Lawler stood in the vacant corridor as the water washed lazily over his bare feet. Where the water came from was a wonder but it was always there, three inches deep and teeming with hungry parasites, some of which were big enough for him to feel scuttling over the tops of his feet and between the gaps in his toes. He never shuddered, but hovered in the space between disgust and exhaustion. Lawler never went to the Inbetween when he was feeling fine. There were better places to spend the brighter days, infinite places of light and calm and fresh, sweet smells. The Inbetween smelled of desperation and stagnant tears.
There were nine plain wooden doors running the length of the empty corridor and a single rather ornate door directly opposite Lawler at the very end of the Inbetween. Behind each door, numbered carefully from one to eighteen, odds on his left, evens on his right, there would be someone Inbetween. Lawler began to pad his way through the festering water, making his way down the dimly light corridor. To his left, door number one and to his right door number two. The wood was heavy and old, dead wood some would have said. Dead for the scars it bore, dead for the coldness of its touch, dead for its silence. The doors were unmarked save for one small brass number marking each in its place along the corridor.
Lawler placed his hand on the cold dead wood of door number one and closed his eyes, wiping the palm of his hand across the space beneath the brass number. He caressed the wood for a moment longer until the wood began to melt beneath his hand and grimy square of glass appeared beneath his fingertips. Lawler brushed a stray curl of hair from his forehead with his now dirty hand and peered through the glass in door number one that moments before had not existed to anyone and was now only his.
Behind door number one a girl in the midst of her teenage years sat in the corner of the bare bricked room. She was curled into a ball, her face buried in her pale, scabbed knees and though Lawler could not hear the girl through the glass by the manner in which her body shook and convulsed he knew that if he could hear her he would hear sobbing. Her long dark hair covered most of her body, clad only in a dirty white bra and matching panties. Lawler tapped on the glass as a child taps on the glass of a fish tank hoping to catch a guppy’s attention but the girl paid no mind to Lawler or his tapping. She just went on sobbing.
Lawler looked away from the glass and without his eyes, the glass ceased to be.
He moved to door number three.
Through the ancient glass Lawler saw a man in his middle age sitting at a desk made of the same dead wood as the door that held him. The desk was strewn with paper the colour of nicotine. To the man’s left sat a shallow clay pot full of stubbed out cigarettes and to his right a mouldering clay mug that had had many days since it had had fresh coffee. The man was scribbling madly at a piece of brilliant white paper. Over and over again, the same collection of letters and numbers, that made sense to neither of the people looking at them but causing one of the men an extraordinarily greater amount of discomfort.
Lawler liked senselessness.
This man did not.
Lawler moved on.
He saw a boy of a similar age to the girl behind door number one behind door number five, standing before a mirror of familiarly smeared glass as he carved limp wristed at his chest with a small, chipped blade. After what could have been moments but was more than likely hours, the symbol on the boy’s chest began to take shape and Lawler saw it for what it was and noticed for the first time the boys shaven head and the dark circles smeared beneath his eyes. There were frightened tears on the boy’s face.
Lawler moved on.
Door seven found a group of three, five or six years from start to end apart in age, huddled in the middle of the room holding one another in silence. The youngest of the three, a girl in her late twenties sat between a woman four or five years older and a man eldest of them all. Lawler felt the water he was standing in warm momentarily as though someone had spilled a cup of tea where he was standing and though the youngest cried the hardest, they all cried just the same. The girl in the middle was holding a photograph of a young couple newlywed, and smiling. The water was still warm as Lawler moved to the next door.
He placed his now filthy hand on the wood and with his little window safely where it should have been, Lawler looked through door number nine where his breath caught in his throat like a hot wisp of ash, leaving it bitter and hot. Laying in the darkness of room number nine, stretched out as if asleep was a child not long on its feet. Her small, plump cheeks were smeared with dirt and blood and tears and here the water lapping over Lawler’s feet seemed colder than it should have been for the strength of the tears that the toddler had cried. For a moment it appeared that the child had ceased to breathe but the Inbetween was not a place for those so far to or so far from death. You had to be in the middle to be in the Inbetween. This child was alive, though her breaths were shallow and weak.
She wore dirty yellow pyjamas with smiling rabbits on them the colour of candy floss. Her feet were bare and scratched. One eye was swollen and bleeding. Lawler noticed then that the child, in an act of instinctual comfort was sucking her thumb. The action, so soft and so sweet, seemed ludicrous when everything else was taken into account. Her lips puckered and sucked her thumb deeper into her mouth, half her face shrouded by yellow blonde hair.
Lawler tapped on the glass.
The child did not stir.
Lawler tapped on the glass again and the girl opened her eyes. They were the blameless blue of an autumn sky and Lawler’s face immediately cracked into an uncomfortable smile. The girl, though her smile was much more alluring, mirrored Lawler’s face. He held up one finger and when he was sure that the girl was looking at it he pointed down towards the door handle. The girl stumbled to her feet and as she walked towards the door, Lawler could see that she was older than she looked, just smaller than she should have been. He heard the door handle click and felt the stifling air wash over him as the child pulled open door number nine.
“Are you here to help me?” The girl said, her voice small but sure.
“Do you want me to help you?” Lawler asked.
The girl nodded. “I don’t like it here.”
“Me neither,” said Lawler, holding out his hand, “do you want to go somewhere better with me?”
“What’s your name?”
“My name’s John,” Lawler said, still smiling, “is your name Daisy?”
The girl’s eyes widened, her hand hesitating ever so slightly.
“It’s okay,” Lawler said moving his hand towards her once more, “I know everybody’s name.”
Daisy took Lawler’s hand then, content that that explanation was all she needed. They turned in the warm, writhing water than covered all of Daisy’s feet and ran quite a way past her ankles. Hand in hand they walked towards the door that Lawler had entered through, the door opposite door nineteen.
“This water is kind of gross,” Daisy said looking down at her feet, “could you piggy me, John?”
Lawler bowed before the small, blood smeared girl curling one arm across his midriff and lowering his head. The gesture made Daisy laugh, a sound so innocuous it made his skin crawl as it rippled through the walls of the Inbetween. This was not a place that savoured laughter. “It would be my pleasure,” Lawler smiled, “but we have to hurry.”
Daisy climbed onto Lawler’s back. “I’m going to put you to sleep now, okay?”
“I’m not,” Daisy yawned, her mouth comically wide, “sleepy.”
“Just try, okay?” Lawler said to the door in front of them. He felt Daisy’s soft swollen face rub against his shoulder as she nodded. “Good girl.”
Lawler carried Daisy out of the Inbetween shrouded in the safety of sleep where he knew that her dreams would keep her safe from the nightmare that she would wake up to. It was temporary, Lawler knew that all peace was, but it was peace nevertheless.