SUSPENDED AGGRAVATION: Chapter 36 Nora Edinger October 4, 2020 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 36 Location: Kensington Rehabilitation Hospital, 40.080045, -80.694052 Emotion: “Know when to walk away. And, know when to run.” Her boss Rick wasn’t Allie’s only visitor that day. The other one came. The other one went. And, by the time the door clicked shut behind her, Allie was the one who could have used a tranquilizer dart. She was still in a lather after dinner. Mildred couldn’t have picked a lousier time to be sort of friendly. “Can you play Seven-Card Stud?” the old lady asked after making the effort to ker-klump her way over to where Allie sat. Well, given the tone, it was more like a demand rather than a question. But, still. Allie ceased flipping through the home-decorating magazine she’d been “reading” without actually seeing anything. She really wanted to rip the entire thing in half, like some sort of Ninja warrior. Aaaaiiiiiieeeeee. Instead, she looked up and released some of her internal boil in deceptively calm words. “Can you hum a few bars?” Allie asked. Mildred smirked before turning her walker back to the common-room table where three of her cronies sat expectantly waiting some post-meal entertainment. “That’s what I figured, but they wouldn’t listen.” The idea was instantaneous. It was mean, too. But, Allie pushed aside the guilt that raised its unwelcome head just as quickly. “Hang on there, Mildred. I was just kidding. I played a bit of Texas Hold ’Em in college.” She smiled innocently. “Aren’t they quite similar?” Mildred looked back at her in surprise, but recovered quickly. “Deal Blondie in,” she yelled over to her entourage. “We have a fifth.” Needing an aide’s help just to get over to the poker table merely added to the image Allie wanted to foster. Nice girl, my foot. She’d show this mother of all mean girls — or at least grandmother to the meanest one in particular — just what sugar and spice could do. That’s if the sugar and spice in question just happened to have dated a man who had blown off steam playing utterly ruthless poker for pennies with other docs in training the entire five years of their thwarted courtship. And, if that had left said sugar and spice with plenty second-hand knowledge of the game. Enough, in fact, that she had built up $15 million of play money on Internet poker games pursued over way too many boring evenings during the last three years. At home. In the company of her cat. Allie was out for blood. “How many cards is it that we start with?” she asked the group at large, actually batting her eyes. Mildred both groaned and rolled her eyes as she dealt the first round. “Just follow along, cupcake. We’ll play one practice game.” Allie played that game quietly, adding her Pringle potato chips that were all Kensington allowed residents to play for to the pot in the proper increments. She continued through three more games, deliberately throwing them all without losing much of her Pringle chip stash in the process. Then, she went for the kill. Her initial hand for the fourth “real” game wasn’t stellar — a pair of threes and an ace — but it wasn’t bad, either. She stared at Mildred as play continued. Allie got a six. Then, an eight. She raised the stakes in small increments. As did Mildred. The other ladies folded. Allie suspected it was not so much because they worried about the safety of their Pringles — Liberty Distributors kept the vending machine down the hall well stocked if they needed more, after all. They just scented blood in the water and didn’t want to be distracted by a mere game. “Hey, ladies.” It was Gabe who interrupted the growing tension. Allie hadn’t realized the evening was so far along that it was time for his visit. But, if she was in any way distracted when her husband pulled up a chair close behind her shoulder, it didn’t show. Nor did she move a facial muscle when he went so far as to reach around her to turn up the corners of the portion of her cards, which were face down on the table. Mildred eyed Gabe speculatively, however. “Maybe your husband would like to play,” she suggested. “We could always switch to strip poker.” OK. Allie’s attention wandered from the game a bit at that. Her eyes flickered to Gabe’s face, where she noticed a slight tightening of his jaw muscle. She could tell he was holding in either a laugh or a scream. “I’m more of a Go Fish kind of guy, actually,” was all he said in response. Mildred and her buddies seemed pleased enough with that answer for some reason. “Shut up and play,” one of the women told Mildred. Yeah. Shut up and play, you old meanie. Allie’s next card was an ace. Yes. Two pairs. One of them aces. She tallied up the cards she knew Mildred had and speculated as to what she might have. Unless Mildred had a nine, Allie was in deep clover. She wanted more than cattle forage, though. She was in the mood for annihilation. “I’ll check,” Allie said demurely, effectively passing on her turn to increase her bet. If this bit of bluffing paid off, she’d probably win all of Mildred’s chips. All. The. Chips. Allie smiled on the inside and told the little voice in her head that said, “This is ‘dirty poker,’ Allison Bennett. This is in no way ‘nice girl,’” to shut up. There was a point to be made here and she was going to make it. It actually worked. Mildred interpreted the check as a sign of weakness — just as Allie had desired — and raised the pot by some 15 Pringles. Allie reached for her entire stack of chips. There were probably about three dozen at this point. She would have put them all in had Gabe not chosen that moment to stand, push back his chair and kiss her on top of the head. Allie hesitated with her fingers still on the chips. She looked up her husband. He looked back with utterly no expression. Subscribe to Weelunk Rats. He knows. Allie pulled her lips tightly between her teeth, willing herself not to cry — at least not yet. A storm was inevitable. She sent Gabe a silent plea for help with her eyes, wondering if he would catch it. He did. “You win, Miss Millie,” he said, already moving his wife’s wheelchair toward the door that led to the garden. “Allie’s folding.” “She can’t do that,” Mildred called after them. But, it was too late. Allie did fold and they were already gone. How was Allie to know that Mildred instantly flipped Allie’s remaining cards over and now she knew, too. Allie didn’t see Mildred look out the door at her nice-girl roomie turned card shark in wonder or hear the question that formed in the woman’s mind. Why did she leave a winning hand? ♥♥♥ “Should I even ask?” Gabe ventured as they settled near a climbing rose that was both deliciously fragrant and provided an excellent shield from view from any curious parties who might be lingering in the common room. Allie shook her head. He could see that sobbing was imminent. He opened his arms to her. “Come here.” She stood the way she’d learned to in physical therapy, swiveled on her good heel and gave a sad whimper as he settled her onto his lap and wrapped himself as tightly around her as he could. He kept her there, rocking her like he might rock his little niece Francesca, until she was done. “You OK?” he finally asked. She shook her head against his shoulder. “Can I help?” She shook her head again. “Can I pray?” Another head shake. Now that surprised him. Gabe pulled her away from him and looked in concern at her tear-ravaged face. “What’s going on?” Allie buried her face once more in his chest. But, he pulled her away again. “Allie, what is going on?” Nothing. “Allie?” “Kenzie was here again,” she whispered without actually looking at him. Gabe sighed and drew his wife back against his chest, resting his chin on the top of her head. Judging by Allie’s extraordinary behavior at the poker table, their meeting must have been a doozie. “What did she say to you?” He knew Kenzie. It was words — words meant to skewer. Allie closed her eyes, so quiet that Gabe could hear the steady beating of his heart. Or maybe it was her heart. He wasn’t sure whose was whose at this point. “Allie?” “You can have the annulment,” she said quietly. Gabe winced. Kenzie had clearly graduated to words meant to eviscerate. He pulled Allie even closer. “Sweetheart,” he whispered into her hair. “We’ve already been down this road with your dad. I thought we were past this. I want to be married to you and only to you for the rest of my life. I love you.” Allie shook her head against his chest. “Why?” she said so softly he could barely hear the word. “I will never be able to compete with women like Kenzie. She was right back in high school and she was right today. I am … I will never be what a man like you needs.” He pulled her away from him again so he could look into her eyes. “I don’t know about these other men, Allison Morelli, but you are exactly what this one needs. You are the most beautiful, most honorable, most kind woman I have ever met. I have never loved any woman but you and I never will. Not any other woman. Certainly not Kenzie. Just you.” She wanted to believe him. She wanted to trust him. She really did. He could see such hopes flicker in her eyes. But, she didn’t. The flicker faded away. He could see that, too. God, what more can I do? No answer from on high forthcoming, Gabe just held his wife until dusk turned the flower clumps and shrubs of the garden into mystical gray shapes against the nighttime sparkle of the downtown. He watched the Wheeling Suspension Bridge, the very place where everything had started, what now felt like years ago. He watched the Fort Henry Bridge, where a slow snake of traffic negotiated the most recent stage of the construction project that filled his workdays and often drifted into his dreams. He watched and he watched and, eventually, Allie fell into an exhausted sleep in his arms. INSIDE THE STORY: • A special thanks to Dr. John Prather, associate professor of mathematics at Ohio University Eastern, for making the surprising poker showdown between Allie and Mildred technically accurate. We discussed what I needed the scene to do, and this neighbor and friend devised a hand that would fit the fiction. How fun is that?! PREVIOUS CHAPTER NEXT CHAPTER • 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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