Book of AJ - Chapter 1

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Chapter 2

AJ searched the perimeters of the house for over an hour. He repeatedly checked the laundry room where Cowboy slept. He pulled out the doggie bowls, filled them with food and water, and put them at their old spot in the carport.

This pain of seeing his beloved dog in the near distance, and then not finding him, not being able to put him in his arms, was like losing Cowboy all over again.

He hesitantly went back down to the camp where Rusty had arrived and put up his tent.

Rusty stoked the fire nervously because he could see his friend was in a dark mood from a mile away.

“Where you been, Bro’?” Rusty said smoothly, but he already knew ’cause of Pete. He jabbed the fire sending sparks sky-high and stood up to add a log.

“Pete came down earlier and told me he’d seen Cowboy running around up at the house,” AJ said. Rusty gave him a look that questioned him and cared at the same time.

“Did you see him?” Rusty asked.

AJ suspected pity from Rusty. AJ hated that.

“What?” said AJ irritated.

“Well, did you see Cowboy?”

“No,” AJ said. AJ sank down in his canvas lawn chair and stared into the fire. Rusty sighed.

Rusty admired AJ’s constant faith and belief in Bill being alive. That’s because he, too, did not want to believe otherwise. But, when it came to Cowboy, he noticed that AJ’s anger came easily.

“I put out some food and water,” AJ said.

Rusty didn’t like seeing AJ like this. It pained him to see his friend go through the emotions all over again.

“Grandpaw is schizo, Man. That’s what it is. I mean, he said he’s seen Cowboy, and what, that makes the third time since Spring Break.” Rusty said. “Stop believing him. He’s just seeing things.”

AJ shot him a look. “Well, he is,” Rusty defended himself. Rusty wasn’t good at being politically correct. “He was having a hallucination. He can’t help it. It’s his sickness, Man!” he said, trying to smooth things over. But, this only made AJ defensive.

“He has PTSD, not schizophrenia, learn the difference.” But, AJ knew he was schizophrenic, too, and that Rusty could be right. AJ did not like being wrong too much, especially if it interfered with his schema of things.

“OK, man,” Rusty said. “I just think, you know... it’s been so long that he’s been missing that, you know, maybe you should accept that he’s dead.” Rusty nervously walked around the fire poking at the coals with a stick. AJ didn’t speak.

Miss Deb encouraged Rusty to help AJ, if he could, come to terms with the reality that Bill may never come home. But, Rusty learned to never say anything about Bill being dead, like ever! Not because AJ threatened him, but because AJ made Rusty believe, too. The way AJ explained his father’s kidnapping and possible escape, made Rusty a true believer.

AJ showed him several maps. He talked about his news clips and media coverage.

“See, Rusty,” he said one day, pouring over a topical map of the Middle East, “if he’d have been killed here, here or here, we would’ve immediately heard about it. We know he was kidnapped right here. Not killed.” AJ pointed to a highway north of Baghdad. “That hasn’t happened yet. I think he is somewhere along in here...” AJ pointed to northern Iraq.

Rusty knew there would be no acceptance of death without a body. And, that was maybe the point, and just like AJ described it, Rusty pictured him coming home, too.

But, Rusty was pretty certain that Cowboy was dead. He’d heard his dad talking about dogfighting rings and what they do with little dogs like Cowboy. And, he knew about Junior.

Rusty kept rubbing his hand over his summer buzz cut. He kept flipping his head back like he still had the straight black locks of hair falling in his face. His dad, Jay, did it for him last night for the last day of school. It was like a tradition with the two boys.

But, this summer Bill was gone, so, AJ’s bushy blonde hair still hung to his shoulders. It had gotten very curly on the underside since puberty hit, and the top was straighter with blonde streaks from being out in the southwest Mississippi sun every day since Valentines.

This was another thing that made AJ a little different. He didn’t care about video games very much, at least not as much as Rusty. He had the latest X-Box wizardry, but during warm weather, he just wanted to swim, fish and camp. He’d gotten a tan early on in the spring. His shoulders and his chest grew wide and he started showing larger muscles. Girls liked the looks of him.

“You gonna get a buzz cut this summer?” Rusty said. “We could get my dad to do it for you.” AJ was lost in his own thoughts. He shrugged his shoulders.

“Well,” Rusty said, trying to keep the conversation light, “maybe you should just keep it long. Melissa likes it like that,” he said teasingly.

“What?” AJ said. That made him smile a little. “That girl don’t like me. She has never even said more than ‘hey’ to me.”

“Oh my god, man. Are you that far off in la-la-land? Everybody in school knows Melissa has a crush on you.”

“Whatever,” said AJ.

Rusty went to the river bank where they had their beer tied off in the icy cold spring water. He handed AJ one and they sat quietly for a long time sipping their beer.

Rusty could read AJ’s thoughts, and AJ could read his. They were missing Cowboy, and Bill. This is when Bill drug out the guitar and sang 80’s Rock songs really badly and Cowboy sat at their feet always on high alert for raccoons, possums, and armadillos.

AJ sat up straight and sighed. He took a deep breath to say something.

“You know, I really don’t care what you or anyone else thinks, and I know you’re thinking something; I think he’s alive and I don’t want to talk about it anymore.” AJ sat back and twirled his stick in the fire.

Rusty was unsure what to say next. He wasn’t used to feeling awkward around AJ.

“Hey AJ, man, I believe you. And, you know what? I’m so ready for Mr. Bill to get home, too. I miss him. Daddy talks about him all the time, all the crazy stuff they did when they was our age.” Rusty gauged AJ’s mood as he talked. “How they lived on the river during the summer and used all their survival skills. That’s what we’ gonna do this summer,” Rusty said. AJ turned up a little smile to reassure his friend that he was not upset.

“You remember what Mr. Bill promised me for this summer?” Rusty asked.

“No, what?” AJ asked.

“He was going to teach me how to drive a stick shift,” Rusty said. “My daddy ain’t worth a dang at a stick shift.”

They sat around the fire a while, roasted a few marshmallows and then crashed in the tent.

Mornings on the river are what heaven must be like, AJ thought.

He walked to the cliff where they dove into the water. AJ stood at the edge and watched gold, pink and baby blue clouds hang delicately in the liquid blue sky. Their beauty was doubled by reflections in the river, in the wide curves where the surface was like a looking glass. AJ climbed down the cliff and slipped into the water. Silence into deeper silence. The river was cold. AJ loved the sudden shock of it and the way it numbed his limbs.

He swam deep, but slowly and carefully. He was checking their dive spot for trees, limbs or any debris in the water that may have flowed in with the undertow. The river can drag trees and debris along with it, so the swim-hole had to be checked everyday. His parents had been very strict about this practice.

“The river is in a constant state of change,” Bill said many times. Helen talked about the river beneath the river as if it were a living thing. She called it a living goddess. AJ liked to think of it like that, too.

“You must carefully approach the river beneath the river. That is if you absolutely must touch the hidden goddess of the Piney Woods,” Helen said.

Helen grew up in a shack beside the Bogue Chitto. She made up her own little world to live in.

“But, I advise against touching her,” Helen said, “because Mother Nature is as attracted to you as you are to her. She has given you a perfect playground. But, she will grab you and take you away from me forever without a thought, so respect her dangers, respect what she is capable of.

The river goddess gives and takes. I don’t want her to take you. So, check before you dive. It doesn’t matter if you checked that same hole the day before. The river changes every day,” Helen repeated.

AJ climbed the cliff - 30 feet above the river. The water was deep at the cliff’s edge. He stretched his muscles. Then, after a habit he learned from his father, he kissed his fingertips and flung his hands out to sling his love sugar to the river.

Bill told him it was an attempt to wake up Mother Nature with something sweet, if only for a split second so that if he slipped, the sleeping goddess would be ready to respond and pick him back up. “That way, I got the Holy Spirit and the force of Nature,” Bill said. “That’s a combo of grace every boy needs.” Rusty thought it was a strange thing to say. His family didn’t attend church, so all he knew about Jesus came from T.V. and the internet.

So far, the Goddess hasn’t awoken, AJ was taught. Bill reassured him that Jesus, however, was alive and the Holy Spirit was with him at all times.

As you might imagine in a small town in southwest Mississippi, Helen’s belief in a great spirit she called the Earth-Goddess is why many of the town-folk talked about her in low tones and with concern. They thought she was crazy - just like her daddy. They said Bill must be crazy to put up with her, but Helen would only laugh and say her personal religion is what keeps her sane.

AJ dove in and made a clean cut into the surface of the water. He could feel the icy water down deep and the cold soft pull on his belly as he curved his back to come back up.

AJ was inspired by the morning sky as he swam in the cold river. It made him want to rush to his tent and get his notebook. Pretty words were flying through his mind and settling into his consciousness.

“What is this crazy good feeling?” he thought. He was thankful for the elation as he said his morning prayers. He prayed in the way his mother had taught him - honoring the Mother and seeking the Father.

“Holy Mother, it is you the Father loves and needs and it is the Father we seek for your sake, Amen.”

And then he said the Lord’s prayer, “My Father, who is in Heaven, Holy is your name...” as he slowly swam through the looking glass surface of the river. He imagined his arms were seeping into the liquid baby blue sky dotted with hot pink clouds. “Give me today my daily bread, and forgive me my trespasses…”

AJ and Rusty pulled out the stuff for hotdogs by the campfire. Rusty rumbled around in the food box for a few minutes and then suddenly demanded mayo.

“I didn’t bring the mayo,” AJ said.

“Why?” asked Rusty. “You know I like mayo on my hotdogs.”

Bill got AJ a mini-bike for them to ride the camp road while he was gone to Iraq, and the boys would find any reason to jump on the bike and ride. So, up to the house, they headed.

AJ suddenly put on the brakes.

“What the hell?” Rusty said, bumping hard against AJ.

“Did you see that?” asked AJ.

“See what?”

“ I thought I saw a dog running across the road,” AJ said.


“What do you mean, Oh? Naw. I saw something,” said AJ confidently. Rusty patted him on the back and shook his head. AJ took off again with a jerk and almost threw Rusty off and he hit AJ's back, his mouth squarely hitting his shoulder bone, “Sorry, man. Hold on!”

“Liar, you ain’t sorry,” Rusty said rolling his eyes and checking his lips for blood.

The woods along the camp road were dark and thick. The trees grew in the shape of a canopy over the road and driving down it was like flying through a tunnel. The sunlight was a jolt when they emerged from the dark jade road.

In the living room, Helen was asleep on the couch and the T.V. was blaring. AJ walked through the living room towards the kitchen without paying her much attention. Rusty clicked off the T.V. And pulled a cover over her.

AJ couldn’t see a thing but the light of the kitchen at the end of the dark hallway.

Suddenly, there in the dark, cold chills ran down his spine, because he distinctly heard the tink-tink of Cowboy’s collar and the sound of him panting.

The sound suddenly bolted off in the direction of the kitchen. AJ ran down the hallway and stopped dead still and listened. Rusty ran into him.

“Did you hear that?” He asked Rusty, whispering and holding Rusty back with his palm on his chest.

“No. What,” asked Rusty whispering back. AJ put his hand up and listened intently. He distinctly heard Cowboy make a little whimper, heard his paws padding along the carpet, then clicking on the kitchen tile. When his eyes finally became used to the dark, he didn’t see any sign of Cowboy, and didn’t hear him again.

He started running through the house calling, “Cowboy!” His heart lurched.

Then suddenly, just as clearly as AJ could see his hands in front of his face, he saw Cowboy running down the hall, and when Cowboy reached the brightly lit kitchen, he disappeared like morning mist floating into the hot summer sunlight.

A chill rippled down AJ’s spine. He shivered. He stopped suddenly and stood very still. He held his breath to hear the slightest noise.

“AJ,” Rusty said. He was worried his friend was going off the deep end.

“What, Rusty? I’m trying to hear something.”

“Who? Cowboy?”

AJ shot him a look of betrayal because Rusty was talking to him like he was some kind of sad little kid, and that pissed AJ off.

He pushed Rusty against the hallway wall. “What are you trying to say, Rusty?”

“Forget this crap!” Rusty said. He walked out of the house, slamming the door behind him.

“Good,” AJ said. “Didn’t need you anyway!”

AJ stood still as a statue and held his breath. There was dead silence. Suddenly, he saw something out of the dining room window, chills ran down his spine.

Cowboy’s jet black body popped up and down through the bright green overgrown grass of the backyard, and into the darkness of the tree line, right at the spot where he and his father made a foot trail down to the river.

AJ flew out of the back door and into the deep woods after his dog. At first, he couldn’t see him through the shadows, but he could hear him barking up ahead on the trail.

“Cowboy!” He called out, hoping he would turn and run like crazy to him. But, he only barked like he was on the trail of something and ran deeper and deeper into the woods. He suddenly saw Cowboy up ahead darting here and there like a rabbit, and he went faster and further into the woods. When AJ reached the river, he didn’t see Cowboy, but then suddenly, he saw him on the other bank.

Cowboy sat and stared at him playfully, cocking his head and looked down at the river for him to cross.

AJ threw off his shoes and walked into the river while Cowboy watched him from above. When he reached the other side and pulled himself up the bank, he needed to catch his breath, but Cowboy ran into the woods before he could get up there, so he just ran into the direction he saw Cowboy disappear.

There was no trail this side of the river, so he followed the sound of Cowboy’s barking. He ran through brush and thickets to stay with him, and occasionally, he could spot him by the bright reflecting circles of sunlight shining down like laser beams through the forest canopy onto Cowboy’s shiny black coat.

He was so focused on glimmers of Cowboy popping up here and there that he never noticed his skin and clothes were tearing on dead limbs and briars. Dribbles of blood trickled out.

He finally came upon an opening in the woods, and in the near distance, he heard a passel of dogs barking ferociously. He no longer discerned Cowboy’s bark. He hid in the underbrush of the treeline as he crept closer to the sound of chaos being unleashed.

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