Chapter 8: Joy, With Maple Syrup on Top

Liberty felt like the worst mother in the world. No matter what she tried, she could not find a way to cheer up her son. She arranged for him to go on playdates with other children. She read him funny stories and took him out to see lighthearted family movies. She even took him to Triassic World to see the dinosaurs. But Callen never cracked a smile. It was not just that he was a serious kid. He simply had no interest in anything or anyone.

“Would you like French toast for breakfast?” she would ask.

Callen would shrug. “I guess so.” And Liberty would serve him a thick, fluffy slice of french toast with creamy butter and golden maple syrup, which Callen would chew and swallow with the same indifferent expression he wore while eating Cheerios. He had no favorite foods. He had no favorite music or colors or toys, or anything that Liberty could see. Like most normal kids, he did what he was told, mostly, and answered questions, and earned B’s in school, and played youth soccer when Liberty signed him up. But unlike normal kids, Callen’s face was always a shadow, deep circles rimming his eyes, his mouth turned downward in a permanent frown.

“It’s like he’s lost his joy,” Liberty told Dr. Lehoia. “No wait…more like he’s never had any joy. Like he was born without it.”

“Well, I’ll run some tests, and we’ll see if we can get to the bottom of it,” said Dr. Lehoia. “Don’t worry. If there’s a medical reason for his lack of joy, then we’ll find it.”

So Liberty checked Callen into the hospital. Over the next few days, Dr. Lehoia ordered test after test. Callen was silent as he was poked and prodded, and stuffed into machines which scanned his brain. Finally, Dr. Lehoia sat them down in his office.

“From what I can see, there is no urgent medical cause for Callen’s depression,” he said, showing Liberty Callen’s brain scans. “No tumors or anything to explain it. Perhaps melancholy is just hard-wired into your son, the way some people are naturally cheerful. But here is a prescription for antidepressants, just to be sure.”

Liberty’s heart sank. Callen’s psychologist had already prescribed antidepressants, and after a year of taking them, Callen’s mood showed no difference whatsoever. She thanked her old friend, got the new prescription filled, then took Callen home. At dinner that night, Liberty tried again to cheer him up.

“I bought us some tickets to a major league hockey game next weekend,” she said, forcing her voice to sound bright and cheery despite the lump swelling in her throat. “The Arctic Llamas! Won’t that be fun?”

Callen gazed up at her with his big, sad eyes. “Yeah. Sure, Mom,” he said in a flat voice. “Lots of fun.”

The lump in Liberty’s throat broke open, and she burst into tears. Her son was broken, and she had no way to fix him.

A month later, a friend of hers gave them what turned out to be a magic answer. She was getting rid of an old electronic keyboard, and offered it to Liberty and Callen. Liberty accepted it, and decided to sign up Callen for music lessons. Within a short time, Callen was playing music like he’d been doing it for years, his fingers flying over the keyboard and producing complex melodies, rich with all of the emotions that he himself had been unable to express. Liberty listened in awe, tears of relief and gratitude spilling down her cheeks. Finally, finally, Callen had found one small thing that brought him pleasure.

What she didn’t know — what neither of them knew, was that at the same time Callen discovered music, Al was also discovering his niche. During the time that he lived with his sister, he began to write his own music — mostly grunge rock, and perform it at small clubs around the Portland area.

It was almost as though some strange spirit had taken over his hands, and was producing incredible music through him. His fan base began to grow, and so did the venues he performed in. At last, his dreams were beginning to come true. He was on his way.

 

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Chapter 7: The Gloomiest Kid in Town

Something was terribly wrong with baby Callen.

Liberty knew it from the time he was a very small infant. When he cried without ceasing for hours on end, she sought advice.

“Sounds like colic,” said her mom.

“Probably teething,” offered her friends. But no matter what remedies Liberty tried, or how much attention she devoted to him, she struggled to cheer him up.

He was also very clingy, and easily spooked by loud noises, which would often set off another crying spell. He cried so much, that his eyes were always puffy, and his daycare at last announced that they could no longer keep him, as his constant wails upset the other children.

This was quite a setback for Liberty, who needed the long hours of quiet to concentrate on writing books. Eventually, she managed to work despite Callen’s constant sniffles and mournful looks. She wrote book after book, filled with stories about the rain forest. Editors were crazy about the fresh perspective on a part of the world they rarely heard about. Readers, too, began to devour her stories and fill her Twitter feed with praise (and a little snark).

She read some of her stories to Callen, too. He listened attentively, his eyes wide. But he never smiled, not even during the funny parts. Nor did he smile when she tickled him, or made funny faces, or sat beside him, rolling toy cars across the floor. Even Katniss couldn’t bring a smile to Callen’s face.

“He’ll outgrow it,” everyone said. “It’s just a fussy stage.”

But that fussy stage went on and on, until Callen became the gloomiest ten year-old kid in town.

 

 

Chapter 6: Failure and Frustration

Al couldn’t stop thinking about Liberty. From the moment they said goodbye in the rainforest, he was filled with regret. She had been the best thing that had ever happened to him. Why had he pushed her away? Why hadn’t he begged her to stay?

As time passed, he figured out the answer. If she had stayed with him, she would have eventually come to see the truth — that he was a big flop. Become a rock star? Ha! The band he’d formed with friends, The Fire Brigade, had fizzled before they even made it to their first gig, thanks to a huge blowup between the drummer and the bass guitarist. So Al took to the road as a solo artist, which he quickly learned was harder than he’d anticipated.

He earned a few clients while singing or laying his guitar at local amateur nights, but the only gigs he managed to snag were small parties and musician hour at coffee shops.

He was also not doing so well on the social scene. He went out with friends, but his mind was often thousands of miles away. He bored his friends to death by talking nonstop about Liberty and Selvadorada.

Other times, he would zone out while friends were talking, laughing to himself about some private joke he and Liberty had once shared, or checking his phone for a miracle text from her.

“Look face it, you’re not going to hear from her,” said his friend, Dirk, while they were working out together. “You never gave her a phone number, remember? What are you expecting her to do — hire a private detective to track you down?”

Not a bad idea, Al thought. He wished he could hire a private detective to track her down.

But he couldn’t even remember her last name. They’d never had to use them during the mission. To him, she was always Liberty. His Liberty.

He was a flop on the dating scene, too. “No one will ever be able to measure up to your ex-girlfriend!!” Charlotte, one of the women he’d been dating, said in frustration. “Nobody could possibly be that perfect.” She left the date in a huff, leaving Al to pay a huge tab.

After several years of failures, Al finally had to face the truth. His career was getting him nowhere, he was burning too many bridges to count, and thanks to a lack of music gigs and a lifestyle he couldn’t keep up with, he was running out of money.

“Why don’t you come and live with us for awhile, until you get back on your feet?” His sister, Polly, suggested. So Al packed up his life and moved across the country to the Oregon coast, where his sister and her son shared a small house with about a hundred cats. Okay, maybe it was more like three or four cats, but to Al, it felt like one hundred.

“Just until I get back on my feet,” he said, as he brushed cat fur off his clothes.

Chapter 5: Dr. Lehoia’s Diagnosis

The night before the mission came to an end, Liberty and Al joined the volunteers for a big feast in the village. There was music and dancing, and heaping plates of juane, steamed tigerfish, and papaya salad. Liberty was breathless by the time she and Al took a break from dancing to get some fresh air.

“I’m going to miss all of this.” Al motioned at the lush forest all around them, which was alive with the chatter of birds, monkeys, and frogs.

“So…” Liberty chewed her lip. “We haven’t really discussed…after.”

“After?”

“After this. I mean, you can come up where I live. Gold Valley is just your basic suburb, but it’s pretty nice.  My house has plenty off space. Or I could come down to your state, if you prefer.”

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“Libby.” Al took her hands. The pained looked in his eyes made her stomach drop. “I love you. But we can’t do this. Not now.”

“Why not?” Her voice quavered. “Don’t you want to be together?”

“Some day. But I want to get established in my music career before settling down. I’ll be traveling around a lot, taking every gig that comes along.”

“But…I can come with you. I can write, and–”

Al was shaking his head. “I just don’t think we’re ready. I’m not ready. I’m sorry,” he added, as Liberty burst into tears. “I’m so sorry.”

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They spent one final night together in the house that had been their home for the past year. Then, with broken hearts, they said their goodbyes and went their separate ways.

Liberty’s house was too big, and too clean, and too quiet. The only sounds she heard were an occasional car passing outside, and the click click click of Katniss’s toenails on the hardwood floors. She missed the noise, and the constant activity, and the people of the rainforest. Most of all, she missed Al.

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The symptoms of nausea and fatigue still continued to plague her days after returning, so she went to visit her doctor. Doctor Lehoia was a very, very very old friend of hers, and a skilled doctor who could solve just about any problem.

“This is a pretty classic case,” he told her after her tests came back. “I’d say you’ll start feeling much better in about seven months. Just in time to hold your new baby.”

ancient old friend

“I’m having a baby?” Liberty was stunned. “Al’s baby!” she clapped her hand over her mouth, dismayed. Al, who was traveling around the country, taking music gigs and had no home address. She didn’t even have his cell phone number, since cell phones hadn’t been allowed on the mission. He was going to be the father of her baby, and she had no way to tell him.

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“Well, Katniss, it’s not going to be just you and me anymore,” she told her dog, who wagged happily. As the months passed, Liberty prepared her life for the baby’s arrival. She painted a spare bedroom for the nursery, and folded stacks of tiny clothes and onesies. She took a part-time job taking inventory for medical supplies to make ends meet as she worked on her writing.

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She often thought of Al, which filled her with sadness and longing. But she had no way to find him. The internet was filled with Al Dawson, and none of them had his face. On a cold morning in February, baby Callen was born. Liberty wept as she clutched him in her arms. He would never know his father.

baby Callen