Chapter 16: Spring in the Winter

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“I hope you’ll stay for Christmas dinner,” said Liberty. “I baked a ham. Well, it’s tofu ham, actually. Callen’s a vegetarian.”

Al’s stomach churned at the thought of tofu ham, but if it meant he could spend more time with Liberty, he would have eaten moldy bread and sauerkraut, if it was on the menu.

“So are you going to keep him?” asked Callen. Al looked down with surprise at the stray dog, who hadn’t left his side since he’d found him.

“I don’t exactly live around here,” said Al. “Would you like to keep him?”

“Yeah!” Callen’s face lit up. He knelt down to scratch behind the dog’s ears. “Now I have to come up with a good name. Yoda? Nah. How about George? Loki? Mr. Bean?”

Al laughed. “Take your time,” he said. “I’m sure you’ll come up with the right name.”

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“So how old are you, Callen?” Al asked during dinner.

Callen gave him a strange look. “You mean Mom hasn’t told you yet? I’m fifteen.”

Al blinked. It had been sixteen years since he’d last seen Liberty. Could she have met someone and had his baby soon after they’d broken up? He studied Callen’s face again, and it suddenly occurred to Al why the boy had seemed so familiar. His chin, his nose, the shape of his eyes…

Al sucked in a sharp breath and turned to Liberty. “Are you trying to say–”

“That Callen is your son?” Liberty nodded. “I’ve been trying to find you ever since I learned I was pregnant. You’re his dad.”

For a moment, Al was speechless. Then he let out a whoop of excitement. “I’m a dad! I have a kid! Oh my god, this is crazy!”

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After dinner, Liberty asked Al to stay and open presents with her and Callen. They listened to jaunty holiday tunes and sipped peppermint cocoa while the still-nameless dog chomped on leftover tofu ham. Then Father Christmas appeared with gifts for everyone — new jewelry for Liberty, a bicycle for Callen, and a genuine ham bone for the dog to gnaw on. He even had a gift for Al. But when Al opened the package, his face fell.

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“Seriously, Father Christmas?” He held up the present — a CD of Phil Collins’ Greatest Hits.

Father Christmas shrugged. “Sorry, kid. But you’re on my naughty list for not tracking down these two much sooner.”

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After Christmas, Al decided that he wouldn’t be separated from Liberty or Callen ever again. He made arrangements to work from home and set up his computer in the guest room at Polly’s house. Then whenever he had free time, he was over at the farmhouse, getting to know Callen, and getting to know Liberty all over again.

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When Al learned that Callen had a talent for music, he brought over one of his old guitars. He hadn’t played much since his mysterious loss of talent. But as soon as Callen began to play his violin, Al could feel the urge to play rush through him. He picked up his guitar, and next thing he knew, he was jamming like he used to at the height of his music career.

“Maybe you were my lucky charm all along,” he told Callen.

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Three days after Christmas, Callen decided to name the new dog Rain. “Because it rains so much in Oregon,” he explained. “And because you guys met in a rainforest.”

Three days after that, Liberty asked Al if he would move in with them.

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The rest of the winter felt more like spring, despite the freezing temperatures. Everything was like new again. Living in his hometown felt like new. His relationship with Liberty felt like new. Being a parent definitely felt like new. Was it normal for teenage boys to be so gloomy and lifeless?

Al was more in love with Liberty than ever, and he told her so. They spent every spare moment together, walking in the snow, ice skating, even having snowball fights, like they were kids again.

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By the time the snow began to melt, Al had made up his mind. “Will you marry me?” he asked Liberty.

Liberty’s eyes filled with tears. She dropped to her knees, too, so they she and Al were on eye level. “I can’t marry you, Al,” she said. “Not yet. There’s something we both have to do first.”

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Chapter 15: What Santa Brought

Winter slid in hard and fast, like a car skidding on ice. One moment, Liberty watched from the window as Callen explored the wild, deserted beach behind their new house. The next moment, she was thrust into a winter wonderland, filled with blankets of thick, white snow and air so cold, it was painful to breathe. Her mild California winters had not prepared her for this at all.

“We’ll stay indoors,” she told Callen, “and hibernate like bears.”

“You do know that bears aren’t the only animals that hibernate, right?” Callen smirked.

Since she was a writer, Liberty had no problem hunkering down in their toasty warm home, typing away at her computer. She had just sold another novel to her editor, and was busy working on the sequel. Callen, however, had to face snowmaggedon each morning, armed only with a warm winter coat and a backpack full of schoolbooks. He seemed to be adjusting well to his new school, and already had a couple of good friends. Liberty’s home remedies still appeared to be holding his sadness at bay for now, though Liberty knew that it was only a bandaid. At moments, she could still see the gloominess bulging around the edges of Callen’s smile, threatening to break free.

Next summer, she decided, she and Callen would return to the rain forest. There must be something more the shaman could do, with or without Al.

Christmas sneaked up on them, too, so quickly that Liberty barely had time to shop for gifts for Callen. Just as they always had, they trimmed a tree and decorated the house. They even braved the cold to hang up lights outside, even though their house was located on the edge of town, where hardly anyone would drive by to admire them.

“I’m sure that Santa will still be able to find us, though,” Liberty told Callen with a wink, even though he had long stopped believing in Santa.

Early Christmas morning, Al arrived at the address Officer Drake had given him. Snow was falling, and the world around him looked like an illustration from an old-fashioned Christmas story. As he drew back his shoulders and began to head up the path leading toward the old farmhouse, he came upon a dog. It was thin and scruffy-looking, shivering from the cold.

“Hey there, fella.” Al crouched down to pet it. “Do you live here, too?” The dog whined and pressed close to Al, maybe to share his warmth. As Al continued up the walkway, the dog followed, his hopeful eyes never leaving Al’s face. Al took a deep breath and rang the doorbell.

A teenage boy answered. Could this be Liberty’s son? He was tall and lanky, with silky brown curls that reached his shoulders. Al stared at him for a moment. There was something so familiar about the boy. Not like Liberty, exactly, but still familiar. “Uh…hi there. My name’s Al Dawson,” he said. “Does a woman named Liberty live here?”

The boy nodded and motioned for Al to step inside. “Your dog looks hungry,” he said.

Al looked in surprise at the dog. “That’s not my — oh, he must be a stray.”

The boy grinned, and Al’s heart raced in surprise. The way the boy’s mouth curved, the squint of his eyes, it reminded Al of someone he knew. Of Polly, maybe, though that was a ridiculous thought. “A stray dog! Just what I wanted for Christmas!” the boy said. “By the way, my name’s Callen.” He turned his head and called out, “Hey Mom, Santa’s here! He found our house!”

As Al followed Callen into the kitchen, he couldn’t stop taking sneak peeks at the boy. An idea was forming in the back of his mind, but it seemed too impossible to be true.

Then he saw Liberty, and all thoughts about Callen, the stray dog, everything, went poof! There was only her, standing in front of him, her shocked expression slowly giving way to realization, then joy.

“Al,” she breathed, then flung her arms around him. He pulled her close to him, drinking in her scent. He felt as though somewhere deep inside him, a cage door had sprung open, releasing a flock of birds to the sky. He was here, with her. He was home.

Chapter 14: Cats on the Counter

Al Returns

The little town was exactly as Al had remembered it. The same sky pasted over with thick clouds. The same flocks of gulls shrieking overhead. The same smell of salt wafting in from the sea.

Except in Polly’s house, which unfortunately also had the same odor he remembered.

“Ugh, Polly. Maybe it’s time for you to give away a cat or two,” he said, brushing fur from his sweater. “You might be able to care for them a little better.

“What are you talking about?” Polly sounded miffed. “I take great care of my kitties.”

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Al just shook his head. When Polly wasn’t looking, he did his best to tidy up after the cats.

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He spent the next few days trying to track down Liberty. In a town this small, you’d think someone would know where she lived. But though a few shopkeepers remembered seeing her, no one had any idea where she could be living. Al scoured the town, hoping to catch a glimpse of her out for a stroll or shopping for Christmas gifts. He combed the beaches and parks.

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He asked everyone he knew. And even a few people he didn’t.

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Everyone he spoke with tried their best to be helpful. Well, everyone except for Polly’s neighbor, Gene, who took one look at Liberty’s photo and flared up at Al.

“Are you trying to accuse me of something?” he snapped. “‘Cause look, I didn’t murder your girlfriend or anything.”

Al gaped. “Uh, who said anything about murder?” He backed away.

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“Why do you want to find this girl so badly?” asked his cousin, Terra. “I mean, maybe she doesn’t want to found.”

“Because I love her,” Al blurted out. He and Terra both stared at each other, stunned. It hadn’t really occurred to Al until that very moment, but now that he’d spoken the words, he knew it was true. He had never stopped caring for Liberty. After they’d parted so long ago, his feelings had lain dormant somewhere inside him, growing stronger without him realizing it. No wonder things hadn’t worked out with anyone else. He was in love with Liberty.

“Then I hope you find her,” said Terra. “I’ll call around and see if anyone’s spotted her.”

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The next day, All got a phone call from Terra’s good friend, Chanelle.

“I’m not sure how much help I can be,” said Chanelle. “But my husband is a cop. He’d be happy to talk to you.”

To Al’s surprise, Chanelle’s husband was his old friend, Drake. “I heard that a family moved into that big house on the edge of town,” said Drake. “Let me look into it, and I’ll let you know right away.”

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“Hey, thanks!” Al’s spirits lifted. He might actually have a lead! Outside, the rain had cleared. Despite the frigid winter air blowing in from the sea, he stopped by an outdoor skate park and sailed around the rink a few times. The love of his life was somewhere very nearby, and soon, they would be reunited.

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