They called her the “Sunset Spy.” Every evening she was at her window to wish the day goodbye and welcome the night with a smile so bright it was comparable to the wakening stars.
At first the neighbors were perturbed by this suspicious character of the golden hour. Why was this little girl hanging out the window of her two-story suburban house with wet hair and binoculars? Was she spying on them? Were those binoculars peeking in through their windows?
A week or so after the girl’s family moved into the town, a few of the suburban dwellers took it upon themselves to inform her parents of their daughter's peculiar evening routine. The parents were well aware of her doings and assured their well-meaning neighbors that she was merely watching the sunset, and not invading their privacy.
No one understood her obsession. When asked she would reply, “I never forget to say goodnight to my parents, and I never forget to say goodnight to the sky.”
The sun set over the little suburban area, with its mismatched houses and identical twelve by twelve foot patches of lawn, every night without fail, casting the world in whatever color it chose. Sometimes brilliant pink like summer flowers, sometimes soft pastels, other times navy blue or heavenly gold. Sometimes something else entirely. No two sunsets were alike and the Sunset Spy loved every kind. She would be at her window even on rainy days when the clouds covered the sun and the world simply grew dark without any fantastic display of colors.
The Sunset Spy’s doings soon subsided into normality and the suburban residents went unbothered by them. All except for one.
Mrs. Cyrus lived next the Sunset Spy. She was a grouchy woman in her eighties who was resigned to a wheelchair. She, too, loved the sunset. Every evening she would go out to her porch, which was directly across from the Sunset Spy’s window, and watch the sun settle until the housetops were black silhouettes against the suburban sky. But she did not like children. And she especially did not like the Sunset Spy.
The first time Mrs. Cyrus and the Sunset Spy met, she scared the old woman half to death. At golden Mrs. Cyrus wheeled herself out onto her porch. Stale lat—winter snow still clung to the dead grass on her lawn and the bird feeder she’d neglected to refill or take inside. She positioned herself beside her grill, facing west so she could see the sky just beginning to tinge pink.
A squeaking noise from the gray house adjacent to her made Mrs. Cyrus lookup. A window was being pushed open and a girl, about eight or nine with chocolate-brown eyes, dimples and a bright smile, stuck her head out from it. Mrs. Cyrus quickly looked away. She did not care to interact with her neighbors. She preferred to be alone, as she had been for the last twenty years. Tense, she waited for the little girl to go away.
“Hello there!” shouted the girl, her voice cutting unpleasantly into the peaceful late winter evening. When she spoke, she had a soft, robin chirp of a voice. When she shouted, it was like a bluejay’s bark.
Mrs. Cyrus jumped. Heart pounding and eyes bulging, she looked up at the little girl hanging from the window with a pair of binoculars.
“Are you here to watch the sunset too?”
The poor woman was so startled, she couldn’t have replied if she wanted to. She wheeled herself back into the house as quickly as she could.
The Sunset Spy’s smile faded as she watched the old woman wheel away.
“Goodbye then,” she said in a sad whisper. Her smile returned as the sky marbled into orange and blue clouds like sherbert and cotton candy.
From that day onward, whenever Mrs. Cyrus saw the Sunset Spy coming, she would grunt and go back inside.
Months passed and Mrs. Cyrus waited and waited for one evening where the Sunset Spy would not appear and she could watch the sunset in peace. That day never came. The Sunset Spy was as regular as a clock. Mrs. Cyrus was forced to watch the sunset from the cramped little window above her kitchen sink, which just wasn’t the same.
Summer rolled in and one evening the sky promised that it was going to be an especially delicious sunset. Already brilliant pink and orange clouds were streaking across that day’s blue. Mrs. Cyrus pulled aside the long, tan drapes of her sliding glass door. She peeked at the house beside hers. The Sunset Spy had already assumed her perch. Mrs. Cyrus scowled and shut the curtain. That irritating little girl. Didn’t she have something else to do? It seemed a strange way for a child to occupy her time.
Mrs. Cyrus tried to busy herself washing dishes, but all the while felt a pull to go outside. The sunset was singing to her, calling her name like a siren to a sailor, serenading her heart and soul.
Mrs. Cyrus went to the door and grabbed hold of the handle. No. She let go and wheeled away.
While Mrs. Cyrus debated with herself, the Sunset Spy settled down for that evening’s show. Brown hair wet and soaking through the back of her polka-dot pajamas, she leaned against the windowsill and hung her head and torso out the window. It wasn’t a particularly comfortable position, with the sill digging into her stomach, but it was worth it.
The blazing heat of the summer day had faded into a warmth so comfortable you didn’t even notice it. Less comfortable were the mosquitos buzzing about. A lull hungover the suburban town as golden hour fell, bringing with it sunlight, the smell of dinners grilling upon the breeze, and crickets readying for their nighttime concert with a few warm-up chirps.
The Sunset Spy looked through her binoculars. Sometimes it made the view worse, but other times she would spot something amazing.
A whining sound came from below. The Sunset Spy directed her binoculars towards the ground. All she saw were grainy, blocks of color. She peeked from behind the lenses -- and nearly toppled out of the window in amazement. It was Mrs. Cyrus.
Mrs. Cyrus opened her sliding door and, carefully avoiding the Sunset Spy’s gaze, she wheeled out onto her porch and positioned herself towards the sun.
The Sunset Spy held her breath. Mrs. Cyrus was like a wild animal. If she were to speak too loudly or move too soon, she might frighten her.
I won’t bother her, thought the Sunset Spy. Ever so slowly, she raised her binoculars again and faced the sunset.
To Mrs. Cyrus’s astonishment, the Sunset Spy said nothing the entire evening.
As promised, it was a magnificent sunset, a blaze of brightest pink and orange, puffy blue and purple clouds and streaks of gold. They watched the fantastic show in peace and quiet, but the entire time each was glancing at the other from the corner of their eye.
Just as the Sunset Spy had hoped, Mrs. Cyrus decided it might be safe for her to return to her routine of watching the sunset again. The day after, the Sunset Spy once again said nothing. She was cautious, knowing the slightest word or action might cause Mrs. Cyrus flee.
This continued for days. The two of them watching the sunset. Together, but in different worlds. As if there were a wall between them, through which they could not see each other or speak to one another, but they had the same view.
A fortnight later, the Sunset Spy decided to break the wall.
It was golden hour yet. The sun was making its way towards the horizon, dipping towards the trees, casting a soft, reddish light over suburbia. Despite it being a little early, both Mrs. Cyrus and the Sunset Spy were in position for their daily show. And it did feel like it was theirs.
The Sunset Spy spoke, “I wonder what the sunset will look like tonight.” Her voice chirped loud and clear.
Mrs. Cyrus gave a start. Her body tensed and she didn’t look up at the Sunset Spy. But she didn’t leave either. Not yet.
The Sunset Spy watched the old woman carefully for signs of flight. When there were none, she continued, encouraged, “I’ve just had my bath. I always have my bath before golden hour. And after my bath, I can’t go out to play. Mom is worried I might get dirty. That’s why I always come here to watch the sunset. It’s my first friend here. Do you have many friends?” It was not in the Sunset Spy’s nature to start off gentle.
Mrs. Cyrus scratched her ear in irritation. She turned to wheel towards the house.
“No! Please don’t go!” The small cry was like a plea for help.
Mrs. Cyrus stopped. She could hear something in the little girl's voice. A feeling she knew but couldn’t quite place.
“I promise, I won’t say another word.” The Sunset Spy mimed zipping her lips.
Mrs. Cyrus wheeled around again. She faced the Sunset Spy for a moment, gave a sharp nod of agreement, then turned back to the horizon.
The Sunset Spy’s smile almost eclipsed the bright dream now taking over the sky. They sat in silence the rest of the evening, both quietly withdrawing into their homes when night arrived.
It wasn’t until later that night, lying in bed, that Mrs. Cyrus realized what she’d heard in the little girl’s voice. Loneliness.
It was a few days before the Sunset Spy ventured to speak again.
“Hello, Mrs. Cyrus!”
The old woman did not immediately wheel away. Encouraged, the Sunset Spy spoke again. The more she talked, the more she thought of to talk about. She chatted about starting school in the fall, how much she loved the sunset, her favorite flowers and whether chocolate or sherbert ice cream was better.
When Mrs. Cyrus scratched her ear, the Sunset Spy realized she’d been talking far too much.
“I’m sorry,” she apologized quickly, worried the women would leave. “I didn’t mean to talk so much. I’ll stop now.”
Silence fell, interrupted only by the nighttime orchestra of crickets. Then, for the first time since they had met, Mrs. Cyrus spoke in her cracked, underused voice, “I don’t mind.”
The Sunset Spy beamed like the sun.
From then on, they spent every evening together. Mrs. Cyrus never said much, but the Sunset Spy said a lot, so they got along comfortably. The Sunset spy had an interesting mind and a big heart and she spilled all her thoughts and feelings out to Mrs. Cyrus. And, to Mrs. Cyrus’s surprise, she didn’t mind. Though she’d never admit it to anyone, she enjoyed the spy’s companionship. She had been lonely for so long she’d never realized how lonely she really was until she wasn’t lonely anymore.
No matter how much she chattered, the little girl would always fall quiet at the climax of the sunset and they would sit in contented silence til the end.
For years this tradition continued. The two sat through the gray and cantaloupe colored sunsets of Winter, the pastel splashes of Spring, the bright, showy sunsets of Summer, and the brilliant, blazing skies of Autumn.
On rainy or snowy days, the Sunset Spy would blink her light at Mrs. Cyrus to let her know she was looking out her window. And, after a grudging moment, Mrs. Cyrus would blink back.
Mrs. Cyrus was convinced that as the girl grew up, she would eventually forget about her. But every day they Sunset Spy proved her wrong. No matter how many years she aged, how many friends she made or how busy she got, she never forgot her sunset friend.
Around thirteen, she became very busy with after school activities.
“But I’ve come up with a system!” the Sunset Spy called to Mrs. Cyrus, one grayish autumn evening, in delight. She looked older now. Her face had thinned out and her eyes were a little duller, but she had the same dimples, bright smile and infectious personality. “When I pull down my shade, it means I can’t come to watch the sunset tonight.”
Mrs. Cyrus was always surprised at the pang of disappointment she felt whenever the shade was pulled. As the Sunset Spy ventured into her teenage years, the shade was pulled down more and more. But whenever the girl had a night to herself, she would spend it with Mrs. Cyrus, talking and watching the sunset.
Mrs. Cyrus watched the Sunset Spy blossom, from a noisy little girl with a mind full of imagination, to a gawky pre-teen worried about friends and growing up, to a highschooler stressed about boys and school. And now she was a young woman with long brown hair, sitting by the window talking reflectively about her dreams, and hopes and fears for the future as she gazed out at the horizon.
At the end of the Sunset Spy’s eighteenth summer, came two long weeks of rain. Not one single night were the companions able to watch the sunset. When there was finally a sunny day, the shade was closed. And for days it remained closed. Mrs. Cyrus was not worried. It was not unusual for the Sunset Spy to be gone for days. But she’d never been gone for an entire week. When it passed a week, she could be worried.
The seventh day came with a dreamy sunset of purple and green dragon smoke and still the Sunset Spy did not come. Mrs. Cyrus comforted herself that the older the Sunset Spy got, the longer she would be gone. By the tenth day, the ninety-year-old women could think of nothing else. Had the Sunset Spy forgotten her? Or did she not want to watch the sunset anymore? Had Mrs. Cyrus’s worst fears come true?
A few days later, it made its way down the grapevine to Mrs. Cyrus that the Sunset Spy had gone away to college in the big city. Mrs. Cyrus recollected the girl mentioning it, but had forgotten until now. Everyone told her the girl would be back for thanksgiving, but that would not be soon enough.
In October there was a sunset they both watched, though they didn’t know it. The Sunset Spy watched from her dorm window while Mrs. Cyrus watched from her familiar spot on her porch. The Sunset was rose pink and soft yellow with streaks of fluffy, golden clouds, the colors swirling together as they dipped below the horizon. It was the last sunset they would ever watch together.
It was a brisk and gray November day when the Sunset Spy finally lifted her shade. She opened her window and stuck her head out, smiling. Her smile faded when she saw the neighboring porch was vacant of any old lady in a wheelchair.
The Sunset Spy, smiled again, dismissing her worries. Of course, she would come. She always came. But the longer the Sunset Spy waited, the more she felt something wasn't right. Autumn leaves were piling on the porch and there were no wheelchair tracks going through them. There was no grill. And the bird feeder, which had hung by the sliding glass door for a decade, was gone.
Her smile disappeared once more. The Sunset Spy withdrew into her house and shut the window, blocking out the truth she was afraid of. She didn’t watch the sunset that night.
Every evening the Sunset Spy watched for her sunset friend, but she never came.
On the final evening of the Sunset Spy’s week at home, she sat in the window, looking out and feeling gloomy. The chilly wind bit at her cheeks but she ignored it, letting her face grow red and numb as she waited.
Her heart leapt as she heard the familiar whine of the sliding glass door - but it wasn’t Mrs. Cyrus. It was a little boy, about six or seven with freckles and mismatched socks. He crunched through the leaves on the porch.
The Sunset Spy thought about going inside, but then the little boy noticed her. The Sunset Spy smiled and waved gracefully down.
“Hello,” she called.
The little boy grinned up at her. “Hello up there!”
She smiled and asked, “Do you live here now?”
The little boy nodded.
A flock of geese honked across the sky. The little boy gasped and pointed up at them. “Look! Look! I wish I could fly with them!”
The Sunset Spy smiled, remembering a time when she too had longed for such things.
“Wait.” The Sunset Spy ducked into her window. When she returned, she had her old, worn binoculars. “These can’t make you fly, but they can make you feel like you are in the sky.”
The Sunset Spy smiled down at her beloved binoculars. She let go and they slipped from her slender hand, landing with a crunch in a pile of dead leaves.
The little boy ran to pick up the binoculars. He smiled up at the Sunset Spy. “Thank you!” He cocked his head to one side and asked, “What are you doing up there anyway?”
The Sunset Spy smiled. “Watching the sunset.”
The boy's parents called to him from the house. Hugging his new binoculars to his chest, he ran inside.
A lone goose flew over its head, honking loudly. It’s lonesome call filled the Sunset Spy’s heart. And she knew, her sunset friend was gone.
Leaning her head against the window frame, the Sunset Spy looked out at the horizon. The sun was setting. It was not brilliant or show stopping, but a soft dreamlike lull as the sky was painted with soft pinks and purples slowly deepening into darkest lavender as night blossomed. The Sunset Spy smiled to herself. It was Mrs. Cyrus’s favorite kind of sunset.