The first time Chelsea Moss-Harris met A.J. Gray in person was at 1:30 a.m. on the side of a road in Nackawic.
It was cold and pitch-dark and Gray, who had a dog with him in his truck, was a stranger she'd met online.
But Moss-Harris wasn't worried. She already knew Gray was an "angel," and the dog he had with him was her beloved pet Zoey.
Gray had brought Zoey on a 5,200-km ride from Alberta to reunite her with her owner after a months-long separation, and on that cold February night, it was hard to tell who was the most thrilled by the reunion.
"I still get goose bumps when I talk about it," Moss-Harris said.
"For a while, I really had thought I was never going to see her again."
Evacuated by floods in Fort Vermilion, Alta.
Seven months earlier, Moss-Harris was living in a hotel in Alberta with her two children and their two dogs, Zoey and Captain.
They had been evacuated after devastating flooding swept through the northern Alberta hamlet of Fort Vermilion, forcing more than 450 people from their homes.
Moss-Harris and her partner, Chris Cluff, who had moved to Alberta from New Brunswick for Cluff's job, decided it was time to come back home.
But they were dismayed to find out that because she falls into the "strong breed" category, Zoey would need a special regulation kennel for the flight and would have to be picked up in Halifax. (Captain, a mixed-breed stray, was able to fly in a regular kennel.)
The cost of flying her, including a new kennel, ticket, fees and surcharges, would be in the thousands, Moss-Harris said, and there were concerns that they might not even be allowed into Nova Scotia to pick her up because of COVID-19 travel restrictions at that time.
Out of options and with no home left in Alberta, the family got on the plane without their beloved Zoey, who stayed behind with Cluff's brother.
'I almost started to give up'
"Oh my goodness, it was so hard to leave her behind," Moss-Harris said. "It broke my heart."
Eventually, when she and her family were home and settled in Fredericton, Moss-Harris started checking out the Pet Transport Canada Facebook group, which connects people travelling with pets who need a ride.
Days went by with no nibbles. The days stretched into weeks, and Moss-Harris's hopes started to fade.
"We'd been apart for so long," she said. "I almost started to give up."
And then suddenly, a stranger named A.J. Gray replied: "Inbox me."
He was a trucker and an essential worker and had a run out toward the East Coast coming up, he said. He told her he'd be happy to bring Zoey home.
When I saw her snuggled up on his lap, I knew he must be OK because Zoey was OK with him. - Chelsea Moss-Harris
Moss-Harris's heart leapt at the news, but she had some reservations, too.
"I didn't know this guy from Adam," she said. "I thought, what if he takes off with my dog?"
But they started exchanging text messages, discussing the details of what he would need for the trip.
Gray refused to take any money as compensation, asking only that Moss-Harris cover the cost of Zoey's food, and finally, they arranged for him to collect Zoey and begin the journey.
Moss-Harris said she was on pins and needles the whole time.
"Then he sent me a picture of him and Zoey, and that's when I knew it was going to be OK. When I saw her snuggled up on his lap — she doesn't do that with just anyone — I knew he must be OK because Zoey was okay with him."
That was the first of many small but telling gestures that set Moss-Harris's heart at ease, and assured her that she had entrusted her precious pet to "a good person."
Regular photo updates along the way
Gray set out in mid-February, sending Moss-Harris frequent photos and text message updates along the way.
"I'd get messages saying, 'We're in Winnipeg,' or 'Zoey's cuddled up in the bunk in the back,' and I'd laugh, thinking of Zoey taking a cross-country road trip in a big ol' truck."
One full week later, she got a text asking her if she'd still be up at 1:30 a.m. that night.
"I told him, 'If that's when you're gonna be coming through, I will,' " Moss-Harris said.
They arranged to meet at a roadside just off the highway in Nackawic. Gray was holding Zoey on a leash at the side of the road, and when Zoey saw Moss-Harris and the rest of her family, the leash might as well have been a piece of fluff.
"He had to let her go because she went nuts when she saw us," Moss-Harris recalled with a laugh.
It was a quick and distanced hand-off because of COVID-19, but Moss-Harris had time to slip Gray a thank-you card ("I tucked $200 in it but I didn't tell him that, because he wouldn't have taken it," she said) and then Gray hopped into his truck and was gone.
Moss-Harris thought that would be the end of it, but Gray messaged the next day to check in on his travelling companion.
"He was like, 'So how's Zoey doing today, is she happy?' And I thought, wow, this is a good person."
Just paying it forward, Gray says
A.J. Gray seems surprised his "little" gesture has generated interest.
"Well, I love dogs," he said in a phone interview. "So I saw the message on Facebook and just figured I'd help out."
Gray said he was in a similar situation a few years ago, when he faced an abrupt move and had to leave his dog behind.
"I know how that feels," he said.
Gray said he's never transported a dog before, but Zoey was a "good traveller."
"She was no trouble at all, she slept the mostly the whole way, she'd get up now and then and look out the window, and she'd get a bit excited every time we came into a city."
Gray, who lives in Bathurst, said he's on the road and away from home too often to have a dog right now.
But he does plan to keep in touch with his "pet for a week," Zoey.
"Oh yeah, I'll check in on her now and again," he said. "She was a nice dog."
Meanwhile, with Zoey settled in at her new home and life finally getting back to normal, Moss-Harris said she plans to keep in touch with the man who made that possible, sending him occasional photos of Zoey because she knows "he really cares."
"When you think that someone who doesn't even know showed us true kindness and never asked for a thing? Wow," she said. "We need more people like A.J. in this world. He's an angel."