Once she'd landed an actual paying acting job that was going to last more than a day, Penny started making a list.
- Break a leg for real.
- Blow all of her lines and miss every mark (and totally piss off the director who never let a take go by without reminding her how lucky she was to be there).
- Forget how to speak English.
- Let the tiny bit of success go to her head, party all night every night, and sleep through her call times for days.
- Let on how creepy she found the Scientology pamphlets her medium-name costar keeps pressing on her.
- Fall down an open sewer grate on her way into work and smash her face into a pulp.
- Gain ten pounds (because, face it, Hollywood).
Never, in any of those million things, did she think that this would happen.
"Where am I?" Raj asked again, squeezing her wrist. When his eyes focused, he looked confused. His expression edged closer to terrified the longer she gaped at him. "Who are you?"
The prop master rushed up with a bag of ice wrapped in a towel from the bathroom set. He flopped it into her hand then backed away. The whole crew was giving them a ton of space. It was bad enough a visitor got hurt on set; the way they looked at him, Raj was on fire and radioactive and about to blow. No one wanted to get near him. Not until the union rep got off the phone, anyway.
Penny laid the icepack on the rapidly swelling bump on Raj's forehead, as gently as she could. "You came to visit me at work, sweetie. Don't you remember?"
What Penny wanted to say to him next was lost in the mostly silent panic of a bunch of producers and the director as two paramedics were ushered across the soundstage. Studio and production company lawyers hung around the edges of the crowd, fingers wedged in their ears as they shouted into Bluetooth headsets.
"I don't think it's anything to worry about but your friend was exhibiting aphasic speech earlier. We want to keep an eye on him overnight." The doctor jingled the change in his pockets and flashed his bleached teeth at Penny. His lab coat paled in comparison.
"I don't know what that means."
She felt as flat as a pancake, and just about as dull. Her voice sounded like someone ran over it with a truck. She'd been sitting on her hands in a cracked plastic chair in the waiting room for what had to have been a month. None of the guys were answering their phones and she was completely out of her depth.
Penny tried not to take it personally when the doctor's smile shifted into more familiar territory as he looked down her top. "It means he wasn't communicating clearly."
"Oh, that," she said as brightly as she could. "No, that's just Raj. He can't talk if there's girls in the room. It's some kind of thing with him." Penny smiled for the first time in hours.
The doctor didn't.
If Raj had a superpower, it was the ability to disappear into thin air. It was like he could just curl up and blink away, occasionally popping back into existence with a shake of his head or hands or a muffled squeak.
When Penny pushed open the door to his semi-private room - after sneaking past the General Hospital-worthy villain at the nurse's station - she was startled to see how tiny he looked in the hospital bed. Two butterfly bandages secured the jagged gash across his temple and a narrow stripe of hair had been shaved away. The white plastic stood out in sharp relief against his skin and the purpling bruise. His eyes were closed, the dark lashes smudged beneath them in the twilit gloom.
She dropped her purse next to the bed and sat down on the hard visitor's chair, sitting forward a moment later to cradle his hand between hers. His skin was warm.
"You're going to be okay, sweetie. The doctor said you're going to be just fine."
Penny squeezed his fingers and convinced herself that was what the doctor had actually said.
"Why are you asking me this? I don't remember who is President, and I don't care!"
It was hard to tell who was more annoyed by the repeated questions, Raj or the nurse.
Penny thought she probably came in a close third this time. But if you added up all the times she'd heard Raj giving the exact same responses, she might take first.
"I'm really sorry about this, babe. I fought for you but the studio is shitting its pants about liability. They aren't even going to let you back on set to pick up your stuff, so I'm having Brent drop it off at your apartment."
There was a pause, then a raspy intake of breath as her agent, Lou, lit another cigarette. Penny kept her mouth shut, mostly so she wouldn't start screaming. She'd only been hired as a last resort after the first dozen choices had all passed. She was supposed to have been in almost every scene in the movie but with only six lines, half of them in a bikini.
"Look, I'm gonna get you a walk-on for Josh's new thing - just background stuff, you know, he owes me one - and we'll see where it goes from there, all right?"
She looked over her shoulder to where Sheldon, Leonard, and Howard were setting up the learning thing they swore up and down would help Raj as much as it had helped Spock after dead-something-cat-something-his-mom. She didn't think they were talking about the one movie she'd actually watched.
"It's fine, Lou, really. I gotta go. Tell Ned I said hi."
"Will do, hon. You take care of that friend of yours and we'll talk later." She didn't wait for Penny to acknowledge that before she clicked off the line.
Penny's head started to pound as the guys started bickering over who would be responsible for programming the questions. Penny rubbed her eyes then slammed her hand down on Raj's kitchen counter.
"I'm going back to the hospital," she said when all three of them turned wide eyes toward her. "Just get this straightened out before they release him, okay?"
She took her cue from Lou and swept out of Raj's apartment before any of them could respond.
"Look, I keep trying to tell you: you need to prepare yourself for this. Raj hasn't shown much improvement over the past few days. At this point it's pretty likely that he never will. It's possible that over time he might recover some memories around the accident but the damage to his hippocampus means that he won't retain new ones."
The doctor's teeth were obscenely bright in the dim office. Penny hadn't bothered to learn his name, preferring to think of him as Dr McCreepy. She smiled and nodded until he finally ran out of warnings she didn't want to hear, and mostly didn't understand. As she let herself out of his office, she heard him mutter, "Don't come crying to me when he doesn't remember your name."
She made it all the way to the elevator before she let her smile crack.
On the drive to his apartment, Raj kept complaining about the hospital and the nurse who'd wheeled him downstairs. He scratched irritably at the bandage on his head and looked surprised when he noticed the missing hair at his temple.
By the halfway point, he'd lapsed into silence, then started asking where they were going and why.
Penny gave him the same answers, over and over, trying to stay as calm and friendly as she could. She wanted to scream - at him, at the doctors, at Leonard and Howard for refusing to come with her, at Sheldon for not knowing the answers for how to fix Raj.
As she pulled to the curb next to his building, Raj turned to her with a frightened look. His fingers worried the bruise on his temple, rubbed over the stubble of his hair.
"What happened to my head? Why are we in your car?"
The walk-on that Lou set up was a disaster. The assistant director stuck her in the back of a crowded scene and kept waving her further away from the camera's sight line with every take. She spent an entire day pretending to be into the creep who took the suggestion of "you're trying to hit on her" a little too seriously. As she walked to her car that night she knew deep down that it was all for nothing.
She was right. Lou called the next morning while she was helping Raj sort through his mail.
"Sorry, kid, but they don't want you back for the rest of the crowd scenes. Josh is a hack and an asshole, anyway, so don't worry about it. I'll call if I find anything else."
Penny stood in Raj's bathroom for another ten minutes, fingers clenched around the linoleum counter and head bowed. She wasn't going to cry, not over this. Not after she'd spent so long chasing this dream that just wouldn't happen. She'd just have to trust Lou and keep going to the cattle calls and praying every night that some casting director would pull his head out of his ass. She still had some money saved up from the Ralphs commercial, and as far as she knew she hadn't been cut out of the next round of ads for Fry's.
If worst came to worst, she could always call to beg for her old job at the Cheesecake Factory.
Raj was sitting on the couch watching an old episode of The X-Files when she finally came out of the bathroom. His mail was still scattered in messy piles where she'd left it on the kitchen counter.
"I can't keep doing this, Leonard."
He flinched away from her like she'd punched him in the gut. Penny dropped onto one of the stools and started rubbing her thumb against the grain of the wood.
"I can't keep, you know, pretending everything's fine."
"When was the last time you even called him?" She turned to pin them all with a look. "Any of you? I mean, obviously none of you can handle actually being around him but when was the last time you talked to him on the phone?"
Howard spread his hands in his familiar calm-down posture. "Penny, you know we don't-"
"Oh, shove it. It's not like he's a fucking leper. He's not going to get any better if you guys completely ignore him, okay?"
She pushed herself up and stalked to the door. As she pulled it open, Sheldon said, in as gentle a tone as she'd ever heard from him, "But he's not going to get better at all, is he?"
"You don't know that, Sheldon."
"No, I don't. But I do know that he's not the same Raj with whom the three of us became friends, and he likely never will be."
Sheldon straightened his shoulders and stared her right down instead of ducking his head in shame like he should have. Leonard and Howard both stared at their feet.
"Bullshit," Penny spat.
Things weren't really so different. Raj was still quiet and not all that inclined to talk to her, even now that he could. Mostly they sat together and watched TV. Those were the good days. The bad days could happen at any time, even when she thought they were chugging right along toward good.
Sometimes when she came over, he was just getting off of Skype with his parents. She always wanted to walk right back out again when she caught sight of the wounded look on his face, or the confusion that swept through him when his mother sighed and his father abruptly cut the connection.
"I think they think I've turned into Tanvir." After the calls he usually made a lame joke about untouchables but this time the change in the rhythm of his words threw Penny completely for a loop.
"Who's your Haroon, then?" she asked instead of throwing her arms around him and squeezing until all the rest of his missing memories came spilling out.
"It used to be Howard," was the reply, followed by a look she couldn't quite decipher.
Two hours later Raj asked when his parents were going to call.
Penny still marked that one down as a good day.