• 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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Arrangements

“Thanks, Sarge.” Rose knew she sounded utterly drained. “Anything else I need I can grab in the gift shop or a convenience store somewhere around here. Head on back to the barn and get a good night’s sleep.” Despite the indomitable front she took such pains to project, even her stamina was finite, and the last half a day—or half a lifetime—had stretched it perilously close to its limit.

The taciturn driver nodded in acknowledgement and touched fingertips briefly to forehead in an informal salute before striding toward a side corridor and the parking structure at its other end. Once he was out of sight, Rose sighed, lowered her head, and rubbed her forehead with her good hand. What next?

With an effort she straightened her spine, shifting the dufflebag over her shoulder, and raised her head again for a look around. Like everything else about the chain hotel, the lobby was about as generic as it got: beige walls, curtained full-height storefront-style commercial glazing, rugged hard-wear carpeting out of a catalog from a decade ago. It seemed larger than it was—scattered clusters of lounge chairs around drumlike coffee tables left much of the space open; ceiling fixtures provided fashionably, and maddeningly, dim lighting. At this late hour it was empty other than herself and the single attendant behind the reception desk tucked away at the side of the room.

Well, not quite. A lone figure occupied an ell at the far end, glassed in during some long-ago renovation. To Rose’s half-knowledgeable eye it probably had started as one of those “business centers” that were all the rage in the early days of the public Internet. Then, when that became passé after a few years, it no doubt had been converted into a “smoking lounge” as laws on public smoking tightened. Never mind how awkward and inadequate the small space had been for either use.

Her brow crimped. That occupant looked familiar.


Holly stared down at the pack of cigarettes sitting unopened on the small table in front of her. She had gotten no farther than pulling the tab that stripped off the top of the outer cellophane wrapper; her hands sat, fingers spread slightly, on either side of the small paperboard box. Her head popped up in surprise when the glass door opened. “Uh . . . Ms. Brass! I—I didn’t expect to see you . . .”

“I didn’t expect to see you tonight either, so I guess we’re even.” Rose entered and let the door close behind her with slow pneumatic grace. Another couple of steps brought her to the chair opposite Holly. Without invitation she unslung her duffle and dropped it beside the chair, on the side away from the door, then dropped herself onto the chair.

Only a whiff of tobacco smoke scented the air. Rose suspected the “lounge” hadn’t been used in a while, and at least the management had sprung for a heavy-duty HVAC vent and return in the ceiling. “I didn’t know you smoked.” Neither approval nor condemnation marked the toneless words.

“I haven’t in almost twenty years.” Holly returned her gaze to the neatly arranged packet. “But if there’s ever a time to do it . . .”

There was a stretched pause before Rose acknowledged, “Yeah. I can see that.” After all, this day had turned out to be as rough for Holly as it had been for her and Sunset. “So . . . you left your husband.” She wanted to swivel her seat, but it was one of those solidly built overstuffed chairs designed to withstand years of abuse from uncaring guests.

“Yeah. That was hard.” A world of understatement, on so many levels, had to underlay Holly’s stark admission. “I called you once I was out of there, and that’s when you told me—” A hand gestured not even in the general direction of the hospital. “I didn’t know what I was going to do, about her, about tonight, about anything.” She hunched a little, apparently more in fatigue or relief than discomfort, then sat up again. “Oh—I didn’t thank you before, for the room. And thank you for helping me with Mister Sticky Note and all.”

The prosthetic hand waved away the need for gratitude. “Part of the job. Social Services maintains a small block of rooms here, partly because of the hospital down the street. I just tapped into that for a single.”

“And a room for you too?” The furtive brown eyes in the downturned face flicked upward briefly. “You have a bag with you.”

“Mm.” Rose couldn’t deny it, but felt no inclination to elaborate. At the same time she had reserved Holly’s room, she’d snagged a double for herself. She wasn’t sure why—it wasn’t like being nearby could have any impact on events at the hospital. She just wanted to stay close, and she might be able to use the second bed as a way to entice Sunset to get some sleep.

Time to change the subject, or return to the original subject, or whatever. “I’m in the youth division; I’m not certified to work with adults. Besides, it would be a conflict of interest, since your daughter is one of my clients. Sticky’s qualified to work with you, and he’s got experience with women in your situation. He’s a good egg.” Standoffish and abrasive, sometimes, but a good man. Well, Holly would find that out soon enough, and it would be his job to make sure she shaped up.

Holly’s nod was equal parts trusting and wary, which seemed contradictory, but in Rose’s experience was entirely too common for someone in her position. She was silent for a long moment, plainly groping for something else to say before making up her mind. “My hus—boyfriend, then, got me to start smoking.” Her voice had gone back to the low mumble Rose remembered from the first time they’d met. “I stopped just a couple of years later. I didn’t understand why. I was pregnant, wasn’t I?”

“I wouldn’t know, but I’d say yeah, probably.” Rose didn’t bother to hide the weariness in her voice. “You must’ve been, what, twenty?” The same age Sunset currently was, though she kept that to herself.

A nod confirmed the estimate. “We got married right around then, too. It was . . . kind of sudden. So much wasn’t making sense, but now—it’s like a jigsaw puzzle with half the pieces missing, and there’s no box to look at.”

Rose blew out a breath in unwilling sympathy. Memory was a tricky thing, more fluid and protean than most people were comfortable considering. It’s hard to think about something that isn’t there, like the old chestnut about trying to prove a negative. If the gaps are small, they get glossed over, not even missed. If they’re big, the brain tries to fill them in, however nonsensical the results. How much of Holly’s unease had been stirred up by the very interview Rose subjected her to? Would it have been better to let sleeping dogs lie? She shifted on her seat.

“Or maybe it’s more like a window that was so dirty I couldn’t see through it, and then half of the dirt got wiped away somehow.” Holly rambled on, oblivious to Rose’s disquiet, struggling to articulate her own tilted perspective. “We weren’t ready for getting married or being parents, either of us. Now I can see it, and how he bossed me around. B-bullied me. He didn’t care about anything but living the way he wanted. I couldn’t get him to stop drinking.” She paused, and something that might almost be a smile flitted across her face. “At least he stopped doing it as much, and he did stop smoking.”

It was Holly’s turn to sigh. “I guess not being ready isn’t a good excuse, though, is it? I never liked getting into arguments or fights with people either, but look at me. Look at my—my daughter. Have you heard the old saying about going along to get along?” At Rose’s silent nod, she went on, “Look at what that got me and my baby.” She sat up straighter and for the first time raised her head to look Rose in the eye. “I have to do better now. I have to stand up for myself, and for her.”

Rose’s eye narrowed and her mouth compressed; her whole muscular body coiled a little. As far as she could tell, Holly’s track record over the last twenty years of standing up for anything, let alone herself or her daughter, was—to put it very politely—not good at all. Why believe her now?

The social worker couldn’t count the number of times she’d heard a client, or a parent, blather on about wanting to change, offer up abject apologies, swear it would never happen again. But with vanishingly rare exception the change never happened, the apologies were forgotten, and it did happen again. The bad habits were just too ingrained, the chowderheads who jerked and twitched in obedience to their demands unable to fathom any other way of behaving. That went for enablers every bit as much as the abusers they enabled.

Wallflower was Rose’s client. Holly probably wouldn’t hurt the girl, but if she wanted a chance to prove herself to her daughter, first she had to prove herself to Rose. Assuming Wallflower had a future, Rose’s job would be to do what was best for her. Right now, it didn’t look very likely that should include letting Holly back into Wallflower’s life at all, let alone helping the two of them reconnect. She clenched her teeth on the urge to tell the woman across the table just that.

At Rose’s sudden tension, Holly’s face blanked and she drew back a little. “You—you’re mad at me.” It wasn’t a question or even a protest, just a simple observation. The dumpy little form sagged. “I guess I’m mad at me too.” Green hands rose to knuckle brown eyes.

Out of Holly’s sight, Rose closed her eye and took a long slow breath. None of her thoughts were new or untrue, but it was time for a little benefit of the doubt. Even in its absence the Memory Stone loomed large. Maybe those bad habits as much as Holly’s memories had been shot full of holes; she did seem more determined, more willing to shoulder some responsibility. Not shuffling off all the blame onto her husband also was a point in her favor, as long as she didn’t take it too far.

A minute passed as both of them strove for a semblance of equanimity. Finally Rose ventured more gently, “Why are you here? Instead of sitting with Wallflower, that is. Why let Sunset be there instead?”

A hint of fire guttered in the mild eyes. “Of course I wanted to stay with her! When you two were eating dinner and I was in there, all I could think about was how she had to be my daughter. I don’t remember anything, y’know, like mental pictures or things like that, but I just had—have this feeling about it. Like—like maybe there’s still something deep down inside telling me she’s my baby and I’m her mother. That’s all I need.” A shrug reinforced her conviction.

“But . . .” Hesitance returned. “. . . it’s not what I want that’s important. It’s all about what’s best for Wallflower, isn’t it? Right now, m-maybe that isn’t me. I don’t know if my face should be the first one she sees when she wakes up. Heaven knows I want it to be, b-but if she felt so bad about her parents she ran away—” A helpless, inarticulate gesture ended, rather than finished, the sentence.

Rose did not miss Holly’s unconscious assurance Wallflower would regain consciousness, and by extension that the girl would survive and recover. Experience told the army officer and minder of troubled youth how misplaced that confidence was. Sometimes people who should have made it didn’t; sometimes those who should have given up the ghost pulled through.

It was this lack of certainty, like the gruesomely appropriate thought experiment about the cat in the box, that was so agonizing—far more than when Adagio Dazzle had slit her wrists. Then, it had been no more than an hour before she knew the ex-siren would be all right. Now? It could be days or weeks, even an eternity, before the verdict would be known.

Telling Holly the odds might undermine her fragile confidence. Silence might leave her all the more devastated should Wallflower fail to awaken. There was no good choice, just a choice.

Once more Rose rubbed her forehead. Later. She would think about this later. “Tell you what: how about tomorrow?” For now she would keep to herself the acid proviso assuming Wallflower is still alive. “Sunset’s gonna be a wreck by then. She’ll need the sleep anyway.”

For Holly to stay, Sunset had to leave—only one long-term visitor at a time was allowed. Being next of kin, Holly’s decision would trump Sunset’s or even Rose’s, but she hadn’t asserted her right; exactly why wasn’t clear. Perhaps she just didn’t know. Perhaps she hadn’t thought of it yet. Perhaps she wanted the validation of Rose’s concurrence. Perhaps she’d figured out Sunset’s hair-trigger temper held the potential for a major scene unless Rose was the one to try prying her daughter’s friend out of the room, though that reasoning seemed a little sophisticated for Holly, especially under these conditions.

Holly’s preoccupied nod seemed to seal the deal, but her next words struck like a thunderbolt. “She didn’t just run away, though, did she? Was . . . was that Sunset girl telling the truth about a magic rock?”

“What did she tell you?” The words came out hard and sharp, all officer and no social worker. Rose regretted the tone instantly.

The brown eyes grew large, and a frightened stammer made the story almost unintelligible. Rose listened, irritated Sunset had let it slip, relieved Sunset had exercised any discretion at all about the Stone’s origins. She made a mental note. There would be words about this.

“But—but why Wallflower?” The flood of words slowed to something less than a torrent. “She never shoulda come across something like that. She’s not magic. She’s just a normal kid from . . .” Holly wound down, realizing where that thought led, then shifted tack. “I mean, it had to be dangerous, like somebody leaving a loaded gun or a bottle of booze just . . . just lying around!”

Part of that skated dangerously close to blaming the victim, something Rose couldn’t let pass. In a tightly controlled voice she pointed out, “Yes, well, if that ‘normal’ family—and her schoolmates, to be fair—had been more supportive, if she hadn’t been made to hate herself so much, she might not have been convinced all her interactions were so screwed up she had to wipe them away.” She paused a beat before conceding, “But yeah, it was dangerous. When I was in the army, I saw too many kids who ended up finding unexploded mines or bombs the hard way.” Everything she had learned about magic from the other world indicated it wasn’t always fun and happy and rainbows and music. Sometimes it was a primordial force able to destroy lives. The Memory Stone absolutely fell into the latter category.

Holly’s eyes glistened. “You—you’re right. If she trusted me more, if she could’ve trusted me more, she might’ve said something, and we could’ve done something about it before things got so bad.”

Rose sat back in exhaustion and glanced up at the ceiling. “There isn’t anyone to blame, any more. I have no idea how long it sat buried before Wallflower found it.” Another technicality; she would bet somebody—or somepony, to use Sunset’s native vernacular—probably knew how long it had ticked away like one of those unexploded bombs, but that somebody wasn’t her. Perversely it annoyed her to borrow that trick from Sunset.

It was clear Holly felt profoundly ambivalent about Wallflower—wanted to be angry, and ashamed of that anger. Rose was painfully aware of her own mixed feelings of anger and sympathy toward the girl at the center of the tangle. She was convinced Sunset too harbored the same confused emotions, though the fiery young woman doubtless wouldn’t admit it even to herself.

“But do you have any idea what Wallflower is like?” A plaintive note haunted the question.

Rose blinked and sat up again. “Sorry, what?”

“Can you tell me what Wallflower is like?” Another gesture, this time with both hands, expressed bafflement. “I don’t remember her, so I don’t know her any more, really.”

“Oh.” Rose’s shoulders slumped. “I’m sorry, Holly, I don’t have a good answer for that question. I’ve had only a few conversations with her.” And what she did know, Wallflower’s mother didn’t need to hear tonight. “Truthfully? The person who might know her best is Sunset—and Sunset definitely is not up for that right now.”

Holly deflated, the picture of disappointment, but muttered, “He doesn’t remember anything either. I can’t decide if that’s good or bad. He doesn’t care that he doesn’t remember, which is bad, but he doesn’t remember anything he did, which is . . . good?”

In a flash Rose caught on to what Holly really wanted to know. “He abused Wallflower verbally and emotionally, gradually escalating through her childhood. If I understand correctly, he didn’t start any kind of physical abuse until early in her junior year at CHS, about twenty months ago. It started with a slap, and it didn’t happen often, but toward the end he was using a fist about once every week or two.” In the same emotionless voice she provided more details, outlining the scope and extent of the abuse.

Holly’s expression was sick and a tear tracked down her cheek as she listened, but she didn’t look away. When Rose finished she whispered, “Did he do . . . anything else to her?”

“No.” Small mercies. “No, he didn’t go any farther than that, thank goodness.” Rose had been forced to give worse answers in the past, something that never, ever got easier.

Holly squeezed her eyes closed and her lips moved. Maybe it was a prayer. It was a good time for one.

It was a good time for a little encouragement, too. “What matters now is making sure Wallflower has a future worth waking up to.”

To that Holly nodded emphatically.

Author's Note:

The character of Sticky Note has been borrowed with the kind permission of I-A-M.

Why is Sunset twenty and not eighteen? According to a tweet by Ishi Rudell, Sunset is a couple of years older than her friends and classmates:

Sunset would be older . . . age-wise she’s like a senior who was held back a couple years!