Three-act Play

by Dave Bryant


Rose Brass leaned back on her chair and examined the huddled form across from her. A porcupine could not be more prickly; fear, despair, resentment, and just about every other negative emotion radiated from the young woman. Some showed clearly in face and posture. Others demanded a more discerning eye. The social worker didn’t have a degree in psychiatry, but she did have a basic grounding—along with years of empirical experience in both her careers—to assist in her current profession.
A sense of betrayal lurked under the resentment. The sporadic flurries of text messages passing between Sunset and Rose the previous evening outlined a plan of action that ended with delivery of an unsuspecting Wallflower to the brooding edifice that housed the small office where she and Rose now sat. Wallflower really had needed the food, support, and social contact Sunset provided with the dinner and overnight stay in the latter’s studio apartment. Rose nursed a shrewd suspicion, however, she had expected to be returned this morning to her mouse hole and isolated misery.
No doubt she had been bewildered and apprehensive when their journey unexpectedly beelined into downtown instead, but had gone along with it out of apathy. It was only when the prospective client spotted the brushed-metal lettering on the facing over the main entrance she realized where the pair were headed, literally and figuratively. Sunset had been forced to grab her upper arm and all but drag her to the doors opening on the echoing lobby where Rose waited, having anticipated the balk. There the older woman had taken charge and Wallflower had subsided meekly, allowing herself to be shepherded to their destination; her guide they left to linger, and probably pace, in the waiting area.
This one was different. Most of Rose’s usual techniques and scripts, crafted for rough or indifferent personalities, would not work and might even backfire. The withdrawn girl sitting on the same chair Sunset occupied the day before was fragile in a way most of her clients weren’t, and the bluff military officer took a deep, unobtrusive breath, feeling an unwonted trepidation, before taking the plunge.
“My name is Rose Brass, but you can call me Rose,” she said in a quiet voice. “Sunset told me your name is Wallflower Blush, and she’s very worried about you.” This brought the young woman’s face up in an unguarded reaction, and Rose smiled, lighting the scarred face in a way that often caught others off-guard. “She asked if there was anything I could do. I said yes.”

Rose’s questioning was gentle but implacable. At first her new client tried to stonewall or sidestep the uncomfortably incisive queries, no matter how delicately phrased, but time, repetition, and greater rhetorical skill wore down Wallflower’s resistance. Finally answers began to emerge, more comprehensive thanks to the training and greater years Sunset could not bring to bear in the previous evening’s informal interrogation. For the most part it seemed to be a pretty standard pattern, though of course that offered little comfort.
After more than an hour of this quizzing, the account reached the point at which it became decidedly non-standard. The girl froze mid-sentence, belatedly realizing what she was about to reveal to a stranger. For once her reticence was a point in her favor.
Rose smiled again, more faintly, in reassurance. “It’s all right, Wallflower.” She paused in her own version of the same hesitance. “Normally I wouldn’t tell you this—it’s very much against the rules—but I was the one who worked with the Dazzlings. In order to do that I had to learn all about where they came from and the magic that’s started to show up.”
Green hair parted as Wallflower’s face rose. “Wait. How did you know I was gonna talk about magic?”
The smile disappeared, lips pressing flat in the only sign of consternation Rose dared show. After a moment she said calmly, “That’s how Sunset and I got to know each other, too. When you stopped talking just then, I figured there must be magic involved. You’ve been pretty cooperative otherwise, so I knew it had to be something out of the ordinary, and for Canterlot High School, that probably means magic.” She shrugged; QED.
Wallflower had been anything but cooperative, actually. However routine prevarication and omission might be, Rose usually tried to avoid bald-faced lies—but she needed a quick way out. She’d gotten ahead of herself and almost disclosed to her client how much private information she’d learned from someone else and, worse, who that someone else had to be. Moreover, the rhythm of questions and answers she’d established had been broken, and she’d have to rebuild it. Least said, soonest mended wasn’t a philosophy she followed often, but this was an exception.

It took a while longer, but eventually Rose was able to coax Wallflower through the story’s harrowing crescendo. The epilogue required only a few minutes more, after which they both sat in silence for a few beats before Rose sat up straight and rested her forearms on the desktop. “All right,” she said firmly. “I want you to know, I think you did the right thing when your father was pounding on that door. Was it ideal? Maybe not. Was it the best of a bad situation? Absolutely.”
The bracing tone covered Rose’s own doubt—certainly it could be argued as a form of armed self-defense in the face of threat to life and limb, if rather outré, but there were aspects of the resolution she wasn’t entirely happy with, not all of them related to wider concerns. Still, it reminded her of a precept that had been drummed into her skull a very long time ago, one this young woman, almost the same age she was when she learned it, desperately needed right now.
“I used to be an officer in the army. One of the things they teach in the academy is, sometimes—a lot of times—you have to make a decision fast. You can’t wait, you don’t always know or have everything you need, but you still have to choose. And you did. It got you out of there in one piece, and that’s the most important thing.”
Rather like her namesake, the girl sitting across the tiny room had opened up, possibly more than she realized. Now she hunched down, hiding her face again in her long, lank hair. The hands curled around the front edge of the chair seat tightened. “I shoulda just let ’im in.” The comment was barely audible, barely seemed to acknowledge Rose’s words of encouragement. “It’s not like I didn’t deserve it.”
Out of sight of the downcast eyes, Rose bit her lip; that wasn’t the response she’d aimed for. Time to try a different tactic. “What makes you say that?” Her voice was as bland as she could make it.
“’Cause I always deserve it.” The matter-of-fact delivery made Rose blink.
A flat denial was right out. Most likely it would drive Wallflower into defensiveness, and that was the last thing Rose wanted. She kept up her detached mien. “Did he tell you that?”
“He didn’t have to.” Now there was a sullen tinge to the words.
“Why not?” This felt like a chess game. Rose was better at poker.

To the painfully neutral questions Wallflower doled out convoluted, elliptical rationalizations that would make no sense to anyone else—which, in context, made perfect sense to Rose. Her client had become a vessel into which far too much vitriol had been poured. Now that vessel was filled to the brim with the wrath and reproach of others, leaving room for little else. More bluntly, Wallflower had been told, explicitly or implicitly, so constantly and for so long everything was her fault, she had become convinced of it. Now most of her identity was tied up in it.
Anger-management issues in the girl’s father presented as swings between rage and repentance that never ended because he was never the problem. His wife was a classic enabler, abetting his tendency to blame anything or anyone else, even their own daughter. Rose wasn’t certain exactly what the causal factor was that led to the increase in severity and frequency of emotional and occasional physical abuse, but if she had to guess, she’d put her money on employment or financial issues. One could lead to the other, and probably had in this case. Wallflower didn’t mention radical changes in living conditions; on the other hand, one of the most frequent punishments she endured was restrictions on buying and spending, which might camouflage constraints on the household at large.
Sunset’s version of the story, fragmentary as it was, matched pretty well all down the line. Rose could reconstruct a course of events and a fair amount of background, adequate for filling out the case file. Once she had a chance to type it up, something she avoided doing in front of a client, she was confident she had most of what she needed for the moment.
“We’re almost done here, I promise.” Her approach had returned to brisk and businesslike, but with a tinge of warmth. “Before we wrap it up, I’m required to tell you I’ll be talking to your parents as well.” The rules didn’t anticipate a magical artifact that could wipe people’s memories, but they were unequivocal, and Rose should be able to glean something useful from the trip even if the parents didn’t remember their daughter.
That merited a pout and a snort. “Don’t bother. They’re happier without me.”
Rose raised a brow. “What makes you think that?”
Wallflower’s Gallic shrug was eloquent. As if observing the sun rose in the east, she asserted, “Everyone would be.”
Feigning ease, Rose sat back and rested her forearms along the arms of her swivel chair. “Okay, Wallflower, that’s all.” She’d expected to continue with another round of questioning, but the response she just received told her what she needed to know. “Tell you what: it’s a bit late, but why don’t we go grab some lunch?”
Wallflower’s mouth worked, the picture of ambivalence. Rose thought she understood both sides of it. She knew how intimidating she looked. For most of her clients that was a plus, but to Wallflower—and Sonata Dusk before her—it could be more of a barrier. Besides, she’d just administered the third degree, which was bound to be off-putting to anyone.
On the other hand . . . the girl had to be starving. It was hard to tell under that shapeless sweater—probably not by accident—but Rose thought Wallflower had lost weight in the last few weeks, based on Sunset’s photos. Sunset also had commented on the reaction to her offer of a pizza dinner.
“Let me go downstairs and talk to Sunset, see if she wants to come along. I’ll be right back, okay?” Rose gave Wallflower no chance to refuse before getting up, stepping out, and closing the office door behind her. She didn’t lock it, but she ran her keycard through the reader and tapped the code for an alert that would buzz her smartphone if the door was opened.

The waiting area off the main lobby could have been in just about any modernist Jet-Age institutional building. Rows of scuffed and chipped fiberglass bucket chairs on chromed rails. Polished cultured-stone flooring, white with tiny colored speckles. Shopworn wall paneling, darker than it really should be for the cavernous space. Not enough can lights in the ceiling. Sunset sat near the elevator vestibule, bent over her phone and tapping away intently, tension in every line of her body. When Rose strode close enough for her to notice, she straightened up with a definite air of relief. “Rose! Where’s Wallflower?”
“Sunset. We don’t have much time. Listen up.” The snap of command could be useful in civilian life, too. “All three of us are going to lunch.” When Sunset’s mouth opened, Rose held up a hand for silence. “You were right; she’s in bad shape. I’m flagging her for admission to an inpatient facility, but the last I checked, there won’t be a bed open for a couple of weeks. In the mean time I can get her placed in a halfway house temporarily, but even that will have to wait until tomorrow. Can she stay at your place again tonight?”
Sunset, eyes huge, nodded; Rose went on in the same hard, no-nonsense tone. “Good. I know you, and the girls, will be busy this summer, but any time you can spare to visit her in the halfway house would help—a lot. She trusts you, and she’s in a pretty delicate state right now.”
“But—” Sunset burst out. “Inpatient facility? Why?”
Rose’s lips thinned. “It’s mandatory for suicide risk. I don’t have the training or certification to handle that. They do.”
The breath went out of Sunset in a rush and she sat back down abruptly. For a moment Rose considered telling her not to blame herself, that the situation wasn’t her fault, but—could she, in conscience? Sunset had spent more than two years terrorizing Canterlot High School; who knew what she’d done to Wallflower in that time? Sunset herself might not know thanks to the Memory Stone.
Instead she sighed and rubbed her forehead. “I’ll go get Wallflower. That’ll give you a little time to pull yourself together. And think about where you might want to go for lunch. Be back in a minute.”