Nobody out there knocks on doors anymore. Either they bang mindlessly into them and wander away when they don’t open, or they kick them in and sweep the room with gunfire. So when Penny’s sitting on her couch cleaning her rifle and hears that old triple knock, her heart thumps in response.
It only comes once. Then there’s the slide and thud of a body hitting the floor.
She peeks out of the peephole. Nothing. Opens the door on the chain and sees him there, alone, maybe breathing, maybe not.
Maybe infected, maybe not.
She grabs his hand and pulls it into her apartment through the crack in the door, and shoves his finger into a testing kit. He flinches as the needle digs into his skin, or is she imagining it? The light flickers red-green-red-green and finally remains a steady green.
His name has been part of a list engraved on her heart for over a month now, the they-didn’t-make-it list. She’s been assuming that since Comic-Con was put under quarantine, none of the gang made it.
She’s managed phone calls back and forth to establish that her father is a made-it; her brother, a didn’t-make-it. Her mother and sister were static on a downed phone line somewhere between Pasadena and Omaha. If her father hadn’t been away fishing, maybe he’d be static too. Her brother, well, there aren’t a lot of places to run in a prison yard.
She had to break it to Priya that she thinks Raj is dead; Priya, sounding eerily calm, told her that she knew, that so were their parents and the rest of her siblings, and from the sounds of the screaming in the background Penny wasn’t sure that Priya had all that long left herself.
Leonard. Sheldon. Amy. Bernadette. Stuart. Howard.
San Diego. India. Earth.
Leslie Winkle is a made-it and running a small fortification in what’s left of Caltech.
Sheldon’s mom and sister are maybes; Howard’s mom, a didn’t-make-it.
Leonard’s mom was on a plane when the outbreak started and locked herself in the bathroom until the uninfected pilot brought the plane into a bumpy landing in Cleveland and the two of them got out alive; she’s being held in a CDC testing center, spending half her time as doctor and half her time as patient.
So. Now. Sheldon. How?
She pushes his arm back out and definitely hears a huff of disapproval, which is actually kind of a good sign, but she has to do it so she can open the door to get him inside. He’s all legs and arms and lolling head and she can’t figure out how come he’s so incapacitated until she sees the ugly wound on his left temple and then she understands. Concussion. She can do something about that, probably.
She gets him onto the couch and locks and bolts the door before turning back to Sheldon. His eyes are closed, and he’s mumbling incoherently. She touches the bruise on his temple, and he winces, eyes still shut. His chest hitches every few breaths, and she has the feeling he’s injured there as well. His face and hands are deeply tanned. He has a month of scruffy beard and looks more like Wil Wheaton than she’d ever thought possible. A hysterical giggle bubbles up in her chest, and she slaps her hand across her mouth to stop it.
Penny just hopes that the home-brew testing kit works. She doesn’t know the science behind it, only that it’s based on a modified diabetes testing kit, and that the people Leslie is working with developed it based on research that came out of India.
Not that India’s done so well since the outbreak.
“If you test yourself and get a red light, end it,” Leslie had said brusquely. “Or anyone else you happen to run into.” A faint look of sadness had crossed her face. “Let me know if any green lights come home to you.”
Penny had nodded and stashed the box of testing kits in her backpack on top of the boxes of ammo, which was what she’d actually left the apartment for. Caltech had been a detour, out of curiosity.
Now she looks at Sheldon and at the discarded testing kit and heaves a sigh. There’s really only one way to be sure he hasn’t been bitten, and that’s to look. Besides, he smells like he could use a bath or three.
So it’s off the couch and into the bathroom, settling his too-skinny form onto the bathmat, with a lavender heat pack for a makeshift pillow. She starts the water running and then begins to strip him. Shirts off over his head one at a time and a soft gasp at the sight of his bruised ribcage, purple along the bones and yellow in between, all down his right side. Aside from that he’s all pale in contrast to the unfamiliar tan. Shoes and socks off; at least his feet are okay, long and arched and delicate somehow, like his hands (which are scratched but not bitten, and a spot of blood has welled up where the needle went in). They’re a little blistered, but that’s all.
Then she takes a deep breath and unbuckles his belt.
His long legs are bare of bite marks, although they are scratched and bruised in places, none so badly as his ribs. She nudges him onto his side and checks his butt, which is undignified as hell, but too bad. She steadfastly avoids looking at his genitals—highly unlikely bite zone, this is Sheldon she’s looking at, after all—but something in his body is responding to her proximity because he’s stirring into arousal. So she does the only thing that she can do, which is to pick him up and put him as unsplashily as possible into the bath.
The thing is that the hot water isn’t exactly working all that well, so the water’s mostly cool. Lukewarm, maybe. Tepid, if she’s honest. Cold enough, anyway, that his eyes snap open and he inhales a long sharp breath that makes him wince in pain and grab at his ribs.
Then his eyes focus on her and he says, “Penny.”
She has just enough time to grab his head and hold it up before he faints.
She washes him with one hand and supports his head with the other, feeling almost like she’s bathing an oversized baby. She’s not sure how well she does with the whole washing thing, but his scratches and cuts are clean by the time she’s done and while the wounds are still ugly, they’re not dirty. She can’t wash his hair properly; she does it with soap and hopes he won’t mind the deviation from routine, and then a laugh escapes her because the entire planet has deviated from routine thanks to this stupid goddamned virus.
Drying him off is damn near impossible. In the end she drags him back to the bedroom and spreads towels on the bed before rolling him onto it. Her lower back is singing with pain by the time that she’s done, and he’s shivering uncontrollably.
Penny piles blankets on him, unlaces and pulls off her boots, sets the rifle on the nightstand, and crawls in with him, hugging him close, sharing her warmth.
“Penny,” he whispers. “You’re alive.”
“Of course I am.”
“Thank God... thank God you hate Comic-Con.”
She smiles and presses her lips to his temple.
She hasn’t slept a full night through in a month, not even since boarding up the windows, but she thinks that tonight might just be an exception. She starts in on “Soft Kitty”; keeps singing it for herself even after his body relaxes in her arms.
The story comes out in fits and starts over the next two days as he drifts in and out of consciousness.
“We almost didn’t go,” is his nearly constant refrain. “If I hadn’t—”
She figures it out: he blames himself, because he was the one who got the passes for the con via James Earl Jones. (She thinks. Maybe he’s hallucinating that part.) If that hadn’t happened, Leonard and Raj and Howard would be across the hall now. Amy and Bernadette would be here with her, learning how to shoot, or maybe at Caltech with Leslie’s team, looking into the how and the why of everything. A neurobiologist and a microbiologist would be perfect down there. Stuart—well, he went on an exhibitor’s pass, but maybe—from what she can tell, from what Sheldon’s saying, there might have been time. Sheldon even mourns Wil, which whom he had an ongoing love-hate relationship.
As for Sheldon himself, the explanation turns out to be stupidly simple. At the time that the Convention Center went into lockdown, he was lying in a darkened hotel room, a cool washcloth on his forehead. Saved from the zombie apocalypse by something as mundane as a migraine.
“We almost didn’t go,” he says, every time he surfaces again from sleep.
And: “I wish I’d never met Darth Vader.”
Penny tries to tell him it’s not his fault, but she knows he won’t believe it, that he’ll never believe it.
During one of his more lucid moments: “I made Amy leave me. I made her leave me alone. I made her go with Bernadette.”
“Sweetie... at least they had each other,” Penny says, hearing the words hollow in her own ears, how pointless they must sound to Sheldon.
“If I’d let her stay to look after me...” He frets at the blanket with his fingers, twisting. “It was in the relationship agreement to look after each other when we’re sick.”
There is literally nothing that Penny can say to that, so she doesn’t.
She has to go out. She has to. Food and ammo and water. And tampons, because she really should have taken Sheldon’s advice about buying them in bulk. If only she’d foreseen the zombie apocalypse. Silly Penny.
Sheldon doesn’t want her to leave the apartment.
(She doesn’t want to leave him.)
“This isn’t an argument I want to have,” Penny says, loading the handgun for him. Sheldon sits with his back to the refrigerator door, knees drawn up to his chest, ignoring the fact that it has smelled awful for weeks even though she tried to throw the worst stuff out, but he takes the gun when she presses it into his hand.
The shotgun is in her hands, the baseball bat strapped across her back along with an empty backpack. The peephole is clear. Penny lifts the gun and starts down the stairs.
Pasadena is silent, terrifying. Penny hurries through the deserted streets, all of her senses on red alert. Every sighing breeze sounds like ragged moaning. She uses wrecked cars as cover and prays that Caltech is still a safe place.
It is a four mile journey. A motorbike would be faster but make her a target. A car is out of the question. She’s been looking for a bike, but apparently she is not quite in the most health-conscious part of California. At the same time, though, the stretch and burn of working her muscles is enjoyable, as is the fresh air. She may not be able to jog every morning, but she can still work out in her apartment, and so she can do four miles in less than forty minutes. Coming back, pack loaded—hopefully—will be the hard part.
She knows squat about the Caltech buildings, except:
- The research team are in the Beckman Laboratory.
- To get there she has to cross the wide open Beckman Lawn.
- Doing so makes her feel like peeing herself.
(She’s not a fan of 2 or 3.)
Penny steps out of the tree line and starts walking. Listening. Scanning before and behind and up and side to side. She can see a face at one of the upper windows. A face and a body-shape and a gun.
Ten yards out from the looming building’s base, one of the doors cracks open and the first thing she sees is another gun. Right behind it, though, is Leslie’s face, drawn white and anxious. She’s wearing goggles and a surgical mask and gloves.
“Stop, stop there. Whatever you’re looking for, I don’t think we can help you,” she calls.
“There’s a problem with trying to find a cure for any virus, and that is that you get exposed to the virus in the process.”
“Yeah, but as long as you’re not biting each other...”
“Guess again, Barbie—I’m not wearing these as a fashion statement.” Leslie taps the goggles. “Just wash your hands really well if you come into contact with blood. Or saliva. Or semen, if you’re into screwing undead guys.”
“Sorry. I’ve been setting a new bar for black humor.”
“So it—should I be trying to find gloves and stuff?”
Leslie bends down and tosses her a bag, low and fast. Penny crouches and catches it against her chest. A box of gloves, a box of masks.
“Won’t you need these?”
“Not necessarily for much longer.” Leslie shakes her head. “No, we’re not all dead yet. We’ve been in touch with the CDC and they’re going to try to airlift us out.”
“Take us with you,” Penny says impulsively, at the same time wondering if she’ll ever be able to extract Sheldon from the apartment.
“Sheldon came home.”
Leslie laughs. “Of all the unkillable cockroaches... look. We don’t know for sure about the CDC, and you—if you come in here it’s a one-way street.” She rolls her eyes upward to where the watchful gunman is. “If you come in and then go back out, they’ll shoot you. If I try to leave with you, they’ll shoot me and probably you as well. The thing with the blood contact is that it can take longer to take hold than a bite—so we don’t always know who’s a danger and who isn’t.”
“Shit, Leslie—” Penny reaches a hand out to her.
Leslie waves her off. “Go. Tell Doctor Dumbass I said hi. We don’t need him down here anyway; we’ve got enough non-biology specialists who’re trying to learn how to use all the shit in these labs. Besides, I’d probably bite him myself.”
“What if you do get airlifted out?”
“Then I’ll tell the CDC to make a pit stop by your building. I slept with Leonard too, remember? I do know where you live. And right now, if it’s the two of you and you’re sure he’s not infected, it’s probably the safest place for you to be.” Leslie shoo-fly waves her off again. “Go on, get out of here.”
Penny gets. She’s not happy about it. She can’t shake the feeling that she’s not going to see Leslie again.
After that, “grocery shopping” is anticlimactic, even though she has to shoot three zombies who shamble into the store while she’s picking through the remaining cans, trying to figure out what will be the most edible. Her power and lights have been inconsistent. She can’t remember when her phone was last functional. She’s got the hang of dashing to the kitchen every time the power does come on, making stuff hot, usually tinned spaghetti, and wolfing it down just for the sake of having hot food. As far as she can tell from the radio when it’s working, there are a lot of people out there in tight spots like hers.
Thinking of the radio makes her realize that if she had a CB setup, maybe she could talk to other people, and she slaps her forehead, standing there in the middle of aisle five amidst cleared shelves and the floor all covered in spilled macaroni.
“Why didn’t you think of that before, idiot?” she mutters aloud, and a low moan answers her from the other side of the shelves. Penny ducks and shoots through the shelves. The moaning stops.
Maybe it’s time to throw caution to the wind. Fuck it, she has two mouths to feed now. So she loads up her pack with an extra big bag of rice, and more cans than usual, and throws a six-pack of Diet Coke on top for a special treat.
Then she goes scooter hunting.
When the outbreak happened, not everyone had the courtesy to die quietly at home and stay there. The number of cars along California Boulevard that aren’t parked so much as crashed attest to that. So it’s not hard for Penny to find a Vespa that she can use, one with a rack she can tie her pack to. No helmet, but if she falls, cracking her skull is honestly the least of her worries.
She rides with the gun balanced across her knees, puttering at maybe twenty miles an hour, but it’s so much faster than walking, and the breeze feels delicious against her sweat-beaded, anxious skin.
She’s right about the noise attracting the zombies, though. By the time that she’s gone half a mile she has company. And when there are four of them, falling behind her as she accelerates, their moaning draws others, and all of a sudden Penny is discovering what happens when there’s a pack instead of just the singletons that she picks off from behind her boarded windows.
It’s as if they start to think.
Penny turns onto Los Robles, realizes that she’s going to lead them straight to her building, and goes left onto Colorado, taking the corner at thirty miles an hour, which is way faster than she should be going considering the car pileups everywhere. Her heart is thumping in her ears and the gathering moans echo off the storefronts and walls all around her.
Her plan is to go up Euclid and eventually cut back to Los Robles in the hope that the smaller streets might be quieter, but it’s somewhat stymied as she rounds the corner and is confronted with a mob arrayed a little further up the road, outside the town hall. She has a moment to wonder whether they died there or whether she’s just interrupted a zombie council meeting before she takes the first available turn, skidding hard left with their hands reaching for her.
After that she doesn’t care about anything but heading north, keeping the gun safe, and not hitting anything. She’s constantly aware of the roar of the bike’s engine. The wind in her face no longer feels quite so lovely; it feels like fear and flight now.
She’s not even sure what street she’s on any more when she sees the window display of radios. Well, what’s left of it. Smashed glass, more empty spots on the shelves than anything else. But it’s not just a music store, not just that sort of radio, no, it’s got what she wants, and Penny stops the bike, careful to settle it on its kickstand and not let it fall. She hefts the gun, uses the butt to knock the rest of the glass out of her way, and pulls the CB out, tucking it under her arm.
That’s when the hand—scrabbling, seeking—lands on her shoulder.
Penny swings round, dropping the radio, crashing the shotgun into the zombie’s chest. It falls back a step. So does she, lining up the head shot, and because maybe she’s still in the splatter zone and she’s mindful of what Leslie said about bodily fluids, she closes her eyes and squeezes the trigger.
She doesn’t want to know what the wet stuff is that hits her. She doesn’t ever want to know.
Penny pulls her shirt off, still blind, and uses the (please be) clean inside to scrub at her face and hands, trying to remove any gore before she opens her eyes again. She throws the shirt away. Walking around in a bra and jeans is not how she wants to spend the rest of her day; she’d better hurry before she loses any more clothing.
The CB seems to be clean but she’s not risking it so she grabs a different one, mindful of the glass, stuffs it into the pack, and rolls the last little way home.
Mrs. Vartabedian used to keep roses in the tiny courtyard along the side of their building, and Penny grabs the garden hose and rinses and rinses and rinses, heedless of how frigid the water is.
She peeks between the browning ornamental bushes. There are three zombies at the front fucking door of the building. She could shoot them, but now she knows that making too much noise (or maybe it’s just having the affront to be alive when they are dead) will draw others.
So she swings the pack up onto the fire escape, jumps, drags herself up onto the ladder, and then starts the slow climb upward. Either the roof door will be open (probably, it’s been broken for a couple of years now), or it will be closed and locked, in which case she’s going to introduce it to a couple of bullets.
The door is open. Penny drags herself wearily down the stairs and knocks at her own front door so that she doesn’t scare Sheldon.
As soon as she’s in and the door is closed he’s hugging her, his arms panic-tight, his clothes scratchy on her bare skin.
“I thought you were dead. I heard gunshots and then I didn’t hear you on the stairs and I thought you were dead.”
Penny puts her own arms around his waist. “It’s okay, Sheldon, I’m okay, they didn’t get me. It’s okay, Moonpie...” She keeps talking, low and soothing, barely aware of what she’s saying, only wanting to calm the shaking out of his too-lean frame.
(He’s shaved the beard, finally. It makes his face look even more gaunt.)
She walks him over to the couch and encourages him to sit down. He’s still clinging to her when he does, apparently heedless of her current state of semi-undress.
“I can’t lose you too,” he says into her hair.
“Do we know for sure the others are all...”
“Have you been online since July twenty-third?”
Penny thinks back. “A little? We lost power for a while and when it came back on I couldn’t remember the wifi password, so I just used my phone, but then the power went out again and I couldn’t charge it. I’ve been listening to the radio. That has batteries.”
“What exactly did you hear?” He sits up and moves his hands to her shoulders, looking straight into her eyes.
“That the Convention Center got quarantined, and they don’t think anyone got out after the doors closed.”
“Quarantined,” Sheldon says slowly. His face is sweetly calm, but his fingertips are digging into her skin. “Is that what they said?”
“Well, yeah. Like, until they could evacuate people. Sheldon... what did they do?”
His eyes show the pain of the truth and suddenly she doesn’t want him to speak.
“They blew it up, Penny. They dropped a bomb on the Convention Center. Nobody who was in there when the doors closed got out alive.”
Their names run through her head in a constant litany as she showers, dresses, and goes back to the living room to sort out the treasures from her grocery run. She discovers that Sheldon has cleaned the refrigerator; it smells strongly of lemon, which is a vast improvement over... well, before.
Sheldon is tinkering with her laptop. “Thirty-five percent battery,” he remarks. “The wifi appears to be working. All hail the computing cloud. I’d already compiled the relevant Facebook and Twitter statuses and so forth, so if I...” He clicks something. “There. You can read it offline.”
“What am I reading?” Penny asks, wary.
Penny wants to take the laptop out into the hall, force the elevator doors open, and drop the laptop down the shaft.
She sits down beside Sheldon. The document—a PDF amalgamation of various web pages, judging from the previews down the side—is titled “San Diego 2014”. There’s nothing to give her a real clue about the contents.