Norton Taylor wakes from a dream so real he can’t but believe it’s true. In the dream he commits a heinous crime. Brutally murders someone. A small boy. Then he goes to great lengths to cover it up. Weeks pass in his dream, then months, then years. No one ever uncovers the horrible secret. He isn’t even sure anyone notices the boy is gone.
Norton can’t remember all the details. He isn’t sure how he killed the boy or how he covered it up. He isn’t even sure of the boy’s name or why he’d done such a thing. Norton knows he’s never seen the boy before. He knows because the boy’s face remains so vivid and crystal in his mind.
During his morning shower, Norton can’t help but feel terrible for the boy’s family. Water engulfs his body and soap drains down his flesh, but he doesn’t feel cleansed. Norton scrubs and scrubs his body, but the shower has no effect.
After toweling off his shaking body, Norton turns on the news. There’s no mention of a young boy murdered. He sighs in relief. He can’t say if the relief is because he hasn’t killed a boy or because he hasn’t been caught. Either way, he feels better and goes about the rest of his morning routine, eating two scrambled eggs and a buttered English muffin.
Running a little late, Norton dresses quickly and rushes to his car, not bothering to check the contents of his briefcase before backing out of the garage. He’s well on his way to the office before he wonders if he has everything he needs. His hand feels the soft exterior of the briefcase and finds his laptop is there. Again he’s at ease. Suddenly he remembers he is meeting with the boss to discuss a promotion today.
Norton feels confident as he walks from his car to the office. It’s going to be a good day. He’s sure of it. For a moment, he forgets all about the boy. It means nothing, he tells himself. People have dreams all the time. Just a few weeks ago he’d dreamt he was a cloud. He’d yet to become a cloud or even spend any time in the sky, so there’s clearly nothing to worry about.
But as soon as Norton sits at his desk, the image of the boy returns and he can’t shake it. He looks at the framed picture of his wife and children. All of the children look like the dead boy in his dream. They even have that bloated look of death the boy had after he’d finished the deed.
Norton tries to go about his morning work, but every few minutes he finds himself checking news stories and obituaries. He constantly looks over his shoulder, worried the police will come in any minute and arrest him. When a hand plants itself on his shoulder, he nearly jumps out of his chair.
“A little jumpy today?” the voice belonging to the hand asks.
Norton spins around and sees Anthony Pengold, his boss. Norton is late for the meeting.
“Why’re you looking at the obituaries? Everything okay Norton?” Anthony’s voice is filled with sincere concern.
“Oh, I, uh, just heard that a classmate of mine had passed away, and I was, uh, checking up on it,” Norton manages.
“Of course. I’m sorry. It’s really none of my business. But do let me know if you want to talk about it.” Anthony pats Norton’s shoulder twice, the second one a bit too hard. They make brief eye contact and Anthony asks if they can have their meeting now or if Norton wants to reschedule.
“No, let’s do it now,” Norton says. It might take his mind off the terrible image of the dead boy’s face. Norton is now convinced he really has killed a young boy. He’s even begun making up details about who the boy was and how he killed him. It was a strangulation, but there hadn’t been any funny business. Norton’s certainly no pervert. He’s yet to figure out the motive, but he’s sure it will come soon.
Norton can’t pay attention sitting there talking to Anthony. Anthony rambles on about something about more responsibility. Norton wants to stop him and tell him about the boy, but he can’t. Murderers don’t get promotions or raises.
Before long, Norton is shaking Anthony’s hand and being congratulated. A pat on the back follows. Norton smiles and doesn’t say thank you because he’s afraid it will come out as “I killed a boy last night.” A door closes, the meeting is over, Norton returns to his desk. Again he looks at the computer. No new obituaries. No new murders. No little boys killed. The world is doing just fine.
Norton picks up the phone. He thinks about dialing 9-1-1 and reporting the dead boy, but he doesn’t know where the body is. Maybe he can just say the boy is missing. He can describe the boy and the police can look for him and maybe they’ll find him tucked into his bed tonight. While Norton listens to the dial tone, his wife calls on the other line. Norton answers it quickly.
“How did it go?” she asks.
“How did what go?” Norton responds. The words cling to his tongue as he says them, nervous drops of ice refusing to melt.
“The meeting with your boss, the promotion, all that stuff,” she says. Her voice is gentle and hopeful. He wants to satisfy her.
“I got the promotion,” he tells her, voice void of excitement.
“We’ll have to celebrate tonight!” she squeaks. “Can you come home early?”
“Sure, I think, let me see,” Norton says. He pulls his calendar out of his briefcase and fumbles it open. He has nothing scheduled for the day. He’s about to tell her he’s free when he notices the previous day’s schedule. In bold capital letters: THE BOY. The calendar slips from his hand, as does the phone. So there it is, not in the vividness of the dream, but in two-dimensional black and white. The evidence of what he’s done. He feels his ribcage squeezing, his lungs collapsing, his heart tightening. Soon there is no air to breathe until his wife’s distant “Are you still there, honey?” breaks him free. He grabs the phone and tells her he’ll be home as soon as he can.
Norton can’t bear to sit in the office anymore. He shoves his belongings in his briefcase and heads for the exit without a word to anyone. After pressing the button to summon the elevator he decides he can’t wait, so he bolts for the stairs and sprints down, skipping three or four at a time.
At the bottom of the staircase Norton doesn’t hesitate to catch his breath. He bursts through the door, bolts for his car, barrels down the road until he’s home. The whole drive he eyes the rearview for the hoard of cop cars, but they never appear.
Norton glistens with sweat when he enters the door, and his wife asks him what is the matter.
“It was hot in the office,” he tells her. Their eyes meet and his dream floods out and she embraces him and tells him it was just a dream. He doesn’t tell her about the calendar or the guilt.
“Let’s go to a nice dinner,” she says. She reaches her hands behind his hand and cranes her neck until her lips meet his. Her lips feel warm and real, and he forgets about the boy and dreams. Of course he hadn’t killed anyone last night. He’d been at home with his wife all night.
“I’ll go get ready,” his wife adds. “Relax on the couch for a bit.”
Norton sits on the couch and flips on the television. The boy’s face appears. The reporter reveals the details of the case: he was found dead in the woods. Strangled. No suspects. No clues.
But it isn’t the same boy. The boy in Norton’s dream had sandy brown hair and brown eyes, and this boy is blonde with blue eyes. The haircut and nose are all wrong too.
Norton turns up the volume and hears more details. The boy had been wearing a yellow shirt. In Norton’s dream the shirt was red, and there was a baseball cap. There’s no mention of a baseball cap on the news. It isn’t the same boy. He lets out a long relaxed breath.
Then Norton realizes this doesn’t mean he hasn’t killed the boy. This means Norton has killed more than one boy.
Norton lifts his body and ascends the stairs in a near crawl. His stomach feels so heavy he can’t lift his torso. His wife sees him doubled over at the top of the stairs and asks what is the matter.
“The boy is on the news,” he coughs through thick spittle.
“The boy from the dream.” He isn’t sure why he tells her it’s the boy from the dream. Maybe he doesn’t want her to know he’s killed two boys.
His wife kneels down next to him and drapes her arms around him. She rubs his back and tells him it’s okay, that it’s just a dream and a coincidence. He’d been with her all night, she says, so there’s no chance he could’ve killed anyone. Besides, he doesn’t have it in him to kill. He’s too good of a person.
Norton wants to believe her, but he can’t. The guilt overpowers her comforting hand. “I killed him,” he mumbles.
“What?” Her hand recoils.
“I killed him,” he roars as he bursts from the cocoon of his body and emerges into an erect and confident man. “I killed that boy,” he shouts. “I killed him, and I know I’ll kill again if I don’t turn myself in.”
His wife backs against the wall. “You don’t know what you’re saying,” she tries to reassure him, but her wide eyes make it apparent she herself doesn’t know what she’s saying.
He lunges and grabs her. “I’m so sorry,” he sobs as he relaxes his grip and holds her gently in his arms. “Call the police,” he says. “It’s for the best.”
His wife closes her eyes and remains in his embrace. She doesn’t reciprocate the hold, but she lets him hold her until he’s ready to release. The hold lasts for almost five minutes before his arms go limp and his exhausted body drops to the carpet. “Call them,” he mutters.
His wife goes for the phone. She dials 9-1-1. The operator asks for her emergency.
“Something’s happened to my husband,” she says. “I need an ambulance now.” She stays on the line giving information to the operator. Then she goes back to her shivering husband. Norton’s body trembles as he continues to mumble how he’s sorry for the things he’s done. She responds each time that everything will be okay. Norton tries to believe her, but the image of the strangled boy is too much.
When the ambulance arrives, Norton tells the paramedic everything.
His wife tries to explain that Norton is sick and that it’s a dream and he isn’t thinking straight. The paramedic leads Norton and his wife to the ambulance and takes them to the hospital.
At the hospital the police come. They arrest Norton and his wife. Both are found guilty of the murder of the blonde-haired boy. Norton tells them about the brown-haired boy and how he doesn’t know where his body is. There are no reports of a missing boy, but they search anyway. The police look for the brown-haired boy for weeks but can’t find him. But Norton and his wife are found guilty of that too. The wife is sentenced to life in jail and Norton is given the death penalty. When he sits in the chair he closes his eyes and has a dream in which no boys are ever murdered. He apologizes out loud but there is no one there to listen. Then the switch flicks on and he never sees the boys again.