Tripping she was used to.
She was never overtly clumsy. Farming and junior rodeo required a certain amount of athleticism and competence. While she was never exactly graceful, she was far from accident prone. Penny was, however, a perfectly normal girl who had lived a perfectly normal life, and therefore had tripped and fallen more than once during her time on this planet. So, yeah, tripping was no big deal.
Putting her foot down and expecting to feel the sponginess of early morning grass beneath it, and doing so for a brief second, and then suddenly nothing, well, that was a whole different matter. And then to put out her hands and grasp at the hole opening up beneath her feet, slowing herself down enough that she managed not to break her tailbone as she landed ceremoniously on her rump in a wet, cold mud puddle—well, that was a new experience too.
Penny looked up above her. Some clumps of dirt and grass were still making their way down the hole. The sky was still pink from the early dawn, but she couldn’t see the sun itself. Crumbling stone walls circled up around her, and as she pulled herself shakily to her feet she suddenly realized the predicament she was in.
Penny had fallen down a well.
“Aw,” Penny said. “Crap.”
She was pretty positive it had started out as a good day. Finally, she had got her big break—well, bigger than her other breaks. Cast in a movie, a real movie, with real celebrities. Not a mystery dinner play with a mix of creepy old men who smoked clove cigarettes and equally creepy old women trying to get her to join their swingers club (“This is where actors go to die,” she had said to herself on many an occasion). Not a bit part in a toothpaste commercial playing a ditzy girl who giggles when her friend talks about how white her teeth finally were after years of doing nothing but drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, and chewing on tinfoil. Not even a part as an extra in some third rate television sitcom about incompatible neighbors where she had to stand in the background and make fake small talk with some PA who looked highly uncomfortable being on camera.
Nope, none of that. Thank God and Jesus Christ Almighty.
Penny was in a movie. She had a speaking role and everything! It was some period drama, Penny wasn’t sure what period exactly, after the Civil War sometime, maybe. It was her duty to run up to Renee Zellwegger and tell her the men have returned and then to look on worriedly as Renee Zellwegger rushed over to the farmhouse.
And Penny had been ready. The camera crew was at the far end of the field, and all she had to do was run across it and up to Renee Zellwegger and deliver the line and then she would have a little bit of money, enough to keep her from borrowing any from Sheldon for at least three months. Oh, and she would be a movie star.
So Penny ran. She grabbed hold of the heavy cotton skirt and started at a fair-paced trot. She was about halfway across the field when—
Well. She fell down a well.
Once at the bottom, Penny looked up at the sky, blue and far away. She had fallen maybe a hundred feet. It was a miracle she hadn’t broken anything. She slumped back down into the mud puddle and moaned.
“Oh my god,” Penny said. “I’m Baby Jessica.”
On Penny’s second birthday, a baby in Texas had fallen into a well. Little Jessica McClure was only eighteen months old when it happened. News outlets had covered the story nonstop until the little girl was finally rescued. Penny only remembered because her whole family teased her about it ever since.
“Maybe you’ll fall down a well today,” her sister had taunted her when she was five.
“At least I’d fit, you would just get stuck!” Penny had retorted, eliciting an incredibly high-pitched shriek from her sister and a sigh from their mother as she pried the two apart before they could completely tear out each other’s hair.
Penny felt like her life had been rather oddly foreshadowed.
There were voices coming from above.
“Hey!” Penny scrambled to her feet and cupped her hands around her mouth. “HEEEEEEEYYYYYYYYYYY! I’M DOWN HERE!”
Immediately she felt stupid. Of course they knew she was down here. They had all seen her fall. In fact, it was probably on camera. Soon the footage would be all over youtube and CNN and MSNBC and there would be a tv movie about her life and an interview with Barbara Walters.
Penny stopped yelling and smiled. This might actually be her big break after all.
Several hours went by and while she heard noises and grumblings from above, there had been no direct contact. She had ripped off the bottom of her skirt. It was heavy with mud and, frankly, the wardrobe department could suck it. Luckily it was still daylight since they had been filming in the morning, but Penny was beginning to get cold and sore. She wished they would just hurry up and rescue her already.
Fantasies ran through her mind of a shirtless fireman lifting her out of the hole, his muscles flexing, teeth white as he smiled at her dreamily.
Suddenly, a black cord descended in front of her. At the end of it was a thick plastic bag containing a walkie-talkie. Penny eagerly opened the bag and fiddled with the dials, speaking into it desperately.
“Hello? Hello? It’s me, Penny!”
Penny felt the color drain from her face.
“Penny, are you there? Come in, Penny.”
“ . . . Sheldon?”
“Yes! Are you all right?”
“Sheldon! What are you doing? Give the firemen back their radio!”
“First of all, Penny, it’s my radio. Secondly, those cowards didn’t even want to get close enough to drop anything down there, let alone a radio. Thirdly, I think you should—“ There was a burst of static, then a beep, and another voice came on the radio.
“Penny? Penny, ignore him. He almost got us arrested.” Leonard.
Penny rested her forehead against the antenna of the walkie-talkie. “Let me talk to Sheldon.”
Almost immediately, Sheldon returned to the radio. “Penny, I’ll have you know I actually crawled on my belly to the edge of the hole, placing my life in danger in order to send this down there. Of course, I laid down a tarp first, no sense in getting dirty—“
Penny held down the button on her end, cutting off Sheldon but causing a terrible feedback noise. When it had finished, she said, “Yes, Sheldon. Thank you. Now tell me, how many cameras are out there?”
“Yeah, like from Fox News or CNN?”
“Well, Channel 4 is here. Raul Tejada.”
“The local news?!” Penny gasped. “And they sent the traffic guy?! Who else is there?”
“Wolowitz, Koothrapali—Bernadette is on her way, I think she was going to pick up Amy.”
“I meant news-wise. What news stations are there?”
“Ah. Your original question was unclear. We should establish proper radio protocol—when one of is done with their transmission, we’ll say ‘over,’ and if the prior transmission was understood, we’ll say ‘roger.’” There was a pause. “Over.”
“Sheldon! What news stations are up there filming this?”
“You didn’t say ‘over.’ Over.”
“Sheldon I swear to God—“ Penny sighed. “Sierra Hotel Eagle Lima Delta Oscar November, how many film crews from news stations are up there? OVER.”
“I told you. Just Channel 4. Over.”
“And where did you learn the NATO phonetic alphabet? Over.”
“Sheldon? Foxtrot Unicorn Charlie Kilo Oscar Foxtrot Foxtrot. Over.”
“Listen, can you send me down a sandwich or something? I’m starving. And when are they gonna get me out of here? And stop saying ‘over,’ it’s getting on my nerves.”
“How will I know when you’ve finished speaking? It’s better if we stick to protocol. Over.”
“Dammit, Sheldon, I’m hungry, okay?”
“Fine. The rescue crew is afraid of getting too close. It seems the sides of the well you are in are extremely unstable. There is a huge danger of a cave-in and you being crushed under the rubble. I will try my best to procure you a sandwich.”
Penny shut her eyes tightly, picturing the rocks falling and crushing her fragile body. “Roast beef and swiss, okay?”
“As I stated before, I’ll try.”
“Thanks sweetie.” She smiled sadly and said, just for the hell of it, “Over and out.”
An hour later, the black cord descended again. Inside the plastic bag was a sandwich wrapped in paper and a bag of potato chips. Penny nearly cried with joy.
She didn’t talk to Sheldon or the others too much. Sheldon was afraid the batteries in her walkie-talkie would die and he wouldn’t be able to send any more down. Penny got bored fairly quickly. She tried pacing around the well, but it was only about six feet wide and the mud made things awkward.
One news team. The local news, at that. Renee Zellwegger couldn’t even wrangle a cable station to come out and cover the story. Perhaps it was Penny’s fault. Maybe she wasn’t inspiring enough. She wasn’t a baby. She wasn’t a Chilean miner. She was a waitress. A waitress who had fallen down a well and had the most awkward time trying to pee, worried they could look down and see her. She wiped with the napkins that came with her sandwich.
She felt gross.
After another hour, she grew determined. Maybe she could climb out herself. She found a hold in the brick wall and grabbed on. Her foot sought purchase, but it landed on a loose brick and she tumbled almost immediately. Visions of a cave-in flashed before her eyes and she didn’t try again.
She didn’t want to be in the well anymore. It’s not like she had wanted to be in it in the first place, but she had to admit in the beginning it had been sort of exciting. Now she was tired. She was cold and wet and would never have the chance to be in a movie again. She couldn’t even make it onto Fox News.
She prayed. She wished. She hoped.
And still. She was in the well.
“Sheldon?” Static. “Sheldon, are you there?”
“I have used Wolowitz’s . . . adequate engineering skills to draw up blueprints for a sort of pulley system. The trouble is finding a crossbeam that can extend far enough over the hole yet have a base on stable ground so as not to cause collapse from the weight. I’m sure we’ll have something by the end of the week.”
“Welding takes time, Penny.”
“Yeah, well, send me a deck of cards or a GameBoy or something.”
“They don’t make GameBoys anymore, Penny, they make Nintendo DSes.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know. It’s just a GameBoy with two screens. I’m bored out of my freaking skull down here. Not to mention it’s starting to get cold.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
Another hour. A package containing a pink Nintendo DS, fully charged, a copy of Nintendogs, a Snuggie, and a roll of Charmin descended from the heavens.
“Not bad,” said Penny. “Although that Snuggie’s definitely going to get wet.”
She managed to fasten a sort of sitting area out of the cardboard box the Snuggie came in, and it didn’t get too muddy as she booted up the game system.
What scared her is that she could get used to living in a well.
Penny did not have to wait a week. In fact, it wasn’t even midnight when she got pulled out of the well. Turns out a neighboring city’s rescue department had exactly the type of winch Howard and Sheldon had been trying to design.
The harness nearly hit her in the head, even though it had started to come down slowly. She left the Snuggie behind but put the DS in her bra. She strapped herself in rather competently. Someone above was booming instructions through a megaphone, but the echo in the well destroyed their actual words. Once she was secure, she tugged twice sharply on the cords, just like she had seen in moves.
The ascent was slow and psychologically torturous. Any minute the straps could break and she’d fall back down to the bottom of the well and would most definitely break both her legs. Or the rescue crew wasn’t far enough away and the sides would cave in causing a gigantic sinkhole to form. Or, heck, a brick could come lose from the wall and smack her in the head just as she was halfway up.
Miraculously, she made it to the top.
The paramedics rushed her to an ambulance, throwing a blanket around her, eager to examine her in case of shock. Of course, she wasn’t in shock, but she did enjoy the attention. There was a great commotion behind the police barriers and she looked up to see her friends trying to get through. Sheldon and Amy were arguing vehemently with the officer in charge. Howard had his arm around a crying Bernadette. Leonard looked like he was trying to stop Sheldon from getting into trouble. Raj tried to sneak underneath the barrier but was immediately caught.
Penny smiled then pulled the DS out of her bra and started to play.
It was nearly twenty minutes before they finally got through and they rushed towards her and enveloped her in a group hug, Amy and Bernadette latching on first. Sheldon stood outside the circle until Penny snaked her arm out from between Leonard and Raj and pulled him in close. He tentatively patted her back three times.
It was quite a long time before everyone separated.
“Are you okay, bestie?”
“I’m fine, Amy.”
“Oh Penny! I was so worried!” Bernadette was wiping the tears out of her eyes.
“We were all worried,” Howard added. Raj gave a thumbs up sign.
“Do you need anything?” asked Leonard.
Penny gave him a long, curious look. “Nope. You know what? I don’t need anything at all.”
Sheldon snorted. “Poppycock.”
Penny arched an eyebrow. “Poppywhatsit?”
“Poppycock. A bit archaic, but I don’t care for the modern equivalent.”
“You mean ‘bullshit?’” asked Leonard.
“Something like that.”
“What do you mean, Sheldon?” Penny asked.
“You need plenty of things. Bandages for your scratches, a bath, since you smell like something akin to a drowned rat, a change of clothes, a night in a proper bed—“
“Thanks, Mom,” Penny rolled her eyes. “Damn, it feels good to be able to interrupt you.”
“While I disapprove of your rudeness, these are all things the rather fragile human body needs after suffering trauma—“
“Don’t tell me what to do, Sheldon—“
“Hey, yo, what’s all this?” A man with a thick mustache was standing behind the group. Penny recognized him as the director of the movie. She was oddly touched that he was still here. “Did you know the two of you have fantastic chemistry? I could build an entire film around the two of you.”
Sheldon and Penny glanced at each other, then back at the director.
“Okay, maybe not a movie, but definitely a TV show,” the director grinned. He spread his hands out as though he was framing a shot. “A ditzy blonde and her nerdy neighbors. An Odd Couple situation, but with a bit of sexual tension, eh?”
“Ditzy?” cried Penny.
“Nerdy?” cried Sheldon.
“Hey, whoa, no offense,” the director said, putting his hands up in a peace offering.
“Why are you here anyway?” Leonard asked him. “Renee Zellwegger left eight hours ago.”
“I’ve been filming this whole ordeal. It’s gonna make a terrific documentary. I mean, I’ve made my share of blockbusters, don’t get me wrong, but I need to go back to my artistic roots. I could make this into a sort of dark comedy thing and show it at Sundance and bam! Instant indie cred.” The director turned to Penny and grinned. “Whaddaya say? Wanna be a star?”
Penny looked around at all the people surrounding her. Paramedics, firemen (all of whom were fully clothed), the Channel 4 News Team (which was really just Raul Tejada from traffic and his camera guy, Craig), the director and his assistants and the camera guy they had. Her friends, all staring at her eagerly, excepting Sheldon, who was looking away rather angrily. Penny turned back to the director and smiled.
They all had to do interviews for the documentary. Sheldon kept trying to turn his segments into lectures on the history of quantum physics. The interviewee was a woman, so Raj had to do his while mildly buzzed. Bernadette was too shy to do anything other than squeak directly at the camera. Leonard kept putting his foot in his mouth with every other sentence. Amy lamented the fact that Penny missed out on co-starring with Renee Zellwegger.
“Thanks for saying I was a co-star,” Penny whispered to Amy as she walked away from the folding chair propped in front of a green screen.
“No problem, bestie,” Amy replied. She held up her pinky, and Penny rather awkwardly linked hers with it and they gave a brief shake.
They briefly talked to her family as well. Her sister was unbearably smug about the whole thing.
When it was Penny’s turn, the interviewer asked her a bunch of boring questions that Penny answered with a bright smile and chipper demeanor. At long last, the interviewer asked her about her final thoughts as she was being pulled out of the well.
“Listen. I’m nobody’s damsel in distress. I’m perfectly capable of getting out of tough situations all on my own. In junior rodeo I had to hogtie a bull in under thirty seconds. And I did. I’m a strong, capable woman who can make it on my own. But sometimes, well,” Penny shrugged and crossed her legs. “You fall down a well. And you need help to get out of it. And you know what?”
Penny turned away from the interviewer and looked directly into the camera.