Intermittent footsteps mixed with the clattering of kitchen utensils from the room beneath him told him that his mom was busy preparing breakfast. Probably starting a pot of black-eyed peas too, he thought. He made a face and said, "Yuck." He hated black-eyed peas. But--he always ate some anyway. Grandpa said it was a New Year's tradition.
At the thought of his grandpa, his eyes returned to the window. Droplets of moisture left there by the prowling mist streamed down the glass, distorting the trees and giving the forest a mystical, almost magical appearance.
Randy's mouth dropped open as he watched a tendril of smoke drift across the trees coming from the right. "Grandpa!" he whispered. His blue eyes danced with excitement. He jumped up and searched frantically for his jeans. His mind was going in every direction at once. He stumbled across the room trying to pull his pants on and walk at the same time. The fog was moving across the backyard from the west. Grandpa's cottage was to the east and slightly behind the main house. The smoke had definitely come from the east and that could only mean one thing. Grandpa was here.
Randy tugged a faded green Seahawk sweatshirt over his head then grabbed an equally faded and well-worn cap from his dresser and placed it on his head--backwards, of course. No one wore his cap with the bill in front anymore. Except Grandpa, he thought. He quickly twisted the cap around so that the faded, but still visible Seahawk emblem was in the front. It felt kind of weird. But who cares, he thought, walking toward the door. None of his friends would see him this morning. He glanced in the mirror that hung on his door, and grinned as he stared at the faded Seahawk emblems on his sweatshirt and cap. He could already hear his grandpa groan. "Oh, Randy," he would say. "You're breaking your old grandpa's heart." Grandpa was a Dallas Cowboys' fan. Secretly Randy was too, and Grandpa knew that, but still it was fun to play this little game whenever Grandpa came to visit.
He opened the door slowly and peeked out into the hallway. The television was on downstairs in the living room, and he could hear the thumping of a bass drum and the tinny sound of horns. Rose Bowl parade, he thought, slipping into the hall and moving silently toward the stairs. The smell of bacon frying did a dance in his nose as he descended the stairs, making his stomach growl noisily. All right, he thought. Grandpa loves bacon.
At the bottom of the stairs, he stopped and listened to the sounds of the New Year's morning. His mom busy in the kitchen, the parade on the TV, and the rustle of the newspaper as his dad turned a page and flipped it like he always did before starting to read. Randy heard the rustle of the paper now, and then the telltale snap as his dad flipped the newsprint and pulled it closer as he continued to read. He slipped quickly across the opening to the living room, and just as quickly turned the doorknob and opened the door. He was out and had the door shut before the cold moist air had a chance to slip by him and into the house... or so his seven-year-old mind would have him believe.
Randal Royal lowered his paper and looked toward the front door. He couldn't see the door from where he sat in the worn old recliner, but he knew it had just opened and shut. A cold blast of moisture-laden air had kissed his cheeks before moving on to explore the warm and cozy corners of the old farmhouse. He shook his head slowly from side to side as he snapped the paper back into place and continued reading the sports page. He should probably get up and go after Randy, but then... maybe not. He knew the boy would be back soon, and chances were he'd be none the worse for wear. Still, he wondered sometimes if it was a healthy thing for the boy to continue like this. He knew he missed his grandpa--Randal missed him too--but it had been almost six months.
He sighed heavily then returned his attention to the article he'd been reading. A smirk of a smile formed at the corners of his mouth as he read about the latest unsavory escapade of one of the members of the Dallas Cowboys. He snorted in disgust. "America's team," he snarled as he turned the page. "My big old butt." He glanced over toward the couch, half expecting to see his dad, Steven Royal, looking back at him with hurt-filled, big blue eyes. Of course, there was no one on the couch. Funny how his dad could make him feel guilty and not even be there. He'd had a way of doing that, even when he was alive.
Randal smiled again as he laid the paper in his lap and turned his attention to the television. The warmth from the old wood stove in the corner, coupled with the morning smells from the kitchen, soothed him and made him feel drowsy. He settled deeper into the chair and closed his eyes. He could hear his wife Debra singing softly in the kitchen as he drifted in and out of a peaceful morning nap.
Randy stood onthe front porch for a few seconds watching the fog drift by. Somewhere in the distance a chain saw growled angrily.
His excitement suddenly overwhelmed him and, tossing caution to the wind, he ran to the porch steps--reaching them in three quick thumping strides--and leapt to the sidewalk. He hit with a slap, grinning broadly, and took off toward the cottage that sat nestled in the trees behind the big house where he lived with his parents. As he rounded the corner of the house he lost traction in the wet grass and after a bit ofhopeless arm flailing, he suddenly found himself sitting in the fog, facing the tiny cottage. As the dew soaked through his jeans and invisible cold needles seemed to poke at his rear end, he lowered his head. The grin was gone, a sad frown in its place as he rolled to his knees and wiped his hands on the front of his pants. He walked slowly toward the gravel road in front of the house, staring down at the dew-covered grass. Behind him the cottage was dark and cold. No smoke came from the old chimney.
When he reached the road, he turned and looked back at the cottage. Darn it, he thought. He blushed slightly, then shot a glance at the main house. Shouldn't curse, he thought, silently scolding himself. He looked back toward his grandpa's place, then turned and started off down the road. The sound of gravel crunching beneath his sneakers took him away to another, happier time.
He had walked this road with his grandpa for as long as he could remember. Grandpa had bought the house for them about four years ago, right after his first book had been published. Then he had built the small cottage out back for himself. "Don't want to be a burden," healways said. "Just want to be near my kids."
Moisture welled in Randy's eyes as he pictured the warm smile of his grandpa. He could almost feel the man's hand resting on his shoulder now as he walked down the gravel road. He thought, too, that he could hear the sound of larger footsteps mingling with his as his sneakers crunched the gravel. He missed his grandpa a lot.
He passed another house on the same side of the road as his, and he thought for a second about turning his hat around to the more acceptable backward position. He quickly dismissed the thought as he remembered that Jimbo Nelson, his best friend, and his family was gone for the holidays. They'll probably be back sometime this weekend, he thought as he continued down the narrow road. He rounded a slight bend, and in the distance he could see the road to town. It was only a few miles into Eatonville, but what with the trees and the scattered layout of the homes along the road, it seemed as though they lived deep in the wilderness.Randy looked down at the road and kicked aimlessly at the gravel. Suddenly, he stopped dead in his tracks and stared at something lying on the road in front of him. A car whirred by on the blacktop road in the distance, but he hardly heard it.
He bent down, picked up the penny and smiled as he thought about the story Grandpa used to tell him; the story about pennies from heaven. He could still remember the last time grandpa had told him the story. It was in almost this very spot. He let his mind drift back to that day...
"How many pennies are there, Grandpa?" Randy asked.
Grandpa smiled. A smile that could set the world right and make the sun seem warmer on a crisp fall day. "Why, there's more than you could ever count," he said.
Randy looked down at the penny that he held in his hand. It was dull and scratched; the face upon it, a famous president he thought, seemed sad somehow. "How did it get here, Grandpa?" he asked. His blue eyes sparkled as he waited for his grandpa to tell the story. His grandpa told the best stories, and he had told this one many times before.
"Well, you know," Grandpa said, "I'm not real sure." He held his hand out, and Randy took hold of it as they continued to walk down the road. He loved it when grandpa came to the mountain to write. They got to take long walks down the road almost every day. "But if I had to say," Grandpa continued, "I'd say someone from heaven tossed it down here to let you know they was thinkin' about you."
Randy looked up at his grandpa, eyes wide with excitement. "Who do you think threw me this penny, Grandpa?" He opened his hand and showed the tarnished coin to grandpa.
Grandpa chuckled. The laughter seemed to wrap itself around Randy like an old down comforter on a cold winter night. "Randy, Randy, Randy," Grandpa said, as he shook his head slowly from side to side. He smiled down at the wide-eyed boy as he continued. "I bet you know who threw that penny. You're just trying to fool your old grandpa."
Randy smiled sheepishly then looked down at the penny in his hand. When he looked up, the smile had grown bigger and his eyes sparkled like moonlit snow as he asked in a hushed tone, "Was it Grandma?"
"You reckon?" Grandpa asked, smiling.
Grandpa's smile was broad, but Randy thought he could see a hint of moisture in his eyes. "I reckon," Randy answered.
He looked away from Grandpa and stared off down the road. His heart ached as he thought of his grandma. She had gone to heaven right after his fourth birthday and he still wasn't sure why Godhad thought he needed Grandma more than he did. He missed her a lot. And what about Grandpa? Did God need Grandma more than Grandpa did? He knew how sad his grandpa had been since Grandma had gone away, and he knew how lonely Grandpa was, too. It was all too confusing for his four-year-old brain.
Grandpa seemed to read his mind. He did that a lot.
"Yep," Grandpa said as they started walking again. "I believe that all pennies come from heaven. God gives them to his angels, you see, and when an angel—In this case, your grandma—looks down here and sees that you're missing her, she tosses one of her pennies down so you'll know that she's thinking about you."
As he finished talking, the crunch of gravel stopped, too, and the day was suddenly still.
Randy looked up at his grandpa then followed his gaze to the side of the road. His mouth dropped open.
Another penny, this one shiny and new, gleamed at them from the wet ground beside the gravel road. It seemed to strain toward them in the sunlight, begging to be picked up. Grandpa and Randy turned and stared at one another. Randy's eyes were wide and filled with wonder. Grandpa looked as though he'd been struck dumb. As one, their eyes went back to the penny; and they stood there for what seemed like an eternity, staring at the gleaming coin. Randy finally broke the silence with a small, but sure voice.
"That one's yours, Grandpa."
As he walked back up the road to the house, Randy was smiling. The memory of the walks with Grandpa, and the stories, made everything seem right. He knew he would never walk this road with Grandpa again, but then... somehow he knew he'd never walk it without him.
Copyright © 1998 C. Mashburn
Used with Authors Permission