Title: The Descending Spiral Derivation
Saturnalia gift for gilove2dance
By: TriplePirouette aka 3Pirouette
Word Count: 5287
Disclaimer: All recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The plot is all mine. No copyright infringement is intended.
Summary: Without the promise of an acting career, Penny falls into a downward spiral. One person desperately wants her to get out of it.
Author's Notes: For gilove2dance for the sheldon-penny Saturnalia gift exchange! I hope you enjoy it! Prompt: "Penny is feeling blue and Sheldon desperately tried to cheer her up." Interestingly, I'm also currently writing a 'Penny cheers Sheldon up' fic, so it was a lot of fun to come up with another point of view for the whole idea. Also, I tried to come up with a time line for this, but I couldn't find one that I was happy with. Assume no Amy (because I enjoy her, but obviously gets in the way of Shenny) and this story happens over the course of at least a month- each section does not represent a day... but other than that give it whatever time line feels good to you!
AN2- I tried to give this a different feel in the style of it: a little more stinted in sentence structure, a lot of forced pauses, a tense shift, and borderline run on sentences. I did this on purpose to try to help elicit Penny's emotional state from the reader. This is the first time I've tried something like this, so I'd love any feedback as to if it helped or hindered the story.
Distribution: my site, ff. net, and my LJ, anywhere else, please ask first :)
Feedback PLEASE at: I love anything constructive! Blatant flames, however, will be disregarded and used to roast s'mores...
It all started one evening with a phone call, and ended with a double digit number of schnapps shots. Hell, after a while she was just swigging from the bottle, so calling them shots wasn't really fair, either.
She called out of the Cheesecake Factory the next morning. She hasn't had a hangover this bad in at least a year, and her body is definitely not happy about it. She spent the day in bed, combing websites and e-mailing new agents while nibbling on crackers and drinking flat Pepsi she found in the back of her refrigerator.
Rose scented Preparation-H tanked, and her agent was tired of looking for new prospects for her when "it's failed audition after failed audition" and he hasn't gotten a commission in months. He dumped her- no warning, no last audition, just terminated her contract. If she could find a new agent soon she would be alright. She would.
But there was still a knot in the pit of her stomach the next morning, so she reasoned she was just sick on top of everything else. She called out of work again and stared at her phone, willing it to ring with the secretary of one of the agencies she'd contacted on the other end.
But at 8:07 pm there was a familiar knock at the door with three repetitions of her name. She pulled her blanket tight around her and trudged over to the door, opening it and leaning on it's edge.
"Sheldon..." she led, waiting for him to tell her what he wanted.
"You weren't at the Cheesecake Factory tonight," he scolded her like a small child. "Why weren't you at work, Penny?"
She rolled her eyes at him and stuck out her chin. "I'm sick." When he didn't move, she forced a coughing fit that was worthy of an Oscar. (Too bad, she mused as she forced that phlegmmy sound into her cough, that she couldn't send this performance to her perspective agents.) Just like she expected, Sheldon covered his nose and mouth in horror and ran back to his apartment, shutting the door with a resounding slam.
Penny cleared her throat and closed the door, but instead of the happy feeling she expected her empty apartment somehow seemed uninviting.
She went back to work, not because she wanted to, but because she didn't have any sick days left. The churning feeling hasn't left her stomach, and she can't really claim she's sick because it is the only symptom she has and she knows why.
A few months ago she was ready to turn around and leave, head back home, find a dumb as rocks ex-football player come high school coach and pop out some babies for her mom to coo over while she whiled away her days as a waitress. She still didn't have a new agent, her old agent wouldn't even take her calls, and she was behind on all her credit cards, most of her bills, and she definitely could not afford to keep her apartment.
She was going to have to leave, because three dollar tips on $70 bills was not going to make her able to stay.
Just the thought of it made her throat swell and her stomach churn.
Leonard stopped by to see if she was feeling better and if she wanted to join them for pizza and a movie. She told him she was feeling better, but declined his invitation. His brows knit in that endearing way they do when he's confused, but he didn't say anything.
She microwaved a frozen pizza for one and sat, staring at a blank television. They'll move on without her easy enough when she moves back to Nebraska, better to start distancing herself from them now.
She quickly squashed the urge inside of her to get up, go steal a dumpling, and sit in Sheldon's spot.
Sheldon's spot is here in Pasadena.
Her spot is in Nebraska.
They've figured out something's wrong, but they don't know what to do about it; she can tell from the way they walk on eggshells whenever they managed to bump into one another in the hall. She's delaying the inevitable, and spiraling down fast. She can feel her descent just as surely as if she were sliding down the face of a mountain on a sled. Her days have been reduced to the bare minimum: she wakes up, goes to work, comes home, goes to bed.
Leaving the television on at night makes it feel less lonely, because she won't answer her phone anymore. How could she explain to her friends that she was a well and true failure? Her smart, PhD friends? (Well, except Howard, but his Masters from MIT is still a long way away from her barely eligible for an Associate's Degree college experience.) She isn't taking her fate into her hands here; she's being forced into this decision. She gets by with Bernadette with grunts and forced smiles- the girl is so focused on her wedding preparations that Penny doesn't think she's even noticed the change.
Sheldon did, and the last one she would have guessed that would be concerned about her is the only one who ended up doing something.
She dubbed them "Knock Knock Gifts" because he would knock then run away. She's never quite sure how he hides so fast, but he's never there when she would open the door. The first one she found was a wrapped date nut bread with the note "I'm glad you do not have a communicable disease, please return to your former self quickly," printed nicely on an index card.
She wondered what they know, or thought they knew.
Penny ate the small loaf on her couch as she watched trashy reality television until she fell asleep.
Two days later it was a take out container full of her usual order from the Thai place down the street and the slightly crooked printing on the bag that they'd be watching the director's cut of Blade Runner if she'd like to join them. Young Harrison Ford was tempting (Hell, she'd still do Old Harrison Ford...) but she'd have to brush her hair, and her teeth, and put on different pants... so she just pulled her robe around her, took the take out container into her bedroom, and ate the noodles with her fingers while playing Bejeweled on her laptop for the rest of the night.
Behind that Bejeweled screen was an internet search window, but she didn't want to think about looking for apartments in Nebraska right now. Besides, her money would probably run out before she could put a down payment on one anyway, so she'd just end up moving home.
Funny, Nebraska didn't sound quite like home anymore. She didn't want to admit what did.
She stopped talking to Bernadette. The small woman was either asking her if she was ok or rambling on about the wedding, and Penny couldn't take either. Penny didn't yell at her (like she wanted to) or even explain everything to her (like she should have) but instead simply stopped talking to her.
Penny's polite to her customers, smiles a grin that doesn't reach her eyes, and concentrates on being the best waitress she can be. It will, after all, be her future and is her only marketable skill.
The tips still weren't enough and her salary seemed to go so much faster than it ever had before, even without her going out or buying shoes or spending it on frivolous things. Her bank account was slowly emptying, and she couldn't hide behind it anymore.
She was, however, mysteriously on break on Burger Tuesday when the boys came in, leaving them to Bernadette.
She heard them all try to talk to her, but she never looked at them.
More knock knock gifts. She felt a deep tightening in her chest every time she opened the door, and she can't tell if it's hope or dread that fills her up and falls out of her so completely when she finds nothing but a token on her stoop instead of Sheldon.
Herbal Tea. Dark Hot Chocolate mix with extra mini marshmallows. A stuffed toy that's so plush and fluffy she feels like that little kid from Despicable Me every time she cuddles it.
The tea was tossed on her counter, the hot chocolate went into a mug full of warm milk, and the stuffed animal (bear, she thinks... probably a bear) joined her on the couch for back to back viewings of Despicable Me.
"No happy endings, guys..." She mumbled before she took the stuffed animal and her throw blanket into the bedroom with her as the main menu played over and over on the television screen.
He just showed up one day. Sheldon was standing at her door with a pizza in one hand and a bottle of her favorite wine in the other. She just stared at him.
"This is a bribe," he stated, lifting his hands and their contents towards her. "I wish to help you by cleaning your apartment. I know that personally I have a harder time concentrating if my space is cluttered. So, I brought you dinner in exchange, though technically since I'll be doing the work you should be giving me payment of some kind, but this is an extenuating circumstance."
Penny could sense he would just keep taking, so she opened the door wider, took the pizza, and retreated to the couch. She didn't want to think what it meant that she didn't grab the wine first; she would have a month ago, but she's a very different person now. She could feel the bottom of the slope she has been sliding down rapidly approaching.
She looked at air fare last night, and moving companies. If she even wants a prayer of getting her maintenance deposit back, she might as well let Sheldon clean. She sat in front of the TV, grabbed a slice out of the box, and continued watching the reality show she had on about families with huge numbers of children. "Baby making machine," she mumbled through a mouthful of pizza, "that's my future. Just more... trailer-y."
She didn't care if Sheldon heard (though she knew that he did). He was whirling around her, at once carefully meticulous and faster than those particles she heard about on TV that were faster than light. (He'd laughed at that then gave her a ten minute lecture about...something. Back then, she'd smiled and made a joke. He'd scowled at her, but it was just as good as a smile from him. That felt like a lifetime ago.)
Around her he was stacking old magazines and sorting clear from colored glass to recycle later. He had gloves and sponges and three kinds of cleansers that she knew didn't come from her apartment, but she knew better than to ask.
He even did her laundry. She gawked, open mouthed, when he left her apartment with a full basket on his hip and her detergent on the top. She assumed he'd put it in for her to finish, and it put her in a worse mood. She opened the wine and took a swig right from the bottle, ignoring him when he comes in again.
He left again a short while later, a bag of garbage in hand, and she just shoved another slice of pizza in her mouth. She watched the door as she chewed, but shifted her gaze back to the television when he came back in. He moved around in her bathroom this time, spraying and scrubbing and she can't believe that he was still there, but she didn't dare glace away from the television.
She could see his stare from the corner of her eye before he left again, but she showed no recognition. She took a swig from her wine bottle and wondered if he left for good.
Penny couldn't hide her surprise when he came back with her clothes. She turned her head, watching him move into her bedroom. She stood, wine bottle in hand, and followed. Sheldon stiffened, but said nothing to her. Penny looked into the basket and found her clothes all folded and sorted and softer than she's ever been able to make them herself. She ran her hands over the fabric of the top pieces, following his eye line. He's looking at her bed, which he made at some point. In the middle (previously wrapped in the blanket and sitting next to the pillow) was the cuddly stuffed bear he left for her almost a week ago. Penny reached out with her free hand and picked it up, curling it into her chest and under her chin.
"Thank you," Penny whispered. She's not sure what it's for, but she said it anyway. She felt small and unworthy under his gaze.
His Adam's apple bobbed a few times, but nothing came out. Finally, he forced out "Good night, Penny," and beat a hasty retreat, her door clicking quietly behind him.
She dropped the wine bottle on the bed side table and picked up the sweatshirt on the top of her clean laundry, burying her nose in it.
A week later, a week of long shifts and no calls and depressing internet searches later, he shows up at her door with a six pack of soda, Red Vines, and a box of extra buttery popcorn. His eye is twitches when he talks. "They're watching a film that..." he stumbles over the words, "I thought..." he stops trying to lie. "Would you like to pick the movie for movie night? I am not fond of the choice that Leonard, Howard and Raj are partaking in tonight."
Penny takes the soda and walks away to her small kitchen, pulling out two glasses. No matter her own feelings she hates to see Sheldon, so put together all the time, so flustered. "So you're going to let me pick?"
"Yes." He doesn't twitch. She shrugs and tilts her head toward the couch.
She makes the popcorn, picks the movie, and turns on the DVD player; all in silence. He tidies up while she does so, but she's been existing mostly on the couch and bed when she's not at work, so there's really only some take out cartons and dishes to clear away before she starts the movie.
To his credit, he holds his tongue as long as he can. She's surprised he made it through so much of the movie without saying anything.
"Ok, I can't understand this. I thought he was a professional, why is this so hard? It's a simple equation taking into account both their heights, weight, the speed with which she's running, the force she jumps and the distance-"
Penny snaps, throwing a handful of popcorn across the couch and into his face. Sheldon flinches back. "The best place to do lifts is in the water, Sheldon, not a physics lab!"
A second goes by as he gathers up the pieces of popcorn she's tossed at him. "I heartily disagree," he whispers, but she still hears him.
It earns him another handful of popcorn in his face.
She must have fallen asleep at some point, because she wakes up to the television off, thrown popcorn cleaned up, and her stuffed bear tucked under one arm.
She doesn't feel so heavy in that moment, and decides to try to keep that feeling as long as she can. She snuggles down, grabs the throw off the back of the couch, and tries to go back to sleep.
Another week goes by: she works, she sleeps, she does her own laundry this week, and finally... finally starts looking for a job in Nebraska. She's still in her Cheesecake Factory uniform, but she's already pulled out the pins in her hair and washed the make-up off her face, shoveling slightly stale Captain Crunch into her mouth when she hears that familiar knock.
It's over by the time she gets to the door, and there's no physicist on the other side of the peep hole when she looks.
Another knock knock gift. She sighs. Somewhere deep inside, she thinks she might have hoped he was going to stay.
'Better that he doesn't,' her inner voice says, 'hard enough to leave as it is.'
When she opens the door she sees a plain, new marble notebook and a pen. The notebook is unremarkable- he probably has ten like it sitting in his desk waiting for new data, but the pen is bright pink and advertises that it writes in glitter gel that smells like strawberries. He definitely didn't have that.
She closes the door and flips through the notebook, the feel of the new pages eliciting memories of first days of school and four men she'll miss very much. Penny opens to the inside of the front cover to write her name, a silly little ritual left over from childhood, when she sees that the first page was written on...
...four, simple, block letter words in such a familiar but careful print:
TELL ME WHAT'S WRONG.
Tell Sheldon...tell the notebook... it doesn't matter. She stares at it for a second, realizing in all this time people have asked her if she's feeling ok, asked if they can help, but not one person has really acknowledged that something was really wrong, even when she knew they knew she was lying when she said everything was alright. Then comes Sheldon, cutting to the heart of the matter just like every other time, asking her the one question no one else had.
She stares at the first page for an eternity, then takes the plastic wrap off the pen and writes one word.
The notebook sits on her bedside table. She only writes in it at night. During the day she'd rather pretend as little of this is happening as possible.
She doesn't write every night. Sometimes she wants to, but can't: she doesn't know the words to describe what she is going through.
Her strawberry pink scribble seems so odd juxtaposed with the stiff black and white cover that she associates so clearly with Sheldon and science. Then she thinks about Sheldon, so flustered, coming over and doing his best to help her, and the feeling she gets in the pit of her stomach when she opens the door and he's not there.
And so she writes some more.
Penny knocks on his door, her hair done, her clothes matching- she looks nicer than she has in weeks except for when she goes to work. His surprise lights up his eyes when he sees her on the other side of the door.
Her name crosses his lips like a hopeful prayer, "Penny..." She doesn't say anything, though she feels like she's trembling so much he must notice. Penny just holds out the marble notebook. When he takes it she turns and retreats to her apartment, slamming the door shut behind her and curling into a ball on her couch under a blanket. All of her courage is gone.
All she can do now is wait.
Sheldon stares at the notebook in his hands then back at Penny's closed door. He walks back into his apartment shutting the door but staring at the book with equal parts hope and dread. He brought it over to his spot, reaching over and pecking the remote to shut off the Star Trek repeat he was watching.
He opens the cover and his lips press to a tight line.
TELL ME WHAT'S WRONG
He turns the page. Each entry is only a few lines: he can see the bright pink scrawl through the thin paper. The first tells him more in a few words than he'd been able to find out in weeks.
My agent dropped me. The hemorrhoid cream commercial was the only work aside from a few indie plays that didn't' pay that I got in five years. He dumped me. No income, no agent.
No agent, no career.
Sheldon turns the page.
I thought I was sick. I'm not. I guess. I guess I'm just depressed. I don't want to go anywhere, do anything, I keep going back to work because I have to if I want to pay my bills. But right now I don't want to do any of it if I don't have to.
What I'll have to do is move home. I'll be out of money soon, and waitressing can only go so far- it won't stretch to cover this apartment anymore. I found a Cheesecake Factory in Nebraska, though. It should be enough to cover a trailer of my own there.
I'm trying. I've contacted so many agencies I can't keep count. No one wants me.
"I want you," he whispers to no one, flipping another page.
At work I smile and flirt and try to just get through the day. I need the paycheck and the tips. It was stupid to think I could ever be an actress.
And again. It strikes him that she wrote in this as if it were a diary, but she still gave it to him.
My sheets are so soft. And my sweatshirt is like snuggling in a cloud.
Thank you, Sheldon.
Another flip, faster and more frantic to find more answers.
I'm sorry I threw popcorn at you when we were watching Dirty Dancing, but for a minute everything felt normal again.
Sheldon covers his mouth and in his head he can hear his Mother's voice saying things like "Bless her heart," and "That poor thing," and praying for Penny in the words of Sunday Morning Mass. He turns the page one more time.
Sheldon. I'm upset. Leave me alone.
He almost puts it down, but he can see writing on the next page, so he turns to it anyway.
Sheldon... help me.
That's all she wrote. He flips through the rest of the book, but all the other pages are untouched. He could never leave a damsel in distress... but he's not sure what he can do to really help besides offer financial support. Sheldon closes the book and holds it in his lap for a moment, waiting for the answer to come to him, but all he can hear is his mother's voice. If this were an RPG or math equation he'd have choices, routes that he could go down that would lead to right or wrong answers, but he's out of his depth with emotion and he knows it. After a frustrating moment he reaches over and grabs the phone, taking a deep breath as he dials, steeling himself for the next words that are going to come out of his mouth.
"Mom, I need some help."
Three hours later, Sheldon's knock wakes Penny up. She nearly tumbles off the couch, but catches herself and forces her eyes wide open. By the time she's untangled herself from the blanket wound around her legs Sheldon starts his knocking pattern again.
Penny half stumbles, half hops across to the door leaving the blanket in a heap on the floor behind her. She pulls it open slowly leaving only a gap big enough for her face to poke through.
The first meeting of their eyes is as awkward as their real first meeting years ago, except this one is tempered by the weight of a shared secret. Sheldon breaks first, dipping his head and giving her a sheaf of paper. "This is a start. You should read it all before you sign it- I've never drawn one of these up before."
Penny takes the papers, looking at them but not really reading them. "What is it?"
"Hopefully a fairly concise contract making me responsible for finding you acting work." He looks around, nervous and unable to hold her gaze for long.
Penny holds it out to him, still not really awake enough to read it or follow what any of this has to do with the outpouring of emotion she'd handed him a few hours ago. "I still don't..."
Sheldon huffs, looks straight at her and points to the first paragraph. "I want you to let me be your agent."
Her eyes go wide and she leans on the door frame for support. "Seriously? Sheldon... what?"
He looks down, uncomfortable, but runs her through his thought process anyway. "You...wanted help. As far as I could understand, the impetus for the downward spiral you're currently experiencing was the lack of an agent. I know that I'm not experienced, but according to my internet research that does not stop many people, and unlike such people, you can be assured that I will have your career, not money, in mind."
Penny opened the door wide and pulled Sheldon in by his shirt sleeve, shutting it and leaning back on it. "So you're serious about this?" Her heart was pounding, the papers in her hand shaking. "You want to be my agent and help me find acting jobs. As in, really, actively sell me to other people?"
Sheldon clasped his hands behind his back. "Yes," he nodded curtly. "I'm still baffled by much of the entertainment business, but I'm sure I can do better than most."
Sheldon can almost feel the fight and excitement draw out of her like the oxygen getting sucked from the room. Penny draws in on herself, her voice a tiny whisper and he's almost desperate to get that spark and fight back. "Why?"
"Because I don't like seeing you upset," he blurts out. Her eyes flick up to his but back down just as quick. "You're my friend," he tries again, but she doesn't move.
He looks around her apartment and his hands fidget to clean- it's almost as bad as it was a few weeks ago. His mind searches for the right words to bring Penny's smile back- her world being upside down has tilted his on its axis- but he can't put an emotion he barely understands into words.
His mother did, though. She listened to every word he said about Penny and gave him just as many back in a language that he understood.
Three strides and he's in front of her, dipping his head to look into her dulled eyes. "Because you need someone to believe in you. Just like when I was young and wanted to build a death ray, or a time machine, or win a Nobel Prize... No one around me understood why or how- not like I did. But I still needed someone to believe that I could. I don't understand the urge to be someone else for fun, or to be on stage in front of people." He takes a deep breath and says the next words as if they're scientific fact. "But Penny, I believe in you."
Her breath hitches. She drops the contract. Before he knows it, she's in full blown hysterics, eyes red, nose sniveling, and hands twisting in front of her.
Sheldon flails for a moment, then pulls out his phone and dials. "Mommy?" his voice is frantic, "She's crying!"
Mary Cooper's voice is tinny in the tiny speaker. "Hug her."
His conversation hasn't phased Penny at all. Sheldon shakes his head even though his mother can't see it. "I think I upset her more. Plus she's sniffling and crying and I can't hug someone that's crying!"
His mother laughs, and he nearly has a heart attack. He feels so impotent watching the fat tears fall down Penny's red face, and his mother should know what to do. "Believe me, son, hug her."
He's almost dancing in place now, "But I-"
She uses the voice that she used every time he was in the worst trouble he could get into, and it cuts through the panic: "Sheldon Lee Cooper, you hug that girl right now!"
He startles, tossing the phone on the couch and pulls Penny tightly to him and stilling the both of them, holding on like maybe he can keep her from falling apart. "There, there..." he tries meekly.
She wraps her arms around his waist, burying her nose into his sternum. After a second, her breath catches enough that he can understand what she's trying to say. "You believe in me."
Sheldon relaxes into the embrace, just slightly, the fluttering of his own heart starting to calm with the realization that he may have actually helped. "Yes, I do."
Three weeks later, Penny doesn't have any new acting jobs but she has a new agent who has gotten her five auditions with some of the biggest casting directors in town, which led to three call backs. Percentage wise, he was already way ahead of her last agent.
She's not quite back to her old self, but he shows her how to sort her laundry and when to put in her fabric softener to achieve optimum softness. She promises to come over for dinner and Halo. She and Sheldon kick Leonard and Raj's collective asses.
She laughs. Sheldon smiles.
The sound of moving furniture and raised voices stop Leonard, Raj, and Howard outside the door to 4A. Penny's voice is devoid of patience. "Sheldon, I've seen you try to lift things before."
"Science is on my side, Penny." He's got his 'I'm talking to a labradoodle' voice on again.
Penny sighs, and the three men lean closer to the door to hear better. "We'd have more luck with me trying to lift you."
They can almost hear him roll his eyes. "I've already done all the math. Start on the first duct tape X, jump at the second X with 5.2 pounds of force, and try not to move once I catch you."
The three men look at each other, bewildered and more than a little worried. "Five point two pounds of force?" is what she says, but the timber in her voice is really asking him "Do you think I understand that?"
"Hard," He says with a sigh.
"Just don't drop me."
His voice drips with the notion that her request is absurd. "I won't drop you."
They hear a jump and a squeak of surprise, and Leonard jams his key in the lock. When they open the door, they couldn't be more surprised. Standing in the middle of the living room is Sheldon, holding Penny high above him by the hips, her legs tight together and her arms straight out to the side. "Look!" she squeaks happily.
Sheldon has her, and even when she tips down and he lowers her (Leonard insists on spotting, though at this point he's probably just break her fall instead of catch her) she still feels like he's holding her high above him.
She can't fight the beaming smile on her face. A small smirk blossoms in the corner of her mouth, and they step away from each other.
"Leonard, did you have them dice, not shred my chicken?" Sheldon asks, without taking his eyes off of Penny.
And just like that, everything's suddenly better than it was before, and so, so normal.