When I was a kid, I liked to collect pennies.
It started with my grandmother. She used to tell me that any time you found a penny heads-up on the ground, it meant an angel was watching over you. “They’re good luck,” she’d tell me as we baked cookies together. Sure enough, a few moments later I’d see a piece of copper winking at me from the kitchen floor. Somehow, the pennies at grandma’s house were always heads-up.
From then on, I spent an inordinate amount of time looking for lucky pennies.
My parents thought it was cute. My mom liked to tell people it was going towards my college fund. My dad told his colleagues that I was turning into a packrat, just like my mother. As for me? I didn’t really care what people thought of it, so long as I had my pennies.
Eventually, my older sister gave me one of her old coin purses to keep my pennies in. It was horribly tacky, now that I think about it – it was bright orange with different colored beads sewn on it. She probably gave it to me without a second thought because she’d outgrown it, but it quickly became my most prized possession. I brought that coin-purse with me everywhere I went, and I kept all my pennies in it. I never spent them, and I never lost a single one – I’d count them every night before bed, just to make sure.
Several weeks went by before I found cause to use them.
Growing up, we lived on an acreage, meaning we rented out our farmland to other people to use. As such, we had a tractor barn that the renters used to store their machinery. All during the harvesting and planting seasons, they’d walk in and out, meaning they left behind all sorts of loose change on the ground. Although, come to think of it, I’m sure some of them left pennies behind on purpose. Some of them even used to hand me pennies to keep in my coin purse.
One fall day, I found myself on the barn floor, combing through the dust and dirt looking for any spare coins I might have missed. It had been a boring few days, with my sister on a school trip and my parents busy with work, so I didn’t have anyone to play with after school. I spent all my time trying to find a few extra coins, just to pass the time if nothing else.
I’d been in the barn for a few hours at that point. My parents were home, I remember that, but they were both so busy with the work they’d brought home that they hadn’t come to look for me just yet. At least, that’s what I thought.
I had just about given up on finding any other pennies when the barn door opened and I saw Mr. Wilson stepping inside.
Mr. Wilson was one of the men that rented dad’s land. I always thought he was sort of an unfriendly man, as he never came up to the house to say hi to my mom, and he never so much as cast a glance in my direction. It seemed to me that he and my dad didn’t like each other much either – once in a while I’d overhear dad complaining to mom about him. So, of course, I found it weird when Mr. Wilson looked at me and gave me a big smile.
“Hey, there, Sissy.” That was my nickname growing up – Sissy. I didn’t mind it, but coming from him it suddenly annoyed me. “Your dad sent me out here to fetch you. Why don’t you come on over here and I’ll take you up to the house?”
Now, kids are a lot smarter than people give them credit for. As soon as I saw Mr. Wilson, I knew something was wrong – with him, with the whole situation. Even though there was nothing to indicate that I was in danger, I was instinctively on high alert.
“Um… that’s okay. I’ll go in on my own in a few minutes. I left something in the back of the barn, so I have to go fetch it.”
Mr. Wilson’s smile faltered for just a second, but then his hand went to his pocket and returned with a handful of shiny new pennies. They looked like they’d just come from the bank.
“But I got all these lucky pennies, just for you! Don’t you want to come and get them?”
A part of me did – he had more pennies in his hand than I had in my whole coin purse. And yet I found myself shaking my head, unable to get past the anxiety rising in my throat. It made me nervous that he had his other hand hand behind his back, as though he were hiding something.
As I shook my head, his smile fell away completely. He looked angry now as he scolded me.
“Sarah Mae Finch, your father asked me to come get you, and if you don’t come with you’re going to be in a lot of trouble. You hear me? Get over here NOW.”
His voice had the opposite effect as intended. Instead of scurrying to his side, I began to back away, feeling that I was on the verge of entering a very, very dangerous situation.
I was right.
As soon as he saw me backing away, he swore and revealed his hand from behind his back. He pulled out a pistol and aimed it in my general direction. I managed to bolt out of the way and the bullet ricocheted against one of the tractors.
“You little bitch!” he hissed, and I heard him chase after me.
I began weaving through the machinery, trying to get to the back of the barn before he could catch me. There was a rather large door back there, big enough for the tractors to get in and out. It was heavy, but it was my only chance, and I had to get it open before he saw me.
As I ran past the combine, I tripped over a piece of plywood that someone had left carelessly lying about. I sprawled to the ground, scraping my knees and filling my mouth with dirt. My coin purse went flying out of my hand and all the pennies spilled to the ground, shining against the dust.
Behind me, I could hear Mr. Wilson’s footsteps as he followed my path through the tractors. In front of me, I could see several more pieces of machinery blocking my way to the door. Tears began to fill my eyes and my breath hitched as terror gripped me. I was going to die… here, covered in filth and all alone. I was going to die and maybe nobody would find me for hours, or even days.
My brain went momentarily blank as my hand scraped against the floor, trying to gather all my pennies. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew I should be running, trying to escape, but I couldn’t think, couldn’t breathe.
All I could do was think of my coins.
I gathered them all to me, clutching them to my chest as tears formed twin tracks down my dirty face. I sobbed as I closed my eyes and wished for something, anything to help me, to save me from Mr. Wilson.
I wished harder than I’ve ever wished in my whole life.
And just when I finished wishing, Mr. Wilson came up behind me.
“Didja hurt yourself?” He sounded a bit out of breath, but he still managed to tsk at me as he said, “That’s what you get for running. Now, sit there like a good girl and this’ll be easier on both of us.” I turned around on my knees, just in time to see him raise his pistol and point it right at my heaving chest.
But as he was taking aim, something else was happening. Something equally disturbing.
I think that he might have pulled the trigger and I wouldn’t have lived to see what happened next, were it not occurring exactly between the both of us. I saw him blink and lower the gun just a little as the dust began to swirl in the space separating us, as though blown by some invisible wind.
But the swirling dust got thicker and thicker. I heard Mr. Wilson mumbling as it began to take shape into something solid.
At first, I thought it was a person. It certainly started out looking that way, standing on two of four limbs with a torso in-between. But then it started to look… gnarled. Twisted. The limbs weren’t straight like they should have been. It was bow-legged and it had large hooves instead of feet. It didn’t have hands – rather, they were claws that stretched halfway down its legs, sharp and pitch-black. As my eyes traveled up, I saw its back was hunched, with its spine sticking just a bit too far out of its skin. Finally, I saw a great, horned head. The horns curved in on themselves, which was as much as I could see from behind. It suddenly dawned on me that it wasn’t facing me.
No… it was facing Mr. Wilson.
The beast was huge, looming. I couldn’t see Mr. Wilson beyond it, but I certainly heard him scream. I heard the gun fire as he tried to kill it.
It never even flinched.
Everything happened rather quickly after that. I heard a great roaring noise, as though the beast were enraged. It raised its claws, reaching out for Mr. Wilson. On impulse, I covered my eyes and tried to block out the sound of his screams, accompanied by some wet, thick noises that I didn’t think too hard about.
It seemed to me that it was a long time before the noises stopped.
After a while, I could sense that the creature had finished its business. Even worse, I could feel that it was looking right at me, waiting for me to open my eyes and acknowledge its presence.
Slowly, I lowered my hands and gazed up at the beast.
It was facing me, now, and I could see that it had a goat-like head. It lacked eyes and it had a row of sharp, pointed teeth, such as no animal I’d ever seen. Its breathing was deep and even as it watched me. Slowly, as though not to scare me, it reached out for me, palm up, claws twitching.
It took me a moment to realize what it wanted.
I stretched out my hand just as cautiously, trying to avoid touching it directly. I wasn’t sure what it would do to me if I accidentally brushed it, even with just my fingertips. With utmost care, I poured the pennies into its palm.
It folded its claws over my treasure. I watched as it knelt before me, picking up my coin purse and holding it out for me to take. After a moment, I plucked it from its claws.
“Thank you,” I said, a little awkwardly, as I wasn’t sure I was supposed to thank it for whatever it had done.
It nodded in acknowledgment. The next moment, I blinked and it vanished.
Leaving the mess behind it in full view.
That’s when I started screaming, and a few moments later I blacked out.
My sister and I ended up living with my grandmother after that.
I found out much later that Mr. Wilson and my father had an unfortunate interaction, resulting in my father refusing to rent land to him anymore. Mr. Wilson didn’t take too well to that.
I thought that my parents had been too busy with work to get me from the barn. Turns out, as I fumbled around on the floor, they’d already been shot, and it was on impulse that Mr. Wilson came looking for me.
If I hadn’t dropped those pennies, he most likely would have succeeded in killing me.
The police aren’t quite sure what happened. They said that I managed to kill him – after all, there wasn’t really any other explanation for how the combine got turned on. They’d found him all tangled up inside its maw, ripped to pieces. Since combines don’t turn on by themselves and I was the only one there… it was a logical conclusion. Not that it mattered either way, really. I was cleared for self-defense. After all, I was only seven at the time. If anything, it was a good thing – people called me a hero for killing him. My own sister thanked me for what I did.
Of course, nobody knows the truth but me. Me and that… creature.
To this day, I don’t know what it was that saved me from that man. I often find myself thinking of what my grandmother told me, about lucky pennies and guardian angels. It’s hard to think of that thing as an angel… then again, who am I to say what an angel looks like?
But I can tell you this: I still collect pennies. Every time I find one heads up, I keep it. I store it in that tacky little coin purse until I get home and can put it in my penny jar. But I always keep a handful with me, no matter where I go.
After all, you never know when you might need to call up your guardian angel.