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.
Location: 56 Pin Oak Avenue, Woodsdale; 40°04’33.9″N, 80°41’04.1″W
Emotion: You gave me roses and I left them there to die.
Mike woke him by phone before dawn. “This wasn’t the kind of publicity I had in mind, Gabe.”
“What?” A question was the only answer a sleepy Gabe could manage. It took him a moment to even realize where he was — in his new house, in his old city and, apparently, in trouble.
“Just Google yourself and call me back,” Mike said impatiently, ending the call.
Gabe groped for his phone in the darkness and tried to type in his name with one thumb. G-A-V-E M-O-T-R-L-L-L-L-O. Stupid touch screens. He sat up in bed, reached for the light and tried again, successfully this time.
The image flickered to life on his screen. Oh, boy. Even in his groggy state, he knew this wasn’t good. He threw back the covers and grabbed yesterday’s jeans and T-shirt off the floor. He dressed on the way to the kitchen, zig-zagging past a caulk gun, a drill and a box of bath tiles that had been in play until well past midnight. This would require coffee.
One cup down the gullet, he made a decision. Forget Mike. He was calling Allie, who’d given him her cell number in between lunch and the hot mess that followed.
She didn’t answer.
Nor did she answer any of the other half dozen texts and voice mails he left throughout the rest of the day, one of which he actually sent from the church sanctuary in between Sunday School and worship service. He’d never done that before. He found people who did that extremely annoying, in fact.
The 12-year gap between their kisses in the school hallway and the kiss who knows how many people had now seen suddenly seemed very small.
He wasn’t thrilled with the whole Internet thing, himself. It wasn’t just Wild About Wheeling involved. It was his real job.
Sudden funding had pretty much the entire city under bridge construction at the moment. People hate detours of any kind and these detours were wind-through-town-like-you-should-be-leaving-a-trail-of-bread-crumbs whoppers. Add in baseline dissent about the traffic closure on the Suspension Bridge and just putting the words “highway engineer” and “bridge” together in a sentence was dicey. This image could tip the scale to crazytown.
No, he didn’t like it. But, he knew Allie was really going to hate this.
By Monday morning — still no word from Allie, or his boss, whom he had tried and failed to reach, as well — he was borderline frantic. Forget breakfast. He threw on his go-to-office clothing and headed out early. He clearly needed to do some damage control.
He decided to start with Allie.
“Do you have anything that says, ‘I’m sorry I’m such an idiot?’ ” Gabe asked the proprietress of the first flower shop he passed on his way to DOH headquarters in Moundsville, surprised to find a place open so early in the day.
She was a mom-aged woman with apple red highlights scattered throughout her spiky blonde hair. It was a look that said “head wound” more than “rock star.” Gabe suddenly wondered if she was the right person to ask such a question.
But, Belle, as her nametag read, smiled knowingly and nodded. “Honey, that’s pretty much everything in the store. People even say that at funerals. If it wasn’t for idiot flowers I’d go out of business.” She eyed him with an appreciation that bordered on speculation. “What’s your lady like?”
“She’s nice, very nice,” Gabe said, suppressing a shudder at Belle’s attentions. The whole bloody hair thing was getting to him. “She’s sweet, actually.”
“Pink roses?” Belle asked. “Yellow roses?” She winked. “White roses — like a flag of surrender?”
Gabe hesitated. Roses had always been his go-to choice for this kind of thing — and there had been way too much of this kind of thing in his past. It didn’t feel right to use his old moves on Allie, however. “I don’t think she’s a rose type of woman.”
The florist pointed to an oversized teacup overflowing with a potted plant. It was full of velvety leaves and delicate purple blooms. “What about this?”
“What is it?” Gabe asked, reaching out to touch a leaf. It was as soft as it looked.
“An African violet.”
Gabe smiled for the first time since Saturday. “Perfect.”
He scrawled down the message he’d plotted out carefully while in the shower, stuffed the card into the envelope and sealed it before writing Allie’s name on the outside and handing it back to the woman. “Can this be delivered to the newsroom of the Wheeling Tribune this morning?”
Belle looked at the name on the card and gave a resigned smile.
“For you, honey — sure,” she said with a sigh. “But, I’m not sure you really need flowers. She seems to like you pretty well already. I saw the picture.”
Gabe swallowed nervously and offered a tight smile of his own. “That would be the problem,” he muttered before he walked out the door.
Location: The Wheeling Tribune, 40°04’42.8″N 80°43’28.1″W
Emotion: I’ve hunted you across the years. Men like you can never change. A man such as you.
Gabe checked the time on his phone for the 47th time that day and puffed out a breath of sheer aggravation. He had pretty much smoothed things over with his boss — and his boss’s boss in Charleston before it was done. It hadn’t hurt that he’d come up with a presto-it’s-fixed plan to deal with a sudden crop of tire-eating potholes on I-70 before lunch.
But, workplace harmony or not, it was 5 p.m. Monday and Allie still hadn’t answered any of his messages, even though the newspaper receptionist had told him enough that he knew the flowers had arrived and that Allie was on the premises.
“That’s it,” he said, stuffing more papers than he’d need in a week of evening work sessions into his briefcase and heading for the door. “I’m going over there.”
Gabe imagined striding confidently into Allie’s office all the while he negotiated the 15-minute drive to the newspaper. He would be charming. He would be persuasive. She would hear him out.
His plans hadn’t factored in the reality of a newsroom, however. Once he was in, no small feat in itself in the age of active shooters, he discovered there wasn’t a wall to be seen. Instead of offices — or even as much as waist-high cubicles — writers and editors were desked cheek to jowl in a sprawling, single space.
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He could see Allie’s smooth blonde head toward the back of the room, but was hesitant to approach her given the half dozen or so co-workers that stood or sat between them. At least that’s how he felt until she looked up, met his eyes and gave him a look so frosty he was suddenly ready to verbally duke it out in front of an audience if that’s what it took.
“Let’s not do this here,” he whispered, however, as soon as he had run the gauntlet and reached her side. Many of Allie’s co-workers were already watching them with unconcealed interest. A couple of them held tiny tape recorders that seemed a bit too at the ready for comfort. Nosiness was clearly an occupational hazard.
“Let’s not do this at all,” Allie hissed back. She rose to face him, stretching her elbows out in both directions like sails and listing oddly to one side. What on earth was she doing? Had she thrown out her back in the fall?
He looked more closely and suddenly got it. Through the crook of one of her elbows, he saw his flowers sitting on her desk. They were not in the trash, nor at someone else’s workspace. That seemed like a really good sign. He spotted the pale lavender card, too. It was tucked safely into her desk calendar — like something that mattered. Even better.
But, any idea of relaxing a bit died the moment the computer screen at Allie’s back reverted to a screen saver. It was the image of their kiss with the paper’s logo scrolling across the top. He looked around the room in dismay. So not good. Their kiss was emblazoned every idle computer screen in view.
He sighed in a sudden burst of empathy. Mike was just mad. But, his own co-workers and even his boss had razzed him mercilessly and bawdily all day long. If Allie had faced even half what he had, she certainly had good reason to be ticked.
He clearly needed more than charm.
Gabe bent and spoke softly into the hair over her ear. “I meant what I said in the card, Allie. I am not walking away from you this time. I’m not leaving this room, in fact. I don’t know what your work schedule is, but we need to talk and we need to do it soon — now if you can.”
Their eyes locked in a stalemate, neither of them saw her managing editor until he was looming over them both.
“You the Romeo?” Rick asked, his voice even crustier than any movie journalist Gabe had ever viewed. Gabe rose back to his full height and nodded warily, aware the entire newsroom was now watching them. He breathed out in frustration. Maybe he and Allie should start charging admission every time they were together.
“I’m the managing editor here. Rick Madison,” the older man said, shaking Gabe’s hand. “I’d like to talk to you.”
Gabe glanced at Allie, who seemed as surprised as he was. Then, in spite of his better judgment, he followed the man into an office with real walls and even a real door. Rick closed it behind them.
“Sit,” Rick said.
“I’ll stand, thanks.”
“So, stand.” The older man remained standing, as well, but did lean against the edge of a desk piled high with newspapers, notebooks, Styrofoam cups and an abandoned necktie that looked suspiciously like it had been used to mop up coffee.
“I don’t have that much to say, but you need to listen carefully,” he said. “Allison Bennett is a crackerjack reporter. She’s smart. She’s resourceful. But, she’s a nicegirl — too nice for her own good, in my opinion. Do not mess with her, Mr. Morelli. This may be a small city, but this is a big newspaper. It will not go well for you.”
Gabe was stunned and somewhat offended by the warning. But, he recognized its tone even if the setting was bizarre. He’d heard several variations of this talk before, although it had been a rather long time. This Rick Madison was serving in the role of concerned dad for some reason. Gabe didn’t know why he was doing it, but he knew that was what it was and he responded accordingly.
“I have no intention of hurting, Allie … sir,” Gabe said, adding the last word on a sudden impulse. The man had to be more than 20 years his senior. Plus, he was Allie’s boss. Not to mention the fact that Gabe valued his own job. Who knew what this guy was capable of doing? “She’s a wonderful woman. I’ve known that for a long time.”
“You didn’t meet her this weekend?”
“No! Not at all,” Gabe said, meeting Rick’s stare unflinchingly. “Allie and I were … We’ve known each other since high school.”
“A local boy.” Rick almost smiled as he sat down at his desk chair. He looked relieved, something that didn’t quite make sense to Gabe.
Gabe decided to let it go, then changed his mind just as suddenly.
“I have a question,” he asked on impulse, curious about another thing that didn’t make sense given the whole dad-talk thing. “You obviously care about Allie and know her well enough to realize the photo would really upset her. Why did it show up on your website?”
Rick grimaced and rubbed his face with one hand. “It shouldn’t have. It’s a powerful image, but it would never have gone out if I had been here. I was out of town all weekend. The photographer and the city editor made a lousy call.”
At that, the newsman swiveled in his seat to face his computer screen — his kiss-emblazoned screen — and punched a button hard, calling up an email account instead. Gabe realized he’d been dismissed. He returned to Allie’s desk, where he was surprised to see she now stood with her giant bag already slung over one shoulder. She appeared to be waiting. For him? He could only hope.
Whatever she had in mind, there wasn’t time to find out. Rick was back.
“Allie,” Rick said from behind Gabe’s shoulder. “Go. And, don’t come back to the office until tomorrow. You’ve been putting in way too many hours lately anyway.”
Allie started to protest, but didn’t follow through. Gabe felt her sigh of weariness as much as he heard it and instinctively took her hand into his own. She didn’t pull away. She didn’t need to. He released her fingers as soon as he noticed open glares from Rick and several of her male co-workers. Gabe briefly wondered if one of them had a shotgun under his desk.
Good grief. What was wrong with these people? Even though their kiss was all over the Internet — a kiss is but a kiss. Isn’t it?
INSIDE THE STORY:
• When I wrote this story in 2016, I couldn’t have imagined it would be published in a time and place in which a massive bridge renewal project was happening in real life. That serendipity made transitioning the story to Wheeling a bit easier and a lot more fun. It feels, at least to me, like it’s unfolding in real-time.
• The GPS coordinates that precede each scene are there to suggest just how potentially “real” each location is. But this is still fiction. The coordinates that I chose are generally actual buildings that are close to where I imagined each location to be. For example, in the case of Gabe’s Woodsdale home, on the imaginary Pin Oak Avenue, the coordinates are actually those of Lynn Buch Interiors.
• 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.