She feels so free, driving a fast red car on this dusty Nebraska highway, Patsy Cline singing sad songs on AM radio.
Sheldon sits next to her, the tip of his nose already reddening from the sun. Her hand creeps over to his thigh, clad in a pair of worn Levi's. All he needs is a Stetson and he'll be the perfect Nebraska wannabe cowboy.
Funny, she never knew he even owned jeans until today.
"Only twenty more miles until we arrive," he announces just before noon. She almost forgot how bright the sun can be in this bright, fertile land.
She pulls the car off onto an anonymous rural road.
"This isn't the correct road," he says, glancing down at the map spread across his lap. Texas is creeping back into his voice, turning his syllables into slow syrup.
"Oh, sweetie," she sighs. "Don't you know anything about road trips?"
He has a lot to learn, she thinks. He never went to the drive-in for root beer floats after the game. He never played quarters in someone's rec room. He never made out in the back of a car with the almost head cheerleader.
She licks his neck, tasting salt.
They arrive just in time for the traditional Sunday afternoon dinner—baked ham, scalloped potatoes, peas and carrots from the garden, rolls fresh from the oven. There's even Penny's favorite Jell-O salad, orange-flavored with mayonnaise, crushed pineapple, grated carrot and walnuts. It sounds disgusting, and it probably is, objectively, but Penny never gets anything like this in California. It tastes like home to her.
Her mouth is dry with nerves. Before they left, she wrote out a three-page list of do's and don't for Sheldon.
1. You don't have a "spot" anywhere in my parents' house. You'll just have to suck it up.
33. Do not make fun of God, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, religion, Catholics, priests, nuns, altar boys, crucifixes or the Pope.
67. The state of your bowel movement regularity is never an acceptable topic of dinner-table conversation.
98. Offer to help my father with the chores. This is what "real men" do.
123. We do not, ever mention the fact that my brother is in jail. He's just "away." Leave it at that.
145. My father whistles. A lot. DEAL WITH IT.
161. Making fun of the Nebraska Cornhuskers is the worst thing you could ever possibly do, short of murder, adultery or saying that universal health care is a good idea.
184. Eat everything put before you. No whining. Pretend it's delicious.
203. We have never had sex. Never. If you mention anything involving sex I will be forced to defend my purity to the dying breath.
The big platters are passed around the table and then Sheldon begins to dig in. Penny kicks him under the table and he sets down his fork.
"Let's thank the Lord being so generous with us today," her father says, in his deep voice that has always reminded Penny of hot fudge. He pretends not to notice that Sheldon had started eating before grace.
Everyone bows their heads, Sheldon included, thanks to another pointed kick on Penny's part.
"Bless us, Oh Lord, and these thy gifts which we are about to receive from thy bounty, through Christ, our Lord. Amen," everyone recites, except for Sheldon. Penny doesn't kick him for it, though. He probably didn't grow up with this particular prayer. Mary was most likely fond of something more passionate and free-form—a good, solid half-hour of praising Jesus for the tuna casserole and purple Kool-Aid.
"I wish you'd come in time for Mass," her mother says. "St. Michael's was so pretty today. Jessie Mills brought a whole bunch of flowers from her garden and it smelled like the inside of a perfume bottle."
Penny cuts her ham. "Sorry. We couldn't find a flight out that early."
"Did you grow up Catholic, Sheldon?" her mother asks. Penny notices that her mother's hair, once as blonde as her own, is now mostly gray.
Sheldon looks up. "No. My mother's a Pentecostal and I'm—."
Penny applies a small, warning kick to Sheldon's shin that says, you're treading on dangerous territory, buddy.
"Do you attend church out in California?" her father asks.
"I'm—I'm currently in a period of examining my faith," Sheldon says, his face guileless. "I am currently without a religious community."
It's not exactly a lie, but not exactly the truth, either. Penny is very proud of him.
Her father clears his throat. "Penny tells us you're a physicist. What exactly do you do at the university?"
Here we go, Penny thinks, helping herself to more Jell-O salad. She settles in for the long haul.
Penny and her mother clear the table. The two men are hunched over a pad of paper where Sheldon is madly scribbling one of those square chart things Penny remembers learning in high school biology class, even if she can't remember the exact name. Something to do with genetics. She hears Sheldon say words like homozygous genotype and wild type allele and her father say a bunch of things about corn hybrids. The two of them vigorously nod their dark heads, almost in unison.
She tries not to begrudge the fact that the women are socialized to clean up while the men stay seated at the table, yakking over their blueberry pie.
In the kitchen, her mother washes and Penny wipes. Penny almost forgot how strangely soothing it is to do the dishes with her mother in a sunny kitchen. It's somehow much different than her half-hearted attempts to wash out her stained coffee mugs and wineglasses at home.
"So," she finally says to her mother. "What do you think of Sheldon?"
Her mother swishes the dishcloth around in the soapy water. "He's...different," she finally says.
Penny raises her eyebrows. "Different?" In her family's language, different is not always a good thing.
"Well, he's sure different than any of your other boyfriends I've met." Her mom hands her the casserole dish.
"Is that good or bad?" Penny's not sure why she wants her mother's approval so badly, but she does.
"He's really smart. And he's kind of good-looking, if you like that skinny type."
"Penny, does he cheat on you?"
"No!" Like Sheldon ever would.
"Does he hit you?"
"God, no. I'd kick his ass."
Her mother stares straight into her eyes, blue into green. "Does he do drugs?"
Penny snorts. "Sheldon? Drugs? Mom, he doesn't even drink coffee. At least he shouldn't..."
"Is he nice to you?"
"Yeah, he's really nice to me, Mom." Penny stands on tiptoe to put the ham platter on the top shelf of the cupboard.
"Do you love him?" Her mother raises one pale eyebrow.
"I do. I really do," Penny says. If she knows anything, she knows this.
Her mother nods decisively. "Then I can already say that he's the best boyfriend you've ever had."
Penny smiles, relieved.
"And I think your father has a crush on him."
"A crush?" Penny shudders.
Her mother playfully smacks her in the arm. "Not that kind of crush, Penny! But didn't you notice that after ten minutes your dad told him to call him Pete, not Mister?"
"Oh God," Penny says, rolling her eyes. "He really does have a crush on Sheldon."
Penny takes Sheldon on a walk through the fields of corn and soybeans. It's one of those hot, endless Nebraska days, not a cloud in the sky or a whisper of a breeze to rustle the plants.
"How much land is here?" Sheldon asks, wiping his damp brow.
"Almost two thousand acres." She stops and touches one of the corn stalks. "My great-great-grandparents bought most of this land in the 1900s. Our family has been farming here for more than a hundred years and now..." Her voice trails off.
"And now, what?"
"My parents will be the last." It feels sad to her that someday this land will be sold to strangers, that someone who doesn't bear her last name will work these fields.
"Your siblings don't want to have it either?" Sheldon knows well that Penny has no interest in farming or living in rural Nebraska.
She shakes her head. "My sister is happier living in town. And my brother...he'd just piss it all away on meth."
Penny hasn't seen her brother in almost three years. While there's an outside chance that he'll clean up and go straight after he gets out of jail, she seriously doubts it. Shane has had so many chances and he's fucked them all up.
"No," Penny says, lifting her face to the hot sun. "My parents will be the last."
She takes Sheldon through the barns, showing him all the equipment—the tractor, the combine. He seems to have a lot of fun geeking out on the machinery, even climbing up into the cab of the tractor.
"How come you don't have any cows?" he asks. "I like cows."
"Because this isn't a beef or dairy operation. Shane and I raised a couple of calves for 4-H when we were kids and showed them at the state fair. My mom had chickens for years. She sold the eggs in Omaha at the farmer's market. But now that none of us are around to help, she's given them up." She blows some loose strands of hair out of her face. "Bummer. Those were some good eggs."
They walk out of the barn, towards the pasture. "This seems like a good place to grow up. I wouldn't have enjoyed it," Sheldon says. "But I can visualize how you would have."
"It was. When I was a kid we were outdoors all day. Doing chores, running around, riding horses. I was barefoot so much that when I was nine I stepped on a rusty nail I didn't even feel it at first. My feet were tougher than leather."
In the pasture, the two horses, gray and brown, are grazing. Penny's heart lurches at the sight of them and she runs straight for them. She wraps her arms around the brown horse's neck, breathing in his familiar, unmistakably horsey scent.
"The gray horse is Cloud," she says, running her fingers through the horse's mane. "And this is my horse, Justin Timberlake."
Sheldon stares at her. "You named your horse for the singer of a second-rate boy group?"
She's actually surprised that Sheldon has any idea who Justin Timberlake is."What can I say? I loved 'N SYNC. And I loved this horse. Sometimes I think he was my first love." Justin Timberlake nickers softly as she scratches him behind his ears.
"Are you telling me that you indulged in bestiality, Penny?" Sheldon's mouth is hanging open
"Must you be so literal? No! I just loved him a whole lot. I couldn't wait to get home from school and finish my chores so I could ride him. We'd just go and it felt like we were one person." She sighs, feeling like she's somehow betrayed Justin Timberlake by being gone for so long.
"Will you ride him while you're here?"
She nods, suddenly feeling so flush with happiness that she can hardly contain it. She twirls in the pasture, singing an old favorite from South Pacific:
I'm as corny as Kansas in August,
I'm as normal as blueberry pie.
No more a smart little girl with no heart,
I have found me a wonderful guy!
I am in a conventional dither,
With a conventional star in my eye.
And you will note there's a lump in my throat
When I speak of that...
Sheldon interrupts her. "Penny, I must insist. Cease that infernal racket!"
Thousands of dollars worth of singing lessons and she still can't carry a tune. "But it's a song about how a girl has found a wonderful guy," she protests.
"The song is about Kansas. We're in Nebraska, Penny."
"Oh, Sheldon," she says. "How many times do we have to talk about being overly literal?"
"No, Penny, I won't do it."
"But, Sheldon, you have to while you're here," she wheedles. "It's all part of the experience."
He crosses his arms at the chest. "I must stand firm. No."
"I'll even give you a cowboy hat to wear."
"I have no desire to be a cowboy."
She bats her eyelashes at him. "Pretty please with sugar on top? I've always wanted to do this."
"Sugar on top of what?" He glares at her and exhales sharply. "All right. Fine. I'll sit on the horse, but if it actually goes anywhere there'll be hell to pay."
She saddles up Cloud, the more placid of the two horses. She hands Sheldon an old Stetson she found in the house. It probably belonged to her brother once.
Sheldon examines the hat. "The hatband has sweat stains on it," he says, wrinkling his nose.
"Quit being such a city boy and put on the damn hat," she says.
He puts on the hat and whoa. Not bad at all. Sheldon in blue jeans, a plain white t-shirt and a Stetson is one long, lean cowboy. If he were wearing cowboy boots and had a pack of smokes rolled up in his sleeve, she'd probably rip his clothes off right here in the barn with the horses looking on.
Penny helps him climb up into the saddle. There it is, Sheldon on a horse.
It totally ruins her cowboy fantasy. If there's anything more awkward and goofy-looking than Sheldon sitting in a saddle, Penny would like to know what it is. He's sitting so stiffly it looks like his spine is made of iron and his eyes are round and terrified.
"Oh my God," she gasps with laughter. "That's just...it's just so wrong."
If looks could kill, she'd be gushing blood all over the barn.
Cloud lifts her head and whinnies. "Penny, the horse is making noises." Sheldon looks panicked.
She pats the horse on the head. "Yeah, she's a horse."
"Penny, take the picture and let me down from here immediately."
She takes the picture with her iPhone and helps him down off Cloud. He looks incredibly happy to be on solid ground.
Sheldon takes the cowboy hat off and hands it to her. "So help me, Penny, if you show that picture to anyone, you're dead."
She's already sent it to Leonard, Raj and Howard. Four bars of coverage, even out here in Bumfuck Egypt. Technology is beautiful.
The building farthest from the house is the old barn, sagging a little and its paint peeling. Her great-grandparents put it up in the 1930s; it's no longer used for anything except to store some broken equipment. At least once a year her mother begs her father to tear it down and every year he says he'll get to it. He never does.
"This is where Lori and I would hide when we didn't want to help our dad," Penny says, opening the door. "We kept a stash of Barbie dolls in here."
The inside smells musty, like dust and old hay and machine oil.
Sheldon delicately sneezes, like a cat.
"Your allergies are all in your head," she reminds him.
"What are we doing?" he asks. "As far as I can see, there's nothing to actually see in here."
"That's what you think," she says.
She takes him by hand to the far end of the barn. There's a wooden ladder there, leading to the hayloft. Penny starts climbing the ladder.
"Where are you going?" he says, sounding fretful.
"Up. Are you coming?"
"How do you know that ladder's structurally sound?"
She climbs another two rungs. "I don't. Life's an adventure, Sheldon."
"Sure it is. Today so far you've been on an airplane ride, made out in a car, eaten orange Jell-O salad, learned all about corn and sat on a horse. There have been lots of adventures! Try this one on for size." She looks down at him and his face is very white.
"I hate ladders," he says. "My dad used to make me climb on the ladder to clean the gutters."
She climbs one more rung. "Come on, don't you want to see what a real, live hayloft is like?"
"Or what having sex in a real, live hayloft is like?"
"I prefer to have sex in a real bed, thank you."
"Mmm, too bad. Because we'll be sleeping in separate beds for the next three days and if you don't think my dad is going to patrol the hallway with his hunting rifle, you're dead wrong, buster." She reaches the top of the ladder.
Sheldon is all the way up that ladder in eighteen seconds, flat. Like a little monkey, she thinks later with the afterglow blooming through her body, Sheldon panting beside her and covered with bits of hay. Totally like a little monkey.
After supper she stands on the front porch with her dad while he smokes one of his cigarillos. Her mother is mopping the kitchen floor and Sheldon is showering off "that pungent equine odor."
"When's your TV show going to be on again, Pen?" He's the only person on the planet who can get away with calling her "Pen."
"In October. But it's no big deal, really." She has two scenes on an episode of Bones, playing smart-mouthed cop. But her character did get to flirt a little bit with Booth, which was fun.
"I don't know. Sounds like a big deal to me. Your mother's already planning the party. She's inviting half the county."
"Oh, God." Somehow, this embarrasses her.
"You should see her. She shows your Crest commercial to everyone who sets foot on the property."
"She's turning into a stage mother."
Her father blows smoke rings. "I like your Sheldon. He's a good guy."
She smiles. "I'm glad, Dad."
He turns to her and gives her one of his rare full smiles. "I'm proud of you, Penny."
"Because I finally caught myself a decent man?" She fights the urge to roll her eyes.
"No, honey. Because you've made a successful life for yourself."
She shrugs. "A commercial and a guest spot on a TV show aren't exactly raging success."
"Pen, look at it like this. You've never been in jail. You don't have any kids out of wedlock. You made it all the way out in Los Angeles with a suitcase and five hundred bucks. You pay your bills. You keep your head down, work hard and never ask us for anything. I call that success."
She wraps her arms around her father and hugs him close. Like Sheldon, he's stiff at first but he eventually relaxes into her embrace. "Thanks, Daddy," she says.
It's almost sundown, but before the mosquitoes have come out in full force. Her parents and Sheldon sit on the front porch, sipping iced tea.
She watches them from her vantage point atop Justin Timberlake. The three of them make a nice picture.
She digs her heels into the horse's side. "Let's go," she tells him.
Justin Timberlake has not forgotten her voice or her commands. He takes off into a full-tilt gallop.
And they ride off into the sunset.