• Published 10th Jul 2020
  • 1,080 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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Sunset stormed into the lobby like an invading army, barely clearing the automated doors as they jerked and swung open. Her gaze settled instantly on the high counter and the receptionist behind it; her peripheral vision was a monochrome blur of irrelevance. Without breaking stride she beelined toward the functionary who, through long experience, looked up expectantly as she approached.

“Wallflower Blush,” Sunset said in a clear, hard voice. The individual behind the counter opened their mouth to answer.

“Sunset.” Rose sounded washed out and exhausted.

Sunset pivoted on a bootheel to see Rose standing a few feet behind her and to one side. In the same harsh tone she responded, “If you wanna talk, we can do it in her room.”

Rose shook her head. “You can’t see her yet.” Her tall form looked tired and hunched, shoulders rounded, good eye red and puffy. The rumpled business suit bore grass stains and even a couple of burst seams.

“Why not?” Sunset’s whole being seemed to blaze with anger and purpose, right down to the warm maroons and golds of her turned-cuff jeans and patterned top.

Rose straightened and her lips firmed. “Because she’s still in surgery. She will be for a while yet.”

Sunset’s mouth, already open for a retort, hung for a moment. “W-what?”

“She is in surgery.” Rose bit off each word. “Nobody knows when—or if—she’ll go to ICU.”

If. If. The heat drained out of Sunset’s face and her legs wobbled.

Rose’s account was no less horrifying for its detached, clinical nature, as if delivering a report to another officer. Maybe it was the fact she started not with the fall but with the window Sunset had unlocked. Maybe it was the way no detail was overlooked. Maybe it was the dreadful clockwork inevitability of physics in action.

Only Rose’s military first-aid training, which included measures not taught in civilian classes, had made the call for an ambulance anything but moot. Once the paramedics took over, she had fired off the text message that summoned Sunset—nothing more than the hospital’s name and the terrifying abbreviation ER, but it didn’t take a genius to figure out Wallflower had to be the reason. Then, in the panel van following on, she had received a phone call. “It was Wallflower’s mother, asking if it was possible to see her daughter. I had to tell her—” For the first time the hardened veteran’s voice broke. There was a long, long minute of silence before Rose was able to continue. “That was not a conversation I was ready to have today.”

When the tale was told, they gave the receptionist Sunset’s particulars before retiring to sit side by side, backs to the exterior wall, where they could watch the counter and the busy person behind it. Others came and went, mere passing shadows in their hollow unseeing eyes. Over and over Sunset’s memory shuffled fragments of the story, especially the evening she shoved up the window sash to make way for Wallflower’s new planter, and laid them out like bad hands of cards. Rose clearly was lost in her own thoughts as well. Neither of them looked at the clock.

A phone buzzed. Rose pulled it out for a quizzical glance, then hurriedly answered. “Rose Brass.” After a pause she cleared her throat and gave directions in the calm, remote voice that had served her so well this day. After closing with “No news yet,” she hung up and slipped her phone back into a pocket.

Sunset blinked at her and asked in a rusty voice, “Who was that?”

“Wallflower’s mother.” Rose was back to gazing at something far, far away. “Her name is Holly.”

“What?” Sunset jumped out of her seat in renewed outrage. “She’s coming here? Why did you—”

Rose’s head snapped around for a cold stare. “What, you want me to keep this woman from her own daughter? When she actively wants to see that daughter, maybe for the first time in years? When we don’t even know if she’ll get a chance to? Is that what you want, Sunset?”

Tears swam in Sunset’s eyes. “I—” She could get no farther.

Suddenly Rose slumped in her seat wearily. She rubbed her forehead with her good hand. “Just sit down and be patient, Sunset, okay? This is not a good day for any of us.”

“Ms. Brass? Ms. Shimmer?”

Both of them started, yanked from head-nodding somnolence by the call from across the room. The receptionist peered at them, awaiting their more immediate presence. They staggered to their feet and trudged up to the counter.

“Ms. Blush is in ICU now.” The words were quiet, meant not to be overheard. A pair of badges with breakaway lanyards appeared on the countertop, each labeled with a giant V, coded shapes and colors, and a prominent room number. Accompanying them was a set of verbal directions along with a finger pointing toward the correct door. They donned the badges and set out.

It was not a lengthy sojourn, but like every other hospital the corridors were bewilderingly mazelike; even with the instructions they made a couple of wrong turns. Still, they fetched up soon enough at their destination, where a nurse in pale-green scrubs awaited them patiently just outside the door.

When they stopped a short distance away, she looked both of them over, took a breath, and delivered a quick brief in an undertone. “The short version is, she’s in critical condition. The longer version is, she has a lot of issues, the most serious being internal bleeding leading to dangerously low blood pressure. Luckily the head trauma wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been. The damage to the rest of her body is moderate but survivable. If and when she wakes up they’ll be better able to determine how severe the loss of feeling and function is from spinal injury. You can go in now.”

They nodded mutely and edged into the small room. Equipment crammed it to the point there seemed almost no space left for them to stand in. Tall thin poles supported boxes trailing wires or hoses. Rising from the tops of sturdy-looking cabinets on casters, articulated arms presented flatscreen monitors, which displayed colored abbreviations, numbers, and squiggles—some moving, some not. Soft beeps and boops sounded in a syncopated mix of rhythms.

The centerpiece was a patient bed, side rails up and head end raised slightly. The shape on it was draped with a thin hospital blanket over a pastel blue patient gown. The other ends of all those wires and hoses snaked over, or disappeared under, either or both of the coverings. Hoses even fastened to the side of the frail neck and the mouth, both hidden under wads of medical tape. A thick bandage wrapped around the head, covering the forehead.

Wallflower was barely recognizable. Arms lay along her sides, hands palm-up. Brows and lashes in expressionless repose framed closed eyes. Only a few tufts of the wild green hair were visible. Even her complexion looked strange, pale and bluish. Sunset reached a trembling hand to touch fingertips delicately to unresponsive fingertips, then drew it back with a gasp at the unexpected coolness. The same hand rose to her mouth. After a pause to make sure her voice was steady, she asked, “She’s gonna be okay, right?”

The nurse’s silence was answer enough.

Before she left, the nurse pointed out the one open corner of the room, where two ruggedly simple visitor chairs, and nothing else, sat on a small rectangle of floor marked off by a wide tape of black and white diagonal stripes. “In case of an emergency: if you can get out of the room quickly enough, do, but don’t block the doorway. Otherwise go over there behind the stripe and stay out of the way while the staff works.”

Shortly after Rose vanished as well. The social worker had said something—probably where she was going—but Sunset had no idea what, just as she had no idea how long she sat transfixed, struggling to make sense of this calamity.

An indrawn breath broke into her spinning thoughts. How it did so when Sunset had been deaf to Rose’s earlier comment was another mystery. She swallowed and briefly clenched shut eyes and fists before looking toward the doorway and the woman framed in it.

She was older, of course, and definitely dumpier. Her dress was simple, but faded and just as frumpy. Green hair was straighter, less wild. The round green face, the brown eyes, the mousy manner—those were the same. Whatever guide had piloted her here must have gone on to other tasks, leaving her to stare at the medical tableau vivant before her.

It was another few seconds before the newcomer shuffled forward as if drawn by a geas to stand at the foot of the bed. She huddled into herself, hand covering mouth and eyes darting, the picture of shock and incomprehension. Sunset started to hyperventilate, but the other visitor didn’t notice immediately. When she did, she half-turned and edged away a half-step. “H-hello. You . . . you must be Sunset Shimmer. Ms. Brass told me you would be here. I’m—”

“Holly.” Sunset’s voice was deadly. “You’re Wallflower’s mother. Rose said you were coming.”

A bare twitch of a nod confirmed all of it. “I don’t even remember her, I don’t understand why, but Ms. Brass had so much information, and I looked up a few things, like a birth certificate. I—I even found a photo.” She looked down at her purse with evident relief and started digging in it. Before Sunset could do more than narrow her eyes, the hand came back up with a worn little portrait photograph, a bit creased and discolored. The young girl in it beamed sunnily, not yet shadowed by the gathering clouds that would darken her adolescence. “It must’ve been in the bottom of my purse for a long time.” Her glance shifted over to the bed again.

Sunset could hold her peace no longer. She shot to her feet, took a step forward, and in a low, taut hiss burst out, “Wallflower told me all about the night she left home, y’know.” An amber hand swung toward the comatose patient. “She can’t tell you about it—but I can.”

The words proceeded to pour out of her, cold and thick and bitter. She spared nothing, though she retained enough presence of mind to gloss over the larger story and dance on the edge of the truth with the technicality Wallflower didn’t know where the Memory Stone came from when she found it. Perforce Holly had to believe her; fantastic as the story was, any other explanation would be even more incredible. Rose and Cook would be upset, but they could pound sand.

“You didn’t try to stop him. You let it happen.” Raw contempt edged the accusation, and once more a hand gestured at the victim. “You let this happen.” She heaved another couple of ragged breaths before stepping back, literally and metaphorically. Both hands raked through her hair and she closed her eyes again, trying to regain something resembling equilibrium.

“If . . . you say it happened, it must have.” The soft voice was shaky but surprisingly determined. “And you’re right. I can’t let it happen again.” A small sniffle puncuated the admission; the edge of a hand swiped at damp eyes. “I need to go talk to Ms. Brass. Goodbye, Ms. Shimmer, and—thank you.” With that she turned and departed, leaving Sunset to gape after her in astonishment.

She didn’t want to go. She didn’t want to stay. Nothing moved in her tiny universe other than little bits of the displays and the hands of the cheap, plain wall clock; even Wallflower’s shallow breathing was almost imperceptible. Nothing was audible other than the low electronic and mechanical noises keeping time, all at nerve-wrackingly different rates, and the occasional relief of human sounds growing and fading in the hallway outside. A couple of times the excitement of alarms and accompanying bustle, probably in nearby rooms just like this one, drew Sunset back to her feet, but each of them tapered off soon enough as well.

It was this ambivalence that paralyzed her when Rose—who somehow had changed clothes to a black T-shirt blazoned with a white fortress on a red rectangle, desert-tan BDU pants, and tactical boots—showed up again at the door with a demand she come along to get something to eat. When she hesitated on the edge of her seat, Rose eyed her sharply, then sighed. “How about we go down to the cafeteria? That way we don’t have to leave the building.”

“I don’t—what about Wallflower?” It was barely above a whisper.

Rose shrugged. “So Holly gets a chance to sit with her daughter for a while. You won’t begrudge her that, right?” A fleeting hint of steel marked the last word, and Sunset had to acquiesce with a nod.

Dinner was . . . something. The instant she finished it she forgot what it had been, though she couldn’t tell how much was her own preoccupation and how much was mediocrity of the food itself. Under the authority of a repressive glower, Rose took her in tow for another stint in the waiting room, where they failed to while away the time in small talk. Eventually Holly reappeared, Rose took charge of her instead, and Sunset was left to find her way back to Wallflower’s room.

More hours passed in an endless battle against dozing off, from sheer boredom if nothing else. Sunset was breathlessly afraid if she fell asleep, when she woke up she would be alone. On top of that the jagged memories gnawing at her loomed larger and more frightening when she started to drift.

She snapped upright again for the umpteenth time after nearly falling off the chair. The heels of her hands rubbed her eyes; her breathing took a moment to steady.

“I don’t . . . I don’t understand.” After so long in near-silence the sudden sound of her own voice came as a shock. Her breathing paused. Her glance at the motionless body at the center of the small room reminded her there would be no reply.

“Betcha think I’m an idiot, huh?” Sunset leaned forward, bracing forearms on thighs and lacing her fingers. Her head lowered and her lips pressed together in an unhappy parody of a smile. “I mean, all those good grades don’t mean a thing if I’m t-too stupid to—” She swallowed and looked up again.

“You wouldn’t believe how many times Rose warned me to be careful, even about little things. I just—I wanted to do something nice for you, y’know? I wanted to see you smile. I never thought you might—” She drew a sharp breath in through her nose. “It never crossed my mind. I—I still don’t understand.”

Standing was much harder than it should be, the more so because what hung from her neck suddenly felt like a millstone rather than a glittering slip of crystal. Surely it was only a few steps to the bedside, not the mile it seemed.

One hand closed around the pendant of red and gold. “I know I made a promise,” Sunset whispered. “But I need to understand. I have to find out why, so I—we can make sure you n-never feel that way again.” The other hand reached out, trembling with the tension in every muscle of her body, and she touched Wallflower’s arm.

Whiteout. Disorientation. Jumble. Focus.

Her nose was close enough to the bricks she might scrape it any second. Her socked foot slid along the curved moulding, barely able to get any purchase. Her hand reached for the corner, stone slick under green fingertips. Below was lawn as well as sidewalk, but around the corner there was a patio—an expanse of colored concrete cast to resemble a quaint pattern of pavers—more than big enough to do the job. It would’ve been easier if the other window, directly over the patio, was unlocked, but oh well.

She was doing the right thing. Sunset would understand. Sunset would be okay. Sunset might even be grateful.

The foot slid out and off; the hand waved reflexively for balance. A moment later she was in mid-air. She couldn’t even do this right—

The pendant’s enchantment seized that instant, pinpointing it as foundational. From there it groped for associations, guided by its user’s half-expressed desires and goals. Every brain was different, as alien as another planet, and needed to be learned from scratch. A kaleidoscope of images, sounds, odors, flavors, impressions bombarded her like a bizarre mental version of the microfiche reader still maintained by the city library branch as the spell explored along the unique webwork of engrams at breakneck speed, chasing down the best matches it could find. It was more like experiencing dreams than anything else, subjective and all too often distorted, fuzzy or murky where they didn’t involve things that particular brain understood or considered important.

Her body felt light and fluttery, trembling with the need to run, to escape. The scary one-eyed woman on the other side of the desk was talking, but none of the words made any sense. She didn’t know anything about this “inpatient” place. She wouldn’t see anyone she knew, or who cared about her—like Sunset—for weeks. She was too sick and useless to be anywhere else—

She was starving. Now the Memory Stone was gone, she couldn’t keep stealing food. The only thing she ate any more was lunch at school, because she still had the food-program card. She deserved this; after all she was a useless idiot. She couldn’t bring herself even to look for a job. Besides, how would she do that and attend classes? The little white room with its accumulating mess closed in around her—

Sunset Shimmer screamed her friends’ names and flailed her arms in vain, trying to recapture the visible ribbonlike manifestations sucked out of her head. It looked horrible. Sunset collapsed on the asphalt, which was even worse. Sunset was a big meanie and needed to be taught a lesson, but it wasn’t supposed to hurt this much! Sunset got up, but didn’t stand, instead staying on hands and knees and saying weird things nobody seemed to understand. It was a nightmare—

She heaved huge breaths of exertion and panic and looked around wildly at the quiet side street of houses and small apartment complexes surrounding her. It was full dark by now, and she had no idea what to do next. One thing at a time. Okay. She clutched the stack of picture frames to her chest, pressing on the padded straps of her bookbag; she’d dump all those photos in a trash container in an alley behind a strip mall or something. Then she could think about a plan—

Mom was telling her Dad was right. Dad was always right. Mom never seemed to think she was right, and Dad always thought she was wrong. She quit listening and just waited for Mom’s mouth to stop moving, then nodded and asked to be excused, carefully waiting for permission. She couldn’t remember the last time Mom said something nice to her, and when Dad did, she knew he didn’t really mean it, because sooner or later he—

Even worse than the pain was the shock of it. Dad’s hand, open and flat like a blade, continued on its arc away from her cheek after snapping her head to the side. Mom’s eyes were huge but she didn’t say or do anything. What was happening? Why was it happening? She didn’t understand—

She hated passing periods. The halls always felt too crowded, too many students walking or even running, too close to each other, too close to her, in clumps and groups paying attention to each other but nothing else they might bump into or vice versa, their chatter drowning out everything, nobody ever noticing her, ever taking a moment not to run her down—

“. . . After all, nobody would even care if you just disappeared.” The Shimmer girl sneered, malicious cruelty cutting as a whip—

She sure tried to disappear, all right.

It might as well have been a bolt of electricity snapping across the contact of amber fingers on blue-green wrist. Sunset stumbled back, both arms waving slightly as she caught her balance. Her vision cleared, only to cloud up again as tears sheeted down her cheeks. She didn’t remember saying that—but of course she wouldn’t! The mocking words scraped from her mind, only to be seared back into it, had become the seed of a hideous pearl of thoughts, fears, bullying, tortured justifications, growing until it almost killed Wallflower.

It still might.

Sunset leaned forward and gripped a side rail with both hands. “Wallflower,” she pleaded in a tight voice. “I was wrong. I care. Rose cares. Don’t go. Come back. Please come back.”

Author's Note:

It occurs to me I should explain the origin of the name “Rose Brass”, since I don’t think I’ve done so anywhere else. Rose brass, more commonly called red brass or gunmetal, is a form of bronze originally developed to cast artillery. Gun-metal is attested in English as far back as 1693, though it likely was in common use well before then. Today the alloy is used mostly for musical instruments, but its origins and centuries of history fit well with the character’s background as a scion of a multigenerational military family, and of course Rose is a real woman’s name.

There really is a significant difference between military and civilian first aid. Among other things, if I understand correctly, military first aid includes procedures for moving a patient under any conditions, even when its civilian counterpart flatly states “do not”; such measures should not be taken unless circumstances warrant it, such as being under fire, but they exist. Rose maintains current copies of the relevant army field manuals and gets recertified every year at her own expense.

I don’t know if “underfoot zones” are a real thing in hospitals, but I could see it happening.