Chocolate Chip Cookies

Written for the following prompt, LJ femgenficathon 2010: The triumph can't be had without the struggle. - Wilma Rudolph (1940-1994), African-American Olympian athlete. First American woman to win three gold medals in track and field...and she won while running on a sprained ankle.

Standard disclaimer applies; not my characters or settings or backgrounds. But they are my words.

Penny Priddy never finished high school. It was only through the efforts of an elderly English teacher with the demeanor of a drill sergeant that Penny had managed to make it to her junior year. When she'd turned 16, she'd hit the road, leaving school and home, such as it was, behind. All her efforts in life landed her on the losing side of pass/fail. At this point she'd forgotten all her hopes and dreams. All she remembered was what she was trying to forget. There was no escape from some memories.

Like other badly or under-educated adults with native intelligence and a keen sense of survival, she'd managed to get along. Drifting from low wage job to temp work to unemployment and back again was her life. A brief stint in a convent had only managed to instill a fine sense of guilt over some of the things she'd done in order to survive. To her friends, those few that occasionally drifted along with her, she used to laugh and say, 'It's not so much a choice as a lifestyle!' Her cynical acceptance of her own inadequacies had carried her through some tough times.

Then she'd met Buckaroo, and her life had changed overnight.

Buckaroo had saved her; given her a reason not to blow her head off, a place to stay, and a group of highly eccentric and highly intelligent comrades. Once she had accepted the existence and loss of a twin sister she'd never known, she'd settled down to an uncertain position in the New Jersey compound. Penny Priddy had found a home, and someone she deeply loved. Yet there was something missing.

Buckaroo traveled quite a bit, sometimes with her and sometimes without. When he was gone, she tried reading some of his publications, but even the popularized versions made her head hurt. After an afternoon spent alone in the computer room, playing around with the high tech machines, she conceived a plan to get her high school diploma and maybe even her bachelor's degree. Buckaroo had given her the code for the Institute's petty cash account, and she used it to enroll online in a combined program designed for working people to study at their own pace. Her pace was painfully slow.

At first she was careful to wait until everyone was out or busy in another area of the Institute. This happened quite often, and she grew adept at blanking the screen whenever anyone came in unexpectedly. Eventually she grew confident enough to ask Buckaroo for her own account on the computer in their now-shared bedroom, and she spent hours reading, studying, preparing first for the exam to obtain her diploma, then for a basic degree in combined sciences.

When the e-mail had arrived with the notice of her score on the SAT, she'd been unable to restrain herself from a self-congratulatory war whoop. It had brought Mrs. Johnson to her door, knocking and asking if everything was all right. Penny had answered quickly, trying to forestall any more questions. Mrs. Johnson had never accepted her. Peggy, Penny's sister, had been her best friend. Since Rawhide's death, Mrs. Johnson had taken over the house accounts, keeping track of purchases and cash flow. Eventually this brought her back to Penny's door.

"Hi," Mrs. Johnson said. She stood framed in the doorway, neither inside or outside the room.

Penny started, wondering how long the other woman had been standing there. She'd instinctively minimized the screen, and dropped her eyes in the face of the housekeeper's frank appraisal. "Is there something I can do for you?" she asked, bracing herself for the usual coldness.

"I've been going over the accounts, and," Mrs. Johnson hesitated, then continued, "I was wondering if you needed anything."

"What would I need?" Penny answered quickly. "I'm fine."

"Good," replied Mrs. Johnson carefully. "I just wanted to say that the accounts are well within our limits. There wouldn't be a problem if you used more funds."

Penny thought rapidly. She was going to have to start attending the laboratory sessions offered in conjunction with the online coursework. They were held at a local community college, and she'd need transport. "I think I'm okay for money," she said, "But I wondered if I could use one of the cars?"

"No problem," replied Mrs. Johnson. "I'll have one assigned to you. The keys are on the hook by the garage door. Would, say, three nights a week, do you?"

Penny flushed. That was exactly what she would need. Meeting Mrs. Johnson's look of neutral sympathy, Penny nodded brusquely. "That'd be great," she said.

The labs were not nearly as well equipped as the ones at the Institute, but then they were for basic scientific education, not cutting-edge research. Combined science, she hoped, would give her a smattering of all the disciplines in which Buckaroo excelled. At least she'd be able to carry on a conversation without sounding like an idiot.

There had been plenty of times in her life when everyone in the room had looked down on her. The worst was the dancing. Every man who came into those dim, dingy bars had acted liked they owned her, all for the price of a drink. You couldn't hide, or lose yourself in the music when their eyes found you over and over again. Every look of contemptuous desire had nicked her soul. As she moved forward in her studies, she found a growing sense of competence and accomplishment. Mrs. Johnson started stopping by at lunchtime with a sandwich, or a cup of soup. Sometimes she even exchanged a pleasant word or two. It was a shared secret that neither discussed or mentioned to each other, or to anyone else.

This went on for months; months that stretched to a year and more. Penny took in great gulps of knowledge, awakening a thirst she'd never known she had. At last the final weeks approached, with the exams piled one upon another, she pulled all-nighters when she could, pale blue light showcasing her scowl of concentration. Mrs. Johnson kept a carafe of strong dark coffee filled for her, placing it on a tray outside the door, and taking away the empties as she found them. Penny found it comforting, almost as if they were partners in the project.

Buckaroo and the boys were due back from a combination of tour dates and scientific meetings any day now, and Penny was almost done. Most of her grades had come back adequate to good; no failures, which both surprised and pleased her, and a few high marks which astounded her. Physics was the hardest subject she had tackled, and it was the last exam left. No more studying; if she didn't know it now she never would. Spending a few minutes under a rush of hot water would clear her mind. When she left the shower, water drops already cooling on her feverish skin, she found Mrs. Johnson had left a last gift. Beside the computer monitor was a plate of chocolate chip cookies, still warm from the oven, and a tall glass of milk. There was a note under the glass, and she pulled it out, straining to read the words blurred by a widening circle from the condensation. It said 'Theobromine, sugar, and protein. It'll help. Good luck.'

When Buckaroo returned, he found Penny deeply asleep, dark circles under her eyes. She hardly moved when he entered the room, and his eye was caught by the blinking light on the printer. "Out of paper," he murmured, and slipped a few sheets into the tray. Picking up the top sheet, he saw it was a letter of confirmation of a degree awarded from a well known online university. His eyebrows shot up almost to the hairline as he saw Penny's name inscribed in calligraphic font at the top. Picking it up, he scanned the desk, his eye falling on the remnants of Mrs. Johnson's culinary support. His mouth quirked into a smile, and he went over to the bed, sat by Penny's side, and gently moved a lock of unruly blond hair from her eyes. They opened, and he realized with a shock that he no longer saw his first lost love when he looked at her. He only saw Penny. "Hey," he said, and placed the paper on her chest. "What have you been up to?"

"There ought to be a title," she said, slowly stretching under the sheet, "when you graduate college. Like doctor, only not as good. Bachelor just doesn't do it for me."

"Well, you're not a bachelor in any case," replied Buckaroo. "Not any more." He tapped the paper. "This is great. Why'd you do it?"

"Started out doing it for you. Ended up doing it for myself." She sat up and put her arms around his neck, giving him a deep slow kiss.

"That's the best way," he whispered. "Means so much more." Shifting his weight to one arm, he gestured towards the empty plate. "Mrs. Johnson made you cookies."

"Chocolate chip. With walnuts. I hate walnuts." Penny tried to pull him back down into the bed.

"Peggy liked them. Mrs. Johnson hasn't made any since she died. I'll tell her you don't like nuts." Buckaroo's voice was calm and easy, not full of pain as it usually was when he said Peggy's name.

"I'll tell her," replied Penny. "She won't mind; she's my friend." Her voice was coolly confident, but warmed at the word 'friend'. "Now come here. Let me show you what I learned in biology class."