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September 14, 2014

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Inseparable: A story of friendship, grace and inevitable loss

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L.E. Baskow

An Odyssey Charter School teacher instructs as friends Colton Shrum and Darius Martin attend class Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014.

Darius Martin & Colton Shrum

Darius Martin & Colton Shrum. Launch slideshow »

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. Darius removes Colton’s socks. He learned the hard way that waiting until Colton is lying down could cause a sprained ankle.

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, knowing he is terminally ill.

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.

His mother, Darla Martin, who also taught at his school, tried to push Darius to make friends by signing him up to be manager for the middle school girls basketball team that she coached. Darius resigned himself to the task, but he never made an effort to talk to others.

“He doesn’t do things unless he’s forced to,” Darla Martin said. “He’s never enjoyed it.”

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. But Colton never dropped his pencils.

Every day, Darius sat next to Colton offering to sharpen his pencils, hand in papers and accompany him to the restroom, and every day 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.

Darius stayed back with Colton during gym class so they could hang out, cracking jokes on the sideline while others ran.

“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?’” Darla Martin said. “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.

• • •

The memory still makes Colton laugh a year later: the day 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.

For the last two summers, Darius became a counselor at Colton’s muscular dystrophy summer camp so he could be with his friend. The tables turned those summers, with Colton pushing Darius out of his comfort zone, forcing him to meet people in a large social setting. Darius made friends he never would have without Colton.

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.”

There’s a letter Shelly keeps tacked to her cubicle at work that Colton wrote her on Mother’s Day a couple of years ago. After the typical lines of gratitude about everything she does, he wrote:

And most of all, thank you for us living in Las Vegas, because without that, I wouldn’t have Darius, my best friend.

“That is his world,” Shelly said.

• • •

Shelly sits at her kitchen table, pondering what Darius means to her son. Down the hall, the boys snooze through the morning after another night of video games.

She’s thought about their friendship often. She’s tried her best to make sure Colton lives a normal life, but Darius has offered something a mother never could — a best friend.

“He’s everything,” Shelly says of what Darius means to her son, wiping a tear from her face.

They’ve grown so close, Shelly often jokes that the teenagers’ exclusive commitment is like an old married couple. They even bicker like one.

Their attachment bothered Darla Martin at first, as if Darius had shunned his family for Colton. She forced Darius to come home each morning for breakfast just so she could see him, and made him go on family trips to California to visit his grandmother to remind him of that family.

But as time has gone on, she’s realized how unique their relationship is.

“I don’t think (Darius) would have any friends if it weren’t for Colton,” Darla Martin said. “It’s a sense of they need each other.”

On the one hand, the teens don’t try to make more of their friendship than it is — two guys who get along and love playing video games, going to the movies and eating at new restaurants. But they know how important they are to each other.

During the most recent Muscular Dystrophy Association Christmas banquet, Colton had the chance to surprise Darius and introduce him as the recipient of the organization's Distinguished Service Award.

“Darius is just a really great friend,” Colton told the crowd with a wavering voice. “I don’t know what I’d do without him.”

Darius accepted the award with a shy grin as the emcee urged him to give his own speech.

“I’m actually really lucky,” Darius told the crowd of more than 100 children and families, something he never would have done without Colton. “Few people have friends like Colton. Our partnership is amazing.”

Once the awards were over, they ribbed each other for their sentimental speeches.

“I thought you were going to cry,” Darius said laughing.

“No, that was stage fright,” Colton said. “I swear.”

• • •

Today is the big day — graduation from Odyssey Charter High School.

Around them, teens stood in alphabetical order wearing gowns. They giggled and whooped, eager for their big moment on stage. The two boys, on the other hand, remained quiet.

While they waited, an administrator checked in on them. They were scheduled to lead the Pledge of Allegiance on stage, and she wanted to make sure they were ready. She then 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. Neither Colton nor Darius had any clue what awaited them in the future. But this much seemed clear: 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.”

After the ceremony, Colton smiled through the photos, but Shelly could see the uncertainty in his eyes.

Neither Colton nor Darius were filled with the same anticipation and excitement that had their classmates gripped in wild exuberance, cheering and spraying Silly String.

“He’s happy, but not,” Shelly said. “They can go anywhere, but he has to stay. He’ll be fine if Darius leaves, but who will fill that void?”

The same goes for Darius, who has never had a friend outside of Colton. Both have reassured themselves nothing would change.

And they saw to it. 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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