Three-act Play

by Dave Bryant


The four-story brick mansion was a time capsule. Fortunes built on lumbering and the gold rush more than a century and a half ago had cultivated a whole crop of rambling estates on what, at the time, had been the outskirts of small but explosively growing settlements. Many of those financial flowers had withered over the following decades, leaving their architectural blossoms to decay and disappear in various waves of urban renewal, but this was a fascinating exception.
The last of the family line had been a public-spirited soul. Wartime brought with it a tremendous demand for hospital capacity, and the rambling home amidst somewhat dilapidated gardens underwent its first transformation. After the war and probate of that final scion’s will, the deed passed to the city in a surpassing gesture of generosity. Even so, the legacy became something of a white elephant; nobody was sure quite what to do with it, yet nobody wanted to discard what remained a large, sound building on a sizable plot in an area of increasing urbanization—and land prices.
For a time it stood mostly empty as a sort of municipal attic, storing odds and sods that didn’t fit anywhere else. Its slow decline seemed destined to end with demolition until, some forty to fifty years ago, a movement to improve social services swept the nation. Awareness and budgets increased, and a study commissioned to examine the problems and possible solutions suggested the derelict site, already owned by the city, house some of those services.
Nowadays, renovated and surrounded by lightly wooded parklike landscaping, it stood proudly as one of the largest and best halfway houses in the country. Sunset had been impressed by the place when she’d helped Rose and Wallflower move the latter’s pitifully small collection of belongings a few days before. It was a little bare and institutional, but it also was clean and bright. Halls and rooms betrayed both its previous life as infirmary and its age, when chambers often tended to be less expansive than they’d grown in this modern era. All in all the preserved old-fashioned interiors gave Sunset an odd touch of nostalgia for the world she’d left behind.
Following the original ward lay-outs, wings and stories had been designated for specific groups and situations. Wallflower thus had been placed in a closet-like room at a northeast corner of the top floor, a tall if not especially broad sash window on each exterior wall. Both looked out over rolling lawns and duff-strewn circles of mulch from which native conifers, maples, and alders stood tall. Subdued indirect sunlight gave the room a cool, low-key air.
Today Sunset—neat and tidy in newish T-shirt, jeans, and high-tops—stood in the doorway, offering a tentative smile and, in both hands, a cheap pot of green plastic. A single spindly vine trailed over its side, bearing green leaves and a couple of brilliant purple flowers. “Hi, Wallflower! I thought you might like some companionship.”
Wallflower looked up in bemusement from the print magazine on her lap and blinked. “Sunset. Oh. Hi. That’s right, you said you’d be visiting today.” Her voice was hushed but reasonably clear. “Um—come in.” She put aside the magazine and sat up from her half-reclined position on the cotlike bed, knees lowering and back rising from the thin pillows piled against the iron headboard. Her outfit was pretty much the same as it had been the evening Sunset found her in that dreadful little boarding room, other than a long-sleeved shirt, but at least this time it was freshly laundered.
As she finished speaking, Sunset stepped in and held out the small plant. “So, like I said, here’s a little company for you.” Uncertainty leaked into her forced heartiness.
Green hands reached automatically to accept the gift. “Th-thanks.” Wallflower looked over the plant, turning the pot, and added without looking back up, “Uh, have a seat.”
In answer to the invitation Sunset grabbed the straight chair in the corner and turned it backward, then plunked down on it and crossed her forearms on the back. There was a moment of silence, then Sunset spoke up again. “So, ah, how’re you doing?”
“I’m fine.” The words fell flat on the floor.
Instant denial rose to Sunset’s lips before she forced it back. She also rejected the second, third, and fourth responses that came to mind. “Okay,” she said at last. “Staff treating you well?”
“I guess.” The accompanying shrug was more of a twitch. Wallflower continued to examine the plant and pot as if for booby-traps.
“Uh-huh.” Sunset reminded herself it would not do to roll her eyes. “Are they feeding you enough?” Rose, too, had noticed the slight gauntness and the response to food. If Wallflower had gained any of that weight back, Sunset couldn’t see where.
Aquamarine eyes narrowed. “You’re getting enough to eat, right?”
Abruptly Wallflower jerked to her feet and shuffled around the bed, potted plant in hand. “This’s prob’ly the best place to put this morning glory,” she threw over her shoulder as she placed the small pot on a windowsill. It just fit.
Sunset had aired the inspiration to Rose after they’d finished moving Wallflower in and left. The social worker had endorsed the idea but cautioned against a traditional clay pot, pointing out how sharp the shards could be if it shattered. When Sunset followed the train of logic to its conclusion she’d felt a wash of shock, but she’d promised to get a plastic pot instead.
“Wallflower, you’re not getting enough to eat, are you?”
The shorter figure froze as Sunset called her bluff of evasion. Sunset softened her tone. “Why not?”
An expression of near-panic answered her, sparking a flash of memory. I don’t like confrontation . . . literally any public speaking—
“Hey. Are you having trouble talking to the staff?”
A wordless nod confirmed her guess, and a sigh escaped her. “Okay, I think I get it. Listen, would it make things easier if I brought some snacks and stuff next time I swing by?”
The sheer gratitude in Wallflower’s face nearly brought tears to her eyes, and was reply enough.
For the next hour or so Sunset made a conscious effort to do nothing more consequential than chatting. She filled Wallflower in on the doings of her own circle and, as far as she knew, those of other mutual acquaintances. By the time her phone chimed insistently, after being quieted once already, her efforts seemed to have succeeded in soothing the other girl’s anxiety. After a parting hug and another assurance she would continue to visit a couple of times a week, she left the room and the building with a faint stir of hope in her heart. Maybe things were looking up after all.

Sunset held a pair of grocery bags aloft by their handles, one in each hand. “Ta-da!” This time she wore a simple summer dress in purples and reds that flattered her warm colors.
Wallflower, after a quick double-take, sat up and put aside the book she’d been reading—from the cover, something about gardens or flowers or both. “Sunset! Uh—here, let me help with that.” She stood and reached for one of the bags, which Sunset surrendered willingly, then held the handles apart and peered into it. Again she wore jeans and socks, but at least today’s top was a short-sleeved T-shirt. Progress, of a sort.
Sunset sidled into the room and stage-whispered, “I got stuff you can stash in a cabinet or a drawer, so you won’t need a refrigerator or microwave or anything like that.” After a pause she added, “And I also tried to get stuff that isn’t just junk. You’re a growing girl, after all.” How much of the last was joke and how much serious wasn’t clear even to her.
Getting into the spirit of it, Wallflower made something of a show, hefting the bag and tiptoeing over to the simple and incongruously modernist wardrobe that served in place of a closet. There she opened both doors of the hanging cupboard and unloaded the groceries onto its shelf-bottom, under the scant few garments occupying it. Sunset grinned and joined her, emptying the other bag package by package and letting Wallflower arrange them as she wished.
“Thank you so much, Sunset,” Wallflower said with evident sincerity as she stacked a last few small boxes. “I really appreciate you taking the time and trouble to get these.”
“No trouble,” Sunset replied, waving away the notion. “I was happy to do it.” As the movement brought her around, she caught a glimpse of the little pot still sitting on the windowsill and frowned.
Wallflower followed her gaze and slumped, the energy of a moment before draining away. “Oh.” In the same low tone Sunset remembered from the previous visit a few days ago, she explained, “I can water it, but it’s not getting enough light and I don’t have any plant food for it.” Indeed, the little vine was visibly wilted, its hues less vibrant, though the single flower still lent a spot of bright color to the mostly white room. “It’s okay for now, but . . .” She shrugged helplessly; this time Sunset could hardly blame her.
“Well, let me see what I can do for next time, okay?” Sunset tried to sound as reassuring as she could. “Meanwhile, how are you doing?”
“All right—considering.” Wallflower sat on the foot of the bed, shoulders hunched a little.
Sunset set next to her. “Still nervous, huh?”
The other girl nodded, face a bit pinched.
Sunset reached a hand to rub Wallflower’s back gently. “It’s okay to be nervous any time you’re dealing with something new you don’t know much about.” She paused, thinking. “I’ll tell you a secret. Everyone thinks we have it great—the Rainbooms, I mean—magical adventures and spiffy outfits and cool superpowers. But nobody ever thinks about the flip side of it, except maybe the girls’ families.” She cocked her head, eyes gazing into the middle distance. “Well, okay, one other person does, and he nags us about it every now and then. Anyway, what I don’t think anyone else has figured out is, any time we pony up, we’re dealing with a lot of responsibility and a lot of risk. We don’t have any idea how things are gonna turn out either. It’s pretty scary.”
“I—you’re right, I never thought about that part of it,” Wallflower confessed. She gave Sunset a worried look. “And I guess I was part of that, wasn’t I, with the Memory Stone?”
Sunset’s mouth compressed. “I didn’t mean—look, all I’m trying to say is, what you’re feeling right now is natural, okay? But you can depend on Rose . . . and me. We won’t let you down.”

Rain drummed in the background and muted the daylight; lighting brightened the halls and rooms as if dusk had descended early. The apparition in the doorway wore hoodie, heavy stretch pants, and familiar chevron-bedecked boots against the weather, all of them soaked. Even the red-and-yellow hair had suffered somewhat, a few locks plastered against cheek or forehead. Both arms were full, juggling a dripping umbrella and a long box of corrugated cardboard. “Hey, Wallflower.” The voice was preoccupied but good-humored.
Wallflower stared at her visitor from across the room, having turned from the still-open hanging cabinet of the wardrobe. “Sunset!” She hastened around the bed. “Are you all right?” T-shirt, jeans, and socks again, but then her wardrobe didn’t include a lot else, especially after its brutal winnowing during her escape.
Sunset looked up from her odd-shaped burden, and Wallflower drew in a sudden breath. The amber-complected face bore some minor scrapes and bruises, and a large adhesive bandage covered part of the forehead over one eyebrow. “I’m fine.”
“You don’t look fine,” Wallflower pointed out, one hand waving at the other’s somewhat battered face.
The mysterious box was shifted under one arm and the umbrella hooked over the other. The latter hand rose to touch the bandage as if it somehow materialized from nowhere. “Oh, that.” Sunset shrugged. “We had to clean up another one of those da—uh, stupid magical artifacts yesterday. It went okay.”
“Shouldn’t you be, I dunno, resting or something,” Wallflower persisted, “instead of wandering around the city in the rain?”
The free hand came down from the bandage in a casual wave. “I promised to visit today. Besides, I’ve got something for you.” She raised the box with a flourish, balanced on both hands.
It bore the logo of a big-box hardware store, specifically the lawn-and-garden section. Wallflower took it and turned, putting it on the bed. The top lifted off easily, designed strictly for temporary protection during transport. Within, a whole row of morning-glory vines lay bedded in a plain white vinyl windowbox, all the hardware ready for mounting. She looked up, astonished and speechless.
Sunset grinned in delighted triumph. “I told you I’d see what I could do about it!” She fished in a hoodie pocket, then dangled a key on a fob from thumb and forefinger. “I got the staff to let me borrow a window key. Come on, let’s set it up.”
Wallflower watched as the other girl brushed past, rounded the bed, and unlocked the window. With both arms Sunset heaved the sash upward, letting in the sound and fresh damp smell of the rain, spiced with concrete and asphalt, clean earth and pine. Wallflower’s breathing hitched audibly, not quite a gasp.
Sunset turned back, still grinning. “Hey, what’re you waiting for?”
With a start, Wallflower came back to herself and nodded. She picked up the windowbox carefully in both hands. “You’ll have to bring back the key, right? So how’ll I water ’em and take care of ’em?”
“We just leave the window unlocked,” Sunset told her in a conspiratorial tone. “That’ll work, right?” She looked down at her messenger bag, rummaging in it and coming up with a compact toolbox.
Wallflower nodded solemnly. “Sure, that’ll work fine.”

“Sorry I’m late!” Sunset stood at the door catching her breath. “You did get my text message, right?” Her simple blouse and knee shorts had suffered somewhat from her scramble.
Wallflower uncrossed her outstretched legs, unlaced the fingers behind her head, and sat up with a small, wry smile. “Yeah, I got it, don’t worry.” She already was dressed for the night in flannel pajamas, printed in a night-sky motif, that looked almost sinfully comfortable.
Sunset put her other hand on the doorframe to steady herself. “Oh good,” she said between puffs.
“Come in and sit down, Sunset.” Wallflower scooted to one side and patted the thin mattress. “You didn’t have to hurry so much, y’know.”
Steps a little wobbly from exertion, Sunset wandered over to the cot, turned, and flumped down. “I wanted to make it here before they locked up for the night, ’cause I won’t get another chance to see you before the transfer tomorrow.” Her brow furrowed, wrinkling the smaller bandage that had replaced the dressing on her forehead, and she added in a forlorn tone, “I was just getting used to doing this twice a week, and now I won’t be seeing you again for at least two weeks. From what Rose said, the policy is no visitors at first except immediate family.”
A serene nod of confirmation was the only response.
Sunset bit her lip and paused a long moment, fearful of jinxing things, before advancing a tentative observation. “You seem . . . I dunno, a lot calmer now.”
“I guess I am.” There was a trace of surprise in the admission.
When nothing more seemed to be forthcoming, Sunset ran her fingers through her hair and sat up. “Oh yeah. So how’re the flowers doing?”
“C’mon, I’ll show you.” Wallflower got to her feet and started to pad around the bed.
After that things got easier. With more animation than Sunset could recall seeing in her since before graduation, Wallflower held forth on morning glories in general and those under her care in particular. “They bloom every morning,” she pointed out, scooping up a withered blossom lying loose and holding it out for Sunset’s inspection. A few others were scattered on the soil, on the outer windowsill, and for all she knew on the lawn below.
Fascinated, Sunset took it between thumb and forefinger and peered at it. “So flowers on fast-forward?”
“Yeah.” From the sound of it, that comparison hadn’t occurred to the other girl before. “Something like that.”
Eventually even Wallflower ran out of things to say about the garden in miniature; they returned to the bed and, snagging it from the corner, the chair. They talked about everything and nothing, friends and acquaintances, anything except the impending change. Hours flowed gently past, water under the bridge, until deep in the night Wallflower began nodding.
“I guess it’s time I let you get some sleep.” Sunset glanced at her phone’s display. “I guess it’s time I get some sleep—and I have to go home first!”
Nothing would do but to make sure Wallflower was tucked in for the night. She put up a token resistance at first, then surrendered to the inevitable and slid under the covers. As she sat there, not quite ready to lie back, Sunset leaned down and gave her a parting hug. “Y’know, I’m gonna miss you,” she murmured.
Wallflower hugged her back, as fiercely as the night they’d watched magical girls battling magical threats. “You’ll be okay.”