He was always there, stitched into her memories. He was under her skin, behind her eyes, and slowly crawling down her spine. He was behind every closed door, and he waited patiently for her. She has always known him as Mister Hiss.
She could barely picture it in her old age, sitting stooped in her scratchy tartan armchair, but the effects had lasted long enough. She held the wooden clock in her brittle grip, the reflection of the candlelight dancing across its dark, varnished wood. It was carved of solid mahogany, into which was set thick, ornate seams of gold in twirling, intertwining pattens. Its ticks and tocks were heavy thuds and her thin, old wrists, her knuckles and joints and bits of bone were throbbing from holding it, but she kept it clasped in her hands, while her mind was away in half-formed remembrance. It was the image of the flame that took her thoughts.
Ruth’s first memory was mostly of warmth. She remembered the fire, and the heat of it in the cotton bedding of her cot. She would slowly writhe on her back, exploring each twist and turn of her spine. Her legs she would move up and down, the grazing of the fabric on her ankles. She remembered opening and closing her hands, her little fingers stubborn and unwilling. Always the warmth of the bed.
It may have been one night or a dozen nights or all of the nights she remembered. The fireside, the hiss and splutter of wood or the clicking of her mothers knitting needles. The cotton was warm under her back and soothing, easy and quiet. That night, or some other night, or every night, she watch the firelight play across the wooden beams of the ceiling, stretching and bending and flashing shadows. On one of the nights she had looked up and seen Mister Hiss.
She screamed at his white eyes, his black mouth and his rotting skin. She screamed at this man dressed in old robes standing over her. She screamed as he leaned over her, his eyes widening and his mouth opening and his white, dirty hair wriggling. His long fingers reaching down to her, his eyes white and huge and she screamed as she was lifted from the cot. It was only when she smelled the familiar smell of her mother’s strawberry perfume that she stopped. Her father hadn’t risen from his chair and her mother was bobbing her up and down, and her heart beat ran and ran. The figure was nowhere to be seen.
Ruth named him Mister Hiss when she was six years old.
She hadn’t seen him in a very long time, not in the flesh at least. For last few years he had been lurking in her dreams alone. She had grown up quickly, with occasional fits of pain and confusion. Hair had grown, her arms had gotten longer, chubbier, her legs were more precise but somehow clumsier and she had developed a system of running: she would basically fall forward and hope her feet would be underneath her. It was mostly successful.
She had a haircut and proper clothes and could talk with an uncooperative tongue that insisted upon sticking in the space behind her two front teeth. She had difficulty with certain sounds. Her esses were sticky and gummed up her mouth with effs.
She ran a lot. She jumped and punched things and did everything she could to outrun bedtime, because she didn’t trust her dreams. Falling asleep had become a risk, a chance of opening a certain door to be faced with a sickly memory of warmth, a glimmer of firelight on wood, and the figure in rags standing over her, with white eyes.
She didn’t dream of him often, maybe once every 5 months. She once went 9 months without the fireside coming to her at night. When she did she would wake herself up with a blast of screaming wrenching up her throat. She would be coated in sweat and her bed soaked with urine and she would cry until her mother came to hold her, the strawberry perfume slowing her breathing down to normal.
She had recounted the dream so often and her parents had become less and less earnest in their comforting words. But with every fit of screaming, her mother always came to her aid, eventually.
She had not dreamt of him the second night he came. She was in bed, her stuffed elephant in her embrace and she’d been dreaming of a field of crunchy flowers that broke under foot when she was suddenly awake in silence. She was sat up in bed. She did not remember sitting up, or how long she had been awake but her dream had been suddenly sapped of light and she was in the dark, the cold a growing sensation on her skin. The air in her room was still. There was no sound; even her heart beat was muffled quiet. Her room was pitch black, heavy curtains smothering the light from the street-lamps outside.
She heard a tiny, almost imperceptible shuffle of cloth. Something a few feet away, in the centre of the room. Something scuffing against the carpet, just for a moment, then total fragile stillness once more. Ruth slowly reached out her hand in front of her, but made no contact. She splayed her fingers and slowly, very slowly, began to move her hand around in the pitch dark. She moved it up and down, but nothing. She moved it left until it made contact with the cold wall of her bedroom. She slowly moved it right until it made contact with cloth. The pinky of her right hand touching that cloth, that’s what Ruth remembers now in her chair, that feeling of the rotten material on her skin. She moved her hand up and her fingers felt the material, knotted and uneven. She withdrew her hand and sat their for a moment, utterly cold and afraid. She couldn’t scream, she couldn’t do anything but listen.
Silence for what felt like whole minutes, then another shuffle of cloth across the carpet, closer to her. Then she heard faint, shallow breathing. Not breathing though, it was high-pitched and rasping, like hissing. Soft, slow hissing. She reached out to her right, groping for her bedside table lamp when long fingers wrapped around her wrist. They squeezed and the burst of pain she felt made her scream at last. She shrieked and didn’t break it or stop for breath until she passed out, pitching forward off the bed.
What happened next was less clearly defined in memory. She had woken up on the cold floor of her bedroom with her mother holding her head and her father standing over her. There was a dull feeling of pain in her forehead. Ruth couldn’t remember this part but, for years after, whenever she pressed her mother about the incident, apparently her mother had asked her what was wrong, what she had seen, and Ruth had responded:
She had owned the clock for a while, ever since Mr Fenris three doors down had packed up. His wife had died a month prior and, in his own words, she had ‘done all the home stuff’, so he was moving in with his son and his family. Her knees were stubborn in the cold, but Ruth had wandered down to see him placing cardboard boxes on the plush red carpet that ran past their rooms. One was full of papers, the other a mismatched collection of glasses, tankards and mugs.
He smiled at her with faintly yellow teeth as she approached and beckoned her inside. The apartment was dark, and the thick curtains gave the trapped air a dirty smell that she couldn’t place. The mustard coloured couch was patched with stains, most of which had been concealed by a lace cover. The wallpaper was a pale green and the carpet a dull brown. The whole place made Ruth really quite sad, like at any point this colour scheme could have been prevented, but no one was up to the task.
He instructed her to take anything she liked and she pretended to thumb through the bookcases and shelves stacked with old magazines, while she covertly watched Fenris sort his whole life into essentials and not. He had plenty of photos in dusty frames, and his spent his time painfully lifting them from the walls and placing them in a cardboard box the size of a large television set. Each one he took down, he studied for a brief moment, and his eyes would drift away, thin little smile on his lips.
Ruth had begun to panic before she’d even realised it. She’d been staring at Mr Fenris, who was lost in thought of picture of a large group of people standing outside a church when her heart had steadily begun beating faster and faster. She felt a tightness in her throat and realised that she hadn’t taken a breath in as long as she could remember. She gulped and staggered, almost keeling over but steadied herself on a nearby doorframe. As she leaned into the frame, the smell from the next room intensified. The sour smell of urine was leaking from the room behind the door and, quite without thinking, she opened the door a crack.
It was a bedroom, dark and warm. None of the furniture or assembling trinkets had been touched. The bed was unmade and patched with stains, some rust-coloured. The stench made her gasp and choke and she leapt back as if burned.
“Is everything alright,” asked Mr Fenris as she clutched the mantelpiece to steady herself. She nodded and gulped, and scoured the mantelpiece for the first thing she could see that wasn’t a photograph. She closed her fingers around the clock. It wasn’t more than a foot high but it was well-built and she struggled to lift it off the mantelpiece.
“This,” she said, her heart still racing, her legs moving her quickly to the hallway.
“The front hatch is locked,” Mr Fenris called after her, concern in his voice. “We never had a a key.”
“Fine,” she called back, bursting out of the apartment. She scuttled down the corridor, and shoulder open the door to her own quarters. She rushed inside, the door slamming behind her. She stood there in her hallway, catching her breath, her heart beginning to slow as she was welcoming by the familiar scent of strawberries.
She had become fifteen in an awful hurry.
They had moved house twice, once because of her father being posted to a different branch of the bank, and once because of the recurring nightmares. It was a really bad patch. There was something in the air, some imperceptible cocktail of smells, fabrics, fireplaces, lights, noises from the street, she didn’t know. But nearly every night for 3 months, falling asleep meant the dreams of Mister Hiss.
He would be crouched on her bedside table, white eyes open,and the hissing noise coming from deep within his black wound of a mouth. He would emerge from the middle of her bed rising through the mattress, sometimes through her body, the shape of him rising above her, peering down. Sometimes she would dream of nothing at all, just the darkness and the sound. She would wet the bed, and be inconsolable and after 4 months they decided the house was just ‘wrong’. Her father had not wanted to leave, but they did. They packed up, moved across town, and nothing more was said on the matter.
She attended a local school with local friends who didn’t know about Mister Hiss, and she a had weekly therapy sessions with a pork pie called Gordon, who was nice, round and genial in that mid-fifties way but they were fundamentally mismatched. He thought Mister Hiss wasn’t real, and she thought Gordon could fuck off.
She didn’t have any sisters or brothers, because, in her mind at least, she’d really turned her parents off the idea of constant pissing and shrieking.
It was October and the air was crisp and cold. One of her friends, Clare, was throwing a half-term party at her place while her parents were in Kenya. She had one of those large, angular, white plaster houses that was very tasteful, expensive and didn’t have any carpets.
Despite most of the teens in her year hating most of the other teens in her year, only a dickhead wastes a party and the house was packed with the slowly deflating bodies of the drunk-turned-tired. The party was reaching its peak and the walls shook with music. Ruth was in the garden with her fifth rum and coke, braving the cold in order to confuse David Au Prey. The blonde youth had a weak chin, but he was funny and Ruth had spent most of the party getting cross with him and walking away, hoping that he’d follow her.
The night air stang her legs, and she was shivering a little as she sipped some more of the cool syrupy liquor, when David approached. He offered to give her his jacket and she laughed in his face for a solid minute at the sentimental gesture, which she secretly thought was very sweet indeed. She said no, and stormed off as theatrically as she could.
Feeling a little light, she poured the rest of her booze down the sink and went looking for Clare. She was in the lounge, being aggressively touched up by Chris Corbin on the leather sofa while about 4 other boys sat around trying not to look. Hearing a faint pouring sound, Ruth turned to see that a late teens boy that she didn’t know had unzipped his fly and was urinating in a plant pot in the far corner of the room. The rank smell of urine hit her and panicked and her stomach turned over and she threw up on Chris Corbin’s legs. The next four minutes were very bad, and after being accused of being ‘the worst bitch ever’ by her friend Clare, Ruth stumbled out of the front door into the cold. She was furious and sad.
“Ruth,” said David, following after her, and shutting the door behind him, “Need someone to walk you?”
They had made it about 100 yards down the road when Ruth had pulled David into a field, pinned him against a tree and stuck her tongue in his mouth. She had wiped her mouth with her sleeve so she was fairly sure that she’d gotten rid of most of the vomit, and besides, if David was in any way disgusted he wasn’t showing it, kissing her like a dog trying to squirm his head through a gap in a fence.
She jumped a little when his hand went under her jumper. She was still a little wary of unexpected contact, but she refused to show it beyond the initial jolt.
They could still hear the party down the road, and a jangle of drunken voices on the road made Ruth nervous of being discovered. She grabbed David’s hand and turned to pull him deeper in the field when she stopped dead. She dropped his hand and stood stock still, staring at the hill line. Silhouetted against the moonlight blue sky was a single figure standing on the crest of the hill.
She knew it was him. The figure stepped forward and the moonlight illuminated the rags. The figure had a pale face, a shock of pale hair and huge white eyes. It took another step forward and she began to quietly sob. The figure suddenly pitched forward began to run at her, a deafening hiss piercing the night air. She turned to run, when David reached out and grabbed her wrist. Ruth shrieked with all her might and swung her elbow into his face.
She ran through the field, losing her heels in the process. The cold wet sting of the damp ground spurred her on as she jumped over a verge, tripping and falling hard down a side of earth, into the street. Her hands were scuffed but the hissing was gaining on her so she ran and ran and ran, ducking down country roads, climbing down ditches, catching her clothes in hedges and thorn bushes. She ran across another field, through waist-tall long grass, and it was only when she tripped and fell that she realised that the hissing had stopped. She lay in the grass, hands clasped over her mouth, listening for any sound. Her wet body shook and convulsed with fear, and she wanted nothing more in her whole life than to smell strawberries, but she didn’t know where she was. When she heard the sound of branch in the wind, something in her mind went and she passed out.
She woke up in the hospital, with a tube in her arm, and her parents by her side. Her mother held her hand, and there was a freshly-bought basket of strawberries on her bedside table.
Ruth ran her hands over the varnished wood of the clock she’d taken from Mr Fenris. It was three months since he’d moved out, and she’s only just accustomed herself to its strange thudding tick. It was a cold November evening, and she’d run out of things to fill her time before bed, so Ruth had taken the timepiece off its new position on her maisonette and was giving it a thorough going over.
She took a letter opener from the ceramic pot with all her pens and odds and sods, and began to force it into the gap in the wood made by the door of the locked hatch. She was going to get the little bugger.
She thought of David from time to time. What happened to him had always haunted her. She’d broken his nose with her elbow, but that wasn’t the worst of it. Rumours began to circulate at school that he’d attacked her, tried to take advantage. She was called to the office by her Headmistress. A policeman was there too and asked what she could confirm or deny, and whether she wanted to press charges. She mumbles something about it being a misunderstanding, and no she didn’t want to. She didn’t dare to tell her friends about Mister Hiss though, and made no real attempt to stop the rumours. After a couple of other boys from her year beat up David pretty badly, he moved away and she never heard from him again.
She thought of him that night as she held the clock in her hands. It was one of the worst things she’d ever done.
Mister Hiss spoke to her for the first time when she was twenty-eight.
She had sort of become a person. It wasn’t exactly a person that she was happy with, but at least her crippling anxieties about being touched or sleeping in the same bed as anyone with ouder than silent breathing had give her a cast-iron personal sense of identity. Here I am, she could say to herself, here are my remarkable character traits, which is honestly more than a lot of people get.
She hadn’t had a direct encounter with Mister Hiss in over a decade, but the nightmares persisted. The winter months were the worst, the chill on her skin would occasionally set her off. She wrapped up warmer than she was comfortable with most of the time, because the sting of the winter air, the bite on her skin, made her uneasy, guilty and often irreversibly sad.
She lived alone in a flat in the big city. There was something protective about the swarm of people around her. Lots of her friends from home, not that there were many, had found the bigger cities claustrophobic and had sluggishly returned, dutifully, to the town in which they were born, and where everyone was chatty and nice. Ruth preferred the safety of crowds and the constant ability to reset her mood, her persona, her whole self on a whim, an advantage given to her by the relentless anonymity of the teeming mass of humanity that surrounded her.
It was a May morning, and the cool winds of April had blown themselves out to leave a still and pleasant air. She was sat in the park near her office. The grass was slightly damp, which made her anxious, but it was worth it to sit under a tree in bloom. A pocket of wind caught the branch above her and a few light, pink petals flipped and fluttered around her, which was lovely until one fell inside her chicken wrap.
There was an ease to things now. She had found a job in the legal department of an architect’s. It was an international firm, and she was helping to manage the Chinese and Australian clients, which required her to work nights, which was just fine by her. Sleeping during the day never seemed to bring bad dreams.
Life was speeding up, and contentment, she thought, was the grease on the wheel. TV programmes and occasional meals out, and little mundane treats when she deserved them. Everything had settled down, and time was shooting on by. She would finish her meal, head home, watch something stupid, then crawl into bed. She saw him through the trees.
He had never appeared to her during the daytime before, and for that, for the first time in her whole life, her anger outweighed her fear. How dare he, she thought, her heart racing. He moved towards her and, stripped of his shadows, she saw him fully for the first time, and she nearly vomited. She had always thought that he dressed head to toe in rags, that was who she remember him in her dreams, but she could see now that, instead, he was rags. The knotted fabric was his flesh, which was hanging off some body hidden beneath. She could not see clearly, but behind the waves of rotted flesh, was some muscle, some bone. Atop it all was his face, his pale face with the disgusting pale hair and the white eyes. His head looked like it was made of plaster, with the eyes a featureless, smooth surface. He hissed at her as he approached, rags swaying as he walked.
She would later tell herself that she the reason she did not run was that of stubborn fury, but the truth of it was, she was simply too scared to move. She turned to look at the people that shared the park with her, some joggers, a morning yoga class, pockets of people, dotted strangers. No one saw. She looked back and he was standing over her. The hissing felt like fingernails on her eardrums. She wanted to scream with all her might, but she didn’t. She clamped her jaw down hard.
He stood over her, hissing. His face was haggard, his flesh was rotten, and his mouth open like a hideous gash.
“Fuck off,” said Ruth.
Mister Hiss hissed louder, a short, sharp shotgun blast of noise designed to make her leap and run.
“FUCK OFF,” Ruth screamed.
Mister Hiss stood there, silent. His expressionless eyes widened, and his mouth closed to a scar, a knife slit. He moved slowly forward across the grass. He stood directly above her, but she didn’t move.
“I’m not going to let you take the days,” said Ruth, carefully and quietly, “and you can’t have the fucking park.”
Mister Hiss descended into the ground, his lower half melting away into the grass as he lowered himself to her level. The top half of his body hovered there in front of her, his face an arm’s length from hers. His pale skin was cracked, with chips taken out of it, like damaged porcelain. He stank of urine.
A hand emerged from the skin rags, a brittle, skeletal claw. Ruth thought that if he touched her, she would die. Her heart would burst and she would scream up what remained. She flinched and whimpered, and she hated herself for it, but she stayed there, rooted to the ground.
The hand brushed her cheek, slowly, the boney index rubbing up and down. She stayed quiet, though it felt like trying to swallow an explosion. The hand took hold of her face, squeezing her cheeks. Mister Hiss’s bony fingers were sharp like talons and the pain crackled along her jawbone, her cheekbone, her temples. Hot tears flowed down her cheeks, as he pressed his face close to hers. The hissing, muffled, was coming from his very core. The stench of piss was nearly overpowering, but Ruth looked at him, right where his pupils would have been.
His mouth opened, the wound stretching. The hissing returned. Mister Hiss seemed to smile. He spoke to her. His reedy voice sounded like it was coming from far away, from behind a wall of static.
“I like it when you run.”
She stared at him, refusing to blink. She whispered:
“Is everything alright,” said a man in dark green suit, who had rushed to her side. Ruth almost leapt out of her skin when his hand grasped her shoulder and she turned to look at him. He had big eyes. She could smell –
She turned back. Mister Hiss was gone, and the coil finally sprang in her chest. She pitched forward, threw up and fell backwards onto the grass. She closed her eyes and let her breath return to her chest. When she opened her eyes, he was still there.
“Er… do you need some of this,” he asked, offering her a half-drunk smoothie. Ruth took it gingerly and sniffed it.
“What flavour is it,” she asked.
Ruth sat in her chair, fiddling with the clock. She was so absorbed in the clock that she didn’t notice the soft hiss. She didn’t look up, out of the window. Out to the street. Under the street-lamp, a figure was looking at her.
Ruth was fifty-one the last time she saw Mister Hiss.
She was in bed with Peter. He was reading Bravo Two Zero for the third time, and she was giving a contract a final once-over. They’d finished their conversation for the night but their bodies would throw the occasional barb. Peter lips would smack whenever a new development happened in his shooty gun plot. Ruth’s belly would bubble from time to time. Peter would break wind, she’d return fire, a quiet but dedicated little tennis match between two players who knew each other’s form all too well.
They hadn’t got married, or had children. They never felt like it.
A few years ago, Ruth had told him about Mister Hiss. After the day in the park, when Peter had quite possibly saved her life, she had shamefully developed more trigger fears. She hated herself for it, but she couldn’t bear to walk through parks anymore. She would always give them a wide berth, cursing her shortage of breath and loathing the thumping in her chest.
The daytime wasn’t so bad. She had low-level anxiety, but she had developed a coping mechanism. She would phone Peter and bother him about something. She’d instigate a meaningless little argument, get him worked up about something, and then she’d be happy. Peter could have left at any time, but he seemed inordinately fond of the “stressy little spaz” (his words) and stuck around. He would sometimes tell her to be quiet and she would. It was a nice little thing they had.
She had told him one night in front of the TV. They had been watching a horror film about a demon who possessed his prey and she just came out with it. She told him everything, and he had listened, attentively. She told him that Mister Hiss was real and that, even though she hadn’t seen him for over twenty years, she would never think to be truly rid of him. At the end, Peter said:
“Right…”and they returned to the film. She knew that he didn’t believe her, and though they didn’t talk about it, she felt a tiny bit crushed. But then, she thought to herself, what could she have expected?
The two of them were in bed and Peter had just smacked his lips. Ruth was almost done with her work, when she heard the hiss. For a moment, she was that young woman, that little teenager, that six-year-old, the defenceless newborn. She was full of big talk, but really, in he heart, she had believed that Mister Hiss was gone, that she had rid herself. She had allowed herself to relax just a little. She stiffened and looked straight ahead.
Their bed faced the door, which was open. Through the doorway, the living room of their flat was shrouded in darkness, broken only by a small criss-cross of moonlight that fell across the centre of the room. In the moonlight stood the silhouette. The light was dimmed, but it was definitely the figure of a man. A man made of rags. He stepped forward towards the bedroom.
She whimpered in fear, breathing shallow, wet breaths.
Slowly, Peter spoke to her.
“Is it him,” he asked.
Ruth nodded, crying.
“Where is he,” asked Peter, voice even and calm.
Ruth pointed at the figure that had almost crossed the threshold into their room. In the light from their bedside lamps, she could see him clearly. The blank white eyes, the matted, dangling flesh, the filthy hair. Peter slowly placed his hand on her arm, and she let him. He reached down, took her hand and held it tight.
Mister Hiss entered the room. He stood at the end of their bed. The hissing noise was rising.
“Is he still there,” asked Peter.
Ruth nodded. She had stopped crying. She realised that, at that moment, she felt more worried for Peter’s safety than her own. She looked to him, and they locked eyes. She had never seen Peter look so brave. He was a nervous man, he apologised to waiters, but right now he was determined and there, with her.
The hissing grew in volume, louder and louder, but Ruth didn’t turn away. The hissing was deafening, and she started to cry, she couldn’t stop herself. Peter squeezed her hand tighter.
“Is he still here,” he asked.
She nodded, and they looked at each other, while the noise grew again. After minutes of agony, the hissing began to fade. After a few more moments, the room fell back to silence. She turned, and Mister Hiss was gone.
“Is he still there,” asked Peter.
Ruth shook her head. Peter released her hand, and returned to his book.
Ruth was fiddling with the lock on the clock’s hatch. Frankly, it couldn’t really be described as fiddling. That implied dexterity, which her seventy-four year old fingers didn’t contain. She was basically stabbing the lock with a letter opened and not much was happening. Peter would have probably got it open by now, he had those weird little tools.
She been with him, at the end. It was a slow cancer, and they’d had a chance to put their affairs in order, settle all their old arguments, and make their peace before he went. She often took stock of all the little trials and adventures they’d shared and she would smile. The good outweighed the bad. Her life with Peter had generated new things she liked, hated, loved. She’d formed aversions to things and grew to tolerate others. He had changed her in many ways, and she had let him, changing him in her own ways. It was a content feeling: he had mattered, and so had she.
She had said goodbye, and he had slipped away into another place. She thought about it sometimes, and was afraid, she couldn’t help it. Certain fears remained, but they were a part of her now, and if she’d learnt one thing from Peter’s death, it was that fearing it didn’t stop it. Neither did acceptance, of course, but acceptance was easier at her age.
Then, at last, she heard the hissing. It had risen in volume and she stiffened in her chair. Slowly, and a little painfully, she rose to her feet and wandered to the window. She saw him, the silhouette of a man in rags, standing under the dim light of the street-lamp across the road. He looked at her, the woman that he had haunted ever since she was a baby, but did not take a step forward. She looked at him, then closed the curtains.
She returned to her chair, picked up the letter opener, and busied herself with the hatch on the clock.