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Fiction #387
(published June 19, 2008)
An Unwelcome Warmth
by Matt Thomas
In an effort to cure Kevin's problem, his parents took him to a psychiatrist: good ol' Dr. Jennings. "He's like a psychologist," Kevin's mother explained. "Only he has more degrees on the wall. Very impressive."

Dr. J. was a man with wiry gray hair, many moles, and coffee stained teeth. And just as Kevin's mother had promised, the good doctor had many degrees hanging upon his walls. Kevin counted twenty and stated that not all of those could be degrees. The doctor replied, "Well you're right my boy! Many of them are certificates."

Kevin said, "I get certificates in school. But I don't hang them on the wall or put 'em in frames. They don't really mean anything."

The doctor narrowed his eyes and gestured toward his fluffy couch. "Have a seat Kevin."

The sessions went on for months, yielding few results since Dr. J was convinced that Kevin was far too young for a prescribed drug. Kevin began to see the visits as a waste of time, and found ways to amuse himself. One day he told the good doctor that he smelled like his father's liquor cabinet (which he did, the doctor liked to suck on brandy in between appointments) and Dr. J. said, "Well at least I don't piss myself!" Soon after, Dr. J. refused to see Kevin again.

The last resort was a mix of torture, sheet-metal, and plastic: an electrified mat that sent off mild shocks whenever it came into contact with liquid. It was designed specifically for bed-wetters, and Kevin's father assured his son that it would work.

"We get a full money back guarantee if it don't" he said, flashing the receipt and warranty before Kevin's eyes. "See?" He knelt down so he could look at his son. "This needs to work for you Kev. You can't go on like this. . . like some type of freak." He grabbed his son's shoulders, and squeezed. "You can't be this way anymore."

Kevin was stunned. His father continued to stare, looking disgusted and depressed. Slowly he took his hands off Kevin's shoulders, stood up and walked away without saying another word.

Kevin's mother tried to ignore her husband's reaction by explaining how the mat was so sensitive it would go off after being hit with just one drop. Kevin asked what would happen when the mat went off.

His mother answered, "It will give you a little electric pinch," and she squeezed his cheek in a loving way. "Just like that. A little pinch to wake you up. To train you." She smiled, and Kevin was scared.


It was the type of day in which one was found staring out the window; watching fat raindrops hit pavement, and listening to echoing crashes of thunder. It was supposed to be Kevin's day off. Instead of staring at the rain outside his eyes were fixated on his stained sheets, especially the one large dark spot in the middle.

Raindrops continued to crash down outside, leaving strings of droplets clinging to his bedroom window.

It was when the company beeper went off that Kevin remembered he was on call for the weekend. The narrow screen flashed a number for him to call. Kevin went through the motions sluggishly: calling his weekend supervisor, getting the address of the patient and preparing his nursing bag. He left the apartment with the same sinking feeling he had from the previous morning. It usually didn't last so long.

On his way down the hall, Kevin noticed that his neighbor's door was open. None other than Gus poked his head through. His hair was messy and he was sporting his coke bottle glasses, the ones he wore when he opted not to wear contacts. He asked Kevin where he was going at such an early hour. And Kevin answered without a hint of emotion, simply saying: "Work."

"What crawled up your butt?" said Gus. It was supposed to be a playful comment, but Kevin did not interpret it as such.

Kevin stopped and turned to face Gus, and noticed that he appeared genuinely concerned, which only frustrated Kevin further. "What?"

"Why so wound up?" Gus had stepped into the hallway.

"Why am I so wound up? I'm working on a fucking Saturday morning!"

"Take it easy Kev."

"Ya know why don't you just leave me alone already. Just because we live next door doesn't mean we have to be friends."

Gus looked at Kevin with a screwed up face. "Fuck you," he said, and he walked back into his apartment.

Kevin exhaled a loud puff of guilt and aggravation through his nose. He moved towards Gus's door, ready to knock but unable to bring his hand to the blue façade before him. No, he thought, it's better this way. Better that he doesn't know me. After a few more moments Kevin turned away and walked to the bus-stop.


At 17 Kevin was diagnosed with enuresis, and doctors began to play with possible cures. It was theorized that a breathing obstruction was causing him to enter a deep sleep, so doctors removed his tonsils; the bedwetting continued. Kevin's mother read something about "bladder-building-exercises," and she was convinced that Kevin could be cured by this natural method. He had to work with a specially trained nurse who taught him how to contract certain muscles at certain times in order to build up his bladder's stamina. The nurse yelled at Kevin, placed his various limbs into awkward and painful positions, and refused to let him change when he pissed himself. After a series of soggy accidents the nurse determined that Kevin had an unbelievably weak bladder, one that could not be strengthened; the bedwetting continued. Finally, doctors determined that it was hormonal; something to do with his glands. They prescribed a medication called Imipramine that would work as long as Kevin took it consistently.

The doctor handed him a rather large sample. It was an amber cylinder filled with over 50 navy blue pills. They were very small but let off a foul odor that made Kevin cringe when he clicked the plastic top open. He was supposed to take one in the morning, and one at night before bed. The doctor said, "They'll definitely work at first, but the tricky part is maintaining it. You could fall back into wetting yourself if you stop taking them. If that happens, well," the doctor forced a discouraging doctor-smile. "Let's wait and see."


The patient's house was in an isolated area that had somehow fended off the modern day onslaught of coffee shops, graffiti, garbage and overcrowding. The abode stood on a small hill and sported classic shingles that were in dire need of paint and repair. Most of the steps leading up to the front door were cracked, making them hard to walk on.

Kevin maneuvered his way through the steps and avoided the crumbling ones by walking on the bordering grass, which was more mud than grass due to a lack of care. He rang the doorbell. It had been a long walk from the bus station, and he was now soaked from the rain and angry at the remoteness of the location.

A voice from inside the house told him to come in. It was a youthful voice from a woman. A pretty voice.

He pushed the door open and poked his head through shyly, not wanting to enter a foreign space without a clear invitation. The voice told him to come in a second time. Kevin stood awkwardly at the front of the living room. Water from his boots began soaking into the thin carpet, making the color around his feet appear darker. Finally, the voice introduced itself.

"Hi," she said. "You're the nurse right?" Kevin nodded and the woman looked at the clock. "Weren't you supposed to be here 45 minutes ago?" Kevin nodded.

"I'm sorry," he said. "The rain's coming down pretty hard, and the place is kinda out of the way."

"Okay. No need to get upset," she said. "My name's Suzanne."

"I'm Kevin." He said. "I'm guessing you're not the patient?"

Discomfited, Suzanne shook her head and looked at the floor. "No," she said. "My, ah, grandmother is. She's the patient." She laughed. "Here, I'll show you where."

He followed her through the living room and down the hallway. There were very few pictures, and the house possessed a smell of must and decay. It was so thick that Kevin breathed through his mouth. As they approached the old woman's bedroom the smell's potency increased.

Suzanne walked in first, bringing her feet down lightly to lessen the sound. Kevin placed his wet jacket on a rocking chair in the corner of the room. The old woman was asleep. Tubes were connected to her arms. The blankets were snuggly secured over her waist.

Suzanne held her nose and looked at Kevin with a wrinkled face. "Oh shit," she said. "I think she wet herself!" Her voice was little more than a whisper.


As soon as Kevin started taking the pills the bedwetting stopped. Dry as a bone every morning. His father was quite proud. For the first time in his life Kevin got up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom. The horrible smell from the stained sheets quickly faded, and Kevin wasn't so tired anymore.

Kevin's father now greeted him with a smile in the mornings, and began inviting him to the movies. Things were good between them at this time, and Kevin realized how nice life could be with a father who cared for him.

He now looked forward to school, talked with his classmates, even some girls, and began to think about the prom. Life was changing for the better.

Then, an unfortunate thing happened one morning: Kevin found himself immersed in the warmth. He swore it off as a temporary relapse, which the doctor said could happen, and did not tell his parents. He hid the stained sheets in the basement, neglecting to wash them since he was in a rush to meet some new friends.

When he returned home his eyes locked onto a clear garbage bag in the middle of the white kitchen. It contained Kevin's sheets. His father walked in, sipping beer from a long neck bottle and appearing a little drunk. "Hey Kev."

"Hi Dad." Kevin placed his keys on the table, and began walking to his room.

"Where ya going?" His father asked.

"To bed. I'm kind of tired and I have a trig test tomorrow." He continued walking.



"Get back in here." Kevin returned. "What is that?" His father gestured at the bag on the floor.

Kevin shrugged, and said he did not know.

"You don't know?" The father slammed his beer onto the counter, and peeled the bag from the sheets. "You know goddamned well what it is! They're your sheets! Did you piss yourself again?" Kevin answered by hanging his head low. "Yeah. So not even the medication's working." The father shook his head and rubbed his hand over his stubble. He threw the crumpled sheets at Kevin's face. "Seventeen and still pissing yourself! Look at me when I'm talking to you!" Kevin gazed into his father's frustrated eyes. "You're nothing but a freak." His words were so soft. He then slapped Kevin with an open palm. Kevin stumbled but balanced himself. His cheek was instantly red. "My son? You can't be mine!" The father hit him again, harder this time. Kevin fell to his side, and watched a small pool of blood drip onto the tile from his mouth. "Get up!" His father said. Kevin did not move. "I said get up!" He punched Kevin on the side of his head.

Kevin rose, wiped his mouth, and squinted his eyes to hold back tears. "Yeah, look at you," the father said. "Can't even fight back?" With that his father grabbed his beer, took a long gulp, and walked into the hallway. Kevin went to the sink and turned on the faucet. He cupped his hand underneath the rushing water and poured some into his mouth to wash the cut. He went to bed, where he cried himself to sleep.


The pills seemed to work again. Yet all Kevin could think of was that night in the kitchen. The two no longer interacted as father and son. They were more like roommates who had no desire to live together but were bound by a lease. The father's refusals to talk to or touch his son made Kevin feel sub-human. All he wanted to do was escape. He told his mother, and she said: "That's so unlike him. He probably just had a bit too much to drink. Your father really does love you Kev. He's just not as emotional as you and me." Kevin nodded and felt sorry that his mother actually believed what she said.

One day he heard his mother's voice, reminding him to take his medication. He went into the bathroom where his pills rested on the sink's edge.

The nasty smell radiating from the bottle burnt his nose. He grabbed one tab, but hesitated to take it. For a long while he stood there, staring at the small blue pill, rolling it between his thumb and index finger. He thought of how good life had been without exhaustion and embarrassment; how nice it was to have people love you. At that moment, however, Kevin truly believed that those things were only meant for certain people; and he, like so many others, was meant to feel emptiness. These thoughts, for whatever reason, calmed Kevin.

He dropped the pill into the toilet and watched as ripples stemmed from the center and crashed against the porcelain casing. For a few seconds he glared at the bottle in his hand. Slowly, he poured them into the shallow pool of water. They formed a dotted gush that mesmerized him.

His hand moved towards the handle, and he pushed it down. After dropping the bottle into the sink he sat upon the floor. The air he breathed tasted stale, and his heartbeat raced.

His mother entered the room looking concerned. He did not move, but her mouth did, exuding muted words. She dragged his limp body to his room. After a few moments on the floor, he slithered his way onto his bed where his mother patted his back and kissed his cheek.

She held him tightly and said, "Don't worry. I won't tell your father. I promise."

Kevin wrapped his arms around her. She began to leak tears that drenched his face. He pulled her close. The harder he squeezed the louder her cries became.


"Kevin?" Suzanne asked.

"Huh. . . ?" Kevin shook his head and rubbed his eyes. "Yes?"

Suzanne furrowed her brow and said, "Grandma got off the bed. . . can you help me change her sheets?"

"Oh, yeah." Kevin looked over at the old lady who was now absent-mindedly sitting on the recliner. "Of course. I do this a lot," Kevin said.

"You do?"

With half of the stained sheet in hand, he hesitated and said, "Um. . . yeah. For different patients," he went back to stripping the sheets. "Not at home though. Not at home." He looked at the old lady who muttered something underneath her breath in apparent frustration.

Kevin did his best to avoid making eye contact with Suzanne. He was worried that she would see through him. "I do this a lot?" he thought, "What the hell was that?"

He responded to her questions with short answers and cold glances, busied himself with simple paper work on a clipboard, and went through the procedures of returning the old woman to her bed, checking blood pressure, changing the I.V. and administering certain injections.

When his hand gripped the old woman's arm he froze. His eyes rolled over liver spots, purple varicose veins. Her bones seemed to be forcing their way through her flesh. His gaze scrolled to her chapped lips and shaking face. This woman was dying a slow death.

Kevin spoke: "You're the only one here to take care of her?"

Suzanne nodded.

"That must be hard," he said. "Does she have any other friends or family to help?"

"No," Suzanne said. "The terrible thing is I barely know her. I lived upstate since college, and I moved back down here to help her out. My parents live out west, so yeah. . . I'm all she's got."

"And you don't even know her," he said this to himself, Suzanne did not respond. He did his best to care for the woman who had connections to no one, another old person who was almost forgotten but not quite dead. He looked at her and wondered about her husband who must have died years ago, her children who were preoccupied with their own lives, and Suzanne, the granddaughter who cared because she had to.

It was then that he imagined himself in the old woman's place. Only, he would have no grandchild caring for him, just a nameless nurse trying to make ends meet. His own parents would be dead by then, so no one would be there when he died; no tears would be shed. His heart would stop beating, blood would slow down, lungs would freeze, and Kevin knew that this lonely demise would not be the cause of the warmth or his father.

He looked at Suzanne as thoughts of her grandmother's looming death were filtered through her head. She had beautiful eyes. Her eyes met his and he averted her gaze, blushed, and said, "I just need you to sign some things and I'll, um, be on my way." She giggled, and led him to the kitchen table.

He talked her through the paperwork, she signed there, here, and there again, listed her contact information, and they shook hands. Before walking out Kevin turned to face Suzanne and said, "I just thought you should know, you're doing a great job with her. It's hard to take care of someone who's sick, but you're doing the right thing."

"Well I'm trying," she said. "Sometimes it gets really hard though. I honestly feel like I'm trapped inside this house," she stopped herself, closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "Sorry. It's not your problem. Thanks for coming out here, though, you were a big help."

"Don't apologize," he said. "Believe me, I know what it's like to be stuck in the same place. You kinda think the world just forgot about you one day, and you can't figure out why."

"Yeah," she said. "Something like that."

"Have a good day Suzanne. And call the service if you need anything at all."

She hesitated for a moment as he began to walk down the muddy steps, then she shouted out: "Hey, Kevin!" He turned to face her. "Do you maybe, want to get some coffee some time? There's, a um, great place like two blocks from here. It could be. . . could be fun, ya know?"

Kevin's face turned red with embarassment, and his heart raced with unparalleled excitement. God did he want to say yes. But she would eventually have questions that he could not answer; questions about the stained sheets and estranged father. And when the warmth was finally revealed to her, she would go, leaving him alone and broken.

"Oh, man. I would. . . really like to. But I may be going to deep sea fishing soon, could be any day really. So I need to be ready to go, and I don't know when. . . that could be. Probably soon though, so I need to keep things open." Kevin sucked in his lips, not wanting to believe that he had uttered such an absurd and obvious lie.

"Okay," she said. "Good luck in the deep sea then." She ignored the lie and flashed a sincere smile.

He walked to the bus stop. At the corner, he saw Suzanne at her door. She gave him a wide wave goodbye. He waved back, and then tried to forget her.


The bus hissed to a halt. Kevin shuffled along the sidewalk towards his apartment and paused, causing a sea of bodies to change direction like minnows. Remembering his barren walls, then Gus's sad face, Kevin moved towards the street market on the other end of town.

The scent of shrimp flavored Ramen noodles entered Kevin's nose. He could hear the discourse of a lame MTV dating show emanating from inside; a mirror image of Kevin's life.

He pressed the buzzer, and heard Gus's spoon slam onto what must have been the soup bowl. The door opened. Gus's face was neither angry nor sad. It was just flat. He glanced at the rolled up posters Kevin was holding, but did not ask about them.

"Hey Gus," said Kevin. Silence followed. "Can I come in?"

Gus waved Kevin inside.

Even though he was still hurt by Kevin's earlier actions, he feigned a friendly demeanor. "I was just eating some dinner," he said. Gus returned to his spot on the couch; slurping down his Ramen while desperately attempting to keep his eyes on the television.

"Whacha watching?" Kevin asked. Gus's retort was stifled by a large chunk of noodles hanging from his mouth. "Well, I really didn't mean to bother you during dinner. I felt bad about what I said to you earlier." Gus looked over at Kevin. "You're a friend. And I know I don't make it easy for you. I'm sorry man. I'm sorry for being a dick."

Gus nodded.

"So earlier today I saw this really sad, sad thing at a patient's house, and thought I could use a pick-me-up. And then I thought: If I need one, Gus probably needs one too." Kevin began to tear the saran wrap from one of the posters and unrolled it. He held it horizontally, trying to prevent the corners from curling over the image of Jimi Hendrix playing "The Star Spangled Banner" at Woodstock.

Gus stopped eating, and said that the poster was cool. Kevin smiled gently and left the poster on an armchair. "I always hear Hendrix when I pass by in the morning. I saw this and thought you'd like it." Gus stared at the poster, and Kevin began to make an exit.

"Hey Kevin," Gus said.

Kevin paused in the doorway and turned towards Gus, "Yeah?"

"Stop by anytime you want."

"Thanks Gus. Same goes for you."

The door slowly screeched to a close. Gus sat there, staring at the poster and feeling happy.

Once at home, Kevin unwrapped the new poster, and tacked it to a spot directly above the TV. It was a painting of a cat, fully dressed, sitting in a cemetery. The cat's eyes were closed, and a peaceful smile curled through his face. The cat was feeding pigeons. The tombstones were without epitaphs, as if death did not matter.


Hours later, Kevin got up to change his sheets and shower. Only this time, something was different. The wet spot no longer sent chills though his body, and he was not shaking. He felt calm.

He ran to the window and watched the birds bathing in clear water, soaking in rays of light. He pressed his face and hands against the glass, letting the sun gently burn into his skin, feeling alive.

That afternoon Kevin went to his doctor's office and for the first time in years openly described his condition. The doctor prescribed a new medication, which was similar to the one he had taken as a teenager. "You should be fine within a couple of weeks," the doctor said. "Just make sure you take them consistently."

At home, Kevin stared at the bottle for a long while. He placed a single pill alongside a tall glass of water, and wondered if he was ready to say goodbye to such a familiar crutch. After a few more moments, he placed the pill on his tongue thinking of his own blank tombstone.

He forced the pill down with three large gulps. He didn't expect it to work; a part of him didn't even want it to. The important thing, he thought, is that he took it.

Later that night, he looked through his files from his visiting nursing rounds and found Suzanne's address and phone number. He decided to call her. On the phone his nervousness took center stage as he admitted to his lie about the deep sea and then tried to stammer through awkward questions about her past and future goals. She mostly answered with giggles, and Kevin was afraid that she was scared.

After 30 minutes of small-talk, he finally mustered the nerve to ask her out for coffee. She said yes.

"Um, yeah, okay, wow!" He said. "That's great, that's great. So, um, I'll see you, I guess I'll see you then? Yeah? Okay, okay great. Bye." He hung up the phone, wondering why she said yes.

He arrived fifteen minutes early, and started pacing; worrying that she wouldn't show. The pills hadn't started working yet. But he didn't have to tell her about that now, hopefully not ever.

Should he pay for her? Or was that too forward on the first date? It was only coffee though, so could he even label it as a date? Wasn't it more of a meeting? Would tea be the right thing to buy? Would she buy a fancy Vendi-no-fat-low-foam-mocha-something-whatever? Would it bother him if she did?

After twenty minutes, he felt defeated, and was sure that she had stood him up. Kevin remembered that day in the kitchen; his father's words; how he still expressed disappointment in his son. He wanted to run back to his apartment, hoping the medication would never work.

Then he saw the cat in the cemetery. The image, without his brain's permission, painted itself over the world around him: buildings became trees, stained concrete and cracking pavement melted into green fields of grass and flowers, cars were now oversized tombstones without engravings, and the people walking the street grew feathers under their clothes and beaks over their faces that Kevin sprayed with scrumptious seeds.

In the distance, he saw a lone figure standing on top of a small hill where there were no headstones. The figure waved excitedly, and he returned the favor with an equal amount of ebullience. As it approached he discerned Suzanne's pleasant face, and felt the joy of relief.

"Hi," she said, standing there before him.

Kevin replied appropriately, and silently speculated: What will happen when she finds out about his father, and the bed wetting? His mouth formed into a wide grin as he came to the realization that those things could not follow him here. In this place the air he breathed was fresher, the sun was brighter, and life was filled with hope.

Kevin led Suzanne into the coffee shop, smiling at nothing.

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