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.
Emotion: “No one ever said it would be this hard. Oh, take me back to the start.”
Allie spotted the daisies Mildred had crowed about to the entire lunchroom crowd as soon as she was wheeled back into their room. She wondered who would send such a massive bouquet — Mildred didn’t have visitors. But, in spite of her own troubles, she thought it was nice that someone thought so highly of her roommate, ornery thing that she was.
The nurse’s aide swished the curtain closed between her and Mildred’s empty bed and Allie immediately shut her eyes. She really, really needed the nap she was helped into bed to take. Physical therapy had been utterly grueling.
And, when she had returned, she noticed that the ever-present “cops outside the door” had vanished without so much as a “goodbye.” What was that about? The photo? Gabe’s phone call? Inter-planetary movements?
It was just too much. She began to drift off, breathing in the meadowy scent of Mildred’s bouquet, praying for her husband and hoping, hoping that he would come back to her tonight.
“Do you know where my Grandma Millie is?” The sharp, obviously annoyed voice woke Allie from deep sleep. Allie’s glasses had slipped off of her face and onto her chest during her nap. She had to reinstate them to their proper position to actually see the woman peeking around the curtain at her. One good look and she rather wished she hadn’t.
It was Kenzie.
Kenzie, as in Kenzie Taylor.
Ghost of Fort Henry High School past.
Mean-mouthed tormentor of geeky girls.
In the flesh.
Allie sighed. Is there no end?
“Hello, Kenzie,” she said, deciding to make the first strike. Kenzie actually looked at Allie at this point. Her blood-red mouth curled into an oddly familiar snarl. GrandmotherMildred,indeed.
“Well, if it isn’t little Miss Allie Bennett,” Kenzie purred and Allie instantly felt too young, too green for such an encounter. Kenzie was clearly a pro. “I saw on the news that Gabe Morelli is back and Wheeling and actually married to you. I can’t even imagine how you managed that miracle — unless you’re knocked up. Gabe’s what — 30, 31 now. That might do it.”
Kenzie’s crass suggestion unleashed a strength Allie didn’t know she had, however. I am not a teenager anymore. I can deal with this. “Your grandmother is at physical therapy,” she said calmly. “She should be almost done. I’m sure you can catch her there.”
Kenzie glared at Allie, clearly irritated she hadn’t ruffled any feathers. “You might have managed to snare a hot guy, sweetie, but I wouldn’t be planning too many anniversary parties,” she said. “The Gabe Morelli I know isn’t the kind of guy who will stick around for long.”
“That would be true, Kenzie,” Gabe’s voice said from the vicinity of the doorway. He walked past her, opened the curtain that divided the room and came over to stand next to his wife, his arms crossed across his chest. “That’s why it’s a really good thing that the Gabe Morelli you knew doesn’t exist anymore. God took care of that.”
Allie watched Kenzie’s face contort with anger as what Gabe said fully registered. It was not unlike viewing a car accident at the side of the road, horrifying but undeniably arresting.
“So, you really are a Jesus freak,” Kenzie practically spat. “I thought you must have been drunk or something when you wrote that note. ‘I apologize for not treating you with the respect you deserved, Kenzie.’” The last sentence was said in such a mocking, sing-song voice that Allie cringed.
“I wasn’t drunk, Kenzie,” Gabe said calmly. “I never was a drinker. That is something you know about me that remains true. I really was sorry and I still am.” He put one hand on Allie’s shoulder. “I can understand it if you’re still angry with me, but I won’t let you take it out on my wife.”
“Ooo, look at you, Gabe Morelli!” Kenzie said with a dramatic toss of her head. “You’ve gone all knight in shining armor. Your wife. Get real. You, of all people, will never be able to be a decent husband. Unlike my Brian.”
“Brian?” Allie asked, her professionally-honed nosiness outweighing any trace of discretion — or lingering fear.
“Brian Marsden from high school, of course. We started dating right after graduation. I’m sure you both remember him,” Kenzie offered as a parting shot. “I married a real man.”
Blimey. The guy from the hallway, the one whom Allie had left yelling in a cinema lobby so long, long ago.
Gabe’s grip on Allie’s shoulder tightened a bit, but he said nothing. Then, Kenzie Taylor turned on a boot heel pointy enough to maim and went out the door with nothing but a huff. Gabe slumped down on the hissing vinyl chair and still said nothing.
“You wrote her a note?” Allie asked, finally breaking the silence.
Gabe slumped still lower. Allie would have slumped, too, if she hadn’t already been in bed. She felt that worn down by the accumulated defeats of recent days and weeks.
“I wrote a few letters of apology when I first became a Christian,” he answered quietly, not looking at her. “One of them was to Kenzie. I should have sent one to you, too, while I was at it. I’m not sure why I didn’t. I guess you can add that to the list of things I should be sorry about.”
“I see,” Allie said.
Gabe sighed. “Allie, Kenzie might be right. Your dad might be right, too. Maybe you should just file for an annulment, like he suggested this morning.”
The word “annulment” made Allie’s blood go icy, but she opted to zero in on what seemed like the more immediate subject. “You spoke to my father?”
“This morning. That’s why I wasn’t here. I told you that in the note.”
“What note?” Allie asked.
“The one in the flowers.”
“What flowers?” she asked again.
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“These flowers!” Gabe exclaimed, pointing accusingly at the daisies. “Are you really so angry with me that you gave them away?”
“Mildred told me they were for her,” Allie said, tears stinging her eyes. “I didn’t see any note.”
“Aaaaarrrgh.” Gabe nearly yelled, shoving his hair away from his face with his good hand. He jerked the obnoxious chair up against her bed and lay his head down against Allie’s side, his face pointing away from hers. He stayed that way for such a long time, Allie figured he had to be either praying or doing some sort of deep-breathing exercise. She stroked his hair with her fingers as best she could.
“Why does everything in our lives have to be so ridiculously hard right now?” he finally asked, his voice muffled by her blankets.
“I don’t know.”
He rose up to look at her, propping his elbows on the bed and resting his chin on his fists. “Do you want an annulment? I absolutely do not.”
“I don’t, either.”
“Your father said you might, and he doesn’t even know half of the stuff that’s going on.”
“My father is wrong,” Allie said firmly, instantly ready to reconcile whatever issues they faced.
“We sure have some things to work through.”
True. And, then some. “What couple doesn’t?” she asked.
“It won’t be easy,” he pointed out.
“Nothing that’s worth doing is ever easy,” she countered.
“This is starting to sound like a Hallmark movie.” Gabe smiled, then frowned nearly as quickly. “Can you believe Kenzie married Brian Marsden? I’m thinking any children they have might actually be born carrying daggers.”
“I’m thinking Kenzie’s choice of a husband is rather clear evidence that her opinion should not hold great sway with either of us,” Allie said evenly.
This was somehow enough to prompt Gabe to grin widely and to then slide up the bed to kiss her soundly. “The only ‘great sway’ I’m interested in is that little wiggle walk of yours that I’m looking forward to enjoying again. When you’re back on your feet, of course,” he murmured into her ear, smiling at her giggle of surprise when his kiss turned to outright nibbling for a moment.
“Hey,” he eventually said. “I came here to ask you out to dinner, not to talk about two people I’d rather not even think about. If you want to go, I’m walking, you’re rolling. The only cuisine within reach is Eats Side Deli. It’s just down Washington Avenue. Does that sound good?”
He seemed to understand that her squeal of delight was a “yes” and called the nurse’s station to start the wheels of their departure in motion — literally.
Location: Eats Side Deli, Woodsdale, 40°04’15.7″N 80°41’08.2″W
Emotion: “I don’t know why, but I think I’m starting to learn.”
“Allie, I have a question,” Gabe said soon after they were ensconced at a deck table and happily tucking into black bean sliders and an extravagant mix of salad greens. “How old are your parents?”
She looked at him while she finished chewing, holding up one finger as if to put his question on pause. “My dad just turned 80, actually, and my mom’s in her mid 70s,” she finally said. “They had planned to never have children, to devote their lives to mission work. I gather I was quite a surprise.” She gave a tight smile.
Gabe looked at her, truly looked at her, and began to understand why his wife was such a complex-yet-charming mix of innocence and acute awareness, Victorian primness and Lois Lane recklessness. Not only was she raised across at least three cultures and continents, she was raised across three generations. Her parents were older than a couple of his grandparents.
He also suspected he now understood the odd detachedness he’d detected in Hugh’s voice during their phone call that morning. There was more than British reserve at work here.
Gabe gave her his best questioning look and, from her continued tight-smile response, suspected his guess was right. She wasn’t only a surprise, she was a not-entirely-welcome surprise. No wonder she could endure a five-year relationship that apparently offered little more than friendship. No wonder she responded so quickly to the warm affection that he and his family offered.
“They love me. And, we had a good extended church community that was like family,” she said, somewhat defensively, suggesting she knew that he knew. “I was always well cared for.”
“I’m sure you were,” he said quietly, “or you wouldn’t be the truly excellent woman you are today.” He rubbed her wedding ring between his thumb and fingers, twirling the band slowly. “I’m not judging — just curious.”
Allie seemed to accept his comment as the honest statement it was. She nodded and turned her attention back to her meal.
How was she to know that this was the moment Gabe truly got it? There was way more than love or even desire in play between the two of them. She needed him as much as he needed her. She needed his love — lavish, exuberant and passionate. He needed her love — sweet, warm and stable. She needed him. He needed her.
There would be no annulment, no matter what Hugh Bennett had suggested to the contrary.
INSIDE THE STORY:
• Eats Side Deli is a bit of a stand in for two real companion eateries in Wheeling’s Woodsdale Neighborhood —Avenue Eats and Whisk. Bistro-style restaurants and bakeries like these are models of how the city’s food culture has expanded greatly in just the last decade. From West Virginia dogs to sliders to savory crepes to healthy to-go meals, it’s all here.
• 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.