She greets the dawn on the porch swing, listening to bird chirping and the thwap of newspapers hitting the porches of the neighbors' houses, expertly thrown from the paper deliverer's car.
It's a beautiful April morning and she watches it slowly arrive, pausing to breathe through her contractions.
How strange to know that this will be the last morning she'll experience with the baby still inside her. The last morning it'll be just the two of them. Tomorrow, they will have magically multiplied into three. One plus one equals three. Solve that equation, Sheldon, she thinks as she feels the cramping sensation start up again.
Sheldon's inside, making her an egg and cheese bagel for breakfast. He's been in there an awfully long time, but that's to be expected for Sheldon. He's probably determining the optimum ratio of egg to cheese and ensuring that the bagel is achieving an absolutely even golden-brown in the toaster oven. Never mind that his wife is alone on the porch, having contractions that will eventually bring his child into the world. The bagel must be done right or not at all.
She doesn't really mind. This might be the last peaceful moment she'll have for the next eighteen years.
Sheldon has developed a contraction app for his iPhone. Each time she has one, he enters in the time, duration, and approximate strength.
"I don't understand what this is going to accomplish," she says, gripping the arm of the couch as she feels another one flare up. She's sitting on a stack of towels in case her water breaks. They just got the sofa at a sale at Design Within Reach and if her water broke on it, Sheldon would probably never go near it again.
"The app will tell us when it's appropriate to go to the hospital," he says, as if it's the most obvious thing in the world.
"It's easy," she says, feeling the pain ebb away. "The 4-1-1 rule, remember from birth class? It's time to go to the hospital when contractions come every four minutes, last at least one minute, and the pattern goes on for an hour. We don't need an iPhone app to tell us that."
Sheldon ignores her. "Currently, your contractions haven't formed a discernable pattern," he says, fiddling with his phone. "They're arriving anywhere from six to eighteen minutes apart."
"I'm aware. I'm the one having them, remember?"
He looks up from his phone. "Penny," he says, his voice gentler. "I feel rather helpless during this process. The contraction app gives me something to do."
She squeezes his hand. "I know, Sheldon."
There's still no rhyme or reason to her contractions, so they go for a walk around the neighborhood. Her swollen feet no longer fit into her sneakers, so she has to shuffle down the sidewalk in her pink and green striped flip-flops.
Every so often she has to stop and double over with a contraction. The pain isn't unbearable, not yet, but it's definitely enough to make her need to catch her breath. Sheldon applies counter-pressure to her lower back, which helps some.
At one point, some guy walks by while this is going on and says, "Get to the hospital already, you two."
Penny remembers all the times she made out with some dumb, drunk guy in a bar or a club and how sometimes people shouted, "Get a room!" She's gone from "get a room" to "get to the hospital." Huh.
At Starbucks she orders a venti iced vanilla latte with an extra shot. Maybe it'll wake the baby up.
That was a mistake. She's barely touched caffeine throughout her pregnancy, even though her doctor said that moderate amounts were okay, and now she feels like she smoked a half-dozen crack rocks.
For the next hour she unpacks and repacks her hospital bag between contractions. Blue or red yoga pants? Does she really need three nursing bras for forty-eight hours in the hospital? Where the hell did she put the nipple shields? Which of the approximately three thousand outfits she's received as shower gifts should the baby go home in?
She hasn't had a contraction in an hour and sixteen minutes. She freaks out, sure that something has gone horribly, horribly wrong. Maybe the baby has somehow died from a caffeine overdose.
She calls the OB office and after a long time on hold, where she's forced to listen to smooth jazz, Nancy, one of the nurse midwives, gets on the phone. Penny blubbers something about the contractions stopping.
"Welcome to early labor," Nancy says. "You're just fine. If things don't get going again in twelve hours or your water breaks, call us back."
"Twelve hours!" Penny says, nearly shrieking. She figured the baby would be here by dinner time, despite everything she's read or learned in childbirth class.
"Lie down, try to take a nap. You'll need to be well-rested."
She hangs up the phone, swearing under her breath.
She curls up on the couch and Sheldon covers her with a blanket. "Sleep," he says. "Doctor's orders." He kisses her on the top of the head and pads off to his study, presumably to think deep thoughts about neutrinos or something.
Penny closes her eyes, willing herself to sleep but it won't come. She feels the baby shifting within her uterus and it cheers her up. He's (the baby is a boy, which they've known since her twenty-week ultrasound, but it feels weird to assign a sex to the baby when it hasn't yet emerged into the world) still alive. He's just fine. But she's too excited and nervous and still too caffeinated to sleep.
This is one of those times when everything seems surreal—the fact that almost five years ago she fell in love with Sheldon. Sheldon. Socially stunted, awkward, genius, annoying, presumably asexual Sheldon. And somehow he fell in love with her, too, and, against all odds, it worked. It doesn't seem possible that in the last year they actually bought a house, got married, and got her knocked up at Comic-Con. It feels so grown up, except maybe the Comic-Con part. Now they're going to be parents? How the hell did that happen?
The baby shifts again, restless inside her. "Come on, baby," she whispers, hand on her enormous belly. "It's time."
The baby has no answer.
Her eyes flutter open. Huh, so she slept after all. Pain rips through her belly, stronger than anything she's felt. She lets out a loud groan, like an animal.
Sheldon comes running down the hall, arms flailing. He's never been a graceful runner. "Are you all right?" he asks breathlessly.
She struggles to sit up. "Another contraction," she gasps through the pain.
"Hold on," he says. "I left my phone in the study."
Penny flops back on the sofa pillows. This contraction makes all the others feel like total poseurs. Wow. Suddenly, natural childbirth doesn't seem like such a sane idea.
Phone in hand, Sheldon trots back into the living room. "Okay," he says, all business. "What time did that one start and how long did it last?"
"I have no idea," she says, rolling her eyes. "I was too busy being, you know, in pain."
"Penny, how am I supposed to accurately track the trajectory of your labor if I don't have the appropriate data?"
She wonders what he'd do if she flushed his iPhone down the toilet.
In the bedroom, sitting on the yoga ball with her forehead resting on the mattress. This seems to be the only possible position her body can stand to be in right now. She's trying to breathe like she learned in birth class, but it's hard to keep track when the pain gets bad.
Sheldon is kneeling behind her, pressing on her lower back. "The contractions are coming approximately seven minutes apart," he says, brushing hair off her forehead. "You're getting closer."
Not close enough, she thinks. Her jaw aches from clenching it through contractions.
He hands her a bottle of water. "Here, drink."
She shakes her head. There's not enough room in there for water.
"You don't want to become dehydrated," he says.
She sits up to take a few sips and then goes back to her head on the mattress. Another pain flares through her. "Fuuuuuuuuck," she groans.
Sheldon hates swearing but he doesn't say anything, to his credit.
The contraction dies down. "Sheldon?" she asks, her voice muffled by the mattress.
"What'll you do if our kid isn't a genius?" This is something that's been plaguing her even since she got pregnant but she hasn't had the nerve to bring it up before. But now everything seems to fair game as she groans her way through her contractions.
He doesn't say anything for a moment, but his hands press down harder on her back. It feels wonderful. Finally, he speaks, sounding almost offended. "Do you really mean to insinuate that I wouldn't love him if he weren't a genius? What kind of person do you take me for? I'll love him, no matter what."
She sniffles into the duvet, relief washing through her body. She's not entirely sure his answer would have been the same five years ago. It sometimes amazes her how Sheldon's changed. And how she's changed. How they've changed, together.
She pukes up water, along with what seems to be iced vanilla latte and maybe even some of the egg bagel.
Penny hunches over the toilet bowl, the nausea making her drool, and wishes she could just die already.
"Could you be in transition? Isn't vomiting a symptom of transition?" Sheldon says through the closed door, which almost makes her laugh since he hates when anyone talks to him in the bathroom.
"I wish," she says, squeezing Colgate on her toothbrush. If only it could be that easy.
Oh my God, taking a shower was the best idea in the history of ideas. She aims the showerhead to spray on her lower back and stands there on the whimsical adhesive hippos, the hot water blunting the pain of the contractions. Maybe she'll just go ahead and have the baby in the shower. It'll be all nice and crunchy, like Ricki Lake's homebirth in the bathtub. Sheldon's a doctor, after all. True, he's not a medical doctor but physics is kind of close, right?
Reluctantly, she gets out of the shower because the contractions are now coming fast and hard. She can hardly stand through them. Sheldon helps her out and dries her off with a bath towel.
She remembers a night long ago when he helped her out of the shower and she didn't want him to see her naked. My, how things have changed.
"We need to go the hospital," she says, looking up at him; his forehead is creased with concern.
"Are you sure?"
"Yep. I'm sure."
She stands at the door of the baby's room. Three months ago, before she got too big to do anything involving moving too much, she painted the walls sage green. There's a wooden crib, a changing table, a rocker in the corner. On the walls hang the Beatrix Potter prints she had framed. The room is stocked with diapers, wipes, and everything else a baby could possibly need. They're ready.
So why does she feel so woefully unprepared for this? She's going to be a mother. Impossible. No, improbable, as Sheldon would say.
Penny feels Sheldon's hand on her shoulder. "You're going to be a wonderful mother," he says, as if he can read her mind.
She turns around to smile at him. "And you're going to be the most interesting father ever."