Donald’s distressed groan woke Joyce immediately. She turned as quickly as her tired muscles allowed, her knees cracking in the cold.
She observed Donald’s shadowed figure. He looked asleep, but his muscles were spasming gently. His leg quaked, and then his arm.
‘Don,’ Joyce said, shaking her husband’s shoulder. ‘Wake up.’
He whimpered, trapped in his dream, quietly pleading for somebody to save him. Joyce shook him again, a little more forcefully.
He stirred. His eyelids fluttered and his eyes opened groggily. With an exhausted hand, he wiped away the sleep and pooling tears. A face haunted him. A little boy, alone in a dark room, water lapping at his ankles, rising to his thighs…
Donald coughed, clearing the choking water and overwhelming sadness from his throat.
‘It’s okay.’ Joyce’s voice cut through the dark. ‘It was only a dream.’ She kissed Donald lightly on the shoulder before lying back on her pillow. Dreamless sleep found her again immediately.
Donald stared at the ceiling, his itchy eyes desperately seeking a distraction in the flaking paint. He couldn’t shift that frightened face from his mind’s eye.
Dawn slipped through the curtains and found Donald, still awake. Disturbed by the light, he slipped out of bed quietly. He retrieved his dressing gown and tied it around himself with shaking fingers.
He padded into the silent house, the tiles cold against his feet. He felt lost. His morning routines, like watching the morning news or reading a book, didn’t feel right without Joyce, and he didn’t think he could stomach breakfast.
Donald decided a hot shower might thaw his aching bones. He journeyed to the bathroom and filled the space with the roar of pouring rain. He stepped beneath the streams. The boy’s face, contorted in terror as liquid death crept up his legs to his torso, reappeared in Donald’s mind; the water burnt Donald’s wrinkled skin like acid rain.
He immediately turned off the shower and reached for his towel. His body shook. He blamed the cold.
Donald tried to resist sleeping that night, but eventually exhaustion stole him. The boy’s face greeted him again.
Donald hovered on the ceiling of a dark concrete room, watching the water rush in and rise around the boy’s wiry frame. Panic filled the child’s eyes as water filled the room; he realised what was going to happen.
He realised he was going to die.
The water lifted the boy off his feet. He tread water, floating closer and closer to the concrete ceiling. He pressed his face against the corner of the room, desperately sucking in his last gasps of air before he was plunged beneath.
Donald could feel the deep inhalations of dirty water fill his nose and mouth, gathering thickly at the back of his throat.
He woke, tangled in the sweat-soaked sheets. They suffocated him. Joyce was shaking his shoulder again, begging him to be okay. Over and over she said, ‘It was just a dream.’ It didn’t feel like a dream. That boy was terrified and he was out there somewhere, drowning. Or he was going to be. Or he already had.
‘Do you want to talk about it?’ Joyce asked once Donald had recovered his breath.
‘There’s a boy,’ he said, this time not hesitating to take her up on the offer. ‘He is drowning.’
‘It was just a dream,’ Joyce repeated. ‘A nightmare. Your mind’s just playing tricks on you. Come on, get some more sleep. In the morning you’ll feel like a right fool for letting a silly dream get to you like this.’
Donald smiled gently, nodding as though he agreed. Relieved, Joyce returned to her dreamless sleep. Donald waited for the sun.
‘Did you get much sleep?’ Joyce asked as she locked the front door.
‘A few hours,’ Donald lied through a wide yawn.
The pair walked into the street, enjoying the sunny winter day like the children playing on the bitumen.
Joyce held Donald’s hand. ‘If you keep having these nightmares, maybe you should go and see Doc–’
‘That’s him!’ Donald hissed, interrupting.
‘Who?’ Joyce asked.
‘The boy!’ Donald said, nodding his head towards a kid that was scampering into a house further along the street.
‘That explains it then. You must’ve seen him playing out here through the window and he appeared in your dream.’
Donald shook his head. ‘I’ve never seen him before, except in my dream. It’s more than that. I think he’s…’ The screen door banged shut behind the boy and his house fell silent. Donald stood frozen in uncertainty.
‘Come on,’ Joyce said, tugging Donald’s hand gently. Begrudgingly, he followed.
While their walk was pleasant, it did little to shift Donald’s anxiety. He’d looked for the boy when they returned to the street, but he hadn’t been playing with the other children. Donald was certain something was wrong.
He’d never needed to call emergency services before and he knew that they thought lowly of people who reported false information, but what if that boy was in trouble? What if the water was already lapping at his ankles, taunting him?
Donald dialled the police on the house phone, speaking quietly so that Joyce couldn’t hear. He knew she would disapprove. He gave the address to the operator and lied, claiming he had heard a disturbance. Certain that the concrete room was underground, he said, ‘And I think I heard something about a basement.’ Donald hung up without giving his name.
‘Something’s happening across the street, Don,’ Joyce said. Donald looked up from his book, peering through the window to where Joyce was pointing. Across the road he saw the police car that he knew he was responsible for. An ambulance was parked nearby, flashing ruby and sapphire into the afternoon sky.
Two paramedics were wheeling a gurney across the grass. Upon it lay a figure, too small to be that of an adult’s. It was covered by a dark sheet.
Donald knew. They’d found him. But it was too late.