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.
Allie arrived at this truth a couple of weeks into her “visit” at Kensington Rehab. Life had settled into a pattern of sorts. Gabe was a consistent, loving presence — bookending every day with his visits. She had all her meals with sweet little Rosie and the Good Girl Gang. Her dealings with Mildred, while not exactly warm, rarely included snarls or the word “crap” anymore. Just yesterday, in fact, Allie had caught Mildred actually smiling at something Gabe had said.
Allie endured physical therapy, which reminded her entirely too much of gym class. She needed much less assistance with “freshening up.” She could now read the Wheeling Tribune without cringing at her missing byline. She enjoyed daily visits from a group that included her best friend Brianna, Pastor Martin, a slew of church ladies, her boss Rick, most of her newspaper friends and the extended Morelli clan. Even Gabe’s cousin-in-law Dominic had made an appearance one day when he had traveled up from Charleston to the Northern District Federal Court in Wheeling on some sort of legal business.
Gabe’s headaches were gone, as was the wrap around his ribs. And — perhaps most pleasingly — she watched both her and her husband’s bruises fade from purple to blue to green to their current sickly yellow. They were gone to the point they almost looked like their old selves, with the exception of their various braces.
Things were definitely getting better.
Then came a day when a package arrived.
It was plain manilla with Allie’s name and the center’s address hand lettered in black marker. There was no return address — was that even legal in today’s world? —and the postage mark was smeared to unreadability.
That was a bit unusual Allie decided, but how it was delivered was what really got her attention. The agents at the door — not a center aide — handed the package to her. Allie suspected that meant they had checked it out first — although they hadn’t opened it. Had they bomb sniffed it? Dusted it for prints? X-rayed it?
Whatever the agents had done, the package was an instant and concrete reminder that her Scarlett O’Hara “tomorrow” had arrived. There was no more putting it off. She would have to put newlywed camaraderie aside long enough to get more information out of Gabe.
Allie, given her various braces, struggled just opening the package by herself. She finally gave up in defeat. Rather than yell for the agents — who were way better at fierce than they were at friendly — she got Mildred’s grudging help.
“What is it?” Allie asked eagerly, leaning to one side of her wheelchair so she could better see. She was wary, sure. But, this was the most excitement either of them had had in days. Times were pretty dull at Kensington Rehab.
“Keep your pants on, Blondie. Whoever mailed this must own stock in a tape company.” Finally, Mildred got the package open and pulled out another manila envelope.
“Can you open that, too?” Allie asked.
Mildred huffed at her in displeasure but did as she was asked. She retrieved what turned out to be a single photograph, a photograph that did little to pique Mildred’s interest but that made Allie’s eyes go wide in surprise.
She definitely needed to talk to Gabe. She checked the clock on the wall across from the bed. He’d be coming round in about five hours. She had plenty of time to plot out a strategy and take a nap. She just wasn’t sure which to do first.
“You guys aren’t just trending, you’re in Kardashian territory.” This was from Brianna, who was firming up plans for the upcoming weekend’s big furniture move. Everything from Allie’s apartment was going to the home she would eventually share with Gabe.
“What’s happening out there in the real world, Brianna?” Allie said, giving a sleepy yawn that was the result of too much plotting and too little napping. Michelle was again holding the phone to Allie’s face. Her mother-in-law was there for her daily late-afternoon visit.
“The leave-them-alone hashtag has gone positively viral,” Brianna said. “It’s so hot, they’re not talking about you by name on The View. They’re even not talking about you guys in an op-ed in The New York Times.”
“The New York Times?” Allie exclaimed. “You have got to be kidding.”
“Nope. That piece is about the human cost of our culture of, wait, what did they call it? OK, here it is: ‘our culture of self-revelation that has become obsessive to the point of narcissism.’ ”
“That’s their point,” Brianna countered. “They said Americans have become such ‘electronic exhibitionists that even those who aren’t so inclined are getting sucked into the tell-all, show-all pit against their will.’ That was a quote, by the way.”
“Yep,” Brianna said smugly. “You two are at the leading edge of social change.”
“I highly doubt much is going to change, Brianna. People like their Instagram.”
“Well, at least you’re making people think.”
“Thinking could be good,” Allie acknowledged, but her mind was already leaping ahead to a subject that was more immediately important. She really, really needed to talk to her husband.
Emotion: “I get by with a little help from my friends.”
So did the man. He was talking to Gabe at that very moment, as it happened.
“Your name is still showing up in chatter, but so is that leave-them-alone hashtag,” the man said. “It almost looks like there are some very scary people out there who are wishing the two of you well.”
Gabe thought about some of the young men and, less expectedly, motherly types he had encountered over the last few years. Knowing him by name and birdwatching hobby, but thinking him to be something far less complicated than he actually was, they had been quite open, even friendly. He kept a respectable distance from them, as one might be wary of interacting with an animal with sharp teeth. But, he was struck more often than not that, if their zeal had been directed elsewhere, they wouldn’t be bad guys. After his conversion, he had developed feelings approaching friendship toward some of them, even knowing full well the kinds of things they or at least people that they knew might have done in the past or planned to do in the future.
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He thought of such things. But, “That’s possible,” was all Gabe said in reply. Anything more would be wasted. The man did not see any shades of gray in the world, only black and white.
“If it is, Mr. Morelli, you have made some very odd friends in some very odd places,” the man said. “We’ll still keep an eye on things for a few more days. If nothing new comes up, we’ll call off the dogs.”
“Fine,” Gabe said, feeling more relieved by the moment. If they could just get and keep themselves out of the public arena for a while, he’d feel even better.
Emotion: “Believe of me what you will. There is a duty I am sworn to do.”
“We need to talk.”
Gabe looked at his wife, whose outrageous turquoise glasses made her eyes seem bigger and bluer than ever, and frowned slightly. “That sounds ominous. Is something wrong?”
“I don’t know,” Allie said honestly. “Can you take me somewhere more private?”
“Like where?” he asked.
“To the garden maybe?”
Gabe dutifully wheeled Allie out to the rose garden where they occasionally visited in the evenings, which were still unseasonably cool. He tried to tuck his jacket around her shoulders — the yoga clothes she was wearing weren’t nearly enough tonight — but she was too busy pulling out a large envelope she had stashed at her side for his gesture to work well.
“This came in the mail today,” Allie said, handing him the package.
Gabe abandoned the whole jacket thing to check the envelope front and back and pull out the photo. His reaction to the image mirrored that of Allie’s from earlier in the day. “You’re carrying your flowers,” he said in wonder, sitting down abruptly on the concrete bench next to her chair. Allie nodded. “When we went into the courthouse they were still in a bag. That means this had to be taken right before the car hit us.”
In the photo, Gabe and Allie stood looking at each other with absolute adoration in front of the courthouse steps. Allie’s bouquet was in one hand. Her other was clasped between Gabe’s hands, one of which gave a glimpse of his wedding ring, another time indication he pointed out but that she had already noticed by herself. They must have kissed just a second later and been struck down just after that.
“Is this all there was in the package?” he asked.
“I think so,” she said. “I couldn’t really look myself and I didn’t want to ask Mildred or your mom for any more help.”
Gabe opened the envelope mouth wider and peered inside. He turned it to empty out a battered photo-storage card and a small sheet of paper onto his lap. Without touching either, he read the note to Allie. It said simply, “I’m sorry. #leavethemalone.”
“Thank you,” Gabe breathed with his eyes closed.
Allie knew he was talking to God, not to her. She hadn’t realized how worried her husband had been until she watched the stress drain — almost literally — from his face. He rubbed his forehead with his good fingers and gave a shuddering sigh, suddenly looking about five years younger. Again, without touching either item, he scooped up both the note and the card with the mouth of the envelope and re-did the clasp.
“Gabe, what is going on?” she demanded. “I knew there was something else when the agents checked the package before they would give it to me.”
“It was a camera,” Gabe said. “It was only a camera.”
It took her a moment to figure out what he was talking about, but she got it. Gabe and the agents and whatever other powers that be had been worried that something other than a lens had been pointed at them from the first car.
Allie’s face turned even whiter than normal. “That’s what … that’s why we have the feds protecting us? Someone thought what led to our accident was something more than social media idiocy?”
“Oh, yeah,” was all Gabe said.
Allie pondered this revelation in silence for a moment. She was somehow not surprised when Gabe pulled out his cell phone, punched in an insanely long string of numbers and described the contents of the envelope to an unknown person, all the time holding her casted hand with his casted hand and gently rubbing her fingers.
“Yes, I’ll send it all,” Gabe said to whomever he was speaking. “We’d like the photo back, though, when you’re done. It’s the only good one we’ll have of our wedding. We both touched the photo, by the way, before I realized what it was. Allie’s roommate’s prints will also be on it. You have those. The card and the note should be clean on our end.”
He ended the call without a good-bye. Then, the two of them just looked at each other for what felt like forever.
“I’m not ashamed of what I did, Allie,” Gabe said eventually.
Somehow, her mind made the leap with him. She knew he was talking about whatever it was he had done in the past that had nothing to do with the straightforward engineering she and everyone else had supposed him to be doing. She nodded and he went on.
“I just couldn’t lie anymore,” he said. “That’s why I had to stop — not because I was doing anything wrong. I wasn’t. Can you believe me?”
Allie looked at her husband. The pleading in his eyes left her absolutely undone. She really got it now. There was a piece of Gabe’s life that she didn’t understand and she would never understand it. There were things that had happened in the last few days that would never be explained, at least to her. There was danger — perhaps real, perhaps only suspected — and she didn’t know how much or quite why. And, she wasn’t going to.
She got it. And, she really, really didn’t like it.
“I don’t know,” was the only honest thing that she could say. “Is there anything else you’re not telling me?”
INSIDE THE STORY:
• The Mountain State would certainly be in play if Allie’s package was to be checked for fingerprints. Among the many connections between Washington, D.C., and West Virginia, the nation’s repository of fingerprints is located in this state. Experts there were among those who helped identify remains of those who died in 9/11 terrorist acts.
•Wheeling (the state’s original capital) and Charleston (the current state capital) are among the West Virginia cities that are home to federal court facilities. The Wheeling’s court’s glass-fronted face makes for a striking mix of old and new architectural flourishes.
• 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.