A THIRDS Christmas.
Where could he be?
Sloane looked everywhere for Ash. He’d woken up to find Ash gone, but he didn’t have a “session” or Ash would have told him. The door to their room had been open, which meant they were allowed to leave. Probably because it was Christmas tomorrow, so there were no sessions until after, and most of the grownups were gone, except for the security guards and Dr. Shultzon.
Ash never went anywhere without telling Sloane, just like Sloane never went anywhere without Ash, not if he could help it. Not because the other kids scared him. No one was mean to each other. Ash had said it was because they were all in this together. It was the grownups they were all scared of.
Sloane checked the playroom, the canteen, and even the medical bay. No one had seen him either. Sloane didn’t call out for Ash in case it got him in trouble. Ash had to be here somewhere. He’d never leave Sloane alone. Ever. Last week Dr. Shultzon told Sloane it had been almost three years since Sloane and Ash met. It made Sloane really happy. Ash called him a dork, saying they’d always be together so it wasn’t a big deal. Three days after Christmas, Sloane would be thirteen, and officially a teenager, just like Ash. Ash had teased Sloane, telling him he was the oldest, already a teen while Sloane was still a little kid. Sloane had rolled his eyes. Ash was like, not even a month older.
Walking by one of the offices, Sloane heard sniffing and froze. The door was open a tiny bit. Checking each end of the hall to make sure no one was watching, he tiptoed up to the door then peeked inside. Ash was inside the empty office, sitting on the windowsill, looking out.
Sloane slipped inside, closing the door silently behind him. He walked up to Ash who didn’t even blink.
“Hey,” Sloane said quietly.
Ash grunted, but didn’t say anything. He was usually grumpy, but this time it was different. He looked… sad.
“Can I sit with you?”
Ash let out a noise, like he was annoyed, but pulled his knees up and wrapped his arms around them to make room for Sloane.
Sloane climbed up on the windowsill, his knees drawn up as he faced Ash. “What’s wrong?”
Sloane studied Ash. His eyes were kinda red and glassy, and he sniffed before rubbing his eyes, a deep frown on his face.
“What do you want?” Ash growled, still not looking at him.
“I couldn’t find you.”
Ash glanced over at him. “And you got scared, huh?” He didn’t sound mad.
Sloane nodded, his bottom lip between his teeth. He hated being so scared all the time, but he couldn’t help it. The tests, the screaming, and crying, the nightmares…. It wasn’t so terrible because Ash was with him. Always. Not being able to find him had scared Sloane.
“I’m not going anywhere,” Ash muttered.
Sloane looked out the window, gasping and plastering his hands on the glass. “It’s snowing!” It had been a long time since he’d seen the snow. None of the rooms they were ever in had any windows. Ash said it was so no one on the outside could see them. Sloane thought maybe no one knew they were here, but Ash thought they did and just didn’t care.
“The snow makes me think of Arlo.”
Sloane was sad for Ash. He’d never had any brothers or sisters, so he didn’t know how it would feel to lose one of them, but he knew how it would feel if he lost Ash. Ash had told Sloane about Arlo one night after Sloane woke him up from a nightmare. He’d been kicking and crying in his sleep, calling out for someone called Arlo. His twin.
“I’m sorry,” Sloane said softly. He wished there was something he could do to make Ash not hurt so much. Ash wouldn’t like him fussing, so Sloane just nudged his socked feet closer until they were touching Ash’s. His shoulders relaxed.
“My mom used to take us ice skating all the time. Arlo loved it.”
“You ice skate?” Sloane blinked at his friend, surprised.
“Yes, dork. I can ice skate. I can do a lot of things.” Ash went back to looking out the window and sighed.
They were quiet, both watching the snow fall. The longer they watched, the sadder Ash seemed to get. Sloane wondered what he could do. He had to do something. Ash was always taking care of him, cheering him up, making him laugh, stealing extra snacks from the canteen for them.
“Do you want to go watch Christmas movies?” Sloane asked, hopeful.
Ash shook his head, his voice quiet. “Maybe later. I’m just gonna sit here a while. Watch White Christmas. That always makes you smile.”
Sloane carefully hopped down. “Okay.” He left Ash and headed for one of the big playrooms where they were sometimes allowed to watch movies. When he got there he didn’t go in. Instead, he turned, and went to the elevator. He took it up to the next floor. The doors opened and a security guard frowned down at him.
“Where are you going?”
“I need to talk to Dr. Shultzon.”
The man’s frown grew deeper.
“Please,” Sloane said, eyes wide. “I won’t be long. I promise.”
With a sigh, the man nodded. “Hurry up. I’m watching you.”
“Yes, sir.” He hurried down the hall until he found Dr. Shultzon’s office. He’d been here lots of times. Usually when Shultzon was trying to explain to him why he needed to be a brave boy, and how he was really important. Sloane stood in the doorway and tried not to fidget.
Dr. Shultzon looked up from his where he sat behind his desk and smiled. “Sloane, what a pleasant surprise. You don’t normally come to visit me.”
“I’m sorry,” Sloane said, rubbing his arm. “I um, I wanted to ask if you could do something.”
Dr. Shultzon laced his fingers together. “Oh? And what’s that?”
Sloane told him what he wanted, then waited. Dr. Shultzon was quiet. “That’s a very odd request. I’m not sure—”
“But, you could if you wanted to right?”
“Perhaps, but Sloane, I don’t—”
Sloane rushed over to the desk, gripping the edge. “But I’m important, right? You’ve told me so lots of times. That I’m important, and that I help other Therians. You said I was special.”
“Yes, that’s true.”
“Please. I won’t ever ask for anything ever again. I won’t misbehave. I promise.” He drew a cross over his heart with his finger. “Tomorrow’s Christmas, and this is super-duper important.” His best friend in the whole world was sad. Whatever Sloane had to do to make Ash be Ash again, he would do it.
“Please!” Tears welled up in Sloane’s eyes. “You have to!”
“Well, seeing as how you feel so strongly about this, and tomorrow is Christmas. All right. One hour. Be by the elevator on your floor, and I’ll have one of the guards escort you over.”
“Thank you!” Sloane ran from the room. One hour. Sloane took the elevator back to the floor where his and Ash’s room where. He was already wearing warm clothes, so he just had to put his shoes on. He grabbed Ash’s sneakers, and ran back to the elevator, getting off on the floor where the office was. Ash was still sitting at the window. When Sloane tiptoed in, Ash huffed.
“It’s been like, five minutes.”
Sloane put Ash’s sneakers on the floor by the door before joining him at the window.
“I know. I thought maybe you missed me,” Sloane teased, knowing how much it annoyed Ash, though it didn’t really annoy him. He just pretended it did. Sloane climbed up and sat with him, watching the snow fall.
“Why do you keep looking at the clock?” Ash peered at him, and Sloane shrugged.
“Just wondering what time it is.”
“Cause you got somewhere to be?”
An hour! Sloane jumped down. “We have somewhere to be.” He grabbed Ash’s wrist. “Come on. I want to show you something.”
Ash rolled his eyes. “Fine. You’re so annoying.”
“I know,” Sloane said with a laugh. “Come on. Put on your shoes.” He handed Ash his sneakers.
“Just do it!”
“Geez, okay. You’re so bossy.”
Ash put on his sneakers, and the second he’d tied his shoes, Sloane grabbed his hand and ran.
“Where are we going, and why do we have to run there?”
“That’s not an answer.”
“Whatever,” Sloane said, pulling Ash with him to the elevator where a guard stood waiting for them. Ash lifted his chin, and narrowed his gaze at the man.
“Where are we going?”
“Trust me,” Sloane said, getting into the elevator with the guard. They stopped in the basement, and when the doors opened, Sloane covered Ash’s eyes.
“What are you doing?”
“It’s a surprise.” Sloane was so excited, he could barely hold it in.
“You’re such a dork.”
“I know, but please, Ash. Don’t peek.”
They walked slowly out into what looked like the building’s underground parking garage. Except it didn’t look much like a parking garage anymore. Sloane moved his hands.
“Merry Christmas, Ash!”
Ash’s eyes went huge, his mouth dropping open. “Holy cow… is that…?”
“It’s an ice skating rink!” Sloane ran over to the white wall surrounding the ice rink. It wasn’t huge, but it was plenty big for them. There were Christmas lights, a radio playing Christmas music, and a small table with hot chocolate. Sloane picked up a pair of black ice skates, and hurried them over to Ash. “They’re your size.”
“How…?” Ash shook his head. He looked at Sloane, his bottom lip trembling, and tears in his eyes. Sloane’s smile fell off his face.
“Do you not like it?”
One second Sloane was standing in front of Ash, the next he was falling over from Ash tackling him. Sloane laughed, hugging his best friend tight.
“This is the best Christmas present ever,” Ash murmured. He smiled down at Sloane, hugged him one more time before scrambling to his feet. “Come on!”
“I don’t know how to skate,” Sloane said quietly.
Ash handed Sloane the other pair of skates. “I’ll teach you, silly.”
Sloane’s smile was so big his face hurt. He pulled on the skates, and Ash taught him how to lace them up properly. Then he helped Sloane over to the ice. Sloane didn’t think it was real ice, but it was close. It was cold too. He could see his breath when he laughed.
The ice was super slippery, and even though Sloane went slower than a snail, he still kept falling over. Ash laughed.
“You’re like Bambi.”
“Funny,” Sloane grumbled, trying to stand up. After two tries, he sat down on his butt. He smiled up at Ash. “I want to see you skate.”
“Okay.” Ash beamed down at him. He took off, and Sloane was amazed at how easy Ash made it look. He didn’t trip or fall even once. He was so good. He could even skate backwards, and he did turns. Most of all, he was happy, a big smile on his face as he went fast then slowed down, turned and skated backwards. Sloane had never seen Ash smile like that, and it made his heart happy knowing he’d done that.
Ash came back, stopping in front of him. He held his hands out. “Come on. Let’s try again.” He helped Sloane to his feet then turned. “Hold on to my sweater.”
Sloane did as asked, and Ash slowly started skating with Sloane holding on. He actually managed to stay on his feet.
“I’m doing it!” Sloane laughed, and held on tight as Ash went a bit faster. It was kind of like roller skating, but way more slippery. After a while, Sloane was moving his legs. He held onto Ash’s hand as they skated. This was the best Christmas ever.
“Yeah?” Ash stopped to catch his breath.
“Let’s spend every Christmas together.”
Ash looked at him for a long moment before nodding. “Okay.” A big smile spread on his face, and he held his hand out to Sloane. “Deal.”
“Best friends forever.”
Ash shook his head, but he was smiling still. “Dork.”
“Ash,” Sloane whined.
“Best friends forever.” Ash threw his arm around Sloane’s shoulders. “Merry Christmas, Sloane.”
Sloane smiled wide. “Merry Christmas, Ash.”
Copyright © 2016 Charlie Cochet. THIRDS published by Dreamspinner Press.