When these two get together, anything can happen, and usually does.
At the house, an old woman was outside waiting along with a kid who looked about my age, maybe younger by a year or so. He was dressed just like the old man, who I guessed was his grandfather. I should have been embarrassed with the woman there looking at me, but she was as old as the man, and anyway, anything I had to be embarrassed about was so covered in mud it made no-never-you-mind.
“Billy will hose y’all off,” the farmer said, and the kid started off toward the back of the house. I followed him.
There was an old black hose there hooked to a pipe coming out of the back of the house. Billy picked it up and turned it on, then adjusted the nozzle so it wasn’t so hard as to hurt but wasn’t a fine spray, either. He pointed it at me, and I jumped. It was cold!
“Don’t be a sissy,” he said and snickered at me. I could hear some of his grandfather’s accent in his voice, which was light and breathy like so many teen voices are, still waiting to deepen.
It took some time, and I had to keep turning and raising my arms and bending over and spreading things, and I finally stopped feeling so exposed. It needed to be done, and I needed to get that mud off. He didn’t seem to mind, and I was too busy scraping and rubbing and twisting that I forgot about him looking. The old woman came out and handed Billy a bar of soap, then went back in. I kept my back turned to her while that was happening.
I finally was mudless enough to use the soap. I lathered up three times before I thought I was clean enough. Billy even scrubbed my back for me. Getting all that mud off my private parts took a bit of very careful cleaning and took a long time. Even with the water being cold, I was washing my junk thoroughly enough that I chubbed up some. I kept working even then, though, and if I did more than just chubbing, there wasn’t much I could do about it. Actually, being hard made it easier to get that part clean. Eventually everything was spanking clean to my satisfaction.
Billy was just as attentive about rinsing me as he’d been spraying me down at the start. He seemed especially interested in seeing that the part that was bigger now got completely rinsed. So I asked him, “What? Nothing you haven’t seen before,” and chuckled.
“Never seen one hard like that before, certainly not on a white boy. Always wondered what they looked like. Thought they might be, uh, bigger.”
I started to make a sarcastic remark about my not being full grown yet when the old woman stuck her head out the door. “Wilhemina, y’all leave that boy alone now, y’all hear? You said you wouldn’t tease him none.”
“Wilheminia?” I gasped, my hands dropping to cover myself.
She giggled. “Didn’t think y’all could tell. Got my hair cut short in the summer for the heat. Don’t got no titties yet to speak of.” She giggled again. “Granny said it was time I learned what boys look like. I already knew how boys I’ve babysat looked. And now I know about older boys and saw more’n I thought I’d see. I been curious since I turned thirteen a couple of months ago.”
I was still covering myself, shocked. “Billy?” I said. “But that’s a boy’s name.”
“If you spell it with a y,” she said, giggling. “I spell it with an ie at the end. My cellphone name is SillieBillie.” She spelled it out for me. I was still standing there, covering my boy parts with my hands. She was laughing, but where my hands were, that was still where her eyes were staring.
When we were back on the road again, Jim couldn’t stop laughing. You ever try to stay in a funky mood when the guy next to you can’t stop laughing? It’s hard, man, real hard.
I tried to call Jerrod again. No answer. Maybe he’d turned his phone off and forgotten to turn it back on. Or maybe he’d lost it. They were close to a city large enough to have good cellphone reception. I didn’t understand why I wasn’t getting through.
Jim chose back roads again. “See what great times we’re having?” he joked, still thinking of my fiasco with Billie. Or maybe with the boys and the dog. I couldn’t deny the fact that I was having a great time. It felt so right driving with him, even if we were just going nowhere at all. Just being on the seat next to him was a large part of that feeling. Like a lot of boys, I imagined, when you get to be 15, 16, you start thinking about what your life is going to be as an adult. I had no idea what I wanted to do. But I did have an idea what I didn’t want to do. I didn’t want to be in an office behind a desk, signing papers and working on such dreary things as profitability and cost structures. I didn’t want to be teaching a bunch of disinterested kids why Mexico and the U.S. were engaged in a war 170 years ago. I didn’t want to be selling used cars out of a junky lot on a street corner. I didn’t want to be working on an assembly line. I liked adventure. I like being my own boss, no one telling me what to do, when to do it, how to do it, and how long I had to get it done; that would drive me crazy.
I kept glancing at Jim. I could see myself having what he had. Excitement. Being able to call his own shots after being given an assignment. Spending more time outside than in. Free to be who he wanted to be, do as he wished to do. Mix some danger into that, stir it up with patriotism, accomplish vital tasks—yes, I could do that. I could like doing that, living that way.
Jerrod might not fit into a plan like that, however. I’d have to think about this.
We were driving through farm country. I’d heard a lot of grumbling from farmers. I lived in a small town surrounded by woods and farms. Farmers made up an appreciable portion of my county’s population. And those farmers, they weren’t doing all that well. Crop and animal prices were down. Large corporate entities owned a lot of farms now, and they could afford modern equipment. Their methods meant production per acre was up, and that meant prices were down. It was hard for a small farmer to compete these days. Hard to get by.
I saw that as we drove. The farms we passed were small holdings, and we could see most of the farmhouses were a bit run down, a bit seedy. Georgia may have been among the leaders in farm production, but it looked like no one was getting rich. Kids used to stay on farms and eventually run them. These days, that was happening less and less. The kids could see the future. They had no interest in being stuck in a place like where their parents lived.
I was thinking about all this as we passed farm after farm. Then we came by one where the house was close to the road, a house that looked deserted. It had a sagging front porch and not much paint left on its old clapboards. There was simply an air of abandonment about it. Then I saw it couldn’t be abandoned—there was a dog sitting on that front porch. It was a German Shepherd, and it didn’t look abandoned at all. It didn’t appear to be malnourished or sick. It was sitting up, looking at us with interest. A handsome dog.
It hadn’t got only my attention. Suddenly Fitz’s face was next to mine, looking out the window. He reached out and scratched the glass. I got the point and lowered it. Immediately his nose was working overtime. I heard a sort of whining noise coming from his throat, not something I’d heard before.
Jim pulled to a stop, grinning. He said, “Looks like no one’s home and they left her to guard the place. I can see tire tracks in the front yard where two cars park. Neither of them are here. Probably in town. From the looks of this place, the fields and all, maybe they both have jobs in town now.”
“Her?” I asked, less interested in the people than the dog. “How can you tell?”
“I can’t, but Fitzer sure can. Look at him.”
I did. His tail was going a mile a minute, his hair was standing up from his body, and his eyes were as bright as I’d ever seen them. There seemed to be a nervous energy in him, too. I’d have sworn his whole body was trembling.
“You think?” I said.
Jim laughed. “I think he wants to be a father and this is his chance. I don’t see the harm in it. She looks willing enough. And who knows, it might make the owners here some real money. Good Shepherd pups bring in good money these days. Real good.”
Sure thing, she did look willing enough. She’d stood up and stepped off the porch. She was standing in the yard, looking, well, beguiling, I guessed. There was something about her posture, the way she was taking a few steps that I personally didn’t find seductive but could imagine Fitz might. Almost like she was doing a slow dance step.
I opened the car door, and Fitz was out before it was all the way open. He ran to her, then stopped in front of her. She dropped to the ground with her front legs out flat, her head lying in the grass but looking up at him, her rump still high in the air, tail twitching, looking like she was stretching her back. Fitz did the same thing, and they were facing each other, looking at each other. Then the female jumped up and ran in a big circle around the yard. Fitz followed, nipping at her rear as he did. She suddenly stopped, Fitz had to put on the brakes fast to avoid running her over. She stood there as if frozen, her legs rigid. Fitz approached and sniffed all around her neck, then moved his sniffing to her backside. I saw her lift her tail to the side, making it easier for him to get to where it was he wanted to be.
He mounted her with no resistance from her at all. She obviously was as eager as he was. He’d never done this before. I’d had him from when he was a pup and been with him almost constantly. That was his doing as much as mine. He didn’t like to leave my side. I knew this was his first time, but he certainly seemed to know how to go about it.
When he was done, they both settled on the grass. He seemed unwilling to move away from her.
“They’re still locked together,” Jim said. “It’ll take a few minutes. He needs the time to fully inject his seed, then for his arousal to shrink. Let’s just hope no one comes home for the next fifteen, twenty minutes.”
That was how long it took, too. Then Fitz was able to back off of her. He stopped and licked her face. She seemed less interested in him now than she’d been earlier. He stepped back, regarded her, then simply turned around and raced for the car. I opened the back door and he hopped in.
“Ewwwww,” I said. Jim laughed. “Yeah, he’ll stink of sex, really stink, for a while. We need to drive with the windows open.”
Fitz lay down and was soon snoozing. I thought he’d earned the rest.
We passed several pecan groves, and Jim stopped at a roadside stand and bought a bag of roasted ones. Man, they were wonderful. I’d have to say, pecans were my favorite nuts.
Not having heard anything from Jerrod was bothering me more than it had been. I still couldn’t reach him. Once when I’d messaged him, the message had gone through. But that was the only time, and there’d been no answer. Since then, it seemed his phone had been turned off. There was no reason for him to do that, and if he’d forgotten his charger, he’d have bought another one by now. Same thing if he’d lost his phone. So, I was getting worried. I wanted us to get a move on, get to where he was staying in Florida.
I was arguing with myself about calling our parents and asking them if they’d heard from him. But, I didn’t want to worry them if they hadn’t. What if they called his aunt and couldn’t get through? I didn’t have her number, so I couldn’t call her, but they did and could. If they got no answer, they’d be worried, and if nothing was wrong, which it probably wasn’t, it would be my fault they got upset. We could be there in only a half-day more driving; we’d know what was going on by then, so I decided not to bother them. We should get to his aunt’s place sometime late tomorrow. Now, it had gotten late enough that Jim was looking for a motel for the night. No point in showing up there, uninvited by Jerrod’s aunt, in the wee hours of the morning. It was better to wait and just put my worries on hold.
Not that I could do that very well.
We found a place that accepted dogs in the room. Georgia had lots of small towns and lots of motels. I guess allowing pets in some of the rooms was an economic necessity for a lot of them. The room we got had two beds. Jim took one, I took the other, but in the morning there were two of us in mine. Fitz never did that at home. I guess he thought the rules were different while we were on the road. My mom was a good woman but had a weird something against dogs sleeping in bed with humans. So he’d learned not to do that at home. She wasn’t here, he knew it, and he was taking advantage of his luck that morning. So now I smelled a little of what he smelled like, and I wrinkled my nose and headed for the bathroom, thinking how unfair it was to smell like sex while not having earned it. The shower I took that morning was crowded because it included Fitz. He didn’t like it but put up with it because I told him to. He needed it as much as I did, maybe more.
We had breakfast Wednesday in a coffee shop in Valdosta, then took off south. Jim said it was about a four-hour drive to Titusville, which is where we were heading, if we took the Interstate all the way, but I knew he wouldn’t be doing that. We’d join US 1 in Jacksonville, getting off I-95. It might take a little longer, but Jim liked the scenery along regular highways enough to extend the drive. I was anxious to get there, but this was Jim’s vacation time, he was not as concerned about not hearing from Jerrod as I was, and tooling along on state and national highways wouldn’t add all that much time to the drive in any case.
I knew Titusville was where Jerrod’s aunt lived, but didn’t know her address. I knew she had a house in a woodsy area just north of the city and a short ways west of the Indian River because Jerrod had spoken about how private her place was as he raised his eyebrows at me. I’d known what that meant. Jerrod had this streak in him of, well, to just be blunt about it: nudism. He got excited just by the thought of being nude outside. He also had quite conservative parents who had an upright standing in our community; they had raised him with the same modesty and restraint they always practiced. He wasn’t a risk-taker and rarely acted on his desires, which probably made the idea of being outside in the nude more exciting. He said he’d never done it but wanted to, and if we did it together, it would be even more fun. I’d known just by the look on his face that he was thinking if I were with him in Florida, we might just get some opportunity to be out in the woods and get naked.
It didn’t mean much to me. I’d spent too many hours in the woods wearing only some ratty shorts to find the idea erotic, though of course being with him like that would make a difference. Bears and I had something in common: pissing in the woods. I didn’t find it at all exciting. But he was sure it would be, thinking about it. Maybe more than pissing, too.
Anyway, that being beside the point, I knew she lived near Titusville but didn’t know her actual address. We needed that and directions, too. So I phoned home and Mom answered. We talked a bit. I told her some of what we’d done, omitting the fact I’d got hard in front of a 13-year-old girl. I didn’t see where telling her that would enhance my standing with her any. I did get the address and directions we needed before she hung up. Good thing, too, because we’d never have found the house without them. It was off Lionel Road to the north on one of the driveways that plunged into the woods there—a narrow road, really, but one that served as a multiple-house driveway that dead-ended at the last house in line. I didn’t know if it even had a name; calling it a driveway seemed right.
We drove southeast from Valdosta, taking US 41, which ran pretty much parallel to I-75 till we reached Florida, where it cut further east. I tried calling and messaging Jerrod. No response. Until . . .
“Hey, I got an answer!”
Jim looked over at me and grinned. “See? Told you. Fretting over nothing. What’d he say?”
“It’s a message. It says he wants me to come visit and to come right away because he has something to show me. And that you can come, too.”
“Well, then. He’s fine.”
I glanced at him. He was grinning at me. I wasn’t grinning back. I read the message again, then again. I was going to send him a reply and started to tap it out, then stopped.
Jim looked over at me again. “What’s wrong?” he asked. I guessed he was good at reading body language. It was the sort of thing he’d told me he had to be good at, something that had kept him alive.
“This message. That’s what.”
“Sounded okay to me. What’s wrong with it?”
“Well, first off, he says we can’t talk on the phone because he has laryngitis. Really? Not talk at all? Well, maybe, but probably not. So that’s one thing. And then, why no mention of being out of touch for so long? Of his phone being off? He’d know I’d have been worried. But he didn’t mention it. And then, here’s the real kicker, what makes me know something isn’t right. He said he wants me to see something neat.”
Jim shot me a confused look. “What’s wrong with that?”
I hesitated. My explanation was going to sound silly; I had to think how to put it. I gave Jim another quick glance. I wanted him to believe me. “Well, see, Jerrod is a brain, like his dad and mom. He grew up with them and learned from them, and he acts like they do. He speaks like they do, too. Other kids—sometimes even me—tease him about it, but he just grins. He talks like he’s thirty-five. His vocabulary isn’t the vocabulary of a 15-year-old kid, and he’s proud of it. That’s what gets me about this message. Never once have I heard him describe anything as ‘neat’. Other kids talk that way, but not him. He simply wouldn’t do that. He has adjectives up the ying-yang and uses them. He’d have used a much more specific one here. It isn’t showing off; it’s just who he is.”
I think most people would have scoffed at me. Jim didn’t. Jim was accustomed to seeing things that were just a little off and noticing, then questioning them. He was accustomed to seeing odd things and reacting correctly to them; it was another reason he was still alive and well. Now, he was silent, digesting what I’d just said. Then he asked, “What was that at the end of the message?”
“You mean about bringing you along, too? Yeah, I also thought that was strange, because he knew I was with you, and how else would I get there?”
“No, I mean, well, read it to me, just what he said.”
“Okay. It’s short enough; I’ll read the whole thing. It says, ’Sorry can’t talk laryngitis Want to see you Come down and visit Come quick there is something I want you to see that is real neat Jim can come too’”
Jim gave me another quick glance, and this time all the humor had gone out of it. “It says that?” he questioned, like he couldn’t believe it.
“Word for word.”
He was looking back at the road now, and I could see him concentrating. We rode like that for over a minute, and then I asked, “What?”
“He used my name. He knows not to. Your parents know. You know. And you’re right, he’s a smart kid. He wouldn’t do that. He would have said, ‘Bring your friend with you’; something like that. So he didn’t send that message. For your reasons and for mine, we know that he didn’t send it. So, who did? And why? Who has his phone? Did I get mentioned for a purpose? Why? It could have been innocent, simply showing that the fact we’re together is known and should set your mind at ease because only Jerrod and your family know that—or the reason could be more nefarious. Maybe it was a subtle way of telling you to bring me along. But why should anyone other than Jerrod want either of us to come there?”
Now I was really worried. He’d set my mind racing. “What’s this all about? You’re right. If he was kidnapped, no kidnapper would be asking for visitors. They’d want money. A ransom. But they’re asking us to come there. Should I answer this? Yes, I should! Otherwise, if someone does have him, they’d wonder why I ignored their message. They might get suspicious.”
I raced on, speaking my thoughts. “We don’t want that. Because what we have to do is go rescue Jerrod, and we don’t want the kidnapper to know we’re suspicious and won’t just show up and knock on the door like dummies.”
I stopped because I wasn’t just not getting any feedback from Jim, I wasn’t getting anything at all from him. He seemed to be thinking and not paying any attention to my ranting.
So I asked him a question. “What should I write back? I need to answer this! Jerrod has to be in some sort of trouble. He would have called me by now if he could. We promised we’d keep in contact. So I need to answer this, because . . .”
I ran out of steam and stopped, but my mind was running like an uncapped fire hydrant. If someone had Jerrod and his phone, too, that would explain why I could never get through to him. We had to get down there! If someone had him, we had to rescue him!
The message I needed to send now had to show whoever wrote the one I’d just got that I wasn’t suspicious about anything. It had to eliminate any thoughts he could have that I knew he wasn’t Jerrod. I needed to tell him I’d be coming down there just like he wanted, even though I had no idea why he’d want that. But I needed to tell him I was on my way, and then actually do it. We had to go find Jerrod.
Jim had been thinking and finally spoke. “Yeah, you’re right. You have to answer it. But the message . . . make it short and sweet. Tell him we’ll be on our way down in a few days. Make it look like we’re real casual about it, like we’re in no hurry. I know; say we’re up at the golf course your father built and have scheduled a round with a couple of guys here tomorrow; tell him we’ll start down the day after that, Friday, but we won’t be rushing it because I don’t like driving the Interstates. Tell him it’ll be a few days, early next week. Say you miss him but can’t get me to drive down there sooner than that, that I’m being stubborn.”
I was thinking while he was talking. I got what he said, but another thought had percolated at the same time.
“You know, it really doesn’t make any sense. Kidnap someone and then invite people there; it’s crazy. So there has to be more involved here. Something else. You said it might be about you. And if it’s you they want, that at least sounds plausible and makes some sense out of the message. But look. If that’s it, and I reply that we’re on our way, wouldn’t that put Jerrod in danger? I mean, why keep him alive if we’re on our way? I need to answer this in a way that they see they have to keep him alive.”
Jim thought for a moment or two, then said, “Yeah, that’s what you need to do. Look, you might not agree, it sounds a little nuts and paranoid, but thinking about it, the message, everything, I really do think this is about me. Not Jerrod or his aunt, not you, just me. I think they’re using you and Jerrod to lure me down there. I doubt Jerrod’s at all important to them. I mean, why would he be? He’s a kid with as low a profile as anyone could possibly have. He has no connection to anything or to anyone that would make him likely to be taken—except one person in an oblique sort of way: that’s me.”
I nodded, but he was on a roll and didn’t even notice.
“But you’re right; if they have him and you say we’re on the way, they may feel there’s no longer any reason to keep him around.”
He took a quick glance at me and saw how agitated I was. Then he looked back at the road and said, “Laryngitis is a very short-lived condition. Tell whoever has him that you expect he’ll be able to talk in a couple of days, and you have a question for him you don’t want to write down and send as a message; you don’t want anyone else able to read it. You want to know something, something private, before we get there. Then say you’ll call him when we hit the Florida state line in a couple, three days. That ought to do it.”
So I put all that into my words and wrote back. It was a longer message than I usually send, but I made it sound very normal, very stress-free. If he had the phone, I figured he’d answer. If someone else had it, I doubted I’d hear anything back.
There was no answer.
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