A couple of sticks were enough to set the creative minds of childhood best friends Ryan Rambow and Alex Kierstead in motion.
The pair grew up two houses down from each other in Aurora and could create something out of nothing - music, movies, art. You name it, Rambow said.
"All we needed was a couple of sticks and we'd be set for the day," Rambow said. "Our imaginations would just take over. It was like that every day for the past 20 years."
Rambow was among many stunned to learn that Kierstead, 20, a Waubonsie Valley High School graduate, had been identified as the Southern Illinois University student killed in a house fire the day before Thanksgiving in Carbondale.
"It's just unbelievable that we won't talk to him again," Rambow said. "He was just the center of our whole friend group. We're devastated that such a main character in our lives has been taken away so soon."
The fire was discovered just before 5 a.m. Wednesday on West Freeman Street about a block north of the university. When emergency responders arrived, the two-story home was engulfed in flames, police said.
Kierstead was the only person home at the time.
Kierstead was known for the many bands he played in -- most recently bass in Hang Moose and guitar in No Wonder, Rambow said.
A junior studying political science, according to the university, Kierstead had been a student reporter for WSIU Radio for more than a year, his colleagues said in a news report.
He spent his free time in nature, friends said, hiking at southern Illinois favorites like Garden of the Gods, Giant City State Park and the spillways. And he loved jam sessions around a bonfire.
Elyssa Brandon, 19, a senior from Danville, met Kierstead last year during lunch in the dorm cafeteria and spent hours talking to him.
"He caught on to who you were as a person almost instantly," she said. "He's a very loving person. Very nonjudgmental. That's what attracted me to being his friend in the first place.
"He was just one of those people who instantly made you smile."
Brandon spent Tuesday evening with Kierstead at a party where friends gathered to play music and dance.
"A few hours before the fire, he called to tell me that he loved me and to have a happy Thanksgiving and that he'd see me after break," she said. "I'll always remember that: how loving he was. He taught people a real lesson about being selfless and how to love people because you could -- not because you needed to."
Friends say they're unclear how the fire started.
"He just had lot of people who were expecting him to come back," Rambow said.
The cause of the fire remains under investigation, Carbondale police say. No foul play is suspected.
Services for Kierstead are pending at Healy Chapel's Aurora location, 332 W. Downer Place. For more information, visit healychapel.com.