We Dream in Aquamarine

   Aquamarine swam over his vision like the slowly creeping luminescence of pool water.  At first, he wondered how he could’ve possibly gotten out back, right near the frat’s pool. Then, he remembered that he had a bad habit of falling asleep outside. In his disoriented, half-asleep state he saw three figures standing around him, garbed in cloaks and funny, big-headed masks.
   “You guys are assholes,” he chuckled, raising a hand to flip off his fellow fraternity members. “Here I am, sleeping outside, while you’re standing there dressed up like you’re ready for Hallo—”

   Ashton stopped speaking when one of the figures stepped forward. Donovan (the biggest man he’d ever met) had to be hidden under that grey-headed, black-eyed mask. None of the other guys stood six-foot-six.
   “Come on, Don. Leave me alone—or at least help me up.”
   He pushed his hand forward and waited for Donovan to grip it. When Donovan didn’t, Ashton groaned and threw himself back on the lawn chair. “Go away if you’re just going to stand there.”
   The other two figures stepped forward. One held up a long, three-fingered hand, each of the joints swollen to excess. The tip of his finger reminded Ashton of some extraterrestrial from an old Disney movie. With that finger, the second figure—whose eyes seemed larger than its companions’—pointed at Ashton’s stomach, and then pushed it into his abdomen.
   “Fucking A!” Ashton screamed while kicking. “Leave me alone!”
   An excruciating pain lit up his right side. He howled and moaned, kicking at the figures with his left leg because his right was hurting badly.
   “Go away!” he screamed. “Go away! Go awa—”

   “Shit, man,” Donovan said, shaking Ashton’s shoulder. “You take some good shit or somethin’ before you went to bed?”
   He opened his eyes and found the African-American there smiling. His green eyes seemed out of focus.
   “You’re asking me if I took something.” Ashton laughed. “You’re the one who looks stoned.”
   “Shh, man. Don’t go tellin’ the world.”
   “You sound like a Jamaican who’s having a good time on his boat, dude—I don’t need to broadcast it.”
   “Whatever.”
   Throwing his legs over the side of the bed, Ashton reached up to run a hand across his face, and came back with a handful of sweat. He’d expected worse—possibly Sharpie or some other kind of marker. The guys often played pranks on whoever fell asleep first.
   “Want to tell me what you were dreaming about?” Donovan asked, now swaying in place. “You were telling me to leave you alone.”
   “You and some other guys were dressed in big masks and staring at me out back, by the pool. One of you poked me.”
   “Poked you? Man, you must’ve liked that.”
   “Shut the fuck up and go smoke whatever you were smoking.”
   “I got some more if you want some. Seriously, man…I do.”
   “I’m not about to go to the burger joint stoned. I have a job to think about.”
   “You don’t have to think about any’thin if you get a lil’ stoned.”
   “My point exactly.”
   After running his hands through his hair and making his bed—per fraternity rules—he made his way to the dresser and opened one of the drawers, scrounging for some clothes. Thankfully, his uniform stayed at work. He didn’t need the guys to make fun of him for working at a place which had a chicken as its mascot.
   Could be worse, he thought, stepping into the bathroom. I could be the chicken. God, did he feel sorry for the poor bastard that had to do that.
   After kicking his briefs off and tossing them in the corner, he stepped into the shower and turned the water on. Soon after the water came on, the door opened.
   “Hey, hey!” he said, turning to find Donovan standing in the doorway. “You mind?”
   “You mind, man?”
   The African-American jumped onto the counter. Ashton figured he would’ve fallen off, given the way he was swaying, but somehow he managed not to.
   “I don’t mind anything,” Donovan said.
   “Just don’t mess with my underwear.”
   “I’m not queer.”
   “Yeah, but you were the one who put Itching powder in them.”
   “What can I say, I like pulling shit on you guys.”
   “Yeah, I’ve noticed.”
   Gathering a bit of shampoo into his hands, he did a quick hit and mix on his hair, then scrubbed under his arms and privates. When he was finished, he stepped out of the shower and dressed from the waist down before examining himself in the mirror.
   “You look fine, Ash. It’s not like you have to look good selling burgers.”
   “I do if I want a date.”
   “With what? The chicken?”
   Then, Donovan did fall off. It didn’t faze him much, because he was on the floor rolling with laughter.
   “Yeah,” he said, and then smirked. “At least I’ve got a job.”
   “I had a job too.”
   “Then you got caught smoking pot. You’re lucky your ass didn’t get thrown in jail. Bet the big, tough guys in there would’ve liked a piece of you.”
   “You’re an idiot.”
   “You’re stoned.”
   Donovan didn’t reply.
   “Anyway…” Ashton said, raising an arm to apply deodorant, “I’m going to work, so give me a minute.”
   “Hey, hey! That’s my deodorant!”
   “Yeah, but I don’t have any more—so shut up.”
   “You better watch out, bro. Don’t make me do something to you.”
   “You will anyway.”
   After pulling his shirt on and adjusting it across his chest, Ashton tossed the mini stick at his friend before walking out the door. He could have sworn he’d heard the guy call him something under his breath.

   He stood at the front counter ringing up an order for a family of six, that couldn’t seem to get what they wanted right.
   “Three cheeseburgers,” Ashton said. “One without pickles, one with extra pickles, and one with nothing but ketchup.”
He tapped that into the register, hoping they wouldn’t change their minds again. “One double with everything on it, one quarter-pounder with just cheese and tomatoes, and one chicken salad with extra bleu cheese sauce. How many orders of fries did you want?”
   “Four large,” the mother said.
   “And four large.” He nodded, accepting the woman’s change. He slid it into the cash register and reached down to grab six large drinks. “Thank you.”
   The woman, her husband, and their five children went to sit at a table out back.
   “You managed to get all of that?” Blake—another of his fellow frat mates—asked. “I sure as hell couldn’t.”
   “Yeah,” he sighed, scratching his stubbly cheek. “I did.”
   “May God be with you, buddy.”
   He flipped Blake off before the guy disappeared to make burgers.
   Taking the opportunity to relax at the end of a busy lunch rush, Ashton leaned against the counter and tallied how many people he’d served in the past ten minutes. Though, he lost count more than twice, Ashton figured that he’d taken at least fifteen or sixteen orders.
   I swear, if I don’t get a raise out of this…
   He would ‘leave the business.’ Of course he would—he said that all the time, but it meant jack shit in the long run. “Oh well,” he muttered, easing away from the counter. “That doesn’t mean—” A sliver of pain punctured his side.
   “Shit,” he said, reaching down to feel if he’d accidentally run into something. “That’s fucking—” Another throb punctured the silence of his body. That was my right side, he thought remembering the dream, and this is…
   “My right side.” He lifted the tail of his shirt up. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary.
   I’m overreacting. It’s just a cramp.
   A new customer stepped up to the register and examined the menu, completely ignoring Ashton and the way he’d lifted his shirt. She stood there for a long moment before clearing her throat.
   “What can I get you?” he asked, sweat breaking out under his arms.
   “I’ll have a cheeseburger…” she paused, waiting for him to enter the order in, “with a side of small fries and a soda, please.”
   “Thank you.” He gasped, inhaling a deep breath. “That’ll be three-fifty.”
   “Are you all right?” The woman frowned. “You don’t look so—”
   Ashton had no time to hear her finish. He crashed to the ground, rolling in pain.
   “What’s going on?” Blake asked, running out to see what had happened. “Hey, Ash…what’s wrong? Why are you on the floor?”
   “My side’s fuckin’ throbbing,” he moaned, trying as hard as possible to not move.
   “It hurts that bad?”
   “Yes, you fucker.”
   “Hey, hey…I’m just wondering what’s—”
   “What’s going on out here?” the manager asked, stepping forward. “Ashton, why are you—”
   “My side started hurting,” he said. “I need to go home.”
   “You can’t go home,” she began. “We’re in the middle of a lunch rush.”
   “You’re going to be in the middle of a lawsuit if he kicks the bucket,” Blake said, bending down and sliding a hand under Ashton’s side. “Come on, bud. I’m gonna’ take you home.”
   “Please, just let me lie here.”
   “It’s not that far to the car. I promise.”
   “Please…”
   “You gotta’ help me on this one, Ash.”
   Giving in to his friend, he rolled over onto his knees, grimacing at the pain. Tears drenched the surface of his eyes, breaking the dam of his lids before flowing down his face.
   “There we go,” Blake said, helping him to his feet. “Just lean on me, buddy.”
   Ashton did just that, trying to avoid the eyes of everyone in the restaurant, as Blake led them out of the building.

   “What’s up with him?” Donovan asked.
   “Fuck you,” Ashton said.
   “He had a little accident at work,” Blake said, gesturing Donovan aside. “He needs to lie down.”
   “What happened, man? You fall and stab yourself with a knife, burn yourself with grease, slip and—”
   “Shove my foot up your ass?”
   The black man kept his peace and moved out of their way. Blake half-carried, half-dragged Ashton into the bedroom and then helped him remove his shoes, shirt, and belt.
   “All right,” Blake said. “Where does it hurt?”
   “What the hell are you going to do about it?” he groaned.
   “Uh… I am studying to be a doctor.”
   Smartass, he thought. Then, gestured to his side, right above his hip.
   “This is where your kidney is…” Blake frowned, applying a little pressure. Ashton groaned in response. “Have you been drinking a lot of soda or something?”
   “No.”
   “Have you ever had a kidney infection before?”
   “I don’t think so.”
   “It might be best if you just stay in bed and get some rest, then. If your kidney is hurting that bad, I don’t think you should be walking around.”
   “I can’t walk anyway, dumbass.”
   “Come on, Ash—don’t be like that.”
   “Why the fuck not?”
   “Because I carried you all the way out of the restaurant and back here.”
   Trying to fight back more tears, Ashton closed his eyes. He knew that he looked like the biggest baby. “I’m sorry.” He sighed, setting an arm over his eyes. “It just hurts.”
   “I bet it does,” Blake said. “Just get some rest. Donovan’ll be here if you need anything.”
   Like he’ll do much. “Thanks, Blake.”
   “No problem. Get some rest—I’ll explain everything to the boss.” Blake patted his arm a few times before he went out the door.

   An hour or so later the pain had almost diminished, though his side occasionally throbbed when he moved or changed positions.
   “You okay?” Donovan asked, knocking on the doorframe before leaning into the room.
   “I feel better,” he sighed, taking a deep breath. “Man…I must look pretty bad.”
   “You look worse than me, and I’m stoned.”
   Ashton couldn’t help but laugh.
Donovan grinned and took a few steps toward the bed. “You need anything? Something to read, eat, drink?”
   “You can get me a glass of water, if you want.”
   “I will. But, hey…sorry about earlier. If I had known this was going to happen, I wouldn’t have been an ass.”
   “Thanks, but you don’t have to apologize. I was being just as big an ass as you were.”
   “Bigger…” Donovan chuckled, leaving the room before Ashton had the chance to retaliate.
   While waiting for his friend to return with the water, he closed his eyes and tried to think of what could’ve given him a kidney infection. Yeah he liked high-sugar pop, but he didn’t drink it by the gallon. He hadn’t run into anything—at least, not that he knew of. Maybe he had rammed his side into the diving board screwing around with the guys, or maybe he’d fallen out of bed and cracked his side on the end table.
   Whatever I did, it sure doesn’t feel good now.
   “Here.”
   He blinked. Donovan had returned with the water. “Thanks,” he said, tilting his head slightly to get a drink. “Did Blake ever come back for lunch?”
   “I don’t think so. He’s probably making up for that lost time on his lunch break.”
   “You’re probably right.” Ashton sighed, handing the glass of water back. “I shouldn’t have been such an ass.”
   “You can’t help it. Your side’s fucked up.”
   “Let’s just hope it doesn’t stay that way.”
   Donovan nodded. “You need something else?”
   “No.” He sighed. “Thanks, Don.”
   “No problem. Just holler if you need something.”
   He would do just that.

   The following day—after Blake had checked on him and left—Ashton slid out of bed and made his way to the bathroom. Though his side protested each and every step, he had to go—no matter the cost.
   Pushing the bathroom door with one hand, he leaned against the wall, took a deep breath, and then fumbled with his fly. After it was undone, he pulled himself out and walked into the bathroom.
   The minute he started to relieve himself, a fireball exploded in his urethra.
   “Fuh-uck,” he moaned, leaning against the wall. “Come on.”
   He fought to relieve his bladder for the next few minutes, despite the pain and the unbearable agony. Soon enough the urine stopped coming, but the pain persisted.
   “What the hell?” he said. “What just happened?”
   He stepped back to examine what had taken place.
   Blood filled the inside of the toilet.
   Unable to bear the sight before him, he fell to his knees, and stared at the bloody water through a haze of tears. He wanted to yell for Donovan to call a nurse, to find out what had happened, but he couldn’t muster the ability. Just the sight of the blood made him squirm.
   Then, something moved in the blood.
   Forcing his eyes shut to clear the tears, he leaned over the toilet, watching the thing inside. What looked to be a small, black object—about the side of a bead—swam along the edge of the pool, propelling itself along with a pasty-colored tail.
   Oh…my…God.
   “Donovan!” he screamed. “Donovan!”
   The thing inside the toilet stopped moving, spun in a complete circle, then lifted out of the water to meet him. Its black ‘head’ stared for several minutes before it dove under, disappearing from sight.
   “Donovan! Hurry the fuck up and get your motherfuckin’ ass in—”
   “What’s wrong?” the man cried. “Why are you—?”
   He stopped speaking when he looked inside the toilet.
   “What the fuck…?”
   “Something came out of my dick,” Ashton sobbed.
   “That did?”
   “Yes! It did!”
   “It’s all right, bud. Calm down. It’s okay. You were just seeing things because there’s so much blood.”
   “No I wasn’t, Don. I wasn’t.”
   “Shh…” Donovan said, turning Ashton’s head away. “Shh…”
   The man reached forward and flushed the toilet.
   “We’re taking you to a hospital,” he said. “Now.”

   “Well, Ashton. It seems like you’ve got what appears to be a urinary tract infection, along with a mild kidney infection.”
   “Mild?” Donovan asked. “You call pissing blood mild?”
   “Considering he could have kidney stones, yes—I’d say mild.”
   Ashton cursed under his breath. Donovan had a bad enough habit of spouting shit off when sober—he didn’t need to draw extra attention. Though his eyes weren’t completely out of focus, they wandered the room when they should have been set on the doctor.
   “I think I might have some kind of parasite,” Ashton said. “Something came out when I went to the bathroom this morning.”
   “When you urinated?”
   Ashton nodded.
   “What did it look like?”
   “Like a black bead with a tail.”
   “Hmm…” The doctor frowned. “What happened to it?”
   “It disappeared in the toilet.”
   “You flushed it down?”
   “No,” he said, glancing at Donovan. “It… it rose out of the water, looked at me, and then swam under the blood. I didn’t want to reach in and grab it.”
   “I really don’t blame you, Ashton. I’ll take a blood sample now—but I’d also suggest urinating where you might be able to catch the specimen, like in a cup or jar. That way you can bring it in for further examination.”
   “I’ll do that, sir.”
   “Have you been any place where you might’ve picked something up? A park, a dirty stream—visited a foreign country?”
   “I haven’t been anywhere like that,” he said. “How could you catch something at a park?”
   “You know the sandboxes kids play in? You can get tapeworms out of them.”
   “Fuck,” he said.
Donovan gagged.
“But no, I haven’t been anywhere like that.”
   “All right. Give me your arm. We’ll get some blood and send it off to the lab.”

   “How’d it go?”
   Ashton looked up to see Blake sitting in the living room.
   “Fine,” he said. “I’ve got a kidney and urinary tract infection.”
   “And a parasite,” Donovan added.
   Ashton elbowed the man in the gut.
   “A parasite?” Blake frowned, rising. “What?”
   “I woke up this morning and peed blood,” he said, leaning against Donovan to reduce the pressure on his side. “After I nearly passed out, I saw something swimming in the water.”
   “What are they going to do about it?”
   “They’re running a blood test.”
   “You mean you didn’t catch it?”
   “No.”
   “Why?”
   “Because it disappeared under the bloody water. I was too upset to try and catch it.”
   “I don’t know what to tell you,” Blake said. “Sorry, bro.”
   “Yeah, whatever.” Ashton turned to Donovan. “Are you going to just stand there, or help me into the bedroom?”
   “What?”
   “You heard me.”
   “You’re damn lucky you didn’t get pulled over,” Blake said, sliding an arm across Ashton’s back and gesturing Donovan aside.
   “If you’re so worried about him, then you take a day off from work,” Donovan said. “I can’t help it if I’m stoned.”
   Yes you can, you dumbass.
   “Thanks, Blake,” he whispered.
   “No problem. You want your shirt off?”
   “Just my shoes…if that’s all right.”
   Blake bent down and pulled both sneakers off, then gestured for him to lie down. “What’d he say to do about the parasite?”
   “He said to pee in a cup or a jar, and then bring it in if another comes out.”
   “You think that’s going to happen?”
   “God, I hope not. That sure as hell didn’t feel good.”
   “The doctor said you had a urinary infection, right?” Blake asked, waiting for a nod before he continued. “That might explain why it hurt so bad to go to the bathroom.”
   “My dick was on fire.”
   “Well, yeah…urinary tract infections do that. Trust me, I know.”
   “And how would you—”
   “I got an STD from an old girlfriend. Needless to say, I went through two weeks of hell afterward. That’s when I started wearing condoms.”
   “Anyway…” Ashton sighed. “Can you go get me a water bottle or something?”
   “Do you have to go to the bathroom now?”
   “No, but it’d be nice to have a drink.”
   Blake smiled, despite the sarcasm that had rolled from Ashton’s mouth.
   “You take it easy, all right?”
   As if I have anything better to do. He waved Blake off before his friend could leave the room.

   Ashton lay in bed, hoping the nausea had come from thinking of something living inside of his body. Outside the room, rap music pulsed from the twin speakers that sat in the living room, right below the flat screen plasma. Though, it didn’t particularly bother him, he would’ve preferred it off. At least with the music going he didn’t have to worry about overhearing one of his frat mates talking about him.
   Earlier, the half a dozen other guys he shared the building with—Scott, Billy, Gerard, Quince, August and Tanner—had come in and started badgering him, both about the doctor visit and keeping his strength up, since he’d opted not to eat the dinner Blake had brought. He hated the attention, but the guys cared.
   They told me at least one of them would be there to make sure I was all right.
   That excluded Donovan, who would be running out of his stash. August had made sure that Donovan had ‘smoked more than he thought.’
   He chuckled, thinking…that’s Don.
   A pulse at his side stopped his thoughts. “Blake!” he called. “Can you come in here for a second?” Someone turned the music down. He yelled again.
   “Yeah?” Blake asked, leaning in the doorframe. “You need something?”
   “Can you bring me my pills?”
   “I hope you know, they’ll knock you out.”
   “Better than listening to shitty rap music.”
   “I’ll tell the guys to turn it down.”
   Ashton rolled his eyes, knowing Blake wouldn’t. At least he’s tolerable.
   While he got along with Donovan pretty well, most of their conversation was limited to either mindless prattle—which ranged from what girls they’d done, or wanted to do, to which class they needed to catch up in—or drugs. Donovan liked to talk about everything he’d smoked or snorted, which got old after a while.
   Ashton was drawn away from his thoughts when a knock came at the door.
   “Got it,” Blake said, holding two capsules up. “It says to take this before bed with a glass of water.”
   He swiped the bottles and the glass of water out of Blake’s hands before he could say anything else. He popped the pills into his mouth and tilted his head back. After downing the whole glass of water, he set it on the end table. “Night,” he said.
   “Night,” Blake replied, walking out of the room. He closed the door behind him.

   Movement brought Ashton out of his drug-induced sleep. It didn’t come from around his bed or anywhere in the room. It came from underneath his skin. After sitting up so fast that the pain flared up in his side, he padded his midsection—swearing he could feel something pressing against his skin.
   “Ah fuck,” he moaned, looking around the room to where the other guys were sleeping. “Just fuck.”
   When none of the others woke to his protests, Ashton threw himself down on the bed, regretting the action soon after. His side screamed bloody murder and the action forced a soft squeal from the depths of his throat.
   Come on, you big baby.
   Come on…come on? He laughed, because he couldn’t come on even if he was forced to. His side—which had been fine just moments ago—throbbed like it had a few days before, after he’d come home from the burger joint.
   Why does this have to happen to me, of all people?
   He was the nice guy—the one who worked and got along pretty well with his frat mates. He was the one who didn’t play pranks on the guys, or toilet paper the surrounding houses right off campus. He, of all people, did not deserve to have a parasite swimming through his blood and wreaking havoc in his stomach.
   The same slimy feeling slid across his abdomen. He slapped the skin, coming in contact with something more than muscle.
   “Oh, fuck...”
   An indent the size of an olive stood out above his belly button. What he knew to be a tail convulsed below, slapping against the upper layer of his skin like fingers on the rubbery exterior of a balloon.
   “Blake,” he said, raising his voice so his friend could hear. “Blake!”
   “What?” the man moaned.
   “It’s… it’s in my stomach.”
   “What?”
   Blake threw himself out of bed and was at Ashton’s side before the parasite could stop convulsing. It then disappeared under the surface of his skin.
   “Fuck, Ash.”
   “Fuck is right, you fucking idiot!”
   “We gotta’ get you to the hospital. That wasn’t an itty-bitty parasite.”
   “What’s a hospital going to do for me, Blake? Flush it out, jab me with needles, play whack a mole when it comes out for a peek?”
   “No,” Blake said, taking a hold of his hand. “They’ll inject glowing dye into your blood to see where the thing is.”

   Lying in a dark room with a stinging sensation right below his elbow, Ashton looked around the room. An ultraviolet light strip hung over his body, highlighting the dye as it steadily worked its way through his system.
   “Hang in there, Ash,” Blake said, gripping his arm.
   “That hurts, man.”
   “Sorry.”
   After drawing his hands away, Blake crossed his arms over his chest and looked at the doctor and nurse. The nurse—who’d injected the dye into Ashton’s system—turned and looked at something on a piece of paper. Ashton could barely see her eyes scrunch in wonder, as she stared through her special sunglasses.
   “What’ll you do when you find it?” He frowned, finally asking the question he’d been holding back for the last few minutes.
   “That depends,” the doctor said, setting a hand on Ashton’s shoulder. “Depending on its size—we’ll most likely have to rush you into surgery.”
   “It’s as long as my hand,” Blake said, holding up his appendage for emphasis. “How else are you going to get it out?”
   “We could kill it with antibiotics,” the nurse said. “But that would require you to go into the ICU.”
   “Why would I have to…?”
   “The drugs can do some pretty heavy-duty stuff if we’re not careful.”
   Great. Just great.
   “What else might you be able to do?” Ashton asked, hoping for another alternative.
   “We could,” the doctor began, “try to excise while you’re awake, but considering it’s actively moving, I don’t see how we could do that.”
   Thank God.
   Blake chuckled. “They’re taking good care of you, bud,” his friend said, clapping his shoulder. “Don’t worry.”
   “There it is,” the nurse said.
   “Turn the light off!” the doctor cried. “Quick!”
   With the ultraviolet light off, the creature could be clearly seen traveling up the length of his left arm. It stopped at his shoulder to examine something, before sliding into his chest, right below heart level.
   “We need to get you into surgery,” the doctor said, gesturing for the nurses to bring a gurney over. “It’s too close to your heart.”
   “Everything’s going to be all right,” a new nurse said, setting a breathing mask over his face. “This is anesthesia, Ashton. It’s going to make you very, very tired. Don’t try and fight the sleep, all right?”
   “All… kay.”
   As the nurses and the doctor rushed him out of the examination area, into the hall, and toward the emergency room, Blake ran alongside him, whispering that everything would be all right and that nothing was going to go wrong. 

   The color aquamarine swam over his vision, enticing a state of fear that started at his heart and extended into his brain. His hands—knotted from hyperventilation—lay on his chest, one set over the other, as if he were meant to be buried.
   Three figures stood around the long, metal table he laid upon, raising long-fingered hands and gesturing in signs that Ashton couldn’t understand. The tallest turned, carrying a jar in its hand. It spoke in a language completely foreign, but somehow familiar, before setting said jar near Ashton’s head.
   A creature—black headed and long tailed—swam in a transparent green substance, striking the glass with its head, attempting to break away from its confine.
   “Human,” one said in a deep voice, somehow lacking physical sound. “You are the mother.”
   Mother? He wanted to ask, but couldn’t speak.
   “Mother.” The thing nodded, raising its hand. Its three fingers gripped his face—the largest and most bulbous resting between his eyes, while the other two gripped his cheeks, right along his highest cheekbones. “You, give birth, to our kind.” 
  
   Blake stood alongside the medical doctors as they made a Y-incision from Ashton’s chest down to his stomach. Garbed in scrubs and a mouthpiece, he watched as the fleshy insides of his friend became visible. In less serious circumstances, he would’ve thought of how close they were going to be after seeing Ashton’s insides, but now wasn’t the time to be joking around.
   “What can I do?” he asked, looking at his medical professor.
   “I’d prefer you stay back and watch—if anything. We’re about to remove the parasite.”
   “Where is it, though?”
   Before, it had been just below the heart, but it seemed to have disappeared.
   “There,” another doctor said.
   With a bloody index finger, the woman pointed out the parasite that had been plaguing Ashton’s body for days. It wrapped around a lung like a starving snake to a kill. The head rested  near one of the outer tubes that pump blood to the breathing vessel.
   “All right, team,” the lead doctor said. “You know what we have to do.”
   All ten heads in the room nodded.
   Blake swallowed a lump in his throat.
   A nurse—keeping eye over the surgery from a distance—stepped forward with a small, handheld power saw.
   I don’t think I can watch this. Regardless, Blake made no move to back away, much less abandon his friend in his time of need. “Come on, Ashton,” he whispered. “Be strong.”
   The moment the screaming, revolving blade hit the right side of Ashton’s ribs, the monitors spiked. An anesthesiologist backed away as blood flew out of the chest cavity.
   Somehow—whether by chance or miraculous luck—the parasite made no attempt to move. Instead, it simply continued to rest, no more than a few dangerous inches from the blade’s rotating edge.
   Blake almost told the doctor to be careful. It would do more harm than good.
   After a section of rib was removed, two doctors stepped forward holding small clamps. One doctor slid his hand in and grasped the lung to hold it steady, while the other clamped down on the parasite’s olive-sized head.
   “Be ready to catch it if it gets away,” the doctor said.
   His companion nodded.
   With no more than a slight tug, the parasite came off of the lung.
   “That’s it?” the head doctor asked.
   Blake could imagine his mouth hanging open under that piece of plastic.
   “Seems so,” the extracting doctor said. “Someone get this thing in a cup and run it down to the—” The parasite convulsed, flying from the clamp that had once held it.
   “Get it!” someone cried.
   Blake grabbed a nearby jar and made a running dive, catching the thing before it could slide under the ER door. It twisted and squirmed, writhed and wreathed, but could not get out of the human’s strong hold.
   “Got you, fucker.” With that, he dropped it into the tube of water and secured the lid. Behind him the doctors talked with one another on their next action. Unsure of what to do, Blake simply stood there and watched the scene unfold.
   “We need to take his infected kidney out,” one man said.
   “And his gallbladder,” another added. “If it’s a parasite, it could have laid eggs.”
   “You’re right.” The head doctor sighed, looking over at Blake. “Son… I don’t think you want to see this.”
   “Is he gonna’ be all right, sir? Will he be okay?”
   “He’ll be fine, just…just go.”
   Closing his eyes, Blake muttered a soft prayer under his breath before he left the ER, carrying the parasite with him. 

   Blake and the rest of the fraternity sat in the waiting room, hoping the doctors would come out and tell them everything was going to be all right. Just after he’d dropped the struggling parasite off at the lab, Blake contemplated calling Ashton’s parents, but decided it would be best to wait until his friend came out of surgery.
   But what if he doesn’t? He dared to ask himself. What if he dies and you didn’t tell his parents that his last moments were like…
   “Blake?”
   “What?” he asked. Gerard—a guy with a mess of red beard—had asked the question.
   “You all right, man?”
   “I’m fine,” he said.
   Blake seemed the worst off—except for Donovan, who was half-past stoned and bawling his ass off.
   “Shh!” August hissed, smacking the back of the man’s head. “You’re going to get us thrown out!”
   “But he’s my brother, man,” Donovan wailed.
   “He’s our brother too, but we’re not bawling our eyes out.”
   Just when Blake thought everything would start going to hell, a doctor came out with a grim expression on his face.
   “Yes?” Blake asked, before the doctor could even say anything. “Is Ashton all right?”
   “He’s stable,” the doctor said. “He’s just had his right kidney and gallbladder taken out.”
   “Are you putting them back in?”
   “No.”
   A lump that had developed in Blake’s throat disappeared with a nervous swallow. “What happened?” he asked.
   “The whole inside of the kidney was filled with eggs, and the gallbladder was… well, it was better off gone anyway.”
   “So he never had an infection at all, then. The parasites did it.”
   “No—he had an infection, but the parasites didn’t help any.”
   “He’s going to be okay, though…right?”
   “Yes. We’re just putting everything back together and fixing up his ribcage. He should be out of the OR in a few minutes.” 

   When Ashton came out of the OR, Blake and his fellow fraternity stood outside the recovery room, watching their fallen friend through a glass window. Donovan had since mellowed out, but only because August had threatened to steal the rest of his drugs.
   “He’ll be okay, guys,” Blake said, looking over his shoulder at the seven men that stood behind him. “The doctors got rid of the infected areas and have him on antibiotics to kill any they might’ve missed.”
   “They couldn’t have gotten into his other kidney, though…could they?”
   “They said there were no parasites. They ran a test, I guess. But even if there are parasites in there, the drugs will kill them.”
   “Guess it’s a good thing I didn’t let him be, huh?” Donovan asked.
   Everyone turned to look at Donovan, whose eyes had since cleared up. Whether he’d sobered was debatable.
   “You did good, Don,” Blake said, slapping his friend’s arm.
   “Yeah,” August said. “You’re a hero, you know?”
   “I’m no hero.” Donovan chuckled. “I’m just a strung-out junkie who’s barely making it through college.”
   “You’re a hero,” Blake said, wrapping an arm around his friend’s back. “Right, guys?”
   “Right,” they said in unison. Together they wrapped Donovan—and each other—in a group hug and prayed for their friend’s recovery. 

   Aquamarine didn’t swim over his vision the next time he opened his eyes. Instead, Ashton saw a white ceiling, with what looked to be large snowflakes imprinted on its surface. His first—and only—instinct was to summon a nurse or doctor, which he did with the help of the button resting under his thumb.
   “Hey, Ashton,” a young nurse—possibly no older than Ashton himself—asked. “You holdin’ up, bud?”
   “Holding up isn’t the word to describe it,” he said—voice hoarse and rough. “Am I okay?”
   “You had your kidney and gallbladder removed last night. Does anything hurt?”
   “It feels like a big chunk of my right side is missing.”
   “That’s expected.” The nurse reached out and adjusted an IV tube before setting his eyes on Ashton. “Do you need anything?”
   “A glass of water—if I can.”
   “That’ll work just fine. No soda though, sorry.”
   “I don’t think I’ll be drinking anymore soda after this.”
   “Probably for the best.”
   With a chuckle and a smile, the nurse turned and walked out of the room, leaving Ashton to himself. For the next several minutes, he closed his eyes and tried to piece together everything that had happened over the last few days. First the dreams and the three-fingered figures, followed by his ‘kidney infection’ that dropped him at work, and then the parasite that came out when he’d urinated that fateful morning.
   Good thing I went to the doctor. Ashton figured he would’ve died had he not. A knock at the door brought him out of his thoughts.
   “Hey,” Blake said, leaning into the room. “Knock, knock.”
   “Come in.” He smiled.
   Blake smiled, too, and slid his hands into his pockets.
   “Where’re the others?” Ashton asked.
   “They were here most of the night, but I told them to go back to the house.”
   “You stayed here all night?”
   Blake nodded. “Yeah, I did.”
   “You didn’t have to do that.”
   “I know, but I care too. Donovan was even bawling—though he was pretty much stoned out of his mind.”
   “That’s Don.” Ashton chuckled.
   Blake walked closer to the bed, fell to a knee, and set a hand on Ashton’s arm, taking a deep breath before expelling it.
   “You’re out a kidney and a gallbladder now,” the man explained, “but the good news is, they’ve gotten rid of the parasites. They’ve got some medicine running through you that’ll kill anything else that might be in there, so you’ll be here at the hospital for a few days.”
   “Did they find out what was inside me?” Ashton asked.
   “They…they said they can’t find anything in their database that matches what you have.”
   “What does that mean?”
   “I don’t know, Ashton. I really don’t know.”
   Ashton closed his eyes and turned his face toward the ceiling, remembering the dream that had started it all. We dream in aquamarine, he thought, reaching out to grip Blake’s hand. And forever… they will sleep.

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