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What If?

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He knocked, even though he'd been told dozens of times it wasn't necessary. When Jenna answered the door, she usually smiled and shook her head.

“Josh,” she'd say, greeting him fondly, “you know our home is your home.”

And he would usually shrug off the offer while mumbling something about not liking to intrude.

Usually.

This time, though, Jenna didn't have a smile for Josh when she found him on her doorstep. She looked tired. Worry etched a line between her brows and bruised the skin beneath her eyes.

“Where is he?” Josh asked as Jenna stepped aside to let him in.

“Where else?” was all she said.

Already on his way to the patio doors across the house, Josh nodded. Of course.

The glass door swished open, Josh stepped out onto the wooden deck, and the door swished shut once more. The weather had been all over the place recently, but it actually felt like spring that morning. Birds sang a cheerful tune from the trees that lined the spacious backyard. Josh headed toward those trees with a determined step and a weary set to his shoulders.

He picked his way through the woods until he came to the small clearing hidden at is heart. Patchy sunlight glittered across the surface of a pond surrounded by horsetails. An oak tree stood guard nearby, young by some standards but older than any of its companions. Its twisted branches had only just started to don their spring jackets.

Beneath the budding branches, a lone figure sat with its back to the wide trunk. The figure's head was bowed, hidden by a grey hood, and its arms were wrapped around its slim legs.

Josh's heart squeezed painfully.

“Ty.”

Tyler didn't look up. He didn't answer. Didn't move a single muscle.

Unease clawed at Josh's gut. Stillness on anyone else might seem like serenity – but not Tyler. Ty's lack of movement was a bad sign. Stillness meant there was so much going on inside his mind that he was afraid to move, lest the chaos break him into a million pieces. The crazier Ty’s mind got, the stiller his body became.

At that moment, Josh hated them. All of them. He hated the ones who used coincidence to spin wild theories that drove others to fever pitch. He hated the ones who bombarded them with tweets day and night, alternately professing their undying loyalty and lashing out angrily for their silence.

He kind of hated himself, too, for hating them. It was wrong, Josh knew, to resent the people who had made them what they were. It was wrong to be ungrateful.

Even though he knew it was wrong, Josh hated them for the way they made his best friend feel. Hated them for their ability to drive Tyler to deathly stillness.

At that moment, Josh would have given it all up to have his Tyler back. He would have happily traded every ounce of success they'd ever achieved to see Tyler bouncing on his heels excitedly over the release of a new song. To see Tyler bursting with irrepressible energy as they anticipated the reactions of their fans.

It had been so long… Josh didn't know if he would ever see that Tyler again. It was the lurking fear that kept Josh awake at night. That fear rose up to claw at him, trying to creep its way up to his heart.

He refused to let it.

Josh shook off the nagging fear and sat on the ground next to Tyler. The ground was stll slightly damp from the weekend’s heavy frost. He didn’t care about getting his jeans wet, but he worried how long Tyler had been out there, getting soaked through. He worried about how far the cold had crept into his friend’s soul.

Worrying was something Josh was a pro at. Anxiety had the ability to turn almost any thought into a bubbling cauldron of concern. But it felt like Josh had spent more time over the past few months worrying about Tyler than he had breathing.

The album had been ready for over three months, awaiting release. At that point, the execs at their label were just about as rabid as the fans. They kept pushing for a release date but, every time it seemed like a good one to drop the album, someone would point out that it would be a good time for the album to drop, the internet would go wild, and Josh would tromp through the woods to find Tyler hiding from it all.

And, every time Josh had to tromp through the woods to find Tyler hiding from it all, he wondered what it would have been like if they had failed. Each time he had to stand by and watch his best friend fighting doubt in absolute stillness, Josh wondered what it would be like if the album just… disappeared.

During those months, Josh had used every argument, every reason he could think of to get Tyler off the cold, wet ground and back into the house their success had built. More than once. He couldn’t think of anything to say that hadn’t been said before. So, he stopped trying.

“Hey,” he said, bumping Tyler gently with his shoulder, “wanna start a band?”

It was just absurd enough to draw Tyler out of his thoughts. He looked up. The hoodie he wore shielded his eyes but not the way one corner of his mouth twitched.

“Huh?”

“You could play the piano and I could play the drums.”

A smile almost touched Tyler’s lips at that. Josh knew his friend must be remembering the night they’d had that same conversation, all those years ago. Of course, then, it had been Tyler doing the asking.

“I dunno, man,” Tyler said, repeating Josh’s own words back to him, “just the two of us? Wouldn’t that be weird?”

“Weirder than two kids from Columbus taking over the world?”

They shared a laugh, but it was hollow on one side and forced on the other. Tyler looked out over the pond, while Josh tugged awkwardly at his shoelace. When Tyler spoke next, it was in a voice so soft the natural sounds of the forest nearly swallowed it.

“What if they hate it?”

It felt as though winter had returned with a vengeance – but only around Josh. Cold washed over him, though the sun continued to warm the clearing. His heart felt the quiet chill of winter, even though birds continued to sing, and insects continued their industrious chirping.

What if they hate it?

They’d asked themselves the question so many times, not just as they worked on the album, but every time something new came together. Every new wardrobe change, every music video, every song, every miniscule change to their logo. Every single time.

What if they hate it?

But that wasn’t really what Tyler was asking. Not this time.

What if this is the end?

What if the wild whirlwind of success had run out of energy? What if they’d created something too different? Too much the same? Too experimental? Too emotional? What if they could no longer connect with their fanbase? What if…

What if it was the end?

Josh shrugged. “Well, I guess we get part-time jobs at Taco Bell and jam in your mom’s basement.”

The other man’s head whipped around at the suggestion. He shoved his hood back. Josh had to laugh at the look of shocked horror on Tyler's face.

“Customer service?” he gasped, appalled. “Never again!”

They shared a real laugh at that. The winter creeping over Josh was blown away in the gentle breeze that swept across the clearing.

“I mean it, Josh,” Tyler said, failing to hide the uncertainty in his voice. “What if…?”

Josh wanted to promise they would love it. That Tyler was worrying himself sick over nothing. But he couldn’t do that. They knew each other too well for empty platitudes. Maybe they would love it. Maybe they wouldn’t.

“I love it,” he told Tyler.

After a thoughtful pause, Tyler nodded. “Me too,” he agreed.

“Isn’t that enough?”

Tyler chewed over the idea for a long time before he dug the phone out of his pocket. His slender fingers were a blur as he fired off a text message. Almost as soon as he hit “send”, the phone jangled in response.

When Tyler made no move to check the reply, Josh asked, “Are you going to answer that?”

Tyler took a deep breath and shook his head. “Nope.” He pulled back his arm and launched the phone into the air. It flew across the space and splashed down in the middle of the pond.

Josh’s jaw fell open. “Jenna is going to kill you.”

“Yup,” Tyler said unrepentantly. He was grinning, though, and that was worth the cost of any new phone.

Josh’s own phone buzzed loudly then. Tyler held out a hand. Even though he was fairly certain he hadn’t backed up any of his photos in months, Josh took the device out of his pocket. Without hesitation, he placed it on his friend’s palm. It followed Ty’s phone to a watery grave.

“So…” Josh said, chagrined. “You told them to drop it?”

Tyler nodded. He bit his lip nervously, shrugged his shoulders, then gave himself a shake.

“No going back now,” he said.

A thrill of excitement ran through Josh. This was it then.

What if this is the end?

 “Well, I guess we wait and see,” Tyler said, as if he could read Josh’s thoughts.

They waited. Morning crept into afternoon, and afternoon into evening, but Josh and Tyler stayed right where they were, waiting silently among the trees as news of their new album took the world by storm.  

Eventually, the sun slid to rest behind the trees. Tyler dropped his head to Josh’s shoulder with a sigh that soon gave way to a gentle snore.

What if this is the end?

It won’t be, Josh thought confidently.

It didn’t matter whether anyone liked the new album, if it sold, or what the critics thought. None of that could change what Josh and Ty had – and that would never end. Josh rested his head against Tyler’s and let himself dream.