PAIRING: Sheldon/Penny, mentions of Leonard/Penny in the past
SUMMARY: This isn't home, she thinks.
SPOILERS: General third season.
DISCLAIMER: The characters in this story do not belong to me and no copyright infringement is intended.
WORD COUNT: 2,900 for this part.
NOTE: This story is still a work in progress. I may end up revising this part at some point, or not at all. Unbetaed for now, so feel free to point out my typos. Now I'm up to five parts. HELP! But we are actually in the home stretch now. Only one more part after this. I promise.
THANKS: To everyone for your amazing comments and encouragement. It really helps keep me inspired when writing something long like this.
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5
Everything changes the morning after Halloween with one phone call.
The ringtone on her cell phone wakes her on the couch, where she passed out the night before still in her Kara Thrace costume. Howard and Raj had taken her to a Caltech Halloween party that turned out to be surprisingly excellent, especially the toxic-looking green punch.
"Mrmph," she mumbles into the phone, praying it isn't work asking her to come in on her day off. Because the idea of cheesecake right now is the worst idea ever.
"Hi, Penny!" says a sickeningly cheerful and awake-sounding woman. "It's Jane Jesperson. Remember me?"
Penny sits up, her head pounding. Sure she remembers Jane. Jane directed Penny in one of the only decent plays she's ever been in. But that was like four years ago and she had heard that Jane moved to Minneapolis. What could she possibly want with Penny? "Of course I do," she says, trying to sound livelier. "What's going on?"
"I'm really excited. I'm directing my play, All's Fair this winter with the Dilemma Theater. It's a small company, but they've got a great reputation around here."
"That's fabulous!" She always liked Jane a lot. She was a really good director and seemed to believe in Penny as an actress, something of a rarity in this town. But why is Jane calling her about all this?
"Anyhow, the reason why I'm calling you is I had a really weird dream last night."
"Uh-huh…" This is getting stranger and stranger.
"I dreamed that you were the lead in my play and it was a huge hit. The dream was so intense, just like real life. And when I woke up, I realized you'd be perfect to play Mara."
"Really?" Penny's forehead wrinkles.
"Yes, really. Will you audition?"
"But I'm in Pasadena and you're in Minneapolis." And I can't afford to fly halfway across the country for an audition, she thinks.
"Yeah, I thought about that. I don't want to make you come all the way out here for just an audition. How about if I send you the script and then you send me a videotape? There are a couple of speeches in the play I'd like to see you read."
"Are you serious?" All this, based on a dream Jane had?
"Totally," Jane says firmly. "It was a really weird dream."
By the time Penny has showered and eaten a grilled bologna and Kraft singles sandwich (her time-tested, all purpose hangover cure), Jane has emailed her the play. She prints out the whole thing, which seems to take forever on her cranky old printer. She clips the pages together and drives to Starbucks, where she can get her caffeine fix and burn off the last traces of hangover with the warm afternoon sunshine.
The play is a drama about a conservative, Minnesota Lutheran family, with some comic touches. Mara is the oldest daughter, who shames her parents when she's kicked out of her strict Lutheran college because she's pregnant. Her brother, Eric, makes things worse by coming out of the closet.
Penny reads the play through three times at Starbucks, barely managing to touch her caramel Frappuccino. Her heart beats faster and faster as she turns the pages. Jane was right. This role is perfect for her. She can do this. She knows it like she knows her own name.
The next three days, when she's not working, Penny lives with this play. She spends hours marking lines with a highlighter pen. She curls up on the couch and closes her eyes, imagining what it would be like to be the perfect daughter, now in disgrace. In her own way, Penny was the perfect child in her family. Her sister dropped out of high school to live with her boyfriend who was fifteen years older. Her brother was dealing weed by tenth grade. Penny was a cheerleader, in all the plays at school, got decent grades. She once heard her mother say to her aunt, "At least one of them turned out okay."
By the end of the third day, she has the entire script memorized.
Raj comes over with his digital video camera. Howard had wanted to come along, too, but she'd firmly said no, knowing that he'd distract her with a million jokes about amateur porn.
At first, she's embarrassed to be acting in front of Raj, who has gone mute in honor of the importance of the occasion. She keeps breaking down in hysterical giggles.
She goes to the bathroom and stares at herself in the mirror. "Get serious," she tells herself, "for the first time in your life."
She thinks about Mara, pregnant and afraid to tell her parents, who think she's the ideal, virginal daughter. She remembers when she thought she was pregnant senior year of high school and how she'd hyperventilate every time she imagined telling her own parents and how she cried with relief to find bloodstains in her panties before gym class.
Mara walks out into the living room, not Penny. She tells her story in front of the camera.
She uploads the scenes they shot to Mediafire and sends the link to Jane. She crosses her fingers and knocks on the wood door for luck.
And she waits. And waits and waits and waits.
She wonders why she ever thought she'd get this part. Or why she thought she might have talent after all. She'll have to wait tables for the rest of her life.
New people have moved into Leonard and Sheldon's apartment. No matter who lives there, it will always be guys' place to her.
They're a young couple, very nice. Penny meets them in the hallway and has a pleasant chat with them, but when they invite her in for a drink, she politely declines. She doesn't want to see how the apartment has changed. In her mind it's still stuffed full of comic books and mint-condition action figures and there will always be two whiteboards in the living room, covered with indecipherable squiggles in dry erase marker.
She gets the call just as she's pulling her car out of the Cheesecake Factory parking lot, her feet aching after a long shift.
"Hi, Penny," Jane says, sounding serious.
Penny feels like she might puke all over the car.
"How do you feel about spending the winter in Minneapolis?"
Penny almost breaks Jane's eardrum with her screaming.
Penny blows a good chunk of her practically nonexistent savings on getting the car fixed. It feels wrong somehow to see the Check Engine light turned off.
She says goodbye to the boys on a gorgeous December morning, warm and breezy. She hugs them tight and promises that she'll email/text/call/Skype every minute of the day and she'll be back before summer and they'll hardly have time to miss her. Howard and Raj send her off with Lemonheads and Red Vines, mix CDs and a canister of mace, just in case.
She tries not to look at the palm trees as she drives off because if she does that she'll start crying and that's no way to begin a new adventure in life.
There's a lot of time to think in the car on the long, long drive down endless highways but she doesn't want to think so she plays music really loud and sings along in her terrible voice. She doesn't have a future career in musical theater, that's for sure.
She stops off for two days to visit her parents. She hasn't been back in a while. It just gets too weird sometimes with her brother in jail and her sister married for the third time to a guy Penny hasn't even met and living in Grand Island with her four kids.
Still, it's good to be home for an early Christmas with her mother and dad. Her father takes her through the barns, introducing her to the new cows and horses. She misses Dynamite, her old horse. He was a glossy red-brown color and had a diamond-shaped white patch on his forehead. When she was feeling sad or lost, all she had to do was take Dynamite out for a long ride in the fields around their farm and everything seemed better, or at least possible, in the end.
It kind of cracks Penny up that after years of failure in Los Angeles, her mother is now gleefully introducing her daughter to everyone in town as, "You remember Penny, right? She's going to be in a big play in Minneapolis." Minneapolis can seem awfully glamorous when you're from small town Nebraska.
When she exits Highway 35 into Minneapolis, she spots a bank sign displaying the temperature. It's five degrees and the sky is a dull, leaden gray.
She's able to find Jane's place in South Minneapolis without much trouble, thanks to Jane's directions, which are detailed almost on a Sheldon level. She pulls in front of Jane's place, a stucco bungalow with a front yard drowning in snow. Jane comes running out the front door, bundled in an enormous red parka that swallows her small frame and wearing a matching stocking cap over her brown curls.
She throws her arms around Penny as if she's a long-lost sister. "Welcome home!" she shouts.
Penny shivers. She doesn't own a winter coat strong enough to deal with this level of cold.
This isn't my home, she thinks. But then again, neither is Pasadena anymore. Not since she lost both of them.
Jane has found her a place to stay, a studio apartment sublet from an actress on a national tour of Les Miserables until summer. It's in an old brick building in a quasi-hip neighborhood Minneapolis called Uptown, full of coffeehouses, Asian fusion restaurants, and upscale piercing boutiques.
The apartment is on the fourth floor and there's no elevator. Somehow, this makes her glad.
It's weird moving into someone's apartment that's still filled with all of their furniture, their books, cupboards stuffed with their dishes and coffee mugs commemorating events Penny's never heard of. It's sort of like taking over someone's life, someone who seems to love English mysteries, herbal teas, and muted jewel tones for her furnishings. On the other hand, it definitely beats having to buy a bunch of stuff for just a few months.
The actress has an Xbox 360 hooked up to the TV. One day, just after moving in, Penny finds herself at Best Buy, purchasing Halo 3.
She tells herself that she'll see him again and when she does, she'll kick his ass.
She can't remember the last time she was so busy. This is a good thing, because when she's busy she can't mourn and if she doesn't mourn it means that Leonard isn't dead and Sheldon isn't gone.
The boys always talked about alternate universes. She likes to pretend that there is one, off in the distance somewhere, where the two of them are hanging out in their apartment, watching endless episodes of Babylon 5 and bickering about whose turn it is to call in the Chinese delivery order.
There are tons of rehearsals. She's also picked up some shifts at the Cheesecake Factory out at Southdale Mall, which kind of messes with her head since the restaurant is exactly the same as the one in Pasadena, only with everything on the opposite side. She keeps going through the wrong doors to the kitchen and the dishwashers yell at her Spanish.
At first, rehearsals seem like a disaster. The confidence she'd had in playing Mara, how she'd felt like she'd inhabited her, flees in the face of the rest of the cast. They're real actors, even if it's only Minneapolis. They've all been in tons of plays and constantly talk about commercials they've been cast in or movies that are shooting in Minnesota that they're going to audition for. They're really nice to her, everyone's nice in Minneapolis, but they're so sure of themselves that it gives her a stomachache every day before rehearsal. She's just this clueless, ditzy blonde with a scanty acting resume and she's never even been to college, let alone earned an MFA degree like half the cast.
Jane is great director. She challenges the cast to be the best they can be. She's full of all sorts of great suggestions and tips. She's motherly and sweet when she needs to be but screams at the top of her lungs at the actors if she has to.
One night, after rehearsal, Penny locks herself in the bathroom at the theater. She feels dizzy, sweaty. She sits down on the toilet and tries to breathe normally again. Jane is going to realize the mistake she made, casting Penny based on a freaky dream she had. She's going to be fired and have to return to Pasadena like the loser she is. What a mistake this was, thinking she could be taken seriously as an actress. She's no actress. She's just some girl who was good in the plays at her tiny Nebraska high school in comparison with all the local dolts, but put up against real actors? Forget it.
Finally, she feels like she'll be able to stand up without passing out again and creeps out of the bathroom, hoping that everybody else has gone home.
Jane is waiting outside the bathroom, smoking a cigarette in defiance of the NO SMOKING signs posted everywhere.
Penny tries to walk past Jane as if nothing's happened but Jane stills her with a hand at Penny's shoulder.
Here it comes, she thinks, bracing herself.
"Penny," Jane says. "When are you going to realize that you're the real thing?"
Penny shrugs like a sullen teen.
"You need to get over yourself. You're talented. Suck it up. Accept it."
"And what if I can't do it?" she says.
"Why ever would you think you can't do it?" Jane laughs. "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard. Now, come on, let's go get a beer at the CC Club. My kid's got a cold that's made him the crankiest child alive and I can't stand to go home just yet."
She starts spending a lot of time at Jane's house. It's one of those comfortably messy houses with books all over the place and the stereo constantly playing something really weird, but cool. There's often some sort of stew or soup on the stove, bubbling away and making the air smell like garlic and herbs. It's the kind of house Penny would like to have some day.
Strangely enough, Jane's husband Michael is a math professor at the University of St. Thomas. He actually went to Caltech as an undergrad and he shudders his skinny shoulders as the thought of "that academic hothouse of torture," as he puts it. He has a whiteboard in his home office covered with equations and the sight of it makes Penny more homesick than anything else.
Jane and Michael have a three-year-old boy named Darwin. Darwin is short and stocky like his mother, with a head full of dark curls. He's obsessed with dinosaurs and gives her a crash course on the floor of his bedroom. "No, no, no!" he shouts in frustration. "That's not Corythosaurus. It's Camptosaurus. Can't you tell the difference?"
And then one day in rehearsal it all just clicks. Mara is back with her, living inside Penny and whispering her thoughts in Penny's ear.
Everyone seems relieved, Penny herself most of all.
She never thinks about Sheldon.
Okay, maybe she thinks about him. Just a little bit, though.
She's a total liar. She thinks about him a lot, late at night when she's at home in her little apartment and can't hide from her thoughts anymore.
Her place has a window seat and sometimes she wraps herself up in a blanket and sits in the window, drinking hot tea and looking out over Hennepin Avenue.
And she thinks about what a weird thing chemistry is. Chemistry, whatever that means, kept her bound to Kurt way longer than was good for her because whenever he touched her it sent electric shocks through her whole body. But with Leonard, the electricity never came, as much as she wanted it to. He did all the right things, touched her in all the ways that should have pleased her, but she never craved his hands on her, never longed for more after it was all over.
It feels like a betrayal thinking these things about poor Leonard.
And then there's Sheldon. Just the one time, that horrible night after Leonard's funeral but even now, months later, she can remember every rustling sound their bodies made on the bed, can still feel the smoothness of his warm skin against hers and how his mouth tasted. And she wonders how it was possible to feel so much for Sheldon, of all people.
Something deep inside her longs to be able to talk to him, to set things right again, to be able to try to salvage something good from the wreckage of Leonard's death. But that's the frustrating part. Sheldon is just gone, no forwarding address.
Every so often she Googles him and nothing new ever comes up.
She sends an email to Raj:
I don't think we ever appreciated how good we had it, you know? All of us just hanging out and having so much fun doing totally stupid stuff and we'd complain and fight sometimes cause we didn't know how rare and awesome that kind of friendship is.
Opening night and it's warm enough that the snow is starting to melt outside and the sidewalks are a mess of puddles and mud. Everyone says it’s a false spring and that there will be another snowstorm before it's all over.
She sits in her dressing room, trying to contain her nerves. You can do it, she tells herself, hearing Jane's voice in her head. You're talented. You're the real thing.
The room is full of flowers. There's a bunch of really pretty pink tulips from Raj and Howard. Their thoughtfulness makes her miss them with sharp, almost physical pang. Yellow roses from her parents, who couldn't make it because her father has the flu. The smell of all the flowers makes her ever so slightly sick. It reminds her of when she went to the funeral home with Sheldon to make cremation arrangements.
She fusses with her hair, removes her earrings and puts them back on, removes them again, puts them back on.
Twenty more minutes. She might go insane.
Kim, one of the company interns, pokes her head in. "Hey, Penny, I feel really bad but I forgot to tell you when you came in that there's a package for you." She hands over a small, brown package, surprisingly heavy.
It's postmarked Juneau, Alaska.
Penny opens it and finds a packet of plaster. She squints at it in confusion. Who would send her plaster, of all things?
She turns the package over and spies a line of familiar handwriting scrawled across the wrapper.
For your cast when you break your leg.
End Part 4 of 5