• Published 10th Jul 2020
  • 1,088 Views, 147 Comments

Three-act Play - Dave Bryant

Wallflower Blush didn’t show up for graduation. Sunset Shimmer is worried—but luckily she knows just the person to consult about it. If Rose Brass can’t help, no one can. • A Twin Canterlots story

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“In every way, she’s progressing.” Even Keel, a bit drab in another plain pantsuit, wasn’t bothering to consult any notes, whether on screen or paper. “I won’t say I’ve never seen anything like it, but the last week has been quite a dramatic turn-around.” They turned their hands up, fingers spread, on the blotter of their desk.

Rose’s eye narrowed thoughtfully as she leaned back on the visitor chair. “You seem . . . pretty impressed.” She too was dressed as usual, her suit trimmer and finer as they tended to be. She balanced a yellow pad and clipboard on her lap and studiously refrained from looking enviously around the bright, pleasant office, maybe twice the size of hers.

Keel looked unamused. “I know it might not seem like much from the report, but believe me, even a small change can be earthshaking in this context.” They tapped a fingertip on the blotter. “She has a long way to go, of course. She still is timid and unsure; she even backslides occasionally. But sooner or later she makes the effort to come out of her shell and try again, and she always seems to be willing to work with the physical therapist—I think because there isn’t as much talking involved, and it’s okay, even expected, for her to be awkward and clumsy.”

“So why the big change?” Rose gestured broadly with her prosthetic arm, palm up. “And why so suddenly?” The pause that followed was uncharacteristic enough to raise Rose’s brow.

“Wallflower hasn’t come right out and explained it,” Keel finally answered, words slow and measured. “She’ll mumble things like ‘it was time’ and ‘I changed my mind’, just enough to deflect further inquiry, but . . . I have my suspicions. You recall my last report—specifically, my conclusion Wallflower might have to go to hospital if things didn’t change?”

At Rose’s attentive nod, the counselor continued, “I informed Sunset of that the same afternoon.”

“Huh.” Rose sat up again. “And the next day Wallflower suddenly got more cooperative. Fancy that.”

“Yes. Whatever it was, it worked, but it almost certainly involved divulging privileged information.” Keel briefly pinched the bridge of their nose. “Well—there’s no proof, and results are what matter most, so I suppose I shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”

Rose bit her lip hard; it would never do to grin or, worse, laugh out loud. She definitely did not want to explain the joke.

“So what did you do?” Rose didn’t use that singsong tone often—it could be a bit jarring coming from her scarred face and hard-bitten persona—but this was a special case.

A slightly frazzled Sunset, in worn T-shirt and jeans, stared at her with a genuinely baffled expression. Her paper cup of coffee steamed gently on the chipped laminate table in the clinic cafeteria. “What did I do? When?”

“Oh, about a week ago,” Rose replied airily. “You know, the day before Wallflower suddenly stopped being a bump on a log.”

Sunset reddened dramatically. “I, uh, I dunno what you mean.”

“Mm-hmm.” Doubt suffused the syllables. “Not a clue, huh?” Rose picked up her own coffee and sipped, though her gaze never left the younger woman’s deer-in-headlights expression.

With a sudden thump Sunset’s elbow landed on the tabletop and her forehead pressed against that arm’s upraised fist. The aqua eyes squeezed shut, betraying a slight glisten in the lashes. Most alarming was the hitching in the younger woman’s breaths.

“Hey.” Rose’s voice was much softer. “You okay there? They should be helping you too, as a caregiver. I know Keel told me you’re supposed to be getting your own support counseling.” She put down her coffee and slid it to the side.

An emphatic, if jerky, nod answered, but it was another minute before Sunset was able to pull herself together enough to straighten a little with a sniffle. “I’m okay. Yeah, I get a daily session too. It’s just that I’m so relieved Wallflower’s . . .” She rubbed her eyes with the heels of her hands.

Rose frowned in concern before hauling on a straight face as Sunset blinked the moisture away and let her hands fall to the table. “If you’re sure. I’m sorry, Sunset, I didn’t mean to upset you. I do have to find out what happened, though.” She hesitated. “You know I do, right?”

Sunset sighed and looked away. “Yeah, I do. I guess I just hoped you wouldn’t ask.” She fell silent. The hot drink still steamed in front of her, apparently forgotten. The social worker waited her out patiently. Sunset deserved the courtesy of being allowed to address it in her own good time—so long as she did address it. Before Wallflower’s current group therapy time ended, preferably.

Finally, with a deep breath that was almost another sniffle, Sunset visibly summoned up the courage. “I told Wallflower she was gonna go off to a hospital if things didn’t change, and I couldn’t go with her.”

Rose nodded. “Keel and I figured out that much.” She let the sentence trail off expectantly; there had to be more to it.

Sunset seemed unable to meet her eye, and her answering mutter sounded more like Wallflower, or Holly, than the normally forthright girl’s plainspoken manner.

“What was that?” Humor and worry mingled in the question. “You’ll have to speak up, Sunset.”

“I said, I broke my promise.” Sunset swallowed. “Like you told me not to do.” The rest of the story took only a few more sentences, after which she looked as if she expected Rose to bite her head off, maybe literally.

It took a moment for Rose to make the connection, having nearly forgotten the brunch preceding that horrible afternoon in front of the halfway house. She rubbed her forehead and sighed. “All right, Sunset. Yes, you broke your promise, and yes, I take promises seriously. But there comes a point when you have to balance that against other imperatives. Would you feel better right now if you’d kept your promise then, but as a result Wallflower would be in worse shape and might be going off to the hospital clinic?”

Mutely Sunset shook her head.

“You had to decide what was best for your friend under pretty bad conditions, on little or no information.” Rose gave her a level look. “I don’t think for a moment you threw away that promise on a whim, Sunset. You did what you thought you had to do, and I can’t say you were wrong to do it.”

Originally it had been a stopgap, someplace to sleep out of the rain when Rose moved back to the city after being drop-kicked from active duty, but that was . . . a long time ago. She had to stop and think just how long she’d been there, and when she dredged up the answer it turned out to be a little disquieting. On the other hand, she probably paid something like half what a new resident would, thanks to rent control. It was a small consolation.

The studio packed the bland but livable quality of a mid-tier hotel room into little more than half the area—the minimum square footage the law allowed—by means of the usual space-saving tricks. Most of them, anyway; the fittings were getting long in the tooth by now, too old for the newest gimmicks. The few other furnishings had come from big-box discount stores, albeit selected with care and something approaching taste. Appearance was secondary to practicality in her lexicon, but if it looked halfway decent too, especially sleek and modern, that was a bonus.

Well, it wasn’t like she did much entertaining. It wasn’t like she knew much of anyone outside of work, come to think of it. Most of the time she didn’t even bother tucking away the wall bed, though with ingrained military habit she made it up every morning, all right and tight, and kept everything else equally clean and tidy. The apartment could have been a show unit were it not for her more idiosyncratic choices, such as a couple of so-called “zero-gravity” patio chairs, cheaper, lighter, and more compact than conventional overstuffed recliners. One, dressed up with a colorful afghan thrown over it, served her for every seating need. A swiveling laptop desk next to it was by turns side table or TV tray.

The other chair usually stayed folded flat, hanging from a pair of bicycle hooks high on a wall; the two were swapped every month or so for even wear. She’d bought the pair with an eye to accommodating a guest, but offhand she couldn’t recall actually needing to. Beside it another set of hooks supported a basic but rugged touring bike, festooned with a complete set of baggage, for the daily commute and weekly errands. Riding helped keep her in shape, but it wasn’t a patch on trail-running, both for herself and the occasional charity event in support of youth or veteran causes, or tai chi.

Nothing else hung on the walls—not that there was much room, what with the full-height bookcases shoehorned in wherever they would fit, shelves completely filled. Field manuals. Proceedings. Engineering, civil and military. History, likewise. Architecture. Cultures. Travel. Art. Photography. Sociology. Psychology. Pharmacology. Childhood growth and development. Administration and management. Process and procedure. Organization and structure. Whatever caught her eye or fancy, but almost no fiction and certainly no knick-knacks. A trickle of new volumes steadily displaced the oldest or least of her library. The cast-offs went to libraries or used bookstores, including Lectern’s now that she’d discovered it.

Her only other extravagances hid behind the world’s skinniest sliding doors, in the closet by the front door. A dozen or so pastel business suits, along with a bomber jacket and a greatcoat for inclement weather, marched from wall to wall; not a single uniform shared the rod. Rubber rings at regular intervals prevented hangers from bunching up. On the shelf above sat a rabbit-fur ushanka, a boonie hat, and some other headgear. On the floor underneath stood a narrow plastic drawer organizer for T-shirts, BDU pants, sport bras, undergarments, and a smattering of other simple, casual clothes. Cheek by jowl with it were two stacks, front to back, of filing boxes. Dusty papers, mementos, and other random detritus from times past languished within.

The bottom back box, a mere shell reinforced with a simple framework to support those resting on it, fitted over a small gun safe bolted to the floor. It was the best on the market, according to some of Sticky Note’s shadier acquaintances. It didn’t hold a lot—accessories for the compact service pistol she habitually carried in a concealed shoulder rig, her most critical papers, and remnants of the “I love me” office wall every military officer maintained, never discarded but never exhumed. When she sought to install the safe the management had raised a fuss, but she cited chapter and verse of the law, and they subsided grudgingly. After so many years and so much turnover, she doubted any of the current staff even knew it was there.

The kettle started shrieking on the vestigial kitchenette’s two-burner cooktop. Rose, relaxed in a set of army-green sweats, bath towel still draped over her shoulders, came back from her woolgathering to flip up the steam whistle and remove the pot from the heat. She sucked up an appalling amount of coffee during the day, but in the evening she generally brewed a mug of caffeine-free cinnamon tisane instead. Maybe it was time to cut back on the joe. Gradually, of course; she’d seen what happened to people who quit cold-turkey.

As she poured the water and started the infusion steeping she wondered idly what to do with the evening. She hadn’t cracked a book in at least a week and didn’t feel like doing it tonight. Maybe watch a movie.

The thought of going out, much less inviting anyone in, never occurred to her.

Rose saw a lot more of Cuppa’s these days. Truth to tell its beehive activity and constant noise had begun to pall, but she’d sooner have her remaining fingernails pulled out than admit it to Sticky, who she suspected would live at the place if he could. Well, maybe that was an exaggeration, but still, she was determined not to dampen his enjoyment.

They sat at the same corner table they always did. They even wore the same business informal they always did. At least they didn’t place the same orders every time. Sticky gestured with his mug before putting it down and holding forth again in his usual understated style.

“For now she’s moved in with an old friend.” Unidentified, of course; it wasn’t Rose’s case, and she had no need to know who Holly’s friend was. “Quite an eccentric sort, but harmless and definitely eager to help. The place is a bit crowded, but it’s safe and stable. They haven’t seen much of each other in years, and never roomed together before, so there’s a bit of friction as they get to know each other again in somewhat close quarters. On the other hand they also are renewing their friendship and rediscovering each other as personalities, so it’s balancing out.”

Rose nodded absently. “And that’s why you think Holly should be okay there for a while.” She jotted a few notes. Holly’s estranged family, she already knew, had been less than supportive of their wayward lamb—hence the need for a friend to step up instead. “How’s the divorce going?”

“Acrimoniously.” Sticky grimaced in distaste. “Mostly on his end. Holly just hunkers down and puts her back to the wind. It’s not the healthiest coping mechanism in the world, but it’s working and it does mean less in the way of courtroom fireworks. From a couple of things she’s said, she knows; she’s using it just to get through this. To be fair, it’s a pretty traumatic experience, and Holly’s therapist is confident this shouldn’t set her back too much, so I’m not worried.”

“Mm-hm.” More notes, then a sip of tea. “And on the work front?”

“You were right, she has no employment experience to speak of. I’ve been asking around, but so far not much has come up.” Sticky shrugged. “Her friend helped her get a supermarket job. She’s trying hard, but it’s a real struggle for her, and I doubt it’ll last.”

“Yeah. I’ll bet she feels like a fish out of water, too. She needs something she’s better suited for.” With a thoughtful frown Rose leaned over to rummage in her messenger bag.

Sticky watched patiently as she pulled out a stack of yellow pads and sorted through them. Finally she slipped one onto the table and returned the rest. “These’re the notes from my visit, way back when all this started.” She flipped through the pages, skimming the neatly written lines. “Here we go. The place was pretty well-kept, even with a layabout husband, a teenage daughter who likes grubbing in the dirt, and being, ah, kind of a mouse herself. Maybe that’s something to look into.”

“Janitorial?” Sticky’s brows creased in doubt.

“I was thinking more residential housekeeping—or better, maybe a maid service, at least to start with.” Rose twitched a half-smile. “They often send out maids in pairs, so she wouldn’t be braving the unknown all alone.”

“Hm!” Sticky looked intrigued. “That has possibilities. I’ll start checking into it this afternoon.” His head tilted briefly in consideration. “That about does it. The only other thing I’ll add is, Holly carries that photo of Wallflower everywhere. She got it laminated in a copy shop and put it in a little wallet. She’s serious about trying to rebuild her life and trying to connect with her daughter again.”

“Okay, point taken,” Rose acknowledged. “I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt.” She glanced down and slid the pad back into her bag.

When she looked up again, Sticky looked pensive, even calculating, and his fingertips drummed on the tabletop in a distinctive syncopated rhythm barely audible over the crowd. Her eye narrowed. “Something on your mind?”

Sticky’s fingers flicked open as if brushing something away and his breath blew out. “Seeing Holly with her friend brought up something else.” He met her one-eyed gaze with his usual faintly unsettling steadiness.

Rose’s brow went up. “This isn’t coffee-break chat, is it?”

“No.” Sticky’s lips thinned in a flat smile. “I’m going to ask a personal question. Feel free not to answer—”

Her brow knotted. “Even if I say nothing, that’s an answer.” After a beat she added ruefully, “And I’m not gonna stop you, am I? Fine. Go ahead.”

“Do you have any friends?”

Rose rocked back on the wing chair. Sure she did—Sticky himself for one. Sunset probably qualified, sort of. . . . Who else? Most of her co-workers weren’t as close even as Sunset, let alone Sticky. She saw various sparring or shooting or trail buddies—especially at the charity runs—once in a while; acquaintances, certainly, but were they friends? Finally she settled on, “A few. What brought that on, anyway?”

“I presume I’m one of them, so it looks like it’s up to me.” He sounded entirely matter-of-fact. “You told me once this job is like running into a burning building to rescue the people inside. The fires are a lot slower but just as deadly for anyone trapped in them.”

She had indeed, almost word for word. “Nice to know that made an impression.”

Sticky ignored the sarcasm. “You’re still burning the candle at both ends, Rose. Every day you’re here, a little more of you melts—less of a person and more of a purpose.” He leaned forward a little. “You’re stuck in your own fire now. What are you doing about it?”

Her eye hardened. “I still have clients, Sticky, if you somehow forgot.”

“And how much good will you do them if you crash and burn?” Sticky inquired with polite interest.

Rose shot him a fulminating glare and opened her mouth for a scathing reply, then froze. Sticky was blunt to a fault, but he wasn’t gratuitously confrontational. He had to be seriously concerned to push her this hard. Her eye and mouth shut tight as she fought for equilibrium. The academy, the range, the kwoon, each taught a form of intellectual and emotional discipline, yet it took far too much time and effort before she was able to reopen her eye with a semblance of calm.

Sticky was right to be worried.

Even now he waited with a veneer of serenity over sincere unease as Rose sighed and rubbed her forehead. Taking that for the sign it was, he continued as quietly as their surroundings allowed, “Why do you think I stay with Bright?”

Wearily she replied, “Because you know he wouldn’t leave you even if you caught a red-eye to East Bumf—ah, some hole in the wall.”

His brief smile didn’t reach his eyes. “Well, yes—but leaving that aside, it’s because without him around I . . . lose myself. It would be too easy to forget how other people feel, too easy for this work to become just a job. When was the last time you knew anyone like that?”

“Anyone else, you mean?” Rose shook her head. “I don’t know that I ever have. Not my husband, that’s for sure. Maybe my family, what there is of it.” This time it was Sticky’s brows that flew up. Rose knew why; she almost never mentioned her ex or her widely scattered, mostly military relations. She wouldn’t have now but for Sticky’s insistence. “What’s your point?”

“I’m the only one who can—or will—tell you what you don’t want to hear. At least, the only one you’ll listen to.” Sticky aimed a forefinger at her. “Your problem is the opposite of mine. You don’t know how or when to stop. It’s made you one of the best social workers in the city, but looking back now I can see it’s been burning you up slowly.”

The pointing hand opened to wave, as if sweeping aside a pile of ash. “We’d be having this talk sooner or later. The only reason it’s now, and not in another two or three or five years, is how much gasoline’s been poured on the fire by this case of yours.” His expression softened as much as it ever did. “You’ve worked hard to make the world a better place, but if you burn yourself out, that’ll change. You’ve made my world a better place, and for that I owe you the best advice I can give.”

He drew a breath. “Rose, you need to get out.”

It took a moment for Rose’s clenched jaw to loosen enough to respond. “Where? Where do I go?” Both hands, one of flesh and bone and the other not, flexed on the table. “I could buck for promotion here, but would that be an improvement? I could look for another job, but what?” Her tone wavered, and she cleared her throat.

Sticky’s eyes widened—just a little, but that was enough. “Could you go back to the army?” he asked with the velvety, low-key delivery he used on a client.

She gave him a searing look of disbelief before she could stop it. “Sticky, I’m on the permanent disability list. That’s why I’m here in the first place.” She raised her artificial hand and pointed to the eyepatch. “I can’t go back. I’m not eligible for active duty except under the most extreme circumstances, like a losing war or some weird specialized job they can’t find someone else—anyone else—to fill.” When did her breathing get so heavy and labored? She blinked a few times to clear her vision of the blurring that unaccountably made it hard to see him and went on in an unsteady voice, “In case you hadn’t noticed, we’re not fighting for our lives at the moment, and I’m just another captain whose technical education is more than a decade out of date.”

The distant thought intruded she’d never seen Sticky completely speechless. His mouth opened, but nothing came out. Finally he managed a faint, “Oh.”

Author's Note:

Before starting this chapter, I had literally no idea what Rose’s living arrangement was like, other than a vague notion she lived in a small, cheap rental in or near downtown. For those wondering what the minimum square footage is, in most US and Canadian jurisdictions it seems to be 180 sf (just over 16.72 square meters).
    Heretofore I also have been careful never to make clear whether Rose drives, though I have been inclined to think not. Baron Engel’s suggestion of a bicycle was a brilliant solution, and very much in character for her—though being one-eyed does present some real challenges.
   Rose shops at IKEA, Target, Bed Bath and Beyond, and DAISO Japan, among other places. She has neither the budget nor the inclination to patronize more hoity-toity establishments—that’s more Cook’s speed.
   Speaking of whom: Cook too lives in a studio apartment, at least during his assignment watching over Sunset and Co., but it is three or four times as big, three or four times as nice, and in a building three or four times the size. And it came fully furnished.

Once again I’d like to thank I-A-M for the use of Sticky Note and Cuppa’s, as well as graciously helping with brainstorming!