Note: This story goes AU from sometime in season 3 while Penny and Leonard are dating. With fond memories of my roommate Debbie, who grew up on a dairy farm. All mistakes associated with farming (and all the rest too) are mine.
Penny shrieked with delight as she ambushed Howard's avatar. She leaned over to high-five Sheldon, her favorite Halo partner, who rolled his eyes but returned her gesture. She had picked up the controller once more when her phone began to trill. She checked the caller ID, and paused the game.
"Just a sec, guys; it's my parents." She got up and walked back towards the hallway for some privacy.
Sheldon huffed in annoyance. "Penny, your long-distance conversations with your parents average thirty-seven minutes in length. Your phone call's duration has already exceeded a single second."
She made a face and flapped a hand at him in dismissal as she headed round the corner.
"Well, I could use a refill," Howard announced, grabbing his red Solo cup and heading for the kitchen. Raj held out his cup with a pleading look. With a dramatic sigh, Howard took it.
Just then, Penny rushed back into the living room, almost knocking Howard over. She rifled through Leonard's desk, scribbling rapidly on the first piece of paper she found.
"Which hospital? Okay, yeah, I got it. Don't worry, Mom. I'll be there as soon as I can." She hung up and stared at the paper with a shell-shocked expression.
"Is everything okay, Penny?" Leonard asked hesitantly.
"It's my dad. He, um... he collapsed. They think it's his heart. He's in surgery right now." Penny clapped a hand over her mouth as she fought to contain her panic and grief.
"Is there anything we can do?" Raj asked gently.
Penny gave him a watery smile. "I have to go pack a suitcase. If one of you could book me a flight on the next plane to Omaha, that would be great. I'll pay you back, I promise. And I could use a ride to the airport."
The boys crowded around Leonard's laptop and in short order had purchased a round-trip ticket for Penny. Sheldon was the one who actually paid her fare. Leonard had wanted to pay for it, but he didn't have enough money in his account at the moment. He thought defensively to himself that it wasn't his fault his girlfriend's love language was designer shoes.
When Penny walked out of the baggage claim doors, a rush of cold air made her shiver, even though it was almost summer. Nothing like being back in Nebraska, she thought wryly. She spotted her Aunt Debbie waving at her from a pickup truck parked by the curb. She hurried over, her carry-on with the broken wheel banging and clattering behind her, and gave her aunt a hug.
"How is he?" she asked, skipping the niceties and getting straight to the point.
Debbie smiled, but her expression was strained. "Well, the surgery was successful, but the doctors say he's not out of the woods yet. The next forty-eight hours will be critical. It's a good thing you're home, sweetie. Your big sister's been driving your mom crazy, and that kind of stress is the last thing she needs right now." She tossed Penny's suitcase into the back of the pickup.
Penny hopped into the passenger side and buckled up. "Let me guess. Kim's decided that she has to argue with Mom over every little thing because she's sure she knows better than the doctors."
"You've hit the nail on the head," Debbie confirmed, as she pulled out into the airport traffic. "Your brother Donnie's been trying to get a day pass to visit your dad, but you know how the justice system is with paperwork."
"Dammit, is he back in jail already? I thought he just got out. I can't even keep track of all his convictions," Penny complained.
"Like I said, I'm glad you're here to help out. I've been doing as much as I can for your mom, but with the little ones still in school, there's only so much I can do."
"I know, Aunt Debbie. Don't blame yourself," Penny replied, staring out of the window. She'd been in Nebraska for less than an hour, and already she was weighted down with family drama and obligations. It was why she visited so seldom. In California, she could be who she wanted to be, or almost. There was still Leonard who pressured her to be smarter or more affectionate or more supportive, but his neediness was a drop in the bucket compared to the craziness that was her family. In a weird way, the pressure from him was just enough to feel familiar without making her feel like she couldn't breathe.
Her aunt anticipated her wishes and drove her straight to the hospital, explaining that no one was at her parent's house during the day anyway. Penny tried not to feel scared as she breathed in the odors of the hospital: antiseptic, urine and hopelessness. Her father was sleeping, and he looked small and pale lying in the hospital bed. She stroked his hand, careful not to jostle his IV, and whispered, "I'm here, Daddy." Her father woke up a few times during her visit, but he was confused and easily tired. Penny tried not to let it show how much she hated to see him, once so proud and strong, reduced to an old man who lacked the strength to sit up on his own.
Once visiting hours were over, Penny drove her mother home in her mom's old gray sedan. As she pulled up next to the house, she looked toward the long white barn on her left. "Mom, who's been looking after the farm and taking care of things?" she asked.
Her mother looked away. "Your cousin Jeb's been coming around as much as he can."
Penny's heart sank. Jeb was fourteen, and not nearly old enough, strong enough, or responsible enough to run a dairy by himself. She would have to see for herself how bad things were, but first she had to take care of her mother. Inside the house, Penny took stock of the kitchen. A few dirty dishes were piled in the sink, and the fridge was looking rather empty. She found a can of soup in the pantry. While the soup was heating, she popped some store-bought biscuits into the oven. She burned the biscuits a little, but the soup was fine. Even so, she and her mother picked at their food. Penny forced herself to eat as much as she could to set a good example, then got up to wash the dishes.
After the kitchen was clean, Penny went upstairs and borrowed an old pair of jeans and flannel shirt from her mom's closet. The boots from her rodeo days were still in a box under the bed in her childhood bedroom. She pulled them on and headed out to the barn.
A bike leaning against the wall near the door told her that her cousin was inside. It was almost dark, and although Penny really appreciated his help, she knew he couldn't keep the farm going and get his schoolwork done. She found him struggling to lift down a last bale of hay. He had shot up since she saw him last, but he couldn't have weighed a hundred pounds yet. She helped him lower the bale to the ground and then said, "I've got it from here, Jeb. You go home to your mom and get your homework done." He nodded, and Penny pulled him into a quick hug and whispered her thanks before finishing the chores alone.
When Penny woke up the next morning, her back and shoulders ached. It had been far too long since she had done such physically demanding work. She popped several ibuprofen before heading out to the dairy barn, feeling guilty that it was already six a.m. and she had left the poor cows waiting to be milked. When she was finally finished with the chores, it was almost two hours later, and she was gratified to find that her mother had gotten up and cooked breakfast. Her body was clamoring for calories, and she scarfed down bacon along with her toast and eggs: no sense trying to be a vegetarian in dairy country.
Over the next few days, her time was divided between visiting her father, who was still unconscious most of the time, trying to run interference between her mother and Kim, and buying groceries with the last bit of money she had brought with her. Maybe it was terrible of her, but she couldn't help but think how relieved she was that Leonard hadn't come home with her. With the best of intentions, he would have gotten in her way, creating complications where he just wanted to help. And that wasn't even dealing with the issue of a lactose-intolerant boyfriend on a dairy farm.