Title: Beyond a Shadow of a Doubt
Author: Talitha Koum
Spoilers: Recent episodes.
Rating: PG-13 for mild language.
Word Count: 2500+
Disclaimer: I do not own The Big Bang Theory. Insert witticism here.
A/N: Based on the movie The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. AU. Penny moves into 4A and realizes the previous tenant has yet to leave.
Penny was desperate.
She needed a place to live. Like, bad. After four, long years of putting her aspirations through the ringer, on the back-burner? Submitting her mind and her body to one of the most boorish men she ever had the displeasure of sharing a bed? She had had it up to here--(Penny measured the height of her body with her hand, swerving to avoid a pothole.)--with his self-satisfied claims that 1.) she didn't have the spine or the money to strike out on her own and 2.) she was never going to find another man who treated her as good as he did.
Done. Penny packed her bags, crammed what little belongings she owned in the backseat of her car, put the pedal to the medal, and drove off into the proverbial sunset. At first, she felt a sense of pride. She felt strong. She felt independent. She was woman, for crying out loud! Sick and tired of being sick and tired, letting Kurt push her down like she was three-years-old. Like she was a child in his arms.
Did it feel that good to watch her bleed? Was he trying to make her think she loved him because he could rip her in two?
Whatev. She was gone for good. You know, this time. No turning back.
Penny punched the accelerator to make her point. She screamed at the top of her lungs, tears welling in her eyes. Not sad tears, angry tears. Four years of her life wasted on chasing down the affirmation she never received from her father. A twisted, twisted game of cat and mouse. Toying, hot pursuit, gluttonous. Wasted on alcohol and sex and--God! Why was she such an idiot?
Car horns blared in Penny's wake. She gestured wildly and rudely. "Douchebags!" She sped through a yellow light.
Penny veered into the parking lot of the Cheesecake Factory to collect her thoughts. The disgustingly familiar aroma of her workplace unruffled her feathers. A little. She breathed deeply through her nose, inhaling the sticky sweetness, inhaling the humidity of the morning--the heat of the sun blaring through her windshield--the sweat on her brow. Thick and hot and moist and--
God, she missed Kurt.
She needed a drink.
No. What she needed was a place to live.
Penny wiped her eyes. "C'mon, Penelope," she croaked. "The day is young. Carpe diem." Talking to herself didn't help. If anything, hearing how pathetic she sounded made her feel ten times worse. Penny sobbed harder. She white-knuckled the steering while, braced her arms, and threw her weight against her seat, shaking the entire vehicle. "ARGH!"
Tap, tap, tap.
Penny squinted outside to see a nervous Bernadette standing contrapposto so she could--clandestinely, nervously, concernedly, a host of lys--see inside her car.
"Are you alright?"
Penny rolled down her window. With every crank of the manual handle, she bit each syllable, "Does. It. Look. Like. I'm. Al-Right?"
"Not really." Pause. "Do you want to talk about it?"
"Not really." Pause. "I broke up with Kurt."
Penny appreciated her sympathy. And the act. She knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, Bernadette disproved of Kurt and his--How did she put it?-- primordial, misogynistic foolhardiness. Or something. Penny grabbed Bernadette's hand and said as evenly as she could manage, "It's for the best."
"You did the right thing."
"I have to go and, uh--" Penny dragged the sleeve of her light-weight jacket under her nose. "--and, God! I'm such a mess." She smiled a watery smile. "I gotta clean myself up and go, uh--" Sniff. "--apartment hunting."
"You can stay with me if you want," Bernadette offered.
"Thanks, but no. It wouldn't be fair to you. I wouldn't be good company."
Bernadette gasped, "OH!"
"My boyfriend, Howard!" She rifled around in her purse, giddy with excitement. (At the mention of boyfriend, Penny winced.) "He has a friend named Leonard who lives about five minutes from here." She retrieved her phone, fumbling with the numbers. "Great location. Decently priced. He's always complaining about the empty apartment across the hall." Bernadette pinned her phone to her ear.
"Wait, wait, wait." Penny opened her car door and stood to her feet. "This Leonard guy isn't some kind of weirdo, is he?"
"No. He's a physicist at CalTech."
Weirdo. Check. But! Penny thought. Just because he will be/might be my neighbor doesn't mean I have to talk to him. Right? "What's wrong with the apartment?" When Bernadette didn't seem to understand her question, Penny reiterated, "If it's such a great place, why doesn't anybody live there?"
Bernadette opened her mouth to explain, but she deviated when Howard answered her call. "Hi, Howard. Hold on a second." She pushed her phone against her chest. "I know it sounds crazy." Bernadette whispered, "The previous tenant died in his sleep. A Dr. Sheldon Cooper. Some people believe apartment 4A is haunted."
Penny laughed out loud, which surprised both her and Bernadette, bearing in mind what just transpired. "Haunted? Really?" She draped her arm on the hood of her car and cocked her hips, feeling ridiculously light-hearted considering the longest-lasting relationship of her life was utterly sunk. "Let me tell you something, Bernadette. In Nebraska, my family had this wake thing for my great-grandfather, Dad-O. They put his body in the guest room. Next to mine. And was I scared?"
Bernadette ignored Howard's voice asking what the frak was going on. "Were you?"
"So you're interested in the apartment?"
Penny gazed across the Cheesecake Factory parking lot, her red-rimmed eyes jumping from couple to couple walking hand-in-hand. Like skipping stones. Hardly daring to scratch the surface. For she knew, all too well, the brevity and capacity of human emotion.
Penny had never felt so alive. And so vulnerable.
"Fully furnished?" Penny's jaw dropped.
The super, Mr. Replogle, seemed to shrink. His head bowed and his chest caved and his shoulders hunched beneath his ears. He was a mousy, little man with big lips and big, oceanic eyes. (Penny suppressed the urge to pat his balding head.) "It's complicated," Mr. Replogle squeaked. Then he turned around and continued the trek up the stairs.
"Complicated?" Penny hurried to follow him.
"The previous tenant--"
"Died. Yeah. Still don't care."
Mr. Replogle shuddered.
Penny matched his stride ascending to the third floor.
"Dr. Cooper did not have a will. But..."
"...no matter how many times I've tried to auction off, donate, whatever!" Mr. Replogle grabbed his head in his distress. "Nobody will accept his belongings. Not even his family in Texas."
"You're in luck, Mr. Super! I virtually live in my suitcase and I have no problem using Cooper's furniture." Penny hesitated. "As long as it doesn't cost me extra."
"Thank you, young lady." Mr. Replogle blew his nose in a handkerchief he pulled from the inside of his tweed suit.
"No, no. Thank you." (She was already getting the apartment half price. What more could this man offer her? A car to match?)
"Thank God Dr. Cooper didn't drive."
Well. That answered that question.
Mr. Replogle gulped when they reached the fourth floor landing. He gripped 4A's keys with the conviction of a guilty man being led to the chopping block. "H-Here we are. 4A."
Penny didn't wait for Mr. Replogle to open the door. She snagged the keys from his hand and breezed into the apartment like she already lived there. She appraised the--surprisingly clean--living room/kitchen with aloof criticism. She was blessed in that her furnishings were free of charge, but the chair, the couch? They just weren't her style.
Too masculine. Way too masculine.
"Cooper had good taste," Penny lied through her teeth.
Mr. Replogle meeped his agreement.
Penny roamed the apartment, running her fingers along the desk, the computer, the island, the--whoa. She tilted her head to one side, trying to absorb the numbers and brackets and letters and words and symbols scribbled on a whiteboard by the refrigerator. "Holy crap on a cracker." Penny glanced over her shoulder at the super, who still hadn't crossed the threshold. "Cooper wasn't a physician, was he? He was one of those Beautiful Mind, genius guys."
"I suppose so."
Penny appreciated the complexity of the formulas like one would appreciate the complexity of a spider web. She extended her hand to touch the dry-erase equations when the windows crashed open in an instant. Penny thought she heard a breathy laugh, but chocked it up to her imagination.
Mr. Repolgle, unfortunately, did not.
Penny darted after him. She still had a contract to sign!
Mr. Replogle sat at the bottom of the stairs on the third floor, shaking like a leaf. "I told you," he wheezed. "I told you it was haunted."
"I don't know what you're talking about," Penny skirted the subject.
"You're joking! You saw the windows! Y-You heard him laughing!"
"Don't be silly. It was just the wind."
"You don't be silly! I can't let a sweet girl like you live in an apartment like that!"
Penny's heart swelled at Mr. Replogle's thoughtfulness; a willing combatant, but feeble in the heartache arena where Kurt had punched a gaping hole through her soul. "Listen." Penny sat down beside the super and stroked his knobby knee. "I'm from Nebraska." She smiled at Mr. Replogle's confusion. "Nebraskan girls know how to fly. Even when their wings are torn from their back. Because that's when we mount our broomsticks. We're flexible like that."
He chuckled at her brazenness.
"So. Where do I sign?"
Penny loved thunderstorms. Especially when she was angry or sad. It was like the sky empathized with her trials and tribulations and it rumbled its displeasure at the very thought of someone--anyone--breaking her heart. It cried when she cried. Cold and aggressive.
Penny looked out the window in what used to be Dr. Cooper's room, tracing her knuckle down the pane of glass where rivulets of water mirrored the tears running down her face. Pathetic. Absolutely pathetic. But she needed this. She needed to cry. It was therapeutic. Penny turned her eyes to the heavens. She watched the bruised and broken clouds broil overhead, a direct representation of the feelings writhing in her stomach like tempered snakes.
Oh! If only she could reach deep inside herself and rip out the pain. Why did learning from bad mistakes have to suck so much?
Penny rested her forehead on the window. She sighed long and loud. Her breath fogged the glass. She started to draw a little face when lightning flashed.
The apartment was thrown into darkness.
Penny swallowed the lump in her throat. For God's sake, she thought. All this talk of ghosts is actually starting to get to me!
"No one's allowed in my room."
Penny started. Her heart beat rapidly. Faster and faster. Pounding blood in her ears like a hammer pounds a stake. Achingly accurate. Hard. Loud. Over and over. It became difficult for Penny to distinguish her pulse from the gasp of her breath. She was so frightened her body and her mind waged an unseen war of epic proportions. Wanting to run. Wanting to fight. Wanting to scream. Wanting to ask:
"The specter of 4A," spoke a voice. Startlingly refined and twangy at the same time. "Boo."
The absurdity of his BOO lodged a stopper in Penny's fear. She turned around against the window. "Cooper?"
"Dr. Sheldon Cooper," the voice corrected her. "Now please. Get out."
"No. I live here."
"No. I live here."
"No. You're dead."
By the light of the busy street outside Sheldon's window, Penny witnessed a puzzle box fly across the room. Gently. Carefully.
"Was that supposed to scare me?" she asked.
"Doh," Sheldon sulked. "I'm not very good at this haunting business. I hate making a mess."
It was then that she saw him, sitting on the end of his bed. A tall, lanky man wearing a pair of khaki pants, a green t-shirt, and a long-sleeved undershirt. His age surprised her. When she thought of Dr. Anything--especially physicists--she pictured old men with neatly trimmed beards smoking Cuban cigars. Sheldon Cooper was no such individual. If she were to guess his years, he was somewhere between twenty-five and thirty. His hair was closely cropped and combed neatly to one side. His arms and legs were long and slender; a combination of gracefulness and clumsiness. His posture was perfect, his pianist hands folded in his lap.
It surprised Penny how undaunted she was. Sheldon Cooper made for a pitiable ghost.
"I'm not used to being incorporeal so I apologize for appearing to you thus." He turned to look at her. "It's unintentional."
Penny stared. Sheldon Cooper's eyes were shockingly blue. Almost iridescent. "S'okay."
"Alright. Enough with the banal chit-chat. No one's allowed in my room. Get out."
Penny stood firm. "No."
"Why?" Sheldon whined.
"Because the other bedroom is full of all your science crap."
Sheldon raised his eyebrows at her. "Science crap?" Suddenly, he was looming. Directly. Advancing. Cold and hollow were his words, "That crap, as you've so eloquently debased my research. That crap, Penelope, is my life's work."
Penny waved her hands in good favor. "Take a pill, Dr. Phil. Jeeze. And don't call me Penelope."
Sheldon smirked. "Penelope."
Penny covered her ears.
Sheldon chased her out of his room, whispering her name, his staid voice and departed breath slathering her skin with goosebumps. He shut his bedroom door in her face.
Penny knocked. Once. Twice. Three times. "Cooper!" She tried the doorknob. No such luck. "Where am I gonna sleep?"
"Preferably in another apartment."
"I can't, okay? I'm broke as Hell--"
"Please don't mention Hell, Penelope. My spirit is doomed to spend eternity in one of two places. I'd rather you not goad me to recall the ramifications of my religious beliefs or lack thereof."
"Fine!" Penny stomped into the living room and crashed on the couch, sullen and embarrassed and weirded out. How was she supposed to room with a ghost? She couldn't afford another place to live and she was too proud to ask for help or run away. (Kurt, of course, was the exception to the latter.) The next best thing? Compromise. The couch wasn't so terrible. It was comfy. Warm. Penny stretched, reveling in the feel of the leather on the bareness of her legs and the small of her back when her camisole rode up against the cushions.
Sheldon folded his arms across his chest and posted himself against the wall.
"It's wise to sleep with your head away from the door in the event a marauder should infiltrate your place of residence."
"I'm having this conversation with the ghost of Dr. Wackadoodle," Penny said pointedly. "Marauders are the least of my worries."