The truck needs new brake pads, she decides, as she whines her way to a halt behind the stop sign. The steering wheel is cold beneath her fingers, even through the thin cotton of her gloves. She knows later it will be warm enough to set a thin sheen of sweat at her hairline, against the back of her neck, but in the dawn fog she can see the light mist of her breath. She winds the truck through the small town streets and parks it noisily behind the grocer’s, where she sees Jake leaning against the back door, lighting a cigarette. She smiles as she opens the truck’s door, leaning her head out first and calling out, “Is today the day?”
Jake smiles around the smoke in his mouth and blows it out slowly as she walks toward him, hands on her hips and blonde hair in her eyes. Despite his gruff, weathered face, Jake’s a soft, giving man, more likely to help you up than knock you down. “If I didn’t think Marge would hit me upside the head with a frying pan before I made it out the front door, you know I’d leave her for you in a heartbeat,” he answers. He takes another drag from his cigarette as he scratches his head, thick fingers soft against his steadily graying hair. He’s known Penny since before she could crawl, a fact he insists on reminding her of when she tries to haggle with him over percentages and profit shares and pricing.
Penny presses a hand to his chest as she reaches past him for the door handle, voice friendly and teasing as she says, “Jake, you’re breaking my heart. You can’t keep leading me on like this.” She winks at him as she pulls the door open, calling out behind her, “I’m going to get Doug and then you two are helping me unload.”
She thinks she hears Jake groan as the door swings shut behind her, and she stifles a yawn as she walks into the store. Doug has his back to her and she whistles to get his attention, a high sound that rings once around the room. He turns to look at her and grins as she motions back over her shoulder to the alley, starting to follow her before she even speaks. “It’s a light load today, don’t worry.”
“Everything okay?” Doug’s eyes are warm when he asks, pushing past her to hold the door open as she passes through.
She stops outside the door, sees Jake stamp out his cigarette and follow Doug to lower the tailgate. “Everything’s fine,” she says. It is not even almost true, but Doug’s smile is expectant and Jake’s brow is already wandering low toward worry. They have their own burdens and hardships, and she will not let them carry more for her than the cartons they are already lifting. “Let’s get these eggs down.”
She stays awhile after they unload, helps Doug stock a few shelves while they chat. Emma’s got a cold and Julie’s as big as a house, her due date fast approaching. Penny laughs as he tells her about all the latest cravings—dreamsicle ice cream and peanut butter, which she thinks sounds definitely more appetizing than the pickles and beef jerky of the month before. She slides loaves of bread onto the shelves and listens and laughs.
She leaves the grocer’s and heads for Ron’s, scrolling through the list of meds in her head. She wants a generic for the nausea medicine, since the co-pay went up, and she has a new prescription for the sleeping pills. Ten minutes later she walks out with bags in her hands, pills rattling at her sides. With one last stop at the diner for a cup of coffee and the local paper, Penny’s back on the road to home, the radio buzzing softly as she drives.
She pulls up to the house and turns off the car and sits. There is a stiffness in her fingers that has nothing to do with the cold air of morning, and she pulls off her gloves and runs her fingers through her hair, then grabs the steering wheel and tightens her hand. Every day starts like this, errands to run and work to be done and a low, aching feeling in her chest. She feels older already, in the six months she's been home, feels wizened beyond the telling of it. If asked, she will not say she misses California, but she's not so foolhardy as to know it isn't true. She lifts her face to the sun sliding just over the tree line and tries to feel the same warmth and wonder she felt on the coast, to feel fresh and whole and unburdened, but the feeling doesn’t come. Her face screws up, eyes shutting tight and tears coming faster, but she swallows her sob and sucks in a breath instead. She presses a cold hand to each cheek, and grabs the bags on the seat beside her, and opens the door and walks inside.
She does not make much noise as she sets about the house, as she busies herself in the kitchen, cracking the eggs her father’s set by the back door, toasting bread and making oatmeal and frying bacon. She is methodical in the whip of her hands around the skillet, her jaw a hard line as she sets plates on the table and spoons out food. She hears a creak from upstairs and stills. She waits a long, tense moment before deciding it’s just the house settling and not her mother waking up. She listens for the call of her name down the stairs, but it doesn’t come; instead she hears the trudge of her father’s boots up the back steps.
He’s sweaty and grease-stained when he walks in. There is nothing so rewarding as honest labor, he’s always said, and it’s this that Penny thinks about when she finds herself beneath an engine, or a cow. He doesn’t say anything as he drops down at the table beside her, head bowed low a second and hands clasped tight. Penny tightens her fingers around her fork, eyes on the bending slope of his neck, and moves her gaze resolutely to the clock above the stove. They eat in silence for a long minute before he asks, “Everything went all right at Jake’s?”
Penny chews a mouthful of toast, nodding her head. She swallows and answers, “Yeah, it was fine.” She pushes bits of eggs around her plate. “Julie’s due soon.”
Her father nod his head and bring his coffee cup to his lips. They are quiet again.
“Penny!” Her head darts up immediately and she moves to rise from her plate, but her father is quicker, faster on his feet, already halfway across the room and saying, “It’s all right, I’ll go.” She watches him cross the room, bound up the stairs as quick as he’ll go, and listens to the heavy fall of his footsteps on the floor above her head. She bites at her lip and then stands to clear the table.
There is a not so small part of Penny that always knew she’d end up back home, living in her father’s house. It is the part of her that postponed auditions and took longer shifts at the Cheesecake Factory and moved to Pasadena instead of LA. It is the part of her that was scared. She can still see her father’s face through the window as she stood in the driveway with her mother, boxes stuffed into the back of her already beaten-up car. Her mother brushed the hair away from Penny’s full, bright eyes and pressed her cheek to her daughter’s and said, “Be great, child. Be golden.” Penny saw the curtains swing closed as she wrapped her arms one last time around her mother.
Her arms are now half as full when she bundles her mother between them. Sarah is weakened, surely, but still strong. She trudges out every morning onto the back porch and sits wrapped in her loose, worn quilt. She watches Penny and her husband tend to the farm, the crops, the chickens, the cows. She waves them on with hands now weary but steady, and Penny finds herself looking toward the house, toward her mother and her porch swing, as much as she can throughout her morning.
In the afternoon Penny spends most of her day outside, or in the shed, or in the pasture. She keeps as much open air above her as possible, her face always turned toward the wide, wild stretch of sky above. She feeds the animals, tends them with the care and kindness of a woman grown strong from a girl who learned this young, how to heal and repair with her hands. She works the fields until the night starts to set in and dinner needs fixing. The house stays quiet, as far as she can tell, until she stamps up onto the back porch and wipes the mud from her boots. Her mother is always waiting just inside, curled into a chair or a corner of the couch, hands full of knitting needles and yarn. Penny chops vegetables while her mother simmers meat, and there is a comfortable hum in the small kitchen as they move together, reaching for this and that.
While their dinner cooks and they wait for Bob, Penny reads the gossip magazines aloud, the ones she spends too much of her paycheck buying. She reads the articles on Lindsay Lohan’s new hairstyle, and Kim Kardashian’s new boyfriend, and Angie and Brad’s latest fight. Her mother rolls her eyes and shakes her head, feet tucked up under her and sweater wrapped tight around her thin frame. Penny reads every bit of gossip, every word of useless, mind-numbing nonsense. She skips the human interest pieces, details of adversity and overcoming hardship. They’re reminded easily enough that life is hard, she figures, and there is no usefulness in belaboring the point.
The magazines only get them through Wednesday or so, and there are hours of silence left to fill while Bob finds his way in from the fields. She used to recite the bits of dialogue she could remember from her auditions, or stand in the center of the room and say every commercial tagline she could think of from every national ad she was never cast in. But lately she’s told stories of California, of her life there and her friends. Her mother has gotten attached to Raj and Sheldon, and these are the stories she tells most often now.
“And what about the other one, the roommate?” Sarah asks. So Penny tells her about Leonard, about his mother, about Stephanie and Leslie Winkle and MONTE. She tells her about Age of Conan and Penny Blossoms and teaching Sheldon how to drive. It’s the first time her mom’s laughed all day.
“And this one Christmas, I gave Sheldon a napkin signed by Leonard Nimoy—he was Spock in the original Star Trek, he’s a big deal or something—and god, Sheldon actually hugged me.” For just a moment she feels Sheldon’s hands on her back, the trembling, uncertain wrap of his arms around her, but then her father is opening the back door and there is dinner to be served.
The days pass slowly, sliding into each other with nothing to mark the time. It’s all doctor’s appointments and chores, and the unnerving quiet in her house. At night, she puts on the tops she wore in Pasadena and does her hair up and heads into town. She tends bar at The Stumble Inn, passes pitchers and pints across the bar into warm, willing hands. She plays shrink and enabler, lover and sponsor and friend. She keeps her own problems to herself, and wields the bottles with steady hands.
More often than not, the bar is filled with the friends she had in high school, kids she’s known since she was young. They come in and congregate in the same corner every night, and she’s unsurprised to find most of them still in town. She knows leaving Nebraska isn’t for the faint of heart, and she gives them her best California smile when they step up to order.
She’s managed to rekindle friendships with some of them. Sally always files in on the nights she knows Penny’s working and seats herself along the bar to nurse Bud Lights until close. There is a familiarity in their chatter, Penny’s fingers sticky with soda and scotch as they clasp Sally’s atop the wood finish. More often than not, they reminisce. Penny’s reluctant to talk about the present, about her quiet house and ailing mother, so they tell stories about football games and high school dances, the warm glow of memory and alcohol between them.
“Or that time Jimmy Archer ran his truck into Burn Creek?” Penny leans heavily on her elbows as they rest atop the bar, her hands tucked under her chin. It’s early on Tuesday night and the crowd is thinned down to the regulars. Church volleyball league gets finished at 9, so the place will be empty until then, and Penny and Sally’s laughter is the loudest sound in the room right now.
“In all fairness,” Sally answers, “he did have Becky Thomms’ head in his lap.” Sally’s laugh is quick and brazen and Penny sees several people turn their heads toward her. “I hear he’s got an apartment in the city now, playing house with some girl from Lincoln. He’s a teacher, maybe?”
Penny shakes her head and pulls back from the bar. “There’s no hope for this country if Jimmy Archer is teaching America’s youth.”
Sally bows her head and runs a finger around the rim of her beer bottle. “I saw your dad in town the other day,” she says. Her voice is hushed, like she is hesitant to bring this up. “He didn’t look so good.”
Penny pulls back a little bit and wipes the bar down with a rag. Of all the aspects of her home life that currently trouble her, she’s least likely to talk about the strain between her father and herself, its history or its many causes. She doesn’t answer Sally immediately, just keeps rubbing away at the dark counter until it shines. “He’s fine. They’ve got Mom on some experimental trial and it’s just. Hard.” She meets Sally’s eyes and almost flinches at the look there, the unwanted, unwelcome pity. “But we’re really confident that this is going to work. Her doctor’s pretty optimistic, he thinks she’ll respond well. So. It’s fine.”
Sally dips her head and slides her hair behind her ear. When they were thirteen, Penny got dumped by Jake Reeser, got told she wasn’t fun enough, wasn’t fast enough to keep him interested, and it was Sally who coiled back and slapped him right across his face. Penny’s always known how to mark loyalty, and she wishes she could find confidence enough to tell Sally the truth, how hard it’s been being home, how much she wishes she hadn’t come back. She knows it’s terrible and selfish, but she also thinks there’s a part of Sally that wouldn’t judge her, that would even understand. She wants to tell Sally a lot of things, but she keeps her mouth closed and pours them shots instead.
When she gets home from the bar, she calls Leonard and Sheldon’s apartment, but she hangs up when she hears Sheldon’s nasal greeting on the answering machine. She doesn’t call often, doesn’t know what to say, but there’s a hopeful kind of feeling in her chest, knowing that they are still there if she needs them. The decision to move back hadn’t been easy but the guys, for the most part, had been supportive. She’d been straightforward about it, acting much more calmly than she felt, striding into their apartment one Monday night and saying, “I’m moving back to Nebraska.”
There had been the shock and confusion she expected, but they all quieted down when she told them the situation. “My mom’s sick, and my sisters aren’t around to help, and my dad can’t take care of her by himself.” No nonsense, just facts. She knew she wouldn’t get through it if she hedged, or glossed over the particulars of it. Leonard had been the first to speak, to ask if she was okay, was there anything they could do, did she really have to go. She remembers the lump in her throat, the tight, terrible feeling in her chest as he looked at her with pity in his eyes. Her eyes sting even thinking about it now.
Leonard had been consoling, as expected, and Howard uncharacteristically solemn. Raj had briefly laid a hand on her shoulder, and given her a warm, resigned smile. Sheldon had resisted it, just like she knew he would, and hadn’t hardly helped her pack at all. “I find this an unacceptable change to my routine,” he said, hands tight at his sides. She didn’t resent his reaction; she even took comfort in it. His righteous indignation was often the only normal part of her day.
When it finally came time to go, she locked her apartment door one last time and walked across the hall to give Leonard her keys for the super.
“I’ll call when I get to Omaha,” she said, her arms tight around him. His hands ghosted across her back, but she didn’t hold on too long. She’d never been one for drawn-out displays of emotion, and she really didn’t want to cry again. She hugged Raj, and even Howard. When she came to stand in front of Sheldon, who refused to get out of his seat, he settled his hands on his knees and resolutely didn’t look at her.
“Sheldon, I have to go,” she said. “It’s time for me to leave.” Despite herself, her voice broke just a little, just enough to make him turn his head and meet her eyes. He opened his mouth to speak, but then shook his head and settled his gaze somewhere over her left shoulder. She felt her heart beat faster, her breath come quicker, at the thought of never seeing them again, and her hands shook as she leaned down and wrapped her arms around his neck in an awkward, fumbling hug. “I’ll miss you, too,” she whispered, pulling away just as she felt his fingers come to rest against her elbow.
She calls the boys’ apartment once more, but this time listens to the recording on the machine all the way through to the end. When she finally falls asleep, the phone still pressed to her ear, she can almost feel Sheldon’s arms around her, and the warmth of his skin against hers.
This is how her days go, the first six months she is home. Errands in town, work around the house and in the fields. Trips into the city for doctors’ visits, and nights at the bar. Beth comes when she can, when she’s not working or shuttling the kids to ballet rehearsals and soccer games and study groups. Anne drives the hour and a half when she’s able, the distance from Lincoln being just far enough to be entirely inconvenient.
It’s not the life Penny wanted and certainly not the one she imagined, but she does her best for her mother. But the dim flicker of hope she keeps alive isn’t enough to fight the low, sad feelings that have taken up residence in her chest. She’s never worn self-pity well, but it follows her where she goes now, and try as she might, she cannot shake it.
It’s a dry night in April when Penny discovers rock bottom is still quite a long way down.
The phone rings just as Penny’s about to head upstairs for the night. Her father has settled himself in front of the TV, and mom’s already asleep in her room. When she answers, the receiver is cold in her hand, and there’s a pit in her stomach; she knows something is wrong.
The first thing Dr. Sherman does is apologize for calling so late, but it’s the last thing Penny really hears. He has results from the blood work they did earlier in the week, and his voice is somber as he gives her the news. There are strings of number, percentages and cell counts, and Penny stands with her hand on the railing, her jaw tightening even as her breath starts to fail.
She hangs up and swallows hard and it is as if she’s fallen from a height, as if a great, gaping chasm is closing in around her. The phone grows warm beneath her fingers, but still she cannot let go of the receiver. She hears the words again, slowly this time, and she feels them rattle around the room and settle and stay. Her father looks at her with drawn, worried eyes, and she cannot move her mouth to speak. She grits her teeth and clenches her hand, and still the words do not come. There are wide, aching hollows in her chest as she breathes, and when she finally settles the phone in its cradle again, she hears her father asking for news.
“What did Dr. Sherman say?” His voice is low, worn, like the brush of field rope against a pasture pole. It is the voice he uses when a horse has been downed, or a calf set to birth the wrong way forward. It does nothing to settle Penny’s nerves or slow her breathing, and she feels tears prick at her eyelids as she starts to speak. The numbers are worse, she says, and falling.
“The treatment was unsuccessful.” The words she uses are Dr. Sherman’s and there is nothing of Penny in them, no emotion besides numb, hopeless resignation.
Her father flattens his hands against the table, the lines of his shoulders stronger, defiant. “No,” he says, “that’s not right. She’s worked so hard.” He pushes himself back from the table and turns away, settling a hand on the rail of the chair. She hears him take in a rattling, watery breath, and it is this as much as anything that finally forces the tears down her cheeks. “This was supposed to work.”
Penny wishes she could go to him and have him wrap his arms around her and be the thing that holds her up, holds her together. She’s long known there’s not enough love in her father to pass around so freely, and lately she’s been grateful that he’s found reserves to show her mother, in the softness of his voice and the touch of his hand. She wishes there were room enough for her there, too, but she knows better than to expect so much from him. Her tears come faster as she hears him give in to his own, and there’s a white hot heat behind her eyes as she feels the knot in her throat suddenly give.
She is up the stairs and in her room in seconds, hands wildly digging beneath her bed for the shoebox of letters she’s written to Leonard and Sheldon in the months she’s been home. It had been an exercise in catharsis, once upon a time, a way to set her feelings outside herself and hope that they would stay there. Each envelope is addressed and stamped and waiting, full of words and feelings she couldn’t find an outlet for. The first few are all hollow greetings and false cheer. She knows if she opened them, read them, pieced them together, she could trace a line straight from the happy girl who left California to the girl she is today, with shaking hands and tear-stained cheeks, and chest so tight that she almost cannot breathe. She wrote the letters to get rid of her feelings, but here they are now, clutched in her hands. She wants to be rid of them, to send them to the sky, to the moon, to watch them leave her hands and be gone forever. She hurls herself down the stairs, out the door and into the cab of the truck. The engine turns over after three shaky rumbles, and gravel spits from beneath the tires as she takes the turns too quickly all the way into town.
She runs one stop sign, then another. These is no one on the street but her, no one else rushing madly forward with her heart planted firmly in her throat. When she pulls up beside the post office, the sidewalks are empty. She shoves the truck door open with her foot and crosses to the mailbox, her fingers tight around the fragile cardboard box.
She empties them all into the mailbox before she’s even gotten her bearings. The metal of the mailbox is cold beneath her hands as she leans against it, as she feels her heart beat a riot in her chest and the tears run heated down her cheeks. She stumbles back, her hands wiping at her face, and then crumbles onto the curb, elbows braced against her knees. She sits there for what feels like a lifetime, the wind in her hair, the town silent around her.
It’s a week later when Sheldon shows up.
She’s got one hand buried elbow-deep in a bucket of grain when she hears the sound of tires on the gravel drive. She runs down the list of people it could be, eliminating them as quickly as she thinks of them: Beth has a school thing with Stacy today, Anne is working, and Tommy is—well, Tommy is Tommy. Mrs. Jennings from down the road, maybe, with a casserole, or Jake’s wife here to keep Sarah company for a few hours. There’s a usual trickle of people through their living room, come to help out or just sit a while. Her family’s lived in this town before either of her parents were born; Penny’s mother was the English teacher at the high school for almost thirty years. There’s no shortage of folk who want to keep Sarah Barnett company on a lazy April afternoon, but with planting season coming to a close, she can’t imagine who’d have the time today.
No sooner is Penny through the back door than she freezes, one hand on the jamb, the other tensed at her side. The voice from the living room hits her like a wall. Her heart starts to beat faster as she practically runs into the living room, and then there he is, sure enough: Sheldon Cooper being waved into a chair by her mother.
Penny doesn’t even bother trying to hide her surprise. She watches her mother watching Sheldon, the smile on her face and the expectant look on his. There are bags leaned up against the piano. “What are you doing here?”
She’s still in such a state of shock, and out of practice at translating Sheldon’s speech so quickly, that most of what he says flies by her. She does manage to grab the more salient details: he arrived in Omaha this morning and took a cab out to the farm. He’s on a leave from the University, reworking some details of his research, but she gets bogged down in the technical drivel he gets so excited about and only manages to grasp the last bit of what he’s saying.
“And the railway between Utah and Nebraska is really quite spectacular,” he says, drawing his monologue to a close.
Penny blinks her eyes a few times, and shakes her head. “Sheldon,” she says, taking a few steps closer, “I’m sure somewhere in there was what you thought was an explanation of what you’re doing here, but I must’ve missed it. So once again, please? For the little people?”
“I don’t follow.”
“What are you doing here?” There’s a tense edge in her voice, almost a warning.
“I told you,” he says, sitting straighter in his chair. “I’m on sabbatical.”
Penny smiles tightly at Sheldon and her mother, then excuses herself and steps out onto the porch. She does what she always does when she can’t quite figure Sheldon out: she asks Leonard.
He picks up on the first ring and his tone is immediately too nice, too sympathetic. “Penny, hello, how are you? Good? Okay? Things going well?”
She takes a deep breath and leans her shoulder against the porch rail, tucking her hair behind her ear. “Hello, Leonard. I’m fine. How are things with you?”
“Good.” His voice rattles through the receiver and Penny clenches her hand.
She decides not to hedge so she just clears her throat and starts in. “So Sheldon showed up at my house today.” She pauses, waiting for Leonard to answer. “My house in Nebraska,” she continues when he doesn’t make a sound.
He finds his voice eventually and explains as best he can, but even he doesn’t know the full story: the research Sheldon had been working on was blown out of the water by some guy in Amsterdam a few weeks ago, and the Department pulled his funding. From there it was an easy step to a fight with Gablehauser, and then half the Board. Sheldon had been characteristically reticent on the subject with Leonard, and yesterday, when Leonard had come home from the University, Sheldon had just been gone.
“I think they’d been looking to get rid of him for awhile. They’re calling it an involuntary leave of absence, which basically means he got fired,” Leonard concludes. Penny watches the cows as they meander back to the barn, and Leonard says, “You know how he can be. And with his research now back to square one, even his reputation isn’t enough incentive to keep out of his way and let him do his thing.”
Penny runs the toe of her boot over a notch in the wood at her feet. She thanks Leonard and catches up briefly on his life and news from Raj and Howard. By the time she ends the call, she’s in no more indulgent a mood than she was before, and feeling much more defensive toward Sheldon. She feels embarrassed to have him in her home like this, seeing her life lain out before him. There are pictures on the wall from when she was a little girl, gap-toothed and gawky. Her mother’s shoulders are hunched, her cheeks sagging and tired, and Penny’s suddenly vicious at being so exposed.
“Sheldon, can I talk to you upstairs?” Her voice is a hard line, and Sheldon inclines his head just slightly. He may be as socially perceptive as a doorknob, but he can still smell blood in the water when things get especially rough.
Sarah smiles and Penny is amazed at the genuine emotion in her eyes, the gratitude and welcoming. She says, “Penny, why don’t you show Sheldon to Beth’s room? He can get his things settled before dinner.” Penny’s hands are tight, her eyes narrowing. “How long do you think you’ll be staying, dear?”
Sheldon opens his mouth to speak, but Penny cuts him off. “Sheldon, why don’t we talk upstairs? I’ll show you where Beth’s room is.” Before he can answer, she shoulders past him and grabs one of his bags, casting him a look and heading quickly toward the steps. She hears him behind her, thanking her mother for having him, and then his footsteps are heavy behind hers as she walks to Beth’s room. She leans his bag against the wall and then grips the footboard of Beth’s bed between her hands. The wood is smooth and warm beneath her callused hands, and by the time Sheldon steps into the room, her knuckles are white.
“Sheldon,” she says slowly, “what are you doing here?” Her voice is pitched low and he has the good sense to look confused and wary.
“As I told you downstairs, several times, I’m on sabbatical.”
“That doesn’t explain what you’re doing at my parents’ house.” She looks away to Beth’s dresser, at the knick-knacks and photos littering the vanity. “Why did you come here?”
“Penny, do you not know what a sabbatical is?”
“I swear to God, I will beat you to death with your own luggage.”
Sheldon clenches his jaw and tightens his hands into fists. “Your letters came yesterday.”
Her face goes slack and she casts her eyes at the floor. She feels herself deflate, even as she knows that this isn’t the whole story. She knows there’s more to his appearance than a hefty stack of letters suddenly showing up at his front door, no matter how desperate the ramblings inside. If she’d sounded bad enough to warrant a thousand-mile trip across the country, it would be Leonard standing at the foot of her sister’s bed, not Sheldon. She remembers her conversation with Leonard and the last time that Sheldon found himself unemployed. She still has a poncho stuffed somewhere in the bottom of the boxes she’s not yet unpacked. She remembers his propensity to wander when lost.
He’s still looking at her with that hard, unforgiving expression he has, the same way he’d look through a telescope, or a magnifying glass. And she can’t quite bring herself to meet his eyes. “Leonard said you got fired,” she mumbles, shuffling to the head of the bed and dropping down onto the mattress.
She doesn’t need to be looking at Sheldon to feel the way he pulls up at the mere suggestion of failure, squaring his shoulders and puffing out his chest pathetically. “Intellectual differences,” he says, waving his hand dismissively as he walks toward her. He stands next to the bed, back straight as the bedposts. “I just need time to reorganize my research methodology and reconfigure some basic principles of my hypotheses, and I’m sure the Board members will realize the hastiness of their decision.”
Penny picks at the comforter beneath her. As much as she usually resents his attitude, she wishes sometimes for Sheldon’s surety, his confidence in his abilities and the strength of his convictions. She knows he can be a downright bastard but there’s a comfort in knowing he will never change enough to truly shock her. She’s had enough sudden shifts in her life these last few months to welcome any semblance of stability, no matter how odd or unexpected.
When she looks back up at Sheldon, it’s with an air of resignation. She glances at his bags, and his expectant expression. “How long were you planning on staying exactly?”
He casts his eyes around the room, at the trophies and figurines and stuffed animals that populate the shelves and desktop. He looks unsure of himself. “I hadn’t thought that far ahead, actually.”
Penny pulls her hands into her lap and worries her lip between her teeth. Now that the anger’s flattened out and the surprise given way somewhat, she’s almost glad to have Sheldon here. She never read the letters she wrote the boys after she finished them—that was part of her deal with herself—but she can only imagine what she must’ve said in the weeks since she got here, as her confidence and morale grew smaller and disappeared. She knows she said that she’s lonely, desperate and unsure. She knows she said that she missed them. When she meets his eyes, he’s still beside the bed, poised and sturdy against the bright pink of Beth’s walls, and entirely out of place. She sighs. “Dinner’s in an hour.” She lifts herself off the bed and heads back downstairs, outside to the barn and the wide open sky.
As welcoming as Sarah was, it would be a lie to say that things go smoothly. When her father first meets Sheldon, it’s with a twitch of his eye and a lift of his chin, and Penny knows he doesn’t exactly approve. They are two different men with two very different personalities, but even Penny knows that as much as they differ, they have more than a little in common. There is something to be said for taciturn men, and the giving and receiving of emotion, and when Penny looks around the table the first night Sheldon stays with them, there’s a twinge of recognition as she looks from her friend to her father.
When Sheldon’s been at the house a week, Bob corners her in the pole barn and sets his face in a hard line. “Your friend. How long is he planning to stay?”
There’s a part of Penny that is instantly defensive, and even though she’s unclear herself as to his general plans, she finds herself responding brusquely, “His name’s Sheldon, and as long as he wants. He needs a place to stay.”
“He has a place to stay. He lives in California.” Her father’s voice is low as he walks toward her. There’s grease on his arms where his sleeves are rolled up to the elbow. The combine must be acting up again.
Penny turns back to the coop and says, “He lost his job. He needed somewhere to go.”
“He’s not your boyfriend is he?”
“He’s not here to drag you back to California behind him?”
Penny furrows her brow in confusion and look at her father for a long beat. “He’s not my boyfriend and he’s not here to take me back to California.”
“He can help with Mom, okay?” Her hands still around the egg in her palm, and the shell is cool and hard against her skin. When she looks at her father, he’s framed by wide doors with the early morning sun at his back. He looks so young.
Her father swallows and runs his hand along the jamb. “Alright,” he says. “But for god’s sake, Pen, buy the boy some jeans.”
And she does. She takes him into town for jeans and sturdy boots. She gradually shows Sheldon the parts of her past he’s never seen. She takes him to Jake’s where he almost gets flattened for suggesting a new, more efficient layout for the store. They go into the diner where Penny had her first waitressing job and Penny orders them greasy hamburgers, or slices of homemade pie, or large plates of fries for them to share. They walk past Penny’s grade school, past the football field. Penny doesn’t show him the spot where she and Kurt always hid away after football games, but she does drag him into the stands and watch her perform all the parts of the half-time routine she can remember. They walk on and on, past the coffee shop and police station, and the newspaper office with its ancient machines out front.
They walk past the courthouse and city hall. Penny and Sheldon stop long enough to throw coins in the small fountain out front. She holds the quarter in her palm and makes a tight fist and wishes for strength. The coin hits the water with a satisfying thunk.
She sees Sheldon, eyes closed, face calm. He’s unusually solemn as he lobs his coin into the water. She’s oddly embarrassed to meet his eyes, instead studying the lines left on her palms from her tight fist. She traces the indents with the tip of one finger and falls into step beside Sheldon, repeating her wish one last time.
Sheldon is quiet beside her as they walk the streets. She doesn’t ask him what he wishes for.
One week passes and then another. She never asks Sheldon to stay, but she never tells him to leave. He never gives her a departure schedule or asks her for a ride to the airport, but never tells her he’s planning to stay. Instead, he makes himself useful in quiet, unassuming ways. In some ways, he’s different from the Sheldon she knew in California and in some ways he’s exactly the same.
This is the way they spend their days: While Penny is outside, cleaning stalls and ordering supplies, Sheldon sits with Sarah in their big, white farmhouse. She doesn’t know what they talk about exactly—she never feels quite comfortable asking—but her mother seems happy, and Sheldon unusually amiable.
After three quiet weeks on the farm, even Sheldon is restless, so Penny brings him to the bar with her one night while she’s working and sits him down in a stool next to Sally. “Alright, you two. Behave.”
She keeps an eye on them the rest of the night. Sally doesn’t look offended or horrified, so it seems like a success. Penny spends most of her time at the other end of the bar weaning tips away from middle-aged men having fights with their wives. When she finally manages to catch up with Sheldon and Sally, they’re in the middle of a heated debate.
“Bo and Hope have to get back together!” Sally shouts. Penny arches an eyebrow. This conversation can’t be about what she thinks it’s about.
Sheldon shakes his head like this is the most idiotic thought he’s ever heard; it’s a look Penny gets more times a day than she can count. “Hope is at best mentally unstable and in all likelihood, actually deranged. Carly, though she has her flaws, seems much more sound of mind. Bo is clearly making the most logical choice in staying with Carly.”
Penny holds up both hands, saying, “Hang on. Are you two talking about a soap opera?”
Sheldon crosses his arms defensively in front of his chest. “Your mother makes me watch Days of Our Lives.”
It’s an unusual friendship, but it seems to blossom despite the odds and overwhelming chance of disaster. Sheldon accompanies Penny to the bar more often than not and spends his nights downing Diet Not-So-Virgin Cuba Libres and verbally sparring with Sally. She’s a worthy adversary, giving him as good as she gets, which is probably why he keeps coming back.
After awhile, Sheldon starts helping out in the barns and the pastures. He grew up in a rural area even though he’s loathe to admit it, and despite his initial protests, he takes to the work quickly. Though Penny doesn’t say it, his presence helps. His complaints keep her mind off her problems, his company keeps her out of her own head. She doesn’t tell him, but she’s glad to have him around.
She takes him around the pole barn, points out the equipment and various supplies. She takes him on a tour of the land, the cab of the truck mostly quiet as they bounce and roll down the dried out lanes that snake across the fields. After the first month, she teaches him to drive on the winding, forgotten roads that crisscross the farm. His grip is impossibly tight on the steering wheel and his movements against the pedal are jerky, all starts and stops. She makes him try again and again, until they’re inching along at a slow but steady crawl. Every bump makes him tense up and mutter under his breath, 4-letter words she recognizes and longer ones she’s pretty sure are Klingon. She picks at the stressed leather under her thigh, leans her head against the window, and watches the fields pass by.
It gets to be a ritual; every night after dinner they take the oldest Ford and drive west into the sunset. Sheldon complains at first but eventually he starts to like it as he works his way up to third gear. They roll the windows down and let warm May air fill the cab, the silence more comfortable than any noise that fills her house. They don’t talk about cancer or chemo or quietly wasting parents on the nights she convinces him to pull off the dirt road and lower the tailgate. He climbs reluctantly into the truck bed, his feet dangling toward the ground as he sits with his hands gently folded in his lap. She presses her knee to his and it is quiet and peaceful and calm. Penny feels happier than she has in a long, long time.
He’s rambling on about the Pleiades, seven sisters in the sky, and her eyes fall shut as the wind pushes her hair around her shoulders. Sheldon’s voice is slow and sure as he talks about lunar cycles and gravitational pulls. He points out star systems and galaxies, the reach of his arm strong and steady above her head. Out past the fields, the coyotes howl and they sit, both waiting, the gentle rise and fall of Sheldon beside her an untold comfort. She’s come to depend on him, despite herself. She wonders sometimes that he is still here, helping her the way he does, but she’s formulating her own theories as to his decisions not to head back to the coast. For one thing, her mother is as doting and gentle as every woman from his childhood, hell-bent on mothering and pampering him as if he’s not a grown man. Which isn’t to say that he hasn’t taken to the manual labor her life requires either. More surprising than anything is the way he’s resigned himself to helping out with the daily tasks she sets herself. And though she won’t admit it, she’s come to appreciate the way he looks now.
She’s come to terms with the fact that home is lonely, and that there aren’t many ways to meet people, or people to meet who don’t drive her crazy, but it’s still surprising when she finds herself watching Sheldon walk to the barn or the pasture and really appreciating the way he looks in his jeans. At the bar one night Sally makes a comment when Sheldon’s in the bathroom, leaning over the counter and whispering, “The boy sure wears cowboy surprisingly well.” After that, Penny finds herself watching him in what she tells herself is an objective, scientific kind of way. The muscles in his arms are threaded and strong. His hair is getting long, starting to curl just slightly at the ends, and it makes his neck look strong and lean, the skin of his throat turned tan. She doesn’t miss the irony in the fact that Sheldon had to move from California to Nebraska to finally get a tan.
It’s the mundane tasks he does that most hold her interest. He’s taken over as sous-chef for her mother every night before dinner and for whatever reason, she can’t take her eyes off him. It’s peaceful, the precision and focus he has.
He’s slicing carrots one night when she comes in from the barn, and she watches the steady rise and fall of his knife as she washes her hands. She can see her mother in the living room, knitting needles moving steadily in her hands, a little slower than they used to.
“When I was little, I had more sweaters than I knew what to do with,” Penny says. “I had one in every color. I could’ve worn a different one every day for a month and never run out.” When she turns to Sheldon, his knife is still on the cutting board and his face is tilted toward her. If Penny didn’t know better, she’d swear he was interested in what she was saying. She holds his gaze and narrows her eyes, confused, and Sheldon finally shakes it off and grabs an onion from the counter.
They chat a bit while he chops, and she watches his hands as he sautés the vegetables and then adds them to the pot. She listens to him babble on about an article he was reading in the Physics Quarterly while she shuffles and re-shuffles the deck of cards on the counter. When the weather’s foul or the workload light, Penny comes in early from the fields and the three of them play, gin rummy and hearts and sometimes poker. She knows that Sheldon counts cards, but she also knows that he lets her mother cheat. The first time she saw him notice and not say anything, she let him talk to her about quarks for half an hour.
She starts a game of solitaire, all the cards in her hand just like her grandma taught her, and asks, “Sheldon, do you ever miss Texas?”
He adds spices to the stock pot and doesn’t answer right away. He measures out teaspoons with intense precision. Penny pulls four cards from the deck, all queens. “I occasionally miss my family, but geographically no, I do not miss Texas. It’s far too humid.”
“But growing up there, I mean. Did you like it?”
“No.” He turns back to the pot and stirs in perfect circle, one rotation every two seconds. It’s a system he’s devised, and it’s by turns hilarious and endearing. She watches him stir and tidy up and put the spice jars back on the rack—he’d alphabetized it as soon as he’d taken up kitchen duty—while she finishes her game.
“This place can’t be all that different from Texas,” she says, picking at the pages of a folder on the counter. “Do you like it here?” She turns her head up and finds Sheldon inches away from her. His eyes dart quickly from her face to the folder and when he reaches for it, she barely manages to pull it away in time. She clasps the folder in her hand and backs away from him and he stands tensed, one hand on the counter, his expression drawn.
“Penny,” he says, “that’s mine.”
Penny holds it tauntingly in front of her face. “You’ve been using my towels and shampoo for a month. You get no secrets.” Sheldon makes a last desperate swipe for the folder, but Penny backs out toward the door and opens it, her eyes scanning the pages inside.
It’s miles of scientific jargon, and Penny almost snaps it shut and throws it back to him, but then she sees words she recognizes. Carcinoma, malignant, tumor, treatment. It’s a study on the treatment of her mother’s cancer, the report from an experiment they did out east. She holds the pages tightly between her fingers, no longer reading. Sheldon turns back to the stove, and his hands move slowly as he stirs the gravy into the pot.
Penny keeps still for a minute, or an hour. She watches Sheldon’s hands, and the tension in his back, and the determined way he will not meet her eyes. She doesn’t say anything when she walks up behind him and sets the folder back down, just presses her hand between his shoulder blades and then heads upstairs to change.
That night she realizes, with a sense of startling clarity, how little fight there’s been in her the past few weeks. How ever since the night Dr. Sherman called with the negative results from the last trial doses, they’ve all just been waiting, resigned. How little spark has been in her to push herself, her mother, her whole family to keep going.
It’s not often that Penny thinks of it, but really, this farm is her mother’s. It’s something Penny’s always liked to remind herself of on hard days: she thinks of patient, steadfast women with strong hands and stronger wills, and it’s an image she uses to prop herself up on the most trying of days.
She won’t say it, but it doesn’t stop her from thinking it now: really, they’re all hard days. There are calluses on her hands, the pads of her fingers grown used to honest labor and rough work. She runs the harsh skin of her palms over the smooth expanse of her abdomen, rests her hands atop her chest and remembers her grandmother, imagines the generations before her who wrought their livelihood from barren fields and learned to make life thrive where none was made to grow. Her hands are heavy on her chest and she thinks long into the night, her thoughts expanding out and on forever.
The next day, Penny heads into town and gets a library card and stalks resolutely through the stacks: she passes the romance novels with their ridiculous Harlequin covers, walks straight past the detective novels and murder mysteries. She comes to a stop in front of the biographies and finds her hands reaching for stories of strong, unbending women and the places they took up in history. She checks out a book on Elizabeth I, another on Catherine the Great. On her way to the counter, she stops to grab something thick and heavy from the sci-fi section, the better to keep Sheldon occupied.
She reads Sarah the books she brings home, or listens while Sheldon reads them instead, and every week she goes back for new ones. The next week when they go for an appointment with Dr. Sherman, she gives him the information Sheldon found about the trial out east. It looks promising, he tells her.
When they get back from the city, Penny wraps her arms around Sheldon and squeezes until he yelps.