View Cart
Hex Publishers is an independent publishing house proudly specializing in genre fiction: horror, science fiction, crime, dark fantasy, comics, and any other form that explores the imagination. Founded by writers, Hex values both the author and the reader, with an emphasis on quality, diversity, and voices often overlooked by the mainstream.

Just Between Us

By Nisi Shawl

Dolores opened the closet door. Here was the problem. A dead woman hung by her neck, suspended from the cross bar by a man's tie. Violet in color, probably silk from the look of the knot. She shut the door quickly and called up her landlady.

Mrs. Pawkes was dressed for golf. Her clothing glowed a golden green in Dolores' vision. Her sharp-chinned, line-seamed face managed to project warm but distracted concern as she assured Dolores that the dead women were nothing to worry about.

"Women? You mean this isn't the only one?"

"Well, I've had to take care of one a week now for—seems like maybe the last couple of months. But it's just like the refugees, isn't it?"

"No, Mrs. Pawkes, it is not." The last time she came in, Dolores had opened the closet door to find a huddled group of thin, brown, anxious people, clutching fearfully at blankets, newspapers, cooking pots. The detritus of displacement. "Corpses smell. Worse," she amended. "And I had to come back before I wanted to. I think they scared Little Girl. She's gone out."

"Oh, I'm so sorry. The poor thing." The image of Mrs. Pawkes switched from head-and-shoulders to full length as she removed her bag of clubs and leaned it against something—a wall or a doorway, it wasn't quite clear. "I wish I'd known. She didn't say anything..."

"Well, what did you expect?" Little Girl was barely verbal. She knew Mrs. Pawkes existed, but there was very little contact between the two.

"I just didn't have anywhere else to put them, Dolores. They keep—popping up. I wish I could tell you where from."

"I'll look into it. Meanwhile, what am I supposed to do about Little Girl?"

"Send someone after her, I guess...unless you'd rather go yourself?"

"You know there isn't room enough for both of us out there."

"Well, I'm sure you'll think of something, dear. You're so resourceful." Mrs. Pawkes glanced longingly over her shoulder at her golf clubs. The vision began to fade. Dolores could have held it together, but what would be the point? As usual, everything was up to her.

She opened her eyes, which she had squeezed shut during the conversation, massaging the wrinkles where her eyebrows furrowed together. She looked around the place. Not bad, except for the smell. She was in the upper story of a white-painted frame house. Old. Interesting. Lots of windows with tiny panes shaped like diamonds, crescents, tears. Hardwood floors, oriental rugs. Little Girl had left her playthings strewn around the apartment: a rocking horse, cardboard boxes painted to look like bricks. A pink tutu and a cone-shaped hat, white-spangled chiffon streaming from its peak. On the enamel-topped kitchen table a bubble pipe and a tub full of sudsy water waited next to a bowl of soggy cereal.

How could Mrs. Pawkes have been so insensitive? This was supposed to be a safe place. Not a morgue. And Little Girl wasn't really equipped to handle most of what went on outside. How to get her back?

She sat down to think on a love-seat that hadn't been there when she came in. It was hers. She recognized the blue wool upholstery from her last time in. The longer she stayed, the more the place would bear her mark.

Send someone after her. Sure, but who? Dolores and Little Girl were the main tenants, the oldest and biggest ones. There were others, though. Neighbors. Guests. Dolores struggled to classify those she knew.

Patcheddy. She was like Little Girl, only thin and weak and poor. That big, red, roaring—Dolores had never given that a name. Call it Red. Red was too scary to help with this. And Patcheddy wasn't much good for anything, except to whine. It had to be someone small enough so they could both fit outside, but strong enough to bring Little Girl back in.

There was a tapping at one of the windows. A big black bird with blue and white wings was pecking at the glass. Dolores got up to let it in, then hesitated with the window open only a crack. "Who is it?"

It was Hermie.

"Oh, yes." Little Girl's imaginary playmate. She swung the casement wide and he flew in. Hermie had come to Little Girl along with the mumps and an interminable stay in bed. Usually, though, he looked more like light reflecting from a glass of water—or nothing at all. "What brings you here? And why so—so—"

So visible. The bird cocked his head knowingly. He was practicing. He wanted to go outside, to find Little Girl, and he needed to practice pretending to be real.

"Perfect!" she exclaimed. She sat back down on the love seat, and Hermie hopped onto the far arm. "Thank you, thank you, thank you."

Actually, the going out part would be easy. For him. Finding her, too. But he would need help bringing her back.

"But I'm too big to get outside while she's still there."

But she could help inside. She had to. She had to get rid of the dead women. She had to stop them coming. Otherwise he could find Little Girl, but what good would that do? She'd never come back in.

"Okay, Hermie. Okay. I'll see what I can do." He flew back to the windows. They were French, now, with crystal doorknobs. He flapped back and forth noisily while she walked over, turned a knob and pushed. There was a balcony on the other side, weeping black wrought iron. Hermie flew out over it and became one with the powder blue mist beyond.


Am I all right they keep asking, asking. I always tell them no. My favorite word. It's the best. Nonononono. I use it all the time.

I'm hungry. I want a candy bar, or an icecream. I ask the waiter for one I remember that is orange. A Dreamsicle is the name. But when it comes it is all melted in a glass. No stick. And it tastes like medicine. Nasty. I drink it anyway.

I try again. A Heathbar, too, is all melted. Everything in this place is nasty and served in a cup. I'm going to leave. It's closing anyway. They want to know if I need them to call me a cab. I use my word and go.

It's pretty out in the dark. There aren't too many things to see. The wind kisses me with long, dry kisses, brushing down my cheeks. I think the wind is like a pretty young lady aunt. She runs around doing interesting things, so she doesn't have to tell you how big you're getting. And she kisses you, but then she moves away, not holds you tight so you can't go and it's scary and your word won't even work.

There is a park, but I'm not supposed to go in there. Bad men are waiting to hurt a Little Girl. But if they saw me they would think I was big, like Dolores is. Only still they might want to hurt me. Anyways, I don't have to want to go there, because out of the park flies a bird I like. Dark and dry and friendly, the way the wind is in this night. I hold out my finger and he grabs it with his feet. It hurts, but not too much, and also it feels good. The bird's feet are strong. It is holding on to me and I am holding it up.

Come on, says the bird. Let's go.


Dolores cut the woman down. She stunk, like old rotten stew. Her face was blotched and flaccid. She collapsed in an ugly heap on the closet floor.

Dolores thought that was strange. Shouldn't you be stiff if you were dead long enough to smell? But it made the woman a lot easier to handle. All she had to figure out now was what to do with her.

She took her in the bathroom. While hot water ran into the big white tub she removed the woman's clothing. It was basically nondescript: grey sweater, beige and grey and cream plaid skirt. Underwear from Penney's, with comfortable band-sewn legs. Little balls of rolled up lint on the bra. Support pantyhose. Loafers.

Everything from the waist down was soiled. What wasn't smelled like spoiled meat from long, close contact with the corpse. She sat the body on the edge of the tub and guided it gently into the water. It slid so the head was under. She didn't see how that could matter.

While the corpse was soaking she rinsed out the skirt and things in the toilet bowl, thinking how she was going to do this seven more times, if she could find the rest. It was worse than having kids. With them you could use disposables.

She rinsed the dirty clothes out again in the sink, then had to go down to the laundry room to get a basket. She didn't like the basement. It never seemed very clean. Too many things were the same there as outside.

The furnace had long twisting ducts coming out of it, like fat metallic tentacles. Over in the far corner there was a freezer. Nobody used it anymore, not since her mother disappeared. It was chained shut and locked.

When she came back upstairs the body was gone. The water in the tub was clean. She pulled out the stopper by its chain, took the clothes down and loaded them in the machine. Delicate fabrics, short cycle. She left the machine whirring and sloshing away, went to the kitchen and made herself a cup of tea. Then she called up Mrs. Pawkes again, to see if she had any possible clue as to what the hell was going on.

"Well, dear," said Mrs. Pawkes, "I really don't know where I put them all." She raised a be-ringed finger in protest of Dolores' anger. "In my defense—don't frown, you'll make lines, you don't want to end up looking like me, do you?—In my defense I have to say it's mostly because you two change the place around so much. I mean, I'm sure I could find them, but they're probably not where I put them because where I put them is undoubtedly gone, you see..." She waited for Dolores to do or say something to show she understood. Dolores nodded tiredly.

"And as far as where they're coming from, Dolores, I really couldn't say."

"You don't have even the slightest idea?"

"Well, it's not the sort of thing..." She trailed off again. "It's a delicate subject, I'm afraid. I don't think your father would approve." Dolores thought maybe she should just give up. There were subjects Mrs. Pawkes refused to talk about at all. Sex. Bodily functions. Violence of any sort. That fight two months back, right before her mother had run off—Mrs. Pawkes referred to it as, "That discussion between your parents."

Sometimes Dolores wondered how she ever wound up being their landlady.

"Thanks," she said, hoping she didn't sound too sarcastic. "I'll let you know how it all works out."


His name is Hermie. I know him. I like him, but I don't want to go back. I say no.

He says o.k., but it's going to get cold later. Maybe we can find a donut shop. We do. It has a roof like an orange skirt swirling out dancing. The walls are all glass. I wonder if they'll let me in carrying a crow.

Magpie, says Hermie. I am a magpie, not a crow. Anyway, they probably won't even see me.

Why? I ask. I open the door. Hermie is on my shoulder now.

Because I'm a figment of your imagination.

Oh, I say. I thought you were a magpie. It's a joke. I know you can be more than one thing at a time.

Quiet, says Hermie. You don't want them to think you're crazy, do you?


There were dead women all over, once she started looking. Stuffed under the kitchen sink. In the laundry hamper. The pantry. One was wedged in the little space between the fridge and the wall. One was in the spare room, neatly tucked in bed. She had to wash the sheets and mattress pad as well when she did that one's clothes.

They all dissolved in the tub. Their clothes stayed. She had a whole wardrobe of shapeless, baggy, colorless garments on hangers in the laundry room. No two outfits were identical, but they might as well have been. Mix-and-match.

All except the things this one wore. The one she held in her hands. This corpse was only eight or nine inches tall. It still smelled awful. She had found it in the sugar bin.

Washing them got rid of the dead women, but it didn't bring her any closer to the problem's cause. This one was obviously special. Maybe if she did something different this time she could revive it enough to ask it some questions. She thought.

The cookie sheets were in a tall, narrow cupboard made just for them. She rinsed off the heaviest, the best one, while waiting for the oven to pre-heat. Stuck it in for a moment to dry. Took it out and coated it with butter, deciding against a dusting of flour on top of that.

She removed the doll-like clothes and sponged off the small, naked corpse, nervously expecting it to dissolve and disappear. It didn't. She laid the body on the cookie sheet and brushed it with lemon juice. What else? She got some raisins, put two over the dead woman's eyes, one between her slack lips. Was that it? Almost. With a paring knife she cut another raisin in two, then stuck the resulting halves over the nipples. That looked right. The oven was ready. She slid the woman in, set the timer, and put everything away.


I get two fried cakes and a jelly donut. And hot chocolate. It's really good. I hand up crumbs to Hermie where he's still sitting on my shoulder. I giggle and wonder if everybody else just sees pieces of donut disappear into the air. Or maybe they are floating inside Hermie's invisible, imaginary crow-belly.

Magpie, he says, and I laugh out loud.

Am I all right? No.


Nothin' says lovin' like somethin' from the oven. Dolores didn't really need the timer to know when the dead woman was done. The aroma said it all. She smelled kind of good, actually. Kind of—juicy. Delicious, really. Like baked apples. The odor spoke to her invitingly as she pulled out the cookie sheet. She spatulaed up the corpse and transferred it to a cooling rack. Now she'd get some answers.

The dead woman, however, was obstinately silent.

All right, thought Dolores. She reached out and broke off an arm. It tasted sweet and gingery. She closed her eyes to analyze the flavor. Sugar and spice and everything nice. She opened them and saw the pan was empty.

The dead woman must have shinnied down a table leg. She was running across the kitchen floor, headed for the basement steps.

"Oh, no," said Dolores. "Don't go down there." She hurried but she was too late. The little woman fell headlong down the stairs and broke into pieces at the bottom.

Dolores walked down to her carefully, holding on to the rail. Why was she so sad? The other corpses were gone, too, but she'd never cared one way or another about them. She started crying. She picked up the pieces, brushed off some bits of lint.

She took a bite of one big fragment; she thought maybe it was the head. In the far corner the padlocked freezer clicked and hummed to life. Then she remembered.


Two policemen come in. I don't know if I like that. But they just sit down at the other counter, which is this really ugly color like moldy bread. That's why me and Hermie picked the pretty bright orange one on this side.

The man brings them coffee and long, twisty rolls before they even ask for anything. Then he comes back to me again. And I tell him no. No and no and no and no and no. I keep saying no, even after he walks away. Maybe he will get it.

He goes and bothers the police instead. They are talking real quiet and I can't hear the words, but Hermie says uh-oh. I shut up.

One of the police gets off his stool and comes over to me. He calls me ma'am. Do I need help?

I think I better go. It's time to be inside.


Dolores came out. Dolores answered. She said yes. She could use some help. Dolores said there was a problem at her house. She said the policemen should come with her and see. It had to do with the way her mother disappeared a couple of months ago, and how her father had acted ever since. She gave them her name and address, and said she'd be glad to accept their offer of a lift. Yes, it was kind of dangerous being out alone this late.

She wanted to know if they had anything in the squad car that would be good at breaking chains or busting a lock. If not, maybe they ought to stop by the station on the way. She assured them that would be okay. What she wanted to show them was in the freezer. It wasn't going anywhere. It would be all right.


I'm glad Hermie brought me back inside. The policemen were scaring me, and it's good to be home again. He says there won't be anymore ghosts to come, either. Dolores made it better.

Dolores is nice. But she always puts away all my toys, and then I have a hard time finding them again. What's left now is my goldfish. I sit down and watch them swimming around and around and around. I wonder if they think they're going anywhere, or if they know what they are in.

Nisi Shawl’s story collection Filter House co-won the James Tiptree, Jr. Award in 2009 and was nominated for that year’s World Fantasy Award. “The Mighty Phin” is a sequel to stories published in the anthologies So Long Been Dreaming and The Other Half of the Sky. Shawl is coauthor of Writing the Other: A Practical Approach, and co-editor of Strange Matings: Science Fiction, Feminism, African American Voices, and Octavia E. Butler. She also co-edited Stories for Chip: A Tribute to Samuel R. Delany, to which she contributed a collaboration with Nalo Hopkinson, “Jamaica Ginger.” Her Belgian Congo steampunk novel Everfair was published by Tor in September 2016.

Just Between Us ©2011 by Nisi Shawl. First Publication: Phantom Drift, A Journal of New Fabulism, Issue 1, Fall 2011.

Back to Words