Editor’s note: Suspended Aggravation is an original, Wheeling-centric novel by Nora Edinger and is published exclusively through Weelunk. While some of the places mentioned in Suspended Aggravation are real (or nearly real), the storyline and most characters (with the exception of a few cameo appearances by actual city residents) exist only in the author’s imagination. For the backstory, read our Q&A with the author.
Location: Wheeling General Hospital, 40.0637° N, 80.7200° W
Emotion: Honesty is such a lonely word.
Gabe was surprised that Allie was giggling when she was finally rolled into their room on a surgical gurney several hours later. The bare-bones details that the orthopedic surgeon had shared with him about what Allie’s next few months would entail, had prepared him for something much worse.
She even giggled when she was settled into the bed next to his. It was Gabe who winced in empathetic pain when he saw an array of braces and IV tubing shift dramatically around her Technicolor bruises as the transfer was made.
He was at her side as soon as the medical workers began to clear out of the way, even though the one remaining nurse gave him The Look and pointed frowningly to his bed. He ignored her.
“Hey, there, African Queen,” he whispered gently, bending to kiss a spot on Allie’s forehead, her face being the only visible part of her that wasn’t a blur of purple and blue.
“Oh, Gabe,” Allie sighed happily before breaking into a broad smile. “It’s really you. Are you OK? They told me you were OK. But, you have two black eyes. I can count them. One,two!” She looked accusingly at the nurse and frowned. “That doesn’t look OK to me, Nurse Margaret. There’s tape on his nose, too. Not OK. No-sir-ee.” Allie giggled again.
Gabe touched the skin around his eyes with his right hand, noticing the IV was now gone from his hand. Yep. Black eyes. He moved his face a bit and felt dull pain radiate from its center. He felt the tape. Yep. Broken nose. He’d done the same and worse a couple of times in his football days. It seemed to hurt way more this time than it did then, though.
“I’m fine,” he lied, giving her his best smile even though it really, really hurt to do so.
“Yes, you are very fine,” Allie giggled, almost suggestively this time. Gabe raised his eyebrows. Allie turned to the nurse and sighed. “Isn’t my husband fine, Nurse Margaret?”
Nurse Margaret, middle aged and rather broad across the beam, as Gabe’s Scotch-Irish grandmother would have said, turned to look Gabe up and down. She turned again to wink at Allie. “Quite fine, indeed.”
His wife wasn’t done, to Gabe’s astonishment. “And, Nurse Margaret, he can kiss …” Allie drew out the double S in “kiss” so that it sounded like a sigh. A very dreamy sigh. “My husband kisses really, really well. Brilliantly, in fact.”
“I suspect most women in America would agree with you on that one,” the nurse said with short bark of a laugh. “We’ve seen the pictures.”
“Kiss me, Gabe.” Allie pursed her lips in an exaggerated pout and batted her eyelashes at him. “Make me feel all sunshiney.”
Gabe pulled the nurse aside with his good hand. “Did she hit her head, too?” he whispered worriedly.
Another bark-like laugh. “Your wife’s head is just fine, Mr. Morelli. That’s just a whole lot of anesthesia talking. It affects some people that way.” She smiled at the relief that washed over Gabe’s face.
“Kiss!” Allie demanded from behind them. Gabe turned to look at her in astonishment. She began humming a little tune Gabe didn’t recognize.
“I’d just enjoy it while it lasts, if I were you,” the nurse said as she left the room. “She won’t be feeling quite so … perky when the drugs wear off.”
“Kiss!” Allie reminded him a second later.
Gabe laughed and bent to brush his wife’s lips with his own, wincing a bit at his own various aches and pains as he did so. His brain felt like it might fall right out the front of his skull.
“That wasn’t a very fun kiss,” she complained, although she was still smiling. “I don’t feel sunshiney at all. Not at all.”
“Shhhh now, African Queen,” he teased her, softly ruffling the hair atop her head with his working fingers. “You can be as … um, sunshiney as you want later — when we’re both feeling better.”
“Are you a Boy Scout, Gabe?” Allie asked in amazement.
Gabe stifled a laugh so quickly he nearly choked. “Um, no. How about godly man’s honor, then?”
“I guess that will have to do,” she said with a yawn big enough to catch flies. “But, I would have liked it if you were a Boy Scout.”
“Well, OK,” Gabe said, suddenly out of ideas as to what to say, given her condition.
He didn’t need to say anything else it turned out. Allie was already drifting off. Gabe watched his bride for a long moment, sighing again before he settled back into his own bed. He lay there — feeling every broken bone and then some, looking at the ceiling and muttering a prayer that basically consisted of one word. “Help.”
He listened carefully, hoping God would reply audibly. Something like, “Got your back, my son. This will all turn out just fine,” would have been really nice. Instead, he heard Allie’s soft breathing turn into a soft snore that was so surprisingly sweet it made him grin. It wasn’t a lot, but, somehow, that quiet reminder of her presence gave a rhythm and clarity to his thoughts that hadn’t been there even minutes ago.
Things were bad. That was undeniable. But, they could certainly be worse. One of them or both of them could be dead. One or both could have had a life-changing injury. He was grateful that none of those possibilities was the reality. But, things were still bad — troubling even.
He struggled to remember exactly what the shadow had said as he and Allie lay tangled in a heap on the courthouse plaza. Something about a gun or a camera. He still had no idea what the man was talking about. He needed to know. Now.
Gabe pressed the call button on the bed railing at his right side. “Can I help you?” a slightly crabby voice said.
“Do you know where my phone is, or my wife’s phone? I need to let our families know what happened. I can’t remember all the numbers just now.”
“We have all your personal items in storage,” the crabby voice said. “Do you need anything but your phones? It’s not really good to keep things like purses and wallets in your room.”
“Just the phones should be good for now. Thanks.”
He made the first call — punching in well-memorized numbers — as soon as the nurse who brought the phones left the room. It wasn’t to a family member. That could wait.
“What. Is. Going. On?” Gabe demanded as soon as the man answered, which he knew he would, regardless of the hour.
“Ah, Mr. Morelli, I’ve been expecting your call,” the man said. “The short answer is: We don’t know. Yet.”
“I don’t remember what happened,” Gabe said. “Tell me.”
The man sighed, which was so unusual it gave Gabe pause. “There was a vehicle — not ours, the L.A. photographer’s. The driver pointed something at you. We still don’t know what. Our guys couldn’t get a clear view and, even though we had video from several angles from the police, we still couldn’t get the view we need.
“All we can say right now is, it might have been a gun,” the man continued. “Or, it might have been a camera. One of ours created a diversion that made that car swing away, but another car just behind it went out of control and headed toward you. That was unexpected and unfortunate.”
Gabe knew better than to expect an apology, if one was even in order. He was surprised the man had gone so far as to sigh and use words like “unexpected” and “unfortunate.” He must have seriously mellowed in his middle age.
The man was back to business without pause. “We’re monitoring internet chatter and the SUV driver. The driver of the car that hit you seems inconsequential. Soccer mom.” He continued. “News of your accident is just getting out on the Internet and TV now. Until we know more, you and Goldie are locked up like Fort Knox. No shadows this time.”
At that, the man hung up. Gabe stared out the window across from his bed at the city lights, including the sparkling swags that outlined the very bridge where everything had started. He was exhausted, but he was also angrier than he had been in the last two years. He was angrier than he could ever remember being, in fact. But, there wasn’t a single thing he could do about it. There wasn’t even time to think about it.
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Their so-called accident was on the news.
Before he could make the other critical call, the phone he still gripped tightly in his good hand vibrated. He checked the caller ID. “We’re OK, mom.”
“Why didn’t you call?” Michelle practically yelled.
“One concussion and about 10 broken bones between the two of us,” Gabe said. “I’ve been in and out of consciousness and Allie just came back from surgery a few minutes ago.”
Michelle gasped. “I’m so sorry, baby. We just didn’t like hearing about all this on the TV.”
“I’m sorry, too.”
“We’re coming over there right now,” Michelle announced. “We would have been there before, but it took us this long to find you. You weren’t answering your phone. For a while, we thought you’d been flown to Pittsburgh. But, Aunt Carmen’s neighbor’s cousin works in the ER at Wheeling General and that’s how we finally tracked you down.”
“Don’t come downtown,” Gabe said firmly, glancing over at his wife. “Allie’s sleeping and I am going to try to do the same. Tomorrow would be good, though. We’re going to need a lot of help.”
“Are you sure?” Michelle whined. He had never heard that tone from his mother. “I really feel like we should come up there right now.”
“Please don’t, Mom,” Gabe said. “I’m sure visiting hours are way past anyway. They won’t let you in. We’re in a regular room, by the way, not the ER or ICU.”
“All right,” Michelle said reluctantly. “Goodnight, Gabriel Anthony. I love you.” There was a short pause. “We love your wife, too, by the way.”
Gabe grimaced and the resulting pain made him immediately regret even that mild expression of frustration. “That part was on the news, too?” he asked quietly.
“Yes,” Michelle said with equal reserve. “We can talk about that later. We would have liked to have been there. That’s all I’ll say for now.”
Gabe let that comment pass. “How did the news know about our wedding? Did they say?”
“Your wedding certificate was in Allie’s purse, according to the local TV station. I guess the police found it when they were looking for identification.”
OK. Enough. He was tired. “Love you back, Mom. We’ll see you tomorrow.”
He really didn’t want to do it, but Gabe fished Allie’s phone out of the zippered plastic bag the nurse had brought to him and scrolled through her contacts. He had to tell either Simon or her parents before they, too, saw something on the Internet. Simon, oddly enough, felt like the better option at the moment.
“This had better be good, Sunshine,” a weary male voice answered after five rings. “The rooster isn’t even awake yet.”
Sunshine? It fit. Not as well as African Queen.But, Gabe still didn’t like it.
“This is Gabe Morelli, Sunshine’s husband.”
There was a pause. Gabe ticked off the seconds until Simon responded. Four.
“Allie’s husband?” Simon finally asked.
There was another long pause. Gabe heard a woman’s voice in the background, speaking slow, sleepy French. “Quelque chose ne va pas,” Gabe thought she said. Something is wrong. Then, in English, a rapidly whispered, “Talk to him!”
It was Simon’s voice again. “Is something wrong?”
“Yes. We were hit by a car.” Gabe heard the woman cry out in alarm. He rapidly went on. “Allie’s OK, but she has several broken bones. Two breaks in her right femur that went through the skin, one fracture in her right radius and a fractured clavicle on the left side.” Gabe hoped he had all the bone names right. He had still been a little woozy when he spoke to Dr. Cavendish after Allie’s surgery. Simon was a doctor, too. Gabe didn’t want to sound like he didn’t know what was going on with his own wife.
“Oh, Lord,” Simon said. Gabe didn’t know Simon, but he suspected from the tone that the words were uttered as a brief prayer. “Is she out of surgery yet?”
“Yes,” Gabe said. “It went well. She’s sleeping now or I’d let you talk to her.” Or, maybe not. He didn’t want Allie going on about the brilliance of his kissing over the phone.
“You’re there with her?” Simon asked.
“I was admitted, too,” Gabe said reluctantly, supplying the details he already figured the guy would want. “Concussion. Broken nose. Fractured ribs and hand.” Why was he talking like he was paying by the word? He had no idea.
“Wow.” Simon’s voice now carried open sympathy. “I’m really sorry about this. When did this all happen?”
“This afternoon. Right as we were leaving the courthouse.”
“Courthouse? Wait. Courthouse as in you got married there? Just today?” Simon asked in what sounded like honest horror.
“Yeah. Just today.”
“Wow.” Another long pause. Gabe heard Simon puff out a long breath. “You know, it’s good you guys are married. She’s going to need you in a big way. It’s going to take months for all of that to heal.”
“I know,” Gabe said. “Her doctor and I have already had a long talk. She’ll be here at the hospital for a couple more days and then she’ll move into a rehab center near my home, well, our home now, until she can use at least one arm for daily activities.” Gabe’s voice broke in spite of his effort to remain in tight control. “It’s bad, but it could have been a lot worse.”
“Thank God, it wasn’t. Thank you for calling us, too, Gabe,” Simon said. “I can try to track Allie’s parents down for you if you want. They’re not the easiest people to find a lot of the time. It may take me a few days.”
“I’d appreciate that,” Gabe said.
“Sylvie and I will be praying for you both in the meantime,” Simon continued. “We love Allie and, since you’re Allie’s husband now, we will love you, too.”
We’ll just be one big, happy family, was what Gabe thought. A polite, “Thanks, we’ll take all the prayer we can get,” is what he said.
Simon obviously couldn’t read minds. He continued to sound quite kind. “Can you keep us informed?” he asked. “Sylvie, that’s my wife, is usually easier to contact. She’s at home part of the time with our son. I’ll give you her number, as well.”
Gabe dutifully programmed both Sylvie’s and Simon’s numbers into his own phone and gave them his own number before signing off. Then he collapsed into sleep, too tired to wonder, to worry or even to pray about broken bones, his wife’s surprisingly pleasant former fiancé, a possible gun and irritated parents all around.
This was a God-sized problem if he had ever seen one.
INSIDE THE STORY:
•When I began to write “Suspended Aggravation,” I knew I wanted to write about trust. Wheeling Suspension Bridge stands in, almost a character in its own right, as a symbol of this — something ephemeral yet strong stretched over nothing. I’m not sure just what it is about this bridge — which shows up on everything from stationery to T-shirts as a symbol of Wheeling — that speaks to residents and visitors. But, it does.
•Did you notice the line about how Gabe’s parents located him? I’m not saying medical privacy isn’t respected in Wheeling, but good luck if you’re trying to keep a secret in small-city Appalachia! I’ve lived in Wheeling a mere 14 years and I literally know the names of every dog and cat in a two-block radius; the names, occupations, vehicles and walking habits of their humans; and what fabric softener people use. (Laundry fumes waft like crazy, people.)
• A long-time journalist, Nora Edinger also blogs at noraedinger.com and Facebook and writes books. Her Christian chick lit and faith-related non-fiction are available on Amazon. She lives in Wheeling, where she is part of a three-generation, two-species household.