She was only nineteen and here she was, the only thing keeping her baby alive.
It was his first thought as he walked through the door and took in the chaotic scene before him.
The young woman, still just a girl really, was understandably a mess. Her long auburn hair stuck out all over the place and was plastered to her teary face. Her pale skin was blotchy and seemed to glow in the low light of the now redundant nursery. Her green eyes were heavily red and rimmed from crying, lack of sleep and the early hour.
He couldn't help but notice what a beauty she was, despite her distraught state.
Her pretty angular face was narrowed in the ultimate picture of determination, as she desperately performed two fingered chest compressions on the frail baby's sternum. He figured that she must have got straight out of bed because she was still in her sleepwear; a lowcut simple lilac singlet and some mismatched flannel pyjama pants. The singlet presented a view that he would found damn enticing given more pleasant circumstances.
Guiltily in those final thoughts, he shifted his view to the baby he had been called to help.
He knew the baby was dead as soon as he laid eyes on it.
Such a small thing, born too early and with lungs that barely worked. Its chubby little face was blue with cyanosis; wet with its mother's tears and saliva from her rescue breaths. It lay unmoving on the changing table, its tiny limbs resting limp against the flat surface.
Pre-term, he thought sadly; only a few weeks out of hospital no doubt, but now already dead. Failure to thrive as they so callously called it.
He knew all this, yet he moved swiftly over to the teenage mother and took over from her frantic CPR with clinical efficiency.
"We'll take over here," He assured her in a commanding voice that somehow still managed to hold comfort.
Her strong maternal instinct gave her hesitation to surrender her child's life to a stranger, but the paramedic patches on his shoulder gave an opening for reason to take hold. His face, while youthful, held a seriousness to it and he exuded an unusual air of responsibility for a young guy.
She sunk her trust into him.
"I came in this morning to feed him and he wasn't breathing," The young mother sobbed brokenly, trying to find somewhere to look in her nursery that didn't remind her of her un-breathing offspring.
Opposite him, his pretty partner Allie placed the ECG electrodes on the tiny unmoving chest of the infant. Their monitor showed a flat line, undulating only from the effort of his CPR. The look she sent him was just as flat; it said exactly what they both knew.
The kid was toast. There was no chance of saving it.
A dozen messages passed between the pair unspoken with only the eye contact to communicate.
"Take over compressions," He did say out loud to his junior officer and they efficiently swapped.
He ignored the dirty look her blue eyes sent him, as she replaced his hands on the rubbery cold chest. He had only just recently achieved the level of paramedic though, so he held rank over the young Emergency Medical Technician. As green as they both might be, rank was still rank and he held superiority for a reason.
Since he held rank over her, the decision was ultimately his.
So were the consequences.
"Mum?" He addressed the bystander, not knowing her name.
"When did you last check on Baby?" He asked without looking up, he was busy retrieving a manual ventilator and his stethoscope.
They didn't know the infant's name either.
He placed the round flexible rubber mask over the dead baby's face and gave the bulbous bag attached to it a squeeze, delivering an artificial breath.
When he realised the young mother hadn't replied he looked up for her, while performing another half-hearted squeeze.
"Mum?" He enquired again softly.
"One O'clock, I came out to feed him," She mumbled morosely, staring down at her lime green painted toes.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Allie shake her head barely perceptively, indicating her opinion on the matter.
It had been hours since the baby was last seen breathing, the calm logical part of him pointed out clinically. It annoyed him because it was exactly what Allie would have said if they could speak freely in front of the distraught parent.
"We'll do our best for him," He promised her, keeping his face calm and professional despite the turmoil.
Placing the breathing apparatus down for a moment, he carefully placed his stethoscope around his partner's hands. The infant's chest was dead still and dead quiet.
Just straight dead.
They both knew it would be, this was him just going through the motions.
"I'm sorry Ma'am but it doesn't look good," He somberly observed, using this sentence as a preamble for what was coming next. It made the piece of news that followed seem not so sudden and unexpected. It gave the family a chance to prepare themselves for the worst.
Like there was ever any real way anyone could prepare for the terrible change.
Finally having caught eye contact again with Allie, he watched as she brushed a strand of blonde hair away from her fair face and he wore the brunt of her pointed glare.
Finally surrendering, he nodded his head and she stopped compressions on the child.
Turning to face the agitated mother he took the lead, his serious expression already carrying the news.
"I'm really sorry, but there is nothing more we can do him." He explained, stepping closer to the upset young female, speaking the lines he had rehearsed and used hundreds of times before. He took a deep breath as always, to let his words sink in, before finishing it.
"He's dead." The paramedic finally declared.
The kid wasn't "Deceased" he hadn't "Gone" anywhere or "passed away". He was dead, just dead. His words were chosen deliberately, carefully so as to prevent any misunderstanding or denial. There was also a good permanence to the word dead that overcome any argument.
His eyes were focused solely on the dead kid's mother, awaiting her reaction.
She didn't wail or moan like some relatives did when he delivered the news. The woman had been trying to resuscitate her child for over ten minutes before they had arrived, she had most likely gotten past that stage. Her mind had been given the chance to realise that the impossible had happened and that the tiny fragile life she had created might just be over.
Her devastation was complete with his words though, they removed any doubt, but also any spark of hope she may have harbored.
An unseen force, seemingly kicked the legs out from under her and she folded down to her knees. Her hands wrung together cradled in her lap, like she was handcuffed into that position. She wept and sobbed through a crushing pressure that choked her throat closed.
She shuddered and wracked with each broken breath she drew.
All she had stood up for against this unseen force was for the right of her child to live; now she was in Grief's custody.
He watched on in lone detachment, more touched by her silent breakdown then he was the loudest wail of despair. The emotion of the moment seemed to buzz freely around the inside of his skull, he was aware it existed but it was refused entry to the brain at this point. The professional part of him had dropped down the blast doors to cut off the tide of sadness and created extra room to focus on functionality instead of emotion.
Business as usual, an isolated part of him considered coldly.
Allie rocked uncomfortably in her boots, before starting to remove the electrodes off the deceased infant with infinite care. She brushed a stray tear of her own, turning it into a scratch of the nose when He returned to help her.
He gave a small sad nod of approval as she tidied up the miniscule human and slipped his one piece pyjamas back on him. He left her to prepare the body and call through to Coms to let them know the patient had died. With a loud slap, he slipped off the pair of grey nitrile gloves he had been wearing. The stretched rubber was wet with his sweat and his hands seemed to sigh with the fresh air.
His hands looked human now, ready to treat a different kind of injuries.
He ran them through his close cropped tawny hair, feeling the short spikes spring back against his palm. It was a redundant habit he retained from having long hair back when he was in school and a bit of a wild rocker. A stark contrast to his current existence.
He was now acutely aware of how hot he felt, the adrenaline wearing off meant a hyper saturation of his senses. He unzipped and shrugged off his standard issue woollen vest and gladly embraced the cold air as it reached his hot skin. The line of sweat that had descended his spine slowed its journey and began to cool.
A dark five o'clock shadow, peppered his jaw and he absently scratched it as he prepared for what came next.
This was often the hardest part, remembering how to be human.
Braving the guilt he was now ready to treat their new patient; the grieving mother.
She hadn't budged from where he left her on the ground.
Tentatively he approached her slumped form, rearranging his features to demonstrate the appropriate amount of remorse. It was as practiced as a builder swinging a hammer.
Standing beside her now, he slowly reached out a steady hand to gently rest on her bare shoulder. He knew that physical contact helped establish clear communication in distressed patients and conveyed empathy.
"I'm sorry," He softly breathed.
At his warm touch, she sprung like a wild animal. Not away from it but towards it, whipping around his hand and standing up into him. Before he could step back, she was thrashing away at him with her small fists. A full fifty kilos of enraged, desperate mother threw herself at the young paramedic.
"He's dead," She gasped at him, like she was the one fighting for air.
Each blow punctuating a sob and resounding heavily through his chest. He simply stood there and took it.
The front pocket on his uniform shirt tore under her efforts, as her scratching fingers caught it, still he endured her attack. His plastic name badge was tugged too hard and pinged away to the ground. She got a hand inside the collar of his shirt and drew blood with her clawing neat nails; he gritted his teeth but accepted her anger. The thrashing hand tangled into his shirt and she ripped hard to get it free, small green buttons exploded all over the place and his collar was suddenly a lot wider.
With soft hands on her shoulders, he let her strike at him again and again, while he simply weathered the strikes, meeting each with a soft "hey". Her initial surge of strength quickly began to wane and her strikes weakened with each hit until she collapsed exhausted into his chest.
Suddenly she was clinging to him hard, her arms latched tightly around his waist. The young woman buried her face into his chest and proceeded to soak what was left of his dark green shirt with her face. She clutched him like her life depended on it; her weak legs meant he supported most of her weight.
Surprised with her speed, he took a moment to respond to her embrace. Hesitantly he wrapped one arm securely around her back, ensuring his hand was at an appropriate height, he brought his other hand up to cradle the back of her head. His body bucked with every shaky sob she delivered and he started to soothingly stroke her hair back.
It felt like the girl in his arms was made out of ice; heavy and cold with despair. In contrast he felt like he was burning up; his flushed skin emanated so much heat he was sure that he was producing steam. He cooked from head to toe, with his mind becoming slow and sluggish. Like the iceberg in his arms, inside he felt stone cold having to share the woman's sorrow.
A large part of him withered in the face of this emotion, unable to manage it all. As sturdy as any castle's walls are, a persistent siege could always find entry. It urged him to pack up and leave the woman in her grief, to run, abandon his post and calling.
It was the part of him that hated the job, hated himself and hated the patients for making him feel that way.
A deeper part of him wanted to stay with her, stay forever if he had to. Whatever she needed he would find, whatever she wanted it was hers. She could attack him for weeks and he would take it, just so she could have an outlet. He would stay and prevent her from ever feeling sadness like that again.
To him that was the far more dangerous impulse.
His mind boggled that somehow, despite all that had happened tonight, the girl in his arms still smelled amazing. He hated to think how he must smell, her head buried in his chest. It was well into the tenth hour of his night shift and they had been worked mercilessly. His was a physical job and his body showed the effort of the labour.
In the wind down, his mind seemed to cling to infinitely small details and extrapolate them.
His eyes caressed her unsettled hair along with his hands and in the oversensitive aftermath of adrenaline, he swore he could feel each and every split end and tell the strands colour by feel alone.
His heightened touch alerted him to just how close she was pressed to him and where her main sources of heat were radiating from, on her otherwise warmthless body. She burned where she connected with him at the top of his thigh. He shamefully barely managed to suppress his body's natural reaction to her pressing and heat. It was made more difficult with every sob she gave and the resulting crush of her barely contained breasts against his chest.
He swallowed heavily, as if in an attempt to digest the thoughts that invaded his mind.
He wanted and tried to gently pull away, but she was relentless in her grief and her grip
Professionalism was all that contained him and he was embarrassed and guilty of his thoughts, before remembering the undeniable tie that had always existed between death and sex.
It was a sick eroticism that human nature had the two so strongly linked. The two were polar opposites; one the end of life, the ultimate sadness, the other the beginning for all life and the height of happiness. Perhaps it was a survival instinct bred into creatures, the remaining population; to spread their seed, to repopulate and leave a legacy.
It was probably the greatest natural aphrodisiac, tainted only by the human association and emotion attached to the dying.
His eyes caught on his partner Allie on the other side of the room.
The pretty blonde had been his partner in a literal sense on more then one occasion in the past after a particular nasty job or two. Every time it had been an impulsive passionate fling as each was caught up in the endorphins and gave in to the easy temptation of the other. He couldn't bear the thought of touching her at the moment though..
To the survivors, go the booty, he wryly thought to himself. The humour helped him focus.
Whatever the temptation was, it was highly inappropriate in the given circumstance and worked hard to subjugate professionalism in the face of death. He knew he would never cross the line and take advantage of a girl in this state. Will and responsibility always outweighed impulse for him; he moved his hands to just above her hips and gently created a gap between them. The hands untamed would have longed to go lower, but were kept in check by strong resolve.
"Hey," He said one final time.
"What's your name?" He gently inquired, hoping to distract her from another firm embrace.
If his hearing hadn't been so attuned he would have missed her whisper "Jess".
"Liam," He returned to her unasked question. Even as he said it, he saw his name badge where it had landed by the door to the nursery.
"And Allie." He added seeing his partner look up at him. Allie picked up the infant's body like it was made out of porcelain, indeed with its pale skin it could have been. With infinite care she wrapped the red blanket around the boy and started to come towards the embraced pair.
Liam released one side of the broken mother so he could turn her to see the tiny approaching body.
"What was his name?" Allie sensitively asked, as she offered out the child to its mother with reverence.
Jess detached herself from the young male paramedic and held her breath, as she received her first born. The tender love of a mother was obvious in the care in which she cradled him, like he still retained his life and to her, he did. With no more tears to cry, her eyes simply shined as she took in every detail of the small serene face in her arms.
Her legs began to buckle, remembering that he would never gurgle or smile or laugh or cry ever again. The two understanding paramedics were prepared for it though and guided her to the nearby chair. She landed lightly, largely held up by the medics, protecting her valuable cargo.
"I liked the name Liam, for him." She morosely admitted, her eyes having not moved from her dead son.
The actual Liam was lost for words at that and could only weakly nod his head approvingly. He felt spent emotionally after being used as a giant teddy bear for the last five minutes and battling inappropriate urges. His shield had large gaping holes in it.
Like a good partner, Allie was able to jump in and take his place.
"Is there anyone we can call to be here with you?" She helpfully asked the mother.
"The father? Your mother? A friend?" She suggested as the despondent girl didn't reply.
"There's no father.. Nothing." Jess mumbled grimly, still not looking up from her baby.
"Just us." She sighed sadly, rocking the tiny body ever so gently. Her dry lips voicelessly mouthed a lullaby that his ears would never hear.
"Was us.." She whispered, the 's' staying on her lips as if she was soothing the crying baby once more.
Liam made to move away and give her some time with the body, but her small hand shot and caught his wrist, pulling him back close.
Trapped once more, he resigned himself to staying and crouched down to match her height. To his surprise the girl had a brave, sad smile on her face as she met his eyes for the first time. The startling green irises held such loss in their beautiful depths, but her pert lips were spread in a shaky smile. She gazed down at her still child and affectionately caressed a finger across his pale cheek.
Seeing that the patient had bonded to her partner, Allie quietly slipped from the nursery to return all the equipment to their ambulance.
"He… was… so beautiful," Jess crooned over the swaddled corpse in her arms.
Under its own accord, his gaze strayed from the small corpse to the lap that it lay in. Temptation lingered and nagged sourly.
Naturally, his eyes were drawn to the small gap of skin at her midriff that was exposed by the short singlet. A single clover leaf peeked out from under the band of her pyjama pants, the only pigmentation to the ashen skin. He willed his tired overworked mind to ignore the detail and not to get hung up on what the tattoo was that lay partially hidden.
It was like following a rabbit hole; thoughts like that ended up in bad places.
"Yeah," The remaining paramedic slowly agreed, it felt like sacrilege to speak within the tiny body's presence and he brought his eyes back to focus on the baby. Slowly he brought his free hand up and placed his index finger in one of the tiny limp hands of the infant. The mother very gently curled her baby's fingers to his enclose his own.
Liam felt an odd completeness in that small gesture and he fought the sad smile his own face wanted to make.
Allie returned minutes later to find the three still huddled over the chair. It looked almost like the most morbid family photo in existence; a lovely mother, her stiffening dead baby and a young man supporting the two where the father would usually stand.
One stricken with grief, one consumed by death and the last dead inside as he facilitated the healing.
Behind Allie stood two police officers; the standard affair when anyone died in the community, as Liam gently explained.
Reluctantly untangling his finger from the cold infant, Liam went to stand, but found himself still firmly anchored by the mother's icy grip.
Forced to look into the eyes of grief, he didn't shy at the pain that was there because there was something else there too.
"You did all that you could, Jess." He reassured the dishevelled teen, placing his other hand on top of hers. A divided part of him wished it wasn't the last time he would get to perform the gesture.
She started to look away from him at the assurance and he had to gently take her chin in his hand to draw her back to look at him.
"We were the ones that couldn't save him." He admitted, knowing full well that the kid had been unsaveable from the start. His hand was in a vice of her creation and he almost swore he felt bones flexing in her grip.
"We were the ones that stopped it," Liam softly reminded her, his voice heavy with remorse.
Her eyes burnt and he was relieved to still see the anger in them. It gave them animation. The crushing force on his hand, slowly dialled back until it was only tissue paper encasing his limb.
"Thank you." She whispered finally, as he carefully pulled out of her grip. Her eyes had returned to her baby, like she never wanted to lay eyes on Liam again and that was the best way for it be in his opinion. Instead they soaked up every detail of the diminutive figure cradled in the crook of her arm one lat time.
His mouth was desert dry and there seemed nothing left to say, so he stood to leave.
Allie had quietly finished briefing the cops and they had efficiently exchanged paperwork. Liam only gave them a curt nod as he passed and headed back out to their ambulance.
Liam leaned against the white truck in silence, head back just enjoying the brisk night air and clear starry skies above him. Allie caught up quickly and unlike him, she wanted to talk about the job.
Her breath steamed into the quiet night unchecked, she peered into the sky but seemed unable to see the same thing that held him entranced.
"We shouldn't have started on that kid," She stated, her green eyes refusing to meet his, but flashing in challenge regardless.
"Maybe," Liam conceded sagely after a further moment of contemplation.
"We gave that poor girl false hope that we could save her baby." Allie declared.
"We were never going to be able to save that baby," He freely admitted.
"So then why the hell would we start, just to let her down?" Allie demanded softly.
Liam rolled over onto one shoulder, but continued to lean, so he could look at his partner.
"That baby didn't need our efforts, but his mum did." He broke his gaze from her to stare back at the house that was considerably emptier now.
"We started solely for her, so she didn't have to make the decision to stop trying to save her child. We took that horrendous choice away from the poor girl." Liam slowly explained.
Allie stared at her partner long and hard, while she considered his words.
She could see he was affected by that job, even if he would never admit to it.
He played the role of the paladin well; helping and serving others all the while keeping a strong shield up in front of him. She had personally tried to strike under his vigilant guard, but he parried and evaded too well. She sometimes wondered if there was some secret hidden guy law that forbade them from talking candidly about how they feel.
Having given it some serious thought, Allie nodded in understanding.
"Tonight is probably going to be the worst night of that girl's life, but at least it wasn't the night when she thinks she failed to help her child." She grimly concluded.
Liam smiled sadly at her reply.
"Exactly," He confirmed, rolling off the prop of his shoulder and making his way to the driver's side door.
His face was set in a grim slash and the first rays of dawn shone in past his ripped shirt to illuminate his exposed pallid chest, as he climbed into the cab.
"We will shoulder that one for her," He finished quietly, when the pair eased themselves into their respective seats.
"It's just part of the job." Liam muttered to himself, with peaceful closed eyes. Her pretty face was already fading in his memory, whether he wanted to remember it or not. Not was always better, he reminded himself.
Opening his eyes and returning to the world of the living, he keyed the ignition of the ambulance.
The motor growled like his empty stomach and the pair departed back out into the suffering night.
"Just part of the job.." He repeated to noone.