His body is beige, the colour of silty mud. It only covers half the length of the ambulance stretcher.
I leap into action, attaching the line of pre-warmed fluid to the IV in the crook of the boy’s arm, hooking up the hospital monitor with sticky purple circles on his pale chest, injecting adrenaline into his collapsed veins. I check the boy’s temperature: thirty-four degrees.
The ambos’ eyes are on me.
Trace, her belly pressed hard up against the trolley, has stopped squeezing the resuscitation bag like it’s the boy’s heart between her hands. The bag hangs slack in front of her.
Mick raises his eyebrows, his palms pumping the boy’s chest. “He’s been down an hour already,” he says, one hand flicking greasy hair across his forehead, out of his eyes. “In the water for at least fifteen before they found him.”
“He’s warm enough to call it now,” Trace says.
“Family wanted us to bring him in,” Mick says, but it’s really just a formality, eh?” His compressions are so half-hearted, he seems to be only massaging the boy’s chest.
The stiffly pressed West Central Linen Service sheet lining the stretcher is still whiter than the boy’s skin. It’s the same type of sheet my son Jason used to complain was too scratchy, the odd nights he spent away from his mother’s house on the floor of my spare room.
I suck another vial of adrenaline into the syringe, flick the air from the tip. “Keep going,” I say. “There’s still a chance.”
Trace sighs beside me and squeezes the bag with renewed vigor, like perhaps someone’s life depends on it after all. Mick resumes the chest compressions, his eyes downcast as he counts the beats.
From the head of the bed, I bark instructions to the hospital nurses. They dart from cupboard to bed and back again, taking notes, drawing up drugs, liaising with evacuation teams that will come and helicopter the boy to a place that will surely be able to bring him back from the dead.
The boy’s lying still, his bare chest streaked with rivulets of muddy water streaming down either side of his torso, onto the white cotton beneath him. Before the nurses place the air warmer over him, I grab the scissors and cut into his sodden shorts. Denim, stretching down to his knees, flecked with dirt. I peel them from his skin, scrunch them into a ball and place them under the trolley.
The last time I swam at the lake would have been over ten years ago now. Jason was with me. He wouldn’t have been much older than this boy. As we freestyled side by side back to shore, cold water eddies began to encircle my chest. I couldn’t breathe. I’d heard the rumour, that the cold currents from old mine shafts in the depths of the lake dragged people under the water, drowning them. I felt the undertow tugging on my ankles, enticing me down into the deep. I struggled, kicked my legs against the iciness, gulped the hot afternoon air into my lungs and, spluttering and heaving, paddled back through the dusky water to the shallows. Thank God Jason was already there, waiting for me.
“I thought you were gone, Dad,” he said. I still wonder if it was tears I saw in his eyes that day.
* * *
“He’s gone, Dan,” Mick says. He flicks his greasy hair behind his ear, avoiding my eyes, then removes his hands from the boy’s chest and puts one palm on the sheet, like he’s claiming him. “It’s too late.”
“Keep going. We can bring him back.”
“He was stiff when we pulled him up. White, not blue.”
The heart monitor shows a flat line. The boy’s lips are bluey purple, not a hint of red. The hospital nurses have all stepped back against the walls. Not one of them will meet my eyes.
“Keep going,” I say.
I draw up more adrenaline as the air warmer almost floats over the boy’s torso. My fingers fumble on his neck, feeling for a pulse.
“Only seven.” Drops of sweat flick from Mick’s forehead onto the boy’s damp curls. “Went in after a ball.” The lake water has dripped across the boy’s head and down his neck; the sheet under him is soaked.
“His parents will be here any minute,” Trace says, pressing her belly in harder to the trolley.
The scene to come shimmers to life in front of me. The young boy’s mother will fall to her knees, shrieking. His father will stand with his back against the flimsy curtain as if it could hold him up. I’ll back slowly from the cubicle, clutching the notes, trying to avoid eye contact, wondering what they regret about their family life, and about themselves.
My hand is clutching the boy’s clammy wrist. I place the syringe into the IV in his arm and I’m just about to push the plunger when I catch sight of his eyes, open wide and staring. Despite the glare of the overhead lights, his irises seem to have a matt coating, like greasy wax. He’s not looking at me, or Mick, or Trace. He’s not looking at anything at all.
I place the syringe down on the resuscitation cart and step back from the trolley. I cross my arms across my chest.
“Stand down,” I say to the nurses clustered around the edges of the room. “You can pack everything away.”
Mick is pulling a sheet up over the body. There’s a smudge of dirt on one of the boy’s cheeks. I go to wipe it off but Mick grabs my wrist before I can touch his pale skin. “Coroner’s, Dan.”
I stretch the sheet slowly over the dead kid’s face, smoothing out the edges of the sheet so there are no wrinkles. I can still see his dark ringlets where the sheet doesn’t quite meet the pillow.
Mick flicks the metal rails of the trolley with his index finger. “Up for a drink tonight? Trace and I thought we might head to the Royal with a couple of the SES guys.”
“Maybe next time, eh?” I take the paperwork he’s handing to me across the body. Time for the formalities.
Up close to the body, there’s a faint odour of mud floating in the air, like mould. I bring my wrist to my nose, covering my nostrils. Even with the bulbs of the stethoscope plugging my ears, I can still hear the ambos catching up on local gossip with the nursing staff. I think I catch a brief luddup in the stethoscope diaphragm and I almost cry out. I keep listening, straining to hear even the faintest pinpoint of a pulse. Nothing. The luddup must have been my own blood squealing through the arteries deep in my inner ears. When I ease the stethoscope out from under the sheet, it flicks the boy’s hand so it dangles down towards the ground. I replace his hand beside him on the trolley and tuck the sheet in under it.
“…mother and brother will be up soon. Pretty upset. Family holiday. Went in after a ball,” Mick’s saying to the nurses, in case they hadn’t caught it the first time, his hands unplugging leads from the monitors with only the slightest tremble.
I pick up the ED phone and dial the Coroner’s Court. As the phone rings and rings, the dead boy’s eyes float into my vision, large and inky as they stare up at the ceiling. They’re the same as Jason’s used to look, when I’d creep into his room after late nights on-call. I would pull his eyelids down gently over his dilated pupils, seat myself on the end of his bed and watch him breathe.
Jason doesn’t remember me closing his eyes like that in the middle of the night. On the phone these days, he tells me he still sleeps with his eyes open, that it doesn’t bother his girlfriend at all. I stay silent when the two of them visit, his feet up on my coffee table, her dark curls cascading down over the back of my sofa. It’s been quite a while since they last came to stay.
The dead kid’s parents will be here before too long. I hang up and dial Jason’s number. He picks up on the seventh ring.
“It’s your Dad,” I say. “Me.”
“I know. You’re the only person who calls the home phone now. Georgie and I are getting rid of it next month. Too expensive.”
“Sure,” I say, lowering my head to sniff myself. The smell of the lake seems to have penetrated my clothes: the dampness of lake creatures, tiny micro-organisms in a pool of murky water. “You coming to visit any time soon?”
“Don’t think so, Dad. We’re so busy. So much going on up here. You should move to the city, you know.”
He says it every time I call. He hasn’t seen the teetering towers of paperwork on my desk, the unread medical journals, the relentless case notes I haven’t had a chance to finish.
I close my eyes. The words are out before I can stop them: “Maybe I’ll come for a visit. Next week, perhaps.”
“Great, Dad.” His voice is nonchalant; he’s playing with Georgie’s hair, or just watching TV.
I clear my voice and pause. “Jason,” I say, although I know how he’ll answer, I just want to hear him say it, the boyish lilt in his voice, as I gaze at the late afternoon sun descending below the horizon through the hospital window, “Do you still sleep with your eyes open?”