Chapter 1: Prologue
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
The Hollow Men
~T. S. Eliot
Chapter 2: The sound of your voice
…the sound of your voice
The loudest thing in my head
When the world ends, the first thing Penny wants to do is change out of her uniform. She pulls the bag toward her. There is an outside pocket on her bag emblazoned with a 1. Clearly, this is the starting point - inside is an envelope. She opens it and reads:
If you are reading this, two events have occurred - the Apocalypse has begun (disturbing) and you are not with us (Horrifying as there is no telling what mischief you will create or find.)
Penny rolls her eyes. Only Sheldon would see the world ending as less bothersome than Penny on her own. She resumes reading.
It is imperative you leave Pasadena, either on foot or in your vehicle. Once you are outside of the city, try to establish contact with us. The means for such an attempt are in compartment 2.
Penny peers inside the bag. It is in the far back emblazoned with a 2 in reflective tape.
Until then, keep safe; admit nothing to anyone, particularly any member of any branch of the military. They are not to be trusted. It’s a new world, Penny and old ways of thinking are obsolete.
Employ the items in the compartments in numerical order. If I believed in such things, I would pray for your safe return.
She shoves the letter back into its pouch and looks inside the bag for clothes. Inside are two pairs of black stretch pants, four t-shirts and endless undergarments. Sheldon had also thrown in her sneakers and a jacket lined with Thinsulate. Penny shakes her head. She’s never seen these clothes before. Where is her orange camisole and floral shorts? Her yellow shirt? Her jeans! Her search for these items is fruitless so she has to settle for one of the white t-shirts and the black pants.
“Great,” Penny sighs, looking at her new outfit, “I still look like a waitress.”
Once she is dressed, she grabs her bag and heads out through the kitchen. It is empty, but with pots and pans steaming with food. Everyone must have cleared out while she was changing her clothes.
“They didn’t even look for me,” Penny mutters.
She sits on a prep stool and makes herself eat. Her bag has water and granola bars and peanut butter with crackers but that doesn’t seem like enough so she wraps up a few of the small loaves of bread that they place on the tables. Now, it’s time to get to her car.
She pushes open the door to the back alley where she always parks except the door only open a third of the way. Penny peeks out. The building next to the Cheesecake Factory partially collapsed, burying all the cars in the alley under mountains of rubble. The dust and debris are still swirling in the air; Penny inhales a mouthful and begins hacking away. She snorts; at least the check engine light is finally off.
“Now what, Sheldon?” She sighs. Why did she ever make that promise? She would be better off at 2311 Los Robles with the guys.
Penny has no choice but to use the front door. The streets of Pasadena are swarming with people - some frantic, some shocked but all of them trying to get away from the smoke and explosions that seem to be occurring at random. Penny walks against the stream of people but, eventually, they carry her along until she is pushed onto a bus. She balks at entering it when she sees the soldier standing by the door.
“C’mon, Lady! Get moving,” A man behind her barks and Penny feels herself shoved rudely from behind.
“Hey!” She glares over her shoulder, “Watch it, pal.”
The soldier steps forward, “Ma’am, you need to board the bus.”
“Where are we going?” She braces her arms on either side of the door but the crowd behind her is too strong and too frightened. Someone grabs her by the waist and, despite her punches and flailing legs, carries her onto the bus. The doors slam shut, leaving people outside.
“Hey! Hey!” A man calls, “That’s my sister out there. Let her on.” The bus begins rolling
The soldier’s face is completely impassive. The man only yells louder.
“C’mon, man. I’m all the family she’s got.” The bus is moving faster. Penny watches in horror as the young girl runs parallel to the vehicle. She can hear her calling to her brother and he is hanging out the window. For one moment, their hands clasp. Penny sees the soldier whisper to the driver. The engine guns and their connection is broken.
“Lisa! Lisa!” The man’s voice breaks as his sister is obscured by the exhaust from the engine.
Penny’s eyes flick to the soldier again. Briefly, a cold half-smile appears on his face before he is expressionless once more.
Penny stays pressed into the corner of the back seat; her pink bag clutched to her chest. The other passengers keep eyeing her - many of them have nothing more than purses or whatever else had been in their hands when disaster struck so she looks unusually prepared. The bus has been speeding up the highway for hours now.
The other passengers have either been whispering softly to each other or dozing out of sheer exhaustion. Penny lifts her head away from the window as she notices the whispers are turning to murmurs and people are beginning to look intently out the windows. There is nothing on Penny’s side but trees so she scoots over to the opposite window.
It takes a minute for her eyes to adjust then they widen in surprise. Outside the tinted windows of the bus are soldiers, military trucks and other buses. The soldiers move with purpose; the civilians either follow them blindly or approach them, waving hands frantically or pointing as the soldier being spoken to gazes at a clip board and doesn’t seem to respond.
Penny’s palms are coated in sweat. She gives the bag a gentle shake and hears random clinks. What the hell is in here? A woman in front of her turns at the sounds from the bag and Penny offers her a weak smile. Now is not the time to draw attention to her.
The bus parks alongside another bus; now there are six in a perfect row. The one person in uniform, a soldier in fatigues who is probably five years younger than Penny, announces that they will stop here, eat and depart in two hours time with the rest of the convoy. Men, women and children shuffle off the bus and head for a hot meal.
Penny follows with the group then veers off to the back. The soldier had taken down the names of all the passengers on the bus. Granted, she hadn’t given her actual name but she knew this bag made her memorable, fake name or not. She had to get back to Pasadena and the only way to do that was to get off the bus. She still hasn’t found out where it’s going and Sheldon’s warning is still fresh in her memory so she is wary of boarding it again.
One of the busboys is having a cigarette break under the humming fluorescent light. His skin appears pasty and his blemishes are a mottled purple in the unforgiving light.
“Hey!” Penny calls to him, “Can you help me out?”
“I don’t have any more cigarettes,” he replies.
Penny gives him a blinding smile; the one that immediately gets Leonard to do her bidding. This kid is no different. He smiles shyly and walks toward her. She presses a folded twenty that had been in her apron into his palm.
“Can you bring me a bottle of water?” He nods and she continues, “Do you guys have meatloaf?” The kid nods again. Penny figures that is a meal that is easy to carry and has staying power. God knows when she’ll get a chance to eat hot food again. “Can you pack it for me to go?” She lets her hand linger just a second too long. The busboy’s smile widens a bit, he tosses his cigarette aside and disappears into the kitchen.
She is bouncing on the balls of her feet with anxiety by the time he returns. The fear that soldier will find her back here and force her onto that bus makes every twig snap and dish slam a threat. The busboy gives her a loaded Styrofoam container, two bottles of water and six cookies. Penny takes it all, placing the water and cookies in the outside pocket of her bag.
“Thank you,” she whispers then disappears into the trees.
She walks until the ambient light from the parking lot fades. Penny leans against a tree and places her meal on the ground. She rummages inside the bag for a flashlight. She finds it by feel; it is the kind that recharges by shaking it. Sheldon really did think of everything.
The meatloaf is hot, redolent with onions and smothered in a gravy one teaspoon of salt past savory. Her busboy had loaded on the mashed potatoes and green beans. Penny eats it all, knowing such generosity is liable to be scarce in the future. The food lodges in her stomach and her eyes close. She will nap for a short while. It’s a long walk back to Pasadena.
Penny tosses the dumpling in the air and catches it in her mouth. She turns in triumph to Sheldon who glares down at her. The red of his shirt radiates heat on her face; the blue whirls and yellow triangles throw off sparks that sting and pinch her nose. Her triumph dissolves when she realizes she cannot breathe. The dumpling is lodged in her throat. Choking; her air way blocked. She places her hands to her throat but gets no reaction from the physicist standing over her. Her lungs cling to every last bit of air. Black creeps into the edges of her vision…
Penny’s eyes fly open. Instinctively, she inhales and her mouth, nose and eyes are clogged with smoke so thick she can practically push the billows apart. She leaps to her feet and begins to run wildly. Her flight response does not wait for plans or directions; the need for clear air is foremost in her mind. She looks up at the sky that had been filled with stars when she first sat down last night; now it is barely visible through the haze.
Coughs wrack her and her vision swims. She has to focus, get a sense of direction otherwise she’ll die here and Penny is not ready to do that.
Her eyes feel gritty, sharp and searing all at the same time. She peers through the wall of smoke and catches a flash of pink. Her bag! In her panic, she almost left her bag. Penny lunges forward. A rule from elementary school stop, drop and roll comes to her mind. She falls to her knees. The leaves crackle but the smoke hasn’t abated. It’s like no smoke she’s ever seen, falling heavily to the ground instead of seeing wisps into the air.
Penny crawls forward, intent on reaching the bag. Perhaps Sheldon packed a gas mask in there. When she laughs, she hacks so violently that she nearly blacks out. The leaves are cool and papery on her forehead. The smoke swirls into her nose and, now that she is not fighting it, the effect is soothing. It lulls her to close her eyes. Her fingers curl into the dirt which is so cool compared to the air around her.
Her eyes flitter open. The strap of the bag is inches from her. The parking lot is straight ahead; the highway and Pasadena. A tree to her left explodes into flame. Her head jerks up. The smoke smothers but Penny feels, literally feels the fire devour the oxygen around her. Flames climb another tree closer to her. The heat melts her to the ground.
Penny worms toward the bag. Her fingers brush the strap. She only wants to close her eyes; wants her lungs to stop crackling. She wants to give in to the mask of smoke on her face. The specter of Sheldon from her dream comes to her. His eyes are filled with disappointment that she would give up so easily.
Penny pulls the bag toward her while trying to rise to her feet. She can only crouch; the air at this level somewhat clearer. She throws the bag over her shoulder; her steps are erratic. Overnight, the forest ground seemed to become littered with rocks, roots, twigs and pinecones. Penny’s feet tangle and stumble over every single one. She plows forward. The parking lot is her goal. She tugs the collar of her shirt over her nose and mouth. It barely filters the air but her vision grows more focused. It clears completely when the wall of fire blocks her access to the parking lot.
The flames stretch. Their tops leach black plumes. They are orange, blinding and the red, vicious and angry. The sweat forms instantly on her brow and streaks her soot covered face. As the flames billow in front of her, she sees gaps. Timing; this is all about timing. Like the video games she plays on Wednesday night. The right moment will come and then she can…leap!
She lands on the asphalt. Her fall is cushioned since the heat has softened the tar. The diner is now a crater. A hollow feeling opens in her stomach. She thinks of the soldier’s cold smile. This fire had to come from somewhere. The cars are gone and the bus she arrived in has since disappeared. She looks back at the forest, folding in on itself. Blackened trunks scarred with glowing red embers crash to the ground. Penny scrambles to her feet. She wipes her arm across her forehead. Holy crap on a cracker - she actually walked through fire!
Penny begins to move away from the wall of flames. She doesn’t look back at the trees succumbing to the inferno; she doesn’t check herself for injuries. She simply begins walking down the driveway to the highway.
It is empty.
Now that she has moved from the fire, her lungs begin to stretch. The air is still filled with a veil of smoke so the atmosphere appears overcast. The sun, shielded by smoke, is a flat cream-colored disc in the sky. Penny is fixated on the empty stretch of highway. Neither side holds even the whisper of a car. She hesitates to step on it, recalling numerous Bugs Bunny cartoons where Wile E. Coyote ventured onto an empty road only to be mowed down by a semi seconds later.
Like an obedient child, Penny looks both ways. She leans her head forward and listens. Her eyes strain through the smoke but there is no shimmer of movement. Penny scurries across the northbound blacktop. Her bag thumps against her hip; there are rattles, clinks and a shifting of weight. She still doesn’t know all the contents and part of her doesn’t want to know. Delving into this bag would make all of this horrifyingly real, even more than the destroyed cars, suffocating smoke and predatory fire.
Penny reaches the grassy median and sets the bag down. A bottle of water pokes out from an outside pocket. She hesitates to consume the precious liquid though there are five more bottles in that bag. She unscrews the white translucent cap. The heat of the fire is finally leaving her face; her lips feel stretched and thin.
Penny lifts the bottle to her lips. Just… just a few swallows, she limits herself. Her first sip is tentative then, like a long anticipated kiss, she gulps at the contents. The water soothes her throat and fills her veins. When she finally breaks away, her chest is heaving and three quarters of the bottle is empty. She places it back in the pocket. The water rumbles in her stomach.
If she keeps the diner behind her, she’ll be heading south. A large column of inky smoke in the sky marks where it had been. Penny snorts - there is probably a compass in that bag along with a letter from Sheldon explaining what North, South, East and West mean.
This bag and her friendship with Sheldon; both are things she doesn’t want to examine too closely at the moment. She thinks back to the last Sunday she was in 4A. Sunday was when Sheldon inspected the bags inside and out then went through the contents, replacing or adding items as needed. Penny watched as he lined up the bags when he was finished. Three large rectangles with the first initial of the owner stitched on the side. Leonard was green or “lime” as Sheldon called it. Raj’s letter was red and Howard white since Sheldon was not allowed to use hot pink and had to settle for white for the W in Wolowitz much to his chagrin. There was no need to label Penny’s bag in all its pink glory.
“Penny, I do wish you would be more careful. Some of these items are very delicate.” Sheldon was up to his elbows in her bag and frowning intensely.
Penny put down Cosmo, “Sweetie, I don’t even know what’s in there.”
“You mean you haven’t looked!” Sheldon squawked just as Leonard hurried into the living room. “Weakest link, Leonard,” he jerked a thumb at her, “I informed you thusly.”
“Yeah, whatever,” Leonard shoved a piece of paper in Sheldon’s face.
Sheldon held the paper aloft. His blue eyes scanned the numbers then he shook his head. “You haven’t adjusted the figures correctly. You’re panicking for nothing.”
“I don’t think so.” Leonard pulled at a sweater cuff.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake!” Sheldon fussed, “Penny, get me a pen.”
“Aye! Aye, Captain!” She got up, selected a pen from his desk and whipped it at his head. Sheldon shot her a look of pure homicide but, at the moment, Leonard was his current source of irritation.
“If you wrote like an actual human instead of an entity lacking opposable thumbs,” Sheldon lectured, “you would see that this number is a 5 not a 9.”
“Look at that.” Leonard squinted at the page, “But I still think…”
“Leonard, I am currently packing bags. Your task was to run the numbers, to verify what we hypothesized. We can review the data when I am through. By the way, your bag is all set.”
Leonard heaved his bag on his shoulder and returned to his room to study the paper once more.
Sheldon gave Penny’s bag one more look to ensure it was packed to his specifications. “Penny,” she flicked her eyes to him. His hands were still rummaging through her bag, “There are items in here, should the world end and we are separated, that will be of great use.”
“Like what?” Penny sniffed at a perfume insert in the magazine. Sheldon had been talking about the world ending ever since she met him.
“Pay attention!” Sheldon’s hand turned her face to him. His eyes were dark and burning.
“Okay.” She was so stunned by Sheldon touching her that she could only whisper her reply.
He released his grip on her chin, “In here are detailed instructions and guidelines from me to ensure your survival.”
Penny blinked, "Sheldon, why would you need to ensure my survival?”
Sheldon gave her an odd look. For once, his eyes weren’t hooded. He wasn’t doing that annoying head tilt which irritated the crap out of her. He was looking straight at her. Penny felt color creeping into her cheeks as she met his eyes. Neither of them blinked.
Sheldon was the first to break the stare. He tugged at his pushed up sleeves but kept his eyes on the interior of her bag.
“Okay, Sheldon,” Penny closed her eyes, “you’re kinda freakin’ me out here. I mean, all this apocalypse talk is, you know, just talk, right?”
Sheldon zipped up her bag and placed it at her feet. He began rummaging through his own bag which was significantly larger than all of theirs. He didn’t answer her.
“Sheldon!” Penny tugged at the crook of his elbow. He sat up and his left hand hovered over her hand nestled on his arm.
“Promise me you’ll follow my instructions,” he finally said. He held her gaze until she nodded. Satisfied, Sheldon turned his attention back to his bag as if they had discussed nothing more significant than the weather.
Penny decides now is the time for walking, not reflection as the sun is still high in the sky. The silence of the world around her is unnerving. How would she know if she’s gone deaf? There are no cars, no planes, and no cries of birds. Even the wind is mute.
Penny remembers reading two days after 9/11, in places like New York and Boston, all the planes were grounded. People in that article talked about how eerie and unsettling the silence was especially to those living closest to the airport. The people even claimed to miss the roar of the engines or to be puzzled by a sky that was free of the bisecting lines of exhaust.
She has to get moving and find some type of shelter. Or find people. What if it rains?
Her legs give out. She lies in the grass, trying to summon her will. The fire rages across the street and the world continues to end.
Hours must have passed while Penny stayed in the grass, staring unseeing at the sky. Have her parents been affected? Where is her sister? Maybe the world isn’t ending? Perhaps it’s just the West Coast, which is perfectly understandable. She gives a little shrug and squints at the gauzy sky.
Penny props herself up on her elbows; there has to be map in that bag. She should head east back to Nebraska. Crazy shit like the world ending and fires that appear from nowhere doesn’t happen there. The most exciting thing in Nebraska is when there is an outbreak of corn smut.
Penny pulls the bag between her legs. The medical packet, emblazoned with a 3 and a large red + , holds aspirin, assorted bandages, antibacterial ointment, scissors, a spiral-bound first aid guide with alphabetical flaps - similar to the menus of the Cheesecake Factory, even a bottle labeled penicillin. Another letter falls in her lap as she thumbs through the first-aid guide. She slides her nail under the flap and pulls out the note inside.
It should come as no surprise that medical care and even hygiene will be affected by the cataclysmic events occurring as you read this. I have packed this first aid kit with the bare essentials you will need should you find yourself injured or falling ill. However, upon reflection, personal experience reminds me that it is others who should be concerned about the power of your personal germ arsenal and not the reverse.
Nevertheless, as that wise cartoon seamstress Edna Mode informed ElastiGirl, “Luck favors the prepared.”
I have prepared you as best I can. The rest is up to you. Of course, a little luck wouldn’t hurt.
Take care, Penny.
She folds the letter slowly and holds it in her hands for a moment before sliding it back into the envelope. He actually sounds concerned (aside from the implication that she is a regular Typhoid Mary). Penny places the letter back in the first aid guide and repacks that compartment before looking to see what else is inside.
Next to the first aid compartment is a compartment with a penny glued on it. Amused, she opens it. There is a replica of her toothbrush and the cinnamon toothpaste she always uses. Further digging yields a hairbrush with hair elastics around the handle. There is a bag of Hershey kisses and the two most recent issues of Cosmo and Glamour. Penny smiles for the first time today.
She uses some of her bottled water to brush her teeth then sets to work on her hair. The brush snags and skips over whole sections of knots but she’ll be damned if she has to face the apocalypse looking as bad as she feels. Finally, she is able to draw the brush cleanly through her hair and she pulls it all into a low ponytail.
There must be other fires for the sky to be that obscured by smoke. The wind has picked up which dissipates the smoke somewhat but Penny can’t see the sun at all now. She repacks the bag. Once she finds shelter, she will go through all six compartments even though Sheldon said to open them in order. Penny shakes her head as she gets to her feet. How was that supposed to be helpful? Oh look, meteors falling form the sky, must be time to use what’s in compartment number 9.
She begins walking.
Penny notices the trees along the left hand side of the highway on the northbound side are charred remnants. The fire must have ripped right through the forest all night. She can still see pockets of red embers and the smoke tries to choke her with every other breath. The bank along the right side of the highway appears undamaged.
Penny trudges along, looking for any sign of life along the perimeter of the southbound road. She shifts her bag to her other shoulder. She forgot to look for the compass. Her eyes water from the gauze of smoke and she wipes them impatiently. She is not crying. Not now. Not ever. Because, truthfully, if she starts, she’ll probably never stop.
Penny squints through the trees once more. She takes a few steps to the left then three back. She shades her eyes with her hand and leans forward. Annoyed, she throws the bag to the ground and yanks open the zipper. Blindly, she gropes inside. She rips open pouches, not registering the contents, only noticing that the item she seeks is missing.
“Really, Sheldon?” Penny clambers to her feet and gives the bag a swift kick. “You packed everything but the kitchen sink and you… forgot…binoculars!” She punctuates each word with a kick. Now the pink is marred by soot and footprints. Penny’s rage drains from her. Her shoulders slump and she brushes the strands of hair that have escaped her ponytail away.
“There’s only one way to find out, Penny,” she mumbles and picks up the bag to cross the highway. The trees here are sparse and she makes it through them easily enough. Her steps slow as she reaches the edge of the trees. It’s not a vision. She is not mistaken. Penny is facing the back of a barn or, maybe, it’s a garage. There is definitely a house off to the left. She forgets caution and runs right to the back door, pounding frantically.
“Hello! Hello!” Penny looks through the small panes of glass into an empty kitchen. She pounds on the door again and hollers more but there is only silence here.
She tries the doorknob but it’s locked. Slowly, she makes her way to the front door; locked. Penny looks around. This is a pretty isolated area and the sky has darkened even more. She doesn’t want to be outside anymore. Instinct or whatever is prodding her to get indoors.
By the back door is a wilted pot of flowers. Penny picks it up, peeks around one more time then slams the pot against one of the glass panes. Both items shatter, raining dirt and glass to the ground. Penny pulls her jacket sleeve over her hand and reaches through for the doorknob.
She steps into a small faded yellow kitchen. The appliances are ivory and Penny, who is no housekeeper, can tell they haven’t been cleaned in a while. There is a calendar on the wall and a wall clock just like her mother had. The second hand is rotating around and, upon inspection; Penny sees that it is powered by batteries. She notices a pen on the counter and writes the time in the appropriate day on the calendar. Just in case.
“Hello?” She calls once more but there is no answer; her ears trying to register any sound but only getting silence.
Penny wanders out of the kitchen and down the hall. It is a small house with two bedrooms and a bathroom. Whoever lived here must have left in quite a hurry. Drawers hang open with clothes spilling over. Closet doors are ajar and lights are on. The bedroom on the left is clearly the master bedroom and Penny is surprised to find another full bath (significantly cleaner than the main one) tucked in here.
She drops her bag on the floor and walks into the bathroom. The water is still running. It’s lukewarm but she can’t be fussy now. She jumps in, eager to rid herself of the smoky smell that surrounds her. Penny tilts her head back when she has a sudden realization about the water. What if it’s contaminated? She finishes washing herself with her lips pressed shut. She dries off, changes her clothes and passes out on the bed.
Her eyes fly open. Penny is bolt upright in the bed now and she reaches for her baseball bat. Not there. Her mind is fuzzy from the sudden awakening until she looks at the bedspread and notices a significant lack of stuffed animals.
Her shoulders slump as she remembers that she is miles and miles from anything she has come to know. Swinging her feet off the bed, Penny goes back to the kitchen. The clock on the wall reads six fifteen and, judging by the golden light outside, Penny has slept almost a full day.
Now, she needs to figure out where she is. A piece of junk mail in the trash informs her that she is now in Buckeye, California. She draws her brows together. Where the hell is that? On the kitchen counter, there is a map. The previous owner must have used it before leaving. Penny looks at the map and locates where she is and where Pasadena is. She does the math quickly (if you live on a farm with a father who likes to hunt, you learn how to read a map before you can read Dr. Seuss). 445 miles. Penny drums her fingers on the laminate.
Sheldon’s first letter said to try to establish contact with them. Penny takes out her cell phone. No signal and her battery indicator - empty. Okay. The phone on the wall is yellow. The buttons have a grey cast and Penny, who has never been squeamish, doesn’t really want to touch them. She picks up the phone but doesn’t move it away from the receiver. It could be dead. It probably is dead and is she ready to deal with that? Penny punches in the phone number for Leonard’s apartment before bringing the phone to her ear. A whimper escapes her when she hears the silence but she balls her other hand into a fist. She’s not going to give in.
Penny turns back to her bag. Her eyes are drawn to the large 2 on the pouch facing her. Sheldon did tell her to open the pouches in order. She bites her lip- how many more times can she ignore his instructions? Once again, she finds a letter also a black rectangular object which fits in the palm of her. She places it down then opens the letter. Sheldon used the same heavy-weight writing stock for this one as he did the first two. It feels almost like cloth and has a faint bluish cast to it.
This time, Penny notices his handwriting. Each letter looks as if it came straight from a penmanship manual, each word is evenly spaced and the sentences are in perfect lines. It reminds her so much of Sheldon with its rigid formation and perfection that she holds it to her chest for a moment before she begins to read:
The device in this pouch is a shortwave radio. Wolowitz created it for the express purpose of relaying vital information to us in a post-apocalyptic world. It is powered by a lithium-thionyl chloride cell which lasts even longer than a standard lithium battery. That battery is not mean to be touched so leave it right where it is even if it should fail to work.
As long as the ionosphere has not suffered permanent damage, the radio should work. Us it only at night as the D layer weakens from the sun’s absence.
“Yeah, whatever, Sheldon.” Penny grumbles.
Tune to station730. If all is well, you will hear one of us giving further instructions.
Let us hope this piece of equipment will be unnecessary.
There is as second page with a diagram illustrating the power switch, tuner, bandwidth and speaker. She turns the radio on and is greeted by an ear-splitting squeal. Penny spins the dial but only meets with static or dead air. The radio hums and chirps but no voices come out of it.
“Come on,” she gives it a violent shake, desperate to hear Leonard or Sheldon.
At this point a proposition from Howard or even an “eep” from Raj will do. Penny chews on the inside of her lower lip until the tang of blood brushes her tongue. She needs some type of human contact; there has been nothing for two whole days. Penny rolls the dial through once more and holds the speaker to her ear. Her fingers grip the knob. Each painstaking click brings only more static or silence. Her shoulders slump and her nose begins to run. Stupid Howard - he couldn’t even make a space toilet! He got the Mars rover stuck in a ditch. How could they have pinned their hopes on him? The anger feels good and squashes the despair leaching into her from the mute radio.
Through a particularly grating pop-squeal-whistle combination, she swears she hears the words “solar flares”. Penny presses the radio to her ear. She walks over to a window and stares out at the night sky still obscured by smoke. Her brows draw together and her eyes narrow as she tries to discern if what she heard was a voice. As she listens, a soft accent touches her ear.
“The flares are X class on an intensity scale of no less than 8.”
Tears form. She hears Raj talk about God knows what but she doesn’t care. Her hand trembles; he’s alive! She’s not the only one of them who survived. Penny listens again.
“Due to the influx, shortwave communication is compromised.”
Silence suddenly replaces the static and Raj’s faint broadcast. Penny stares down at the radio.
“No! No!” She shakes it again. This tenuous thread is all she has. She inches the dial along the holds the radio back to her ear.
She catches the tail of Howard saying, “Power outages are rampant.”
Penny sighs. At least those two are together. Her head aches from straining to hear. Sheldon’s letter said there would be instructions but she has caught nothing so far. Penny decides turning up the volume will help but it only increases the hiss of the empty radio transmissions.
Leonard’s voice reaches through the night. Her chest fills with light at his voice. She envisions them all in 4A. The makeshift radio would be on the coffee table. Leonard would be leaning toward the microphone. Howard would keep making adjustments to the equipment and ignoring Sheldon, who would be in his spot, telling Howard that everything he did is wrong.
If she were there, she, Leonard and Raj would all be rolling their eyes at the sniping. If she were there, she wouldn’t be consumed with terror. She would know what was happening, how her family was and what to do next. Sheldon probably had a PowerPoint all set to go.
Leonard says her name again.
“Leonard!” Penny screams at the radio before a burst of static cuts off his words. She continues to babble to device in her hand, “Leonard! Leonard! I’m here! Here off the Pacific Highway. Oh, God, tell me what to do, Leonard!” Her sobs come on full force. She braces her forehead on the wall and wails
After a few minutes, she takes in a shuddery breath. Leonard can’t hear her. Pull yourself together, Penny. Crying isn’t going fix this and it certainly isn’t going to help her survive. The radio is dead weight in her hand as she lifts it once more to her ear.
Leonard’s voice is muffled so she turns the dial again. Now, Penny catches every word. As she pieces together the snatches of Leonard’s words, her knees buckle and she slides to floor.
“Red Leader, this is Red 5.”
Penny swallows the hysteria that threatens to burst out of her. She wills herself to listen to Leonard’s pleas.
“Red Leader, home base is safe; I repeat…home base is safe.”
Deep in the hollow of her stomach, the truth of their situation unfolds.
“Red Leader,” the static or something else garbles Leonard’s words, “You can come home, Buddy.”
Chapter 3: Does it feel that your life's become a catastrophe?
Does it feel that your life's become a catastrophe?
Penny’s hand falls lifeless to the floor and the radio rolls out of her palm.
Sheldon is missing.
She manages a fair imitation of his wheeze-snort laugh at the irony of the situation. Sheldon, who had been planning for the end of the world for, oh, his whole freakin’ life, is the one who ends up missing in all this. She swallows the laugh that has crawled into her throat, knowing if she sets it free; it will blossom into full-blown hysteria. She bangs the back of her head lightly on the wall behind her.
Penny can’t grasp it. She can feel her mind chasing the thought in order to pin it down; to make it real. All the events of the past two days are running in a loop in her mind and she can’t make sense of any of them.
Somehow, she went from serving nachos to finding her car destroyed to being on a bus and ending up so far north she might as well be in another state. Now, she is in a house, not her own. The radio emits static and squeals. Penny gives it a vicious kick which sends it scurrying under the couch.
“Son of a bitch,” she mutters. Her flashlight is in the pink bag which is still in the master bedroom.
Penny gets to her feet and heads for the bedroom. The bag is in the middle of the floor and she catches her foot on it in the darkness. Penny turns and plunges her hand into the bag; her fingers close around the flashlight. She clicks it on. The beam of the flashlight makes it possible for her to catch the outline of her features. Penny stares at herself in the mirror over the bureau, grateful for the semi-darkness. Her hair is lifeless. She doesn’t even have lip balm on her lips and she can just imagine the circles under her eyes. Her eyes flick to the bag.
Sheldon prepared that bag for her. He filled six different pouches with what he considered vital items. He wrote letters for each one. Her head drops between shoulders that are knotted up balls of twine. She slowly shakes her head back and forth.
“I can’t do it.” She whispers and curls her hand around the flashlight.
There is no way she can make it back to Pasadena by herself. Penny walks back over to the bag and sits in front of it. The flashlight picks up the Hello Kitty straps and she traces a finger down one of them. This is her bag. Every item in it was prepared with her in mind. She could attach all kinds of meaning to it, treat it as a symbol that Sheldon cared about her, that it all had a deep meaning but Penny knows Sheldon better. She’s never seen him do subtle. He’s never implied, hinted or even vaguely referenced.
This bag means one thing only: Survive.
Penny sleeps fitfully that night. In the morning, she searches the kitchen cabinets for breakfast. There isn’t much left: a box of crackers, a jar of applesauce and a can of beets. Penny eats half the crackers, the applesauce and even the beets.
She takes another ice cold shower and emerges with chattering teeth. In the closet, there is a large hooded pullover. It is clean and warm; the clothes Sheldon packed are all lightweight and compact. Perhaps he was anticipating a severe climate change but Penny can’t get rid of the chill that permeates her bones.
The sweatshirt falls just below the tops of her thighs. She runs the frayed edging through her fingers. The one pair of jeans in the closet slides on without her having to unbutton them. They gap at her waist but she feels more protected in them than the black yoga pants in her bag. She searches fruitlessly for a belt and ends up rolling the waistband down until the jeans hug her hips. She grabs her bag and heads out.
When she steps outside, the total absence of sound takes her by surprise once more. The sky still has swaths of smoke periodically blocking out the sun but, other than that, it all looks normal and that frightens Penny more than anything else. When the world ends, shouldn’t there be some obvious sign, like horns blaring or something? She heads toward the garage.
Penny stares at the tan Chevy Impala before her.
“Hey babe,” she says softly and runs her hand along the trunk.
Her brother Tommy taught her how to hotwire a car many years ago. They practiced on her father’s Ford until Penny could get the engine to turn over in less than two minutes. Of course, Tommy put his car skills to more practical use than Penny ever did.
She looks at the space next to the Impala and wonders about the other car that was housed here. The peg board on the wall holds two clamps, a broken pair of pliers and one screwdriver. Penny takes the screwdriver down. It is larger than standard size, just what she needs.
Penny turns back to the car, “I promise this won’t hurt a bit.”
The setting sun breaks through the haze of smoke. Penny is sitting on the back steps after working in the garage; her gaze is fixed on a defunct bird bath, silently willing something to land there. Getting the car started was a snap. The fuel gauge indicated a half a tank but Impala’s are notorious gas guzzlers and the two gas cans in the garage are empty. She’s going to have to stockpile gas somehow before she leaves.
Absently, she takes out the shortwave and flicks it on. The static ebbs and flows rhythmically and Penny realizes it must be one of the guys talking. Even though she is outside, she can’t get a clear signal. The noise is comforting; at least, someone is out there. The never-ending silence gives her goose bumps on her arms if she concentrates on it too long.
Penny reaches into the bag; this time she takes out a handful of Hershey kisses. She pops one into her mouth, savoring the slow, rich melt on her tongue. Sheldon had scoffed when she told him chocolate fixes everything.
“Penny, that is axiomatically false. If I severed my arm, would a Hershey’s kiss stop the bleeding?”
Her response had been to shove two unwrapped kisses into his mouth and to laugh at his squawking about germs and choking hazards.
Come to think of it, he didn’t spit them out.
And she didn’t wash the dab of chocolate from his lip off her palm right away.
Penny leans back on her elbows. Thinking about Sheldon makes her stomach plummet like the time she was climbing out her bedroom window back home and lost her footing. She managed to grab onto her window sill and hung there for a few minutes before regaining her balance on the tree. For the rest of the night and many times sneaking out after, she could only think about what would have happened if she had fallen.
Howard’s voice comes through briefly, singing “Sweet Bernadette” before the static swallows him once more. Penny can’t stay here, lost in memories. Now that she has a car, she has to decide where to go. Logic (and Sheldon) dictates that she keep moving away from the disaster, maybe head for Nebraska. Her gut reaction is to head back to Pasadena. Nebraska hasn’t been home for a while. Her relationship with her parents was always a bit strained.
Penny pulls the bag onto her lap. She zips it up and gives it a gentle pat. She needs to get back to the boys who are left. They have to learn how to live in this new world; a world without Sheldon. Penny gets to her feet to go inside as darkness fills the corners of the yard.
She has no idea how any of them are going to manage that.
Penny drives for an hour before she sees her first car. It is on the northbound side, all alone. It’s a little red four door; probably some type of Corolla. Except, something’s off; this is the only car she has seen in days and, as she gets closer, she realizes the problem.
It’s not moving.
That little red car is stopped dead center on the Route 5 as if it had run out of gas. No other cars are behind it or beside it.
The Impala continues down the Pacific Highway and Penny casts one quick look at the little car before hunkering down in her seat. She is going to reach Pasadena, no matter what and, if her eyes keep flickering nervously at the slowly descending gas gauge, it’s just from nerves. Finally, she steps on the brakes and backs up until she is parallel with the red car. She stares at it, drumming her fingers on the steering wheel. The gas needle in the Impala has taken another dramatic plunge. Presumably, that car out there, the first one she’s seen, has gas.
Penny puts the Impala in park but leaves it running. She takes her gas can and hose and heads toward the red car. Her feet whisper through the grass and the light cough that escapes her sounds like a rifle shot in the silence. Penny tightens her grip on the gas can; her feet have slowed considerably. She is close enough to the car to see the dent on the rear driver’s side, the hubcaps coated with grime from the road.
There is a body, still and silent, in the front seat.
Penny lets out a small shriek before she realizes she’s been backing up. She never thought about the bodies. It’s true the absence of any people puzzled her but she never imagined this. Her hand slips off the door handle of the Impala twice before she wrenches it open and locks herself inside. Her hands are shaking; she can barely cross the wires to bring the car to life The Impala’s engine catches and Penny peels out.
Several miles later, there are more cars. All stopped and all on the northbound side. Penny frowns; she can’t think about what’s happened. Why those cars are still there on the highway or what has happened to the occupants. The empty gas cans on the Impala’s back seat rub together. She is going to have to fill them. The needle has already dipped to the quarter tank mark and she is five hours away from her destination. Foolishly, she floors the car. The engine revs and Penny roars down an empty highway. She’s not ready to face the inevitable yet.
It is hour two and she has to get gas. The Impala is still rolling along but there is no denying that she won’t get much farther. Still, there have been no cars on the southbound side. It’s as if the mass destruction was on one side of the world. She registers the traffic jam on her left side out of the corner of her eye. The north side is a kaleidoscope of colors from all the vehicles that Penny tells herself repeatedly are merely abandoned and not full of dead bodies. Her bag is riding shotgun and she casts a quick glance at it.
“Is there anything about zombies in there?” She jokes to her survival kit and almost drives past the white Explorer on the side of the road.
The tires on the Impala probably aren’t as good as Penny thought because she skids a good eighth of a mile when she hits the brakes. Either that or the brakes are shot. She can’t think about that now. Now, she has to get up her nerve to approach a car that may or may not have dead bodies in it, pry open a gas tank and siphon out the contents. It’s a piece of cake, really. She throws the car in reverse.
She’s not really sure why she is crouching low to the ground. Even though the windows of the Explorer are closed, Penny can hear a faint buzzing inside and her stomach flips.
“C’mon, Penny. Don’t think. Stay focused.” She mutters the words Tommy would always say to her when they embarked on their practice sessions as she locates the gas tank.
She reaches into her back pocket and takes out the screwdriver. The door to the gas tank is probably locked because the car is locked, so she’s going to have to pry it open. She wedges the tip of the screwdriver in and leans on it with all her strength. A satisfying snap of metal later and she has the door open. She kneels on the ground, placing the gas can and her pink bag in front of her.
Inside the bag is the hose she took from the house in Buckeye. Penny’s siphoned gas numerous times; as a prank and as a necessity. She drops the hose into the tank and then forms the necessary U-shape to create the pressure she’ll need to start the flow. Penny holds the other end up to her mouth when what she is doing hits her. Her eyes fill. Her lips can’t pucker and the hand holding the hose trembles a bit.
“Shit,” she whimpers, dropping her hand.
The worst part of it isn’t that she is stealing gas from a car with a dead body in it. No. The worst part is she is finally doing (has been able to do for years with full understanding of the process if not necessarily the science) an authentic physics application and there is no one here to appreciate it. Penny regains her composure and wishes she could raise a glass to him, instead.
"Here's to you, Sheldon”
Penny closes the lid of the trunk after placing the gas cans inside. She brushes off her hands and leans against the trunk for a moment. With a full tank, she should be able to make it to Pasadena before night fall. Ever since this mayhem occurred, Penny has developed an intense apprehension (fear) of being out after dark.
She kicks at a pebble in the dirt. It’s probably a reaction to all those crazy sci-fi movies she watched with the guys. If the pretty blonde didn’t find shelter before night time, rest assured pretty blonde bites it in the next twenty seconds.
She looks up in the direction she has just driven and squints against the sun. Penny stands fully on her feet and shields her eyes against the glare.
There are two figures walking toward her.
Her eyes widen in surprise. She takes a few steps forward then falters. These are the first people she’s seen in days yet the world isn’t what it used to be. After all, she’s broken into a house and stolen a car - two things she swore she would never do again after high school.
Automatically, she glances over her shoulder. The pink bag is lying on the back seat. She wonders idly if there is a letter in there on how to carry out social interactions in a destroyed world. A giggle bubbles in throat-this is probably the only social situation where Sheldon would be the expert. (Step one: establish whether friend or foe. If friend, flash the Vulcan sign. If foe, run)
The giggle grows into slightly maniacal laughter that dies instantly.
When she turns back, the two figures have drawn considerably closer to the point where Penny can tell they are definitely male and they have definitely seen her. Their steps have increased and their hands are clenched at their sides. Her heart flutters in her chest. As much as she is desperate to make contact with others, this frenzied approach of two unknown men sends the alarm bells ringing in her head.
She runs to the driver’s side and yanks open the door.
“Hey!” The voice is rough and, she imagines, laced with hostility.
Her right hand grapples for the loose wires under the dash while she slams down the door lock with her left elbow.
“Wait!” They are closer now. Penny crosses the wires.
A figure slams against her window and she lets out a shriek. The engine catches and Penny floors the car, wasting some of her precious gas. She speeds ahead but glances in her rear view mirror. They are both running after her but soon slow to a jog. Her hands are slick with sweat and keep slipping off the steering wheel. When she looks in the mirror again, there is nothing but dust behind her and tracks of hysterical tears on her face.
Penny doesn’t encounter another car after that. She managed to fill both her gas cans from the Explorer, enabling her to fill the Impala to the top with a few gallons left over.
She takes a moment at the side of the road to brush her teeth and to take stock of how much water she has left. Four bottles since she finished off her fifth by drinking it and cleaning her mouth from the faint residue of gas. Her list of things to worry about keeps growing but she’ll be back in Pasadena soon.
She stares at the cars frozen on the northbound side and wonders again just what the hell happened and why she was spared. What kind of force could just cause this kind of destruction?
Penny shrugs; the only way she is going to find out is by hightailing back to Los Robles ‘cause damned if she knows. She slides behind the wheel of the Impala, crosses the wires and the car starts without a hitch. Penny pats the dash lovingly. They had a few skirmishes, she and this car, when she first tried hotwiring it but once the screwdriver got involved, it was smooth sailing.
She considers turning on the shortwave but it’s probably just past noon so the boys won’t be broadcasting. She tosses the bag in the backseat and puts the car in gear. So far, this has been the easiest day since she ended up on that bus. She is more than halfway to Pasadena. She is reasonably rested and somewhat clean. The road before her is open and clear. Penny actually has a good feeling about all this.
The good feeling disappears when Penny turns the shortwave on. The radio works better in the moving car than when she stands till. She has heard Howard give a monologue about his mother’s brisket. Penny has a sneaking suspicion it was more of a thinly veiled eulogy. Raj read one of Sheldon’s favorite comic books over the air so she knows Sheldon is still missing. The boys don’t broadcast until dusk so Penny spends her daytime driving hours in silence, eagerly awaiting the first word. Now, as the highway spreads out before her, she is listening to Leonard.
“It’s so…dark here. It’s just so… incredibly…dark,” is how Leonard starts tonight’s broadcast. His voice is thin with long, uncertain pauses.
Penny frowns, he sounds tired, worn down. “We haven’t left the apartment.” Her ears pick up that the pauses are actually moments when Leonard is coughing, “This darkness isn’t natural. Air quality is poor. Power sources are dwindling.”
Penny’s knuckles whiten as she grips the wheel. Her foot presses on the accelerator and the revving engine almost drowns out Leonard’s next words.
“If you’re out there, if you can hear this…” His next sentence is lost in a swirl of interference. Penny bites her lip. She swipes her arm under her nose and straightens up in the seat.
“Hold on. Hold on,” she murmurs. Static fills the car and Penny swerves to a stop in surprise. “Leonard?” Penny reaches blindly to grab the radio off the seat. Sibilant air pours from the speaker.
“Crap.” Penny drops the radio back on the passenger side. She stares down the empty stretch of highway. She swallows deeply and inhales through her nose.
Penny rests her head on the steering wheel. Thoughts of days, months, and years without any of them fill her mind.
“No.” She says, banging her head lightly against the steering wheel. Her imagination is running away with her.
Leonard, Howard, Raj; they’re freakin’ geniuses! They can figure out how to survive this. Hell, she’s lasted this long and she is alone, exposed and not half as smart as they are. Her eye catches the corner of her pink bag reflected in the rear view mirror. Sheldon always expected so much of her and she never noticed. Now she carries those expectations with her.
Yet another hour into her drive, she sees frozen cars ahead. She almost couldn’t believe her luck. More gas! But then, she slowly realized that this probably didn’t bode well. She parked the Impala behind a station wagon and got out.
Don’t look in the cars, Penny chants silently. Just look straight ahead. Don’t look. Just walk. Don’t look; just walk.
She does this even though the faint breeze blows a stench into her nostrils that anyone who grew up on a farm would recognize. Finally, she sees what has caused the tie- up.
The Pacific Coast Highway, otherwise known as Route Five South, is now interrupted by a giant crater. There is absolutely no way to drive a car through it or around it. It is canyon deep. Penny peers over the edge and sees that a few cars which didn’t manage to stop in time or, perhaps, tried to skirt the perimeter, have plunged to the bottom.
She backs up slowly to the Impala. She can’t walk back to it facing all these cars and their inhabitants. Once she is behind the steering wheel again, she lets out a deep breath.
What now? What now? What. Now! She drums her fingers on the dash. She’ll have to back up to the exit ramp for San Francisco.
The Impala shudders. Penny looks at the instrument panel but there is no indication of trouble. She had just come off the exit ramp to San Francisco and was reaching the outskirts of the city when the car began acting up.
“Come on, baby,” Penny croons, stroking the dashboard, “Don’t start now.”
The Impala, unfortunately, is hell-bent on “starting” or stopping rather and rattles to a complete halt. Penny sits in the driver’s seat for a moment. Her fingers drum lightly on the steering wheel. It is just past midday so she has plenty of time to solve this latest dilemma.
She grabs her bag from the backseat and silently congratulates herself on remembering to throw some tools in there. When she pops the hood, a burst of steam makes her choke and there are a few sparks here and there.
“This is not good,” Penny mutters to the sky. She knows there is no point in standing by the car so she picks up her bag and begins to walk.
She keeps switching the shoulders that she carries the bag on as she walks and wonders for the three hundredth time why Sheldon didn’t use back packs. Most of the time, she’s glad to have the bag with her but today, with the sun beaming through smoke that seems to have a reddish cast and the loss of her car, it is nothing but a nuisance.
She knows she should be coming upon the edges of San Francisco soon. She had pushed the Impala to its limits and could just make out the skyline of the city when the car died.
The houses here are sporadic, interspersed with convenience stores that have their windows smashed. Obviously, looting was rampant as devastation spread. Penny tugs her bag closer to her. She is so vulnerable on foot. Anyone or anything could be watching her and she doesn’t have a single item in this bag that could be used as a weapon. This grim thought only reminds her that Sheldon obviously didn’t mean for her to be on her own for this long.
Penny has become so used to silence that for a moment, she almost doesn’t realize that there is the rumble of trucks in the air. She stops walking and cocks her head to pick up the direction of the sound. She is walking right toward it. Penny turns to her right, hoping that this will bring her to the trucks without exposing herself directly.
Her sneakers slip over the lawns and she actually has to jump a fence while keeping the noise of the trucks parallel to her. As she walks, she can hear voices (all male) and words, though she isn’t close enough to make them out. The tone suggests that some type of command is being given.
Finally, Penny ends up behind a rather large house. She has a perfect view if she keeps herself between the house and the garage. She never knew Army green would be such a comforting color. Six good-sized trucks line the street. Penny catches movement out of the corner of her eye. Soldiers! Honest-to-God American soldiers and one of them has his back to her a mere six feet away.
She starts to walk forward but notices these soldiers all have their guns drawn and they are clearly “on guard”. That can’t be right. She pauses mid-stride. Sheldon’s first letter said something about uniforms. Penny is tempted to dig the letter out but decides it’s too much of a risk. That soldier is too close. She closes her eyes for a minute, picturing Sheldon’s precise handwriting. He told her to leave Pasadena, to try to establish contact with them and…she presses her lips into a firm line as she thinks.
He told her to be especially wary of anyone who said he was from the military, saying they were not to be trusted. Of course this went against every fiber of Penny’s being. She was raised in the Heartland. Most of the boys she graduated with enlisted right out of high school or became members of their college’s ROTC. Her own grandfather was a veteran. Suddenly, the soldier near her swings to his left, his gun aimed. Penny can only see some of what is occurring. In order to see it all, she would have to stick her head into the gap between the two buildings. She creeps closer.
Penny sees that there are even more soldiers now. Some of them are pointing their guns at a line of ten people standing on the sidewalk in front of the houses across the street. The rest are systematically carrying items out of these houses- boxes filled with food, clothing, computers and other electronics. One soldier walks down the row of civilians and has them empty out their pockets. One man speaks to the soldier in front of him; Penny doesn’t hear his words but the soldier’s reply echoes.
“I have every right!” He points his gun in the man’s face. Penny bites her knuckle to keep from screaming. “And you best remember that. Now move out!”
The line of people is marched toward another military truck. They climb in without protest. The last of the soldiers exits the final house and climbs aboard another truck. A sharp whistle is given and the trucks rumble off. The soldiers on guard begin walking after the trucks. The one near Penny glances quickly in her direction but she presses herself against the garage. The cadence of footsteps diminishes and Penny’s knees give out.
The world has really gone to hell.
Chapter 4: Two thousand miles I roamed
Two thousand miles I roamed
Just to make this dock my home
When Penny reaches San Francisco, she gets her first indication that Sheldon is alive. There is only dead air on the short-wave. She doesn’t want to think Leonard, Howard and Raj are gone even though the back of her mind has taken it in as her new reality.
San Francisco hasn’t changed much. It still filled with haze until she realizes it’s the ever-present smoke that’s been following her since she made it through the fire. Whatever happened in southern California has slowly moved up here. Penny’s hope dims that the rest of America (Nebraska) is living life as usual.
The smoke has mixed with the water vapor creating an atmosphere perfect for detective movies and slasher films. Penny walks along Fisherman’s Wharf, agitated that the absence of sound is here as well. She swears that if she ever has a semblance of normal life again, she will never spend it in silence. The radio will blare, the TV will constantly be on, hell, she’ll even get a parrot (if they still exist) if only to keep the dull swish of empty air from penetrating her brain ever again.
Penny glances to her left but the air is so thick, she can’t tell if Alcatraz is still there. She can only hope.
The red haze (another distinction she just picked up on) swirls around her and Penny collides with another form.
It’s a person! An actual, honest to God person! Before Penny can even determine if she’s run into a woman or a man she is seized from behind in a choke hold. Her pink bag falls to the ground as her hands reach up to grip the brawny arm blocking her air.
“Where are you from? North or south?” The voice growls in her ear. Clearly, this guy didn’t pack his favorite toothpaste when the world ended! Penny gurgles.
“Answer me!” He roars again.
“David, how can she answer you’re when you’re strangling her.” This time Penny is able to make out a circle of people through the haze. The man, David, lets go of her and shoves her away from him. Penny stumbles but does not fall. She snatches up her bag, secretly wishing she had her baseball bat because this guy deserved a world of hurt.
A woman steps from the circle and touches Penny on the shoulder. “My name is Lisa. Where are you from?”
Penny blinks at her. She’s gone so long with no other contact but Sheldon’s voice in her head she feels like she is being spoken to in a foreign language. Sheldon’s first letter comes to mind where he warned her to admit nothing.
“North,” she rasps. Her throat scratches from lack of use.
Lisa nods; her smile is gentle and her eyes are a warm brown like Leonard’s. “Did you hear her, David?” Lisa calls over Penny’s shoulder, “She’s from the north.”
Apparently this is not good news because David comes charging out of the mist and is now nose to nose with Penny, “Why are you here? Why leave?”
“Why do you want to know?” She snaps back, advancing toward him, “What is your problem anyway?”
David crosses his arms over his barrel chest. His eyes are dark and beady and glare at her from under threatening brows.
“My problem is everyone who has made it here from down south eventually dies.”
Penny’s hand goes to her throat, “What?”
She looks around and sees that she has been encircled by the woman Lisa, David, two teenage girls (one is holding a baby), a man of about fifty, and another man who looks to be a bit older than Penny.
Lisa nods. “It’s true,” she says. “We’ve had a few people make it from down there but within a day or two, they get sick and die. The longest anyone lasted was…” She stops, pausing with uncertainty.
“Three weeks.” The man Penny thinks is near her age clears his throat and steps forward,“My name is Eric. Why did you leave the north country?”
Penny opens her mouth to speak. Sheldon told her to admit nothing but these people are waiting for an answer. “I …I have to find someone,” she finally admits.
“Where are you headed?” David barks. Penny jumps at his voice. Does the man do nothing but yell?
“Pasadena.” Penny holds her head up, daring him to try to intimidate her. Instead, a burst of laughter comes from him and the older man.
“David!” Lisa admonishes but the laughter continues.
“Lady, you’re on a fool’s errand then because Pasadena ain’t nothing but a big ol’ hole in the ground.” The older man wipes tears away from his eyes.
“That’s not funny,” Penny’s voice is low. “Not funny at all.” She approaches him, “How do you know that?” Penny shoves him and his laughter stops. “Tell me!” Another shove- she’s going to be throwing punches soon,“Tell me how you know!”
The man (Richard, she finds out later) puts his arms up to defend himself from the onslaught of her hands. Someone grabs her from behind and Penny kicks out at Richard.
“How do you know?” She screams.
“From me,” it is Eric who is holding her; Eric who answers, “I was in Glendale. Pasadena is gone.”
Penny’s body goes limp. Her legs buckle under her. “No. No,” she moans, shaking her head back and forth.
“We also had TV and radio here for a few days,” Lisa adds. “The pictures were shocking.”
Penny barely hears her. She is choking on the scream that wants to pour from her throat. The entire struggle was for what? She’s got nothing to go back to. She swallowed a mouthful of gas for nothing! Her forehead presses to the ground; Eric releases her arms and she wraps them around herself. The group is now silent as they watch her fall apart. The cool smell of asphalt fills her nose until the red mist snakes into her vision.
Lisa kneels next to her, “Come with us. We can help you.”
Penny lets herself be led off. Lisa introduces her to the two teenage girls; Megan (Lisa’s daughter) and Colleen. Penny gives them weak smiles only to stave off the tears.
“What’s your name?” Megan asks shyly, jostling the baby on her hip.
Colleen looks at Penny with eyes widened in shock.
The women bring Penny to an abandoned store front. Fisherman’s Wharf was once a mixture of restaurants, museums and gift shops. Now it is empty, shrouded in this red fog and all the stores and restaurants show signs of pillaging. They are heading toward Pier 39 but the snorts and barks of the sea lions are missing. They step through the doors.
“This seemed to be the best place for us,” Lisa tells Penny as their footfalls echo inside a building that was once filled to capacity. “We have a view of the water so we can see if anyone or anything approaches from there plus all the restaurants give us a means to feed ourselves.”
“There’s electricity here?” Penny is stunned.
“No but we can build a fire in the stoves and cook. Most of the food is still edible.”
They walk further until they come to couches setup in the middle of the pavilion.
“Why aren’t you in houses?” Penny asks.
“There was a major earthquake,” Megan pipes up from behind Penny. “Houses were either swallowed up whole by these enormous cracks in the ground or they collapsed like cardboard. It was wild.”
“You didn’t get an earthquake up north?” Colleen takes the baby from Megan.
Penny shakes her head and lowers herself onto an armchair. Exhaustion flows through her; her legs splay out and her head rolls back. She is struggling to keep her eyes open yet her arms never release their death grip on her pink bag.
“I’ll get some tea,” Lisa says then disappears into the closest restaurant. Penny’s head lifts up.
“You guys don’t have electricity but you have tea?”
Megan and Colleen sit on the floor with the baby between them; Colleen performs “itsy-bitsy spider” while Megan answers Penny, “We keep a fire going in one of the stoves. Actually, we’re pretty well off here until my dad decides it’s time to move on.”
“Where would you go?” Penny stifles a yawn. If Pasadena is gone, if Leonard…if there is nothing left, she should just throw her lot in with these folks.
“David wants to head east,” Colleen says. “While we had TV, it seemed it was only happening here in California. At least, that is what the President said.” She blows a raspberry at the baby, “But that was, like, right after Eric arrived.”
“CNN said it was some kind of government thing,” Megan adds. “Like the Pentagon or whoever does all the army stuff decided to try some top secret weapon and ended up destroying the world.”
Penny’s eyes narrow as she listens to the girls. Leonard had come out of his room, waving a paper at Sheldon upset about the numbers on it that Sunday before. There had also been that guy who came into the Cheesecake Factory with them and Sheldon had begun arguing with him vehemently. Penny hadn’t paid much attention since Sheldon argued with everyone but then Howard had suggested that they take the discussion back to the apartment before Sheldon got them all jailed. Small hands touch her knees and she looks down into the baby’s grey eyes.
“Whose baby?” Penny moves her bag to the next chair and picks up the child. The girls shrug.
“We found him,” Megan says, “in one of the shops. They just left him behind. It was really sad. How can you abandon your baby?”
Penny bounces the little boy on her knees, “When people panic, they make all sorts of wrong decisions.
“I’m going to get his bottle,” Megan tells them and goes into the restaurant her mother entered a while back.
Colleen gets to her feet and sits in the armchair adjacent to Penny’s. They smile shyly at one another; Colleen pulls her sleeves over her hands and taps her feet.
“You’re not from up north, are you?” Colleen finally blurts. Penny doesn’t stop playing peek-a-boo with the baby.
“Why do you say that?” Penny asks evenly.
“I know who you are,” Colleen whispers.
Penny looks over at the teen, keeping her expression blank.
“You’re Penny,” Colleen announces. The baby pulls on Penny’s arms until he stands up. Penny rubs noses with him while silently questioning Colleen’s sanity.
“That is my name.” It’s the only reply she can think of. Colleen lets out a giggle that sounds just to the left of hysterical to Penny.
“No, no,” the girl laughs, “You’re Penny; the Penny who lives across the hall.”
This time Penny can’t remain passive. She swallows to get control of her voice. “What are you talking about?”
Colleen claps her hands in delight, “What are the chances of you ending up here? He said it was a statistical improbability. Oh, how I would love for him to know he’s wrong.” Colleen smiles at her.
Penny looks up, relieved to see Lisa coming out with a cup of tea. Lisa takes the baby as Penny takes the tea. She gulps the hot tea to scorch out the words she wants to say.
Colleen is still grinning (manically) at her.
Lisa sits on the floor in front of Penny, “Feeling better?”
Penny sighs, “I don’t think I’ll ever feel better.”
Lisa smiles at her and the baby coos, “We’ve all been there, Penny. When Eric arrived, he didn’t talk. Colleen still has nightmares. David lost his parents…” Her words trail off then she gives her shoulders a shake. “What will you do now?”
Penny blinks at her. The tea is warming her hands but she can’t drink anymore. It’s herbal tea and how she didn’t burst into tears again when she first tasted it, she’ll never know.
“Um,” she rolls her eyes. What could she do now? There is safety in numbers. Human beings are primates. Primates have evolved to live in groups, both for protection and support; she knows that. “Would it be possible for me to hook up with you guys?”
Lisa’s smile widens. Megan comes back with the baby’s bottle, “David will be pleased.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Penny sees Colleen shaking her head slightly; she frowns at the younger girl.
“I am sure he’ll want to talk to you and see what you can contribute to the group.” Lisa stands and beckons to her daughter, “C’mon Megan, let’s find Dad. Colleen can show Penny where to sleep and clean up.”
As soon as Lisa and Megan leave, Penny rounds on Colleen, “Alright, missy, what’s with all the head shaking?”
Colleen leans forward, “You don’t want to stay here.”
“Yeah, well, my original plans have changed and I’m tired of being alone.” Penny puts down her tea and places her bag on her lap again.
“That’s not the American spirit, Penny. Did Davy Crockett quit at the Alamo? Did Jim Bowie?” Colleen gives her a bald look. Penny didn’t think it was possible for a liquid to form a solid mass in her stomach; Colleen’s grin widens into a toothy smile.
“Who...who told you that?” Penny stammers
Colleen leans right into Penny’s face, “Sheldon.”
Penny jumps up from the chair. The tea falls to the floor and she grabs her bag. This girl is crazy or psychic or crazy and psychic. Didn’t they just say Pasadena was nothing but dust? She heard Leonard with her own ears pleading for Sheldon to come home.
They’re all dead and Penny can’t let herself believe for one second otherwise. She’s here with these people. If she stays with them, she can start putting her life back together and the first step is not to think that physicists who look like praying mantises are being channeled from beyond through a sixteen year old girl - though she’s seen ten movies where a similar event like this does occur.
“I need some air.” Penny hugs her bag to her chest.
Colleen frowns, “David doesn’t like us outside when it gets dark.”
Penny raises her eyebrow at the warning and then walks out the door.
She heads for the back of Pier 39 where the docks are. She will not allow herself to even consider the reality of Colleen’s statement until she is far enough away where her reaction will not be heard.
The water is steel gray and the ever-present haze makes her steps deliberate and timid. The only boats left are small rowboats outfitted with motors. She could steal one, ride the high seas, and become a pirate. Penny shakes her head at her foolishness.
She reaches a dock that seems to jut half way out into the bay. Penny walks to the end of it. She sits Indian style and places her bag in her lap. A while back, Penny ignored Sheldon’s instructions to open the pouches in order.
Penny has come to realize that Sheldon had packed this bag believing that she would be reunited with them in a short period of time or that she would have made it back to Nebraska. She wasn’t supposed to be on her own for this long
Penny’s fingers reach into a pouch labeled with a number five. She is fond of that number seeing as her Numerology chart is riddled with them. No point in stopping now, though Sheldon would snort at her adherence to “hokum” in these circumstances.
Her fingers pull out a map and a compass. Her hand gropes around inside the pouch; she knows it’s in there. When she pulls out the envelope, the stationary’s blue tint vanishes in the red haze. Penny holds the compass in her palm and watches the needle ricochet back and forth. It can’t seem to decide where to land no matter how Penny angles her hand.
“Great,” she mutters, “I have Jack Sparrow’s compass.” She drops it into the pocket of her jacket.
She slides a finger under the flap of the envelope and pulls out the letter. Again, the weight of the paper catches her attention, the smooth creaminess of it.
Once, when they were all having Thai in 4A, the back of her hand had brushed against Sheldon’s. He jumped a mile but Penny always remembered how warm he was and how, for someone who washed his hands as fanatically as he did (does?), his skin was like silk. They were all so busy teasing Sheldon about trying to hold Penny’s hand that she never got a chance to ask him what hand lotion he used. Too bad. Her hands are in pretty rough shape now.
Penny doesn’t unfold the letter right away. She thinks of Colleen’s words hinting that Sheldon is alive. No way. The shortwave has been silent. If Sheldon were alive, he would have been broadcasting on that thing night and day. Still, it’s not like Sheldon is the most common name in the world.
Once again, she begins to read:
It should come as no surprise that the first compass was invented by the Chinese. They used lodestone, an iron oxide, which align automatically north to south. In fact, from 1405-1433, Zheng He made seven ocean voyages using a compass as a navigational tool.
Penny rolls her eyes at the history lesson. That is probably why Sheldon put the compass in pouch number seven. Sheldon will never change even when the world falls apart around him. The thought comforts her as much as his words on the page:
In Alice in Wonderland, Alice has this conversation with the Cheshire Cat when she comes to a fork in the road:
“Which road do I take?" she asked.
"Where do you want to go?" responded the Cheshire cat.
"I don't know," Alice answered.
"Then," said the cat, "it doesn't matter."
Normally that is a philosophy you embrace, Penny except now, at this point in this world, every step matters. You can no longer wander without purpose. You must have a goal, a destination.
I do not have to tell you that the life you knew is gone. The vague aspiration to be an actress must be replaced by a calculated, firm resolve that makes use of the formidable talents you truly possess.
Penny, it is virtually impossible to measure direction without a compass. Likewise, it will be virtually impossible for you to survive in this apocalyptic world unless you know where you are going.
It is time to choose a path.
Penny stares out across the bay. The salt clings to her skin and Sheldon’s words curl deeply into her. He’s right - it is time to choose. Penny folds up the letter, sliding it into its envelope. The map is still folded - she places it behind the envelope and drops them back into the pouch. Tomorrow she will talk to David (even though he freaks her out) to see what his plan is. She will go with them, eastward, regardless. It will bring her closer to Nebraska.
California was only a dream anyway.
Chapter 5: As I’m breaking in two…
As I’m breaking in two…
I can see that it may be just a vision of you
Breakfast is held in the former Bubba Gump Shrimp Restaurant. When Penny walks in, following Colleen, her mouth gapes at the bowl of apples and oranges. There are even bagels! Colleen explains that the freezers are defrosting slowly so they moved everything there which allows them to keep some perishable items.
“There was tons of food since this whole building is mainly restaurants. David made us sort out the canned goods and non-perishables to take with us once we start traveling. We even have cans of evaporated milk,” Colleen picks up an apple; Penny lingers by a bowl of seven hard-boiled eggs. She places one on her plate along with a bagel, an apple and an orange.
“You should take it easy,” Colleen nods at the plate of food. “I know you probably haven’t eaten in a while.”
“Granola bars, peanut butter and crackers and beets,” Penny admits and ignores Colleen’s look of revulsion. They head toward the tables; the men are already seated at one. Eric looks up and gives Penny a wave and she smiles back. The men’s table has plenty of empty chairs so Penny heads over there until Colleen pulls at her sleeve.
“We sit over there,” she indicates a table across the room near the window. Lisa, Megan and the baby (whom they have named Michael) are already there.
“We sit over there?” Penny’s tone is scornful.
“David keeps us separated for meals and sleeping,” Colleen says. “No unnecessary fraternization until we form our new settlement.”
A billion red flags pop up in Penny’s mind at these words. Fraternization? Settlement? What the hell?
Lisa smiles up at them and the baby bangs a spoon on the table. “Feeling better, Penny? Did you manage to sleep?”
Penny nods then looks down at the mug on the table. “Oh my God is that coffee?”
Lisa nods, “I can even offer you some cream.” There is a small bowl of the little shots of half and half on the table. Penny is practically weeping as she pours one after the other in. She stirs the coffee and takes a long, luxurious sip.
The women eat their breakfast silently. Penny listens to Colleen and eats only the boiled egg. She’ll wait ten minutes then start on the bagel. Michael chomps away on his and burbles a long speech to Penny. Finally, Lisa stands and announces that she and Megan are off to do some packing. As soon as Lisa leaves, David walks over and sits across from Penny.
“Good morning.” He’s trying to be pleasant but Penny can see he doesn’t mean a word of it. Every time he looks at her, his eyes harden, “Lisa tells me you want to come with us when we leave.”
Penny nods: Colleen is slowly paring the skin off her apple in a perfect spiral. David takes a swallow from his coffee mug.
“Alright, but I have some rules and questions. Your joining us depends on your following those rules and answering those questions.”
Penny doesn’t even blink, “I think it depends more on if I like your answers to my questions.”
David’s lip curls, and he tries to hide it by drinking more coffee. Colleen sniggers and passes it off as a sneeze.
“You stand a better chance of surviving if you stick with us,” David nods at her.
“I’ve managed so far,” Penny keeps her voice even. She won’t rise to the bait. Nothing pissed Sheldon off more than when Penny would not respond to his digs and jibes, when she remained pleasant and smiling, calling him, “Sweetie.” David was certainly no Sheldon.
“What’s in the bag?” David’s question cuts through the quiet of the restaurant. Penny notices it is just she, David and Colleen. Instinctively, Penny looks at the bag on the floor beside her. She is so tempted to tell David, “I don’t know.” It wouldn’t be a lie - there are still pouches she hasn’t gone through but he is clearly a man who thinks he asks questions he already knows the answers to. Penny gives him a broad smile.
“Clothes, a few personal items, a journal, underwear…” Penny lets her voice trail off.
David hunches his massive shoulders forward, “Let me get this straight - you are carrying around a bag that you never let out of your sight, that you hug to you as if it’s a living, breathing thing and I’m supposed to believe there is nothing in it other than clothes?”
Penny shrugs, “Yup.” They stare each other down. Penny keeps her smile inside- she’s played the master in this game too and won.
“What can you contribute to our group?” David asks.
“Is this an interview?” Penny retorts. Colleen takes a massive crunchy bite of apple but her eyes flick to Penny and she can see them twinkling. “Don’t you think, under the circumstances, that people should just help each other out instead of trying to size them up?”
David shakes his head, “You need to get it through your pretty blond head- no one comes with us who cannot be productive.”
“What exactly is your plan?” Penny leans forward, “How do you know it will work? Why are you so sure heading east is the way to go?”
“Before we lost power,” Colleen chirps, “the TV showed the rest of the country was totally unaffected.”
“Don’t you have something to do?” David snarls at her. Colleen shakes her head.
“Yeah but that was, what, a month ago,” Penny points out. Colleen shrugs and goes back to eating her apple.
“I am going east,” David barks. “We’ll find a source of water and then begin rebuilding. Even if, whatever this is moves that way, its strength is sure to dissipate over distance, like a storm.”
“Storms can also increase in power over time,” Penny reminds him. “What do you mean rebuild?”
“We have three men and four women.” David doesn’t blink, “I’m sure I don’t have to explain more than that.
Penny feels the hardboiled egg she’s eaten threaten to come back up. She closes her eyes and inhales deeply through her nose. This guy has no clue. Instantly, she thinks back to when Leonard told her how he met Sheldon. On the questionnaire, in a post-apocalyptic world, procreation was at the bottom of the list. This guy didn’t know that?
“That’s your plan?” Penny is trying not to let the scorn seep through and she fails miserably, “Water and repopulate the earth?”
David rises from the chair, “Tell you what, Princess. If you come up with something better, you’re welcome to come with us especially since Richard has his eye on you.”
Colleen and Penny watch David walk out of the restaurant.
“Now are you ready to listen?” Colleen asks once his hulking figure disappears.
Penny nods. The compass weighs down her jacket pocket. Colleen has begun to assemble the sugar packets on the table into a tower. There is something about her movements- deliberate and calculating as if she knows not only where to place a particular packet but also why that packet is necessary to keep the tower steady.
“It was a Saturday,” Colleen speaks so suddenly that Penny jumps. “My father burst into my room and screamed ‘Get up!’ I remember jumping out of bed and yanking on this sweatshirt and jeans. I could hear my father running a round, shouting for my mother to get in the car and did she have the check book. I looked out my window and, at first glance, everything looked totally normal.” Colleen begins another sugar packet tower with a more intricate base than the last. “Then I saw the bodies.”
She glances at Penny for a reaction but Penny’s done with reacting. All those years of emoting as an actress never got her anywhere. Besides, she’s kind of numb.
“People in my neighborhood were just lying there. I thought it was like a sniper or something. My father screamed for me to hurry up, that my mother and brother were already in the car. My neighbor came out of her house. She was outside no more than five minutes when she collapsed.”
Penny notices Colleen becomes more intent on her sugar construction as she speaks. Her voice grows monotone and her eyes are flat.
“I was supposed to go to Harvard in the fall. I got some pretty serious scholarship money, too.” Colleen’s eyes never leave what she is building. “I have my acceptance letter with me. It was in the front pocket of my backpack.”
That’s when Penny realizes why Colleen’s actions are so familiar to her - the steady certain motions, the way her eyes scan the rising sugar packets before she places another - Penny’s seen it all before .
“You’re doing the math, aren’t you?” Penny nods toward the tower. Colleen gives her a small smile and Penny begins to think Sheldon being alive isn’t so farfetched after all.
“Anyway,” Colleen continues, “I realized going outside was not the best idea. I ran downstairs to stop my parents. The front door was open and I immediately started coughing. I ran to the kitchen and tied a dishtowel over my nose and mouth then ran back to the living room window. I could see my mom and brother in the car; my dad was on the ground next to it.” Penny’s eyes fill. Colleen’s face is totally devoid of expression. This girl’s sadness is too great for tears.
“I ran outside. I was coughing so hard I could barely stand up. The towel wasn’t much of a buffer. They,” Colleen swallows and stares off into the deserted restaurant for a minute. “They looked like they were sleeping. I ran back inside but some part of me knew I wasn’t really processing what I saw. I dumped out my back pack and stuffed some clothes in it and some money. I went to the kitchen and threw some water bottles and a few juice boxes in my bag. I started to go to the garage to get the other car except,” Colleen lets out a shaky breath. “My dad’s car was blocking the driveway and I just couldn’t…” Her voice chokes off and they sit in silence for a few minutes.
Penny wants to reach out to her but the girl has walled herself off behind a fortress of Sweet and Low and Sugar in the Raw. Colleen gives a loud sniff then touches one packet with the tip of her finger, causing all the structures to fall before she continues her story.
“I ran out the back door. My brother’s bike was there. I jumped on and just started pedaling. I felt woozy but I knew getting distance between me and whatever was in the air was key. My vision had little black dots and every breath stabbed me…”
“I was coasting down a hill that led to the highway. It wasn’t until later, when Sheldon asked me, (Penny gulps at the casual mention of his name) that I realized there were no cars, no trucks, and no noise. I figured once I reached the highway I could hitch a ride or something. I vomited a few times but I kept pedaling.”
Penny listens but she just wants to shake Colleen and scream, “Tell me about Sheldon!” Instead, she puts her hand into her pocket and rubs her thumb over the compass.
“At some point, I passed out. It was the penlight beaming in my eyes that woke me. I couldn’t see - I just heard a voice say “Pupils reactive. Respiration back to normal.” Then pen scratching onto paper. I sat up and looked into these eyes that were so…blue.” Colleen practically whispers the word and Penny feels her mouth twitch. “It was like having an X-ray – they were so intense.” Penny clucks her tongue and Colleen’s dreamy expression fades. “Next thing I know, Sheldon is peppering me with questions. “Who are you? Where did you come from? Do you know where you are?” It took me a minute to realize I was in Towlsey Lodge - my cousin got married there last year. Sheldon had taken down all the stuff on the walls and hung up every map he found in the place. The walls that didn’t have maps were covered with numbers, notes and equations. I stood up and walked over to one wall and pointed at the chemical equation written there.”
“Wait!” Penny cries. What’s Towsley Lodge?”
“It’s a lodge in the Santa Clarita Woodlands Park,” Colleen replies. “It’s a little less than an hour from Pasadena. You never heard of it?”
Penny shakes her head. She hadn’t ever heard of it, how had Sheldon? She asks Colleen who is sorting sugar packets by color.
“Um…Sheldon said Howard knew about- he’d gone on some camping trips or nature walks as a kid with his Hebrew school group.” She looks up from her piles, “Can I finish my story now?”
Penny nods but she is distracted by this new information. It is just like Sheldon to file away a piece of information about a remote yet fully functional place. She can’t help but wonder if Sheldon knew even more about this annihilation than she first thought. Colleen clears her throat to catch Penny’s attention then begins speaking.
“Anyway, I said, “This is really impressive. I’ve never seen some of these symbols used this way.”
That’s when he looked at me - really looked at me.” Colleen shoots a glance at Penny. “It was also the first time he mentioned you. He said, “Penny said the same thing when we first met. How do you know that is a chemical equation?”
Penny snorts- typical Sheldon. How could anyone possibly know anything besides him? Colleen continues, frowning at Penny’s interruption.
“He introduces himself by saying, “I’m Dr. Sheldon Cooper, BS, MS, MA, PhD, and ScD.” I pointed to the notebook in his hand “What’s that?” I asked.”
“This notebook contains all my observations since I regained consciousness.” He said. “I was walking past Penny’s dry cleaner when the street exploded.”
“The street exploded!?!” Penny interjects. “What was Sheldon doing outside? Was Leonard with him?”
“All I know is what Sheldon told me. He and Leonard had some type of argument about the temperature…”
“Thermostat,” Penny corrects.
“What?” Colleen raises and eyebrow.
“Ther-mo-stat,” Penny enunciates each syllable. “They argue about the temperature in their apartment. Sheldon had his bag with him, right?”
“The tan one?” Colleen asks.
“No!” Penny exclaims but she can feel that familiar feeling of awe and admiration coursing through her veins that always appeared when she considered Sheldon’s capabilities. “He should have had this huge black bag with him.”
Colleen shook her head, “All I ever saw was a tan, messenger bag.”
Penny falls back into her seat. Amazing. He made it that far with what was probably a scaled down version of whatever was in the black bag.
“You look kinda freaked,” Colleen comments. “Did I say something to upset you?”
Penny shakes her head slowly, “No. I was just thinking that if Sheldon made it that far with just his messenger bag, than it’s a freakin’ miracle that I’m still alive.”
Colleen says nothing, just traces an abstract pattern on the table. Finally, she raises her eyes. “Can I continue?” Penny nods. Colleen clears her throat and begins to speak once more.
“Who’s Penny?” I asked. He blinked at me. It was kinda crazy because he’s got these eyes that just shift in color, you know?”
Penny nods slowly, “I do.”
“The question was rhetorical, Penny.”
“Of course it was,” Penny mumbles
“Anyway, he’s completely dumbfounded by my question.”
“Sheldon isn’t used to being interrupted,” Penny cuts in.
“Yes…well… neither am I,” Colleen says tartly. “He stares at me and says, “She’s my neighbor.”
“You know your neighbor’s dry cleaner? She must be more than a neighbor.” I teased. His ears turned pink and he snapped the notebook shut then stood up.”
“Penny is…Penny is a so-called actress from Nebraska who lives across the hall and gives me rides to the comic book store. On occasion we do laundry together and she freeloads off our Wi-Fi.”
“I nodded slowly, “Yet you know her dry cleaner and have Nebraska outlined in red on that map up there but she’s just a neighbor?”
“Children should be seen and not heard.” He snapped at me before returning to his wall of numbers.”
“What are you doing?” I had never seen anyone write so quickly.”
“Calculating the speed of this cloud of doom. It appears to be moving north.”
“I leaned back on the sofa- my head was spinning. “Yeah, I can see that. What I meant is why are you doing that?” When he looked at me…” Colleen shoots a glance at Penny as her face slowly flushes crimson, “It was…ah… a bit unnerving. He sat down next to me again and asked how could I possibly understand what he had written there? So I told him about my AP classes and Harvard. He seemed impressed.”
“So you guys sat around all day and talked science?” Penny raises her eyebrows.
“I wish!” Colleen scoffs. “No. Sheldon had a very rigid schedule - up at dawn, start boiling water, go out to forage and then he would come back and start writing on the walls again. I really found out a lot of stuff from his notebook.”
“He left on Monday morning after a satisfying breakfast of crackers, refusing to take me with him. He didn’t want a kid tagging along. I’m hardly a kid - I’ll be 18 in a few months. I was supposed to use my time constructively - work on his calculations to determine if any of the states would be safe from fall out.”
“Did you?” Penny makes a sturdy sugar pyramid; Colleen collapses it with a flick of her finger.
“Of course not! I went snooping instead. Sheldon always takes his messenger bag with him and today was no different so I went up to his room.” Penny opens her mouth but Colleen holds up her hand, “I know all about ‘people can’t be in my room’” She waits until Penny closes her mouth before she resumes speaking. “Towsley Lodge can accommodate eighteen, but Sheldon took the first room at the top of the stairs. I walked in and, at first, I didn’t notice anything. It was all so… neat.” She wrinkles her nose. “Then I saw the one thing out of place- the notebook open on the bed.” She levels her gaze at Penny. “Did you know Sheldon keeps a journal?”
Penny jumps at the unexpected question, “Um...yeah. I mean, I know he keeps a journal of daily social interactions. I’ve had to review it with him in order for him to see when he had been a jackass or why what he said to someone, although true, was not exactly the best thing to have done.”
“Daily social interactions?” Colleen repeats before shaking her head. “He really is crazy.”
“No he’s not!” Penny snaps. “His mother had him tested. What was in the notebook?”
Colleen leans back in her chair and drums her fingers on the tabletop.
“You. Page after page of you. Did Penny make it out of Pasadena? Will she head for Nebraska? Is she opening the envelopes in order? Dreamt of her last night - I hope she finds the hairbrush soon.”
“Hold on a second,” Penny leans across the table, “You expect me to believe that Sheldon spends his time writing about me?”
Colleen shakes her head vigorously. “No and that’s what makes it so awesome. Here is this journal of his full of all these notations, numbers and a language I’ve never seen…”
“It’s Klingon.” Even Penny hears the smugness in her voice.
“Whatever,” Colleen rolls her eyes. “Then all of a sudden, there will be a note about you in the margin or in the header or right in the middle of his thought. How cool is that?”
It’s not cool. It’s not even lukewarm. It is the most unbelievable thing she has heard and, given what’s happened, that is saying quite a bit.
“You look freaked out,” Colleen says.
“It’s a lot to take in,” Penny replies. “Go on.”
Colleen grimaces at the order but continues her tale. “So, for a few days, everything was fine. I didn’t mention the notebook and, when he did talk, Sheldon mentioned Leonard, Howard, Raj, his mother. Stuff like that. Then, I think it was Wednesday or Thursday, I suggested we should leave the lodge and go look for other people. That’s when it all fell apart.”
“It was after breakfast and Sheldon was about to head out “Hey, Sheldon, shouldn’t we be looking for other people?” I asked even though I was making a big show of studying his map. I still remember how he glared down his nose at me, like I was some kind of insect that had the gall to ask him a question. He cleared his throat and unfastened then re-fastened the flap on his messenger bag before answering me, “I have no desire to partake in a wild goose chase”
Penny gave a slight start. While Colleen by no means sounded like Sheldon, she had his mannerisms down cold- head tilt and crossed arms along with that slight frown that always pulled at the corners of his mouth.
“How is it a wild goose chase?” I asked, “You found me.” “I stumbled upon you. I was not looking for you.” Sheldon corrected. “Who are you looking for, then?” I turned from the map and walked over to him. He immediately backed away. “It must be someone important if you go off on your own every day and won’t let me come.”
“Were you always this nosy?” He raised an eyebrow. “I prefer curious. C’mon Sheldon. We can’t stay here forever. The food is gonna run out or the water will suffer from some type of fallout that can’t be cured by boiling. Finding other people should be our top priority.” I placed my hand on his tan windbreaker, right in the crook of his elbow and he jerked back like I burned him.”
“He’s got a germ thing which shows up like a touch thing,” Penny chirps.
Colleen levels her gaze at Penny, “I know.”
Penny glares at her; Colleen continues her story.
“Towsley Lodge is where Leonard, Wolowitz, Koothrapali and I agreed would be our meeting place should we get separated. I have nothing else to say on the matter.” He wasn’t kidding- after that; he didn’t speak to me for the rest of the night. I didn’t make much headway the next day either. He still wasn’t really speaking to me but that didn’t deter me from pointing out the whys and wherefores of our impending demise if we remained at the lodge. I’m telling you, one sided arguments are the worst. How could someone so brilliant be so stubborn and…” Colleen paused, searching for the word, “stupid.”
“You said that to him?” Penny raised her eyebrows.
“Yup and that’s when the dam broke.” Colleen gathered up sugar packets and began laying them out like cards in Solitaire. “He was measuring distances on one of his maps for, like, the fifty billionth time, and I kept ribbing him until he threw down his pen and said, “I cannot think because of your incessant and pointless chatter, Penny! I am not leaving here and that is final!” You could have heard a pin drop. He stared at me for a second then cleared his throat and pushed at his sleeves before saying, “I meant, Colleen.”
Penny tilts her head. Colleen’s mouth pulls down at the corners a bit and her fingers tremble as she leans two packets together to form a triangle.
“That’s why you left,” Penny says softly. For all her intelligence, Colleen is just a young girl and Penny knows how easy it is to fall for the one person who always seems to know what is going on.
Colleen gives her a baleful look. “No. I left because we were going to die there.”
“Sheldon wouldn’t stay there if he couldn’t survive.” Penny’s voice is soft. “You know that.”
“Whatever,” Colleen shrugs. “That was his business and I told him that before I left.” Her voice grows stronger even though she wipes at her nose when she thinks Penny isn’t looking. “I wished him good luck and that if you did show up; he should really tell you how much he loves you.”
Penny looks down at her hands in her lap. The compass is still cradled in her palm. The needle arcs lazily back and forth.
“He must have had quite a response to that.” Penny tries to keep her tone light but her grip on the compass tightens.
“He did.” Colleen tilts her chair back and rocks to and fro. She gazes at the ceiling, as if trying to recall Sheldon’s exact words. Words Penny would bet her one pair of Ferragamo shoes on that Colleen hasn’t forgotten for a second. “He snorted, “Don’t be ridiculous. Why should I tell Penny something she already knows?”
The sound of the chair hitting the floor echoes through the empty restaurant. Penny doesn’t remember standing but here she is on her feet and her breath is gasping out of her. A wary laugh escapes her.
“You’re good.” Penny points a finger at Colleen, ignoring the widened eyes of the other girl. “I was buying every word coming out of your mouth until the very end.”
“I don’t understand.” Colleen’s bewilderment is clear but Penny knows a thing or two about acting.
“Okay, look,” Penny’s hands have climbed into her hair and she rubs at her scalp. God, what she wouldn’t give for a real shower right now! “I’m not really sure why you want to get rid of me and, for a moment I really was thinking about going to find him, but now? No way. You just shot yourself in the foot with that little fabrication.”
Colleen gets to her feet, “Penny, I’m not lying.”
“You are!” Penny shouts. “Sheldon Cooper doesn’t talk about love. He talks about endorphins and biochemical reactions and oxycontin…”
“Oxytocin,” Colleen corrects.
“Shut up!” Penny rages. “Just stop talking. I don’t want to hear any more about Sheldon or Towsley Lodge or how you think he’s in love with me because he’s not. Okay? Sheldon has never felt that way about me or anyone for that matter.”
“I don’t understand why you refuse…”
“Because he’s dead!” Her shriek echoes off the huge windows that swirl with gray and faint red smoke. “He’s dead and I’m alive. It’s time to move on.” Penny grabs her bag off the floor, “I’m going to find the others. I’m tired of being alone.”
Which is exactly how she leaves Colleen.
Chapter 6: I’m on my way
I’m on my way, I’m on my way
She avoids Colleen for the next few days and the other girl does not seek her out. Still, Penny feels a sense of unrest despite her resolve to leave with the group. David announced at breakfast that their departure date would be in two days. After she clears up her dishes, Penny walks to the waterfront. She sits down and dangles her feet just above the water. The bag sits by her side.
I’m not going to look in there; Penny casts a wary glance at the one item that has been her constant companion. I’ve made my decision. I am staying with the group.
The lap of water against the piling is soothing. Penny feels her shoulders loosen for the first time in, what feels like, years. She leans back on her elbows. The motion causes one of the straps to fall across her hand.
“Don’t try to change my mind by cozying up to me,” she tells the bag. The silence stretches for a few more minutes. She rubs the strap between her index and middle fingers.
“Dammit,” Penny growls, sitting up again.
She unzips the bag, shoves her clothes out of the way and surveys the pouches. She’s already gone through pouches 1, 2 3 and 5. Actually doing what Sheldon had asked her in the first letter is pointless now, so she opens the pouch with a large 4 on it.
At first, Penny thinks the pouch is empty. This is probably where he meant to put the binoculars, Penny thinks wryly. Still, it’s really not like Sheldon to break a pattern (missing binoculars aside). She reaches into the far corner and her fingers touch a nylon cord. With a quick jerk, Penny pulls out a small nylon pouch with another cross on it. At first she thinks it is part of the first aid kit until she notices that this cross is white not red.
Frowning, Penny reaches into the pocket again. No letter?
“Come on.” She growls, feeling around some more before giving up and opening the smaller pouch.
A knife lands in her palm. Paper is wrapped around it. Blue paper. Sheldon’s next letter is not in an envelope but covering this knife.
“Really?” Penny says aloud, “You got that bored?”
Gingerly, she peels the tape that holds the paper to the knife. Penny tucks the letter into her pocket in order to examine her latest find more closely.
It is a Swiss Army knife, lime green with the words RescueTool on the side in red. She begins to pull out the various tools, wondering at their purpose. The knife has some heft to it but it fits comfortably in the palm of her hand. She places it beside her on the dock and opens Sheldon’s letter.
Congratulations! You are now the proud owner of the 2007 Knife of the Year. This particular model defeated 77 other knives from 34 different manufacturers that year to earn the title.
“No kidding.” Penny looks back down at the knife for a second.
It is a formidable tool, containing a Phillips screwdriver, a seat belt cutter, large locking blade, wire strippers,
“Wire strippers!” Penny shouts. She broke every fingernail she had, peeling the coating off the wires under the Impala’s steering column- punishment for not following Sheldon’s directive to open the pouches in order. She continues to read.
a window breaker and disc saw should you encounter shatter-proof glass along with a host of other tools to enable you to chisel, saw and hole-punch your way out of most situations.
Now, Penny, lest you think I chose this particular Swiss Army knife without you in mind, I am saving the best for last, as they say.
This knife also comes with a bottle opener - most likely one of the top five items of any survival list you would compile.
“Sarcasm?” She asks the blue sheet before finishing Sheldon’s latest missive.
I sincerely hope that the moments when you would have cause to use this knife are few and far between. I couldn’t protect you better myself.
Penny reads his last sentence two more times. What a lie! He’s protected her this whole time. Lord knows what would have happened to her if she had stayed on that bus or hadn’t read the first letter warning her about the military. She probably would have made it back in time to help Leonard, Howard and Raj. Maybe they all would have found Sheldon. Penny sighs and folds up the letter. No point in letting her thoughts travel down that road.
She glances over her shoulder when she feels the vibration of the dock. Quickly, she folds up the letter and slides it and the knife into the back pocket of her jeans. Colleen sits down next to her.
“Have you decided?” The girl asks without preamble.
“There’s nothing to decide.” Penny shrugs. Her fingers pull at fraying threads on the shoulder strap of her bag. “I’m coming with you guys.” She registers Colleen’s expression of shock and tries to play it off, “Hey, I thought you’d be excited - another girl, takes the pressure off you to produce a new batch of Americans.”
Colleen stares out over the gray water of San Francisco bay and frowns, “You didn’t listen.” Penny bristles at the utter disappointment in Colleen’s tone. She winds a pink thread around her index finger and yanks until the strap begins to unravel.
“I did listen,” Penny says when she has her temper under control. “I heard everything David said. I heard everything you said.” Penny gets to her feet. She is just so…tired. Angry. Emotionally worn out and now this kid is trying to tell her how to live her life. She doesn’t know what her life is now. It was hard enough figuring out her future when there was electricity and running water, forget about doing it now. “According to you, about a month ago, you run into a guy who may or may not be the same Sheldon Cooper I know…”
“You know he is,” Colleen interjects softly.
Penny shakes her head, “I do not. That’s not even the point. Why isn’t Sheldon looking for me? You know Len…” the lump in her throat blocks Penny’s words. She lets it slide down before speaking again. “Leonard would be moving heaven and earth to find me if he had even the slightest suspicion I was alive.” Penny can feel the tears forming. She bites inside her cheek to stop them from falling. “Not Sheldon. He holes himself up somewhere with charts and numbers and maps and just goes on with his life as if the world hasn’t ended and his best friend isn’t buried under rubble.” Sobs wrack her, but no tears stain her face. Colleen sits there silently, listening to Penny’s rant. “So why should I look for him?”
Colleen threads her fingers together. Red mist whorls at their feet, and Penny wonders, not for the first time, where it is coming from; she asks this to Colleen.
“America is burning,” Colleen answers. “We are far enough away to only see this.” She twirls her finger into the smoke, causing it to rise like a serpent. Penny’s eyes fill with wonder at the sight.
“I bet you had a lot of boyfriends when you were my age.” Colleen continues to juggle smoke.
“Actually,” Penny says slowly, “I dated the same guy for four years out of high school. I tend to be a one man woman.”
“A serial monogamist,” Colleen smirks and Penny shrugs. “I never had a boyfriend. I was always too busy studying and I figured in college I’d meet someone who was smart like me. The boys in my classes were too intimidated by me.”
Penny tilts her head at this speech, “Why are you telling me this?”
“‘Cause it’s total bullshit.” Colleen kicks at a loose fragment of wood on the pier. “I probably could have had a boyfriend if I didn’t take the defensive route.” When she notices Penny’s confusion, she says, “You know, the whole ‘I’ll decide I don’t like anyone before they decide they don’t like me.’”
“I thought you were going to try to convince me to find Sheldon.” Penny shakes her head.
“I am,” Colleen barks a laugh. “See how well it’s working?” They grin at each other but then the other girl’s grin fades. “Look Penny, I told you that so you would know that I have no idea what I’m talking about. I don’t know about relationships. What I do know from these few days with you is that you are, like, a superhero.” Penny scoffs. “Seriously!” Colleen protests. “You’re totally alone, the world ends and you make it all the way to San Francisco on your own.”
Penny gives the strap across her chest a very Sheldon-like tug, “I had a little help.”
“I’m getting to that.” Now Colleen’s voice is sharp - she’s not the gushing teenager anymore but a young woman who, under different circumstances, probably could have made some serious impact on the world. “Like I said, I don’t know about relationships but I know that there’s a guy about six hours from here trying to figure out how to save what is left of the world for you. I mean, yeah, it would be great if he was searching for you so the two of you could perish together, but I think wanting to keep the world going just because you’re in it is a pretty big gesture.”
“He didn’t say that,” Penny says.
Colleen taps the bag resting on Penny’s hip, “Does he have to? Isn’t that the point of the bag?”
“The point of the bag was to help me survive,” Penny snaps. “See, this just shows that you have no clue about Sheldon. He is the most literal person on the planet. He keeps a running tally of how many times he recognizes sarcasm and, believe me, his stats are not good so don’t go attaching all kinds of meaning to this bag. He made one for all of us. I’m no different than the rest of them.”
“Except that you’re still alive,” Colleen points out. “So is Sheldon. What a coincidence.”
The words are out before Penny can stop them, “Sheldon doesn’t believe in coincidences.”
Colleen arches a brow, “Do you?” Her manner reminds Penny instantly of when Sheldon asked her is she could handle a “friends with benefits” relationship and Penny is just as uncomfortable now as she was then.
“I don’t believe in anything anymore.” Penny steps closer to the edge of the dock. The mist covers her feet in red smoke and the compass rolls in her pocket. “Nothing makes sense. I shouldn’t be alive. Leonard, Howard and Raj shouldn’t be dead and Sheldon shouldn’t have gone missing.”
“He’s not missing,” Colleen reminds her.
“He is!” Penny cries. “He’s gone. This is all I have left” She grabs the bag with both hands and gives it a violent shake, “Stop trying to convince me that he’s alive!”
Colleen takes a step back. Confusion causes her to purse her lips, “Why wouldn’t he be, Penny?” Colleen spreads her hands out. Her eyes are wide. “This is Sheldon we’re talking about. I mean, you knew him better than anyone, right?”
“Don’t,” Penny begins. She clutches her bag to her chest but Colleen continues to rant.
“I totally don’t get it - the two of you. He’s there, waiting for you to show up and you’re here denying that he’s alive in spite of everything I have told you. I thought when people loved each other, all they want is to be together but you two do everything to keep yourselves apart!”
“That’s enough!” Penny snaps. Her bag swings free down to her hips, “I am so tired of hearing you talk about Sheldon as if you know him.” She shakes her head. “You don’t know Sheldon. You have no idea about Sheldon. You were with him for what? Two weeks? I lived across the hall from him for four years. I spent more time in his apartment than my own. Give me any day of the week and any time of day and I can tell exactly what he’d be doing, reading, eating. You name it.”
Penny realizes that she has stepped closer and closer to Colleen with every word. Her finger points threateningly and her palm itches to slap the younger girl’s face. “I lived Sheldon so don’t you dare stand there and pretend to know anything about either one of us.”
She whirls away from her and walks to the edge of the dock. The water hasn’t lost its steely tones and it laps softly at the pilings. There are no cries from sea gulls or barking of seals just the endless whisper of water. Her anger is simmering down, ebbing like the waves. Colleen stands next to her. They are shoulder to shoulder but Penny keeps her eyes fixed on the sea.
“He’s waiting and he’ll keep waiting even if it kills him.”
Penny’s hand grips the compass in her pocket. The wind picks up to tease small whitecaps onto the waves. The mist is being broken apart by the breeze and Penny inhales the sharp salt of the air. She misses her friend, misses the man who has guided her this far. Misses that tiny smile that lurked in the corner of his mouth whenever he looked at her. Sheldon is all about plans. Penny is all about taking chances; she can’t deny her true nature any more than he can deny his. In the silence, she hears the spin of the compass. The knife is a comfortable weight in her back jean pocket. The waves now slap against the pilings - the wind has shifted for the worse.
“I need to find a car,” Penny turns and walks down the pier.
It takes a week before she is ready to leave. The problem was finding a car. Not that cars are hard to find; there are hundreds around Fisherman’s Wharf. The problem is David and the others had been siphoning the gas out of them and storing it for their eventual departure. Colleen and Penny walk the wharf, trying to find one car that doesn’t have an exposed gas cap.
“We can try one of the hotels,” Colleen suggests. Penny looks at her askance.
“How am I supposed to get the car out of the hotel parking garage?” Penny’s breath comes in little puffs as they head away from the wharf toward Embacadero Drive.
Colleen is skipping next to her with ease and Penny suddenly feels all of her 25 years. “There’s (pant pant)…there’s no electricity to make the barricade go up.”
Colleen dashes ahead to a lamppost, “Are you worried about your insurance premium going up? They have manual releases, Penny”
Her giggle floats back to Penny who, upon reaching the lamp, bends over to rest her hands on her knees and catch her breath.
“Man, I thought Sheldon was out of shape!” Colleen bends down to look into Penny’s face, “At least, he had an excuse because of his lungs.”
Penny’s head whips up so fast, her forehead clips Colleen’s nose.
“His lungs? You never said anything about his lungs. What are you talking about?” Penny notes the blush staining the other girl’s cheeks as she bites her lower lip.
Colleen’s hands run through her hair and twist it into a ponytail.
“It’s really nothing,” she finally admits. “That’s what Sheldon claimed.” There is another nervous tug on the ponytail clenched in her right hand. “He figured his lungs had some kind of radiation scarring since he was outside when Pasadena got hit.” Colleen gives a shrug. “Personally, I think the coughing is a psychosomatic reoccurrence of his childhood asthma brought on by stress.”
Penny’s mouth falls open. Cough? Childhood asthma? Psychoso…what?
“Exactly how much did Sheldon tell you?” Penny frowns. Sheldon doesn’t bare his soul or is she just annoyed that Sheldon bared his soul to someone else?
Spinning on her heel, Colleen continues up the hill, “Sometimes, it was more about what he didn’t say.”
Penny trudges after her, hands balled into fists. In a post-apocalyptic world, is it unethical to kick the shit out of someone who is underage?
Penny is up before dawn. It’s cold as the sun hasn’t filtered through the haze yet. She picks up her bag and tiptoes past Megan who is snoring lightly and Colleen who twitches and yelps in her sleep like a puppy. Penny stops at the end of Colleen’s sleeping bag. The two of them had a long conversation about whether Colleen should join her; Colleen was adamant in her refusal.
“Please tell me you aren’t saying no because of your feelings for Sheldon,” Penny said.
Colleen hid her face behind her curtain of hair and intently scrubbed her hands, “I don’t have feelings for Sheldon,” she clarified. “It was just an infatuation borne from his rescuing of me and my irrevocable losses that made me fixate on him.”
“You could have just said ‘no,’” Penny jostled her with her elbow. “Seriously, come back with me. Think of what you and Sheldon can accomplish together! You could totally rebuild America.”
Colleen looked her straight in the eye, “Penny, think about what you and Sheldon can accomplish together. There have been enough people getting in between the two of you for years, don’tcha think? You two will rebuild America.”
Penny had no response to that and Colleen considered the topic closed.
Penny lets out a shuddery breath and gives Colleen’s foot a light pat before she heads out of Pier 39 for the last time.
Chapter 7: The words you say to me
The words you say to me are unlike anything
That's ever been said
She drives. The wind comes through the open windows, whipping her hair around her face. She misses her little red Volkswagen, but she does have to admit that this new Camry she is in is a pretty sweet ride.
The only thing that concerns her is, as she drives farther from the coast, the outside temperature is rising. Penny knows that is a natural occurrence, but these are pretty significant temperature jumps; twenty degrees in as many miles. The landscape is whipping by her too fast for her to register any changes.
Penny shrugs out of the sweatshirt she had on against the permanent dampness that is San Francisco. Sheldon would have an absolute heart attack if he saw her with one hand on the wheel and her vision obscured by jersey. He’d be screaming and flailing all over the place. Suddenly, she misses him so much, her eyes fill with tears.
Penny yanks the car over to the side of the road. She throws it in park but leaves it running. The pink bag has been riding shotgun and she takes it with her as she exits the car. The air outside is like an oven; her lungs feel scorched. For a moment, she is stunned by the blistering heat. Her tears evaporate in seconds while Penny pulls the zipper on the bag to search for water. She comes up with one bottle.
“Oh, come on!” She mutters and rummages around some more.
Penny lets herself slide to the ground and leans back against the car. The vibrations from the engine are soothing. She pulls up her knees and places the bottle of water on them.
How could she have been so stupid to not check her water supply? A rookie mistake and one she should be long past making. She puts the bottle back in the bag. Sheldon would lecture her endlessly for such thoughtlessness. The man kept bottled water under his bed, for cryin’ out loud. Penny eyes the bag sitting beside her. Her motions are frantic as she empties out the bag, searching.
“There has to be something,” Penny whispers. “C’mon Sheldon. You wouldn’t overlook something this important.” She pauses briefly to remember that Mr. I –Think-Of-Everything did forget binoculars before diving back in. It’s in the last pouch:
In order for you to function optimally, you must keep hydrated which means having a ready supply of water for drinking. Assuming the temperature is seventy degrees, you will be able to last ten days without water before becoming physically compromised. I have included iodine drops which will purify water in an hour (5 drops per quart). More importantly is the Sidewinder.
Penny picks up the oblong-shaped object and examines it:
The Sidewinder can purify a liter of water in ninety seconds and will last for eight thousand treatments, requiring no batteries. As the slogan reads: Fill, Flip, Crank and Drink. When the green light comes on, your water is ready to imbibe. There is no piece of equipment in this bag more important than this. You must take care of it.
Penny, when I sat down to write this letter to you, I intended to stop after instructing you on the whys and wherefores of water purification. However, I realized that if we have reached this point, if you have reached this point, then the situation is dire indeed.
Penny looks up from the page in her hand. On either side of the highway is nothing but scrub brush, dried bunches of grass and earth that forms dust in the light wind that is blowing. The heat is sapping her strength and Sheldon’s letter is doing nothing to boost her spirits. She lowers her eyes to resume reading:
Water seeks it level, Penny. It is relentless, pounding at sea walls and the shoreline. The Grand Canyon was formed by water - a series of flash floods rolling down to the Colorado River followed by water in its second most powerful form - ice.
Water purifies but it also can harbor enough pathogens to render a single drop toxic. There is beauty to be found in the avalanche of water spilling over a cliff to form a waterfall and there is horror created by a flood. Life cannot be sustained without water. It changes everything it touches. It is invasive, wearing giant boulders down to sand.
You are water, Penny, to me.
Penny raises her head. Her tongue is glued to the roof of her mouth. She refuses to let herself think about the bottle in her bag. The situation is dire, indeed. Sweat courses down her spine and soaks into the top of the yoga pants she is wearing. She re-reads the letter. The breeze blows grit in her eye. As she rubs at it with the back of her wrist, the meaning of Sheldon’s words comes to her.
“Fuck!” She exclaims then begins to paw through the bag for the rest of the letters.
Penny pulls them out one by one, flattening them out with her palm. The wind won’t allow her to read them so she bunches them into her fist and climbs back into the car. The heat suffocates her and her lungs refuse to expand. Opening the window, she takes a few breaths then turns her attention to the letters.
She sees the progression after reading them all in order. Sheldon began writing these with his usual detachment but he couldn’t stay that way for long. These letters aren’t meant to be viewed as pieces of a puzzle. They are the puzzle, solved in its entirety.
“I never knew,” She whispers but recognizes the lie the minute it leaves her lips. These feelings were there for both of them, hidden under spats, glares and insults or allowed to breathe whenever one of them dislocated a shoulder or hurt an ankle. Who else did they rely on to comfort them if not each other?
The fabric of the bag snaps in the wind. Penny’s eyes track its movements. She tries to swallow. She has to find him. Sheldon needs to know that she gets it. Penny desperately wants to know how close she is to finding him, how many miles stand between them. She pulls the map out of pouch five. Once more, she has to get in the car but once she unfolds the map, her jaw drops.
Her eyes trace the line of fluorescent green highlighter ending in a circled spot labeled “Towsley Lodge” in Sheldon’s meticulous handwriting.
“No way.” She breathes, and then leans her head back on the headrest, “No. FREAKIN’!. Way”
Her fists clench the map, crumpling its edges. It was with her the whole time. Right under her nose. She crinkles the map up even more; that’s when she sees the piece of paper stapled to the upper right hand corner of the map.
It’s from a notepad bearing the Caltech logo as well as the words: “From the desk of Dr. Sheldon L. Cooper.” Underneath those words are more words from Sheldon.
In the event the radio does not work or you fail to get the instructions you need, simply follow this route I have marked for you.
Our new headquarters (if 2311 Los Robles becomes compromised) will be Towsley Lodge in the heart of the Santa Clarita woodlands. Wolowitz has made several trips there already to ensure that we have adequate supplies and amenities.
Your arrival is eagerly anticipated,
The writing is different from the letters. Here, the sentences are uneven on the page and some of the words are cramped close together. This must have been a last minute decision but she is not surprised. Sheldon was a firm believer in, “if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself”
Well, Penny is a firm believer in Sheldon Cooper and it’s high time he knew it. She reaches for the wires dangling from under the steering column. The engine turns over with ease.
Up to this point, Penny was surviving. She presses on the accelerator. San Francisco sidetracked her. The car begins to hum along the road. She thought there was nothing left. The letters are still clutched in her hand as she steers with the other. She was wrong. There is everything. There is Sheldon.
Penny walks up the trail and sees the sign for Towsley Lodge. Only a tenth of a mile away. She looks down at her legs; they are stick thin. Her feet drag but she finally reaches the sign. She peers up the incline and can just make out the outline of the lodge through the shadows and trees.
Penny’s fingers trace the lettering on the sign; she takes a deep breath but her heart continues to rattle in her chest. All these miles, all those letters and he is potentially 29 steps away. She finds herself rooted to this spot. She should be running up this small incline, bursting through the lodge door, screaming his name the whole way.
Instead she is standing here because the reality of what she may find frightens her more than not knowing. Sheldon could have left. Penny picks at a ragged, grey cuticle for a second before allowing her final thought. He could have succumbed to that cough Colleen mentioned.
The sun streaks through the trees in shades of sherbet and persimmon. She has to get moving if only to be inside by the time it’s dark. Slowly, she lifts her foot to begin the short journey to the lodge.
As she draws closer, the lights on the main floor are on. Penny picks up her pace. Is it possible? Is he here? Still? Her footfalls are muffled by the soft dirt of the trail and her breath comes in short gasps. God, Sheldon, here! She never let herself fully believe he would be here because she would never be able to deal with it if he wasn’t. Her bag is slung across her chest and thumps rhythmically against her hip as she half skips up the trail.
The steps leading up to the door are wide, made of flagstone. The front door is wood and there is a sign declaring this Towsley Lodge over it. Penny runs up the steps and shoves open the door.
“Sheldon!” She cries. She hears her voice echo and she steps further into the entryway.
Directly in front of her is the living room and Penny descends the steps leading into it. It is exactly as Colleen described. Hunting lodge décor, flagstone fireplace, couches with warm plaid blankets draped over the backs. A lump forms in Penny’s throat as she takes in the makeshift whiteboards around the room. Sheldon had used every bit of wall space available for his calculations and speculations. She sees a map of United States tacked up to her right and the V-shaped shading which indicated the path of destruction. Penny walks over to it and reads Sheldon’s notes.
Wave moving at 40 mph.
North Dakota and Florida unaffected as is the rest of the East Coast
Force decreases with distance like ripples in a pond.
Sixty hours to travel from Los Angeles to Jacksonville.
Penny sees the final note is written in red: Two and a half days for total dissipation.
Timeframe for reconstruction - data inconclusive at this time
Penny reaches up to touch Nebraska. There has been so much loss, so much destruction she should feel hollow except her eyes keep going back to those words in red. She remembers Colleen saying to her that Sheldon wanting to keep the world going just because you’re in it is a pretty big gesture.
So it was.
The pencil smudges onto her fingertip when she draws her hand down the map.
She bows her head, trying to absorb this most recent realization as well as the fact that everyone is gone. Her family. Her friends. Penny lifts the strap of her bag over her head and drops it on the floor.
Sheldon did the best thing; he wrote all those letters, ensuring she would always know how he felt about her. Of course, she’ll never be able to tell him she survived. It’s clear he’s been gone for some time; the lodge has an abandoned feel to it. He’ll never know that, despite her disregard for many of his instructions, Penny did it. She nudges the bag affectionately with her toe.
“You knew I would though.” She whispers.
Penny looks around the room. Sheldon’s writing is everywhere. He must have worked constantly. She turns on her heel and walks over to the couch. A dark oak coffee table is there and the wood is deeply scored.
Penny sits and tries to read the etchings but they are just more numbers and symbols. She slumps down in her seat and the tears finally come. They track slowly down her face as if even they are too weak to let all the rage and sadness inside her come through. She hums a bit of “Soft Kitty” but that only makes her cry harder. He was never supposed to be the one to die.
Penny remains on the couch. She can’t formulate a plan. She can’t even make herself get up to see if this place has enough amenities for her to survive until she does have the strength to go on. There is nothing left; nothing in the bag. No letters tucked away. No Sheldon to spend the rest of her days with. Her head lolls back on the couch and her eyes close briefly. Her grief has burnt out and the fatigue softens her bones.
“That’s my spot.” The words aren't scolding. A slight tremble appears in his voice as if he is either holding back tears or inexplicable joy.
Penny doesn’t open her eyes. She’s not sure if the words are real or imagined. Her hand travels up behind her. This time, he is not out of reach.