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Between Life and Being Alive

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Morning came both too quickly and not quickly enough.

At the first sound of the Zelda theme song blaring from his phone, Leonard all but leaped out of bed. He felt like a kid on Christmas morning—or at least what he imagined kids feel on Christmas morning, since his childhood didn’t include many holiday celebrations. His bag was already packed and waiting for him in Penny’s living room. All that was left was to shower, eat a quick breakfast, and head to the airport.

He glanced down at Penny, still somehow fast asleep. Her hair was splayed around her like a golden wave; he half expected it to ripple. The top of her shoulder peeked out from under the comforter, tan against tangerine, and her lips were parted just enough that Leonard could hear her breathing. He resisted the urge to climb back into bed and instead ambled to the bathroom for his shower.

When he came back into the bedroom, he was surprised to see Penny’s side of the bed empty. She had agreed to drive him to the airport, but he had expected to have to wake her up ten minutes before they had to leave. He hastily put on his jeans and favorite hoodie and headed out to the living room, where he found Penny making scrambled eggs and Sheldon criticizing her.

“Penny, you allowed the skillet to become too hot! The eggs are going to cook too quickly and their texture will be—”

“Sheldon, I swear to God, if you keep talking, you aren’t getting any eggs at all!” Penny snapped as she folded the eggs over in the pan. All she had wanted to do was give Leonard a decent breakfast before his twelve-hour flight, and Sheldon, who was going with them to the airport, just had to be all Sheldon-y about it. It didn’t bode well—not for the drive to the airport, and certainly not for the nine months to come.

“Penny,” he said, “today is Sunday. Sunday is oatmeal day. I don’t eat scrambled eggs on oatmeal day.”

Leonard could sense that Sheldon was about to be wearing the eggs, so he cleared his throat. “Good morning,” he said, kissing Penny on the cheek as he entered the kitchen. “Breakfast looks amazing.”

She was grateful for what she knew to be a deliberate shot at Sheldon’s running commentary. “Thanks! Coffee’s in the pot. Do you want ketchup?”

“Ketchup? That’s an odd substitute for creamer…” Sheldon mused.

“Not for the coffee,” she said, frustration heavy in her voice. “For the eggs.”

“Well, that’s even more vile than if he put it in his coffee.”

“Oh, please,” Leonard said. It was way too early to be dealing with Sheldon’s nonsense. “You eat hot dogs in spaghetti.”

“Actually, that’s not half-bad.”

Leonard gaped at Penny, who was, by then, plating the eggs. “I’m sorry, weren’t you just arguing with him?”

She pushed a plate toward him. “I was. But I’m just saying, it’s a good dinner.”

Sheldon looked entirely too satisfied with himself, and in response, Leonard squirted a generous dollop of ketchup onto the eggs. He didn’t even really like ketchup on scrambled eggs. He just wanted to make a point, even if he didn’t really know what that point was. Meanwhile, Penny handed Sheldon a bowl of plain oatmeal, which she held in the same regard as he held scrambled eggs and ketchup, but at least it kept him quiet.

Breakfast was far more enjoyable after that.


Two hours later, the three of them were standing inside LAX, the security line just a few feet away. Sheldon stood off to the side, watching Leonard and Penny saying goodbye as if observing some sort of anthropologic experiment. Leonard was holding back tears as he kissed Penny for, by Sheldon’s count, the sixteenth time since they’d arrived. Sheldon didn’t quite understand why Leonard was so upset. He was going on the trip of a lifetime, one of which Sheldon himself was jealous, so why was he almost in tears over a temporary farewell to a woman whom he had only been dating for a year? Perhaps he was concerned that she would find a new mate before he returned, which was not an unreasonable assumption.

Penny, on the other hand, had not bothered to hold back tears. Although she was not an outwardly emotional woman—save for when she drank to excess—she was still, in fact, a woman, and thus more prone to emotional responses. She had buried her head in Leonard’s shoulder, her blonde hair falling from the loose bun on top of her head.

“I’m sorry, I know I should be holding it together,” she sniffled against him. “I don’t want this to be the last memory you have of me.”

He put his hands on her shoulders and pulled her back so he could look into her eyes. “Hey, I’m just leaving for a few months to go hang out on a boat. It’s not like I’m going off to war.”

“Even still,” she said, wiping at her eyes. “I guess I didn’t realize just how much I’m going to miss you until now.”

After he kissed her again, he glanced over her shoulder and saw Sheldon looking back at him with an odd expression on his normally impassive face. The two men approached each other but it was a full thirty seconds before either of them spoke.

“Leonard, as much as I—”   “Sheldon, I hope—”

“You go first,” Leonard said.

Sheldon looked at the ground as he always did when he wanted to say something sincere but didn’t quite know how. “As envious as I was when you were offered this opportunity, and although I am clearly the more qualified of the two of us—”

Leonard sighed. “Is this your idea of a goodbye?”

“Well, let me finish,” Sheldon said, and glanced at Penny. “He’s so rude sometimes.” Penny shot him a look that could best be described as bemused. “Anyway,” he continued, “I hope that you know I wish you nothing but the best. I hope that working with Professor Hawking is everything you hope it will be.”

Leonard waited for a “bazinga,” or at least some thoughtless post-script, but none came. Was it possible, he wondered, that Sheldon actually was happy for him? “Wow,” he said. “Well, I—thanks, Sheldon. That means a lot to me.”

“And you don’t have to worry,” Sheldon added. “While you’re gone, I won’t allow anyone to take credit for the work you’re doing in the lab at Caltech.”

“Thanks, buddy, I appr—”

“Not that I know of anyone who would want to.”

Aaaaand there it is, Leonard thought, but in the interest of leaving things on a positive note, he chose to ignore it.

“Sheldon…I’ll miss you,” he finally said, and held out his hand, hoping Sheldon would take it despite his germaphobia.

Sheldon rolled his eyes but, having been raised with southern manners drilled into his head, grasped Leonard’s hand and shook it firmly. “You are going to miss your flight,” he said, and Leonard knew that was as close to a sentimental goodbye as Sheldon would ever get. After giving Penny one last kiss, he entered the security line. And then there was nothing left for Penny and Sheldon to do except stand beside each other in silence as the most important person in both their lives disappeared into a sea of faces.

“Well,” Sheldon said as soon as Leonard was out of sight, “I guess that’s it.”

Penny sniffled and dabbed at the corners of her eyes with her fingertips. “Yeah. I guess so.”

He looked down at her. “Are you going to be all right?”

She gave him a watery smile. “I’ll be fine. I just need a minute.”

“Oh, I’m glad to hear that,” he said as they began walking back to the parking lot. “Who else is going to drive me home?”

“Oh, God, is this how it’s going to be for the next nine months? Leonard isn’t here so I’m responsible for driving you everywhere?”

“Of course not,” he said. “I will be taking the bus to and from work.”

“Thank God, because I don’t want to wake up at six in the morning every—”

“I will, however, need you to take me to the store to obtain extra bus pants.”

She would buy him the bus pants if it meant she didn’t have to get up at sunrise five days a week. “Fine.”

They walked in comfortable silence alongside each other until they reached Leonard’s car, which he had insisted Penny use until he returned. Sheldon was grateful for this gesture as well, as Penny’s check engine light had been on for months. He was just beginning to feel relieved, until he saw her squeeze the bridge of her nose as she got behind the wheel. It was then, in the natural light of mid-morning, he noticed unusual bags under her eyes.

“Penny, did you get adequate REM sleep last night?” he asked.

“Yep,” she replied absently, acclimating herself to Leonard’s Prius. It was almost brand new, and everything was electronic, as opposed to her decade-and-a-half-old Volkswagen that still had crank-operated windows.

“I’m concerned about your ability to drive,” he continued. “You look extraordinarily tired. Was Leonard’s snoring particularly loud last night? Sometimes I wear earplugs when he starts to sound like a human freight train. You would think that sound would be soothing to me, but—”

“I said I’m fine, Sheldon,” she snapped, and then out of the corner of her eye, she saw him wince. This was the second time in a week she had lashed out at him. What bothered her was that she was exhausted, and that he noticed. It was draining, trying not to focus on—or worse, let slip—the secret that was hiding under her clothes, and she had in fact lost sleep over it. Furthermore, her shifts at work seemed to be getting more and more difficult, leaving her nearly comatose when she got home. But it wasn’t his fault, and she knew that, and she shouldn’t have yelled at him for being his usual observant self.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to yell at you again. I’ve just felt a little under the weather and—”

The second she said it, she wanted to stuff the sentence back in her mouth. Telling Sheldon she was feeling under the weather was like telling a five-year-old that they weren’t getting dessert. There was about to be a meltdown, but it would be man-sized instead of child-sized.

Sure enough, his eyes widened, he pulled the collar of his t-shirt over his mouth and nose, and shrank back against the passenger door. “What are you doing?” she asked.

“I can’t very well hold my breath all the way back to Pasadena!” he yelped.

It was tempting to let him think she was contagious just to keep him quiet, but then she would have to listen to him bitch through her door later. “Sheldon, I’m fine. It’s just”—she thought quickly of how to say it without saying it—“female problems.” It was difficult enough to get a man to buy tampons without grumbling; in her experience, telling a man that you were having “female problems” was enough to get him to back off of whatever conversation he was trying to have. Unfortunately, she forgot who she was dealing with. He lowered his shirt and seemed to calm down a bit.

“Have you seen a doctor?”

Penny couldn’t be sure, but she thought she heard a hint of worry in his voice, even though he knew she wasn’t going to infect him. As she drove down Sepulveda toward the freeway, she gave him a quick, reassuring glance. “No, not yet, but I will. I just thought I was tired from work. But I’m pretty sure I know what’s wrong and can get it handled.”

The truth was that in the last few days, she had spent every free moment reading about possible explanations for what she had found. Based on what she’d read, she was fairly certain that she was dealing with a cyst, or, worst case, a fibroadenoma. Either of those things would be an easy fix—generally, it seemed, they went away on their own. So she wasn’t in a particular hurry to get to the women’s clinic. She had plenty of other things to deal with, like the three extra shifts she had picked up for the week so she could pay both her rent and the electric bill.

“What are your symptoms?”

She snapped back to attention just in time to merge onto the freeway. “Sorry, what?”

“I asked what your symptoms are,” he said plainly. “Itching? Burning? Redness?”

Penny was both grateful and irritated that she was driving; otherwise, she might have slapped him. “Sheldon! I’m going to pretend you didn’t just ask me that.”

“Surely you realize that allowing such matters to go untreated will only lead to further complications,” he said, as if she didn’t know.

“I promise, I will get an appointment.”

He was quiet for some time, and Penny thought she had satisfied him.

“When?”

Damnit! she thought, and unconsciously stepped harder on the gas. “I don’t know.”

“Which clinic do you visit?”

“A women’s clinic,” she said through gritted teeth. Why wouldn’t he let this go?

“Which one? The Pasadena Women’s Medical Group? Fair Oaks Women’s Health? Planned Parenthood of Pasadena?”

“Do you nag Leonard like this when he’s sick?” she asked. “I already told you I’m not contagious!”

“Fine,” he sighed, not wanting to distract her while she was navigating the freeway. “Will you at least promise me that you will call them this week?”

Despite how annoyed she was with his badgering, Penny couldn’t help but feel the slightest twinge of affection toward him. If she hadn’t known better, she’d have thought he cared more about her health than his obsessive need to control everything.

“Yes, I promise, I will call them this week. And to answer your question, it’s Planned Parenthood.”

“Thank you,” he said, relieved. “Now, seeing as it’s Sunday, and neither of us have plans, would you perhaps care to join me for an afternoon of 3D chess?”

“I don’t even know how to play regular chess,” she said, hoping that would dissuade him from begging. All she really wanted was a nap.

“I thought Leonard was supposed to teach you.”

She pulled off the freeway and toward the apartment, glad that in a few minutes, she would be in her bed, alone. “Yeah, well, he tried, but I could never really keep everything straight in my head. I kept getting confused about which pieces could move where, and I could tell it made it less fun for him when I took too long.”

He didn’t reply for a few minutes, instead gazing out the window as if he’d never seen any of the buildings before. “Would you like to learn?” he finally said, just as they pulled into the apartment parking lot.

“Learn what?” She felt like her brain was already asleep even though her body was—barely—still upright. Everything felt foggy, like she couldn’t quite process what Sheldon was saying.

He shot her a look of frustration, although she didn’t appear to notice. “Chess, of course.”

He then launched into a monologue about the history of chess, to which she only half-listened. If she kept quiet, eventually they would reach their apartments and she wouldn’t even have to engage. Sure enough, by the time they hit the fourth floor, he was still going on about some French guy with an absurdly long name beating some Irish guy in a tournament.

“Okay,” she said, interrupting his history lesson. “I need to catch a nap. You gonna call the guys to come over later?”

“Oh, doubtful,” he replied. “Rajesh is spending the evening in the telescope room.”

What about Howard?”

Sheldon furrowed his brow in confusion. “Why on Earth would I invite him over by himself? What would we even talk about?”

She shrugged. “You invited me over to play 3D chess. Why can’t you do that with him?”

“Because I don’t want to play chess with him,” Sheldon replied, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. “Usually I play chess with Leonard. As you are Leonard’s girlfriend, you are the obvious stand-in.”

“But I just told you I don’t know how to play!” she said, a hint of exasperation in her voice. She shouldn’t have even asked about evening plans.

“Well, you never answered my question.”

She stared at him blankly. “What question?”

“Do you want to learn?”

She didn’t even remember him asking her that. The idea of Sheldon teaching her chess brought back haunting memories of the time she asked him to help her learn about physics. The sentence “What is physics?” still gave her anxiety.

“Um…Sheldon, look, I’m really tired. Maybe we can talk about it later.”

“All right,” he said and turned toward his door. As he opened it, he heard a noise and turned back around to see Penny fumbling her keys a bit. She must really be exhausted, he thought. It’s a good thing she didn’t crash the car on our way home. I might have been killed! He was about to ask her if she had again tried to open her apartment using her car key, when she managed to push the door open and disappeared inside.


When he entered his own apartment, Sheldon was suddenly struck by the silence inside. He found that fact strange; it wasn’t as though he had never been alone in the apartment, even for extended periods of time when Leonard would go back to New Jersey or on vacations with Penny. In fact, he preferred the quiet. For the next nine months, he wouldn’t have to deal with Leonard taking more than his allotted bathroom time, or Penny making a mess in the kitchen while cooking breakfast on Saturday mornings, or endless, inane conversations that distracted him from his work. Other than with Amy, of course, and that was tedious enough.

As soon as he thought it, he scolded himself. He had been told such feelings were not appropriate, or at least the expression of them. He and Amy had been dating for over half a year, and in that time, he had grown to care for her in what he supposed was the way a boyfriend was supposed to care for a girlfriend. She was kind and a brilliant neurobiologist and a suitable mate for someone of his intelligence. And on the rare occasions he considered the idea of children, he knew he and Amy would, in all likelihood, create intelligent offspring.

But to get to that point, he knew that he would need to become comfortable not just with physical intimacy but also the idea of living with a woman. Living with Leonard was difficult enough, which brought him back to the fact that he had the apartment to himself for nine months, and although this should have thrilled him, he felt unnerved. Worse, he couldn’t understand why.

It was only half-past eleven in the morning, and he wasn’t entirely sure what to do with himself. Usually, he and Leonard would meet Howard and Raj at the comic book store on Sunday afternoon, but he wasn’t sure whether that would still be a regular occurrence now that Leonard was gone. At a minimum, someone else would need to drive him. He didn’t have enough bus pants to get to work and the comic book store.

Perhaps work would be a better idea anyway. He could always allow himself to deviate from his routine for work. Alone with his thoughts and equations on a whiteboard usually soothed whatever unrest was going on in his life. Maybe by the time he finished, Penny would be available for dinner. He made a mental note to pick up some hot dogs on the way home.

He changed his pants and grabbed his work bag, making sure he had his iPod and charger with him. As he left the apartment and locked the door, he glanced across the hall. It had only been about fifteen minutes since they arrived home, but he wondered if she was already asleep. He had the urge to knock on her door and tell her where he was going, since his usual schedule would have him either at home or at the comic book store, and what would happen if she couldn’t find him in an emergency? But then he remembered how tired she seemed as she was entering her apartment and thought better of it. He had incurred Penny’s wrath for waking her up too early, and it wasn’t something he wanted to experience again. So, he departed the building for the bus stop just outside, already working on the equations he’d left on his office whiteboard the previous week.


The second she closed her door, Penny dropped her purse on the floor and all but dived onto the couch. It wasn’t entirely unheard of or her to sleep on her couch; she had passed out on it many times when she’d had too much wine or when she came home from a long shift at work and fell asleep watching some crappy rom-com. But it was rare that she was so tired that she had to go for the couch because the idea of walking to the bedroom was too tiring. She managed to kick off her shoes—thank God for ballet flats—and curled up into the fetal position, holding onto the throw pillow under her head. She would just take a quick nap and then she would feel better, she was sure. Maybe she would let Sheldon teach her to play chess…or maybe that was the exhaustion talking. She also knew she had to call Planned Parenthood, but she needed to confirm her work schedule for the following week before she could make an appointment anyway…

She didn’t know how long she’d slept, but she was awakened suddenly by the sound of a door opening and closing. For a moment she thought it might be Leonard, but then, through her sleep-induced haze, she remembered he was gone. So, it had to have been Sheldon, and she expected to hear three sets of three knocks interspersed by three calls of her name…but none came. It wasn’t as if Sheldon was obligated to tell her where he was going, of course, but she was surprised that he didn’t. Maybe he realized how tired she was after all and didn’t want to bother her. She was just beginning to drift back to sleep, when she got a text.

I have gone to the university to catch up on work. Do you want to have dinner tonight at 7? I can pick up hot dogs. - S

So much for realizing how tired I am, she thought. Just that morning, he had been criticizing her cooking, and now he was asking her to make dinner for them—and she knew that’s what he was suggesting, even though he invited her. She wasn’t exactly shocked, though. For all his complaints about Leonard, she knew it would be difficult for Sheldon to be alone. Amy lived across town, so she wasn’t a convenient replacement, and Howard and Raj only had so much patience for him, despite being his friends. So she would muster her strength and make dinner for them, and then bow out early, using her early shift at the restaurant as an excuse.

Sure, she wrote back. But get wine, too.

She saw three bubbles floating up and down on the text screen, and then a second later, got another message. What kind of wine?

There’s a cool one I saw last time I was at the store, she typed back. It was in a dark bottle. The guy said that you don’t know if it’s red or white until you open it. I don’t remember the name, just go to the store down the street and ask them.

A minute later, he wrote back again. Schrödinger’s wine it is.

Despite her fatigue and the emotionally taxing morning she’d had, she laughed. Sheldon didn’t generally make jokes, but sometimes, he was unintentionally funny. At least, she thought he was. Even if she couldn’t understand most of what he said, she understood intonation, and it wasn’t usually what he said but rather how he said it that made her laugh.

After a final “LOL” to him, she turned her phone off and turned over on the couch, feeling like her body weighed twice what it usually did. If she was going to be able to cook dinner that night, she definitely needed this nap.

What she didn’t realize was that a nap wasn’t all she needed.


Raj had been in the telescope room all afternoon sorting through six months of data points, trying to find patterns and anomalies, but was coming up empty. He had already made sure the camera was white-field balanced, but he couldn’t do anything else until later that evening. There were a few images he needed to try to recreate to see if they were consistent over a period of days, but that would require him to take them at the same time as the old images, which meant he was stuck there for another three hours. He had tried to convince Howard to come hang out with him, but he and Bernadette were having dinner with her parents that night. Actually, Howard hadn’t needed convincing, but Bernadette was another story. Raj couldn’t really blame her; Howard needed to learn that sometimes, adults have to do things they find unpleasant, like having dinner with your girlfriend’s parents. Or, in Raj’s case, having to be in the telescope room all night.

Without looking away from the screen, he picked up his thermos and tried to take a sip, except it was empty. He didn’t remember drinking all of it, but then, he tended to lose track of time when he was in this room. He decided that was a sign from the universe—the irony not lost on him—that it was time for a break. Even though it was Sunday, he knew the cafeteria would still be open, so he could get some more coffee, and then perhaps he would take a walk outside to refresh himself. After locking the room, he left the astrophysics building and headed across the street toward the cafeteria. He decided to take a shortcut through the Downs-Lauritsen building, where he used to work, figuring he could walk outside on the way back.

As soon as he entered the building, Raj realized all over again how grateful he was that he didn’t have to work in it anymore, and not just because he had been forced to share an office with Sheldon.  It wasn’t particularly well-lit and, during non-work hours, could be downright creepy. Raj wondered if his old desk was still there; he didn’t see how anyone would have been able to remove it, so perhaps it would just stay there in all its Brobdingnagian glory for the rest of time. Nobody even worked in that room anymore, since Sheldon had staged a hostile takeover of a retired colleague’s office. In fact, Raj realized, he was heading down the hallway that led to that office, from which a light radiated into the otherwise dark building.

Sheldon was standing in the middle of the room, facing away from the door, staring at a whiteboard full of equations on the wall across from him. His arms were crossed, and his shoulders hunched, as if he had been in that position for some time. “Pattern is the same as fermions, travels on the pathways, hexagonal, it’s always hexagonal…” he mumbled.

Raj gently knocked on the open door. “Sheldon? What are you doing here?”

Sheldon didn’t even turn around. “Trying to figure out why electrons behave as if they have no mass when travelling through a graphene sheet,” he sighed.

Raj quirked an eyebrow. “Are you looking at them as particles or a wave?”

At that, Sheldon whirled around. “What did you just say?”

“I asked if you were looking at the electrons as particles or as a wave,” Raj replied.

Sheldon looked from his friend to the whiteboard like he was watching a tennis match. “Well, this is just awful,” he finally said, sounding defeated.

“What is?”

Sinking into his chair, Sheldon rubbed his eyes. “I’ve been staring at that board for hours now, and you come along and just give me the answer!”

Raj furrowed his brow. “And getting the answer is upsetting to you?”

You getting the answer is upsetting to me,” Sheldon replied. “As if today couldn’t get worse.”

Raj knew he would regret asking, but apparently, he was an intellectual masochist. “What happened?”

“Leonard left today.”

“Ah, that’s right,” Raj replied, understanding. “You miss him. Well, Sheldon, you’ve been roommates for years. It seems only natural that—”

“I don’t miss him!” Sheldon said, exasperated. “His being gone, however, has caused a rather large disruption to my daily routine, despite my attempts to avoid that very problem.”

“Is this because we didn’t go to the comic book store today?” Raj asked. “We can go next weekend. It’s not like Stuart is going anywhere. He lives in the store, after all.”

Sheldon sighed. “It’s not just that. I am only here today because I didn’t know what else to do with myself. When Penny and I arrived home from the airport, I tried to convince her to play 3D chess with me, as Leonard and I did on Sundays when we couldn’t go to the comic book store. But because of her female issues, she said she needed a nap.”

“Her female issues?” Raj repeated. “Like her time of the month?”

“She didn’t specify. I asked her symptoms, but she refused to provide any. All she would tell me is that she wasn’t contagious and that she would make a doctor’s appointment because she was, and I quote, ‘pretty sure she knew what was wrong and could get it handled.’”

Raj’s eyebrows shot up. “If she’s seeing a doctor, then it isn’t a monthly occurrence.”

“Perhaps it’s just a particularly bad month.”

“Sheldon,” Raj said, trying to remain as clinical as possible, “my father is a gynecologist, and I can tell you with absolute certainty that Penny is not going to a doctor because of something that has been happening once a month since she was a teenager.”

Sheldon pondered this. Admittedly, although he had a working knowledge of many subjects, he never bothered to dig into details about the female reproductive system. He knew how it worked, of course—the physical symptoms of menstruation were common knowledge—but he didn’t have a reason to learn about how those symptoms affected women.

“Well,” he finally said, “if it’s not her monthly cycle, then what could it be?”

Raj shifted uncomfortably from side to side. “I don’t really feel comfortable discussing Penny’s medical issues.” He glanced at his watch. “I need to get going. The cafeteria is going to close soon and if I don’t get some coffee, I’m going to fall asleep before I can get any real work done.”

Sheldon nodded. “Indeed. I need to find a new equation to work out, and that may take some time, since I’ve solved so many of them already.”

With a roll of his eyes, Raj turned to leave. But just before he closed the door behind him, he turned back around. “Hey, Sheldon?”

“Yes?”

Raj tried to make eye contact, which was difficult, since Sheldon so rarely returned the gesture. But he managed to catch his friend’s eyes and held his stare. “Try to get her to go to the doctor sooner rather than later."

Sheldon felt his pulse increase and blood rush to his face. “Excuse me?”

“I’m not saying that Penny cheated on Leonard or anything,” Raj continued, “but given the fact that her last boyfriend was less than faithful to her…” He hoped Sheldon would get the message without him having to say it, but Sheldon just stared at him blankly. “Look, it’s unlikely. It’s probably nothing. But like I said, my father is a gynecologist, and if there’s one thing he impressed upon me and my siblings when he gave us ‘the talk,’ it was that sometimes it takes years for symptoms to show up, and by that time, there's nothing you can do. If she's feeling that kind of fatigue, then she should see—”  

Now Sheldon felt like the blood was rushing into his head and then draining from his body. “Oh, no. Oh, no, no, no! How could I be so stupid?” He felt like he was going to faint, and his breaths were dangerously rapid and shallow. “She could have herpes! She’s been using our silverware! I used hers just this morning!”

Raj was regretting having said anything. “Look, Sheldon, like I said, it’s unlikely. Don’t panic!”

But Sheldon wasn’t listening. He was too busy packing up his work bag and running out the door, hoping he could make it to the campus health center before they closed for the evening.


“Sheldon? It’s Penny. Open up!”

She was met with silence from the other side of the door. The best part of Sheldon was the fact that his routine hardly ever changed, and she knew that Monday night was Battlestar Galactica night. He should be in his spot, forcing her to watch the show with him while she tried not to look at her phone, lest he whine that she wasn’t paying attention. It was bad enough that he hadn’t shown up the previous evening for dinner. Now he wasn’t answering the door when he should be home.

“Sheldon, come on! I’m starting to get worried. Did I do something wrong?”

She put her ear up to the door, hoping to hear some sign of life. Her phone suddenly buzzed.

I am alive, it read.

She breathed a sigh of relief, but wasn’t satisfied. She wanted to know exactly what had kept him from her apartment and his favorite dinner.

Can you tell me what’s wrong? she typed back.

She waited. And waited. And waited some more. But no reply came.

Sighing, she went back into her own apartment. She was too tired to play this game. After she had realized that Sheldon was going to flake on dinner the night before, she had taken a hot shower and gone to bed early, but the next morning, she felt like she hadn’t slept in weeks. The restaurant had been packed that day, but while that would usually have made the day fly by, to her, the hours had just dragged. So she really wasn’t in the mood to try and get inside Dr. Whackadoodle’s beautiful mind.

Instead, she went to the one other person who might know what was going on.

Amy picked up on the second ring. “Hey, Bestie, what’s up?”

Penny hesitated. She didn’t want to alarm Amy, but she didn’t know how else to phrase the question. “Hey, Ames. How are you?”

“Oh, I’m all right. Just getting ready to practice a new song.”

Penny knew Amy was referring to her harp. “Oh, yeah? What song?”

“You’ll laugh.”

“I promise I won’t!”

Amy took a deep, shaky breath. “It’s ‘If Tomorrow Never Comes’ by Garth Brooks.”

“Wow,” Penny said. “I didn’t know you could play a Garth Brooks song on the harp!”

“I don’t think it’s ever been done,” Amy said, “but that’s what makes it a challenge.”

“I didn’t even realize you were a country fan, actually. Doesn’t seem like your kind of thing.”

“Oh, it’s not,” Amy assured her. “It’s just that Sheldon—”

She stopped abruptly and Penny laughed. “It’s okay,” she said. “I already know about his love of Garth Brooks. We have the same iPod and I picked his up by mistake one day when I was over there. It’s cute that you’re learning his favorite song.”

Amy smiled. “I don’t know if he’ll appreciate it the way you do. Anyway, what’s up? You don’t usually call.”

Penny sighed. “Have you talked to Sheldon in the last day or so?”

“Ah,” Amy said, as if she had been expecting this question eventually. “I have, yes.”

Pacing through her apartment nervously, Penny said, “Well, um…he was supposed to come over for dinner last night and he didn’t show. And just now, I went over there to try to talk to him, and he wouldn’t come to the door. All I got was a text telling me he’s alive. Do you know what’s going on? Is he sick?”

Amy took a deep breath. “I’m going to tell you, but you can’t freak out. Keep in mind that we’re dealing with someone who goes worst-case-scenario in…well, all scenarios.”

“Okay, fine, I won’t freak out,” Penny replied.

“And please remember that this isn’t me saying this, it’s just being the messenger. So don’t shoot me.”

“Amy!” Penny squeezed the bridge of her nose. “Just spit it out. What’s. Going. On. With. Sheldon?”

“He thinks you have an STD and he’s afraid of catching it.”

Penny was glad she was standing in front of her couch at that exact moment, because she immediately collapsed onto it in shock and disbelief. “You—wait—he what?

Amy cleared her throat nervously. “He thinks you have—”

“No, no, I got that,” Penny replied, a sharp edge to her voice. “What I mean is, why does he think that? How could he think that? I would never cheat on Leonard!”

“He doesn’t think you cheated on Leonard,” Amy reassured her. “He thinks that your last boyfriend—Kurt, right?—cheated on you and gave you something.”

Penny was aghast. “Gave me what? I think I’d know if I had an STD!”

“I thought you said you wouldn’t freak out,” Amy said.

“I know I did, but I wasn’t expecting—I mean, can you understand how this might have upset me a little? Please tell me he hasn’t told anyone else this little theory.” She was horrified at the thought that Sheldon might have shared this idea with Raj or—worse—Howard.

“No, no, it was just me, I swear,” Amy replied quickly. “Rajesh was actually the one who brought it up, but other than that---”

Penny looked around for something to throw. “Raj thinks I have an STD?”

“Again, no one thinks it’s your fault!”

I do not have an STD!” Penny yelled. “There’s nothing to be at fault for! Except the double murder I’m about to commit.”

Amy tried to calm her friend down. “Sheldon was just worried about you because you said something was going on that you needed to get a doctor’s appointment for. And Rajesh, well…okay, I can’t think of anything to justify his part in it,” she admitted. “But you know how Sheldon is. He’s not going to see anyone, until he knows he doesn’t have something contagious.”

“Maybe that’s a good thing!” Penny exclaimed. “He can stay in there for nine months and I won’t have to deal with him!”

Amy hesitated, but then said, “Penny, I know you don’t have anything contagious. And your body is yours to deal with, however you want. But if you won’t go for him, or for you, do it for me. I’d like to see my boyfriend again before I die.”

Rubbing her eyes with her free hand, Penny took a few deep, calming breaths. “Okay. All right. I know. He was bothering me to get an appointment on the way home yesterday, even before he thought—yeah. I’ll make the appointment after I hang up the phone. But not for him!” she added. “For you. Besides, you’re the only other person who can deal with him, and I’m going to need help for the next nine months.”

“Thank you,” Amy said, and Penny could hear the smile on her face. She was about to say goodbye when Amy said, “Penny?”

“Yeah?”

“Can I ask what is going on?”

Penny didn’t know what to say. She could tell Amy, she knew. Amy would understand. Plus, she was so logical and calm that she wouldn’t panic the way, say, Leonard might have. She would probably offer to go with Penny to the appointment for support. But Penny didn’t know if she wanted that. Having someone go with her made it sound like a bigger deal than it was. All she was dealing with was a cyst or something. There was no need to involve anyone else.

“I just—I need to get some new birth control,” she lied. “I’m getting some weird side effects and since Leonard’s gone, I think now’s a good time to switch.”

“I see,” Amy said, and she sounded relieved. “Would you like me to pass that information along to Sheldon?”

“Sure,” Penny replied. “I don’t know if he’ll believe you, but they’re going to make me have the testing done anyway when I go, so I can prove to him that I’m not diseased and neither is he.”

“All right. I’m going to go do that, and then go practice. Would you like to get together sometime this week?”

“Sure,” Penny said again. “I’ll let you know what day when I find out when my appointment is.”

“Great. Talk to you soon, Bestie.”

“Bye.”

After she hung up the phone, Penny pulled up the Planned Parenthood website and clicked on the link to schedule an appointment. They had an opening at 9am Wednesday, and all day on Friday. Unfortunately, she had to work the afternoon shift on Friday, so she was stuck with the early appointment. Between this and getting up at six in the morning to drop Leonard at the airport, she’d end up on Sheldon’s schedule by the end of the week.

Not a minute after she clicked “submit” on the form did she have a text from Sheldon.

Amy informs me that you have made an appointment with the clinic, he wrote. She also informs me that your issue is related to hormones.

Yes, she wrote back. I do not, in fact, have a disease. But if it will make you happy, I’ll show you the test results when I get them back.

She was cleaning her kitchen when he replied, two hours later. Are you angry with me?

She wanted to reply that she was. But, as Amy had said, even if he had thought she had some contagious virus, he hadn’t placed the blame on her for it. He was just doing what he always did—assuming the worst.

No, she finally replied. Raj, on the other hand…I might have to go Junior Rodeo on his ass.

Three bubbles appeared, disappeared, and reappeared as he typed out his response. When it finally came, she laughed out loud, his unintentional humor restoring order to their friendship.

If you do that, please be sure to record it. The next episode of Fun With Flags includes a segment on the significance of the white flag in battle. Raj waving one would be a wonderful visual aid.