Penny munched from her separate bowl of popcorn - no sharing with the wack-a-doodle! He had his own bowl on his lap from which he ate - one kernel at a time - as they watched A Christmas Story on the televison together at her apartment for their Saturday night movie. It had been her turn to choose, and with Christmas only a week away, then she was going to watch a Christmas movie dammit, and he better not complain! Sheldon had grumbled a bit, but sat back into her couch cushions and grudgingly watched in silence.
After a few rounds of “You’ll shoot your eye out!” Penny turned to Sheldon and said, “Did you want anything like that for Christmas when you were ten - something you wanted so bad?”
Sheldon got a gleam in his eye, and he sighed, “Yes - yellow cake uranium.”
“Yellow - what?” Penny should have known not to ask such an open ended question to Sheldon, but she’d been feeling the Christmas spirit. Silly Penny.
“I wanted to make a nuclear reactor,” Sheldon explained, “so I needed yellow cake uranium - it was on the top of my Christmas list that year.” Sheldon closed his eyes and nodded sadly, “And for a few years after that. I never got what I wanted for Christmas.”
Penny persisted, though she didn’t know why - except she liked to poke at Sheldon’s life occasionally - find the softness underneath the hard exterior. “What about a BB gun - like Ralphie? Didn’t you ever wish for that?” She grinned wide, “ I would have thought you’d want to plan for the apocalypse as a child too.”
Sheldon rolled his eyes and said, “In what universe would a BB gun help anyone in the apocalypse?” Penny looked up to the heavens, but he continued. “In Texas, BB guns were for young children to shoot at birds. At my house, a ten year old boy got a shotgun for Christmas.”
Penny’s eyes were wide, “You got a shotgun for Christmas when you were ten?” Barbie dolls and pink tutus went through her mind when she remembered ten.
“Yes, as my brother did before me. My father thought it an important skill for a boy to learn.” Sheldon paused thoughtfully. “With my brother George and himself, it was a bonding experience, or so my brother boasted to me. For my father and I - not so much.” Sheldon chewed his upper lip, realizing he’d revealed too much of himself. He turned back to the television.
Penny was not to be deterred - she’d found another chink in his armour, and it was time for her to worm her way into this one. “Why?” She pulled her self a little nearer to him and looked up at him, using her “Penny” special look - the one that got Leonard, Howard and even Raj to do whatever she wanted. It rarely worked with Sheldon, but it worked often enough for her to try it again.
He folded his arms and glared at her. Damn! She thought, he’s on to me! She tried again, using the big guns - only brought out for him. “Shel-don.” Penny sing-songed, “Tell me why you and your father didn’t bond over learning to shoot and I’ll take you to the comic book store and buy you whatever you want!”
“Oh, I did want the Green Lantern: Larfleeze Christmas Special!” Sheldon’s eyes lit up.
Penny smelled victory. She turned off the television. “Deal.” She pulled her legs under her and faced the physicist. “Story time Moonpie!”
Sheldon sighed heavily, with a “Pen-ny” muttered under his breath, but he turned to her and began.
Sheldon’s Christmas Story circa 1990
Sheldon hopped from foot to foot trying to be patient while his twin and older brother ripped through their presents with gusto - paper flying. Sheldon had to duck a few times not to be hit in the head with balls of crumpled wrapping paper. But he waited. While there were several presents under the tree tagged “Missy” or “Junior” there was only one, large, long present marked “Sheldon.” His imagination had taken hold - he doubted his redneck father had been able to procure yellow cake uranium - but perhaps his mother and Meemaw had helped. A laser? The parts needed to build the CAT scanner he so desperately wanted to build?
Sheldon’s reverie was interrupted by his father’s stern “Boy!” That term was meant for Sheldon alone. If his father wanted George, he would have shouted out “Junior!”
He shuffled to the direction of his father, “Yes?”
“What are you waiting for? Quit daydreaming and open your present.” His father’s eyes were narrowed, though dulled by years of alcohol abuse, they were the same eyes of his young son.
Sheldon recognized his father’s look and voice as the command it was. “Yes, Dad.”
He made his way to the tree, now that Missy was off dancing in her princess tiara and pink frills and George had run outside to throw his official NFL football around. Sheldon dragged the gift from under the tree, and pulled the tape carefully, as not to ruin the paper. He slowly folded back the paper - he could hear his father’s impatient huffing - and what he saw made his stomach take residence in his slippers.
His father’s voice came from next to him, as he crouched down to say with pride “The Browning X-Bolt Hunter. A rifle you can use for the rest of your life boy.”
Sheldon gulped - his throat tight. Sure, George Jr. got a rifle when he was ten, but that was George. George liked shotguns and sports and was everything Sheldon wasn’t. George Sr. slapped his slight son on the shoulder. Sheldon nearly fell into the tree at his father’s rough hand.
“We’ll go out and test it after breakfast boy.” His father said to him. Then rising, called to his wife to put breakfast on the table.
Sheldon got up with weak knees for his breakfast and looked at his mother with pleading in his eyes. She had witnessed it all, but she just shook her head. He knew what that meant
- it was easier to do what his father bid.
Sheldon had tried to take as long as he could dressing, even going so far as to re-read a comic or two, but he knew he was putting off the inevitable when even his mother was yelling up the stairs to “Hurry up snickerdoodle! Your father is waiting!”
He also knew that the longer he waited, the more likely that his father would be into the Christmas brandy. Sheldon hedged over going downstairs before George Sr. had had a few drinks, or to wait until he’d had too many.
Sheldon opted for going downstairs right away. Drunk or no, it wouldn’t be a good idea to have his father angry at him with a gun between them. Sheldon trudged down the stairs, naming the planets and constellations as he did.
It was a cooler than normal Christmas morning in Galveston, and Sheldon’s nose had begun to run as soon as they went outside. He practically had to jog behind his father to keep up with his long strides. Sheldon was a tall boy for his age, and he’d done the Punnet squares to know that one day, he’d have his father’s height. But until then, it was all Sheldon could do to keep up, while occasionally wiping his nose with his handkerchief.
And thought to himself during his father’s silent walk to the woods behind their house, I could be inside building a CAT scanner right now, or at least reading the New Century Senior Physics textbook he’d had George Jr. pilfer from his high school Science department. And eating his Meemaw’s cookies when she arrived for her visit - she could be there right now and Sheldon would miss her welcoming hugs. He kicked the dirt with his shoe - but kept pace with his father for fear of what he’d do if he didn’t.
Once they were on the feathered edge of the wood, George Sr. turned to his son, and thrust the rifle in his hands. Sheldon nearly dropped it from the weight, but managed to steady it in his arms.
“First,” his father instructed, “you gotta to learn how to load it.” He took out shells from his pocket and instructed his son how to use them. Sheldon’s hands were shaking so much, that he’d dropped the shells twice. He could feel his father’s anger building - and now close enough to him, he could smell the faint smell of brandy - he wasn’t drunk, yet, but he’d had a few. He’d be drunk later, when Sheldon and his brother, sister, mother and grandmother returned from services. He was hoping against hope for the happy drunk father this Christmas, but once he’d finally loaded the gun and looked up to his father for approval, that hope died.
“Good gawd boy, I thought you was smart - it shouldn’t take that long!” his father growled.
Sheldon bit the inside of his cheek, and willed himself not to say anything contrary to his father - especially when his father insulted his intelligence. He knew his mother believed the teachers and doctors who’d tested him - told them how special their son was - but his father didn’t. Sheldon hung on to the hope that the 5th grade that he’d started in the fall would be his last spent here. Ms. McCreary had already sent his results to the University of Texas. Austin. Far enough away from Galveston.
“Boy! I said get that gun up on your shoulder!” Again, his father’s angry voice interrupted his reverie.
“Where am I to point it?” Sheldon licked his lips, nervous more for holding a loaded shotgun than for his father’s anger. He did have a loaded gun after all. Sheldon wasn’t fool enough about such things not to know that that wrought an amount of power.
“At anythin’ that moves in that forest.” George Sr. pointed with a grin. He remembered how George Jr. had almost bagged a deer his first time out, but managed a jack rabbit, and their hearty laughter about it.
Sheldon stared at his father, and his jaw actually fell an inch or two, “You want me to - to- shoot to kill something in the forest?”
“Sheldon.” his father said. It was never a good sign when his father used the name he hated. “What the hell do you think I gave you the gun for?”
“I honestly don’t know! I didn’t want it in the first place!” Sheldon wailed. He wanted those words back as soon as he said them once he saw the look in his father’s eyes.
George Sr. growled, low and mean, “I bought it for you to make you a man! Like your brother! Not like,” he pointed at Sheldon, motioning up and down, “this!”
“You just pointed to all of me.” Sheldon was confused. Like his brother? As if!
“That’s right!” George Sr.’s voice started to rise, “You! I know how you have to run from the kids at school, in the neighbourhood, the ones Missy can’t keep away from you.”
“And you want me to be a man, what, like you?” Sheldon motioned up and down at his father. “That is not the kind of man I want to be.”
Sheldon should have expected what came next - he’d run off his mouth like he’d tried not to - and he dropped the rifle with the blow that came that knocked him a foot back. Sheldon landed with a thud on his butt. He brought a hand up to touch the jaw that his father had backhanded. Not broken, but he’d have a hell of a bruise. Sheldon began to think of different scenarios to tell his mother to explain it. He was a terrible liar, however, he was a great storyteller.
“Now git up and pick up that rifle,” his father said with deadly calm. “Point into the forest and aim.”
Sheldon did as he was told.
“Now you need to watch that kick back or you could get a nasty bruise,” George Sr. added, giving Sheldon his excuse for his mother. How kind, thought Sheldon sardonically.
Sheldon brought the gun to his shoulder, and saw a rabbit hop out of the forest. He aimed - to miss - and fired.
The rabbit hopped back into the forest.
Sheldon handed the rifle back to his father, and started back to the house. It would be time for services soon. They walked back to the house with the same silence as they’d walked out of it.
At some point during his story, Penny had moved to sit thigh to thigh with him, and had wrapped her small arms around his waist. He hadn’t even flinched. Her chin was on his shoulder, looking up at him, blinking away a tear.
“This is why I don’t like talking about my father,” Sheldon said softly, “I may not be adept at reading emotions, but even I can see the pity in your eyes.”
“It’s not pity,” Penny began. Sheldon looked pointedly down at her, “well maybe a little. More like empathy.” She brought an arm up, and softly touched the jaw that his father had bruised so long ago. “I care about you. I forced you to tell me the story, and now I made you sad.”
Sheldon put his hand over hers on his jaw, “Penny, when will you learn - no one forces me to do anything.” He removed both their hands, but still held hers lightly.
Penny smiled, and moved across him to plant a small kiss on his jaw. Of course he would never kill a helpless animal. She stayed where she was, enjoying the rare physical contact with him. She laid her head on his chest and they just sat a while, holding hands.
“Penny?” Sheldon said quietly.
“Yes Sheldon?” Penny said just as quietly, not wanting to break the moment.
“Merry Christmas.” He even smiled when he said it.
“Merry Christmas Sheldon.” She squeezed his hand a little.
“Can we go to the comic book store now?”