“Checkmate!” Harold said as he knocked his opponent’s bishop out of the way.
“Dang it, not again,” Roger muttered. “What do ya say, one more shot at redeeming myself?”
Harold glanced at his watch. “I guess I’ve got one more game in me, but it’s almost two o’clock. Today’s my day to spend some time with Billy.”
“Yeah, yeah, you don’t have to remind me what day of the week it is. Not yet anyway.”
Despite Roger’s sarcasm, he and Harold had become good friends at their Shady Pines retirement home. There were very few residents whose minds were still clever enough for sustainable conversation and board games. The two of them met on the outside veranda after lunch every day, moving their pieces with no great hurry as they sipped sweet tea and eyed the pretty staff nurses. This was the only pleasant part of Harold’s day. Although he often felt like a failure, at least he could win at chess every now and again.
As he waited for his buddy to reset the board, he picked up his glass and swirled it, enjoying the cool sweat beads that gathered at his fingertips.
“How’s Carol, by the way? She ever coming back?” Roger asked.
Harold silently cursed him for having such a good memory. Last week he’d mentioned how he’d left another voicemail begging his daughter to return to Savannah. But like all the others, it too had gone unanswered.
He cleared his throat. “Looks like it’s just gonna be me and Billy for a while,” he said, his voice thick.
The ice cubes in his glass made a familiar clinking sound as they whirled. He winced and set the glass down, burying his hands in his lap. He hoped Roger wouldn’t notice the tremor that had started in them. Sometimes the littlest thing would trigger panic. He never knew when it would hit him next.
“Harold, you look like you’ve seen a ghost. If it’s the angel of death come for ya, tell him to bugger off, you owe me a second round,” his friend said, attempting to lighten the mood.
Harold stood up, knocking over his chair. “I’m sorry, I don’t think I have another game in me after all. I’ll catch you tomorrow,” he said, excusing himself from the table and ignoring Roger’s confused expression.
He shuffled through the building lobby and out the front doors to wait for the shuttle that would take him to Billy. By the time the little bus picked him up and arrived at its destination, his hands had stopped shaking and his breathing had become regular again.
“See you in an hour,” the driver reminded him while he descended the stairs. Despite needing a cane, Harold prided himself on being able to make it up and down those three large steps each week.
As the shuttle took off, he heard a familiar voice greet him “hello” off to his right.
Startled, he turned to find his daughter sitting on a bench a few yards away.
“Carol, what are you doing here?”
“Nice to see you too,” she said with a smile.
“Sorry. You caught me by surprise, that’s all. Did you just fly in?”
She nodded. “I got your letter yesterday. And this,” she said, holding up the blue coin he’d sent her.
Even from a distance he could make out where some of the paint had worn off the edges from all his anxious rubbing over the years. He’d gotten it from his AA mentor to celebrate his first year of sobriety. Whenever the urge for a drink became strong, he’d reach into his pocket and pull it out to remind himself of the promise he’d made. Last week he’d hit four years and realized that he didn’t need it anymore, so he sent it to Carol along with a note of explanation. He hoped to prove to her that he was a changed man.
“Just dropped my bags off at the hotel. When I called Shady Pines to see if you were in, they told me I’d find you here,” she said, walking over to him. “C’mon, I’ll head down there with you.”
This was the first time she’d ever joined him during one of his Sunday visits with Billy. As he hobbled along the footpath beside her, both his left knee and heart aching, there were so many questions he wanted to ask her.
“Taking a little vacation from the cold weather?” he said, hoping to break the ice.
Carol chuckled. “I don’t mind the snow, but after I got your chip, I realized there was something I wanted to tell you, in person.” Her eyes met his briefly before flitting off to focus on something in the distance.
“I see,” Harold said, his voice a whisper, as the two of them arrived at their destination, the marble slab marked Billy MacGregor, 2008-2013.
Having her there next to him in the midst of his shame was too much. He dropped his cane and placed a hand over his eyes, hiding his tears and wishing he could block out the horrors of that night. It was useless. Torturous snapshots kept jumping out from the hidden corners of his mind.
Chugging beer during his grandson’s tee-ball game. He and Billy getting into his pickup truck afterwards, sun disappearing into the horizon. Screeching tires. Glass shards. The truck’s metal hood crumpling in on them. Blood everywhere.
He didn’t blame her for wanting to leave town after the accident.
“I’m so sorry, Carol, for everything.”
He felt a plump hand grasp his withered one and give it a squeeze. Lowering his other arm, he saw tears falling from her eyes, too. “I forgive you, Daddy.”
Harold reached out and hugged his daughter for the first time in years.
Rachel Printy lives in NYC where she spends her free time reading, writing, and attempting to salsa dance. Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Reed Literary Magazine, Youth Imagination, NerdWallet, and Chicken Soup for the Soul.