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.
“Simon?” Allie shot up in her bed as soon as she was coherent enough to recognize her former fiancé’s voice on her phone. “What’s wrong? Are my parents OK?”
Location: the apartment above Mucho Mocha Coffee Shoppe, Centre Market, 40.0595° N, 80.7242° W
Emotion: I thought we’d get to see forever, but forever’s gone away.
“Everybody’s fine, Allie. I’m sorry to wake you up like this. We need to talk and this is the first chance I’ve had to call. Can we switch over to Skype?”
Allie’s hair was wild with sleep. She probably had sheet creases on her face. There was no way she was Skyping over the phone from her pillows. “My computer’s not on,” she stalled. “It will take me a few minutes.”
“That’s fine,” Simon said. “We just finished up a late lunch here and I don’t have to be back at the clinic for an hour or two. Call me when you’re ready.”
Everybody’s fine? Right.
Allie worried Simon wasn’t telling her the truth as she fired up her laptop. He did regular brotherly check-ins, but never this early in the morning and usually not by Skype. Why did Simon want to talk face to face? Her stomach hurt just thinking about what could be wrong. Ebola. Terrorist attack. Kidnapping. Natural disaster. Poisonous snake bite. Africa was Africa. It wasn’t for the feint of heart.
Allie fretted. Allie sent up prayer after rapid prayer. But, she still took the time to fix her hair and face a little bit. She even put on lipstick. Hey, she had almost married this man. He had missed out on something pretty good. It wouldn’t hurt him to remember that.
She looked at the clock on her laptop as she ran her tongue over her teeth to check for lipstick smears — 5:30 a.m.! Was she never going to get a full night’s sleep again? She started the coffeemaker before she called him back. Allie had a feeling that whatever Simon had to say might require a lot of caffeine.
Simon was the one who looked like he needed some caffeine, however.
“Are you OK, Simon? You look awful,” Allie cried.
“Good to see you, too, Sunshine,” Simon laughed, his grin bringing much of his normal toothpaste-ad handsomeness back to his face. He rubbed the blond stubble on his chin and cheeks with one hand. “I guess I do look pretty rough. I’ve been in surgery since the middle of the night.”
Allie was suddenly awash in memories of the realities of many African clinics. “Surgery” probably meant an elbow-to-elbow-spaced inflatable tent with stark fluorescent bulbs strung on a wire overhead. Sterile? Yes. Affordable? Yes. Comfortable? No way.
Such sympathetic thoughts were interrupted as Jean Luc, a breathtaking mix of Simon’s all-American looks and his wife, Sylvie’s, darker French beauty, climbed into Simon’s lap. The 2-year-old was obviously enchanted with what he saw on the screen. “An-teee Ah-leee!” Jean Luc waved enthusiastically. Allie waved back. Even the awkward circumstances couldn’t keep her from absolutely loving this kid.
Sylvie popped her head in front of her husband and son to smile just as charmingly at Allie. “Bon jour, mon ami. Sorry we make the call so early.”
Allie smiled back. “Bon jour, Sylvie.”
Why did she have to truly love Sylvie, too? She sighed silently, though the smile stayed stiffly in place. Five years dating this man and she was somehow now his “sister.” His son’s aunt. One of his wife’s besties. She even regularly sent Sylvie — a pediatrician whose passions included God, her family and childhood immunizations, in that order — whole cases of bandages featuring Hello Kitty and various superheroes.
Life is weird.
“Just a minute, Simon. My coffee’s ready.” Allie filled the biggest mug she owned to the brim and returned to the screen. “OK, Simon. What is it? Just tell it to me straight away.”
“It’s not bad news, Allie. At least I hope it’s not.”
“Out with it.”
“Your dad asked me to call you.” Simon suddenly looked embarrassed. He moved a restless Jean Luc off his lap and spoke slightly to the side of the screen instead of looking directly at her face. “He and your mom apparently saw a picture of you on the Internet …”
Allie was speechless.
Brother schmother. Her parents had, for some odd reason, asked her former fiancé — her former fiancé who married another woman ridiculously soon after their break up — to call her about a picture of her kissing another man. And, said former fiancé actually does it. With his wife in the room.
Boundary issues, people!
What was wrong with him? And, why is a double shot of espresso never around when a woman needs it? Allie took a deep swig of coffee and mentally cursed the limits of Skype’s technology. If Simon got to see her face at such a moment, it would only be fair if she could slap his.
She swigged again and marveled at this alarming new inclination toward violence she was experiencing.
“They’re concerned, Sunshine,” Simon went on, interrupting her thoughts. “Actually, I’m concerned, too, now that I’ve seen the picture. Just who is this guy?”
He’d seen the picture. He was concerned. Lovely. Allie’s eyes narrowed, but just when she was ready to blast Simon with both barrels, Sylvie bumped her husband right off of his kitchen stool with her hip and sat in front of the screen herself.
“Simon, go,” she said to the air off to the left of the screen. Sylvie made shooing motions with her hands. Allie heard Simon grumble a protest in lousy French and saw Sylvie’s quick shake of her head. “Non.”
“Sylvie,” Allie began, bizarrely less reluctant to talk to her than to Simon. She was able to unclench her teeth, in fact. “I appreciate your concern. But, this really isn’t any of your business.”
“Our business? Non.” Sylvie smiled enchantingly and tipped her head slightly to one side, her black curls now dangling at an equally attractive angle. “But, I must ask, Allie, is your Gabe as beaux as I imagine?”
Rats. Allie’s mouth began to twitch. She wasn’t just smiling back. She was beaming. She was glowing. She was sparkling. She could feel it. Double rats.
“He’s better than beaux.” The words somehow came out as a breathy sigh. Scurrying battalions of rats.
Sylvie raised one eyebrow at her friend and sighed, “Ooh la la.”
You said it, sister.
“What?” Allie asked.
“When did you know with him?”
Allie took a wild guess that Sylvie just wondered when they had met. “In high school. I’ve known him since I was 15. We hadn’t seen each other in many years until … recently.”
“Are you a pair?”
Allie hesitated, realizing she’d already given Sylvie nearly all the information Simon — and her parents — were fishing for but would never have gotten without a fight. Why not finish it? “Yes. We are a couple.”
“This Gabe, he is the Christian?”
“Oui,” Sylvie said with a contented nod. “He makes you most happy. I see that. We pray for you, Allie. We love you and we will love your Gabe, too. He has your heart.”
Allie took another deep drink of her coffee so Sylvie couldn’t see her surprise at that last comment. Does he? Does Gabe Morelli already have my heart? Or, has he had it all along? Wondering about that, she lost track of whatever else Sylvie was saying until it was clear the call was over.
“Au revoir, Allie.”
“Au revoir, Sylvie,” Allie replied, snapping back to attention. “Au revoir, Jean Luc. So long to you, too, Simon Bancroft. I know you’re still there.”
Allie didn’t see or hear the dregs of the other-side-of-the-world conversation, of course. She certainly didn’t see Sylvie swat her astonished husband on the shoulder as soon as she signed off. “What? Do you think she become the nun because you do not marry?”
Simon rubbed his jaw again. “No. It’s not that. It was her face.”
“She is happy, oui?” Sylvie sighed happily herself.
“She’s in love,” Simon said flatly.
“Oui. You have seen this with her. I know this. This is OK.”
“No. I’ve never seen Allie look like that. That was the problem — for both of us,” Simon said, pulling his wife firmly against his chest and planting gentle kisses that started at the corners of her lips and worked toward the middle.
He stopped to smile in near wonder. “When she talks about this man, she looks like you do when you look at me and like I’m sure I do when I look at you.”
Sylvie pulled away and made a less-than-loving face at him.
“And, does this make you sad, mon mari, that your Allie is in love now with this Gabe Morelli?”
“Not sad at all, babe. She’s not my Allie and she never was,” he said with simple honesty. Then he smiled again, spectacularly. “This makes me very relieved, actually. I’m the one who asked her to marry me and then walked out, Sylvie. It’s been hard to be happy with you and Jean Luc when I knew she wasn’t.
“If he’s really OK, this Gabe Morelli guy may be a good thing for all of us.”
INSIDE THE STORY:
• Allie, Gabe, Simon and Sylvie each began their lives and have spent other parts of their lives in many places. Wheeling connects them. When I wrote this chapter, I considered the fact that many West Virginians have lived here generationally — it’s a Mountaineer tradition. This means one’s old flames (and those of one’s parents and grandparents for that matter) are often still around. This gave me fresh material to consider: How would Simon’s continued presence (even a virtual one) after a broken engagement affect Allie, and vice versa?
• I am always in awe when friends with medical training do mission trips, including Doctors Without Borders. The description of Simon’s exhaustion level post-surgery and the paragraph in which Allie imagines Simon’s working conditions comes straight from photos included in that worthy agency’s promotional materials.
• 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.