Brendan Horn: Ceiling Dreams

The mind tends to be guilty of Pareidolia, or seeing images where none exist. Lying awake, staring at the chipped popcorn ceiling, Ettie could only think it resembled a farm with a house and an abundance of greenery surrounding it. Much like the current situation, John was nowhere to be found in this mental mural. Where in the God’s name is he? She grew cold at the thought of him out in the middle of a field shouting drunken obscenities at the sky for being a certain shade of blue he did not care for. All night she had been stuck in the routine of building up anxiety only to offset it by going to check on Grace. Seeing Grace accumulating a small puddle of drool in a peaceful sleep kept her at ease. She knew that if at least half of herself was intact, she could be moderately happy. The anxiety John gave her yielded to stabbing tension headaches which reached their peak at night, just when she could get a short break from life.

Ettie recalled the day of her wedding sitting at the edge of her bed. “I vow to never leave you in times of turmoil,” John said as the glittering reflection of Ettie danced in his ring. “I vow to never treat you as less than you truly are, a treasure.” Ettie sat recalling the events of this day as a blur. This blur was the type that Ettie wished she could feel again with John. A blur that she would remember forever, because she was at peace.

Ettie got up from her bed once again, but continued to reside in her thoughts. She thought about how long it would take for John to find his way home. He vowed to never leave me in times of struggle. She had thought about calling the sheriff time and time again but knew it would just lead to more bitterness between her and John. This was what kept her up most often. She always stayed awake thinking of what she could possibly do to possibly fix this. John had once been someone who Ettie could turn to for console, but now that he was always gone or drunk, Ettie found herself finding peace in her daughter Grace; something about her innocence, but while still resembling John, made the days tolerable.

“Mom, where’s dad now,” Grace questioned while making Ettie jump out of her somber but quiet introspection.

“Grace you know I don’t know the answer to that,” Ettie said while staring into the old clock reading 3:15 a.m.

“I know…just wanted to ask.”

“I promise it’ll be okay though Grace, we just have to wait. We always have to wait.”

There was something uncertain in Ettie’s voice as there always was when discussing John with her daughter. It had always been strange seeing how Grace was particularly innocent. There was a time not long before when John had come home after a long night at the bar which required the most precise choice of wording Ettie had ever put forth, all to not worry Grace, her primary concern now.

“Ettie where the fuck is my goddamn gin,” John said tripping through the doorway.

“John not in front of Grace please.”

“Whatever, that girl is stronger than you. She can handle it.”

John then got up and went stumbling over to Grace, wafting his bourbon breath in her face.

“You know you’re still my daughter, right?”

“What?”

“Your mom is trying to take you from me and that’s bullshit.”

John was referring to Ettie’s previous plan to move her and Grace in with her mother. John was drunk when he found out about this, so the grudge he held was exaggerated as long as he was in the same state. Moving to her mother’s house was not going to be easy, but nothing ever was anymore. Ettie knew that it could not be a planned routine because she could never predict John, it needed to be spur of the moment.

Ettie held a warm cup of tea in her hand. The burning on her palm was the only thing keeping her from falling asleep. Grace was not lying on the couch holding a half-knitted blanket for the family to use, or as she thought, for her own personal use. She thought quietly about the next school year. Going to school was the one break she had gotten lately from her recent life. She laughed and felt safe knowing that she was a comfortable distance from home. But she did wonder if her friends would notice her clothes this year. Her wardrobe had not changed at all. She frequently wore ill-fitting dresses and skirts with holes and stains telling the stories of the past couple of nights with her father. She had never felt afraid in a way that she would get hurt, but rather solely the interactions she would have with her father instilled fear. School was a place where she could finally get away and dream. Dream about the life she wanted. The life she only knew of in the stories she read.

John sat alone in a corner teetering between the beam of the sun through the window and the darkness of the office. He wanted this job as badly as his next drink. He grinded his molars while dreaming gleefully of finally getting hired. This had been the third interview of the week. He would often state that the reason he wanted a job wass to finally provide for his family the way he wanted to, but he knew the real reason. John wanted to feel like a man again. Like the man his father had raised, someone who did not quit.

“Mr. Henkinson will see you now,” the secretary said with coffee steam in front of her face.

“Okay, thank you ma’am.”

John felt a particular humiliation when he ran into a childhood friend from Columbia. They had all progressed in their lives in some sort of way that was only a fantasy to John. One a sheriff, one a mechanic, and another a respected newspaper writer. John did not envy the jobs themselves, he would do anything he could; rather, it was merely the status of having a job. Before, he had worked as a farmer, which had become his identity. Once a corporate entity moved into Columbia, however, his job was gone with a cold letter.

“Mr. Willhite, what qualifies you among the other applicants?” Mr. Henkinson asked while noticing John’s shaking hands. He could not tell if it was all simply anxiety, or if he was hiding a weakness that was not for the Columbia Bank.

“Well…I would say I’m extremely dedicated compared to other applicants, sir.”

“But dedication is already one of our standards, so what makes you different?”

“I…I guess I am definitely willing to do anything to make sure the job gets done. And I’m great at working with, and guiding people in their job.”

“Oh, a leader?”

“You could say a leader of some sort, yes.”

“Well I think we have an abundance of leaders here, Mr. Wilhite, how will you stand out?”

“I think I have…I…I can do…” John stumbled in his own mind. He had not had a drink in around 2 days, and it was obvious. His hands were shaking, so much so that he could tell Mr. Henkinson was looking down at them.

“Are you okay, Mr. Wilhite?”

“Of course sir, of course.”

“Well then, can you answer the question?”

“I…I think I can add to the overall…efficiency of the company because I can…communicate with people well.”

“Just well?”

“Very well…great actually.”

“Okay…well I guess that’s unique,” Mr. Henkinson was confused as to what was actually the matter with John. He had almost no corporate or banking experience, yet he felt confident enough to come into an interview for a managerial position. The way he acted during the interview, however, made it seem like he had never been taught by his family what confidence was. It was strange seeing him like this, Henkinson had always thought that the rural farm type were blindly confident.

“I think I have to go to the bathroom.”

“You think?” Mr. Henkinson was now pondering how one could not even be confident in their own bodily functions.

“I know I do, sorry.”

John then ran out of the office and to the bathroom. As soon as he made it into a stall he vomited a shade of chunky brown. He was extremely dehydrated. He needed bourbon. This was the third interview of the week and it ended just like all the others. He built up confidence, only to find it destroyed by his anxiety and desire to actually get a job.

Ettie sat up once again with beams of sweat now accumulating down towards her lip. She needed to check on Grace yet again. Walking to Grace’s room, she heard the falling of a bottle outside. Quickly flinging open the front door, she saw flash of a racoon running away, and a bottle rolling down the porch area. He vowed to never leave me. In the tinge of cold that breathed against her skin, she saw the stories of her family. Lately, the stories of grief and pain out weighed the stories of joy.

Suddenly, Grace came running out of the house to tell her mom the phone was ringing. It was Mrs. Pottebaum, a family friend who lived three miles away.

“I just wanted to let you know what I saw. He was stumbling around calling out for you and Grace.”

“Did he have a bottle with him? Or a friend”

“No, he looked to be alone. He started gagging though Ettie.”

“Oh my God. Did you see where he was going?”

“No… he really just disappeared…but I think he was heading toward you guys if he was shouting about you.”

“Well thank you, I appreciate you telling me. Sorry you had to see that. He really is trying to work on it.”

“No, it’s fine really I just thought I’d let you know Ettie.”

He vowed to never treat me like I wasn’t a treasure. Ettie got up and went back into the living room. Sitting down with hesitance, she picked up the quilt. She smelled it as she rested her face into it. She was waiting to disappear and be in her old bedroom at her mother’s house. Just as she was about to tear up and simply go to sleep, she heard the faintest crunching of gravel from outside. Her spine tightened as her body went into a near shock at thinking of what lay ahead of her. He vowed.

“Grace, where the hell are you?”

“Don’t you dare go near her John, damnit.”

“What the hell are you talking about? I just wanted to see Grace.”

“John you’re not going near her in this state and you know that.”

“You’re going to tell me what I can and can’t do with my daughter?”

“I am when you’re like this.”

“You can’t talk to me like that. What makes you think you can talk to me like that?”

“You’re drunk. You need to go to sleep now,” Ettie said as she was advancing slowly toward him.

“No. I am sick of this bullshit”

Sick of this. That is all that Ettie could think about. I am sick of this. I am sick of you. I am sick of what you have done. Ettie was thinking of getting away in this moment. Not simply to her mother’s house, but just away. It did not matter where. She had thought about John in ways that had made her guilty recently, but in this situation she was comfortable with the sight of seeing John die as the person he had become. John’s life ending would not be a tragedy to the Wilhite family, but a gift for their suffering.

As Grace handed the phone to her mother, she thought of how humiliated she was in her father sometimes. She thought the way  people thought about him, talked about him, and treated him was fair. He rarely showed care toward other people in the way he showed care for alcohol. The little things a father should show towards his daughter were often lost on John, leaving Grace not only without knowing how a normal childhood felt, but also how caring in a family was supposed to be like.

One particular day of school had sparked anger within Grace. Her dad packed an insultingly bare lunch; she knew today would irritate her simply by time passing. As the time for lunch came, she grabbed her paper bag and noticed that it was surprisingly bare. She already knew what was waiting for her inside, a simple note that her mom put in before her dad packed it, a sad rotting orange, and a sandwich with two pieces of salami. She immediately threw the lunch toward the trash can, not caring to see if it had made it in. She sprinted to the bathroom as fast as she could. As she wept, she could not help but hear the laughs of the other normal eighth graders. Their concerns were that of childhood crushes, homework, and what things they had planned for the summer. Grace, however, was concerned about if her dad was going to be alive the next day. Moving out of the bathroom, it was time for art class.

Grace’s face felt like pins were stabbing it as she heard what the in-class assignment was.

“Draw your family in a picture. It can be anything. It can be something from the summer, you at dinner, just anything that you’ve been happy doing with your family.”

Grace thought to herself, the happiest I’ve been with my family is when my dad is gone. She felt the guilt of that thought process fading each day as she ate less and less because of the lunches her father attempted to pack for her. She touched the pencil to the paper and began drawing the sad scene. She drew a table with three chairs, of course one was empty, patiently waiting for John. Grace drew herself with dirty clothes and a smile that looked like it required more effort than she could give in a day. She then drew her mom. But she was not sitting at the table eating with Grace, she was on the phone. This was the typical scene that life was producing on an average Tuesday, and it was what she expected to act in later tonight.

“Grace this is what you’re happy doing with your family on an average night?”

“Yes. It’s all that usually happens.”

John stumbled through a field unaware of where he was. He saw Mrs. Pottebaum waving and squinting. Bitch. He was bitter not only at Mrs. Pottebaum for existing, but more so at the fact that he only had enough cash to buy one bottle. He found relief in the fact that it could get him buzzed enough to forget the interview from earlier that day. He repeatedly pondered the flaw that must have existed within him to fail. He had failed at being the man he had wanted to be. He struggled second after second to find an indication of where he was. That’s the fucking pole. He stared and twitched at the telephone pole that he had crashed his truck into three weeks earlier on the way home. That’s home.

Grace watched as her dad crawled towards her burping her name. She cringed as her dad crumbled over the family quilt. This had been the biggest crushing blow that her father had delivered yet. John had never done anything in his drunkenness that had been in spite of her or hurt her particularly. The quilt, however, had been her life for the past two months. Looking down at the needle had been the only thing to distracter her from her dad’s shouting at her mom, something that she could not stand if she had to watch directly.

“You need to come with me Grace, I’ll raise you right.”

“John.”

“No, you’re done telling me what the hell to do with my own daughter.”

“She’s not your daughter.”

“What did you just say to me?”

“You heard me.”

“That’s it.”

John’s veins burned at the thought of Ettie taking his daughter. He slowly tried getting up, only to stumble back over. He thought of the humiliating day and life he had had. Each time he fell he saw Grace get farther, taken by the hand of Ettie. He could have lost everything, but not his own daughter. John refused to let his manhood to be diminished so much so that he could not see his own daughter anymore.

“You guys get back here right now.”

“No, we’re leaving finally.”

“Get back here.”

John came barreling towards Ettie and Grace. His eyes twitched at the fleeting chances to get his daughter back. He stumbled once again, but this time he was able to grab Ettie’s leg.  Ettie saw the stained wood of the counter top quickly approaching her right eye. Crunching against the corner, blood slowly dripped from her temple. She fell at Grace’s feet and blood began pooling at the base of Grace’s socks. John suddenly collapsed to where Ettie was. He panicked while trying to clean up the blood pooling and wake up Ettie.

Grace slowly stepped away from the puddle accumulating at her feet. She ignored the panic her father was experiencing. It was obvious the worry was not to do with the state of Ettie, but the consequences coming to John if she was discovered like this. Grace backed up closer toward the counter. She felt responsible for how long this had gone on without a hint of change. Getting out of the view of her father, she scanned the room. She had to stop this. Her eyes found a knife rack. Backing towards it slowly, she heard her father curse and attempt to clean the blood. She eyed the biggest knife, quietly advancing toward it as she thought of her obligation to protect her mother. She grabbed the handle of the knife and it was more powerful than the fear she had ever felt regarding her dad. Walking the opposite way around the counter, she saw the back of her dad holding her mom’s head with one hand and trying to clean up the blood with his other. She crept towards him, knowing her happiness depended on this happening. She raised her hand just as her dad shouted for her to call 911. She hesitated at first when the initial piercing of the skin caused John to scream in pain and curse. She realized what it took though, and rapidly pushed the rest of the knife through, only showing the handle. She repeated once more, quicker than before.

John collapsed into the pool of Ettie’s blood. His eyes were twitching shut, seeing a fog of Grace running towards the phone. As his eyes began to close, Ettie’s began to twitch open. Grace was going to the phone as quickly as she could, not for her father, but for her awakening mother. She already knew what she was going to say. John was drunk and came after her mother and Grace. It was self defense. While dialing, she did not feel panicked or regretful, she felt relief. Finally, it was done. Finally, her mother was safe. Finally, her family was whole again. Finally, she could finish the quilt.