Chapter 18:Happily Ever After (Sort of)

Happily Ever After Sort of

“And then what happened?”

“And then they got married, of course. I mean, Al and Liberty had done what they needed to do. They traveled back to the rainforest with their son and found a way to break the curse of gloominess.”

“So Callen was happy?”

“Yes, finally. In fact, he was filled with so much joy, that it spilled over and filled other people with joy, too. ”

“How was the wedding?”

“Beautiful. Everyone came to the wedding. Dr. Lehoia and his family. Polly, Al’s other family and friends, and a bunch of their neighbors. It was the event of the decade, easily.”

Happily Ever After Sort ofHappily Ever After Sort ofHappily Ever After Sort ofHappily Ever After Sort of

“What happened after the wedding?”

“Well let’s see…Al and Liberty went on a honeymoon. No, silly, not back to the rainforest. They’d had enough off giant spiders and mosquitoes. They traveled to Croatia and had an incredible time.”

“Seriously? Who goes to Croatia?”

“Are you kidding? Croatia’s the best!”

“Okay fine. Croatia. And then what?”

“And then they returned to good ol’ rainy Oregon. Liberty continued to write and sell books, and Al kept moving up the career ladder as a businessman They had regular get-togethers with family and friends. Oh — and they had more kids Two lovely daughters.”

Happily Ever After Sort ofHappily Ever After Sort ofHappily Ever After Sort of

“Sounds like a happily-ever-after kind of life.”

“You can say that again.”

“So, do you think he has any idea that his entire life is really just a virtual creation playing out in his mind while he sleeps in our laboratory?”

Happily Ever After Sort of

“Does anyone ever have any idea?”

“I guess not. Well, let’s keep it going. We have many more tests to run, and I can’t wait to find out what Al and Liberty look like when they grow old.”

“Sounds good to me. Hey, I know — let’s adopt another dog for them!”

“And send Callen to university!”

“Yes!”

Happily Ever After Sort ofHappily Ever After Sort of

THE END

 

I hope you enjoyed this story. And now, please enjoy the “Alberty” music video.

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Chapter 17: Mama Juana and the Blessed Waters

Curse of Tachauatl

Three weeks later, Al and Liberty returned to the Selvadorada Rainforest, with Callen at their side.

“I can’t believe how much it’s changed,” said Al. Tachahuatl Village had continued to grow since Liberty and Callen had last visited, and now teemed with tourists hoping for rainforest tours and cheap “authentic” trinkets. Though the village was still fairly remote, jeeps and small, rugged buses drove in daily on the new paved road.

A few things hadn’t changed, however. The forest around them still teemed with life. Monkeys chattered and birds shrieked from the canopy overhead. And giant bats, spiders, and snakes still made their presence known, reminding them that the rainforest was still a dangerous place.

Curse of Tachauatl

To their surprise, the villa they’d rented not only happened to be the same house Al and Liberty had shared years ago, as relief workers, but had hardly changed at all, except for upgraded electricity and plumbing.

“This bed even looks the same,” said Al, throwing Liberty a meaningful look.

“Hmm,” said Liberty. “I wonder if it still feels the same.”

“Guess we’ll just have to test it and see,” said Al.

Curse of Tachauatl

The next morning, it was time to get right down to business. After asking a number of native Tachauatl people, they managed to track down the village’s current shaman — a small, gray-haired women called Mama Juana, who at first kept trying, in broken English, to get them to buy a bottle of her homemade digestion syrup.

“No, no, that’s not what we want,” said Al. He began to speak in the native language. Roughly, at first, but as he spoke, the language began to flow as it once had. He explained who he and Liberty were, and what had happened to their son. As he spoke, Mama Juana’s eyes grew round with astonishment.

“Did you activate the ancient bones in the Great Temple of the Moon?” she demanded. When Liberty said yes, the old woman clapped her hands to her mouth. “It is the curse,” she said in a hushed voice. “The Curse of King Tachauatl. I have heard of this, but have never seen it before. Those bones are property of the spirit king who still roams the halls of that temple. If you anger him, he will take your most precious treasure.”

Curse of Tachauatl

Curse of Tachauatl

“But we didn’t have any treasure,” said Liberty. “We were poor as mice back then.”

“But you did have a treasure.” Mama Juana pointed to Liberty’s belly. “Hidden so deep inside you, even you didn’t know it existed. The spirit king was merciful. He chose to spare your child’s life.”

“But he took our child’s joy,” said Al. “He knew that the most important thing to a parent is to see his child grow up healthy and happy.”

“Yes,” said Mama Juana, examining Callen’s face. “And this child is not a happy one.”

“What can we do?” asked Liberty. “We’ll do anything to make him better.”

Mama Juana’s face was grim. “There is only one cure. You must bathe in the blessed Waters of Tachauatl. The enchanted springs hidden so deep in the forest, that almost no one can locate them.”

Al and Liberty exchanged glances. Once, all those years ago, the two of them had stumbled across a hidden pool so lovely and remote, they had considered it their own private Eden. Could those be the blessed waters?

Curse of Tachauatl

“Don’t worry,” said Al, giving his son’s shoulder a reassuring pat. “Your mom and I once knew this forest so well, they could have hired us as guides. We’ll find those enchanted waters and get you cured.”

Curse of Tachauatl

Curse of Tachauatl

And so they began their hike. For six long days in the stifling, humid heat, and for five restless nights filled with buzzing mosquitoes and the wild chorus of rainforest wildlife, they trekked deep into the jungle. Sometimes they talked, sometimes Al and Liberty sang together, and sometimes Callen even joined in. And sometimes, they walked in silence, too sore, or sunburned, or itchy from bug bites to feel like making much conversation.

Curse of Tachauatl

And at last, they came upon the pools. The waters shone green, clear, and inviting, even under the pale silver light of the moon.

Curse of Tachauatl

Curse of Tachauatl

“Bless our son, Oh Great Tachauatl,” Al said, face lifted up toward the glittering night sky.

“Cleanse his spirit with your blessed waters,” added Liberty, “and return him to life.”

And with that, they peeled off their clothes and splashed into the enchanted pool.

Curse of Tachauatl

Two months later, Callen was still smiling, even after his orthodontist put braces on his teeth. “I can’t help it,” he said, his voice bubbling with excitement. “I’m playing first chair in the spring orchestra concert. Cassandra Walters said she’ll go to the dance with me this Friday. You guys are finally getting married. And — man, I don’t know. Everything is just so awesome!”

Callen Smiling

 

Chapter 16: Spring in the Winter

LostandFound (6)

“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.”

LostandFound (4)

“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!”

LostandFound (5)

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.

LostandFound (8)

“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.”

LostandFound (7)

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.

LostandFound (1)

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.

LostandFound (15)LostandFound (3)

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.

LostandFound (12)

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.

LostandFound (9)LostandFound (10)LostandFound (11)

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.”

LostandFound (14)

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.”

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