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.

Chapter 33

Location: Allie’s apartment in Centre Market, 40.0595° N, 80.7242° W

Emotion: “…if that’s moving up then I’m moving out.”

Brianna Reed had clearly missed her calling. What was she thinking, doing PR for Oglebay? Gabe decided Allie’s bestie would have been better casted as a quartermaster along the lines of the fictional “Q” from the James Bond movies. If anyone could make sure spies or other troops in far-flung locations have all the, well, whatever it is that they need to do whatever it is that needs to be done and do it in style, it would be this tiny red head. She hummed like a nuclear reactor.

Gabe continued to stare at Brianna, somewhat afraid. Then, he watched his cousin Mark’s face as he also watched Brianna. Mark — Isabella’s youngest brother and one of the extensive crew of Morelli males who had shown up for both the big furniture shift and the installation of a temporary wheelchair ramp at the back of their house — was clearly feeling something other than fear.

“So, you still have a thing for gingers?” Gabe whispered, nudging Mark with his elbow.

“That’s right,” Mark replied with an enraptured grin, not taking his eyes off Brianna until she zipped through the door to the hallway and out of view. He picked up another box and began to follow her toward the moving van, lifting his eyebrows at Gabe as he left. “I’m just waiting to see what she’ll do next. Did you see her with the label maker and the color-coordinated flow chart of what’s going to what room?”

“Oh, yeah. I saw her,” Gabe laughed. Then he remembered Mark was fresh from a breakup with a woman who was essentially a taller version of Brianna. “Just remember she’s my wife’s best friend, OK? No rebounding. No playing around.”

“Hey, who’s playing?” Mark said. “I’m in finance. I wear a suit and tie to work. I might actually send your wife thank-you flowers before it’s over.” 

“Whatever,” Gabe countered. “Just consider yourself warned.”

Mark gave a mock salute and actually headed to the van at this point. Gabe was still grinning as he looked around at the pile of boxes he’d been slowly filling over the last couple of weeks — whenever he’d had a spare hour. Everything in Allie’s Centre Market apartment was now packed and on its way out the door. His mother had already given the place such a thorough cleaning there wasn’t so much as a cat hair left to be found.

There wasn’t anything left to do except remove the boxes and turn in the keys — literally. It had surprised both Gabe and Allie when her landlord had mailed them her lease, torn down the middle with a note attached saying that he was breaking it so they wouldn’t need to worry about more rent after the end of the month. He’d signed the note with his name and #leavethemalone.

center market wheeling

That hadn’t been the only shocker in the last few days.

Mayor Glenn Elliott had stopped by the house early this very morning with some masonry equipment and scaffolding in the back of a pickup truck. He’d noticed the Morelli chimney — like so many in the historic Woodsdale neighborhood — was in need of repointing above the roofline. He happened to already have stuff from working on the restoration of his own downtown building. So, he was at the house now. At their house. Repointing their chimney. The mayor of Wheeling.

And, if that wasn’t enough, Panhandle Cleaning & Restoration had tracked him down at work the day before with an offer to paint the exterior of their work in progress for free as a gesture of community goodwill. Allie, Brianna had told him after a brief phone consultation an hour or so ago, had decided to go for the navy blue with white trim she and Gabe had discussed the previous evening during another snuggly sleepover. Brianna had discussed the color scheme and pointed here and there on the porch, telling him where the red “accent flowers” should go. 

Whatever. 

It was probably too late in the season to find potted flowers anyway. But a pile of orange pumpkins would sure look nice in a month or so. His mom always had lots of pumpkins. It seemed like a thing homeowners should do.

Gabe stopped to just breathe for a moment. Freedom from a lease. Several thousand dollars of paintwork at no charge. A wind-proof chimney. A ramp and a house interior that was now completely re-furbished thanks to his family. Surprised or shocked by this outpouring of #Wheelove, they’d take it. They still didn’t have a handle on what the medical bills were going to entail given their accidental day-long gap in coverage.

“You, sir, are not supposed to be carrying anything — doctor’s orders,” Brianna said, interrupting his thoughts with a stern reminder issued from Allie’s entryway. “Why don’t you run along and visit with Allie so you can be there when I need to call her. She’ll probably need someone to hold the phone for her anyway. You can do that.”

I can do that, can I? 

OK. It wasn’t fear. Brianna simply annoyed him — wife’s best friend, or not. Good grief. This was his wife’s stuff. It was going to their house. He considered breezing past her, box in hand and a smirk on his face. But, when he noted the scowl on her face, he decided this wasn’t a hill he was willing to die on. OK. Maybe it was fear, after all. He hesitated only a moment before he put the virtually weightless box of herbal teas and spices he’d grabbed back onto the kitchen counter.

“See you later,” he called over his shoulder as he left. “Do you think the house will really be ready for Allie to come by at four?”

Brianna looked at him, clearly puzzled as to why he would question her plan. “Of course.”

So, Gabe left his wife’s possessions, his house keys, his besotted cousin and the rest of the crew in Brianna’s capable hands and headed for his truck. Pastor Martin, who along with his sons was also part of the plan, was already there. Gabe smiled at the sight of the man. He was leaning against a bumper with a cup of coffee from the Mucho Mocha shop just under Allie’s apartment tucked into one massive, football-worthy hand and using the other to smooth back a new hairstyle that was now squared in a way that mirrored the lines of his beard.

“You better not let her catch you loafing,” Gabe said, pointing upstairs with his thumb and offering an even bigger grin.

“Don’t I know it?” Pastor Martin laughed. It was a good laugh — deep and rumbly — and somehow made Gabe happy. “She kind of reminds me of my mama. Fierce. In a mostly good way. But, I’m going to play the pastoral-duty trump card. She can’t argue with that. Do you have a minute?”

“Sure,” Gabe said, leaning against the side of the truck himself. It was a spectacular day. Hot enough to feel like summer, but not so hot as to reach the sultry point Wheeling could occasionally hit.

“I just wanted to see how you and Sis. Allie are doing,” the pastor said. “I can see you’re both getting better physically every day. I just wanted to ask how your hearts are doing. You’ve been through an awful lot for a couple of newlyweds — more than most couples go through in several years of marriage.”

“We’re OK,” Gabe replied slowly. “Pretty good, actually.”

In the past week or so, he’d spent a couple of nights with Allie, much to the rehab center workers’ delight. Gabe had great taste in chocolate. It was surprising how pleasant it was to simply stretch out next to his wife and talk. It reminded him of how the two of them used to talk in the pool in high school. And, it revealed to him how much he truly loved Allie. He didn’t just want her. He loved her — like a wife and, most surprisingly, like a best friend. When he had to slink out of her bed ridiculously early in the morning to avoid what he was sure would be spicy commentary from Mildred, it actually hurt him to leave her.

Not that he was going to share information like that with their pastor.

He didn’t really need to. How was he to know that Pastor Martin had watched the dreamy smile form on Gabe’s face while he considered his question and just knew. He hadn’t been married 23 years and pastoring for nearly as many for nothing.

“Has the internet stuff stopped?” Pastor Martin asked, changing course. 

“Not entirely, but it’s definitely slowing down,” Gabe said. “The #leavethemalone thing has really caught on. It’s basically shamed people into finding something better to do with their time than post things about us.” 

“Amen to that.”

Gabe smiled at the older man. In the last few weeks, he’d come to think of Pastor Martin as both his pastor and his friend. He and Allie attended a simple Sunday service at the rehab center for now, but he knew they’d be going back downtown to the Church of the Risen Redeemer as soon as they could.

“Yeah,” Gabe said. “Amen to that.”

♥♥♥

Location: Kensington Rehabilitation Hospital, 40.080045, -80.694052

Emotion: “You don’t know you’re beautiful. If you only saw what I can see.”

“Do you want me to brush your hair up into a ponytail since it’s so hot today?”

Michelle was already running the boar-bristle brush over Allie’s silky hair before her daughter-in-law could answer. “This is so much fun. I always wanted to have a girl so I could do up her hair and put her in all those pretty little dresses. I was lucky if I could even keep Gabe clean when he was a boy, let alone get an actual comb anywhere near his head.”

Allie laughed. “I’m glad you like it. I have truly appreciated how much you’ve helped me in the last few weeks. I’d be clean, but that’s about all anyone working here has the time to take care of. You’re a God-send.”

Poofy high ponytail accomplished, Michelle had moved on and was applying some mascara and lipstick to Allie’s face. Allie knew she could do it herself. Michelle knew Allie could do it herself. But, this was a big day. Michelle clearly wanted Allie to be beautiful. Why not let her help?

“Baby, you’re the God-send,” Michelle said, finishing up with a touch of eyebrow pencil. “I can’t believe how happy Gabe is since you’ve gotten together. He never stops smiling, even with all the trouble you two have had.”

“And, we have had plenty,” Allie sighed. “I worry about him. Do you think he’s getting tired, working and trying to spend so much time with me?”

“He probably is tired. We all are. But, working together through a rough spot won’t kill us. That’s what families are for,” Michelle said, now down on the floor. She slid high-heeled sandals past Allie’s freshly painted toe nails and fastened their straps. 

Allie strained her neck to the side to see as much of herself as she could in the mirror on the wall over her dresser. The sling and the giant black braces on her arm and leg were surely distracting, but she still looked kind of good. Maybe. 

Michelle must have read her wishful thinking. “I’m sure he’ll be glad to see you looking so pretty.”

“Thanks to you,” Allie said gratefully when Michelle positioned her chair in front of the full-length mirror on the bathroom door for an even better view. It was so nice to be wearing a pale blue T-shirt and a summery skirt instead of the yoga clothes she’d had on since she’d graduated out of hospital gowns. She felt almost normal — if she could even remember what normal felt like after this strange, strange summer.

Michelle turned Allie’s wheelchair around and sank down across from her on “the hisser,” as the family had dubbed the offending vinyl specimen of furniture. “I didn’t realize how much Gabe had changed until that first night he brought you home. We knew it was really serious between you two right then. He had never done that before.”

Allie listened, curious as to what else her mother-in-law might say about her husband.

“He told me that night that he wanted to marry you.”

“He did?” That surprised Allie, even though Gabe had actually asked her to do so just a few days later.

“He sure did,” Michelle said. “That’s when I knew this church stuff wasn’t just some phase or something. He loved you, and he loved you the right way. That had to be God.”

“I love him, too.”

“I know, baby,” Michelle said, scooting her chair closer to Allie’s bed to clear the way for Mildred’s walker as the older lady came into the room. “And, we’re so very, very glad that you do.”

INSIDE THE STORY:

Panhandle Cleaning & Restoration is a real, Wheeling-based business whose name is based on the shape of this part of West Virginia. Obviously, they did not paint a fictitious house, but the company is known for its generosity. Recently, Panhandle spearheaded the restoration of a young man’s car, which was vandalized with marks that included a racist slur. Small cities really do work this way. Life isn’t perfect, but neighbor helps neighbor.

• And, fiction alert: Real-life Wheeling Mayor Glenn Elliott probably isn’t taking on any side jobs. But, he really is philanthropic and he really does know how to repoint brickwork given his personal investment in downtown’s architectural revival. Like many people involved in downtown Wheeling’s exciting re-development, he has developed impressive DIY skills and has the social media photos to prove it.

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• 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.

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