General Fiction posted November 23, 2022

This work has reached the exceptional level
A father's final gift

I Love You, But

by Rachelle Allen


Eight days. Eight raw, endless days since the funeral when my father's best-friend-and-lawyer handed me this package and whispered, "Your father wanted you to have this." And once again, I sit here, trembling, trying to gather the courage to open it.

Perhaps I should attempt this task at a location other than my "writing desk," this vast surface that's as barren as my imagination. It's sterile and devoid of life, like an after-hours operating table, and lobotomizes my drive with hollow whispers that ricochet across the farthest-reaching corridors of my mind. It needles me: Remember when you were good, Tessa? Remember when the creativity cascaded out of you like an avalanche, unleashing momentum and velocity in its wake and leveling any competition? Remember when you were the crown jewel of your father's publishing firm?

I force myself back to the moment.

It's the embodiment of my father, this package he has bestowed from beyond the grave, corseted so tightly that all eight corners appear to have been professionally creased. Like with me, he has pressed them into submission without so much as a hair's breadth of wiggle room. Crisp, nearly invisible rectangles of tape hold the end flaps in place and render them immobile.

Also like me, it creates a dazzling effect because it bears witness to the man who made it what it is. The man who began sentences with, "Now, Tessa," then inflated them with, "you know I love you," only to decimate them a beat later with, "but."

It was that seemingly innocuous conjunction that evoked an instinctive holding of my breath as I anticipated its knock-out punch and the pseudo salve that always followed: "I tell you these things so you can become your very best self."

I reach for my letter opener and acknowledge that I am finding wicked delight at the thought of inflicting damage onto this packaged perfection.

A cream-colored, high-grade parchment envelope falls onto the table like a flag of surrender upon a battlefield. In my father's strong, neat script, he has written my name and then underlined it three times as if to emphasize its seriousness and import.

Inside, on stationery that matches the envelope, his handwriting continues:

Dear Tessa,

I love you --this is not news to you-- but my illness has robbed you of your gift. This came as such a stunning surprise to me after a lifetime of watching you rise to --and conquer-- every challenge that was ever put before you. Now that I've had time to assess it all, during hours when I probably should have tried harder to fall asleep and rejuvenate my body, I fear I did not react to your agony as I should have. In doing so, I stunted you into silence for your craft.

My eyes fill up, and I watch as the words my father has written down begin to clot together. They look like sparrows on a wire, bracing against a vicious onslaught. I use the heel of my shaking hand to stanch the flow of tears then force myself to continue reading.

I prevented your book from going to press because it was so brutally precise, Tessa, that it terrified me. As ludicrous as this sounds, it was actually too well written. The chord it struck within me was excruciating. I simply could not give my consent to allowing you to be so exposed and vulnerable, so masterfully beaten down.

The memory of his memo/critique of my book--a printed version of my own exposed nerve endings--bludgeons me:

This is melodramatic to an extreme that almost --ALMOST-- borders on comical. Are we writing trashy beach reads now or something? Get your act together, Tessa. This book is an atrocity. Our readership will abandon us and never return if this goes to print.

At this point, my hands are tremoring so furiously that I have put my father's letter onto the table and lean over it like a mariner examining a map of uncharted waters.

It began on the first page when the daughter/protagonist says that she has feared this moment her entire life: her father's medical death sentence.

In no time, you managed to coax out the private underpinnings that held the public personas of the father and daughter together. Then you backlit their private co-dependency perfectly: Who was she without his strength and compulsive need to navigate every aspect of her life? Who was he without her perpetual acquiescence and begrudging adulation?

Finally, with constant flickers of foreshadowing, you intertwined your signature prose and syntax into the story's unforgettable conclusion as he dies and her spirit and strength are halved.

I have now had to tip my head back to prevent puddles from distorting my father's furious pen strokes. I retrieve a dish towel from the kitchen and bury my face into it for a moment before settling down enough to continue.

As I said when I started this letter, Tessa, your words terrified me because I did not want to grapple with anything except sheer indignation at my body's unexpected betrayal. I wanted to stay angry because that's how I do my best problem-solving. It's my coping mechanism, if you will...though I believe on more than one occasion you referred to it as my 'defense mechanism.'

For the first time in six months and eight days, I actually smile.

Your book's final sentence felt like a branding iron through my heart, Tessa: "All she knew for sure anymore was that he was her gift of a lifetime, and she will never thrive as well without him."

Next thing I knew, I was sobbing like a child.

I quickly turn my dishtowel onto the clean side, wipe my eyes, and leave skids of mascara the entire length of it.

The problem was that I was not ready to give in yet, myself, let alone watch you do so. I lashed out at you in the cruelest way there was --albeit with the intention of trying to resuscitate that fighting spirit of yours that I've always loved. But you were too walled off to be reached by that point, and I was too self-absorbed and under siege, myself, to recognize that. It wasn't until you stopped writing completely and withdrew from every aspect of your life that I understood the irreparable damage I had caused. I was horrified.

I close my eyes in order to savor this moment. This is the salve I have sought from him my entire life: one steeped in his supplication rather than his omniscience. I open my eyes again.

Not one word of what I said in that memo/critique was correct, Tessa. Your book is luminous and will be admired and remembered for generations. I know this business, and you can trust that I am not wrong here.

I smile again, this time at the feistiness and hubris that defines this man.

So I'm enclosing a check that is your $20,000 advance. Your book has gone to press. I'll go to my grave the proudest father of all time.

I am beyond crying now. Instead, I sit at my writing table, paralyzed with incredulity, until I remember the package that I breached earlier with my letter opener. I pick it up and fish out a little black book. On its cover, tucked beneath a strand of elastic that serves as a bookmark, there is a wide, colorful, horizontal band that proudly displays the Moleskin logo. "Nothing but the best, right to the very end," I murmur aloud. I open the glorious gift and run my hand slowly across several cream-colored pages that feel smooth as sea glass. Their horizontal lines beckon me to fill them with unbridled creativity in the form of taut story lines, luscious descriptions, and lively dialogue.

I am inexplicably drawn to the inside cover and see that my father has put a stark line through the book's distinctive gold lettering that had read: In case of loss, please return to ________. As a reward, $___." What an ingenious idea by Moleskin! At last, a corporate giant that understands the soul of its customers and the value of their written words.

In bold, neat script, my father has replaced the notebook's pre-printed gold lettering with:

You were my gift of a lifetime, too. Now Tessa, I love you, but please get back to writing.


Story of the Month contest entry


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© Copyright 2022. Rachelle Allen All rights reserved.
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