Lunch at the Carlson’s was comfort food – grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup – but it was good comfort food, the sort of lunch my own mother made when I was sick, and I felt as if I should be back in Topeka, sitting on my tall chair with a phone book underneath my butt so that I could reach over the table. Moms were good at that, I guess, anticipating their children’s needs and offering favorite foods like hot chocolate with marshmallows in the middle of summer or root beer Popsicles in a winter thunderstorm.

            And Mrs. Carlson was a good mom at that, concerned with her daughter’s well-being without obsessively hovering over her. Even though Lynn only picked at her food, downing maybe half a sandwich and less than half her bowl of soup, Joanne, as she’d invited me to call her when I’d escorted Lynn down to the dining table, didn’t demand that Lynn eat “just one more bite” or assume that her cooking was awful and she should make something else. Instead, she kept up a funny monologue about her younger years as a flower child on Haight-Ashbury, when she’d worn daises in her hair and called herself “Moonshadow.” I wouldn’t have guessed it from her adult formality, or from the expensively decorated room we ate in, but she talked about those days with real pride.

            “Oh, yes,” she told me, gesturing with a quarter of her sandwich. “We protested the Vietnam War with everything we had, but I also ended up volunteering at the local VA hospital as a candy-striper. I had an awful lot of respect for the guys who were drafted – we were protesting the war, not the guys who had no choice but to fight.

            “But,” Joanne interrupted herself, smiling grimly, “that’s hardly nice, light lunchtime conversation. “Lynn tells me you volunteer to be an ‘uncle’ for the ICU babies at the children’s hospital?” She folded her cloth napkin and placed it primly next to her plate. “Do you want to go into pediatrics?”

            “One of these days,” I said, clearing my throat. A damnable tickle had crept up the back of my throat, and I tried to force it back down before it could go any higher. “Lots of the kids at Children’s are flown in from a tri-state region, and their parents can’t be there every day, so volunteers like me fill in by holding the kids or feeding them, or just talking with them – whatever the kids are up for.”

            “I think I’ve seen a story or two about that on the news – or was it the yearly telethon?”

            “Probably the telethon. They like to build it up with little feature stories on the sponsoring network, but the telethon’s where you see the big stories about the way the hospital works.” I could feel the edge of the tickle move up into my nose, and I had to resist the urge to rub at it. Putting it out of my mind, I tried my best to distract myself by throwing myself headlong into an explanation of the telethon and my volunteer work.

            “All of the telethon dollars go toward what’s called the uncompensated care fund, so that kids are assured of getting the best care, regardless of their ability to pay. The volunteers help keep costs down by keeping the healthier kids occupied so that nurses can spend more time with the really sick ones.” Reaching into my back pocket, I tugged out my handkerchief and placed it discretely on my knee, under the table. “We also run samples to the lab, address envelopes – basically, we do anything that we can to help keep the place functioning.”

            “That sounds wonderful, Cory. Do you plan on being a pediatrician someday?” I had told her when I’d come in that I was pre-med at the U, as if that would somehow make me seem instantly acceptable and non-threatening, and I was somewhat surprised that she had remembered. It wasn’t that she’d been cold or impolite in any way, but she seemed guarded and nervous about my having taken an interest in her daughter.

            “I’d like to be.” I swallowed hard, hoping Joanne and Lynn didn’t notice, but out of the corner of my eye, I saw Lynn regarding me with concern. The urge to leave the table and lock myself in the farthest bathroom was nearly overwhelming, but something told me I wouldn’t have time to escape. My eyes already stung with moisture, and I tried my best to be inconspicuous as I blinked it away.

            “That or, ah, reconstructive surgery.” I picked up the handkerchief from my lap and, still under the table, unfolded one thickness of it. “Could you, uhb, excuse be a bidud?” My nose had filled up in an instant, and I gulped in air and raised my hands to my face in a simultaneous gesture, aiming a stifled “Ggg-phhh!” away from Lynn and her mother. Although it was uncomfortable for me, and at home I usually let loose with a monstrous “Ehh-shhh!” I tried my best to stifle, ending up with a rapid series of “Ggg-huh” noises that lasted, conservatively, a minute and a half.

            When I finally looked up over my handkerchief, Mrs. Carlson was staring at me with huge eyes. “Cory!”

            I had been expecting a “Bless you,” and my surprise prompted another sneeze, this one loud and just barely smothered. “K-shhh!”

            Mrs. C. got up from her chair to stand right in front of me, placing the back of her hand against my forehead. “You don’t seem feverish.”

            I stifled again, not wanting to spray Lynn’s mother at point-blank range. “Allergies,” I gulped out, prompting her to take a small step back to assess me anew. My ears were burning and I’m sure my nose was bright red, but I was loath to take my hands away from my face to find out.

            “There’s a powder room just off of the living room,” she informed me, pointing in that direction. I nodded in response and made my way there, locking the door behind me. Small, decorative soaps sat in a cut glass dish to the right of the sink faucet, and two fancy terry hand towels had been hung on a ring which dangled from the side of the sink’s enclosed cabinet. I blew my nose vigorously into my handkerchief, then placed the cloth in my front pocket, in case I needed it again in an even bigger hurry. Splashing cool water on my face, I dried my hands on one of the towels, placing the damp towel on the side of the sink opposite the soaps. They had a strong odor of what I figured was roses, and I wanted to stay as far away from them as possible, lest they fire up my allergies yet again.

            When I returned to the dining room, Joanne Carlson was still standing next to my chair, her arms folded across her small chest. Even though she was a good foot shorter than me, she did the “mother on a rampage” look very well, and I slunk back into my chair, contrite. Having an attack in the middle of a visit with the mother of the girl you want to impress didn’t seem like the best opening move, but I seemed to have little say in the matter. Although I’d downed a non-sedating antihistamine the night before, it didn’t always suppress all of the histamine spikes that seemed to dance their merry way through my system.

            “Bob, I thig you cad stop worrying dow.” Lynn dropped her soup spoon into her bowl, and it landed with a delicate clink.

            “Worry is what mothers do best.” Mrs. Carlson collected the bowls and stacked them on the plates, then turned to carry them into the kitchen.

“Hey, Mrs. C, let me do that.” I got up from my chair and motioned for her to hand me the plates. She finally relinquished her hold on them, and I stacked them in the large two-basin sink in the kitchen, running hot water over the pile to loosen the crumbs and soup. A moment later, I felt a light, hesitant touch on my shoulder, turning around to see Lynn standing on my right. Her auburn hair escaped in long tendrils from the thick braid that went past her shoulder blades, and there were faint purple shadows under her eyes.

“Cory, I deed to talk with you aboud sobethig.” Lynn scrubbed a tired hand under her nose and sniffled, the sound wet and pinched. I dropped the soapy sponge I held into the sink and reached past Lynn to grab a paper towel from the standing roll on the black granite countertop and dry my hands.

“Sure.” I studied Lynn’s stooped posture, noted the way she could barely meet my eyes. Either she was tired, or she was ashamed of what she had to tell me next.

“Cad we go back ubstairs?”

“Sure,” I repeated, gently reaching around her to cup my right hand under her elbow. “Lean on me, if you want.” Maybe she was just too tired to resist, but the slight tension in her frame which I’d noticed the last time I touched her was gone, replaced by what I liked to imagine was trust. She leaned slightly toward me, and I could feel her hair wisp softly against my neck.

When we were back at her bedroom, I entered first, folding back the quilt and the bed sheet for her. She slid into the bed, covering a yawn with the back of her upper arm.

“Tuck, tuck, tuck,” I repeated softly as I brought the quilt up around her. My gesture made her smile, but the expression was fleeting.

“So, what did you need to tell me?” I perched on the side of the bed, studying her. The confident, self-assured woman I’d first met at her father’s law office had been replaced with a shy, hesitant and fragile little girl, and she picked listlessly at the quilt for a moment before she said anything.

“Cory, you’re a gread guy, ad I thig you’re really sweed.”

Oh, God, I thought, here it comes. The “You’re really nice, but let’s just be friends ‘cause my boyfriend Bruno is jealous” speech.

“Sure I’m Swede,” I joked, touching my blond hair. “My given name was Svendsen, after all.”

“Dough, Cory, thad’s dot whad I bedt.” She pursed her lips and blew out slowly. “Id’s be. I’b worried that odce I tell you whad I did, you’re goig to thig I’b awful.”

Her voice was so congested, I could barely piece together what she was saying, though I got the jist of it. I wasn’t getting the “Let’s just be friends” speech after all. Now it was worse, the “It’s not you, it’s me” line.

“If you want me to leave, I will.” I started to get up off the bed, but Lynn reached out a hand to stop me.

“Cory, dough. I’b just dod sayig this the right way.” She paused to take my handkerchief out of her robe pocket, bringing it up slowly and deliberately. The motion was hypnotic, somehow, and I watched as she inhaled deeply and then blew long and hard into the cloth. She sniffed experimentally, then folded the cloth in half and blew again.

“Huuuh.” Lynn leaned back against the pillows I’d stacked up behind her earlier and found a dry corner of the hanky to swipe at the underside of her nose. “This is just hard for me to say.”

I hazarded a prompt. “Does this have anything to do with Scott?”

Lynn coughed, her face turning pale and making her shining green eyes all the more prominent. “Who told you?” She sat up straight and scooted toward the headboard, away from me.

            “Whoa, wait a second.” I held up both hands in a defensive gesture, wishing I could take my words back. “No one told me anything, although Heather threatened to run me over with an SUV if I hurt you in any way. I guess this shirt’ll have tire tracks on it now.”

            Lynn laughed, but the noise was brittle, and her chin tightened into a pocked surface that I associated with impending tears. She bit her bottom lip hard, and I heard her snuffle again.

            Lynn, please, let me in. I’m not trying to hurt you, though I can’t guarantee I won’t say something stupid.” I inched forward on the bed, hoping she’d read it as a sign of care rather than entrapment.

            Lynn stared intently at her knees and whispered something.


Her face shot up abruptly, nearly clipping my chin. “This is so hard.”

I knew then that I was completely out of my depth, not waving but drowning in the shimmering green of her eyes. “What’s hard, Lynnie?”

            Lynn drew in a long breath, expelled it, clutched the border of the quilt in her hands. I trained my eyes on the blue flower pattern on the wallpaper above her bed, thinking it might be easier for her to tell me what was wrong if I didn’t look at her.

            “Scott raped me.”

            The three small words echoed in the quiet of Lynn’s bedroom, and it took all my concentration to keep the lunch I’d just eaten in my stomach. I didn’t want to believe it, didn’t want to think of Lynn enduring such abuse at the hands of another human being. No, not a human being, I amended. A sick fuck of a piece of DNA.

            Lynn must have misread my expression, because she cringed. “I know. I can’t stand myself either.”

            “No, Lynn, that’s not what –“

            “I feel so stupid!” Lynn rambled on, not hearing me. Tears were dripping off of her chin and pooling in a dark blue blotch on the quilt. “I should have fought back. I should have never invited him back to my room after dinner.”

            She gulped in air, paused. “But he was so big, and he hit me, told me he’d hit me again if I fought him.” Her breath came in quick little gasps, and I realized she was in the midst of a flashback, reliving those horrible moments of shame and abuse.

            Lynn, look at me. Please, look at me. Come back to me, Lynn.” I coaxed her with my voice, afraid to touch her until she knew exactly where she was and who I was.

            She paused her recitation to look up, and when her eyes met mine, her entire body slumped, her face resting on her upraised knees. I moved to sit next to her, gathering her up in my arms with her head tucked under my chin. She turned her face into my shoulder, puffs of breath hot against my neck. I hummed a refrain I recalled from my childhood, a Swedish lullaby that my mother had sung to me on nights when thunderstorms rolled over the prairie and seemed to crash right into our house.

            As I sang, a shadow appeared in the doorway, and I turned my head to see Joanne Carlson staring at me as I held her daughter. She tilted her head in a questioning gesture, and I shook mine in response. The firm set of her mouth softened, and she nodded, padding quietly away from the door and leaving us alone again. I stroked Lynn’s shoulder, noticing how it trembled and jumped with each breath she drew.

            When I ran out of childhood songs, I switched to musicals, landing on Mrs. Lovett’s duet from Sweeney Todd. “No one’s gonna harm you, not while I’m around.” It seemed to calm Lynn down, and after a time, the vigorous shaking of her body subsided into occasional coughs and snuffles.

            “You okay?” I backed away just enough to see her face, which was still pressed against my shoulder. Strands of hair hung limply around her face, and I tucked them back behind her ears with my free hand. The afternoon light reflected the sheen of tears on her face, her puffy eyes and runny nose.

            “You’re still here.” She seemed incredulous at the notion that I had not run screaming from the room at the first sob.

            “Of course I’m still here, Lynn. Where else would I be?” I reached back toward the nightstand, grabbing the tissue box and pulling out a handful before placing the box down on the bed. “Here, blow.” I lifted a clutch of tissues to her nose, and she leaned forward into them, blowing gently. The tissues quickly filled with moisture, and I balled them up and tossed them into the trash before they could dampen my hand.

When she snuffled again, I offered her the box, but she shook her head, reaching instead for the handkerchief that she’d used earlier. Although it was probably still damp, I couldn’t fault her for preferring it to a handful of Kleenex, and she emptied her nose into the cloth in a series of three long, gurgling blows. There was such vigor and relief in the gesture that I couldn’t help but exhale gently myself when she was done.

“Well.” I fumbled for something useful to say, something that would reassure her, but came up with nothing.

“Cory, I – ” Lynn hesitated, twisted the handkerchief between her fingers.

“You....?” I waited for her to continue, not knowing if that was the best thing to do. Part of me wanted to rush in with reassurances, but respectful silence won out, and I decided to let Lynn take the lead, shape the conversation however she wanted.

“I felt so ashamed after it happened,” she finally admitted, her eyes not meeting mine. “I was stupid and naive, and I let Scott come into my room after I knew he’d been drinking. I should have told him no, I should have screamed louder, fought more.”

“I think we all have those thoughts,” I admitted, recalling the evening years ago when, as an eight year old, I had waited on the couch for my parents to return from a New Year’s Eve party. They had promised me they’d be back by midnight so we could all watch the ball drop on television, and I had strained to stay awake on the couch until they returned, but fell asleep just short of eleven o’clock. Looking back, I could imagine all of the things I should have said to keep my parents at home, how I should have told them that my cold was getting worse and maybe the babysitter wouldn’t want to catch it from me, that I needed help with my science project which I’d actually completed the day before. Instead, I let them settle me on the couch with a stack of books, a bowl of chicken soup and a comforter, let my mother kiss me on the forehead and my father tell me to not be too much trouble for Jen, the high-school aged sitter whom I adored. I let them walk out the door, drive into the night, and never come back.