The letter arrives on Lila’s mailbox on a Saturday morning, landing with a soft plunk on the hardwood floor. She peers out of the living room at the noise, seeing a thick cream envelope beneath a pile of red and yellow letters.
Bending at the knees, she pulls the envelope free. Across it, her name and address are embossed in gold calligraphy. There’s no need for her to look to the left corner to figure who sent it. She’s received 10 in the last 10 years, and she’s thrown each one in the garbage. Or shredded in the disposal.
With the tip of her shellacked nail, she peels back the metallic sticker and slides out a heavy piece of cardstock with the same lettering.
Mr. Harry Hailbraith
requests the pleasure of your company for dinner
at 4 P.M. on the 5th of May
at the Hailbraith Estate.
She rolls her eyes. Ever the showman, he never can make a call. How pretentious.
Still, she doesn’t immediately trash it. Her hand sifts through the other mail. Last chance. Late. Legal action pending. Times, she thinks, have changed.
Her eyes drop to the bottom of the letter:
Guests will be treated to gifts.
Now, that’s a kicker. She makes her decision, and fishes another, smaller square card from the envelope, one marked at the top with a crest—two clawing lions protecting a shield etched with a sword and a dove. It’s his seal. Her seal.
Her stomach churns like a mixer set to high speed at the thought of seeing him, but she knows there’s no other choice. She’s let her world pirouette too far out of control and despises herself for it—not as much as she does him, but only a few levels shy.
Two weeks later, a silver town car pulls in front of her house, and Wilson, the same man who has driven the Hailbraith fleet since she was five, marches up to her stoop, fit with a flat cap and double-breasted suit like he’s a butler straight off the Titanic. Before he can knock, she whips the door open, the force blowing her skirt up from her ankles.
“You look very nice, Ms. Hailbraith,” Wilson says. She feels a twinge of affection for the man who drove her everywhere, including to the station where she boarded a train and said she’d never look back.
“Thank you,” she mutters. She didn’t want to dress up for the dinner, but she found herself slipping into her black organza cocktail dress. Not because she wanted to look good, but because you wear black to a funeral and for her dignity, that’s basically what it is.
In the car, blocks of townhouses give way to lush fields and thickets of trees. Through gaps of branches, she spots the estate, home at one point. Walls of sandstone hidden partially by a line of marble of pillars. While it’s been 11 years since she’s come within 500 feet of the place, it feels too soon.
Wilson parks the car directly in front of the entrance, and she’s out before he can shift the car out of drive. Her heels clack against the chess board-colored granite floor as she passes ornate painting after ornate painting.
As a child, she ran through these halls, sliding across them for what like forever. Then, in her teenage years, the tall ceilings and long hallways began shrinking, constricting around her as if they were tunnels on the verge of collapse. There was too much Hailbraith in the mansion and not enough Lila.
She finds him in the dining hall—not room but hall, because it’s the size of her living room, kitchen, and bedroom put together.
Salt-and-pepper hair parted on the far side of his head. Round glasses perched on his nose. Perfectly pressed suit coat fit over his shoulders. He’s still every way a Bond villain. Except wrinkles have carved themselves around his eyes, and his hair is much more salt than pepper.
The chair grates against the floor as he stands up like she’s the guest of honor, which she is, she guesses. “Hello, Lila.”
“Dad,” she says. She’d like to sit directly across from him, but a goblet is at the nearest diagonal to him. She draws out the chair, sits, and drops the napkin onto her lap.
“Thank you for coming. It’s nice to see you,” he says.
A server brings out a tray with two plates of salad greens topped with purple onions and bright red tomatoes. A woman offers to fill her glass and she takes her up on it, letting the wine rise to just below the brim before Lila cuts her off.
While it’s what she desires now, it reminds Lila of her youth—days where he either said nothing to her or only spoke about himself, his work, his legacy. All pomp and circumstance. No attending to the daughter who desperately needed attending unless there was something in it for him, the one parent who hadn’t already left her. It all made her question her worth.
Instead, she stares into the custard-colored soup or at the portrait above his head. It’s a new one—well, new to her—with two guys in musketeer hats battling it out with sabers. How appropriate.
She hates how she squirms back in his proximity as if she’s still a 15-year-old wanting to impress him. He should no longer have that power. He doesn’t deserve it.
When the main course is served, he opens his mouth but not to shove a piece of steak in.
“Lila, I’d like to discuss why you left.”
“Excuse me?” He didn’t even ask if she’d like to; it was a demand.
“I know you were unhappy here, unhappy with me. I realize I could’ve done better—”
“Could’ve done better?” she scoffs and downs a gulp of wine. If he wanted to do this, then they were going to do this.
Or maybe that’s the alcohol. “You ignored me. I worked for years to impress you, to try to get your attention for even just a second, but you could never give it to me. You couldn’t even come to my high school graduation because you had a meeting that was more important, and at my party, all you did was celebrate yourself, not me.”
As she watched him schmooze with the guests from the landing of the grand staircase, she made her decision to leave. No matter how much she tried to brighten her star, she couldn’t outshine his supernova ego.
She was done trying. “I was—,” she paused to correct herself. “I am your child, and you treated me like one of your paintings, rotating it in and out of your life when it suited you. I deserved to be treated like a human being.”
Somewhere in her, she feels a muscle release. One that’s been clenched from the time she left. It’s like a small amount of euphoria has uncapped itself within her.
She begins to eat again, but her dad just stares. Shifts in his chair. Lifts his fork only to drop it. Opens his mouth before shaking his head. Squirms.
“Lila, I’m sorry.”
When these fights played out in her head, they always ended with her either leaving him in the dust, or him groveling. She never thought he’d verbalize an apology.
“You did impress me. You always did, but I took you for granted, and you’re right you deserved better than that.”
Damn right, she wants to say, but her lips stay closed.
Her father continues, “If you give me the chance, I’ll do better. I miss you. Very much.”His voice chokes, or at least she thinks it does, because it’s cut off with a cough. It’s the most emotion she’s seen from her dad, ever, and she won’t deny it tugs at her core.
“I’m not ready for that.”
“I understand,” he nods, and he sounds like he might be telling the truth.
Their dinner closes with the sound of forks hitting china as they eat a decadent chocolate cake. Once it was her favorite, like she realizes all of the courses had been. As she stands to leave, he reaches into his suit and pulls out an envelope with her name on it again. “As promised.”
“Thank you,” she says, taking it when he extends it to her. There are no hugs, but tip of the head in recognition of one another before she walks back to the car, feeling like an adult and child all in one breath.
Inside is a check, written in his quick script with an amount that would wipe out her debt and cover her bills for at least a year.
She should feel excitement, relief. Neither appear. Only sadness and a bit of dirtiness. It’s a solution to her problem, but not the problem she most wants to solve.
Folding the envelope closed, she sticks it to the bottom of her purse for safekeeping.
Maybe she’ll cash it tomorrow, or in a month, or never. Like trying to mend the relationship with her dad, she doesn’t know when or if it will happen. Just that it won’t be today.