her mother she could drive herself to class and pack her own lunch, or, far worse in her mother’s mind, buy it from the dining halls. Heaven forbid she eat dining hall food when she could have a much more nutritious homemade lunch.

Again, Krista felt that familiar pang of guilt right at the pit of her chest. She remembered the first time she told her mother about that pain. 7-year-old Krista sat in a little ball on her bed sobbing because it wasn’t fair that people had to grow up and grow old and die. 

“It hurts!” she wailed. Mom softly rubbed her shoulder. “I know mija, it’s sad but we have to enjoy what we have when we have it.”

“No! It hurts, right here.” Krista’s little body shook as she sobbed louder. “Right here.” She pointed to the spot right where her rib cage began to part.

“Oh. I’m sorry, love.” Her mother held her tight against her as she sobbed.

“Why does it hurt so much, right there.” Krista’s tears smeared against her mother’s soft blue blouse.

“Well I think that’s because that’s where your soul lives.” She stroked Krista’s curly brown hair and held her tighter.

Diner Booth

Now sitting against the cold vinyl fast-food booth, she wished her mom could hug her and tell her it was okay, because her guilt was burning a hole in that exact spot. She rubbed her scar, it felt better to pretend the pain was some sort of acid reflux ravaging her esophagus than to know it was a physical manifestation of a mental, or emotional, or hell, even spiritual ache.  

Dad texted back first, “That’s great honey. Call us when you find the hotel you’re staying at. We miss you.”

The pain got duller but stronger.

Then Mom’s text popped up. “That looks like fun! Love you, be safe. Call us when you can!”

She rubbed her chest a bit harder; mostly to comfort herself but also to make sure an actual wound hadn’t developed on the spot. She remembered what her therapist had taught her. She closed her eyes and took a long, deep breath in, counted to three and slowly exhaled. She did about five of these deep, cleansing breaths and opened her eyes. The sun was shining. A couple let their big black dog out of their luxury car to relieve himself on the stretch of grass by the restaurant. The teenagers had started filming themselves doing some dance she assumed must be a viral thing. An older man in a cowboy hat filled up the tank of his impossibly large truck.

She was somewhere new. She was seeing life in a new place that was the whole point of this trip, she wanted to see what she wanted.

She finished her lunch and started browsing hotels in Marfa, so it would mean she was taking a detour from her planned destination, she didn’t care this was her chance to explore. She had enough savings and credit to figure it out. Wander aimlessly around the Southwest and see if something stuck. Besides, her friend Teresa had moved to Marfa to work at an art gallery and maybe seeing a familiar face before the journey ahead would be good.

She grabbed her phone again and started texting Teresa. “Hi Teresa, are you still in Marfa? I’m going to be in town for the next few days and wondered if you’d like to meet up.”        

She placed her phone down. She inhaled and savored the wave of peace wash over her body. She started eating again and began to plan what she’d do once she got to Marfa. Of course, she had to see the famous Marfa lights, but Marfa had become such a novelty place, such a tourist destination that she knew there must be other things to do.

Her phone buzzed and she saw a message from Teresa.

“Hey girl! How are you? Yeah I’m in Marfa, I’m working today but I have tomorrow off where are you staying? If you don’t have dinner plans it would be great to meet up!”

Krista felt a mix of excitement and terror. She hadn’t spoken to Teresa in so long and while a reconnection would be awesome, she had felt the sudden shame at having to tell her how she hadn’t really done anything in the year since they graduated. Krista decided to search for a place to stay settling on this hipster boutique motel with tent and RV rentals that wouldn’t cost too much.

After a few back and forth texts she had dinner plans to meet Teresa at a popular food truck spot after she got settled. Most of her shame and dread had faded by this point and she practically skipped around the gas station picking out snacks and drinks for the remaining hour and a half of her drive.

Prada Marfa

As Marfa approached, Krista realized it looked more like most small towns in Texas and less of a South Congress in Austin vibe. But you could definitely spot the hipster influences, gentrification, perhaps. She started to wonder if all the hype came from people who had never visited a small Texas town, like Boerne, or Castroville, or, heck, Marble Falls. Of course, all three of those small towns happened to spring up in the green hill country and not the flat dusty West Texas terrain. It was an interesting mix of culture and setting. She tried to keep an open mind as she drove up to her motel.

Walking into the cool concrete “lobby” brought immediate relief to her flushed cheeks and sticky backs of her knees.  It had a surprisingly comforting combined scent of floral plug in air freshener and freshly brewed coffee.

“Hi! Welcome to La Constelación motel, are you checking in?” A cheery young woman with short sandy blond hair pulled back in a messy ponytail chirped as soon as Krista crossed the threshold.

“Yes, I made a reservation for one of your cabins. It’s under Krista Caballero, that’s c-a-b-a-l-l—”

The blond woman looked up, about to ask the question Krista had grown accustomed to and therefore answered before the question could be asked.

“—yes, two Ls, -e-r-o.”

“Oh yes, you’ll be in the Nopal Cabin. I’ll grab your key and show you to your room.”

They walked over the dusty grounds to a cluster of small cabins, each had a little window unit.

“The cabins have a sink and a toilet, but the showers are communal and right over there.” The blond woman pointed to a long building with two separate entrances, it reminded Krista of the one time her parents let her go to Girl Scout camp.

 It would be weird being a grown woman showering in a long row of outdoor showers. Was this normal? Is this what camping is like? Krista started to wonder if it would have been better to just stay at the Motel 6 on the outskirts of town. But no! She wanted to experience new things. She didn’t want to waste her 20s laying one her bed back home binging detective dramas and 1990’s sitcoms. She decided if worse came to worse, she would just give herself a quick sponge bath from the sink in her room.

“Do you have any questions or would you like any suggestions for things to do while in Marfa?” The blond woman asked handing the keys over to Krista.

“Not at the moment.”

“Well if you do you can stop by the front desk or call us, the phones right there on the nightstand.” Krista looked over her shoulder and noticed a novelty phone in the shape of a saguaro cactus.

Krista nodded and thanked the blond woman. She closed the door and locked it once the blond woman had headed back to her post.

Cactus

Krista turned to survey her room once again. It was adorable and definitely leaned into its cactus aesthetic. The full-sized bed had a cowboy print comforter that looked second hand and was pushed up against the right wall. A small window with blinds and bright turquoise curtains covered in a pattern of various cacti species hovered over the headboard. On the other side of the cabin a small TV perched on an antique wooden dresser, which had been painted bright pink. A small coffee machine sat next to the TV, with the tiniest succulent sitting in a white square pot. The arrangement looked like the objects were posing for a family portrait. In the wall adjacent was a small closet with sliding mirrored doors and the slatted door to the sink and toilet. The window unit hummed in the window by the door that also sported the same turquoise cactus drapes.  

Krista nodded and smiled. She placed her bags on the bed and pulled her phone out of her back pocket to snap a picture of the room and then turned to take a selfie with the room in the background. She took a deep breath and sent it to her parents.

“Hi Mom and Dad, check out my room! I decided to stay in Marfa for a few days and visit Teresa while I’m here. If you don’t remember, Dad, she’s the one who had purple hair at graduation. Anyway, love y’all! Call you later.”  She could have called then, but she wasn’t ready to hear their voices. Besides, she said she’d meet Teresa at 7 and she needed a nap and to freshen up.

Krista woke up to her phone timer going off and groggily got herself dressed and ready to meet up with Teresa. She put a light blue sundress with white pin stripes running down. She checked the neckline in the closet door mirror, making sure her scar wasn’t peeking out. And as much as she knew her tan wedges would tie the outfit together, the ground had been so dusty that she didn’t want to deal with ruining them… So, she put on her white Converse — which seemed like an equally bad idea; the other option would’ve been her lavender Vans, but she decided against them.

By the time she got to the spot she saw Teresa sitting at a picnic table under the string of warm incandescent bulbs. A band played music on a small stage at the head of the circle of food trucks. Krista walked across the gravel towards where Teresa sat. Teresa noticed Krista and stood and waved, as if Krista wasn’t already heading straight to her.

“Oh my gosh girl you look so good!” Teresa wrapped her arms around Krista and gave her a tight squeeze. “How have you been? We have so much catching up to do!”

Krista just smiled. Teresa talked so fast she didn’t know where to start. “I’m good. How have you been?” Teresa looked great. She’d gone back to her natural dark brown hair, with caramel highlights but definitely no longer purple. It was almost waist length now. Had it been longer than a year?

“Let’s order! This is my favorite truck, do tacos sound good?” Teresa’s energy had not diminished but Krista was relieved to not have to drive the conversation. “Yeah tacos sound great, I’m starving.”

Tacos

Teresa talked about her job at the art gallery, about how she was afraid that she’d get bored in such a small town when she first moved here. She talked about how some of her friends had moved here, some come in for small stretches, and she even has a few locally raised friends.

Krista thought about the gentrification aspect of this town again, but decided not to bring it up.

“So, tell me about your life, what have you been up to?” Teresa asked so enthusiastically that Krista contemplated lying and saying she’d been working for an investment firm and she had gotten transferred to the San Jose office. She took a sip of her beer and decided on an honest reply.

“Well not much really. I’ve been tutoring math and looking for work. I don’t know but there aren’t many jobs for philosophers or writers for that matter. I guess I should have taken my internship seriously.” Krista looked down at her chips and queso.

Teresa nodded, “I’m sorry. It’s hard out there right now.”

Krista didn’t want pity, so she quickly spoke up again, “Yeah well, it’s all good because I’m ready for something new and I don’t know a new start somewhere. You know, maybe bartend or something. I’ve got some savings so I’m trying to find somewhere I’d like to start my career, you know.” Krista felt her tone go from confident to apologetic.

“Girl, you are brave and honestly I think that’s a great idea!” Teresa took a drink from her beer. “It sounds so adventurous! We’re young, we deserve adventure! Actually I still bartend on the off season because the gallery closes for most of the week.” Krista smiled at this encouragement from Teresa. 

Dusk had turned into a darkening sky full of stars. Krista looked up at them in awe.

“Hey, so have you seen the lights before?” Teresa said as she watched Krista admire the stars above.

“Oh no, this is my first time in Marfa, but it was on my list of things to do.” Krista looked at Teresa, who had an especially playful gleam in her eyes. Or at least that’s the vibe Krista got from the look.

“Let’s do it! You can ride with me. It’s a little ways out. I’ll follow you to your hotel and we can drop your car off.” Teresa jumped up and grabbed her trash.

“Okay, yes! That all sounds perfect!” Krista followed Teresa with her trash.

After dropping Krista’s car off, they grabbed a six-pack of assorted craft beer, hard seltzer, and cider at the boutique liquor store, and drove out to a spot along the highway to view the lights. They parked and Teresa pulled out her cooler and a blanket and they sat in the back of her hatchback trunk.

Teresa handed Krista a hard cider and opened a craft beer. “It might take a while but they should start up soon.”

Krista felt the excitement rise. Her heart even began to pump a little faster. She imagined it glowing red through her sundress. Just then she noticed the first yellow light float across the horizon.

“Holy crap! I see one, they’re real!” Krista laughed and pointed, all wide-eyed and giddy. A second light flickered against the horizon, then a third, and a fourth. Suddenly the horizon was filled with lights as if giant fireflies had emerged from the earth. 

“They’re beautiful, aren’t they?”

Stars in the Sky

Krista and Teresa sat there watching the lights and sipping their drinks. Krista had the urge to text her parents that she wouldn’t be calling tonight, but decided she didn’t want to miss a minute of the view. 

“Thank you, Teresa, for bringing me here!” Krista kept staring, awestruck at the lights.

Teresa threw her arm around Krista and leaned her head on her shoulder. “You’re welcome. You know I’m glad you decided to come to town. I missed you.”

Krista leaned her head on Teresa’s. “I missed you so much.”

Teresa squeezed her closer. “Why did you wait so long to come visit?”

Krista felt that same guilt build up in the pit of her chest again and began to stiffen. “I didn’t think you wanted me to. You never called or texted, either.”

Teresa let out a long breath, not a sigh just a breath. She sat up and looked at Krista, “I’m sorry. I wasn’t the best friend once I moved out here.”

Krista smiled a sad smile, “Neither was I, I basically went dark after graduation.”

That broke the tension a bit, and Teresa smiled. “But you’re back, and let’s not lose touch this time.”

“I promise, I’m not shutting myself away again.” Krista said, her voice breaking a little.

“Well if you can’t find a place that feels like home, you are welcome to stay here.” Teresa sat back and looked out at the lights. 

“Thanks, Teresa.” Krista sat back and looked at the lights and sighed.

Back at her cactus cabin, Krista threw herself on the bed. Her head, still light from the alcohol, spun with the memories of the day. She suddenly wished she had thought to take a video of the lights or at least a selfie with Teresa. She didn’t want to lose the feeling she had tonight. 

What if she stayed instead of continuing her roadtrip? She would have Teresa here, it wouldn’t be as scary as being all alone. 

Krista stared at the ceiling willing the lights or the stars to play out in front of her. The road ahead held a multitude of possibilities, as numerous as the stars in the Marfa sky. How could she stop here. Even in her resolve, she felt that same ache start to flare up again. She rubbed her chest and thought about the lights floating like magic.


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