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Although this is a fictitious story for the 3 am Challenge, the nightmare itself is all mine.

By Sian N. CluttonPublished about a month ago Updated 30 days ago 10 min read
Top Story - June 2024
Photo by Daniel Jensen on Unsplash

Sophie sat in silence listening to the scratching of pen upon paper. The tick of the clock dragged, subtly mocking her as it did every Friday morning.

Shifting in her seat she waited quietly, letting her mind drift as she fought to stay awake. A few minutes passed before a stifled cough snapped her attention back into the room.

Looking across the coffee table, she smiled awkwardly at her newly appointed therapist, Dr Michael Schwartz, who returned her gaze with an expressionless poker face.

Sophie wondered who would break the stagnant silence first. She cleared her throat but couldn’t find a tangible starting point.

Tick, tick, tick ... tick.

Her eyes felt dry as she rubbed them, relishing in the brief relief, before deciding to chew her nails, ruining their polish.

‘Miss Waters,’ he began, seemingly bored and slightly impatient, ‘if you want to sit in silence, there are much cheaper ways of doing it, but this is your third appointment and we’ve yet to talk about anything of substance.’

‘Jack’s doing better with-’  

‘We’re not here to talk about Jack though, are we? We spoke about Jack in previous sessions. Just like we’ve discussed your mother, your job, and your terrible habit of biting your nails...’

Sophie snatched her hand away from her mouth and rested it in her lap.

‘What we haven’t discussed, what we’ve actively avoided, is discussing why you came to see me in the first place.’

Sophie looked at the floor, wishing it would cave in and send them plummeting two storeys into the car park below, saving them both from the indignity of the coming conversation.

‘I know – it sounds pathetic... a grown woman having nightmares,’ she croaked, ‘but I swear to you, these aren’t your average nightmares. They’re different. They’re... vivid.’

Sophie lifted her gaze and was surprised to see Schwartz nodding understandingly.

‘Tell me about them. When did they start?’

‘About a year ago.’ Sophie picked up a pen from the table and studied it. Her stomach churned at the thought of trying to get someone, anyone, to take her seriously. ‘After Jack’s father left.’

‘Okay. And what is it that you dream about?’

‘It’s kind of different, but somehow always the same.’ Sophie felt her face getting hot as she spoke. Tears filled her eyes.

‘This is stupid.’

‘No, it isn’t. I specialise in mental health, Sophie. The brain is a weird and wonderful thing. You’d be surprised with the power it has over us.’ For the first time since they met, Dr Schwartz let a small smile slip from the corner of his mouth, meant to comfort and encourage.

Sophie wiped her eyes with the back of her hand.

‘Careful with that pen,’ Schwartz quipped. ‘You nearly gouged your eye out.’ He motioned for her to put it down and placed a box of tissues on the table between them.

Reaching for a tissue, she blotted her eyes, took a deep breath, and resigned herself to the conversation.

‘It always starts the same... I wake up in my bed. I have no idea I’m asleep because going to sleep is the last thing I remember.’

Schwartz nodded and began taking notes.

‘I know something is wrong as soon as I wake, but I can’t quite put my finger on why. A feeling of dread, I guess, because I know it’s coming.’

‘What’s coming?’

‘The woman, the thing, she lives in the shadows. I don’t always see her, but I feel her, watching me.’

‘Do you recognise this woman?’

‘No. She’s old, decrepit almost. But she changes. She can be anyone she wants, take their faces. But I know it’s her... I can tell by the smile.’

‘She smiles at you?’

‘She’s always smiling to begin with. But she becomes expressionless when she’s focused... when she’s...coming.’

‘What does she sound like, is her voice familiar?’

‘I don’t know. She’s never spoken.’

‘Interesting.’ Schwartz taps the end of his pen on his paper, seemingly lost in thought.

‘And what does she do in your dreams? This woman...' he paused abruptly. ‘Shall we give her a name?’


‘For conversation's sake. We could call her... Oh, I don’t know. A- ‘

‘Don’t give her a name!’ Sophie shouted, evidently panicked.

‘Okay, Sophie. I understand. It’s okay.’ Dr Schwartz looked at her with eyes wide and full of concern. ‘My mistake. It was merely a suggestion. Shall we continue?’

Taking slow breaths, Sophie tried to regain her composure. After a few minutes, the room returned to its calm but empty atmosphere.

She nodded.

‘Have you ever spoken to her?’

‘No. She’s not there to talk to me. She’s there to terrify me.’

Sophie and Dr Schwartz stare at each other for a moment.

‘Are you sure?’

‘That’s why she’s there. It’s always the same. One way or another she’ll let me know she’s watching. And when I notice her, when I pay attention to it, she shows herself. Then the hunt is on...’

‘Okay, so...’ Schwartz pauses as he thinks. ‘Take me through your most recent dream.’

Sophie’s hand shook as she reached for the glass of water Schwartz always provided at the beginning of each session. She took a sip before replacing it with a thud.

‘As I said, it starts with me waking up in my bed. Jack had been at a birthday party and as I open my eyes, I see the balloon he’d brought home bobbing gently against the ceiling, as though someone had just let go of it. He’d left it there before he’d gone to bed. And in the dream, there it was. Everything is where I left it before I fell asleep, including my cup of tea which I could have sworn I’d drunk, but it’s full now and cold on my nightstand.

So, I get out of bed, pick it up and walk through my flat into the kitchen.

With each step, I can feel her behind me. Not her physical presence but her intent. I know she’s coming but I also don’t. You know what I mean?’

Schwartz nodded and motioned for her to continue.

‘I know I shouldn’t go back to bed. I need to be up, awake, alert. But I’m not sure why. I decide to put the kettle on and make myself another cup of tea, one I’d get to finish this time. Even though, in real life, I’d finished it.

So, I’m standing there looking at the kettle, waiting for it to boil... when I see something behind me in the reflection. I turn and there’s nothing there. I listen. Everything is still and silent except for the whistling of the kettle.

I finish making the tea and sit on the sofa to drink it. I’m careful not to look up at the reflection of the TV as I sit, but in this dream I don’t know why. Really, it’s because I always see her in the corner of my eye... or, well, I always see something. That’s how it starts. When I’m asleep it’s like I have amnesia. I know something is coming, but I don’t know what.

In attempt to ignore the feeling, I pull out my phone. The screen is bright and comforting as I scroll mindlessly for a while.’

‘What are you looking at?’

‘I don’t remember. Facebook, probably. I drink my tea and sit peacefully. It’s when I’m finished and I’m about to get up to put my cup in the sink that I see it. I turn my phone screen off and I glimpse my tired reflection, and up above me there’s some kind of string hanging down...

I frown at my phone and slowly start to angle it further down to see what’s above my head and realise it’s hair... I turn it a bit more and to my horror I see my own face hanging upside down right above me, smiling with a stretched, maniacal smile.


And I’m on my feet and I’m sprinting towards Jack’s room, past the front door that’s started to rattle as she tries the handle.

I’m flying into his room as the door begins to bang with incredible force, wondering how strong the deadbolt is.

Then I’m pulling his covers back and ripping him from his bed, scaring the poor soul half to death as I lift him.

As suddenly as it started, the banging stops. My stomach is doing somersaults. I know it’s not good.

I place a shaken Jack down onto his feet, and against any kind of rational judgment, I peek around the corner of his door and down the hall.

To my horror, I’m suddenly the proud owner of a large cat flap. As moronic as that sounds in a first-floor flat with a front door that leads to a highly secured communal hallway. And that cat flap is opening before my very eyes and the glint of a large knife comes scraping through it, gripped by a bruised, blood-spotted arm with hideously crooked nails. Followed quickly by a bony shoulder adorned with a filthy robe.

And then suddenly, I can see her face. She’s staring at me with one bulging yellow eye as she tries feverishly to shift and contort her way through the opening. The sides scratch and bloody her face as she pushes, stabbing the knife into the carpet in an attempt to gain leverage.

Legs weak with terror, I rush back to Jack. I’m panicking, trying to think of a plan. The only option is the window. I know it's high, but I have to risk it.

I remember thinking that my bedroom is at the end of the hall and therefore easier to barricade. It could buy us time to get out. I lean down to pick up Jack, feeling his weight in my arms as I lift... his arms around my neck.

But as I straighten up, I look down and he’s still standing there looking up at me, his wide eyes confused and scared. I look at the Jack that I’m holding and he’s smiling at me. Not wide or malicious, just smiling. But it’s enough that I panic and drop him.

The scraping in the hallway is louder now.

Both Jacks look up at me, innocent and vulnerable. I don’t have time to question it. I bend down to pick them both up, but they duplicate again, calling my name in a frenzied panic as though they understand the imminent threat.

I know I can’t save them all.

I’m begging Jack to somehow let me know which one he really is, screaming his name at the top of my lungs when the old woman lunges past me and pounces on top of the children.

My ears ring with terrified screams as the knife plunges into the terrified pile of my babies. The others flee in every direction.

And I’m out of that room. I’m running for my bedroom door.

I slam it and jump onto my bed in a desperate plea for the window, but I slip and fall down the other side, taking the bedding with me as I hit my head on the windowsill. I lay there dazed, listening to the bloodied screams of my child getting torn apart, over and over again. Eventually, it grows quiet. My last thought is: She’s coming for me now.

Then I black out.’

Sophie’s voice shook as she looked desperately at Schwartz.

‘You know what the worst part is? The worst part is when I actually woke up, I was on the fucking floor, down the side of my bed.’

Schwartz frowned, his face troubled.

‘Do you understand how terrifying that is? To wake up and not know if it was real. To not know if this is reality or not?’

‘Do they all end like that?’

‘Yes. They all start with me waking up in my bed and end with me in it. I never know if it happened. And I tried to reason with myself. I do try to rationalise. But as I got to my feet I saw that fucking balloon, still up there on my ceiling, and I swear to God it was bobbing slightly, just like in the dream.’

‘Did you believe it was real?’

‘The neighbours heard me scream... I can’t keep on like this. I can’t. If she’s not clawing her way through the door, she’s contorting her way out of my kitchen cupboards, bones snapping back into place as she stands up. She’s looking at me through the window of Jack’s school when I arrive to pick him up, smiling before the screaming starts inside. Even when I’m not having nightmares, she finds a way to bleed into those dreams... If someone is staring at me for a little too long in a crowd and I look back at them, they're smiling. And I know it’s her, even though it isn’t. She finds me. She always finds me.

And now I’ve started to feel her when I’m awake. If someone staring at me for a little too long now, my blood runs cold. I feel like I’m losing my mind. I need help.’

Sophie burst into tears as the relief of letting it all out flooded her.

‘Sophie, listen to me carefully. The brain has a way of playing tricks on you. There are things that can be done to help you, techniques we can put into place to keep these dreams suppressed. Or should you choose, we can delve deeper into your subconscious and find out why these dreams are happening.’

‘You think there’s a reason this is happening to me?’ Sophie whimpered, looking up at him.

‘I think so. You’re obviously quite scared of this woman. I think it’s safe to say she has her claws in you.’

‘I wouldn’t put it that way.’

‘That’s just my professional opinion. You don’t want to be her plaything forever, do you?’

‘Of course not.’ She wept.

‘Well, that’s one option - we explore your mind and find out what’s causing it,’ said Schwartz matter-of-factly, ‘or, I’m happy to prescribe something.’

‘Pills?’ asked Sophie.

‘Of sorts.’ He smiled. ‘They’re mood stabilisers and considering just how frightened you are, I think it’s probably the way to go, for now.’

Sophie smiled back at him as a wave of calm washed over her, but the idea of a quick fix seemed too good to be true.

‘Are there any side effects?’ she asked.

‘Well, for starters, they’ll make you sleep more.’

‘How is that a good thing?’

Sophie shifted uncomfortably in her seat as Dr Schwartz stared at her with an odd smile, his cheek quivering.

‘Dr Schwartz?’ she asked, hesitantly.

The doctor didn’t move.

‘Dr Schwartz?!’ Sophie jumped out of her chair as the side of his cheek split open revealing blackened rotten teeth and his smile cracked and stretched its way grotesquely up to his ears.


About the Creator

Sian N. Clutton

A horror and thriller writer at heart, who's recently decided to take a stab at other genres.

I sincerly hope you find something that either touches your soul or scares your socks off.

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Reader insights


Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

Top insights

  1. Excellent storytelling

    Original narrative & well developed characters

  2. Masterful proofreading

    Zero grammar & spelling mistakes

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Comments (19)

  • Tiffany Gordon 18 days ago

    Phenomenal writing! Very well done Sian! Congrats on your Top Story! It is very well-deserved!!

  • D.K. Shepard23 days ago

    This is so well written and suspenseful!! Terrifying imagery and the surreal dream elements were so well done! And it’s actually based on a personal dream?!?! How scary!

  • Congratulations on having your story featured as a top story on Vocal! This is a remarkable achievement, and it's clear why your work has received such recognition. Your storytelling is truly exceptional. The narrative was not only compelling but also beautifully crafted, holding my attention from start to finish. The way you developed the characters and plot was masterful, making the story both engaging and thought-provoking. Your unique voice and perspective shine through, setting your work apart. It’s evident that you poured a lot of passion and effort into this piece, and it has certainly paid off. I look forward to reading more of your incredible stories in the future. Keep up the fantastic work! Best regards, Dr. Jay

  • Natasha Collazo26 days ago

    Congrats on Top story!!!

  • Caroline Craven28 days ago

    Jeepers! What an ending. That was terrifyingly creepy. So good.

  • Andrea Corwin 29 days ago

    OMG, this had me laughing out loud (I tend to laugh in horror movies when everyone else is shrieking in fear), which means it is EXCELLENT! You wove in so many creepy descriptions and surprises. Make it a book!! Congrats on TS.❤️🎉

  • A very good read

  • Back to say congratulations on your Top Story! 🎉💖🎊🎉💖🎊

  • Like the Boogeyman story with the therapist by Stephen King!!! Wow I really love this Story!! Excellent piece with exceptional detail on your character’s dialogue

  • Caroline Jane30 days ago

    Truly disturbing stuff!

  • Rachel Deeming30 days ago

    Great twist at the end, Sian! A great story, sinister and tense.

  • shanmuga priya30 days ago

    Congratulations 🎉

  • Golam Kibria30 days ago

    Congrats for top

  • woohoohoo...this was exactly where I was hoping you would go! FABULOUS story. I sure hope you aren't still dreaming this. Congratulations on your top story

  • Lindsay Sfaraabout a month ago

    Wow! I don't have the words. It's just crazy how nightmares can be, and as Mike put it, they'll sometimes just not make sense; which can make it worse. Great work!

  • L.C. Schäferabout a month ago

    ARRGGGGHHHHHHH! Please win, it'll make me feel better about terrifying the bejesus out of myself.

  • This is brilliant, I love the way nothing make sense like a true nightmare and I'll say no more about this dream within a dream that is a nightmare within a nightmare.

  • Katarzyna Popielabout a month ago

    I almost wish I could unread this... Way too scary!

  • Dharrsheena Raja Segarranabout a month ago

    Hahahahahahahahahhaa even this was a nightmare. Have you watched the movie, 'Smile'? This reminded me a little of that but the plot is wayyyyy different. Only similarity is the smile. Also, the Jacks multiplying was more terrifying to me than the old woman with the knife because I hate children, lol. Loved your take on this challenge!

Sian N. CluttonWritten by Sian N. Clutton

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