Jeremy is going out today. He has three alarms set in preparation. The first, on his bedside clock, is set to ring at 7:25 AM. The second, set on his phone, will go off at 7:30 should the first alarm fail to rouse him or to ring altogether. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d accidentally set his clock to ring at PM instead of AM. The lettering is too small and his eyes aren’t that good anymore. He won’t rely solely on his phone either, should the battery die or the application glitch overnight. Jeremy knows better than anyone that technology should always have a backup.
Jeremy also knows that the only time a backup comes in use is on the rare instance that you forget to make sure you have one. In this case, the first alarm wakes him up just fine.
Jeremy doesn’t need to worry about drifting off again. Within minutes, his pulse is racing as if he’s run a sprint. He isn’t showering this morning; he did that last night, because if he did it now, it would give him too much opportunity to change his mind.
He brushes his teeth, shaves, and applies deodorant. His clothes are already laid out on the bed. A charcoal suit, a crisp white shirt, and a silky blue tie. The suit is too big; he can’t remember the last time he wore it. But he knows it didn’t used to swim around his frame in this way. Jeremy cinches a belt through the hoops of his slacks. It’ll have to do.
Jeremy watches the clock and debates eating. Breakfast is essential. He’s a firm believer. Normally, it’s a couple cups of Joe, two sugars, dash of milk, while he reads his Google newsfeed. While he reads, he fries up bacon and hash browns or flips crepes or poaches eggs. Breakfast should always be exciting. But this, he decides, is perhaps enough excitement for one morning.
He has laid out several antihistamines on the counter and he takes them with orange juice.
The third alarm, on his phone, rings at 8:55, reminding him that the cab is due to arrive in five minutes. This alarm is unnecessary. Jeremy has been watching the time with rapt attention since half past. He already has his shoes on.
One by one, Jeremy undoes the locks on his door. He opens it and steps out.
On the porch step, Jeremy can already feel his eyes start to water. An itch in his ear canals. A tickle in his throat. He wasn’t always this allergic to the world, but these things happen over time, if you let them. Jeremy clenches his hand at his side, knuckles white, as if to squeeze out the adverse reaction.
The voice startles him. Jeremy spins to locate its source.
The woman is in the yard next door, just off the edge of the porch, tending to a vibrant and luscious garden. She has dirt smeared above her brow and a spade in one hand.
“Did you just move here?” she asks.
“No,” says Jeremy, muscles stiffening. “Did you?”
“No. Well, kind of. I guess I’ve been here since… I guess it was last November. Funny I haven’t seen you before.”
Jeremy tries to smile. “Funny,” he echoes.
“I’m Claire.” Her grin is effortless.
Jeremy just nods. As he does so, the cab arrives, parking in front of his house, exhaust fumes pumping out the back as it idles. Jeremy stares at it, frozen to place.
Claire is still standing there. She nods to his suit. “Going someplace special today?”
“No,” Jeremy says, and he finds himself taking a step back. Then another. Then another.
Now, his hand is on the door handle.
Claire frowns. “Isn’t that your cab?”
“No,” Jeremy says as he gets the door open. “I was… just looking at something.”
When he’s safely inside, Jeremy gasps and gags. He crumples to the floor, eyes fixed on the barricade.
Jeremy isn’t going out today after all.
Jeremy has been to every country in the world ten times and back again. Soared over every ocean, explored every cave, reached the peak of every mountain. He’s helped the emirates sell oil, aspiring stars achieve their dreams, and fledgling businesses find enormous wealth. He’s touched millions of people, whether they know it or not. All with the click of a mouse.
Jeremy has won awards for his web design. He makes over fifty dollars an hour, more than most Americans can ever dream to make, even working two jobs. He can easily afford a house thrice the size of the one he lives in now. Jeremy knows that he is fortunate. But he also knows he is where he is because he deserves it. He knows his strengths and his limitations. He uses this to his advantage. It’s his mantra.
Many people, like Taylor, just don’t understand.
Seated at his cybernetic portal by the bay window with his morning coffee, Jeremy wonders if she’ll come today. It’s Sunday. She comes every Sunday. Eleven AM, like clockwork. It’s 10:55. Jeremy braces himself for disappointment, but he knows he deserves it. He’s wronged her in a terrible way.
At 10:56, Jeremy wonders if he should put the eggs away. When she comes, he always makes her favourite – eggs benedict with back bacon, hash browns, toast, and melon slices. He wonders what he should make instead.
At 10:57, he decides to give her a chance and distracts himself by checking his emails. Four new since this morning. One automated newsletter, one junk, one from an existing client and one query from a potential new one. He copies a form reply into his email to the potential client, detailing his standard fees and procedures. The email from the existing client isn’t worth replying yet.
10:59 now. Jeremy pushes his chair back from the computer, unable to concentrate. He peers out the bay window and searches for Taylor’s car. It doesn’t come.
11:01. He resigns himself to the inevitable and heads into the kitchen to put away the eggs. He hesitates at the refrigerator door. The eggs are room temperature now, at their prime to be cooked. Why waste them?
Just as he’s getting out the pan, the doorbell rings. It’s 11:04.
“Sorry I’m late,” Taylor says when Jeremy lets her in, even though it’s barely past the hour, like everything’s normal. He’s still holding the frying pan.
Taylor carries in two heaping paper bags of groceries and lays them on the hardwood. As she catches her breath, she looks at Jeremy, and the pan in his hand. A faint smile passes over her lips, but it seems forced.
Jeremy feels his eyes starting to tear up. He blinks. Must be his allergies. They’ve been especially bad since he went out on the porch the other day.
“Are you hungry?” he asks.
“Always, Dad,” says Taylor, and Jeremy helps her carry the groceries into the kitchen.
“How much this time?”
“The receipt is in that bag, I believe,” Taylor says as she puts down her bag on the counter. She starts unpacking groceries and putting them away in the cupboards. She knows where everything goes in this house like it’s her own. Jeremy watches as she puts tedious care into ensuring that she places the cans with the labels facing outwards and the spices in their correct rows.
Jeremy locates the receipt in his bag and retrieves his chequebook. He fills in the cheque for the correct amount, plus extra for travel.
“Oh,” Taylor says, remembering, “I got you something too.”
At the bottom of one of the bags, she locates the set of bed-sheets. She hands them over to Jeremy with a hesitant grin. Jeremy doesn’t know what to make of it.
“Did you… want money for these as well?”
“No. No, it’s a gift, Dad.”
“Why?” Jeremy asks.
“Because you need new bed-sheets,” Taylor says as a matter-of-fact, and begins emptying the other grocery bag.
“My bed-sheets are fine, Taylor. I wash them every three days.”
“I didn’t say they weren’t clean, Dad. They’re just… old.”
“Well,” Jeremy scratches his head, turning the plastic case of sheets over in his hands. “I don’t know what to say. Bed-sheets are meant to last a long time.”
“Not that long.”
“Why does it matter how long I’ve had my bed-sheets?”
“Because,” Taylor can’t quite say it to his face, so she does so half-submerged in the fridge, “you’ve had them since Mom lived here.”
“How do you know that?”
Taylor doesn’t respond. Jeremy has a sunken expression.
“Just use the sheets,” Taylor says finally. “Please.”
Jeremy looks from the sheets, to his daughter’s pleading expression. “Thank you, honey. You’re very thoughtful.”
Within half an hour, the two of them are eating breakfast. Conversation has grown sparse. Jeremy spends a lot of time watching Taylor chew, while she goes out of her way to avoid eye contact. He doesn’t think she looks very much like him. When she turned up on his doorstep five years ago, he demanded to see her birth certificate. She was wary of him then as she is wary of him now. This disturbs him.
“Did you get my present?” Jeremy asks, breaking the silence.
“Yes,” Taylor smiles. “It’s beautiful. I… was wearing it. I forgot to wear it today. Sorry.”
Jeremy nods. “That’s a relief. I was concerned. I’d never used that courier before.”
“I got it just fine.”
“Good,” Jeremy says, before falling mute again. He knows what he wants to say, but it lingers at the end of his tongue like a glass marble at the edge of a table over a concrete floor. He compensates by downing half his orange juice.
“I’m —” Jeremy starts, but finds himself speaking just as Taylor has opened her mouth to say the exact same thing. They both catch themselves, waving for the other to continue. Jeremy insists that Taylor goes first. Taylor considers her words carefully.
“I spoke to Dr. Harlington,” she says.
“About your internship?”
“No,” Taylor says, avoiding Jeremy’s gaze. “About you.”
“Why would you do that?” Jeremy asks, the blood rushing out of his stomach, his appetite dwindling.
“I wanted an opinion.”
“And what was her opinion?”
Taylor seems to have lost her appetite as well. “She couldn’t prescribe anything without meeting you first, but… she said she would come by, if you’d agree to it.”
“I told you before,” Jeremy says, his voice hard. “I’m not taking anything, not again.”
“I’m sorry they got it wrong,” Taylor says, her stoic façade crumbling. “It happens. Everyone’s brains are different. All the chemicals… Sometimes you have to try more than one medication before you find the right one. And when you do, you’ll know –”
“It made it worse.”
Taylor looks away. “No,” she says, shaking her head. “You made it worse.”
She pushes back from the table and stands, unable to face her father as she gathers her belongings. She brushes hair back from her face and Jeremy sees that her eyes are wet. He says nothing, he can’t. He just watches her. When she’s set to head out, Taylor looks at him.
“And don’t… feel like you need to apologize for missing my graduation,” she says, her hand on the doorknob. “I only invited you as a gesture. I knew you weren’t going to come.”
Jeremy watches her leave, praying, like always, that she’ll be back.
When he washes the bed-sheets that evening, he considers the new ones, even going so far as to remove them from their plastic casing and measuring them up against the bed. But the washer buzzes, and he places the old sheets in the dryer without an added thought. Maybe next time, he thinks, putting away the sheets that Taylor got him. He doesn’t want to waste that fresh dryer smell.
For Jeremy, there is a clear distinction between work and leisure, even though he experiences both from the comfort of his own home. He is proud of his adamant schedule. Every morning, he wakes at approximately 9:30, without an alarm. He brews his coffee while the computer boots. The next hour serves to catch him up on the world’s events, while he cooks and eats breakfast. After doing the dishes, it’s time to work. He normally breaks for lunch at one or two, or sooner, if he hasn’t much work to do. An hour and half here is dedicated to a vigorous work-out, compromised of weight training, core exercise, and half an hour on the treadmill. This is followed by a shower, which in turn, is followed by the remainder of his day’s work tasks. Spare time in the early evening is allotted to the sorting of financial affairs, including the payment of taxes and bills, or other household chores such as laundry or dusting. Sometimes Jeremy calls Taylor before dinner, just to hear about her day.
Before long, the sun sets, and it is night.
If mornings are for painting a picture of health for the world, nights are for splashing black paint across the canvas and calling it cancer. Jeremy doesn’t figure these hours into his day, but they exist as surely as the ice caps are melting and drowning us nanometer by nanometer. These hours exist to remind him that he is just an animal trapped a cage – whether he spends them watching poorly made infomercials or smoking the odd bud of marijuana from his plant or masturbating shamelessly in front of his webcam with the vague amused notion that some government official could be observing him at any time. Let them, he thinks.
And when that’s all said and done, he stands at his window and looks out and convinces himself that he isn’t missing out on anything out there. Not really. Not a single thing.
First thing in the morning, there’s a polite knock at the door. Jeremy presumes it must be a courier, seeking a signature. He answers, and is bewildered to see the neighbour lady, Claire, standing there with a long wooden pot filled with dirt and bright purple flowers. She beams as she presents the floral arrangement.
“I know this is kind of weird, but... I brought you flowers.”
Jeremy stares. “Um,” he says.
“Well, I walk by your beautiful bay window every day,” Claire says, anxiously drawing her fingers through her hair, “and sometimes I look up at it and I just hear that windowsill screaming for azaleas.”
“You hear my windowsill… screaming,” Jeremy says. “For azaleas.”
“I’m not crazy.”
A rare grin washes over Jeremy’s expression as for a moment, he suddenly feels comparatively sane.
“Smell them,” Claire insists, handing over the flower pot.
Jeremy considers it, studying the petals and stigma, each flower with its own surprising and unique quirks. “I shouldn’t,” he says at last, keeping the flowers safely out of range. “I have bad allergies.”
Claire turns bright red.
“Well, this is awkward. I guess my windowsill whisperer abilities must be off today.”
She reaches for the flower pot, assuming this is Jeremy’s way of rejecting her gift, but he maintains his grasp. He splutters when he speaks.
“They’re very nice though. I appreciate them. Thank you. I’ll just… put them on the windowsill,” he says, as he leaves the entrance and stumbles over to the window, stepping over computer cords and cables along the way. He places the flower pot appropriately on the center of the ledge.
Claire lingers uncomfortably in the doorway.
“Your name’s Jeremy, right? They bring me your mail sometimes. I just slide it through your door. I hope that’s okay.”
“Oh,” Jeremy says, turning to her, as if he's surprised she’s still there. “Yes. That’s fine.”
He realises her hesitation to breach the threshold of his home.
“Would you… like to come in?” he asks.
Claire smiles as she enters, leaving the door partly ajar behind her.
“So you work from home?” Claire asks, gesturing Jeremy’s work station by the window. “I see you a lot. I mean… not in a weird way, just by chance, because you sit by the window.”
Jeremy nods uncertainly. “I’m a web designer. Freelance.”
“That’s awesome. I tried HTML once, but I was so hopeless. I can barely figure out those emoti-thingies the kids use,” she laughs. “Maybe I’ll have to commission you.”
“For your business?”
“Well, kind of. I was trying to get something started with my sister, but…” Claire shrugs. “Oh hell, she’s a flake.”
“Sorry to hear.”
“What can ya do? Relatives. Can’t live with ‘em, can’t smack ‘em over the head with a shovel and bury ‘em in the backyard.”
Jeremy tries a smile. They are still standing on opposite sides of the room, as if both are afraid to cross the barrier between hardwood and carpet.
“Speaking of my sister,” Claire says, after clearing her throat, “I was meant to go with her to this festival, but well, you know, and now I have no one to go with and a ticket I can’t get rid of…”
“A gardening festival?”
Claire snorts. “No. A film festival. I do have other interests, you know.”
“Oh,” Jeremy says.
“Well, anyway, it’s at the end of the month, if you’re, um, interested.”
Jeremy reels. “You mean you’re asking me?”
“Yes, I believe that was the implication. I mean… no pressure or anything, if you’ve got something, or… do you have a girlfriend?”
“A girlfriend?” says Jeremy, like it’s an obscure form of bacteria.
“Well, I see that pretty girl go in and out of here sometimes, I thought, maybe…”
Taylor. Jeremy laughs, shaking his head. “No, she isn’t my girlfriend.”
“Oh. I see. Oh. She’s not a…?”
It takes a second for Jeremy to grasp what she’s implying. He frowns in surprise. “What? No. No, she’s my daughter.”
“Oh, that makes so much sense now,” says Claire with relief. “She doesn’t really look like you.”
“I didn’t think so either,” says Jeremy.
“So you’ll let me know then? About the festival?” Claire asks, beaming wide.
Jeremy finds himself staring at the door, a nervous vein pounding in his throat. He swallows the nauseating sensation as he thinks. It’s an offer without obligation or pressure. He can commit without committing. Maybe some crucial work will come up before then. Or maybe it will even be all right. Stranger things have happened.
Jeremy nods at last. “I’ll let you know,” he says. “Thank you, again, for the flowers.”
Jeremy figures into his schedule the watering of the azaleas, in the morning, sometime between checking his emails and washing the dishes. This is a good time to do it. The sun shines on the petals just right. The azaleas flourish under his care.
When Sunday rolls around and Taylor comes, it is clear that she has been making plans. After helping put away the groceries, she informs Jeremy that she won’t be staying for breakfast this morning.
“Dr. Harlington left me a message the other day,” she says, as she bustles around the kitchen. “She said she has an opening tomorrow afternoon, if you’d like to speak to her.”
When Jeremy doesn’t respond immediately, Taylor stops what she’s doing to face him, her expression steely, like she’s determined to keep herself from feeling something.
Jeremy rubs his eyes, sitting at the counter. He’s hungry. If Taylor knew she wasn’t going to eat breakfast, he thinks, she should have called earlier. Common courtesy. He would have eaten first.
“Dad,” Taylor says.
“I know what you want to hear, honey, but I’m feeling fine these days. I don’t need to speak to anyone. I’m okay.”
Taylor throws up her hands in frustration. “Okay? What planet’s dictionary are you reading where you fit the definition of okay?”
Jeremy remains at the counter, unmoved. “I realise that I live an… alternative lifestyle. But it’s my decision. I’m not a bum. I’m not a drunk. I pay my bills, on time, every month. I keep fit. I am a perfectly functional human being—”
“Keep telling yourself that, Dad,” Taylor cuts in as she storms off.
Jeremy’s eyes follow her. She’s not headed for the front door, but for the bedroom in the hallway. He frowns and goes after her.
In the bedroom, Taylor tears off the duvet to reveal the old sheet set. She glares at Jeremy in disbelief, before ripping the sheets off the bed.
Jeremy lunges towards her, but she paws him off and darts out before he can stop her. By the time Jeremy realises what she’s doing, it’s already too late.
The front door opens and Taylor steps back onto the porch, down the steps, holding the bundle of old bed-sheets. Jeremy stops at the threshold, holding his breath, eyes burning, teeth grit.
“Bring them back, Taylor.”
She shakes her head.
“If you want them so bad, come and get them,” she says, clenching the sheets.
Jeremy doesn’t move.
“I thought so.”
Jeremy edges his foot over the threshold, but that’s as far as he makes it. He shuts his eyes, brow furrowed. He punches the doorframe. When he looks up again, Taylor is still there. She’s calmed down some. A sympathetic front.
“I’ve been offered a fellowship position, Dad. In Chicago,” Taylor says, locking eyes with Jeremy. “I’m going to take it.”
“In Chicago,” Jeremy says. His voice sounds empty.
“I don’t know when I’ll be back. Maybe in three years. I don’t know… if I’ll be back.” She looks away.
Jeremy remembers the day Taylor arrived, standing very near to the spot that she now is. He hadn’t seen her since she was three. She had zero expectations of him, but such high hopes that maybe she could make everything better, if she loved him just right. Filled some void that her mother couldn’t. This wasn’t true though. Jeremy has always known that. He should have told her from the get-go and saved her the trouble. Now, he just looks at his feet.
“If you want to do anything for me,” Taylor says, “if you want to make up for anything… please, Dad, just promise me you’ll call Dr. Harlington. Or someone. Anyone. What you’re doing isn’t living. It’s just existing.”
When Jeremy doesn’t respond, Taylor turns to get into her car. Jeremy looks up with a start as she unlocks her door with the clicker.
“I have a date. Next weekend,” Jeremy says.
Taylor frowns, not knowing what to make of it, not knowing if it’s true, not knowing what she can even say to that. She just shakes her head, throws the old bedding into the back of the car, gets in, and drives away.
When she’s gone, Jeremy heads back into the bedroom and stares at the stripped bed.
Jeremy is going out today. He has three alarms set in preparation. The first, on his bedside clock, is set to ring at 8:00 AM, though the extra hour and a half is unnecessary. By altering his schedule early on, Jeremy only hopes to alter his mindset. Following his standard morning routine, including the watering of the azaleas, the second alarm, on his phone, will ring at 2:00 PM, alerting him that it’s time to shower and change. The third alarm is set for 3:55, five minutes before Claire is due to arrive at his door.
The morning goes smoothly, though Jeremy can’t concentrate on his newsfeed. He watches the clock instead, counting the seconds by. He almost forgets to eat breakfast. He ends up getting ready two hours early.
At 3:54, Jeremy pops his antihistamines and braces himself for his alarm – but before it rings, there’s a knock at the door. She’s early.
Jeremy tenses, switching off his alarm before it gives him away. He stands and inches closer to the door. Closer. He places his hand on the lock, but doesn’t twist. He’s frozen. A minute ticks by. Two. There’s another knock.
“Jeremy?” he hears Claire call from outside. She knocks harder.
Jeremy opens his mouth, but no sound comes out. He presses his forehead to the wooden panel, his breath shallow. He looks at the lock, his fingers on the brass, so numb he can barely believe they’re attached to him.
Another minute passes.
“Jeremy!” the call comes again.
Silence falls for a bit, then more insistent knocking.
Jeremy can hear footsteps on the porch – headed towards the window. He shrinks into the corner, ducking out of sight, as Claire tries to peer in through the blinds. She doesn’t see him. He can’t let her. Not like this.
More footsteps, slow, and growing more distant. He can’t hear them anymore.
She’s left the porch.
Jeremy blinks tears from his eyes, but doesn’t move. He doesn’t move for a long time. Minutes pass. Then hours. The sun goes down. He watches the light streak across his hardwood, shifting gradually. Eventually, even that disappears. He’s left submerged in darkness.
The sensation has left his limbs. It pains him to stand, but he manages, nearly struck down by pins and needles. He balances himself. Hobbles to the bay window.
He can see the moon, the streetlamps, the cars parked along the edges of the cul-de-sac like tombstones. No life at all. He could be the only thing breathing for miles.
His eyes flicker around the stillness of his home. Around him, the dim moonlight cuts through the blinds, painting him with stripes like the bars of a cage. His cage.
Jeremy jumps back from the window, away from the bars. If he can’t see them, they don’t exist.
His eyes fix on the front door again. He pads towards it, limbs still tingling. He touches the brass lock. It’s cold now. He twists and listens for the mechanical click. Then he slides off the chain. He touches the doorknob, as if expecting a heartbeat. If there is a pounding, it only originates from the palm of his hand.
Jeremy twists. The wind blows the door open the rest of the way. Light rushes in around him, and this time, there are no bars.
Jeremy steps out onto the porch, the cold creeping around his throat, the breeze stinging his eyes dry. He casts a glance back at the open door. He doesn’t move towards it. Instead, he steps forward.
He finds himself down the steps. He walks to the edge of the sidewalk. His feet touch the grass with the hesitation of an astronaut stepping on Mars for the first time. He treads on the grass. Then onto the road. His door is still open, but Jeremy doesn’t turn back. He’ll never turn back. Never.