The next morning, Greg once again found himself at the mercy of the chickens. Apparently, if a chicken egg was left more than a few days, when it was cracked over the hot stove for breakfast there was a chance an ugly pink fetus would drop into the pan instead of a nice yellow yolk. However, unlike the day before, he had armed himself with a stick and his attack dog Daisy, and successfully found a few more eggs without garnering any more battle scars from angry chickens. He also had to clean the feeders and water container again because Jesus Christ did chickens shit a lot and did they shit everywhere.
After breakfast – and after watching with bated breath for any chicken fetuses he might have inadvertently murdered as Jillian cracked eggs in a bowl – he followed Bill to the horse stables to learn exactly what "mucking out" meant. It involved a deep cleaning of the horse stables, and it was no easy feat. Especially when Bill's bad back meant Greg had to do all the grunt work. He supposed he should be used to it, after years of torture inflicted upon him at the crime lab from the likes of Warrick and Nick, but his hip and shoulder protested painfully after a few hours of cleaning.
He was pushing a wheelbarrow full of horse manure outside of the stables when he caught Bill smoking a cigarette behind the barn.
"Does your wife know about that?" Greg asked, pausing in his task to wipe sweat from his brow with the bottom of his shirt. He stretched out his right arm gently in an attempt to relieve his aching shoulder, gritting his teeth as he did so.
"No," Bill responded. "And she won't."
Greg held up his hands in mock surrender.
"Here," the older man said, holding out a pack of Marlboro Reds.
"Cowboy killers," Greg commented idly, referring to the nickname of the famous brand of cigarettes, garnered from several advertisements featuring cowboys – three of whom died from lung cancer. Greg hesitated only briefly before removing his work gloves and slipping a cigarette between his fingers.
"I'm sure now you'll tell me about some trivia or facts about cigarettes or the Marlboro Man or something like that?" Bill asked, his eyes narrowed expectantly.
Greg smiled, shaking his head. "I'll spare you."
They stood in silence for a few minutes, and Greg could only imagine what Nick would think about this picture. It would've certainly been ridiculous to previously imagine Nick's father and his male lover standing amicably behind a barn and smoking cigarettes. In another life, perhaps Nick would be standing here with them. Perhaps all three men would be scolded by Jillian as they entered the house smelling like smoke. Nick's father would only wave away his wife's concern, but Nick would ease her worries with his affable charm by offering her a smile. That smile.
"After this, I need you to – "
Greg was pulled from his thoughts abruptly, knowing what was coming next, and immediately he stopped Bill before he could continue.
"After this is nothing," Greg stated, pushing himself away from the barn, flicking his cigarette expertly into the grass. "After this I'm leaving."
"Why?" he asked, his expression so impassive Greg was baffled, as if Greg was the crazy one out of the two of them.
"Why?" Greg repeated back, dubious. "Because I can't stay here forever. I wasn't even supposed to be here in the first place. I was only supposed to see Nick and then go back."
"Who's going to help me – "
"I don't know!" Greg interrupted, his words edged with frustration. "It's not my problem! Just because your guy is on vacation doesn't mean there isn't anyone else that can help you. Jesus, you have six other children, six son-in-laws, grandchildren. Call one of them."
Bill was silent for a moment, his eyes focused on the horizon. Then, quietly: "I don't want their help. I want your help."
"What is this?" Greg asked, his expression pained. He held out his hands, indicating the farm around them. "Is this a game to you? An act of contrition? Is that what this is? Are you punishing me? For being with your son? For loving him? For killing him?"
"I'm just giving you something to do, that's all."
"I don't need something to do!" Greg cried, throwing his gloves to the ground. "I want to go home. I want to go back to Las Vegas. I want to go back to my life."
"How do you expect to do that?" Bill asked, his gaze still following the hillside. "How do you go back to your life? Without him?"
Greg felt his anger dissipate rapidly as he absorbed the older man's words, unable to miss the uncertainty in the infallible Bill Stokes' voice. A man that had failed his son. A man that regretted doing so. A man that would have to live with that knowledge for the rest of his life. Suddenly, Greg understood that perhaps he wasn't the only one that needed something to do. Maybe this wasn't Greg's act of contrition. Maybe it was Bill's.
"I don't know," Greg replied honestly. "I haven't figured that out yet. But hiding here won't get me any closer to finding out."
Bill seemed pensive, before asking, "Do you think you killed my son?"
Greg was surprised by the pointed question, shrinking back as he shrugged. "I didn't save his life."
"Did you pull the trigger?"
"Maybe you shouldn't be so hard on yourself, then," Bill stated, finally meeting Greg's gaze.
"Maybe I'm not the only one," Greg responded, returning Bill's stare almost defiantly. They stood eye to eye, man to man, challenging one another to be the first to reenter their self-absorbed pity party. While it was comforting to imagine crying into an old blanket for the rest of his life, comforting to imagine never having to leave his bedroom, never having to leave his house, never having to work thanks to the life insurance inheritance, Greg knew that wasn't real. What was real was living his life, without Nick. Finding a way. And he would, just as Bill would. Maybe it was time to figure out how.
Bill was the first to look away, pulling another cigarette out of his half-empty pack. Greg exhaled sharply, raking a shaky hand through his hair.
"How about this?" Greg offered, hardly able to believe what he was about to say. "I'll help you with one more thing, and then I'm leaving. Okay?"
Bill nodded, and for the first time allowed himself to smile. That smile. "I was only going to ask you to move the horses back into their stables."
It was just before dawn. Greg sat in the rocking chair on the front porch for what would be the last time, his fingers idly scratching behind Daisy's ears. His bag was sitting beside her, along with leftovers from at least three meals that Jillian had insisted he take with him. She had even given him enough to share with Sara, and her thoughtfulness made Greg smile as watched the beginnings of a sunrise peak out from behind the hillside.
"It's always darkest before dawn," he heard from beside him. Jillian's melodic accent drifting gently through the air. He hadn't noticed her step onto the porch, and while he'd intended to leave quietly, he was glad to see her.
"Thomas Fuller," Greg said, standing. "English theologian and historian. 1650. He was probably not the first to say the phrase, but he was the first to print it."
"Bill was right," she said. "You do know a lot of...trivia."
Somehow, Greg was sure that wasn't how Bill had put it. He smiled sheepishly as she stepped in front of him to smooth out the wrinkles on his tee shirt, and even in the darkness Greg could see her eyes. Nick's eyes, staring back at him, illuminated and bright and alive.
"Greg," she said, her voice wavering. "Do you have a mother to love you?"
"I do," he replied, nodding.
"Good," she stated, her lips tight, her jaw clenched. She hastily pulled him into an embrace, her fingers tightly curling around his shoulders. She shook against him as he felt her warm tears dampen his shirt, and unlike the first time they had met, this time Greg wrapped his arms around her. Around the woman that had given birth to his husband. The woman that had raised him and taught him how to be a good boy. The woman that had taught him how to cook. The woman that had loved him.
"Thank you," she whispered into Greg's ear, standing on her tiptoes to do so. "Thank you for taking care of my son."
"It was my pleasure," Greg replied, as hot tears escaped his eyes and spilled into her soft dark hair.
She pulled back, her hands on either side of Greg's face, her thumbs brushing away his tears. "I will be very disappointed if I never hear from you again. Do you understand me?"
She stepped away from him, quietly composing herself as Greg grabbed his bag and headed for his car. He took a deep breath before opening the door, intending to step inside when a white and fuzzy blur jumped past the driver's side and into the passenger's seat.
"Daisy," he scolded, pointing to the ground. "Get out of the car."
The old mutt only regarded him with a panting tongue and goofy grin, her tail beating against the dash.
"Daisy," he repeated, but if she listened to him now, it would be a first. Nick had always been the one to discipline her; Greg had always been the one to take her into his arms and console her after mean Daddy had smacked her on the butt for chewing up another throw pillow. "Daisy, get out of the car! Get! Daisy, listen to – "
Greg turned sharply to see Bill Stokes standing behind him, not only startled to see him but also surprised by his words.
"I can't take her," Greg stated, and indicated the acreage around him. "She's got all this land to run around in. She seems really happy here."
"She's only been that way since you got here," Bill admitted.
Greg looked back to Daisy, his heart soaring at the thought of driving home with his old companion. When he turned back to Bill, the older man was holding his hand out expectantly. His expression was hard, but his eyes were soft. Greg slipped his hand into Bill's, shaking it firmly, never breaking eye contact. Bill only nodded before hesitantly releasing Greg's hand and turning to walk back into the house.
Greg offered one final wave to Jillian before sitting inside of his car, turning over the engine and plugging in his cell phone radio. Looked at Daisy, kissed her scruffy face, and then put the car in drive.
"Just one last stop," Greg said, watching the house slowly disappear in the rear view mirror.
The morning sun bathed the cemetery in soft hues of oranges and yellows. Greg sat in the grass in front of Nick's tombstone, picking the petals off a flower from one of the plants. Daisy sat beside him, her panting the only sound Greg could hear.
"I just wanted to say goodbye," Greg said, his eyes burning. "Well, I don't want to say goodbye, but I have to go."
He bit his lip, his eyes cast to the ground.
"I don't know how yet, but I'm going to start living again, okay?" Greg said, as if asking for permission. "I really miss you, but I promise I'll stop acting like such an ass."
Gently, he reached out to trace the letters etched in stone. Reached into his pocket for a folded piece of paper. While Greg had never been one for romantic gestures, had never written a love note for Nick despite the never ending post-its Nick had left for him, he supposed now was as good a time as any to start.
Smile the while you kiss me sad adieu
When the clouds roll by I'll come to you
Then the skies will see more blue
Down in lovers lane my dearie
Wedding bells will ring so merrily
Every tear will be a memory
So wait and pray each night for me
Till we meet again
"I love you, Nick," he said softly, placing the folded note in the flowers, clutching Nick's ring on the necklace around his neck with the other. "Till we meet again."
After two more days of driving, Greg arrived home to see Sara standing in the doorway, smiling brightly at the sight of him. He opened the driver's side door only for Daisy to step over him and run out of the car to greet his friend.
"Daisy!" Sara exclaimed as she squatted down to rub the dog's wiry fur. "What are you doing here?"
"Sara," Greg said, to her puzzled expression. "You will never believe the week I've had."
"I can't wait to hear about it," she stated, standing to pull him into a tight embrace. She hugged him for just a moment too long, stepping back sheepishly at her own enthusiasm. "I was a little worried there for a minute you really weren't going to come back."
"I told you I promised," he replied, and then held up a plastic grocery bag filled with Tupperware. "And I even brought food."
They ate delicious leftovers at the coffee table, drinking beers and talking while pleasantly accumulating a nice buzz. Animatedly, he told her all about the cemetery, the farm, Nick's mother, the terror that seized Greg every time he would be alone with Nick's intimidating father. The handshake he and Bill had shared before Greg left. He spoke with an enthusiasm that had not been seen for nearly four months, and Sara must have noted it as well. She smiled at him with amusement.
"What?" he asked, and took a sip of beer.
"Nothing," she replied, shrugging. "Just...I haven't seen you like this in a while. It's nice to see you so...alive."
Alive. The word echoed in his head. He was alive, despite how dead inside he'd felt for the past few months. But he'd promised Nick to start living again, and fully intended to keep his word. He leaned back on the couch, his eyes cast to the ceiling. Sat for a moment, pensive. Could see Sara out of the corner of his eye, waiting expectantly for whatever it was he was about to reveal.
"I think I want to go back to work."
"What?" she exclaimed, as she sat up in surprise. "Are you sure?"
"Yeah," he responded, nodding, and then grinned. "I need something to do."
"Greg, that's great!" she said, touching his hair gently. "You know they've been waiting for you."
He smiled at the thought. "I didn't. But it's nice to know."
Sara leaned back against the couch as well, their shoulders touching. She snaked her arm through his, and they sat there for a few moments, enjoying the comfortable silence.
"Greg," she said, almost thoughtfully. "Would it be okay if we grew old together? You know, like spinsters?"
Greg remembered previously considering the thought, amused at the fact that Sara would imagine the same.
"I think I'd be okay with that," Greg replied. "But if you ever meet some hot guy, I won't hold it against you."
"Same," Sara agreed, and they shared a glance before bursting into laughter. She squeezed his arm. "You and I are going to be okay."
Greg nodded. And for the first time in a long time, he felt it to be true.
The song Greg leaves in his love note is "Till We Meet Again," by Raymond B. Egan, 1918. Written during the Great War, it's about a soldier leaving his sweetheart behind to go to war.