Ringing echoed in his head, everything hurt. He couldn't get his arms or legs to move. Screaming began to overlay the ringing in his ears, the smell of metal flooded his senses before he let the darkness lurking on the edge of his vision pull him under.
Rhett woke with a start, arms flailing to grasp at the sheets tangled around his tall frame. Letting out one shaky breath after another, he let himself come down from the memory.
"Rhett hon, yer gonna be late," his aunt pushed into his room while trying to fix her hair for the day.
"Y-Yeah, thanks," he ran a sweaty palm through his hair.
He was an adult now. He couldn't keep living with his aunt when all his cousins moved out ages ago. He couldn't help it, though. He wanted to run away from the memories, but aircrafts were still too much.
"Y'know, ya don' gotta leave," his aunt sat down on the edge of his bed and placed a hand on his shin.
"It's fer school. I gotta go sometime," Rhett tried to smile at the woman who had housed him since the accident.
"Alright hon, if that's what ye want." She squeezed his shin before leaning over to press a kiss to his forehead.
Rhett ran a hand through his hair. This was it. The first step towards the rest of his life.
College was a slog, his back keeping him from playing sports like the other guys. Instead, he keptholed up playing video games with his roommate. Would he call them friends? Maybe. Best friends they were not.
He had one, a long time ago. Before the accident, before his whole life got turned upside down. He wondered how the kid with the soft brown hair and big blue eyes was getting along. He hoped that he moved on with his life knowing that Rhett was fine. As fine as could be after losing his parents and brother.
Rhett eyed the maps his roommate had strewn across his desk. “Let’s go on a road trip man! Meet some college chicks during spring vacay! C’mon!” A road trip wouldn’t be so bad. Justin was a decent enough person.
But maybe, just maybe he could drive up to North Carolina. Not with Justin. But to see Buies Creek. To see if he could find that friendly warm smile and the mind filled with wild imagination.
Looking at the maps, he decided that he would go in the summer. More time to drive up. And then Justin could have his undivided attention for spring break.
The smell of the tobacco fields filled him with this longing and nostalgia for his old life. The one torn from his fingers, ripped apart like the wreckage of the plane.
A deep breath, followed by another. He was tired and more susceptible to the awful thoughts, but he wasn’t going to let them control him. No, Rhett was going to find Link, and make sure they could stay in touch.
He pulled up to his old house, the property empty and lacking any care. Windows boarded up, the door hanging ajar on its hinges. His mom’s garden overgrown and wild. Had no one moved in after his family sold off the old furniture and other belongings?
He drove to the one other house he knew by heart. Link’s house.
He knocked on the door and shifted side-to-side on the small stoop. It was smaller than he remembered. “Comin’!” he heard Sue’s voice from deep within the house. She must have been baking something.
The door opened slowly, “Hullo there stranger. What c’n I do fir yah?”
Rhett blinked slowly, did she not recognize him? “Uh yeah, I was curious about the old McLaughlin property,” he jammed his thumb towards the general direction of his childhood home.
“No one snatch’d er up since the family passed eight years ago or so,” Sue’s eyes narrowed at him.
His own eyes went round; She thought the whole family had passed? Then what of Link? “I’m sorry to disturb you ma’am. Thank you for the information. You have a great day.” He took a gentle step back from the older woman.
He had never fled to his car faster in his life, the vehicle peeling out of the driveway faster than necessary.
Metal crunching, shearing into bits. Ringing, screams, the taste of blood in his mouth.
Rhett woke with a start, brushing sweat from his brow with an equally sweaty palm. “C’mon man. Snap out of it.”
Opening his eyes slowly he reached out for his Momma. “Momma?” his voice was incredibly small over the din of everything else around them. His hand pulled at her blouse, the fabric squelching under his fingers, “Momma?”
A rasping breath and his mom shifts slightly, “G’nna… be… a’right…” Rhett’s small fingers dig into her blouse harder as a red stained had rests over his.
“Cole!” he calls out for his brother on the other side of the aisle. He turns his head to the empty space where his brother and father should have been sitting.
“Cole! COLE!” his small voice broke around the name of his brother.
His mom’s hand slipped from its delicate perch on his own. “Momma! Hey!” he tugged at her red soaked blouse.
“Help!” his voice rang out among the wails of the other passengers.
What a great way to start the day! With horrific memory recall! He forced his eyes open and pushed himself up and out of bed.
He crawled into the shower and tried to wash the phantom blood from his hands and arms. Scrubbing and scraping until the skin was tender and raw.
Running his hands through his wild hair, he sighed. He didn’t have the mental energy to feed himself this morning. A morning for the food truck. Maybe even lunch if the sunlight filtering into his bathroom was any indication.
Letting his long legs carry him from the bathroom to his room, he pulled on a gray henley, black jeans, and ran his hand through his hair until he deemed it acceptable.
Letting himself out of the house and into the outside world, he squinted into the sun. “Too bright.” He let his legs carry him to his favorite food truck on autopilot.
Rhett stared into the Cape Fear River, the sound of the running water bringing back memories of his childhood. Asking around, he found out Link hadn’t come home since he left Buies Creek for school. No one even knew if he was still alive. No wonder Sue hadn’t asked if Rhett knew her son. Link was gone too. Just like his Momma, just like Cole, just like his father.
Rhett scooped up a small rock from the shoreline, “Do not go gentle into that good night.” He tossed the rock across the waters to the shore on the other side. “Do not stand at my grave and cry,” another rock sailed across the expanse of water. “Time does not bring relief; you all have lied,” a third stone whistled to the other side. “A thousand words won’t bring you back…” the fourth rock he slipped into his pocket.
Rhett touched the smooth stone he pocketed on his way out the door. Such a small thing, the only thing he had of his friend. He didn’t have the heart or strength to go back, to ask Sue for a picture of her baby boy. He would never be able to look her in the eye and tell her he felt like it was his fault Link never came home. That he was unworthy of an image of his best friend when Rhett robbed her of his life.
Looking up at the round friendly face of the guy who ran the food truck, Rhett gave him a small smile back.
“Rough night, huh buddy? The usual?” the cook didn’t even wait before he started on Rhett’s usual.
“Thanks Rob, you’re a hero,” he leaned up against the side of the truck.
“No problem, stretch! Happens to the best of us.”
Rhett let the word roll around his head. Was he living the best version of his life? Probably not.
“But if you keep coming here, I might just have to set up shop in your frontyard instead,” Rob placed the burrito wrapped up on the edge of the counter.
Rhett couldn’t help but laugh, deep from within him it rolled through to his toes and out into the warm air around them. “I’ll make sure to clear it with my landlord first, but you got it buddy.”
“I’ll just pay them in burritos, it’ll be fine,” Rob leaned against the counter and smiled down at Rhett.
Rhett laughed again, “Probably not, but I think it’d be great to see.”
Money exchanged hands and Rhett took his burrito and turned towards the fountain. “Rhett?” his name called out over the small afternoon crowd.
He frowned slightly. The voice didn’t sound familiar, but his eyes scanned the crowd looking for the source of his name. “Rhett!” the warm voice sounded out again. This time his eyes landed on a man with dark hair and silver shocks, dark blocky frames, and blue eyes that were as endless as the skies above.
Those blue eyes that looked so much like his friend’s. He couldn’t help but call out his name, “Link?”
He had so little time to prepare for the man hurtling into his chest, wrapping his arms around the slightly smaller man as they collapsed to the ground. The dark haired man was sobbing into his chest, his fingers scrambling for purchase on the arms wrapped around him.
“How?” big, waterlogged eyes looked up at him from under skewed frames.
“I could say the same to you,” he laughed trying to stem the flow of tears running down his friend’s angular face. God he had grown so much.
“You never returned! Everyone thought you were dead!” one large fist hit him in the chest, chasing the air out of his lungs.
“You never went home either. Everyone thought you were dead,” he held the angry fist in his until it relaxed and pressed his forehead to Link’s. “I thought I was the reason you had passed. Everyone in Buies Creek thought you died or commited suicide.”
“I could never do that to my Momma. But I couldn’t go back to a place full of memories of you,” Link let his head fall back to Rhett’s chest.
“I’m not that smart. I drove up to find you when I was in college. Brought a little bit of home with me,” he pulled the small smooth stone out of his pocket.
Link’s long fingers gently plucked the stone from his large palm, “What made that place home and not where you were?”
“Well, you weren’t there for one. And two, all my best memories are there, and as the saying goes: Home is where the heart is.” His laugh was hollow but he still held his best friend close to himself, like if he let go, Link would vanish into the abyss.
Link clutched at his henley, pressing into his body like he thought Rhett might disappear into the abyss. “How have we never found each other until now?”
“Bad luck? Sue was awful suspicious of me when I was asking about my old place,” Rhett rubbed a soothing hand up his friend’s back even as his twinged in pain.
“Oh so you were the strange man who fled ‘like the devil ‘imself was chasing ‘is soul back inta hell’,” Link laughed.
“Sounds about right bo,” Rhett laughed.
The front of his shirt was absolutely soaked and people were staring at them, but honestly? Rhett didn’t care. It finally felt like he had come home, wrapped up in the shaking grip of his best friend, the shared name rolling comfortably off his tongue.
Again those large blue, tear-filled eyes stared at him, “God. You don’t sound the same at all anymore.”
“You’re hardly looking spry yourself, old man,” Rhett nudged his friend’s shoulder.
“Do we have to get up?”
Rhett sighed fondly, “I gotta get up before we wreck my back, bo.”
Link nodded before wiping his face clear of tears, standing and holding a hand out to Rhett. “Alright. Time to get up, old man.”
Rhett laughed and took his friend’s out-stretched hand, “Thanks.”
“No problem bo,” Link smiled genuinely before holding out the small river stone.
Rhett took it and slipped it back into his pants pocket, but honestly? He didn’t think he was going to have to carry the small piece of home with him anymore, now that he was home.