â€œNick Oâ€™Connor,â€ 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. â€œStuttering problem?â€
She laughs, and I nearly have a heart attack.
â€œWow, we got there in the end. Whatâ€™s up? Memory loss?â€
I shake my head vacantly. â€œWhatâ€¦Howâ€¦?â€
â€œWhat am I doing here? How am I?â€ she helps me out.
I nod, but I still canâ€™t close my mouth.
â€œI work in the hospital,â€ she says, gesturing to her uniform. â€œAnd as for the second questionâ€¦Was that supposed to be â€˜how are youâ€™?â€
I move my head up and down.
â€œYou used to have so much to say,â€ she says, raising an eyebrow.
Has someone just plunged a knife through my stomach?
â€œYou look good,â€ she says, letting her eyes slide over my figure.
You look incredible.
â€œWell, thanks,â€ she says, grinning.
What? Did I say that out loud? Has my tongue become independent from my brain?
â€œMy brotherâ€™s just had a baby,â€ I manage, trying to fill the silence with something logical in case she thinks Iâ€™m an idiot â€“ which, I guess, is what I actually am. But better not to shove that in her face at eight â€˜oâ€™clock in the morning.
â€œOh,â€ she says, incredulous.
Surprise effect. Always works.
â€œRyan?â€ she asks.
I shake my head. â€œIan.â€
â€œThatâ€™s amazing! Congratulations!â€
I smile, full of pride. I knew that baby would save my life.
â€œMaybe Iâ€™ll pop in later and say hi to the new arrival.â€
â€œYou should. Sheâ€™s stunning.â€
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 youâ€¦?
â€œI should get going.â€ 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.
â€œMy shift starts in ten minutes and I havenâ€™t had a coffee yet this morning.â€
â€œCan I get it for you?â€ 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.
â€œYouâ€™re eight years too late, Nick Oâ€™Connor.â€
My ego, my pride, andâ€¦better stop there.
â€œTake care,â€ 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.
â€œWas that who I think it was?â€
He bursts out into such shrieking laughter that it must have come straight from the mouth of hell.
â€œNo way, Nick. This time I definitely wonâ€™t shut up.â€
â€œI could put an end to all this right now and kill you out in the car park. Thereâ€™s already too many of us, and now that Jamieâ€™s here, everyone will be so busy suffocating her with love that no one will even realise youâ€™re gone.â€
He steps towards me, with a smile plastered across his face that tells me heâ€™s about to get his revenge. He bends down to pick up my phone and hands it back to me.
â€œNow itâ€™s your turn to swim through the shit. That,â€ he says, pointing in the direction that Casey had disappeared, â€œis your sea. Iâ€™m just going to sit back and watch while you splash around, looking for the life raft. And donâ€™t expect me to offer you a hand, unless itâ€™s to hold your head under.â€
Thatâ€™s when I realise that Iâ€™m completely fucked. Not because of what Ryan said: his words have no effect on me. Heâ€™s nothing against me, Iâ€™d squash him like an ant.
The problem is something else.
Something much bigger.
And its name is Casey Madigan.