from what i've tasted of desire / i hold with those that favor fire
Penny takes one last drag of her cigarette and flicks it away from her, watching as it showers sparks into the deserted alley. The thud of her boots echoes heavily between the brick walls as she moves steadily toward the street, shotgun cradled in her hands.
She hasn’t always smoked, she muses as she scanned the eerily empty street in front of their building. The omnipresent rustle of vermin searching for food is the only sound other than her breathing as she takes up her post at the corner of the alley. Oh, she’d flirted with smoking in high-school—who hadn’t?—but by the time she moved to California, it was a habit she could no longer afford. When forced to choose between a pack of cigarettes that would definitely (eventually) kill her and a pair of sky-high stilettos that probably wouldn’t, she’d picked the shoes every time.
But that changed when they were looting a gas station convenience store two weeks after The Incident. (Penny refuses to call it The Disaster or The Meltdown or any of a hundred phrases the news reports had named it in the few hours the news was still on. It stank too much of finality, and she isn’t a quitter.) Sheldon was outside, covering them—besides herself he was the only one who could hit the broad side of a barn—while she, Leonard, and Howard scoured the little store for anything useful. Most of the food was gone, unsurprisingly, but they found a decent supply of motor oil and a few unbroken bottles of liquor stashed in the office. Several stacks of cigarette cartons caught Penny’s eye, and for some reason, she grabbed them and shoved them into her bag.
Her fingers and lips and lungs had apparently never forgotten their brief love affair with nicotine, and now she carries a pack with her everywhere, along with a bottle of non-contaminated water, extra ammunition, and her daddy’s revolver. (Leonard tried to convince her to carry one of the semi-automatics they scavenged from God-knows-where, but she grew up using this gun, and it’s the only thing of her daddy’s she has left. If it can’t save her... Well, she doesn’t think about that.) She doesn’t smoke inside, even if Sheldon would let her; she isn’t stupid enough to light a cigarette in a room filled with homemade explosives and various flammable fuel sources. But when she’s out on patrol or scavenging from stores and abandoned buildings, she’s almost always got one hanging from her fingertips.
The shadows are growing longer, and Penny shivers. Soon it won’t be safe to be on the streets, shotgun or no shotgun. But she’ll stay here, watching and waiting, until the sun starts to dip below the skyline. Then she’ll slip back inside, bar the door behind her, and climb up the stairs to the fourth floor. Leonard and Howard will be working on something in her apartment (she still thinks of it as hers even though all five of them sleep across the hall now), some water purifier or solar generator or automatic shotgun reloader. Sheldon will be stalking around them, telling them they are wrong (no matter that this is The End of the World as They Know It, Sheldon is still Sheldon) and Raj will just be coming down from the roof, where he’s been keeping watch on the silent city (and on her, but that is just one of the many things They Don’t Talk About, like the fact Howard still cries for his mother in his sleep and that Penny knows the exact face Sheldon makes when he comes). Once the sunlight goes, the boys will bed down in the living room and Penny will curl up near the window, still cradling her shotgun, and doze until the sunrise wakes her.
Then she’ll do it all again.