Teens' friendship blossoms amid terminal disease

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — The boys don't say much as they burn through another Friday night playing video games.

They're both 18, settling in for a long evening of playing a medieval fantasy video game replete with evil skeleton warriors, magic spells and heroic missions. Darius Martin sits on a black stool; his buddy, Colton Shrum, sits immobilized in a wheelchair, his paralyzed arms propped up by a dresser drawer.

This is how they spend most of their nights, two best friends side by side, dwelling in a fictional world. By one in the morning they're ready to call it a night.

Darius removes Colton's eyeglasses and silver necklace, setting them on his nightstand. Then he takes Colton's shirt off and hands him his anti-anxiety pill. Colton lowers his head to his hand and takes it. So begins the drill that Darius and Colton have performed countless times in their six-year friendship.

Darius pulls out a green, canvas-seat sling from the closet and brings it over toward Colton's wheelchair. He gently eases his friend's back forward and slips the sling beneath him.

Darius connects the sling to a power crane that allows him to lift his buddy into his bed.

"Good?" he asks after attaching the four corners of the sling to the crane.

"Yeah," Colton says.

The crane hums into motion, gently swinging Colton over his bed, where he now hangs like a prize in a claw machine.

Once Colton settles in, Darius pulls the covers up.

Darius grabs his pillow and a beat-up foam mattress pad from the closet and unfurls it next to Colton's bed on the wooden floor.

In the darkness, their chatter yields to sleep.

There's a grim understanding between the two teens: A terminal form of muscular dystrophy is slowly consuming Colton's body, paralyzing all but his forearms. Darius has stayed by his best friend's side.

Their journey began in a sixth-grade English class.

Darius was the shy classmate who struggled to make friends. Unlike his triplet brother and sister, he avoided social situations. Instead, he preferred the refuge of his room, listening to music or studying flying squirrels or other animals that fascinated him.

One of Darius' classmates was Colton, who from the age of 5 had been dealing with the deteriorating symptoms of Duchenne muscular dystrophy. By now he was partially paralyzed and using a wheelchair; when the children ran around in gym class, he sat on the sideline, watching.

The disease was his death warrant, slowly weakening and destroying his muscular tissue until one day when he'd be entombed in his own body. Doctors said that even with medication to slow the disease's inexorable progress, he wasn't expected to live past 18.

Colton never found it difficult to make friends, but over the years they'd stop hanging around because he couldn't keep up with them.

Then Darius came around.

The boys hadn't spoken much to each other all year, until one day, the teacher asked Darius to sit next to Colton and help him pick up his pencil when he dropped it.

They grew closer. During grammar and reading lessons, they whispered about the newest video games. They found out they shared a similar sense of humor, and they traded jokes they found online. And each shared a dislike of the gossip and popularity contests in school.

"I think they both realized that their differences almost united them," said Colton's mother, Shelly Shrum.

Soon, the boys started playing video games at each other's homes. In seventh grade, Colton coincidentally moved down the street from Darius, and they began hanging out almost daily.

It was then that that Darius realized his best buddy was not just sick, but dying. It brought him to tears.

"He said, 'What happens when he goes?'" said Darla Martin, Darius' mother. "I told him that all you can do is be his friend and have those memories."

Darius took the advice: choosing to live in the present and not the future.

Colton still laughs remembering the day a year ago when he and Darius romped around the Strip, each in a motorized wheelchair.

They rolled around the Strip, dodging tourists inside the Cosmopolitan and Bellagio conservatory, and drag racing on the walkway to the Fashion Show mall. They laughed at the people who stared at them in confusion when Darius stood to open doors or press buttons on the elevator, their inside joke.

During their junior year of high school, they decided to attend Odyssey Charter High School so they could graduate together, and they took their senior photo together while wearing matching flat caps.

As their friendship has grown, Darius has taken on a bigger role caring for Colton. Darius makes Colton's food, drives him around town and helps him in the restroom when he needs it. Not once has Darius complained.

"I feel lucky to have Darius," Colton said. "There aren't many friends like this."

On the day they graduated from Odyssey Charter High School an administrator checked in on them as they waited to go on stage and asked a question that haunts Colton and Darius.

"Are you ready for this?" she asked. "What's on the horizon?"

Colton went quiet for a moment, searching for an answer.

It was a question loaded with uncertainty. For the first time since they'd met, Darius and Colton had to consider a scenario where they weren't together. Darius has considered entering the military, while Colton was planning to take classes at the College of Southern Nevada.

Colton waited a few seconds, glancing at Darius, and then answered.

"Who knows?" Colton said. "Something with computers, but I don't know what yet."

Two months later, they both settled on attending CSN.

They have two classes together and will carpool to campus during the week. Colton plans to focus on videography and hopes to one day produce music videos, while Darius will study criminal justice in hopes of becoming a police officer.

Neither has thought much about what will happen to their friendship after they leave CSN. That's two years down the road, or 730 more days to fill with late-night hangouts and video game sessions, with adventures on the Strip and meals at different restaurants. That's 730 more days to fill with memories.

One day at a time.

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Information from: Las Vegas Sun, http://www.lasvegassun.com

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