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.
“It’s not even a hundred feet from here to the water.” Gabe said this in a tone that suggested they were doing something ordinary-day Wheeling, West Virginia. Like picking up some new potatoes and spring greens from Public Market.
Location: Wheeling Suspension Bridge, 40.0702° N, 80.7268° W
Emotion: Panic! At The Disco
They were not. So completely not.
Allie gave a wary glance at his grin. Frankly, she was too terrified to look anywhere else — especially past the itsy, bitsy plank that was all that separated them from the swiftly moving waters of the Ohio River. Well, there was all that air, too.
Not even 100 feet.
She fumed at herself for being stupid enough to even be out on the catwalk. As if the Wheeling Suspension Bridge and its open-mesh decking wasn’t alarming enough to walk across all by its lonesome.
Reverting to pre-school thinking for a moment, she shut her eyes tightly, wishing the river and all those feet of air away. When she opened them, they were still there. Rats.
So was Gabe. Smiling more broadly than ever. Oh, yeah. He knew she was about 30 seconds away from a full-on panic attack. And, even worse, he was clearly enjoying himself.
He went on. “This is nothing like being on our catwalk at New River Gorge. That one’s about 900 feet up. According to the tourism people, that’s 219 black bears standing on each other’s backs. Or, 109 kayaks stretched tip to tip. Or, 146 mountain bikes stacked wheel to …”
Gabe was still talking. Something about it being a good thing the Department of Highways didn’t use those kinds of non-standard measurements while engineering things and something else about body harnesses and not dropping any more than a few feet even if absolutely everything went wrong.
Allie wasn’t exactly listening.
She was thinking. Hard. This wasn’t turning out at all as she had planned. She was the one who was supposed to be having a moment of mild revenge on a bad ex-boyfriend. Well, sort-of boyfriend.
When her editor had offered the chance to write about a new young Department of Highways engineer and his quirky side hustle running catwalks under a handful of the state’s more picturesque bridges — she had been delighted. Even before she realized that the new guy was, in fact, her old guy.
That was then, when she was planning to stay on terra firma. Now, she was here, where she didn’t want to be. Just so she could display — or attempt to display — unflappable cool to him. Gabe Morelli. Of all people. And, after all these years.
What was I thinking?
Gabe interrupted her fretting by clipping the straps that now extended from the two of them to the thick, black cables that ran both over their helmeted heads and as railings at their sides. Allie eyed the twisted wires doubtfully as he gave them a hard tug. Nothing gave way. They seemed to be as firm a connection to the underbelly of the bridge as was humanly possible.
He tugged the overhead cable once more, clearly reading her thoughts. “The wires and the harness would stop you, Allie. This is in no way a ‘do not tempt the Lord thy God’ type of activity.”
Allie gave a tight smile at his unexpected knowledge of Shakespearean-style scripture. But, she knew full well that her face was going chalk white. She watched his eyes run past every point that connected them to the bridge then give a satisfied nod. She shuddered.
“Allie, are you sure you really want to do this?” he asked, any trace of mischief now gone from his voice. “You know I’m just messing with you. As much as you hate heights, I never expected …”
Allie moved her head from side to side — a signal somewhere in between a nod of assent and a “nothing doing.”
“Stop it straight away!” Allie said, as near shouting as her British heritage would allow. If he wanted her to spell it out, she would. “I absolutely do not want to do this and you know it. But,” she continued, nearly baring her teeth at him, “I am going to do it anyway. So, let’s get on with it.”
“Really?” he said, his omnipresent smile suddenly gone.
He peered at her face as if assessing her mental state. She glared at him. “Move it out, Morelli!”
“OK,” he finally said, in such a polite tone it was almost absurd given where they were. “Would you rather hold the wires on both sides or hold my hand with one hand and one wire with the other?”
She’d rather be cruising the library aisles or napping in a sunny spot with the cat, but she didn’t say that. “Your hand, please,” she suddenly decided.
“I won’t let you go,” he said in a tone that almost suggested he was now trying to reassure her.
“That sounds familiar,” she replied, in no way comforted.
“Yeah. Well…” Gabe shrugged ruefully and led her out onto the catwalk before she could change her mind. The reality of what they were doing hit her just as quickly. She sucked in so much air she nearly choked.
It seemed to Allie that the space beneath their feet suddenly seemed to open wide, like a giant mouth ready to receive them. However many actual black bears standing on each other’s backs that could fit beneath them couldn’t be any more terrifying.
Gabe’s back was to her, one arm extended behind him to hold her hand.
I think I can. I think I can. I think I can, Allie channeled the little engine and chanted under her breath as she impulsively closed her eyes and began to follow him purely by feel. That — and pretending with all her might that she really was sauntering through Public Market worked surprisingly well until he turned his head to check on her about half the way across the expanse.
Granola on the left. Kelp noodles on the right. Danny Swan thinking up some equally fresh idea somewhere in the middle.
“Allie! Open your eyes! And put your other hand back on that railing wire!” Gabe twisted around so that he could watch her. That meant he was now making the crossing while walking backward. He didn’t seem to care, to Allie’s astonishment. “We’re strapped in. We’re fine.”
As soon as he said the words, however, they were suddenly not fine.
One second, they were walking face to face, or more like forehead to nose as Allie was now in sneakers instead of the platforms she’d been wearing earlier in the day. The next second, a spectacular blast of wind smacked them off the catwalk as if a giant hand had cleared a table. They were soooo not shopping for kelp noodles.
Allie saw a swirl of green trees, dark bridge wires and horrifying nothingness in every direction before she froze stiff in her harness. Ziegenfelder stiff.
One bizarre thought penetrated her equally iced-over mind. The only thing that could make this any worse was if one or two of those acrobatic bears somehow managed to emerge from the imaginary pile up to begin circling, teeth bared and dripping saliva. Then two of her worst nightmares could be rolled into one.
Her eyes — the only part of her that could still move — darted about, almost expecting to see something ursine. Something even more attention-grabbing was looming, however.
Black bears and swaying in the wind over a river — God help them, there was a coal barge headed their way down that very river — were suddenly nothing to worry about. Absolutely nothing.
She knew that the very moment Gabe’s mouth closed firmly over her own. It was as if he was making up for 12 years of absence with a single kiss. And, thundering herds of rats, she rather liked it.
Earlier that day…
Location: Wild About Wheeling, Wheeling Island,40.0706° N, 80.7331° W
Emotion: Take me home, country roads.
Gabe Morelli pulled hard on the laces of his hiking boots and went so far as to thank God out loud. Too many years of city life made him stop short of the whoop of joy that he really wanted to give. But, he felt it all the same. He was home.
He double knotted the ties the same way he had since kindergarten and looked around in pure pleasure from his perch on the wooden steps of Wild About Wheeling. The unseasonable warmth of the February day was enough to keep a cloudy mist hanging over the steely gray of the Ohio River — right at the height of its historic bridge — even though it was already mid-morning.
Then, as if the morning could get any better, he spotted a bald eagle coasting across a sky that was turning steadily from gray to blue. In his childhood, such a sighting would have been nearly a miracle. Now, no matter what else was wrong with the world, here was something good. The eagles had come home to their river valley, too.
Home. Gabe smiled and inhaled deeply, as if he could flush out years of big-city vibes by drawing in the mist.
Why had he ever thought that leaving such a place was a good idea? Leaving? It had been more like fleeing. He’d left Wheeling at 19. He’d been 23 — hungry for power and adventure — when he’d left the entire state. Washington, D.C. had captured his attention in a way no place or woman had ever been able to — although plenty of the latter had tried. He’d practically married his adopted city. And, for what?
“Mike!” he yelled over his shoulder toward the brown pre-fab that served as both an office and a place to store outdoorsy equipment of all ilk. “Why did I ever go to D.C?”
His cousin, a balding 40-something entrepreneur, came out the door and moved soundlessly across the decking to where Gabe still sat on a step. “Beats me,” he said in between sips of coffee. “Young and stupid?”
Gabe grinned. “Yeah. That must have been it.”
It was impossible for Gabe to believe that just five weeks ago he had been living in a cramped apartment, tied to a job he’d grown to hate and riding public transportation like he’d been born to such a thing. Now, he had a job that kept him out of the office as much as he was in it. He also had his first house, a fixer-upper if there ever was one — and a truck.
The latter made him happy just thinking about it. A real truck. He did another deep inhale and felt the sudden need to haul something somewhere. Maybe he should get a big old black lab to ride shotgun. Or go full-on John Denver and get a big mutt with a red bandana around its neck to match the truck’s body paint. They could both hang their heads out the windows.
Mike gestured at him with his coffee. Gabe still hadn’t moved. “You’re doing all the talking this morning, right?’
Reluctantly, Gabe turned away from the hypnotic pull of the river to face his cousin.
He knew it was this kind of thing that Mike wanted from him as a business partner. Mike could easily do the management side on his lonesome. He already had a couple of downtown B&B’s, a restaurant and a kayak- and bike-rental component to his Wild About Wheeling empire.
But, it was Gabe who could do things like handle media and run the government juggernaut to both secure office space right next to a city park and a unique usage lease to run catwalks under bridges’ underbellies from the state. Not to mention that Mike was pretty much tapped out with all this expansion and it was Gabe — Mr. Squeeze-a-Dollar-Until-the-Eagle-Grins — who could also front most of the money for the newest effort.
It was also Gabe who was the one who could engineer the catwalks themselves, tucking them unobtrusively under bridges so that the more daring variety of visitors could have a bird’s-eye look at the Mountain State’s best views without risk to life and limb or damage to anyone else’s view.
“No worries,” Gabe said, finally rising to head back into the office. “I really think you could do it, though. You’re the biz guy here. I’m just an engineer, along for one part of the ride.”
“Well, this is a big part of that one part,” Mike said.
“Yeah, yeah. When is this reporter getting here anyway?”
“About 11,” Mike said, checking his watch. “I figure you can answer her questions here at the office and then take her to lunch at the Sandwichery so she can see another part of the operation.”
“When will we go out on the catwalk?” Gabe asked.
“I don’t know if she’ll want to. She was just talking about her doing an interview and a guy taking pictures of an afternoon tour from the way it sounded on the phone.”
Gabe rolled his eyes. Imagine anyone writing a story about a catwalk without actually going on the catwalk. She’d be out there in a harness belt and helmet before she left if he had his way.
Location: outside Mucho Mocha Coffee Shoppe, Centre Market, 40.0595° N, 80.7242° W
Emotion: I’ve got chills, they’re multiplying.
Allie Bennett ran down the fire-escape-style steps that connected her small apartment to the alley behind Mucho Mocha as fast as she could go given her footwear. She wasn’t late. She was early, in fact. There was plenty of time to squeeze in some exercise. She ran back up the steps and then back down again. Three times. The weekend promised to be a high-calorie one.
Satisfied she’d burned off at least a hundred or so of them, she hopped into the pale blue Mini Cooper she kept parked at the bottom of the stairs and headed for Wheeling Island. If the Suspension Bridge had been open to drivers, she would only need about five minutes to reach Wild About Wheeling’s new digs.
It wasn’t. And, it hadn’t been pretty much since a tour bus driver had shoved past the barricades intended to keep high-weight vehicles out. It turned out such things weren’t good for a bridge literally designed with horses and buggies in mind. Go figure.
Allie pondered this as she made her way to the interstate, the only other way to reach the island and Wild About Wheeling. This new catwalk for tourists — the second of five that were planned around the state — had been installed under the bridge during the gap in automotive use. The bridge’s bed above the catwalk was open-mesh decking. It didn’t take Woodward and Bernstein to figure out that the historic island link wasn’t re-opening to auto traffic anytime soon if ever.
She was so distracted by considering how this could change the city, she drove past both her turn and the House of the Carpenter. Rats. Turning around in the mission’s parking lot, she noted the expansion project there was looking good.
Note to self: Update expansion story for the paper.
Successfully making the turn into the city’s new Riverside Park this time, her eyes opened at the strategic location that Wild About Wheeling had managed to secure. Just at the park’s edge, the small office offered a launch for and rental of both kayaks and bicycles. Access to the catwalk’s entrance gate was a short walk away.
Allie nodded. Wild, wonderful West Virginia tourism. It helped pay the bills.
Stepping out of the car, she fished through her bag to make sure she had everything she needed, which was only a notebook and a trio of pens. Forget the recorder some reporters favored. She was young, but she was old-school.
She was also nervous as a cat. Her hand was shaking enough during the supplies inspection that she decided to take a quick detour to the park restroom. Anxious? Perhaps. Willing to show it? Not a chance.
Allie stood in front of the center’s bathroom mirror and put some fresh powder on her winter-pale face and a coat of rosy gloss on lips that were so full they didn’t really need any help. If her hands were still shaking when she brushed her hair until it fell down her back in a glossy, pale blonde sheet, she wasn’t going to admit it.
Turning slowly on her 4-inch platforms, she managed to hold her fingers steady long enough to smooth down the blue, floral-print folds of her ’50s-style dress and check her reflection from every direction.
Not bad, if she had to say so herself. Gabe Morelli might not have wanted her oh so long ago. Simon Bancroft may not have wanted her much more recently. But, a lack of beauty on her part wasn’t the problem. At least she hoped not.
Allie leaned closer to the mirror and checked her face critically one more time. She wrinkled her nose then forced her face to relax, muscle by muscle. Enough with the negative thoughts, she told herself and turned away from the mirror.
She checked her dad’s ancient Smiths watch, which she wore like a bangle, and took a deep breath. I need to calm down. I have plenty of time. If she kept on schedule, she could be done here and nip out the pike to Oglebay by 2 or 3 at the latest.
Ah, Oglebay. So close to home, but so far away from her workaday life.
Allie exhaled — ohhh…gulllll…beeeee — and nearly smiled. It was true. The remainder of the weekend would give her plenty of time to reconnect with her best friend and college roommate, Brianna Reed. A PR maven at the resort, Brianna hadn’t had to work too hard to cajole Allie into a brief visit.
“How can you resist a free overnight stay with the full works at the spa?” Brianna had drawled in her Charleston-native way, offering up one of the handful of guest passes that was a perk of her employment.
Allie was listening.
The Wheeling Tribune paid enough for a fun car (albeit the most Spartan version of such) and her minuscule apartment, but not anywhere near well enough for that brand of luxury. And, there weren’t any publicity strings attached, not that there needed to be. The Tribune wrote plenty of stories about the city’s flagship park that surrounded the resort.
Add in her sisterly affection for Brianna, and Allie was almost regretting the catwalk story had required a Saturday interview that was surely cutting into the promised spa time.
Almost. She swirled her skirt again, considered the dash of vengeance that was attached to the coming interview and managed a full-on smile this time. She was still nervous, true. But, somehow she just knew. This weekend was going to be good.
INSIDE THE STORY:
• The Wheeling Suspension Bridge, at 1,010 feet long, was the largest such structure in the world when it opened in 1849. Built with horse-and-buggy traffic in mind, the National Historic Landmark can still handle automotive traffic safely as long as automotive weight limits and rules about the spacing between vehicles are observed. Disregard of these limits led the state Department of Highways to indefinitely close the bridge to motorized traffic in 2019. While there is no actual catwalk at this bridge (there really is one at New River Gorge — horrors!) visitors can still cross the open-mesh deck on foot or by bicycle — if they dare.
• Gabe Morelli is pure fiction, but his last name is not. Knowing I wanted to write about a character who descended from the city’s considerable population of Italian immigrants, I was delighted when I came across this name on a small business sign in Wheeling’s Victorian Old Town. As romance heroes need to be a bit “more” than real life — it was perfect. I can only hope the real Morellis of Wheeling would enjoy claiming Gabe as one of their own.
• Oglebay Conference Center and Resort is an everyday part of life for Wheeling residents, who enjoy its walking trails, playgrounds, gardens and summer concerts. The 1,700-acre property is also big tourism. With two golf courses, a lodge and cottages, a museum, a spa and a variety of shops and outdoor recreational opportunities, history-rich Oglebay is also a key part of Wheeling’s connection to the Ohio Valley and beyond.
• 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.