Quiet Child

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
DJ Tyrer

Photo of a house fire at night. Most of the image is in darkness, as bright yellow-white flames shoot up from a house and smoke billows around the flames. In the foreground, the tops of other house and trees are silhouetted. Power lines bisect the image horizontally from the left disappearing into the smoke and flames.

Photo Credit: Peter Hill/Flickr (CC-by)

“Quiet, child,” said Uncle Andrew as he withdrew from the room and flicked the switch, plunging it back into darkness.

Nella closed her eyes tight and pulled herself deep down beneath her duvet. It was cold, but that wasn’t the reason why she sought its comfort.

She cried into it. Always the same, always the same two words.

“Quiet, child.”

She bit the duvet, filled her mouth with it till she almost choked, tried to stifle the shuddering sobs that shook her entire body.

Uncle Andrew never believed her.

As the sound she was making softened, Nella could hear the soft sounds that she tried to imagine were those of sleet dashing against the window panes, but weren’t. The sibilant whispers that sounded as if they came from all the corners of the room, as if there were many hidden people speaking too softly for her to hear, or a single sound that echoed quietly about her, again and again, moving ever closer…

She didn’t know what they were, where they came from, who made them—she had never dared open her eyes to see—but she knew that the whispers were bad.

Nella had first heard the sound the week before her parents died in the fire that had destroyed their home, left the beautiful old building a pile of charred rubble.

At first, the sound had been so soft she could barely hear it.

“Can you hear it, mummy,” she had asked, eyes wide with the mystery of it, and her mother had shaken her head and said, “What, dear?”

“That sound. It’s like a breeze in the walls.”

She had imagined that there might be something marvellous hidden within the walls of the house, a doorway to a world like Narnia, somewhere where she might have adventures, a place of dreams—not nightmares.

“I don’t hear anything, darling. It’s probably the wind blowing through the air bricks in the cellar. It’s nothing to be frightened of.”

Her mother had stroked her hair and Nella had quickly fallen into a deep and pleasant sleep. She hadn’t been frightened of the sound, not then. But, she should have been.

Slowly, the whispering sound had grown closer, as if she were hearing people having a quiet conversation in the hallway, moving closer to her door. At first, Nella had thought it was her parents. Then, she had begun to wonder if it was ghosts. Her best friend had told her the house was so old it ought to be haunted and she wondered if she was right and became a little frightened as the sound came nearer, as if the ghosts were drawing closer to her bedroom door, nearer to coming inside.

Her father had laughed good-naturedly when she told him and said, “There are no such things as ghosts, not outside of storybooks. When you die you’re dead and that’s the end of it, you don’t come back in a white sheet to scare people.”

Even now, as she trembled in her bed, that made Nella sad. She hoped her daddy was wrong and that she might see him again, one day, that he might even come back and save her from the whispers.

But, even as the sound grew louder and louder, her parents had been unable to hear it. It was as if the sound were one for her and her alone, a message she couldn’t understand, or a threat or taunt she couldn’t decipher.

Then, came the night of the fire.

The whispering sound had been louder than ever, and there was something in it, a deeper sound, a little like a chuckle that made her feel sick to her stomach—and then the smoke alarms had begun to shriek and she hadn’t been able to hear the whispers any more.

Nella had run from her bed and down the stairs to the telephone in the hall as her parents had always taught her and called the fire brigade, before running out of the house into the snowy night. As she went outside, she heard a crashing sound like the time her cousin booted his football through the side of the greenhouse and a moment later the smoke alarm died, to be replaced by a deeper, more terrifying sound.

Nella had been terrified. She didn’t want to be alone in the darkness with the twitching reddish shadows that danced across the lawn and the houses opposite. She wanted her mummy and daddy.

They would, she knew, be right behind her.

Only they hadn’t been.

Looking back at the house, Nella had seen the flames flailing through the shattered window of her parents’ bedroom, had watched as they danced further across the house, shattering more glass, causing the roof to collapse and the walls to fall in.

The fire engine had arrived with its blue, swirling lights, adding them to the dance of light that spun about her.

A policeman had taken her away. Later, a woman she didn’t know told her that her parents were dead. A fault in the wiring for the Christmas tree lights, she said.

She didn’t notice the holiday pass.

Nella had sobbed for what felt like years. Then, when her tears had run dry, she fell silent, too tired to speak or think. Too scared. For, behind the sadness, she knew that the whispers were somehow to blame.

Her Uncle Andrew and Auntie Susan had taken her in and she hadn’t heard the whispers in their home, had thought herself free of them, had maybe even come to believe they were nothing more than a bad dream.

Then, in the distance, as if far down in the cellar beneath the house, she heard them…

“Uncle Andrew! Uncle Andrew!” she had cried, running into his study. “Can you hear it?”

“What?” he had asked, testily. “I’m very busy, you know.”

“There’s a sort of whispering. I heard it at home. Before the fire.”

“Quiet, child,” he had said, for the first time. “You’ve just been having nightmares. It was a terrible thing you experienced and it is, I suppose, to be expected, but you need to move on and put the past behind you.”


“Quiet, child. Now, go away and play. I’m busy.”

She had gone and tried to talk to her aunt, but Auntie Susan had been just as busy and said the same thing. It was the same every time she tried to tell them what she could hear—the strange whispering, growing louder every night.

Now, it was so loud, it seemed to be all around her, swirling about her bed.

How she wished it would go away!

She didn’t care that Uncle Andrew would be cross with her. She couldn’t bear to be alone in the night any more.

Nella threw back her duvet and opened her mouth to scream, but as she did so, she thought she caught a hint of movement in the darkness, like a figure stepping up to her bed, and heard a sibilant voice hiss, “Quiet, child.”

No sound came from her mouth.

Nella tried again. Nothing!

She pulled the duvet back up over her head and held it tight against her face, as if it would ward off whatever lurked about her bed. And, as she did so, she thought, for just a moment, she caught the sound of a deep and unpleasant chuckle.


Nella woke to the sound of Auntie Susan calling her name.

She threw back the duvet and saw grey morning light through her bedroom window. Somehow, she had survived the night. She shivered at the memory and tried to pretend it had all just been an unpleasant dream.

“Nella, it’s time for breakfast. Hurry up, you’ve got school.”

It was Monday. That meant she was starting at her new school.

Nella sniffed and blinked away tears. She was going to miss her friends. She didn’t want to go some place new.

But her aunt called again and she had to get out of bed.

She washed and dressed and stumbled down the stairs to the kitchen.

“Good morning,” said her aunt with a smile as wide as necessary for the day.

Nella opened her mouth to reply, but no words came out.

Her aunt looked at her. Nella looked back, uncertain, tried to speak again, but still was unable to make a sound beyond the slightest rough hiss of air.

Panic began to well up inside her, the same terrifying panic she had begun to feel when her parents didn’t come to her from the burning house and the policeman swept her away. She tried to shout, to scream, but no sounds came, save an increasingly strangled hiss.

“Nella? Are you okay? Are you choking?”

Her aunt grabbed her and tried to look in her mouth, but Nella pushed her off and shook her head.

She tried again, but still there was no sound. She pointed at her throat.

“Sore throat?”

Nella screwed up her face in thought, then nodded. It was a little sore, now.

But she remembered the voice the night before, the one that wasn’t her uncle. “Quiet, child.”

She thought of one of the bad words her father said when he hit his hand with a hammer or banged his head, then put her hand up over her mouth. Only, she hadn’t really said it, her aunt hadn’t heard it.

“Don’t worry, I’ll call the doctor,” said Auntie Susan.


The doctor had said something about it being to do with her sadness about the fire and her parents dying and having to start a new school. There was a long word that began with ‘sigh’ and made her think of the sibilant whispers that explained it, but she didn’t understand it.

“It’s the time of year. Keep her home for a day or two and she’ll probably be fine. If not, I’ll arrange for her to see a specialist,” the doctor had said. There was a long word for that, too, that also began with ‘sigh’. It was probably because a sigh was the only sound she could make, now.

But, no matter what the doctor said, Nella knew it had nothing to do with sadness and that her voice wouldn’t be coming back. She also knew something bad was coming. She tried to draw it for her aunt, but she just shook her head sadly and seemed to think the pictures were do with Nella’s parents.

It was so frustrating!

That night, she went up the stairs like a princess being sent to face a dragon, only with no prospect of rescue. Her friend, Ali, always said princesses should rescue themselves, but Nella had no idea how she was supposed to do that.

Glumly, she climbed into bed and gestured to her aunt to leave the night light on beside her bedroom door.

“Is that why you’re so down?” she murmured. Nella was grateful that she didn’t turn it off.

The whispers were still there, but further away, in the passageway outside her room, or in the walls. The light, faint as it was, seemed to keep them at bay.

She almost relaxed. If she couldn’t hear them properly, then that had to mean they couldn’t hurt her or her aunt and uncle. As long as the light kept them away, they would all be safe.

The whispers continued to hiss softly in the distance, as if prowling about her room seeking a way in.

Go away and let me sleep, she thought, and she said a silent prayer.

Then, the night light died and, in a moment, her bedroom was dark as anything.

Nella sat straight up and screamed, but she couldn’t make a sound. Nobody would hear her. Nobody would come.

Quickly, she lay back down and pulled the covers over her head.

The whispers were all around her. She thought she heard sounds of movement, swishing and footsteps, but it may just have been the growing noise of almost-voices as they hissed and squawked all about the room.

She could almost make out words. And, amongst them, she could hear her own voice, whispering cruel, hateful things.

The whispers hadn’t just taken her voice away, they had stolen it for themselves.

There was a hissing and a sound like tuh-tuh and she could smell something burning.

She could hear the deep chuckling sound, a mocking laugh that was growing in noise.

“Tonight’s the night,” she heard her voice say. “Tonight’s your turn.”

She couldn’t breathe. She was choking.

She threw back the duvet.

Flames danced where her night light had been.

Nella tried to scream.

“Quiet, child,” said her voice. “It will all be over soon.”

“Soon,” hissed other voices, not calming, but cruel.

“Quiet, child. Quiet, child. Quiet, child.”

The flames drew nearer.

Nella thought she heard her father’s voice, her mother screaming.

Then there was a crash and the door burst open and her uncle was beside her bed, pulling her up into his arms.

She was screaming.

“Quiet, child,” he said, and he carried her through the flames.


DJ Tyrer is the person behind Atlantean Publishing and has been widely published in anthologies and magazines around the world, such as Chilling Horror Short Stories (Flame Tree), All The Petty Myths (18th Wall), Steampunk Cthulhu (Chaosium), What Dwells Below (Sirens Call), The Horror Zine’s Book of Ghost Stories (Hellbound Books), and EOM: Equal Opportunity Madness (Otter Libris), and issues of Sirens Call, Hypnos, Occult Detective Magazine, parABnormal, and Weirdbook, and in addition, has a novella available in paperback and on the Kindle, The Yellow House (Dunhams Manor). Facebook.

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