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Tribute to Friends

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I had a best friend once. Someone I used to call a brother. Lately I've been wondering, does that person still exist? Does he ever need me like I need him?

Rhett hastily erased what he had just written in his journal. Instead he turned back a page and continued working on the song he was writing. It was a silly little ditty about Little Debbie snack cakes but the line he was stuck on, "You were always there for me," was giving him troubled thoughts tonight. He had tried to meet up with Link over the holidays but Link was busy with his family's many holiday dinners and Link's wife was pregnant, making all the visiting more stressful for the both of him. Rhett didn't want to push them, but Jessie had picked up a gift for them and so he had texted Link multiple times on Christmas Eve with no response until late in the evening. Link had had his phone on silent and it was too late by the time he got them. After that they were heading out to visit Christy's family who were farther away, and they wouldn't be back until the New Year.

Thus, Rhett was spending the long week that stretched between Christmas and New Year's fiddling with his guitar, and listening to Jessie bustle around the house. She couldn't keep still... between her typical cleaning compulsions and the madness of wrapping paper detritus and millions of dishes that had been the result of both of their extended families visiting their new house for Christmas, she had to make the house spic and span before their New Year's Eve party and she had to do it her way.

It had been a wild couple of years, with the four of them graduating college, finding jobs in their fields, and now starting their own families and settling down... or so they had thought. Rhett had never felt so restless in his life. All he could think about, whether he was trying to work at mundane tasks or on holiday and meant to celebrate, was that he felt compelled to create something. He often thought of the pact he and Link had made when they were at the height of their youth; that they would create something amazing together. He just didn't feel like the half-finished movies and a few silly songs, along with the failure that had been their band, Wax Paper Dogz, was enough to qualify as "something amazing." He wanted to do MORE. He wanted to do something that had never been done before. He wanted to revolutionize an industry.

He had to admit that his dreams were far-fetched, not to mention entirely too vague. That's what he needed Link for. Link was the one that connected the dots, made the first steps, polished the finished products. Without Link, all he had were pages and pages of half-finished lyrics and wild ramblings about his dreams. Literal dreams, that is. He was currently really into the concept of lucid dreaming, and he'd been practicing each night as he went to bed, to not just drift off but remain aware. So far he hadn't made much headway at being in control of his dreams, but he had remembered to at least write more of them down. Some of them seemed like great ideas for sketches, music videos, and he even had a loose idea for a documentary. But none of it would be possible without Link.

Link, on the other hand, was busy with his own life. He didn't seem as stifled by his job, which admittedly was a bit more interesting than Rhett's, at least at the moment. Their emails back and forth consisted of a lot of complaining about Christy's pregnancy woes and not a lot of interest on Link's part in any of Rhett's latest ideas. He'd often message Link three or four times with rather complex questions or scenarios and receive a smiley face or a three-letter-word reply back. Whenever they saw each other in person, it was like no time had passed, however, and Link would always attempt to hug him despite his protests. It's just that their in-person visits were getting fewer and farther between. It had been months since they last saw each other face-to-face.

Rhett rubbed his eyes and put down his pencil. It wasn't late yet, only eight o'clock, but he found he could no longer focus. He flopped down on the new sofa his wife had purchased mere weeks ago, kicking off his beat-up tennis shoes so he wouldn't mar the white fabric. Not long after his head hit the fluffy red-patterned throw pillow, his mind began taking him places, as it does when you allow it to wander in the first bare stage of sleep.

He was a little boy again, and he heard his grandma calling him. She was the only person who called him some variation of his middle name, James. Sometimes it was Jim, sometimes it was Jimmy. She sounded distraught, calling Jim, Jim, over and over. He turned around to try and find her, but realized he was in the middle of a swamp. It must be somewhere in the Everglades, a place he had only visited once with his family on vacation.

He slogged slowly through the mud, the atmosphere growing darker and darker around the gnarly trees laden with gray moss. He picked his way over mangrove roots jutting out of the damp soil. Suddenly, from behind a thick tree trunk, a dark shape appeared. It looked like a head of spiky hair, not unlike a style Link sported briefly in college during a growing-out phase. "Link," he called softly, "Is that you?"

"Is that my name?" asked a squeaky voice, as the shape came into clearer view. It was not a human at all. In fact, it was a talking porcupine. The voice did sound strangely like Link's voice used to back when they first met.

"Umm... I'm not sure. I can call you that if you'd like," Rhett replied, noticing that he, too, still had the voice of a child.

"Okay! Hey, do you want to go on an adventure?" asked the little animal. He was bristling with excitement, made more noticeable by the fact that all of his quills were trembling. He rubbed his little hands together nervously, waiting for Rhett's response.

Rhett was starting to recognize the impossibility of the situation, but hadn't quite made the connection that it was a dream. However, an adventure certainly did sound appealing lately. "Sure, let's go on an adventure."

The little creature led him through the swamp grass to a wide but slow-flowing river. "Look, there's my friend, Allie! Have you ever had a real friend?" asked the porcupine, pointing to a dim purplish shape that as it floated towards them clearly became a giant alligator.

"Yeah... I have. But never an alligator," Rhett replied timidly, as he watched the porcupine clamber on to the alligator's back and offer him a hand up. It was easy to climb up and they floated lazily down the river for what seemed like hours, until the porcupine started complaining that he was thirsty. The water was too muddy to drink, so they found a place to land and as they were walking, the scenery suddenly changed.

They were on a dirt road, and buffalo herds wandered past them at a distance. The air was warm and dry here, but an unmistakably delicious smell wafted through the air. "It smells like a fish fry. Must be coming from that barn up ahead." Rhett waved his porcupine friend along and they ran down the road to join a gathering of many small animals frying fish. A larger porcupine handed his new friend a clear bottle sparkling with condensation. "Thanks Daddy!" the porcupine said before quenching his thirst in gulps on the refreshing beverage. Rhett was overcome with a sensation that everything was fine here... this was a safe place. But they couldn't linger long.

"Come on, we have to go, I have so much to show you!" The porcupine exclaimed in his squeaky voice, taking Rhett's hand and pulling him along. Suddenly, all around them, the world appeared to start crumbling. The barn fell to the ground in a pile of rubble, and the dry earth shook and cracked and they fell through. As they were tumbling through the debris, Rhett locked eyes with the porcupine and was shocked to realize that his quills were shrinking away. His eyes grew from beady to big and blue, and when they landed, he saw only the limp body of his real, human, friend lying there. All around them was darkness, yet he could see Link clearly, and he appeared to be hurt by the fall, though Rhett was unscathed.

"Link, buddy, are you alright?" Rhett shook his friend's shoulder gently.

Link slowly came to, blinking up at him with a worried look on his face. "I'm fine, but what happened to the barn? What happened to my family, Rhett?"

Rhett looked around them. They were all alone. For all he knew, the porcupine family was all dead inside the collapsed barn, still. "I don't know. Everyone's gone. Hey, man, it's alright, I'm here for you!" he began to panic as Link started crying, and Rhett gathered him up in his arms.

"Hey man, it's alright!" Link said nothing, just wept silent tears.

"Hey--" Rhett felt a hand on his arm and shot up off the couch. Jessie was shaking him awake, asking him to come to bed. He told her he'd be there in a few, but not before he wrote down his crazy dream. He impulsively typed it up into an email and sent it to Link, not expecting a response for a few days, but an idea for another song was already forming in his mind as he lay down to try and sleep with his wife.