“Nick O’Connor,” she says, smoothing down her uniform.
I stand there, frozen, my jaw on the floor and my airways blocked.
She looks at me, her head tilted. “Stuttering problem?”
She laughs, and I nearly have a heart attack.
“Wow, we got there in the end. What’s up? Memory loss?”
I shake my head vacantly. “What…How…?”
“What am I doing here? How am I?” she helps me out.
I nod, but I still can’t close my mouth.
“I work in the hospital,” she says, gesturing to her uniform. “And as for the second question…Was that supposed to be ‘how are you’?”
I move my head up and down.
“You used to have so much to say,” she says, raising an eyebrow.
Has someone just plunged a knife through my stomach?
“You look good,” she says, letting her eyes slide over my figure.
You look incredible.
“Well, thanks,” she says, grinning.
What? Did I say that out loud? Has my tongue become independent from my brain?
“My brother’s just had a baby,” I manage, trying to fill the silence with something logical in case she thinks I’m an idiot – which, I guess, is what I actually am. But better not to shove that in her face at eight ‘o’clock in the morning.
“Oh,” she says, incredulous.
Surprise effect. Always works.
“Ryan?” she asks.
I shake my head. “Ian.”
“That’s amazing! Congratulations!”
I smile, full of pride. I knew that baby would save my life.
“Maybe I’ll pop in later and say hi to the new arrival.”
“You should. She’s stunning.”
She tucks a loose strand of hair behind her ear slowly, tracing it with her finger. Her lips gently curl into a smile that reaches her ears, lighting up her face with tenderness.
What about you? Do you have children? Are you married? Do you have a boyfriend? Are you…?
“I should get going.” She glances at her watch.
Did I not say anything?
Luckily, this time, my brain decided to use its anti-arsehole filter, and prevent any more slip-ups.
“My shift starts in ten minutes and I haven’t had a coffee yet this morning.”
“Can I get it for you?” I ask, suddenly.
The question leaps over my anti-arsehole filter with both feet and lands right in my stomach.
She looks at me for a few seconds, her brow furrowed.
“You’re eight years too late, Nick O’Connor.”
My ego, my pride, and…better stop there.
“Take care,” she says, before striding past me and disappearing down the hospital corridors, leaving me standing in the entrance like a dick, incapable of saying anything that could make her stay.
I turn to see Ryan leaning smugly against the wall a few metres away from me.
“Was that who I think it was?”
He bursts out into such shrieking laughter that it must have come straight from the mouth of hell.
“No way, Nick. This time I definitely won’t shut up.”
“I could put an end to all this right now and kill you out in the car park. There’s already too many of us, and now that Jamie’s here, everyone will be so busy suffocating her with love that no one will even realise you’re gone.”
He steps towards me, with a smile plastered across his face that tells me he’s about to get his revenge. He bends down to pick up my phone and hands it back to me.
“Now it’s your turn to swim through the shit. That,” he says, pointing in the direction that Casey had disappeared, “is your sea. I’m just going to sit back and watch while you splash around, looking for the life raft. And don’t expect me to offer you a hand, unless it’s to hold your head under.”
That’s when I realise that I’m completely fucked. Not because of what Ryan said: his words have no effect on me. He’s nothing against me, I’d squash him like an ant.
The problem is something else.
Something much bigger.
And its name is Casey Madigan.