Penny loves the continuity of farm work. The consistency. She can expect the same events every day: rise at dawn, set the cows to milking, feed the hens, breakfast then start working with the crops or inspecting the health of the livestock. She has no choice but to love it what with David either driving a truck or cooking meth depending on which side of the law he feels like walking. At least, every 3-4 months, an envelope from David appears. Always cash, always 700 dollars, always taped to her bedroom window. She can't figure out how he climbs the tree without her hearing or seeing him but he does. One third of that money Penny puts in her own savings; the rest goes to the farm.
Penny looks up at the front of the house she grew up in. She clutches the grocery bag tightly to her chest. The windows to her sister's room look exactly the same. This house is slowly becoming the place that Time forgot. David's room remains unchanged; her mother's belongings still present in her parents' room despite a two year passage of time. Now, Jessie's room- a six month shrine to her absence. Penny can't be mad at her sister though she tries. Jessie took her strawberry blond hair and her aquamarine eyes and hightailed it to Hollywood to live the fantasy that she and Penny would spin when they were little girls. They were supposed to go together but Penny stumbled over the roadblocks left by David's absence and their mother's death while Jessie sailed right over them.
She enters the house and heads for the kitchen. She calls out to her father but there is no answer. She begins to prepare the chicken. Penny is humming "Razzle Dazzle" from Chicago quietly to herself when the back door slams. She hears her father take his boots off.
"Kitchen!" She answers. Her hands move quickly, tucking the wings under the bird, stuffing the cavity with half a lemon and some onions then rubbing the whole thing with butter. Long nights have turned Penny into something of a skilled cook. She's indulged in a subscription to Bon Appetit and she doesn't shy away from the challenging recipes.
The chicken is placed in the oven. Penny turns to find her father standing with a stranger. A tall stranger with a bit more weight on him than he seems comfortable with. There's a cap on his head that may have once been gray but is bleached out to bone. His shirt is deep green with a collar and short sleeves. It's worn but clean. His eyes pierce Penny then skip around the kitchen, burning blue. She notices he needs a haircut- the back kicks out and curls at the nape of his neck.
"Penny, this here is Shelly Cooper." Her father's voice is gruff. "He was working down at Ray's farm for a month. Ray can't keep him on and we need the help for now." Penny and Shelly keep staring at each other.
"I told him he can stay in David's room, get his meals and such." Her father's tone indicates there is to be no argument from her. Penny wipes her hand on a towel then walks over.
"Penny." She offers her hand; he doesn't take it.
"Just Penny?" He arches a delicate black brow.
"Just Penny. Nothing more" She pulls her shoulders back.
"Oh, I sincerely doubt that." He replies.
Penny excuses herself immediately after dinner. She heads to the defunct horse stable. The warmth of horses still lingers here. She feels for the switch and the stable light blazes. Penny remembers the horses that were here. She walks past each stall silently saying the names of the mares; Blossom, Pudding, Honey, Knickers, Hank(so named by David for the hank of mane in her eyes at all times). Galahad was the stallion and Leonard their gelding. All sold when it turned out her father had no head for horse breeding and health insurance was falling short for their mother.
Penny faces her project in the middle of the stable. An enormous tractor engine completely in pieces. The deal is this. Her father will deed her the farm for one dollar if she can rebuild the engine and get it to run. Her father is done here. There is too much sorrow and he is done fighting his memories. He wants ocean air after a lifetime of being landlocked. Bob once heard that the ocean has no memory. He wants to model himself after such a thing.
If Penny creates a working engine, she'll get the farm. She can do everything he can- even managed to rope the bull and get it to kneel. She has no time limit. Her father is a patient man. Even though he is anxious to leave, he is relaxed with the one child left to him. He doesn't want her to give up. Penny just wants the horses back.
She has all the pieces organized. It's like a jigsaw puzzle. Everything is grouped but she hesitates to put it together, afraid of encountering failure on the first try. She picks up a piece from the carburetor group and it flecks her hands with grease.
"I saw the light."
The voice startles her. The part falls and a piece she attached last week pops off.
"Horses." Shelly sniffs the air. Penny doesn't answer just reassembles her piece. She has no more tolerance for people who will leave. Her life is already full of them with her father next in line.
"You don't talk much." Shelly crouches next to her, the light of his eyes tugs at her attention.
"Why are you here?" Penny finally spits.
"Got no where else to go." There's the Galveston now in his voice. Over dinner, Penny and her father learned he was from there, had a twin sister, older brother and a religious zealot for a mother.
"Why not?" Penny examines another piece.
"I can help with that." Shelly indicates the engine.
"I suspect you should focus on just helping yourself." This piece clearly belongs in the pile to her left.
"I know things." Shelly's voice is low. Penny finally looks at him. He doesn't have working hands. These hands should be operating on babies' hearts or crushed spinal cords not mucking out stalls or baling hay. Still, the calluses and cuts are there along with the dirt that never comes out no matter how hard he scrubs. There is something otherworldly about him like he knows he's meant for more but can't seem to figure out how to get it.
"No thanks." Penny is tired. "I have to do this on my own."
"Very well." The accent is gone. Penny heads for the stable door.
"We start early here." She reminds him. "Lots to do."
He doesn't answer; she faces him, curious about something.
"What kind of name is Shelly? For a boy , I mean."
He swallows. His Adam's apple traveling the length of his throat.
"It's short for Sheldon."
Sheldon. Penny cocks her head. Suits him so much better. So while he goes by Shelly, he is always Sheldon to her.
Penny walks to David's room- now Sheldon's -with extra sets of sheets and towels. The door is closed and, even though she saw him ride off in a tractor with her father to the back field, she knocks.
She opens the door and the room has been transformed. The bureau now resides against the right wall, the bed between the two windows. A large white box filled with comic books is on the floor near the bureau. Penny opens the closet- David's clothes have been long gone. Sheldon's clothes hang y color and length. An enormous black duffle bag is on the shelf with a tag reading APOCALYPSE hanging from it. She closes the door and surveys the room. He must have cleaned all night for there isn't a speck of dust and the air smells fresh.
She walks over to the nightstand. There are books on it with the titles : Death by Black Hole, The Grand Design, The Book of Nothing, The Universe before the Big Bang. Each book has multi-colored pieces of paper sticking out like feathers from exotic birds. Penny picks up another book called The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene. She opens it and reads:
A universe in which time and space are malleable, a universe with more dimensions than we see, a universe, in which the fabric of space can rip, a universe in which everything might be composed of vibrations of ultramicroscopic loops of energy called strings, was a universe that got people excited…
What is this stuff? Who is this guy now sleeping in her brother's room? If he understands all this, and it is clear he does from the notes in the margins, why is he working on a farm? There is a can of peanut brittle on the nightstand and Penny reaches for a piece. Crepe paper snakes fly out once she removes the lid. She screams and the can goes flying. Penny is showered with money.
"People can't be in my room." Sheldon stands in the doorway, frowning. Penny takes in his long form. Holes in the knees of his jeans, plaid shirt half buttoned and covering a bright orange t-shirt with some type of robot on it. His eyes are flint-covered. Frozen blue. She regains her composure completely unaware that a fifty dollar bill has landed on her head. Sheldon's mouth gives a twitch. He says nothing but continues to stare her down.
"Technically, this isn't your room." Penny replies. "I was just bringing you extra linens" She indicates the pile on the bed. "This is my brother David's room."
"I know. Your father told me about him."
Penny feels instantly betrayed. Her father shouldn't be confiding in strangers.
"Don't worry." Sheldon assures her. "I wasn't really listening and he needs to talk."
Penny isn't comforted by that statement. Now, she is annoyed that this man doesn't consider her father's pain worth his attention.
"Are you some kind of college student?" Penny holds out the book in her lap.
"I've already finished my undergrad and graduate work."
Penny narrows her eyes. He doesn't look old enough to have done all that.
"Then what is all this?"
Sheldon walks into the room toward her. Taking the book from her, he reaches up to pluck the money from her head.
"You have an incredible sense of balance." He tells her. His eyes are warm ocean not ice as they span her face.
Penny walks hurriedly past him, feeling the world tilting under her feet.
Penny comes into the kitchen from upstairs. The morning light has yet to penetrate the kitchen which is along the back of the house. Her father is sitting at the table.
"What are you doing inside?"
"Having a second cup of coffee," Her father tells her. "I asked Shelly if he wants some but he told me he promised his mother he wouldn't do drugs." Her father chuckles, something Penny hasn't heard in a while.
"You like him." It's not a question.
Her father rubs his faded hair. "I do. It's only been a week and he's strange as hell- never seen someone wash his hands so much. I also now know more about Superman than Clark Kent himself but there isn't much he can't do."
Penny looks out the bay window near the table. Sheldon is approaching the hen house. He opens the fence and is immediately swarmed by the hungry flock. Penny hears his high-pitched girly scream through the closed window. The feed bucket goes flying and Sheldon bolts out of the hen yard, stopping only to latch the gate. He runs to the peach tree ten feet away and hides behind it.
"Apparently, his Kryptonite is chickens." She tells her dad.
She has measured each piston rod for roundness using the inside micrometer. Each rod is perfectly straight. If they aren't, the engine will seize and she is back to square one. Sheldon watches from the door. Watches as she measures torque, slides the pistons into sleeves. She purses her lips in concentration. He knows the science behind her moves- the vectors dance in front of his eyes. He knows the exact circumference of each piston. He can tell her about pushing a door and the closer one is to it, the more force is needed but application like she is doing? Slips right through his fingers.
"The standard torque for a tractor piston is 220 inch pounds." Sheldon volunteers.
Penny jumps at his voice, swears under her breath. A gash now decorates her palm.
"Is there something you want?" She barks. "Why do you always come out here?"
Penny wraps part of an old t-shirt around her hand.
"Go talk to my father." Penny urges.
"He's watching the football game. I've had enough of that from the time I was five until I left for college. Longest seven years of my life."
Penny stops tightening a bolt. "Hold on. You went to college when you were twelve!" Sheldon nods.
"Get outta here." She decides he is pulling her leg. Sheldon turns obediently to leave.
"Wait! I didn't mean you should actually get out of here." Penny calls to him.
"You didn't specify." He snaps.
"Just hand me that ratchet."
Sheldon gives her the tool.
"So, Sheldon, you're a college grad at the age of sixteen ad now you work milking cows."
"Heavens, no!" he exclaims. "I had my first doctorate at sixteen. My second at twenty." Penny takes it in while tightening the bolt.
"Okay." Her voice is soft. "Sheldon, you can tell me the truth. They're looking for you aren't they?"
"The men in the white coats with the butterfly nets. I'll hide you only 'cause you make my father laugh and we need the help."
"I'm not crazy." Sheldon grits his teeth. "My mother had me tested. I can show you my diplomas and documents." His eyes have that ice-blue cast again which lets Penny know he is serious.
"Why are you here?" She asks.
"Why are you here?" He counters. "Your father told me about Jessie today but, apparently, you're the one with talent. Yet she went to Hollywood and you are building a tractor engine.
Inexplicably, tears well in her eyes. How does this man know the exact pinhole in her armor to snake a delicate hand through and twist her heart?
"My mother died." Penny finally says.
Sheldon nods, flipping the hair out of his collar.
"My father died." He replies. "After that, there didn't seem to be much point."
Penny knows exactly what he means. Why strive for dreams when the person you need to prove it to the most is no longer there? It certainly isn't worth it to prove it to yourself.
"What's the point now, Penny?" Sheldon is holding her steady with the intensity of his gaze.
"Horses." She answers.
The only conversation for the next two hours is Penny's terse requests for tools.
Sheldon begins by teaching her genetics. Penny's father listens from the den while one of the many Law & Orders is on the TV. His daughter and his farmhand have turned the dining room into a classroom. There is even a whiteboard. Sheldon started with Punnet squares, drilling Penny until now, all he has to do is mention traits and she can verbally tell him which will be dominant. No paper needed.
Tonight's lesson is not going as smoothly. Something about cross-breeding . Bob never did understand which contributed to his lack of success. But Penny? Penny is horse-crazy and she'll learn if only to prove she can. Shelly is prompting her for an answer.
"I don't know." Penny says.
"How can you not know? I just told you!" Shelly fumes. "Have you suffered a recent blow to the head?"
Penny's father raises his eyebrows- that was harsh.
"No. You just suck at teaching." Penny fights back. Atta, girl! There is the sound of movement from the room.
"Wait! Where are you going?" Shelly cries but he is answered by the slam of the back door.
Penny walks straight for the stable. She flicks on the light and views the stalls. Who is she kidding? She can't do this. If Galahad were still here, she would jump on him bareback and canter out to the fields to ride out her feelings of inadequacy. The only things here are memories and those just leave you in the same place.
Sheldon wanders into the den. Dry erase marker no stains his fingers but at least it hides the dirt.
"Have a seat, Shel." Penny's father offers.
Sheldon likes this burly man. He's direct, doesn't speak in idioms or metaphoric speech. Sheldon is more at ease interacting with Penny's father than with any other man in his life.
"You ever had a girlfriend, Shelly?"
Sheldon notes there is no judgment in the question but his eyes widen. "No, sir."
"Don't know much about strong women, do you?"
Sheldon stares down at his hands. "I have a contentious twin sister who could probably give you a run for your money in a bar fight, sir."
Penny's father guffaws and pops some cashews into his mouth.
"She spent most of our youth beating me up." Sheldon continues.
"So , how did you deal with your sister?"
"I ran" Sheldon squeaks. They watch a commercial for a car neither sees any use for though for different reasons.
"Penny tells me you're real smart. PhD and all."
"Shelly, I told you to call me Bob." The younger man just shakes his head. "What changed?"
Sheldon chews on his bottom lip. Somehow, he can't give the straight forward answer he gave Penny to this man who has been nothing but forthcoming with him. Sheldon's answer seems weak and he is full up with paternal disapproval.
"I was done." Sheldon finally says.
"Really?" Bob scoffs, his tone a perfect imitation of his daughter's. "You fulfilled all your dreams? You're mighty young for that."
Sheldon lets himself think of the Nobel , briefly. Another fleeting moment; he's not one to dwell.
"I grew up." He tells his employer.
"Hokum," Penny's father says then turns in his armchair to face Sheldon. "Why, as soon as Penny stops fighting herself, she'll get this farm and I'll get to live my dream."
"I'm leaving all this. The struggle, the dirt, the smells. I'm going to live by the ocean. Breathe fresh air and go fishing everyday. That's my dream."
Sheldon rises from the plaid sofa. "Is that what you're calling it these days?"
Penny will not cry. She turns from Galahad's stall . On the wall across from her, is the large sledge hammer. She gets it down but drops it immediately. Grunting with exertion, she drags it over to the partially assembled tractor engine. Penny heaves it up but is distracted by the scrape of boots.
"You don't want to do that." Her father tells her.
"Yeah? Why not?" She pants, readying the hammer.
"Then you'll end up like your brother and your sister."
Now that stops her cold. Her arms shake from the weight of the hammer.
"What do you mean?"
Her father moves into the stable. "I know you think they escaped, Pen but they didn't. Your brother runs drugs and Jessie…"
"Jessie's in Hollywood, Dad."
"Jessie's in Pasadena!" Her father yells. "She's a waitress in a goddamn Cheesecake Factory restaurant."
"You've heard from her?" Penny is stunned.
" 'Course I have. I hear from David , too. He come s out to the cornfield like clockwork every Tuesday. Jessie writes letters"
Penny's heart is hollow. Her brother and sister never contact her. David doesn't even write 'Love David' on his envelopes.
"I guess I pissed them off royally." She has to drop the hammer or her arms will break.
"It's not like that , Slugger." They don't want you to see what they've become."
"I'm not much better."
Penny's father fiddles with an old harness. "Fix that engine." He tells her. "Keep up your lessons with Shelly and you will be."