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.