Flash Fiction Story: Free Bird by Ben Fuller

The sun rested lightly on the horizon. Billy adjusted his left hand on the neck, and then reached down with his right hand to double check the cable connection and took in a deep calming breath. The pleasant rumble of the assembling crowd drifted up to his ears on the warm summer breeze.

Sometimes he felt like this was the only moment that mattered, this was the moment for which he kept on living. He generally felt that right now, as he heard Petey off to the side swearing under his breath trying to get the generator to kick over, as Layla smiled sweetly at all the locals dropping off food and then finding a place to throw out a blanket on the thick grass.

As his stomach twisted in expectation and his mind raced over the rest of the evening that was opening up before him, he looked out over the gathering crowd in the dimming daylight and saw the expectation on their faces. The excitement and nervousness.

This life was pretty much all that Billy knew, his dad used to belong to a community like this, but one day after another long struggle in the fields trying to turn the soil and arguing with his brothers over something that there shouldn’t have been an argument about, he came home packed Billy and his little sister Layla up, grabbed his guitar and they hit the road.

At first it was rough – there would be days with no food and almost no water, but they always got through. Every night, after traveling all day, they would practice – there was no sleep until everyone’s fingers hurt and throats were sore. And if they were lucky enough to have food, that would come last as well.

He remembered the first time someone had come up to them already knowing who they were. They had been on the road for about a year at that time, and in that moment Dad acted like it happened all of the time, but later when they were getting ready Billy could tell how happy he was.

Over the years they had added people and lost people, finally raised enough to buy a horse and then two more and then ultimately jury-rigged an old camper trailer like a wagon so that they could pack their lights and sound equipment in it and hook the horses up to it to pull during the day and sleep in it at night when it would get cold.

When Billy was 19, the year before his dad died from pneumonia, Michelle and her parents all joined the group. She was 16 at the time and Billy was lost to her from that moment on. She brought a pure clean voice and a clarinet, her mom brought a small electric piano and her dad a strong back and an honest heart. And they kept moving on.

In the summer they went as far north as possible, in the winter they headed south and tried to stay close to the coast as fall approached.

Billy and Michelle had two kids and one on the way – Paulie, Julia and TBD. The old family joke was so ingrained that strangers had even started referring to their unborn child as TBD. Petey had joined the group just last year – he had no musical talent, but was a whiz with all of the old machinery that they scavenged along the way. Plus, Layla had a pretty deep crush on him.

He could hear Paulie’s voice trying to sell lemonade to the seated crowd, calling out to everyone and cajoling them, convincing them how thirsty they were. Julia was still too young, but she was just as happy sitting with her aunt at the entry playing drums on the pots and pans she insisted on carrying with her everywhere. Billy didn’t want to call her a natural out of fear of jinxing her, but he had to admit in the quiet of night as he lay curled up next to Michelle that she was indeed a natural.

They had learned over the years that it was best to avoid the large urban areas. It was easy to get lost, or worse yet, abducted and packed off to a labor factory. In the early days, before they knew better, there had been some close calls. Billy and Layla’s dad had even had to kill someone once to protect them. He never spoke of it after, but they could tell it was never really far from his mind. Since then, they stayed away and focused on the smaller farming communities and combines.

They lived as cash free as they could, but still took it when it was offered. Since the big collapse it wasn’t worth as much as it used to be, but there was always a need for it on the road.

Petey swore a little louder than usual and then apologized gruffly under his breath as he pulled the cord on the portable generator. The engine caught and settled into a warm rhythm. The lights they had rigged that afternoon lit up and Billy felt them shine onto his face. His amp scratched to life and gave a short squeal.

Scattered applause came from the audience and an excited hush fell across them. Billy could hear Paulie whistle out encouragement to him like he did every time and he could just make out Michelle smiling up at him from the foot of the stage. He could see the final red of the setting sun and he took another deep breath.

His right hand gently stroked the body of his guitar and then he smiled as he began to play.

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