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.

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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.”

Al Returns

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

Al ReturnsAl Returns

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.

Al Returns

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

Al Returns

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.

Al ReturnsAl Returns

“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.”

Al Returns

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.”

Al ReturnsAl Returns

“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.

Al Returns

 

Chapter 13: Where She Used to Live

Finding Liberty

The idea came to him on a Wednesday morning. He’d been working at his new job for months now, and was really getting the hang of it. Working at a desk in a tie and slacks wasn’t as glamorous as life as a musician had been. But it paid the bills and was even fulfilling, in its own way. But since the night he’d discovered Liberty’s books, he hadn’t been able to shake her from his thoughts. He wondered what her life was like now, and if she was happy. He’d been able to find the small suburb where she lived by poking around online.

Maybe it’s time to pay her a surprise visit, he thought. The moment the idea occurred to him, he knew that he absolutely must do it. He arranged for time off work, packed his things, and booked his flight out west.

Finding Liberty

The next day, he arrived in the picturesque town nestled in the Sierra Nevada foothills. But now what? He didn’t know Liberty’s address, or even what side of town she lived on. What was he thinking? That he’d show up in town, and Liberty would just magically appear to greet him?

Finding Liberty

Al gritted his teeth. He’d come all this way. He would just have to suck it up and do some legwork. He traveled around the town, looking for any clues that might lead him to Liberty. He went inside places she might go — the bookstore. The library. The unitarian church. Every restaurant serving non-American food. He asked waiters, and shopkeepers, librarians, and bartenders.

Finding LibertyFinding Liberty

He even asked strangers he ran into if they happened to know Liberty. The people were all friendly, but no one seemed to have any idea where Liberty lived.

Finding Liberty
Finding LibertyFinding Liberty

“Oh, I remember her! She was in my yoga class,” said one woman, who then spent the rest of the conversation trying to get Al’s phone number.

”Yes, I often saw her walking her dog around the neighborhood,” said another man, who also then tried to get Al’s phone number.

Finding Liberty

Just as Al was ready to call it quits, he ran into a man who claimed to be Liberty’s next-door neighbor. “But I don’t think they live there anymore,” the man added after he gave Al the address.

Al didn’t want to believe it. He hurried to the house and rang the doorbell, but no one answered. Later that evening, he returned. A large, beefy man opened the door and peered at Al with a puzzled expression.

”I’m sorry,” said the man, “but she was the previous owner. Our family’s lived here for months now.”

”Any idea where she may have gone?” asked Al. The man shook his head and closed the door. Al’s hopes plummeted like a rock. He was too late. Liberty could have gone back to live in the rain forest, for all he knew.

Finding Liberty

Discouraged, he trudged back to his hotel and began to pack. This had been a stupid idea. Even if he’d found Liberty, there was no guarantee that she would want to see him as much as he wanted to see her.

Finding Liberty

His cell phone suddenly buzzed in his pocket. He answered it.

”Al, I’m so sorry!” His sister shrilled into the phone.

Al held the phone away from his ear. “Sorry about what?”

”A woman stopped by, like, two days ago. She was asking about you, and I told her I’d give you her number, but I can’t find it anywhere.”

”A woman?” Al sat up straight. “What was her name? What did she look like?” He listened as Polly described the visitor, his pulse racing with excitement. It was Liberty! It had to be.

”Better vacuum up the cat hair,” he told Polly. “I’ll be there tonight.”

Finding LibertyFinding Liberty

Chapter 12: Desperation and Doorbells

Sad Callen

As the last of the shaman’s special concoction was drained away, Callen’s misery returned. No, misery wasn’t quite the right word. To Liberty, it was as though someone or something had stolen the best parts of Callen’s soul and left behind a shell of boy.

Desperate, Liberty studied every piece of literature she could find that mentioned non-traditional cures for her son’s condition, then did her best to copy the remedies. She chanted nonsensical words while standing in the rain at midnight. She paced around his room as he slept, waving candles through the air to burn away any bad spirits. She mixed up foul-smelling concoctions of herbs and coaxed Callen to drink them.

Sad CallenSad Callen

Sometimes, the cures worked, and the real Callen shone through the gloom. But without warning, he would slip away again.

“I have to find his father,” she told Dr. Lehoia. “It’s the only way to cure Callen. The shaman said so.”

Dr. Lehoia pursed his lips. He had never thought much of Liberty’s tales of supernatural curses and enchanted rainforest waters. Still, he leaned forward to look at Liberty shared her progress with him. “I’ve traced him to this little town on the Oregon coast, where Callen and I visited a few summers ago,” she said. “I’m certain he must be the same Al Dawson.”

Sad Callen

Dr. Lehoia whistled. “Pretty far away. Are you planning to go and visit again?”

Liberty shook her head. “No. Callen and I are going to move there. At least for a while. I can write, and he can attend schools there while I’m tracking down his dad.”

Sad Callen

Dr. Lehoia wished her luck as they hugged goodbye. Then Liberty and Callen packed up and moved into their new home, an old farm which sat on a bluff facing the wild gray sea.

Sad CallenSad Callen

As soon as they had they settled in, Liberty began her search in earnest. The town was small; she didn’t think it would take much effort to find Al. She walked through town day after day, striking up conversations with shopkeepers, neighbors, even people who turned out to be tourists, just passing through town.

Sad Callen

“Al Dawson? Nope, doesn’t ring a bell,” said some off the people. A few had heard off him, even attended some of his local shows, but that had been a few years back.

Sad CallenSad Callen

Then one day, she met a young woman, Terra, who seemed to know all about Al. “He’s a cousin of mine,” she told Liberty. “He moved to New York to play music, and I haven’t seen him since.” Liberty’s heart sank. He’d moved away! The move here, the searching, it had all been in vain. Then Terra added, “His sister still lives in town, though. Here, I’ll give you the address.”

Sad Callen

His sister? Liberty brightened at the thought. Surely his sister would know how to get in touch with him. Thanking the young woman, she hurried off to find the address.

Polly and her son lived in a cozy house right in the center of town. As Liberty stepped inside, she was greeted by at least four cats.

Sad Callen

“I’m afraid my brother has been pretty off-grid lately,” said Polly, apologizing. “Last I heard, he’d quit music. Then he said he was off on some kind of adventure. I think it had something to do with a woman, honestly.”

Sad Callen

Liberty sagged. Her efforts had brought her to a dead end. And hearing about Al having an adventure with some woman, well, she hadn’t been expecting the rush of emotions that had evoked. “Thanks anyway,” she told Polly. “Hey, if you hear from him, would you mind passing along my number? It’s really, really important.”

“Of course.” Liberty said goodbye and headed out into the cold, rainy night, her hoped fading away.

Sad Callen

 

 

Chapter 11: In Ruins

Al’s music career was tanking. Hard. He couldn’t understand it. In one year, he’d gone from being a rising rock superstar to a second-rate wedding singer. It wasn’t that he could no longer play the guitar. It was that he was average. No better or worse than thousands of other budding musicians, all fighting to make it in the music industry.

He blamed it on the stress of trying to survive in New York City, where his monthly rent cost more than the used car he’d sold back in Oregon. He blamed it on his music partner, whom he replaced. Twice. He blamed it on shoddy guitar strings, on shoddy sound equipment, on lousy acoustics in each venue he played in.

“Blame yourself,” his manager, Gloria, finally told him one night after a particularly awful show. “Look kid, when you started playing, I really thought you had something. You had a one-hit wonder. What was that song again?”

In Ruins,” said Al. He’d written the song two years ago, while reminiscing about exploring the rainforest with Liberty, and the love they’d discovered there among he ruins. It had quite a few downloads on the internet, and even managed to break into the top 100 a few months before he’d lost his talent. “It was called In Ruins.

“Yeah, that one. Well anyway, now, I just don’t know. You’re not exactly selling out shows, you know.”

“I think I just need some inspiration,” said Al. “Maybe if I take some time to get away, and think, it’ll all come back to me.”

“Take all the time you need,” said Gloria. “But don’t bother coming back until your talent comes back, too.”

His talent did come back, sometimes. It came back three weeks later, when he was playing for tips in Central Park. His music was so good that a crowd of people stopped to listen. “Hey, you should be playing professionally!” someone called out.

Finally, Al thought. He was ready to return to the music business. But the very next day, he lost it again, and his music was as mediocre as ever.

“This was a mistake,” he told his sister, Polly, on the phone. “I never should have come out here. I don’t know what I was thinking, trying to make it as a serious musician.”

“Well, you’ll always have your one-hit wonder,” said Polly. “In Ruins. Wow, maybe it was prophetic.”

“You always know just the right thing to say,” said Al, grimacing. It was true, though. His music talent had faded, and his career was in ruins. Maybe it was time for him to use that economics degree, after all. The very thought made him die a little inside.

One night, after spending some time job hunting on his iPad, he switched over to his favorite bookstore app. Yes, he was broke. But maybe he could spare a few dollars to buy a new book. To his surprise, on the front page of the store site, a photo of Liberty stared back at him. Liberty! His Liberty! She was being featured as a bestselling mystery book author. Quickly, Al looked her up. Liberty was author to over thirty books, many with high ratings.

“Well, how about that?” Al sat back in his seat, stunned and pleased, and overcome with a wave of nostalgia. The next day, he went to the public library and checked out four of her books. For the next two weeks, when he wasn’t job hunting, he was reading, devouring the stories Liberty had written. One of her recurring main characters was named Alfred. The thinly-disguised name and similarities made Al grin for the first time in a long time. When he finished reading, he came to a decision. He was going to find Liberty. No matter what it took, he was going to find her, then contact her, and see how life was treating her. She was probably long married by now, with two kids and a dog. He hoped so. He hoped her life had turned out better than his.

What he didn’t know was that at that very moment, Liberty and her now teenage son, Callen, were hosting a Halloween party. Liberty just happened to be standing nearby as a couple of teen girls were listening to a song on a cellphone. Liberty hadn’t heard it before, but something about the singer’s voice sent shivers down her arms. She knew that voice.

“What are you guys listening to?” she asked.

The girl smiled and held up her phone. “It’s called In Ruins. Isn’t it a cool song? It’s by, umm…” she checked her phone. “Al Dawson.”

The tray of food Liberty had been carrying clattered to the kitchen floor.

 

 

 

Chapter 10: The Shaman

The idea had come to Liberty as she was staring at the sea in the little Oregon town, dreaming of Al. They’d conceived Callen when they were still volunteers, living in the  rainforest. Who knew what kinds of strange bacteria cold have been lurking in the food or water? What if she’d contracted some strange, tropical disease that had caused her son to be so joyless?

After coming to a decision, she explained it to Callen. “We’re going to spend some time in the rainforest. I’ll homeschool you over the next few months. But I feel like we need to go there to figure out what’s happening with you.”

“Okay, sure,” Callen said in his usual lackluster tone. She may as well have said they were moving to the moon, for all his indifference.

She rented a small place for them to stay near the small village of Selvadorada. The village had grown since she’d been there last. There were more electric lights, and the people appeared less impoverished. There was even some tourism — groups of curious foreigner staying in a village inn and taking tours of the jungle. It warmed Liberty’s heart to see how the people were now flourishing.

“What do you think?” she asked Callen, as they played chess near a lovely view of a waterfall. Tropical birds and butterflies flitted around them, and the air was filled with the cries of monkeys and other wildlife. Callen just shrugged.

Liberty spent the next few weeks talking to locals, trying to find anyone who might have a clue about her son’s condition. Most villagers shook their heads, puzzled. Liberty was starting to feel discouraged when at last, she ran into Carmencita Rosales, great-granddaughter of the village shaman.

“You say that you swam in the crystal waters of Tachauatl?” Her eyes grew as wide as the moon. “But those waters are cursed!”

“Guess we didn’t get the memo,” said Liberty.

“Were you pregnant at the time?”

“I’m not sure. I could have been.” She remembered floating around in those warm, clear pools with Al, their own private Eden. They had already been lovers by then. She could very well have been pregnant.

“This is bad,” said Carmencita. “This is very bad.”

“Is there anything that can be done?”

Carmencita frowned. “I will give you a list of ingredients. My great-grandfather can use them to make a temporary potion to ward off the curse. But your son will continue to suffer until you can provide us with the blood and tears of both the father and the mother.”

“But I don’t know where his father is!”

“Then we can only cure your son for a time.”

Liberty’s heart sank.She’d really hoped that a cure would be easier to find. How in the world could she ever manage to track down Al after all these years? For all she knew, he was living in some other rainforest as a volunteer.

“Am I going to be like this forever?” asked Callen.

Liberty straightened up and wiped her tears. “No, sweetie. I’m going to do everything I can to help you get better. Got that?” She hugged him reassuringly, then left him to play his violin near their little house as she began gathering supplies.

The list of ingredients was not easy to gather. Bark from a Yaoja tree. Three live red stinging beetles. A handful of camu camus. 10 lúcuma seeds. And more. She headed out during the early mornings, while Callen still slept, then returned, often covered in bug bites, to cook him breakfast and homeschool him.

But at long last, she had everything the shaman had requested. She and Callen remained in the rainforest for an additional month as the shaman prepared the potion. And then they packed up and returned home, where Liberty gave Callen his first dose of the foul-smelling liquid.

The effect was almost immediate. Suddenly, Callen went from being a boy whose only spark of joy came when he was playing music, to one who smiled and laughed and began to take an interest in life. He made friends at school and on their block. He even joined the Scouts, and proudly added one badge after another to his collection. Liberty’s own joy and relief was profound as she observed these wonderful changes in her son. She hated to remind herself that each bottle of potion only lasted a few months. She had to get in contact with Al before the stock ran out, and the curse stole Callen from her again.

While Callen was waking up to life and experiencing joy for the first time, Al Dawson was many miles away, in New York City, wondering why his musical talent had suddenly slipped away.

Chapter 9: Almost-Famous Al Meets the Genius

Grunge Rock Al

The best part about being a grunge rock star, Al decided, was the girls. They seemed to throw themselves at him, eager to do whatever it took to win his favor.

“That’s stupid,” said his sister, Polly, who was never afraid to tell him exactly what she thought. “Those women are only into you because they think you’re rich. And anyway, you’re only famous in Oregon.”

“And Washington!” Al protested. But scratch that — Polly was right. The women were fun and all, but when it came down to it, all that mattered was his music. Now that he was booking gigs and even selling a few albums, he was able to deliver his music to more people. More people to hear his art. More people to be moved by the magic that poured from his fingertips.

Grunge Rock Al

Grunge Rock Al

As he matured, so did his style. He lopped off the long, blue locks and traded his flannels for whatever felt right at the time. He branched off from the coastal grunge sound he’d started with and began to dig deep, producing songs with raw, honest lyrics and complex acoustics that the audience seemed to love.

One night, while playing for a small house at a seaside restaurant, Al overheard a woman singing along from the audience. Her rich, husky tone gave him chills. It was like nothing he’d ever heard before.

“Have you ever thought about singing professionally?” He asked the woman after the show.

“I guess we could give it a shot,” she said, in a tone that made Al wonder if she meant more than just music. A few weeks later, Al and Bethany gave their first performance as a music duo. They also went on their first date, but quickly realized that they weren’t very compatible.

Grunge Rock Al

Grunge Rock Al

Grunge Rock Al

Around the same time, Liberty and Callen were making travel plans. “You’re going to love the seashore,” Liberty told Callen, who picked at his French toast, wearing the same sulky expression he always wore.

“Will the beaches be crowded?” he asked gloomily. “I hate crowds.”

Liberty shook her head. “No, you’re thinking of beaches further south. Oregon beaches are cold and uncrowded. But it’s beautiful there.”

Grunge Rock Al

They flew to Portland, then drove to the small, coastal town Liberty had read about online. She and Callen stayed in a quaint bed-and-breakfast with views of the rugged coastline. Callen was content to walk beside her and Katniss along the beach, collecting sea glass and sand dollars as the wind whipped their hair. At night, while Callen slept, she sometimes slipped outside and walked along the docks, inhaling the salty air and thinking of Al. For some reason, she hadn’t been able to stop thinking of him since they’d arrived in town. She felt closer to him here, somehow. Almost as though the seagulls were crying his name.

Grunge Rock Al

One day, Al was seeking inspiration and strolled over to the park across the street from Polly’s house. As he was strumming, a young boy wandered by. The boy’s expression was so forlorn, Al was tempted to ask him if he was hurt. But then, the boy lifted his head, looked straight at Al, and smiled. Startled, Al hit the wrong string on his guitar, then stopped.

“Do I know you?” he asked, frowning. The boy looked so familiar, and yet Al was sure he’d never seen him around town.

“No, I don’t live here,” the boy said. “I’m just visiting with my mom. I like your music,” he added softly.

“Yeah?” Al grinned, then launched into one of his more popular songs. “Ever hear that one before? It’s an Al Dawson original.”

“Who’s Al Dawson?” asked the boy.

“Oh, he’s super famous,” said Al. “So you’re into music, huh? What kinds?”

“All kinds, I guess. I play music, too.”

“Guitar, like me?”

“No, mostly violin and piano.”

Grunge Rock Al

“Hey, my partner and I could use some piano for the song I just wrote. Think your mom would let you visit the clubhouse to make music with us?” Al pointed to the public clubhouse at the edge of the park.

“Sure.” The boy sent his mom a quick text message, then joined Al and Bethany in the clubhouse. To Al’s surprise, the boy was very talented. He took one look at the sheet music Bethany handed him, then began to play, finger flying over the piano keys. The three of them jammed for a good hour before the boy slid off the bench and said he’d better go.

“Hey, it’s was nice to meet you…what’d you say your name was?” asked Al.

The boy looked back over his shoulder. “Callen,” he said. “My name’s Callen.”

Grunge Rock Al

“You should have seen this kid,” Al told Polly later. “He was some kind of musical genius.”

“I’ll bet he gets famous before you do,” said Polly, smirking.

“I’m already famous,” Al grumbled. “More famous than you.”

“You’ll never get famous if you stick around here,” said Polly.

“I know.” Al sighed. He loved it there, next to the sea. But he knew that it was time for him to spread his wings. “That’s why I’ve decided it’s time for me to leave,” he said. “I’m headed to New York City.”

Grunge Rock Al