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The Ghost and the Actress

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Mary woke with a start and half wondered why she wasn’t in Texas for a moment. She had been dreaming about Sheldon and Penny. They had been visiting her mother and telling everyone they were living together. She couldn’t imagine what made her think her son would live in sin with any woman much less some TV star like Penny Queen. She needed someone to talk to but it was too early for people but never too early for the Lord. She picked up her phone and Bible she always kept by her bed and tip toed out onto the balcony. She opened the Bible in the darkness with her thumb to a random passage and turned on her phone light to read what she had opened to. She tuned off her phone light and closed the book. Mary knew the passage very well and it disturbed her.

Connie woke up thinking of a cotillion down on Galveston Bay. She had a fleeting image in her mind of Sheldon bringing Penny to go dancing there. She wasn’t sure which was stranger, Sheldon dancing there or Penny wearing her engagement ring. ‘Crazy old woman.’

She got up to go to the bathroom and tried to recall some of the dream she had. ‘Penny and Sheldon, that’s got to be the silliest idea you’ve ever had, Constance Tucker.’ She washed her hands and her ring reminded her of Sam’s first proposal more than ever. ‘I wonder what you would have made of that little Cornhusker, Sam. Shelly could have done a lot worse than her, you know.’ She dried her hands and headed back to bed.

She started to get into bed when she noticed Mary’s bed was empty. She looked around the dimly lit study and noticed the balcony door was ajar. Connie walked over to the door and peaked outside. Mary was staring off out across the dark valley. ‘What are you doing out here, Mary?’

‘I just woke up thinking so I came out to get some air and look at my Bible. I read my passage and I couldn’t get back to sleep after that.’

‘What was the passage?’

‘Mark 14:6’

Connie didn’t recognize the reference but she didn’t read the Bible a dozen times a day like Mary. ‘What was it you were thinking about?’ Connie joined Mary outside to look at the beginnings of dawn. The night sky was beginning to change to navy blue.

‘I just had some funny dreams, that’s all.’

‘What kind of dreams?’

‘I don’t remember clearly but Sheldon was there. Maybe, it was just from being here. Why were you so dead set against Sheldon and Amy, momma?’

‘I told you back then, Sheldon had too much of my Sam in him. He’d have walked all over a girl like that and she’d have let him just to be married.’ Connie couldn’t figure what brought that up.

‘Shouldn’t that have been their choice, momma?’

‘Before I saw how you were with George, I might have said so. George Cooper never cared about making you happy and you let him be that way. It didn’t do either of you any good. I know your father didn’t worry much about other people’s feelings and opinions on his best days but he never let the sun go down that he didn’t make me smile somehow no matter how mad I was with him some days. It ate him up if you and I weren’t happy. You deserved that kind of marriage, Mary, and so did Sheldon. Amy wasn’t the kind to give him that because she would have just been a doormat to that boy’s bullheaded ways. What brought up that old chestnut?’

‘Do you think Sheldon would have liked Penny that way?’

‘She likes science like he did but he’d have never made heads or tails of Penny’s astrology and psychic stuff. She would have puzzled him and he did like puzzles. What’s got you thinking of girls for Sheldon?’

‘I don’t know I just had Penny and Sheldon on my mind when I woke up. I kept thinking of her and him up here. Why would an actress take up doing that rocket science of his?’

‘I expect you’d have to ask her. Is this because of the studio, yesterday?’

Mary shifted and sighed. ‘We had an argument; I guess I did the arguing, really. I can’t think why but I woke up feeling cross because they were living here, together mind you.’

‘That study is filled with both their stuff, it’s no wonder you might have felt that way in your sleep. I woke up thinking sort of the same thing. I pictured them dancing at a cotillion in Galveston, as though Sheldon would ever have danced at one he wasn’t made to.’ Connie laughed at the recollection again.

‘You were dreaming of them, too? Don’t you find that funny, momma, both of us dreaming of Sheldon and Penny?’

Connie thought the coincidence was because the two had been so much on everyone’s minds last night but she wanted to keep Mary talking this out of her system. ‘I don’t think so after we got back here and all. What did you argue with Penny about at the studio, Mary?’

‘The house, his work, you; she’s everywhere I turn somehow when it comes to this house. I told her I wanted her gone from it all, her, Bernadette, all of them.’

Connie bit her tongue for a second. ‘And?’

‘I left her trailer too hot to think. By the time I found you folks, you were having such a good time and I didn’t want to ruin it so I kept it all to myself. It wasn’t till we got back here I really gave what I said any thought. I felt Sheldon everywhere when we got here but after the studio this place just didn’t feel the same. Like I said yesterday, something was missing. I think it was because I couldn’t feel him here, anymore.’

‘I’ll say something’s missing here but it isn’t in the house. That was an unkind thing to say to someone that’s tried to do nothing but right by us, Mary Elizabeth. She and Bernadette have worked mighty hard to keep the house with Sheldon’s memory in mind and they’ve gone a hell of a lot further than we could ever repay saving his good name just out of the goodness of their hearts. I’ll say no more. I’m going back to bed.’ Connie went back inside to let Mary think about what she’d done. She did decide this house had far too much hold on her daughter’s mind. She hoped this talk was a sign that was starting to slip. Either way, this place was best sold off for Mary’s own good as far as Connie was concerned.

Mary knew her mother was right. That was unkind and unchristian to say all that to Penny, yesterday. She read the verse she’d opened to again and went back inside but she didn’t have any urge to sleep. She looked at her phone, 5:20am, good enough time for coffee. She walked quietly downstairs in the morning silence so as not to disturb the house. She heard a whimpering sound from the living room or maybe the library. She found Penny sleeping fitfully in Sheldon’s old wing chair. The dampness under Penny’s eyes made Mary feel like there was a stone weighing down her gut.

‘Oh, honey.’ Mary got down close to Penny and brushed her hair out of her face. Penny swung a punch that Mary just barely pulled away from.

‘What? Oh my god, Mary, I’m so sorry. I don’t take getting woken up by surprise well. I’m so sorry.’ Penny helped Mary up and was grateful for the older woman’s chuckling.

‘That’s alright. My Missy wakes up the same way. I kind of know what to look for. Why are you sleeping down here?’

‘I got back after midnight. I talked to Bernadette for a while down here and I just fell asleep after she went up to bed.’

Mary sat down on the couch and looked like she didn’t know how to start something she wanted to say. Penny wasn’t sure what to say, either so she just sat back down in the wing chair.

‘I heard crying when I was coming down the stairs. Were you having a bad dream?’

‘Yeah, I guess you could call it that. How did you sleep?’

‘Not much better, I guess.’

They sat in silent awareness of each other. They looked around for something to start their talking.

‘Maybe, your bad dreams were from all the whisky over there.’

‘I don’t think it was. Is that something else to tag me on?’ Penny closed her eyes and shook her head. ‘I’m sorry, Mary, that was uncalled for.’

‘No, that’s alright. I was no box of peaches, yesterday.’

The silence settled back between them. They heard Halley start to cry upstairs and Bernadette’s voice drifted down the spiral staircase soon after greeting a new day with her daughter.

‘Things are going to start getting busy down here, soon. How about we take a walk up the trail out back? There are some nice views up in the hills back there.’

Mary agreed and went upstairs to put something on while Penny made a thermos of coffee to take with them. They met out in the kitchen where Penny left a note for Bernadette and Connie while they were on their walk.

The two women walked with their thoughts for a while. The trail they followed was popular with the local joggers and Penny introduced Mary to a few of the familiar folks that stopped to say hi while on their runs. After about twenty minutes, the women came to a bluff that looked down on the canyon. Los Robles Cottage could be seen in the distance to the right and down below from the bluff. They sat on one of the public benches set up on the trail and Penny poured out their coffees.

‘Nice view to enjoy a coffee with up here.’

‘Yeah, Bernie and I like to come up here and chat from time to time.’

‘You two get along mighty well, don’t you?’

‘That’s why we moved in together. We’ve been through some tough times.’ Penny recalled the weeks before Kurt’s death when she’d found out about his cheating on her. Bernadette had kept her sane at the time. ‘I don’t ever want to lose her.’

‘You two have put a lot of yourselves into the house. I can’t imagine what Sheldon would have made of it all but I think he would have liked that Collector’s Room.’

‘Hmm, so why don’t you like what we’ve done? You sure didn’t sound like you did, yesterday.’

Mary bit her lip and nodded her head for a second recalling her morning Bible verse. ‘I said a lot of things I oughtn’t to have said, yesterday.’

‘Why did you say them?’

Mary stared at the black surface of her coffee and thought about why. ‘I think it was because I didn’t believe you were good enough for my Sheldon.’

‘Excuse me?’ Penny wondered how much of Sheldon’s dream tour Mary remembered and if she knew it wasn’t a sleep born fantasy.

Mary snickered with some discomfort and blushed. ‘Just thinking of some funny dreams,’ she stood up to get a better view of Los Robles Cottage. ‘That house is all that’s left of Sheldon, all I have left of him. I’ve been trying to hold onto his memory with it but all I really remember is he killed himself there.’

Penny kicked herself for being a conceited diva. After all, why hadn’t Connie sold the place from the first like Bernie had said she wanted to, last night. ‘Mary, it’s a one story fall from that balcony onto a gravel and sand walkway through a flowerbed. It’s not a place for a suicide. Sheldon would have known that just from the physics of it. I can’t imagine why anyone would rule it a suicide except to avoid an insurance payout. Folks blamed it all on the arctic but Sheldon was bound and determined to figure out what went wrong. He thought of little else and Raj and Howard can tell you that from experience.’

‘You sound mighty convinced of that for somebody that never met him.’

‘I’ve read his journals and talked to his friends. I have no reason to think it was anything but an accident.’ Penny got up and joined Mary in looking down at the cottage. ‘He wanted a solution to what happened in the arctic and Sheldon strikes me as the kind who wouldn’t even let death stop him from figuring out what went wrong up there.’

‘You do that a lot, talk about Sheldon like he’s still alive. It’s kind of strange.’ Mary teased.

‘I guess it does sound strange. I first saw the house about a week after Kurt’s funeral. I needed to get away from where we’d lived together. I loved Los Robles Cottage as soon as I saw it.’

‘Did losing your husband hurt that much?’ Mary remembered the relief she felt when George passed away with guilt.

‘No, at least not from his death as such,’ Penny could see the question Mary had. ‘That saying is right about being careful what you wish for because you might get it.’

‘I don’t follow you.’ Mary remembered the empty sound to Penny’s voice when she’d hinted at problematic husbands the other morning before she’d left for work.

‘Bernie was around for pretty much all of it. She’s the only living soul who knows everything that happened. Kurt and I got to California married and dreaming of everything we could do together. He loved seeing me act and he supported me in it any way I wanted. He paid for classes and came to every opening. I couldn’t have wanted for a better guy, mostly. One day, he was gone up to Clear Lake to do a freelance job for a couple of weeks. I had a play I was trying out for and I had scripts and notes on a flashdrive that I needed. The one I found was one of his with pictures, videos, and then I found others two years of cheating I never knew about. Bernie kept me from going up there and killing him or killing myself or just going crazy. She was at the apartment with me the day Kurt was supposed to come back from his trip. We heard a car brake and crash. When we looked out the window, we saw Kurt had been run over, dead in the road. Losing him didn’t hurt as much as not getting to face him for what he did. It felt like he got away from paying for what he did to me. Sheldon thought Leonard was his best friend in the world. When I figured out what really happened to Sheldon, it was like Kurt’s cheating all over again. I couldn’t let Leonard get away with what he did to Sheldon.’

‘I had no idea. Everything in the news talks about your ‘Romeo and Juliet’ marriage.’

‘We didn’t have to both die, at least.’ Penny had always found that comparison ridiculous. ‘There was no point to blaming Kurt in public after he died but I had to get away from the memories. Los Robles and Sheldon’s work helped with that.’

‘I always wondered why you were so involved with Sheldon’s work. I never thought about the stuff that caused Sheldon’s problems in the arctic being a reason, I just saw you trying to steal Sheldon’s work, killing what was left of him. Even after everything came out, I guess I hated you being in Shelly’s house and work. I was wrong.’ Mary went back to the bench and poured out the rest of the coffee into the cups and brought them back where Penny was standing.

‘I had the oddest dreams last night. I walked into the study and Sheldon was just watching you work on his white boards. He never let anyone near them but he told me you were living there with him and working with him on his theories. I don’t know if it was Sheldon or the Lord or just my conscience but I think the dreams were telling me I was wrong. I woke up and I didn’t want to believe it so I looked to my Bible. What I found there, well, there’s no gainsaying the Lord but I should have known better to start. I was wrong about you and Bernadette here, I’m sorry.’

‘What did your Bible say?’

‘I opened it to Mark 14:6 And Jesus said, Let her alone; why trouble ye her? She hath wrought a good work on me.’

‘I’ve seen enough of Sheldon’s work to say you must have done pretty good work with him, too.’ Penny took Mary’s hand thinking how much she must miss her son. She asked herself if Sheldon should reveal himself to his mother but then she remembered Sheldon’s alarm about the baseball bat and how she might turn his mother into a ghost in the house with him which set Penny chuckling. She pulled Mary into a glad hug.

‘You are an odd one, Penny.’ Mary was surprised by the frank and easy forgiveness of the young woman. It shamed her to recall what she’d thought of Penny for so long.

‘Do you really think so? You wouldn’t be the first. Some of the fan sites think I really am a witch and I live in a haunted house with spirits I call up.’

Mary laughed at the idea while she and Penny sat down to finish their coffee. ‘I guess that troubled reputation Howard kept telling us about worked out for you, then,’ Mary paused and finished her drink, ‘All the same I would like to make up for the crotchety way I’ve been acting.’

‘How would you like to do that by making some of your wonderful fried chicken?’ Penny had to admit the aroma had been divine in that dream tour. She wanted to find out if it was as good as Sheldon made it out to be with his mojo.

‘How would you know about my fried chicken? Is this another of your Sheldon’s journals stories?’ Mary still found it hard to believe Sheldon wrote so many odd details but then his ‘email blasts’ were usually filled with any sort of ridiculous details so filling journals with stories of her chicken might not be so farfetched.

‘Oh, no, the websites are right about me being a witch. The spirits showed it to me in a dream last night. It smelled wonderful,’ Penny grinned at Mary’s glowering face since she’d seen that exact same look on Sheldon’s at least once a day. ‘Or is that secret chicken recipe thing all just a Texas mom stereotype?’

Mary scoffed and frowned just like her son. ‘You are incorrigible.’

+++

Bernadette finished putting together the things she wanted to take to work with her and shut down her computer. Her thoughts were more occupied by the note Penny had left in the kitchen. Penny had already had one row with Mary; Bernadette prayed there wasn’t a second one going on, now. She heard footsteps and turned to see Connie coming into the library.

‘Good morning, Bernadette. Have you seen Mary around?’

‘Morning, no, Penny left a note in the kitchen saying she and Mary had gone for a walk out back.’

‘Mary was up early this morning around 5:30 acting out of sorts. I guess she must have run into Penny after that.’

‘Halley woke me up around then. They had to have gone out around then or not much after. I hope they’re alright. Damn, I have to go to work, today.’ Bernadette was considering calling in anyway after the way Penny had talked last night.

‘Don’t worry, dear, I’ll be here to look out for them.’

Bernadette thanked Connie and they went to the kitchen, Bernadette to put together her lunch for today and Connie to make herself some breakfast. When she looked out the back window she saw Penny sitting alone out in the pavilion.

‘I see Penny out there, Bernadette; did you hear Mary come in?’

‘No, where do you think she could be?’

‘I’m not sure. How much land’s out back there to hide a body?’

Mary came out of the downstairs bathroom and walked in on Bernadette and her mother. ‘Good morning, you two.’

Connie and Bernadette side eyed Mary and her casual greeting. Connie wanted to know what had happened with Penny after that talk on the balcony. ‘What have you two been up to, this morning?’

Mary poured out two coffees and got some muffins from the bread box. ‘We had a good bit of talking. I’m sorry, Bernadette, for being so ornery and pushy on you and Howard over Halley. Penny’s right it’s none of my business but I’m going to make up my Texas style chicken fried steaks and fried chicken to make a little apology for all that.’

Mary gathered up the coffee and muffins and breezed out the door to go back to the pavilion. Connie and Bernadette stared through the back door window at the two women chatting outside.

‘I did not see that coming.’ Bernadette watched the scene in the pavilion in amazement.

‘Ever wonder if Penny might really be a witch?’ Connie giggled in confusion.

‘The girl makes me wonder sometimes.’ Bernadette shook her head in defeat trying to guess how Penny accomplished that change of heart.

+++

‘Penny, this situation with my mother cannot go on any longer.’

Penny looked up from her script in confusion. ‘Your mother and I had a long talk this morning before I went to work. The situation is fine between us.’

‘I am well aware of that since I facilitated that reconciliation between you through my superior diplomatic skills.’ Sheldon looked at Penny as though that had cleared everything up.

‘Great, I’ll submit your name for the Nobel Peace Prize.’ Penny went back to making notes in her script.

‘Any and all Nobel recipients must be alive at the time the prize winners are announced so that would be impossible in my case. Besides, even if it were possible I would wish my prize to be for physics.’

‘Great, so if I get a Nobel for Physics with your theories I can keep everything for myself, good to know.’ Penny started taking notes again but was interrupted by Sheldon’s grumbling and pacing around the study.

‘What has got you so worked up, Sheldon?’

‘I told you, the current situation with my mother is intolerable.’

‘What could possibly be wrong? She’s downstairs cooking for dinner, tonight. She’s making chicken and steaks enough for a small army.’

‘That is precisely the problem. She is making all my favorite foods and I cannot eat them. I can only sense the maddening smell of it all. This must be what hell is like.’

Mary came through the study door carrying a platter much like she had done in Sheldon’s dreamscape last night. ‘Penny, I hope this won’t ruin your dinner but I brought up a couple of drumsticks and some of my special breakfast potatoes to tide you over for dinner.’

‘Mary, this looks fantastic and it smells even better.’ Penny grinned at Sheldon’s grimace.

‘I do wish Sheldon could be here to for it like that dream last night.’ Mary sighed and shook her head in regret.

Penny got up and gave Mary a hug. ‘I’m sure he’s here in spirit and happy as can be to see you look so happy.’

‘Thank you, dear, now eat up and enjoy.’ Mary dashed back to the kitchen to keep an eye on progress down there.

Penny turned to see the platter of chicken rising from the table. She picked up the Serenity from the model shelf. ‘If anything happens to that chicken, Sheldon, the Serenity will be just the first casualty.'

The platter returned to the desk and Sheldon continued to fume and pace while he glared at Penny sitting down to his mother's chicken.

‘Oh, my god, this chicken is to die for, Sheldon!’

‘Intolerable, in every way, absolutely and completely intolerable.'

+++

Howard spent a good deal of Wednesday pestering Mary for the chicken recipe. She’d only ever seen Sheldon eat it faster but she said it was a secret and that was that. In truth, she’d already given the recipe to Debbie because she wanted to make it for Howard’s birthday after seeing the way he tackled that meal.

‘Do you suppose you could make some more, tonight?’

‘You are as bad as Sheldon ever was. I am glad you liked my chicken but Penny and I are going out, tonight.’

‘What are you guys doing?’ Howard couldn’t imagine it could be a church thing.

‘Penny and I are going to her Archery and Gun club. She said they have a decent range set up so we’re going to do some target practicing.’

‘I tried that place, once, but I’m going to stick to guns in computer games. Bernie practices with Penny once in a while. Penny goes there with Raj and Lalita a lot more. Raj and Lal love archery practice together.’

Penny and Mary did run into Raj and Lalita but they were just leaving.

‘No, Raj, we are not going in so you can have another competition with Penny.’

‘Come on, Lal, he needs the practice.’

‘I could use you buying dinner for us again, Penny.’

‘Says the man that bought dinner last time.’

‘This is how it always starts, Mary. Raj, car, Penny inside.’ Lalita did enjoy watching them compete but she was too tired for it, tonight.

Everyone said their goodbyes and Mary and Penny decided to start with Archery. Mary was impressed by Penny’s skill.

‘You are like some kind of Cornhusker Robin Hood.’

‘I started bow hunting with my dad when I was seven, rabbits, ducks, other small game. I loved it, especially camping and cooking out on a long hunting trip.’

‘Do you do any hunting these days?’

‘No, the folks at the house would be a little too squeamish about a dead carcass being cut up and cured.’ Penny told Mary about one time she’d tried getting Bernie to try a hunting trip. They both had a great laugh over it but Bernie really didn't have the heart to shoot anything. Mary and Penny, though, had the same feeling that if you can eat a steak you shouldn’t have a problem with being able take down the animal yourself.

‘That’s too bad. You should come down to Texas some time. Some folks in my church group go on hunting trips in deer season and even Missy comes along a lot of times.’

‘That does sound good. I would love some fresh venison instead of the stuff in the game section of our butcher’s shop.’

Guns were where Mary excelled. Penny had to admit she was too long out of practice to shoot like Sheldon’s mom.

‘My church group takes regular cruises out from Galveston Bay. They have all kinds of things to do besides praying. Gunning with God is one of my favorites. You write your sins on a batch of clay pigeons then you say pull and blast them away.’

‘You might actually be able to get my dad to go to that church service.’

+++

The Los Robles family headed over to Carl Parda’s home on Thursday. They wanted to have a party for their Texas friends before they went back home. Carl and Mary settled around the grill over a couple of beers and minding the grilling.

‘Carl, you have done well to have a family like that. Is Anna from California?’

‘No, she’s a Yankee from Massachusetts but I don’t hold that against her. What about you and Penny? You seem to be getting along since Sunday.’

‘You were right about the jealousy over Sheldon’s work. I made a right fool of myself the next day getting into a scrap with her at her studio.’ Mary told Carl about the afternoon in the trailer and about the funny dreams later that night.

‘That is a funny house. Julie talks about the stories around it that are posted on the internet. Maybe, it really is haunted and you saw Sheldon’s ghost.’

‘Carl, you know there’s no such things as ghosts but I wouldn’t mind it if it was true. I could make that chicken again for Sheldon that I dropped on the floor.’

‘I don’t suppose you could leave some recipes? Anna tries her best but she doesn’t have the touch for a proper Texas fry up and I can’t find anything online that comes out right.’

‘Why doesn’t your mother teach her?’

‘Are you kidding? It was dad that did all the Texas cooking. Momma cooks nothing but Polish food. I think that’s really why Bernadette keeps coming over.’

‘Fine, when we get back to Galveston, I’ll have Missy come over and help make some video recipes but only if you promise to handle them better than you do that grill.’

‘Oh, crap.’ They laughed and fixed the flaming disaster before anyone could find out.

Hanna and Connie watched the flaming disaster from the living room window and laughed at how little some things changed.

+++

Late Friday evening, Bernadette came up to the study and found Penny in her wing chair. ‘How in the name of Christ did you get everything moved so fast? We only just got Connie and Mary to the airport.’

‘When the spirit is willing, miracles can be accomplished, Bernie. How about a movie night so we can celebrate having our home back?’

‘Let’s watch ‘Amélie’ and we can get out the Absinthe Edouard.’

‘And we can watch ‘La Vie en Rose’ after that.’

Penny and Bernadette headed downstairs to get the snacks and the absinthe for their movie night. Sheldon appeared by the telescope feeling surprised to feel just as relieved his folks were gone so life could get back to normal. He set out the films and put ‘Amélie’ in the player for Penny and Bernadette and waited in contentment to be regaled by their terrible attempts to speak French.