From down the hall comes a sound like no other.
It is quick, sharp and unmistakably authentic.
It travels beyond closed doors, past the nurse's station and bounces off the walls of the air-locked seventh floor at All Children's Hospital.
This is the sound of teenagers. Not the silliness, but the devotion.
One is stuck in an isolation room, the other is days away from major surgery. Both are taking on cancer for the second time.
"I don't know what they would do …''
For just a moment, Connie Colton's words hang in the air as tears cloud her eyes.
"… if they didn't have each other.''
This is the sound of best friends.
• • •
In a perfect world, they would have never met. There was no logical reason Ashley Krueger, 18, and Tony Colton, 13, should have found one another.
They lived on opposite ends of Sarasota County, and looked as if they came from opposite ends of the world. Ashley is 6 feet tall, fair-skinned and reserved. Tony is smaller, dark-haired and charismatic.
It was the necessity of adjoining chemotherapy rooms at All Children's in 2011 that brought them together.
Since then, their lives have been colored by heartbreak, setbacks and fear, but their collaborative journey has uncovered something deeper.
They provide each other balance, and perhaps a sense of normalcy. Since each understands the other's reality, there is a freedom in being able to ignore it.
Back when they were fighting cancer for the first time and spending weeks on end in the hospital, they would stalk the halls looking for fun and occasionally finding trouble.
They would move furniture out of the way, and organize movie nights in a conference room in the hospital's starfish wing. When you're done throwing up, they would tell the other kids, bring your IV pole and we'll have popcorn.
They rarely talked about the removal of a shoulder blade that has pretty much left Ashley's left arm useless, nor the kidney that is no longer a part of Tony's life.
If tears needed to be shed, they were always for someone else.
Tony and Ashley were the strong ones. They were going to beat this.
• • •
The word was that a recurrence of Ashley's initial cancer — Ewing's sarcoma — would be a catastrophic setback.
So when doctors told her adoptive parents — Cindi Krueger and Pat Myers — that her apparent relapse was actually T cell lymphoma, it was nearly a relief.
Then reality set in.
It would take intensive chemotherapy. A bone marrow transplant. At least two months in the hospital, and a year in quarantine. And that's if all went well.
"That first night back in the hospital, I walked outside at midnight and just stared at the lights,'' said Myers, while sitting on the patio of the Ronald McDonald House where she has spent more than 200 nights the past two years. "I thought we were through watching children die, seeing their parents grieve and watching Ashley suffer.
"I thought, 'How did we end up back in this hell?' ''
For Ashley, a straight-A student at Sarasota Military Academy, a new round of cancer meant graduation was on hold and college would be delayed. For Tony, it meant there was work to be done.
He did an online fundraiser (giveforward.com) to help Ashley's parents with myriad nonmedical expenses. He organized a car wash at his church. He addressed assemblies at Ashley's school leading to a massive yard sale.
Between the various ventures, Tony had raised more than $30,000, but he was beginning to look weary and weak. Myers called his mother, Connie, and told her Tony had done more than enough. It was time to focus on his recovery instead of his fundraising.
"I told her, 'I pray to God this is a favor I never have to repay,' '' Myers said.
Two weeks later, they discovered cancer had also returned to Tony's body.
• • •
As she reclines in bed, he stands in the hospital doorway and lifts his shirt to explain what he has proposed.
He has one long scar across his abdomen and another round one below his left shoulder where a port was inserted. His idea, Tony tells Ashley, is to have the next port inserted below his right shoulder, and to have the surgeon round off both sides of the scar on his stomach.
A surgical smiley face.
His surgery is days away, and doctors estimate it could last six hours. Two tumors need to be removed and his already-fragile bowels are in the way. When it's over, there will be treatment at the National Institute of Health in Maryland, so Ashley has begun a giveforward.com fundraiser of her own to defray travel costs for Tony's family.
"I told my mom, '(Surgery's) not going to bother me. I'll be asleep. You're the one who has to sit there,' '' Tony says. "I just never feel sorry for myself. This had to happen to someone who is strong. I was chosen because I'm strong. And I look good bald.''
For the better part of two years, Tony and Ashley's worlds have been hijacked by a dizzying succession of unknowns. Diagnoses, surgeries, treatments and scans. They are battling odds a gambler would never consider.
The one constant in their lives has been each other.
There was a brief time early last year, when both were cancer-free. They would hang out at the mall, or wander around St. Armands Circle.
One afternoon they found themselves rolling around on doctor's chairs in the halls of a clinic while awaiting their monthly checkups. The clinic has a whiteboard near the waiting room with a space for the Word of the Day. On this day, the space was empty.
Tony leapt from his swivel chair and grabbed the marker. His Word of the Day?
"Tony loves Ash''