Since leaving home at the age of 18, Free has traveled the country trying to find a place to call home. Her travels afford a variety of experiences, from following the Grateful Dead to waitressing in
Chicago to selling
jewelry in New Orleans’
French Market, but nothing seems to quell her sense of unrest. All the while her estranged brother Alfie is
in her thoughts. Once she finds him,
perhaps she’ll finally feel at home. But
her world is filled with bad choices and temptations, and Free must rise above these
in order to find her place.
The reader will feel as if they are traveling right alongside Free in this moving coming-of-age story.
Midwest Summer Tour, 1993
I’m in the back of a VW bus, sharing floor space with an overstuffed duffel bag, two guys who are sprawled out asleep, and a German shepherd named Rex. The duffel bag is mine. It contains everything that I own at this junction of my life, except for the sleeping bag that’s spread out for padding on the floor of the bus. The Shepherd isn’t mine; he belongs to Chuck, who’s driving the bus. His wife is in the passenger seat. Her name is Angel and Chuck calls her his old lady. I don’t know the names of the two sleeping guys, but I think I heard someone say they were from New Jersey.
My name is Free. Usually when I tell people that they laugh and ask me what my real name is. I just look them dead on and repeat it: “Free.” I left my old name behind with my old life; shed both of them like a useless layer of skin. When I stepped free of that world I took the name Free. It is my real name. I picked it myself. What could be more real than that?
I sit up and stretch, surveying the morning through the back window of the van. Rex looks up at me, panting. It’s hot already and it can’t be nine yet. Rex puts his head in my lap and I scratch behind his ears. When I ditch this ride, he’s all I’m going to miss. Well, maybe Angel. She’s all right, but Chuck is a big asshole. I look out the window and watch the cornfields flying by on both sides. Welcome to another Midwestern summer day. I turn to the front of the bus. “Where are we?”
Chuck doesn’t answer. He’s staring straight ahead, and his knuckles are white on the steering wheel. Not a good sign. He’s probably hung over from last night.
Angel turns her head. “Nowhere, Kansas,” she replies. She’s about fifty and looks it, except when she smiles. Her gray-blonde hair has mostly escaped her ponytail and is flying around her face. She’s smiling now, but ruefully. She hates the Midwest as much as I do.
I turn around and lean back against the front seat, wishing I had a book. I’d read anything at this point, even one of those trashy romance novels my mother used to read. I had a book on my last cross-country trek; a Stephen King novel called The Stand. I read it over and over and never got bored of it—it was that good. But I ended up trading it to another book-lover for a sandwich.
Instead I pull out my hemp and beads and start making more necklaces. This is my job now. It’s not bad—I don’t mind being my own boss and making my own hours. I’m not going to get rich this way, but I make enough money to pitch in on gas and eat, and even occasionally buy a ticket for the night’s concert—when I can’t get in for free, that is. I’ve tried swinging other things as well—beer, grilled cheese sandwiches, hand-sewn bags. For a while I was riding with a sister who made patchwork baby-doll dresses. They were beautiful, and she made a killing. But that’s not an option for me. What am I going to do—strap a sewing machine to my back? Hemp jewelry works out much better— it’s lightweight, inexpensive, and easy to make.
“Cool beads. Where are they from?”
I look up, startled. It’s one of the New Jersey guys. For a moment I had forgotten anyone was back there with me. He’s wearing a pair of denim cut-offs and nothing else, leaning cross-legged against the other side of the bus. His hair is brown and curly, almost bushy, kind of like Bob Dylan’s. He’s absently petting Rex, who apparently abandoned me when he realized I was busy with something else. Nice show of loyalty.
“I don’t know,” I shrug. “I pick them up here and there.”
“From stores or from people?”
“Both,” I reply. Why does he care where my beads come from? His gaze is making me uncomfortable, but I don’t show it. I stare straight back at him. His eyes are green. He doesn’t look away.
“It would be cool if every one had a different story behind it. You know, like where it came from. It would make the jewelry so meaningful.”
I’m not sure what to say to this. “Well, there’s no story. Sorry.”
I hear a snort of laughter coming from behind him. “Don’t mind him,” says Jersey guy number two, propping himself up on his elbow. I notice he has a thick Jersey accent, which makes me realize the other guy didn’t. “Eric thinks everything should be meaningful.”
“Everything is meaningful,” Eric says solemnly. He doesn’t smile when he says it, but then he looks back at me and smiles. He’s really good looking—not that that matters. In my experience, it’s the beautiful people who are first to screw you over.
His friend is pulling his shirt on. He’s built bigger than Eric, who is bone-thin. His straight blonde hair is all tangled and matted. Maybe he’s trying to dread it. “I’m Mark,” he says. “This is Eric.”
“I’m Free,” I tell them.
“Freedom, or Free?” Eric asks.
“Free,” I reply. I brace myself for the inevitable “What’s your real name?” but he only nods. Silence falls in the back of the bus, and I’m glad. I don’t like to talk about my life, and that seems to be all people want to talk about on the road. Where are you from, where have you been, how many shows have you seen…everyone wants to talk about what’s already been done. I would rather talk about what is yet to happen.
About Lisa Litberg
For as long as she can remember, Lisa Litberg has loved to write. Over the years, she has amassed quite a collection of short stories and poetry, but Free is her first novel. A high school teacher for 15 years, she tries to empower her urban students with the written word. When she isn’t writing or teaching, Lisa might be dancing, playing guitar, practicing aerial arts, or hanging out in her Chicago home with her son Trevor watching The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones.
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