It was dark. There was a loud bang as the bedroom door slammed open, and Greg shot up in bed, his breath exploding from him in short bursts as he was abruptly awoken from his sleep. This was it. Here was Leatherface. At least he had Daisy to protect him. She sat back on her haunches, barking only once before emitting a low growl.
"Greg," a deep and stern voice said, and Daisy quickly retreated. So much for that.
"What?" he asked breathlessly, his heart pounding. He squinted against the light spilling in from the hall to see Bill's form standing in the doorway. "What is it?"
"I need your help with something." It was not a request, but rather a command.
Greg looked at the small clock sitting by his bedside. The red lights read 5:59am.
"Now?" he asked, bewildered.
"Yes. Get dressed and meet me out back."
As Greg felt his heart rate returning to normal, his breathing evening, he came to the stark realization that he was definitely not in Texas Chainsaw Massacre. He was officially in The Twilight Zone.
Greg exited the back of the house with trepidation, carefully coming down the steps to see Bill standing beside a large bucket. Jillian had still been asleep, but so was any other sane person at six in the morning on a Saturday. Except Bill, apparently, but the jury was still out on his sanity. Greg quietly approached to stand beside him, the bucket between them, and they stood in silence for a few moments. As Daisy scurried around them anxiously, Greg yawned, waiting for Bill to tell him exactly what he needed help with.
"I need you to take this to the chickens and feed them," Bill said, his eyes fixed on the beginnings of a sunrise peeking over the horizon. "Replace their water, and then I need you to collect the eggs from the coop and bring them back here. Do you think you can do that?"
"Uh, sure," Greg replied, rubbing the nape of his neck. "Where do I put the food? Do the chickens have, like...bowls with their names on it?"
Bill only shoved a pair of work gloves into Greg's chest, his expression unamused as Greg accepted them. Turned to walk back into the house, calling over his shoulder, "When you're done with that why don't you shovel out all the straw and wood chips? There's fresh in the shed beside it. Breakfast will be ready when you're done."
Greg rolled his eyes. Now he could see where Nick had gotten his sense of humor.
Chickens were the filthiest, most disgusting animals Greg had ever encountered in his life, and they were also the biggest assholes out of the entire food chain; he would never feel guilty about eating another chicken again. Feeding the chickens had been easy enough, just pour the food into their feeders. The real fun started when he tried to collect the eggs from beneath the hens. They flapped their wings at him and pecked at his arms, scratching and biting at him with ferocity until he managed to remove them from their nests. Often times, there wasn't even a fucking egg. Finally, he'd found a large stick and used it to poke the chickens out of their nests, which he wished he would've figured out earlier. He idly wondered what organisms he would find under a microscope while examining the bloody scratches on his arms.
Cleaning out a chicken coop was comparable to some of the worst decomposing bodies Greg had encountered as a CSI. Literally everything was covered in feces. Even places he was sure the chickens couldn't reach had feces on it. He grunted against the weight of hay and wood chips bogged down by chicken shit, pushing it with a shovel into a garbage bin and dragging it to the side of the shed.
After spraying down the hen house with a hose and replacing all of the hay and narrowly stopping Daisy from eating one of the chickens, Greg was surprised to see how much time had passed. He grabbed his bucket of the scarce amount of chicken eggs he'd found, and made his way back to the house with Daisy. Threw his hen-poking stick and watched the old girl chase after it, grinning with pride as she brought it back to him.
"Good girl!" he said, throwing the stick again, ignoring the ache in his shoulder. Maybe, he considered, she was better off on all this acreage rather than cooped up in a house. Although he still wasn't sold on the sleeping-in-the-hallway thing.
"Greg!" Jillian exclaimed, greeting him at the back door. "My husband told me he had you cleaning out our our hen house. Why on earth did you ever agree to that? Give me those eggs, I have a hot breakfast waiting for you."
"Thanks," he said, feeling suddenly embarrassed. Why had he agreed to do that? Maybe because it had been six in the morning when Bill had asked, and he'd still been half-asleep and didn't know what he'd been agreeing to. "I'm just going to wash up."
"I need your help with something else, when you're done eating," Bill said from the kitchen table, and Greg paused in the doorway to the hall.
"And what is that?" Greg asked, narrowing his eyes.
"If you could help me with the horses," he replied, without even looking up from the newspaper he was reading.
Greg opened his mouth to respond, but only scoffed quietly.
"Okay," he finally replied, incredulous. He traversed the hallway to the bathroom, washing his hands in the sink. Could hear Jillian scolding Bill in the kitchen from the open door.
"Don't push him so hard," she whispered harshly.
"I'm just giving him something to do."
What did that mean? Why would he believe Greg needed something to do? Greg caught his own eye in the mirror, his brow knitting with curiosity.
"Greg, your food is getting cold," Jillian called from the kitchen.
"Yeah," he responded, exiting the bathroom before he had time to consider Bill's intentions further.
If Greg learned anything while grooming horses with Bill Stokes, it was that horses are fucking huge, and equally as scary. He had been given an array of brushes, and instructed to start with the mane and tail before moving to the body. Silently, Greg brushed a horse named Linda, timidly standing beside her and waiting for her to kick him or headbutt him, or whatever it was horses did when they were scared. He watched Bill out of the corner of his eye as the older man groomed a second horse named Tess, his brow furrowed and his lips tight, an expression Greg was all too familiar with. It was the same expression his son had worn when working a difficult case at the crime lab. When asking Greg why he couldn't seem to put his laundry in the hamper that was right next to where his clothes were lying on the floor. When working up the nerve to tell Greg he loved him for the first time.
"Do you know how they measure horses?" Bill asked, breaking Greg from his thoughts.
"No," Greg replied, grabbing the hard brush as he gently began grooming Linda's body.
"You start at the withers, which is where the neck meets the back," Bill replied. "It's measured in hands. One hand equals four inches. Full hands and then a point – the number of additional inches – followed by the letters 'hh.' For 'hands high.' Tess here is 15.2 hands high."
"Horses have 64 chromosomes," Greg said, because he couldn't think of anything else to say, and was doing what he always did when he was nervous: rambling. "It has 2.7 billion DNA base pairs, which is larger than the dog genome, but smaller than the human genome. Or the bovine genome."
Bill only briefly met Greg's eyes before turning back to Tess, unimpressed.
"Who usually helps you with this?" Greg asked, because he was sure Bill would rather be standing here with anyone else right now.
Bill sighed audibly. "He's on vacation."
By the time Greg and Bill were walking back to the house, it was already well into the evening. They had groomed the horses, then shoveled out their droppings, cleaned their feed buckets, swept the stables, and lead the horses back in. Greg's shoulder was aching, his fingers tingling with the now familiar pins-and-needles sensation from nerve damage. He clenched and unclenched his fist, although he knew it really wouldn't help, but he wanted to wait to get back into the house and into a very hot shower before doing the exercises Abby had taught him.
"Is that from the shooting?" Bill asked, without looking at Greg.
"Yeah," Greg replied, shaking out his tingling fingers.
"Is that the first time you were hurt on the job?"
"No," Greg stated, amused at Bill's sudden interest in Greg's life. The man hadn't said much more after explaining to him how horses were measured. Maybe this time, Greg could stop himself from blurting out something asinine and maintain Bill's interest. "I got beat up once, by a gang. Broke my arm and my leg. Once, I was blown up in my lab, when I was a DNA tech. That was an accident, though, and it wasn't my fault."
Bill was quiet for a moment, appearing contemplative. Then: "Have you ever considered a different line of work?"
"No, I mean, I really like..." he trailed off, swearing he caught a ghost of a smile on Bill's lips as the older man held open the back door for him that lead into the kitchen. "Wait. Are you making a joke? Did you just make a joke?"
"Bill made a joke?" Jillian asked from the stove, a flurry of movement as she managed several steaming pots and pans at one time.
"I think so," Greg said, dubious.
"Somebody break out the champagne," Jillian commented dryly, winking at Greg before returning her attention to the stove. "Go get showered, boys. Dinner will be ready by the time you're done."
Greg traveled upstairs, heading into the bathroom after grabbing a pair of gym shorts and a tee shirt from his bag in the guest room. He turned on the tap as hot as it would go, hoping to ease his aching body. Pulled his shirt over his head, dropping it to the floor while kicking off his shoes, eyeing his sneakers disdainfully. He was pretty sure he was going to have to replace them once he got back to Las Vegas. They were muddy and stained and he had stepped in horse shit at least three times today.
Just as he was unbuckling his belt, there was a hasty knock on the door, and Jillian pushed it open without waiting for a response. She held out a towel to him, her breath catching at the sight of his bare skin.
"Sorry. I realized there weren't any fresh towels in here. I didn't mean to..." she said, but didn't move. She clutched her hands to her chest, wringing them worriedly as Greg had seen his own mother do hundreds of times. "Are those...from the shooting?"
Her eyes were cast to the floor, but he knew what she was referring to. The map of scars that marred his body, that reminded him every day of a past he was trying to forget.
"Yeah," he replied, gripping the towel tightly in his hand.
"That one too?" she asked, indicating the long scar that started at his sternum, curled around his navel and ended below his waistline.
"Surgery," he stated, tracing his fingers over the disfigured flesh. He indicated the bullet wound in his chest. "This one bounced off of a rib. Left bone fragments in my heart and lungs, punctured my diaphragm once and my stomach twice before stopping against my back. They had to open me up to fix all that."
"What about those?" she asked, and this time she pointed behind him, into the mirror. He followed her gaze, to the keloid scars scattered across his back and neck.
"That's from a lab explosion. A long time ago."
Jillian smirked. "Maybe you should go into another line of work."
They were quietly eating dinner, once again. Awkward silence stretching time, turning minutes into what felt like hours. And the food, once again, was absolutely delicious. Jillian had made fried chicken, and Greg swore he would apply for a farmhand position if that meant he could continue eating homemade southern cooking. They didn't even have to pay him.
"This is really good," Greg commented enthusiastically. "I can see why Nick was such a great cook."
"He was my last baby," Jillian gushed, smiling. "I kept that boy tied to my apron strings. But he did love cooking with me. He loved to eat. Good thing his daddy put him in football. He was the pudgiest boy on the team! But all that playin' slimmed him down. He sure grew up into a handsome young man. The girls fell all over him in high school."
"I bet they did," Greg said, grinning, and then rolled his eyes. "It was no different at the LVPD. He'd blush and smile politely, but he loved the attention."
Bill grunted unappreciatively from his end of the dining table. Greg lowered his eyes, remembering himself. Of course Bill wouldn't want to hear that no matter how many women threw themselves at his only son, Nick still went home to a man every night. The same man sitting at his kitchen table, who didn't follow any sports and rambled on about nerdy things like horse DNA sequencing.
Greg stole a glance at Jillian out of the corner of his eye. She was glaring at her husband, her jaw clenched, mouthing at him to play nice with their impromptu house guest. Bill only regarded her with an impassive expression, before turning to Greg.
"I need your help again tomorrow."
Greg's mouth fell agape, his eyes wide. "What?"
"We have to muck out the stables," he replied almost nonchalantly, his eyes refocusing on his dinner.
"I have to go back to Vegas," Greg stated, shaking his head. He didn't even know what 'mucking out' meant, and he certainly didn't want to find out. "I was going to leave after dinner."
"Why?" Bill pressed, and Greg nearly laughed at the audacity of the man sitting beside him. "What do you have to do in Vegas?"
"I...have plenty of things to do," Greg said, his voice sounding unconvincing to his own ears.
Greg opened his mouth to respond, but in reality he didn't know what to say. What did he really have to do? What was waiting for him in Las Vegas? Sara would be there, and while he always looked forward to seeing her, while he did miss his friend, she did not fill the void that Nick had left. He would still spray Nick's Texas A&M blanket with Nick's cologne when she wasn't home, crying into the blanket pathetically. He didn't work anymore, living off of the life insurance money he had inherited from Nick's death. Just floated aimlessly through life these days, watching the same television shows and movies, surfing the internet idly. But his heart wasn't in it.
He remembered what he had overheard Bill say this morning. I'm just giving him something to do. Briefly considered the meaning of those words once again. Did Bill feel sorry for Greg? Was he angry at Greg and trying to punish him? Was he working up the nerve to say something to Greg, buying time with manual labor?
"Why don't you want me to leave?" Greg asked, leaning forward in an attempt to catch Bill's gaze, but the older man would not look at him.
"Who else is going to help me?" Bill asked, shrugging. "I can't do it alone with my back the way it is."
And then he stood from the table, deposited his dish into the sink, and left the room.
Greg looked at Jillian, leaning back in his chair with defeat. She only shrugged, sighing heavily as she returned to eating her meal.
It was almost dark. Greg was sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch, on his third or fourth beer. He was too tired to think. His brain had switched off from pure exhaustion, physically and emotionally. At least he was pleasantly buzzed, watching the last of the sun disappear behind green rolling hills. Daisy was sleeping at his feet, snoring softly, and he knew soon he would be heading upstairs to sleep as well.
The screen door swung open, and Bill stepped onto the porch, his boots falling heavily against the wood. Sat down next to Greg, taking a sip of beer. Greg had seen him drinking all evening, knew he was at least six or seven beers in, in addition to the whiskey he'd been shooting between drinks. Could see that furrowed brow, those tight lips, the hard contemplation in his eyes. That look.
"I heard what you said," Bill finally said, his eyes on the horizon, but he didn't offer anything more.
"When?" Greg asked.
"When you were at the cemetery."
Greg felt his cheeks grow warm, shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "Sorry," he offered, because he wasn't sure what else to say.
"You were there, when Nick died."
"Did you love him?"
Greg felt his heart stop. Opened his mouth to speak, but the words wouldn't come. He looked at Bill, surprised at the question, but the older man was still watching the horizon.
"Did you love him?" he repeated, more firmly this time.
"Did you tell him?"
"All the time."
"No," Bill said, shaking his head. "I mean...at the end. Did you tell him that you loved him?"
Greg still could not remember most of the shooting, but he did have those fleeting memories that felt like fragments of dreams. Remembered leaning against Nick's chest, his face pressing into the damp, rough fabric of his stab vest. Remembered gently touching soft hair. Remembered the woman's voice on the phone. Remembered dark tendrils of sleep reaching for him, wrapping around his brain like vines, pulling him into the abyss. Remembered those words.
Tell him I love him.
"Yes," Greg whispered, remembered those half-closed eyes, the same ones that haunted his dreams.
"Good," Bill stated, and when Greg looked at him with wide eyes, the older man finally met his gaze. And Greg couldn't look away from the pain and anguish that flooded those dark brown eyes. "Because I haven't told my son I loved him in ten years. At least when he died, he knew somebody did."
This time, Greg knew the right thing to say. Nick understood that Bill was just stubborn. Just doing what he thought was the right thing. Doing what he thought was best for his son. But of course Nick knew, deep down inside, that his father loved him and was proud of the man he'd become.
But Greg didn't say those words. Because Greg knew – just as much as Bill knew – they weren't true. Nick died wondering if his father would ever accept him for who he was. Nick died wondering if he was a disappointment to his father. Nick died wondering if his father loved him at all. And that was something Bill would have to live with, a regret that no hollow banalities could ever take away.
So instead, Greg turned his gaze back to the horizon, but the sun was already gone. Watched Bill stand out of the corner of his eye and move back into the house. Flinched at the sound of the screen door slamming closed behind him.
To be concluded.