I park the car and swing the driverâ€™s door open, throwing myself out into the car park. I slam it shut behind me and sprint towards the entrance, anxiety choking me and excitement exploding through my veins. I stop for a second in front of the automatic doors and take a deep breath, trying to calm myself down before I throw up the entire contents of my stomach all over the entrance. I place one foot inside, ready to face this new challenge, when a huge, muscly mass smacks against my left shoulder.
â€œDonâ€™t even think about it,â€ he warns, pulling me aside.
â€œI got here first.â€
â€œItâ€™s not a race.â€
â€œLooks like it is.â€
â€œNo, itâ€™s not, because youâ€™ve already lost.â€
I turn to face him, so that weâ€™re chest to chest. â€œGet out my way.â€
â€œI donâ€™t think so.â€
â€œOh, come on!â€ An irritated voice floats in between ours. â€œWhy do you two always have to be like this? All these muscles are blocking off your brains.â€
Chris wriggles between us and steps inside first, then turns to look at us from the other side of the sliding door with a satisfied grin.
â€œIâ€™ll be her favourite aunt anyway,â€ she says, teasing us both, before jogging down the hospital corridor, her flame-red hair falling in waves down her back.
â€œYouâ€™re both losers.â€ Evan takes another whack at our pride before he strides past us to follow his mother, his hands shoved into the pockets of his jeans and his hood pulled up over his head.
â€œNo way,â€ Ryan takes advantage of my confusion to step inside the hospital before me. â€œShe can be the favourite aunt, but Iâ€™ll be her favourite uncle,â€ he states triumphantly, before running off behind them. He frustratedly slips in between Chris and Evan, making Chris laugh, as he wraps his enormous arms around their shoulders and protectively pulls them in towards him.
Is his unlikely, messed-up family not enough for him? Does he really have to take the only joy left in my life?
Like fuck he will.
Iâ€™ll be her favourite uncle.
~ ~ ~
When the four of us get to the waiting room, weâ€™re met by Ian, so anxious heâ€™s almost ready to pass out.
â€œSo?â€ Chris goes over to him right away. â€œHowâ€™s it going?â€
â€œGood,â€ he says, rubbing a hand over his face. â€œAt least, for them. Iâ€¦I feelâ€¦â€
â€œOh shit!â€ Ryan catches him before he can hit the floor.
â€œCome on, whatâ€™s the big deal?â€ I say, stupidly. What a dick.
Chris glares at me. â€œIf you donâ€™t have a vagina, youâ€™re not allowed to comment.â€
She sits down next to Ian and helps him take a few deep breaths, making him rest his head on his knees.
â€œBreathe, Ian. Itâ€™s just all the excitement,â€ she says kindly.
â€œItâ€™s just that youâ€™re a loser,â€ Evan tells him, winding him up.
This kid is starting to remind me more and more of Ryan. I feel really sorry for Chris having to put up with them both.
â€œDo you want me to go in with her for a bit while youâ€™re recovering?â€ Chris asks.
Ian slowly lifts his head. â€œI can do it.â€
Thatâ€™s good. At least heâ€™s found his balls again.
He gets back up and heads towards Rileyâ€™s room, wearing his green hospital gown, as we make ourselves comfortable in the waiting room. Chris sits on Ryanâ€™s knee and he wraps his arms around her waist, leaning his chin on her shoulder; she smiles and rubs her face against his as Evan watches them, shaking his head. He turns to me and mimes vomiting all over the waiting room, and I laugh in response.
Yeah, I know. We could be twins.
He comes over and sits in the empty chair next to me, stretching his legs out in front of him. It wonâ€™t be long before theyâ€™re longer than mine.
Jesus, this kid â€“ whoâ€™s not really a kid anymore â€“ will be able to tear me to pieces pretty soon.
â€œWhat dâ€™you reckon, Uncle Loser? Shall we grab a coffee? Itâ€™s four in the morning and Iâ€™m shattered â€“ I only got home two hours ago. This baby couldnâ€™t have chosen a better time.â€
â€œIâ€™m not Uncle Loser.â€
â€œSure you are.â€
â€œIf anyoneâ€™s a loser here, itâ€™s Ryan.â€
He lifts his head and looks at me, pretending to be annoyed.
â€œWhatâ€™s that about losers? Because I can see three of them right here.â€ Jamieâ€™s shrill voice makes us all jump. He stands there, hands on hips, with a smile that lights up his entire face. His expression tells us that he has no intention of being second-place.
â€œSo, Oâ€™Connor, letâ€™s just clear something up. Iâ€™m the only perfect uncle around here.â€
Ian suddenly appears among us, his face even whiter than before. I jump to my feet and approach him; he looks at me, but not really. Itâ€™s like heâ€™s looking past me, lost, distant, overcome by his own emotions.
â€œWhatâ€¦? Ian, what?â€ I ask, anxious.
He shakes his head and rubs his eyes.
â€œTalk, for fuckâ€™s sake!â€ I raise my voice, attracting everyoneâ€™s attention.
â€œNickâ€¦itâ€™sâ€¦my daughter,â€ he says, overwhelmed. â€œMine.â€
I smile and let out a sigh of relief.
â€œI have a baby, Nick.â€
I place a hand on his shoulder and squeeze it affectionately.
â€œIâ€™ve never seen anything more beautiful.â€
The others come over to us, waiting to hear the rest â€“ but Ian canâ€™t do anything but laugh and cry, almost hysterical. I almost slap him to bring him back to his senses, but heâ€™s already been battered enough tonight by his own emotion. So I decide to leave him be â€“ at least, until next time.
Slowly, he calms down, looking around at everyone with bright eyes, pride oozing out of every pore: he gathers up his courage and announces:
â€œIâ€™m the happiest man in the world.â€
And Iâ€™m pretty close to tears now, too.
One by one, we quietly file into Rileyâ€™s room. We werenâ€™t all supposed to come in together at this time of night, but luckily we have friends in high places in this hospital â€“ something Ryan is not at all happy about.
Martin, Evanâ€™s dad and Chrisâ€™ ex, is warning us not to make any noise, to behave like mature adults.
Seriously? Heâ€™s saying that to us?
He clearly hasnâ€™t spent enough time with our family yet.
â€œJust for five minutes, okay? Donâ€™t make me regret this,â€ he threatens, with a stare that says Iâ€™m a fucking doctor and this is my hospital, so donâ€™t make me look like a dick.
Poor Dr. Dick.
When Riley sees us, she smiles, tired but happy. â€œYouâ€™re all here.â€
â€œFuck, yeah,â€ Ryan says, raising his voice. Chris shoots him a glare.
At least heâ€™ll be kicked out first. One less to deal with.
Ian sits down next to Riley and kisses her forehead. Then she turns to us, showing us the tiny little bean wrapped in a pink blanket â€“ Iâ€™d be scared to even brush against her with my enormous, clumsy hands. Hopefully Ianâ€™s are more delicate than mine.
â€œLook, Jamie: this is your family.â€
â€œJ-Jamie?â€ Rileyâ€™s brother asks, appearing in the doorway.
â€œWhere the hell were you?â€
â€œI went for a walk and got lost.â€
â€œLost underneath someone, I imagineâ€¦â€ Ryan taunts.
â€œDid this really seem like an appropriate time, Jamie?â€ I chime in, teasing him.
â€œMind your own business, Oâ€™Connor. Weâ€™re talking about something important here,â€ He turns back to his sister. â€œSoâ€¦Jamie?â€
She smiles at him. Itâ€™s clear to everyone now who her favourite uncle will be.
â€œBut isnâ€™t Jamie a boyâ€™s name?â€ Evan asks, making me love him even more. I really need to revaluate his role in this family.
â€œNo, itâ€™s unisex,â€ Riley explains. â€œAnd we couldnâ€™t have chosen a better name for our little girl. The name of the person who made all of this happen.â€
â€œFuck, are you trying to make me cry?â€ Jamie whinges.
â€œPlease,â€ Ryan interjects. â€œIt was bad enough when it was Ian,â€ he says, gesturing towards his brother.
Ian, sitting next to Riley, is inconsolable. He canâ€™t stop crying, stroking her, looking at his baby daughter as if she were the most precious gift life could give him.
Here he is: my brother, once a hard-arse, and now a snivelling shell of a man. Ryan seems to have joined him now, too, after meeting Chris. I think Iâ€™m the only Alpha-male left in this ridiculous story. I just hope it doesnâ€™t turn into a series â€“ keeping up this role for much longer will be draining.
Iâ€™m not like them. I donâ€™t pretend to be a bastard, and then melt like an ice lolly as soon as the sun hits. Jesus, no. Iâ€™m an adult. Iâ€™m mature, tough, good-looking â€“ at least that will never go away â€“ emotionless, a bit of a dickhead. Not even the best of therapists would be able to analyse me.
Iâ€™m Nick Oâ€™Connor. Iâ€™m the eldest, the strongest. Iâ€™m the one nothing can break down.
I look at Ian, then look at his girlfriend and his daughter; their fingers are intertwined, their smiles filled with love and hope. Life is teeming around them, giving back everything it took from them. And I feel something break inside me: a quickly-growing crack spreading across my chest. It makes no noise, no one can hear it â€“ but, inside me, the rumble is deafening.
I rub my eyes. I can feel something niggling at me, maybe a fly or some dust â€“ fuck, they should really keep a closer eye on the hygiene in this hospital â€“ but nothing can stop the burning. I rub at them roughly with the sleeve of my hoodie, but it only makes it worse. The tears come gushing out anyway and I canâ€™t do anything about it; I canâ€™t even remember the last time this happened to me. And theyâ€™re tears of joy, because my brother has just had a baby, because Iâ€™ve become an uncle, because our family is growing. Iâ€™m so happy that a sob escapes my lips, and I canâ€™t do anything to stifle it.
Everyone turns to me.
â€œWell, what do we have here?â€
Riley smiles at me and passes me the baby. â€œGo on, Jamie. This is Uncle Nick.â€
â€œWhy does he get to go first?â€ Ryan whines.
â€œBecause Iâ€™m the oldest,â€ I retort, gently taking this new life in my arms and suddenly feeling myself fill up with love, with gratitude. With hope.
â€œHey, little Jamie,â€ I say, even though I know full well that she canâ€™t understand me. But you never know â€“ better to make things clear. â€œIâ€™m the best-looking uncle, the one who will take you shopping to buy anything you want. Iâ€™ll teach you how to kick guys in the balls, and buy you beer when your mum and dad arenâ€™t aroundâ€”â€
â€œHeyâ€¦â€ Ian scolds.
â€œBut Iâ€™ll also be the one you can always count on, because look: your dad and all these other uncles here are useless.â€
â€œOh my God, Nick!â€ Ryanâ€™s angry now.
I lightly kiss her forehead and stand there, looking at her, overjoyed. â€œJamie, youâ€™ll be the only girl in my life, I swear.â€
â€œWe all knew that.â€ Ryan ruins this magical moment with my niece, just as heâ€™s ruined pretty much every moment of my life.
â€œCome on, come to Uncle Ryan,â€ he says, delicately taking her from my arms.
â€œYou alright with her, mate?â€ Evan asks him.
â€œFuck off! Whatâ€™s your problem?â€ Ryan retorts.
â€œGuys, you really need to start watching your language. Seriously,â€ Riley warns.
â€œBut sheâ€™s only just been born, she doesnâ€™t understand yet,â€ Ryan responds.
â€œSure, but itâ€™ll be a long road to recovery for you guys,â€ Riley adds, making me laugh. Sheâ€™s right. Itâ€™ll be almost impossible.
â€œSo, little Jamie,â€ Ryan says to the baby. â€œApart from your questionable nameâ€¦â€
â€œYouâ€™re just jealous,â€ Jamie cuts in.
â€œâ€¦youâ€™reâ€¦youâ€™reâ€¦â€ He takes a deep breath, then look at Ian. â€œHoly shit, Ian,â€ he says, relaxing.
Everyone laughs, resigned to the fact that this little girl is going to grow up surrounded by an ocean of â€˜holy shitsâ€™.
â€œYeah, Ryan,â€ Ian nods. â€œHoly shit.â€