This is a record of years.
nineteen ninety three
Square packages, silver wrapping. He's got at least three separate formulas turning about in his mind and has to force himself into concentration while his sister tears these things apart, her breath hitched into a sound resembling nothing but girlish glee.
"Mom!" She races around the room, dark hair swinging. "Mom, is this real silk?" Variations on this are repeated several times before her voice is cut short in a hug. Indiscriminate joy, he thinks, picking up the paper, saving it from further grief. Square packages are better unopened; he has no desire to see geometry of such simple perfection ripped to shreds. No desire for any of this, really.
But Mary Cooper's laid out the table all nice, and Sheldon, aged twelve years and seven months, must therefore participate.
A deerstalker hat, a Rubik's cube, a chess set.
The hat is knitted in colors of rain and a winter sky. He allows it placed on his head, and receives a kiss from his meemaw in return.
His brother steals the white queen, runs outside and throws it into the branches of a tree. Though there is no chicken on his heels providing the necessary impetus to move, Sheldon manages to clamber up without falling. It's lodged in a bird's nest. He returns with both the chesspiece and a piece of shell, bone dry, speckled blue, a memento taken not for its beauty but because the curvature is strong and constant, and he is reminded, in part, of a globe.
Carefully selected items that mostly cause confusion.
While Missy dances about to the synthesized beats and squeaky voices belonging to the latest derivative pop sensation, Mary smiles at her son, masking a sigh that he still manages to catch in her eyes. "Well now, snicker-doodle. Jesus says thank you, and so do I." When she speaks she has to look up; he's already taller, and growing like a beanpole. She squeezes his shoulders as his twin shimmies by, and with a fresh round of laughter, the pair of them add to this Kodak moment by rubbing tinsel in his hair.
Right then, he wants to understand her. To know appreciation and simplicity and why cake sluiced with brandy equals love.
But this need is brief. His thoughts return to packages now dismantled, the comforting reassurance drawn from twenty-four angles of ninety degrees, while around the table, on a day like all others but for the number and the month, they bend their heads in prayer.
eighteen ninety nine
This is his spot.
Near to the fire, but not so near that he is in danger of being scorched; next to the window but at an angle so the light is good enough to read or write as he pleases, but won't cause him any harm from the glare; and far enough from the room's activity that he may observe without notice, but not so far that their eyes can't sometimes meet.
(No, he has never asked her name. He has heard it, through salutations from those who share no reluctance in calling a lady by her Christian name and not her father's; sheer audacity, in his opinion, the bullish propositions of men who know little of what they speak.)
This is his spot, his own quiet corner of the universe, as the century sees out its end.
"And goodwill to you, too," he murmurs, pre-empting the hackneyed greeting.
His companion chuckles, and slides into the opposite chair. "I was about to offer you best wishes of the season, but I rather think that might fall on deaf ears."
He decides to neither confirm nor deny this statement in its literal sense, returning to his writing with the hope that a continued silence will do the talking for him.
No such luck.
"I fail to understand how you can still be scribbling away, today of all days."
He purses his lips, not looking up. "Cast your eyes outside."
"Snow? Yes, well, I see your point. That is a problem. And in December, too. Goodness."
"I take it that heartfelt sentiment is not coming from a place of truth?"
This is rewarded with a grin, which he only sees because he hears a voice across the room and turns his eyes quickly to the sound--there's a flash of blond hair, laughter, gentle words.
(She has calluses on her palms. She reads novels when no one's looking.)
"You're a strange, strange fellow, my friend."
It is nothing he has not heard before; though that's not to say it isn't true.
He doesn't mean to shun the world. But sometimes he feels that he was born at the wrong time and place. That he is devouring calculations for theories that won't be solved for decades, or centuries even. When he walks outside it is only to cool his head. Perhaps that is the only real fire he keeps.
She's Penelope. Penelope, Penny, and he has never asked her name.
Still working away, Cooper? Still hard at it?
Yes, until he has an answer.
two thousand and eight
This one has been foreseen for some time now. He just doesn't know it yet.
First it's shock in her voice, shock melting into amazement, thin and high, in waves of vibration he can feel against his chest. Sheldon's hugging me...
And then, from the vague direction of the couch
(Sheldon can't see)
the sound of a chuckle, followed by Leonard's voice--it's a Saturnalia miracle!--and slowly, suddenly, she's hugging him too, her arms tight and her body warm
(shared heat, that's what it is; they're inseparable)
and Sheldon can't see but he realises it's because his eyes are squeezed closed, so he opens them, quickly.
Leonard is saying something about drinks or getting a refill of the same, and does anyone else want one--but vision returned, the point of Sheldon's focus is his own hands on Penny's back: one low down where everything dips into a hollow, the other higher up, splayed wide and tangled in her hair. The tips of his index and middle fingers are touching skin, warm like the rest, but this registers too briefly before her ridiculous red hat with its fluffy end comes bumping against his neck, and he is about to straighten and move away when she turns against him, the whole of her, and whispers his name.
I'm sorry? Sheldon says, thinking it a question (as if touch alone would make her forget who he is, what a preposterous notion!); but it remains unanswered, because she's pulling away and heading towards the kitchen to smile some more at Leonard, and he's left with the unhappy situation of living out a common saying: the moment's lost.
Feeling deflated and rather worn of the whole experience, he fusses with the baskets of soaps so they are in a less disordered pile, and concludes the ceremony over.
ten thousand one hundred and two
The following is taken from the journal of a young boy (identity withdrawn), who, under parental concern for his wellbeing, spent a one-week period in December 1989 at the Clinical School of Psychology, Lawrence Memorial Hospital, Texas, where he was placed through various tests and interviews. Section head, Dr. Alan Hubert, remains on record as saying that while the boy's IQ was extremely high, this in itself does not equate to any actual or imagined psychosis (query noted informally in interview process as 'Is my boy fallen crazy, Doc, or does he just speak funny?'). It is his personal opinion that such prejudices are enormously unfounded, and in the end succeed only in hindering an otherwise normal development.
Indeed, he went so far as to hope that this gifted but very singular young man might one day remember the kind words of an old physician, once he has finished discovering the theory of everything, and has a moment in his wisdom to spare.
In 10102, far into the future, we will not be alive. We will not fight or procreate or sleep. We will not celebrate, commiserate, be born, get sick or die.
There is no Saturnalia. Or chestnuts roasted on an open fire. Or a fire upon which to roast chestnuts.
We will live in a world of logic, just as Mr. Spock said to Captain Kirk, except Kirk never listened anyway because a woman in silver boots and stupid high hair always appeared during these meaningful conversations, and they really should have trained that fault out of him at Starfleet Academy. If I were your Captain, Spock, I would listen.
In 10102, I will know everything, and exist as a thought bubble. My name will be "..." and we will be shapes and feelings and massive compact halo objects.
(Don't you DARE be reading this, Melissa Anne.)
-- S.L.C, 12/10/89
This is a leap year.
February 29. He prepares a round of cylon toast and brings it to their bed, despite the unpleasant and highly likely possibility of breadcrumbs ending up in the sheets.
"Penny. I wish to ask you something, and I choose this day out of all three hundred and sixty six because it holds some uniqueness in the great scheme of things."
She drinks orange juice and looks at him. Something in his chest tightens, and it's not the odds of possibility.
"Oh, sweetie, is it about last night?" Penny pats him on the arm as he perches on the comforter. "I know you don't like to do that, it was mean of me. Taking advantage of you and all."
She smiles widely, bright and secret, but Sheldon's looking at the carpet, at a thread coming loose from the pile. He hides it under the heel of his slipper. "No," he says, "that's not it. And I didn't mind, I mean...don't. It's just, I understand there is a custom--"
This is wretched. He has accepted awards, faced audiences and critics, but here he feels as if everything depends on randomness and uncertainty. Her mouth is full of toast, half a cylon gone and half held still between her fingers. She's...indescribably beautiful. Indescribable because beauty shouldn't matter, the word shouldn't float in his mind, waiting for an ordinary moment like this one to be applied as if it were a label on a jar. What's beautiful is a day that aligns the calendar with the solar year. Penny is different; Penny is something else entirely.
He waits, she chews thoughtfully, swallows. He waits some more, and then, breathing deeply to calm his pounding head, Sheldon leans across the tray, the cups and teaspoons and other paraphernalia of domesticity, and presses his lips to Penny's. She tastes of oranges, something burnt and very sweet. It takes everything he knows to keep still and not move; move closer in or away again, for both are uncontrollable.
On the second slice, dusted with cinnamon--a ring.
December 17. She makes bouquets from birch twigs and geranium, poking sharp with petals falling in a kind of happy, irrational chaos. He wears shoes so polished that they reflect his own bemused expression. There are a million metaphorical butterflies not only in his stomach, but his lungs, veins, his throat, rising and falling and impossible to swallow. Three times the toothbrush falls from his hand, and for each he has to readjust the UV light and wait for the autoclave to hum away, all of it a tease.
But she senses his frustration and is there, knocking on the bathroom door, his own Penny, Penny, Penny knock, light and nimble, a mimicry that makes him want to knock back and let the pattern run on and on in an infinite loop. But anxiety wins over compulsion: you're not supposed to see her, scolds a voice in his head. It's tradition. For some reason, the voice is his mother's.
He's saved when he hears Bernadette outside, twin murmurs followed by the sound of heels disappearing, allowing him to turn the latch with a trembling hand.
"It's okay, Sheldon," says Leonard, breezing past to adjust his tie in the mirror. "You're safe, they're gone."
"Good lord." He collapses onto the toilet seat. His vocabulary seems to have gone the way of his toothbrush. "Good lord..."
Leonard grins. "All your doing, buddy. All your doing."
December...the something. It doesn't matter, though, because the Florida Keys beckon, as do other, more pressing matters, and if he's honest he lost track of the date some time ago.
It may have been as the candied almonds ran out, or when they ate the last of the cake that was sent in the mail from home. The accompanying note from his mother, so overrun with platitudes that he is surprised the good services of FedEx were able to deliver it at all, sits on the bedside table. Half-awake and blinking in the very faint light, he peers at it again. She uses the word happy too many times.
Penny stirs. He looks down, curiosity replaced with something deeper, and traces a thumb across her lips. They move soundlessly as her fingers reach for his; she kisses the thin nap of his wrist and settles back to sleep.
Sheldon decides that love should exist in multiples of four, divisible, like the years.
It really is the strangest sensation.
As the world settles around him, he doesn't as much hear Penny as see her: there she is, a reflection in a shining red ball, the decoration he was hanging on a waiting frond of the plastic tree. All of five seconds ago.
The reflection bends, disappears altogether. And now she's standing before him, eyebrows arched.
"Penny," Sheldon says. He deposits the ball a little clumsily and watches as the movement sends it in a bouncing spin. "The arrangement of these decorations is becoming worryingly asymmetrical. I believe we should swap places." Which is not exactly meaningful. Or original, for that matter. He wonders if this is what one supposedly feels when stalling for time (with the agreeable consequence being that in wondering, he is doing just that). Possibly, he decides, turning to look at her. If a year can exist in a second...
But all she does is shrug, so they step around the tree, careful not to touch the morning's work. Or each other. He is aware of an uncharacteristic consciousness in every movement. He's also aware that it isn't new.
"I was thinking." Sheldon peers through a garland of tinsel, at her hands as they tie a string of silver bells around the bottom leaves.
"What about, sweetie?"
"No," he says firmly. "That's what I was doing. Thinking."
Distinguishing this is important.
Penny makes a small noise at the back of her throat, like a buzzing bee. It's the verbal equivalent of a shrug, something that would normally irritate him to the point of a deep sigh or glare (Sheldon's own variation of phasers-set-to-stun); but before he can reiterate his point she's digging around in the box at their feet. "Hey, where d'you want Newton? Up top again?"
"Where else would Newton go?" Sheldon asks, baffled enough to forget either plan.
She grins. "You're so easy."
"I object to that statement. It lacks both proper meaning and accuracy."
This succeeds only in bringing her back to his side again, smiling with disarming ease. Honestly, how are they to accomplish this task in the allotted time if they cannot stay focused in a productive manner? She's holding onto the small bust and together they glance up at the intended destination. Without a word Sheldon takes it from her hand and balances it at the top.
"Freak," Penny says, sticking out her tongue.
But she's as stubborn as he is to insults. "So. Are you going to tell me?"
He stares down at her, head bent because flat-footed she's shorter by another inch, and it's awkward, as usual. No, more than usual. "Tell you what?"
She sighs. "Geez, Sheldon, I don't know. If I say 'your thoughts' are you going to lecture me on how I wouldn't understand them? Or are you going to be human for a change and just say the first thing that comes into your head?"
"Penny," he admonishes, "my thoughts are not the primary concern here. However if discussing them means we might finish this disagreeable task in peace, then--"
And this is the point where he begins to drift again.
Sheldon was going to finish with then so be it: I was thinking about time, but to his confusion and very slight alarm nothing comes out. Nothing at all. What's confusing is that confusion has no place here. He has an IQ too high to measure, (except it was, once and many years ago; measured by a man in round spectacles and clever eyes, and that number was printed out and stamped on a file labelled Cooper, S. L 05/81, like he was a piece of equipment bar-coded in readiness for society, having been unofficially declared rational and sane by the great State of Texas) but they're standing here covering a plastic tree with even more plastic, with the only thing making any sense being the bust of Sir Isaac, frowning down from his position on high.
Cooper, S. L 05/81, Intelligence Quotient: 187. He should be able to close his eyes and present her with the real thing.
"When I was twelve my brother threw a piece of my new chess set into the elm outside our house, and when I climbed up I found a broken egg." He speaks rapidly, the words coming before he can think them into proper sense. "In a century not long ago there was another Penny who waited on tables while the snow fell, and a man who sat every day in the same spot never asked her name but wished for her a part of the life he couldn't know or have. I was thinking about a journal I kept when I was eight, and how someone read it, someone who wasn't my sister and back then was maybe the only person, apart from my meemaw, who saw what I wanted the world to be. I hugged you two years ago and six years from now I'll do it again, except you'll be eating toast in bed, and it won't matter because I'll ask you something and we'll both forget the mess. And after, I'll hear my mother telling me not to look, even though the hero always peeks, and Leonard will say it's all my doing, all of it, and--" He stops and breathes in; he takes note of the feeling and the fill of his lungs so he has something to question rather than the rawness of his own voice. "Do you know about leap years, Penny? I do. It makes me sad that no one seems to understand them, because they are remarkable. They correct time."
Answer given, Sheldon waits.
So does Penny. Waiting for him to finish, he realises, and now that he has, she is instead considering him where she could just as easily laugh it away, his inherent peculiarities, his robotic stiffness and quiet inhibitions.
By their hands is the red ball, teetering on the end of the branch. After a moment she reaches over, prods with a finger and sets it turning again, the room and the pair of them in it, spinning and spinning.
"What are your thoughts on candied almonds?" Sheldon asks, quickly, before it stops.
But the smile comes just as fast, right from her eyes.
"I love them," Penny says.
He's drifting. Time to land.