“Hello, Taloo,” I said flatly.
He stared back at me as if he couldn’t believe his eyes. His enormous, gentle green eyes that always had a glimmer of something mischievous about them. Even now, in his state of shock, the glimmer was still there. I should’ve known better than to just go at him like this, but I was so tired of him pretending I wasn’t right in front of him. I had plenty of that from everyone else.
Taloo was not like everyone else.
He was different. Responsive. Caring… at least more than most men his age would be. It was a small part of why I cared for him in the first place, and it had always been a part of him that couldn’t be ignored.
When Taloo looked at you, he didn’t just see you.
He saw all of you.
He made you feel alive. Special. He made you matter.
Except, lately, he’d been pretending he didn’t see me at all—that I was nothing to be noticed. That I was something easily ignored and forgotten, like some bad dream. I wanted to find an excuse for him, of course. But that desperation only lasted a few days.
Now, I wanted to throttle him.
I knew he saw me. He kept glancing out of the corner of his eye and then tightening his lips together in a slim line. He’d been doing it all night.
Throttling him might have been too kind.
“Hello, Taloo,” I said again. I rose to my knees and leaned over the iron fireplace grate, reaching for his arm.
He jumped back from his mantle perch and stared hard at me. Through me.
“That’s some vodka,” he muttered.
My nose did that twitching swish thing it did whenever I heard something off. “Funny, I didn’t think you liked vodka much. You always preferred scotch. When’d that change?”
I watched his face pale and lips curl downwards. Staring hard, I noticed that his hands were steady, but his core uneasy. He shifted his weight from side to side for a few seconds before inching closer. Slowly, he peered into the fireplace and looked at me.
“You do realize you’re in a… a fireplace, right?” he asked, his voice low and drawn out.
I shrugged. “I realize that is what it looks like, yes. But I’m not actually in the fireplace. I’m beyond it.” I nodded to the room behind me where light cascaded in through tall windows that showcased the expansive estate ground lush with fledgling trees. I sat in a rather hearty-sized room, crowned in forty-year-old décor because my mother insisted that it made Father feel alive and young again. Though the walls were draped in older fabrics and aging wallpaper, whose paste had begun to crumble and peel back in the upper corners, there was something deeply comforting about the room. Something intimately safe.
It was my favorite place. Taloo knew that.
“I’m in the library,” I said, failing to hide my annoyance at his obliviousness.
Taloo’s strong jawline tightened. He exhaled, a deep huff, and ran a hand through dark brown hair that was unusually short for him. “I’m drunk,” he said, slouching against the mantel.
I strained to see him, foiled by the flicker of the fireplace’s flames. “Yes,” I sighed. “I’m afraid as many shots of vodka you’ve had will do that. Why’d you drink so many, Taloo?” I instantly regretted asking. By the look on his face, he truly hadn’t known I’d been watching him all night.
He had, since sundown, been steadily putting away shot after shot of clear alcohol. It would have been impressive even when compared to my brothers’ drinking habits, but there was something sad about the act of swallowing gulp after soured gulp alone. Taloo was sad, his furrowed brows and slouched posture said as much, but he wouldn’t say a word. He never did. I knew he would give me nothing as an explanation why, but I always tried anyways. Old habits died hard, especially for me when it came to anything involving him.
“I… It’s a long story,” Taloo said quickly. “And I don’t have to justify my actions to some eighteen-year-old in a fireplace.” He said the last bit slowly, as if weighing out just how crazy it sounded.
In truth, I couldn’t blame him. It was crazy. But, it was real.
I was real.
“I’m twenty-four,” I said.
Taloo knelt down and stared back at me, locking his green eyes onto mine. His face was irreparably stern. “Same thing.”
I sank back onto my heels. “Not even close.”
It was the first time he had a good look at all of me and, for the first time in as long as I could remember, I cared about how I looked. I couldn’t remember if I had curled my thick, red hair until my fingers found the ends of a fat swirl. I couldn’t remember if I had washed my face, or lined my brows, or even bothered to add a dab of mascara to my lashes. I rubbed my knuckles against my cheeks, pleased to feel the gentle pull of makeup along my skin. Straightening my back, I clasped my hands together and waited for his evaluation to end.
It had been a while since he’d seen me.
I had grown up—filled out since then.
I watched him scan me and, when he caught me watching, his face flustered to the ripe pink color I knew so well. It was the same color my cheeks would get in the height of summer after running up the hill. I smiled hoping it would trigger a laugh—a twinge of good humor. Instead, his frown deepened.
“You’re upset, Taloo. Why?”
“Stop calling me that,” he snapped. “My name is Drew.”
The name sounded funny coming from his lips. But then, he was dressed funny, too. I eyed his black undershirt with white designs on it. If I had to guess, he wore it as his only shirt and it rested gently on an overly prominent belt buckle that held up an odd-length of khaki fabric, ending at his knees. He wore strange looking shoes that, though they looked slightly similar to what my brothers and I had as children, were far from the hard leather and curved toes of our youthful style.
I blinked and swallowed the harsh realization, tears hot on my lids.
I hated this.
This wasn’t fair.
He was Taloo.
I knew it; he didn’t.
I didn't care what he said to the contrary. My Taloo was in there—in Drew—somewhere.
I swallowed and shifted my weight on my heels. I had to keep calm. Play it cool. If I wanted Taloo back, I would have to ensure I didn’t scare him half to death first. Arguing with him over his name—over his identity—was a surefire way to do just that.
I wouldn’t make that mistake twice.
“I guess that is what you call yourself now,” I uttered softly. “But you’ll always be Taloo to me.”
Taloo, or Drew as he preferred, stepped back from the mantel, revealing the whole of his person. He was still the strikingly tall man I had watched him grow to be. He still had that quirky stance that displayed his ever-half-cocked attitude. He was tired, sure, but I was more certain now than before that this man was my Taloo. It was unmistakable.
I felt myself grin shamelessly.
“This is some… after effect,” he muttered, eyeing me again. “It has to be. I’m talking to a woman… in clothes from God knows what century… who is insisting my name is a name that isn’t mine… in my fireplace. And I know for damn certain that my house isn’t haunted… so what the actual fu—damn Alex and his brewski nights! This is ridiculous.”
“Who’s Alex?” I asked, intrigued.
I hadn’t thought of Taloo making new friends before, though it only made sense. There was nothing illogical about it. Humans needed companionship. They needed connections. Taloo would have needed such things, too, no matter where he was.
“Is he the one with the loud mouth and fat chin?”
Taloo laughed heartily, his voice ringing off the walls of the room and filling the vacant space with a joyous remnant, just like I remembered. He shrugged, digging his hands into his pockets. “That’s Damian. Alex is the one with blond hair.”
“Oh,” I said, unable to stop my instantaneous shudder. “Him.”
He crouched and stared at me then, expecting more of an answer. But, time was almost up and I wasn’t sure if I should give it to him. Yet. He didn’t even remember my name—remember me, at least not fully. I had to consider what damage could be caused if I explained things too soon.
“You know Alex, too?” Taloo asked suddenly.
“I can see what’s right in front of me, Taloo.”
His pointer finger picked at his lips. “But you dislike him… a lot.”
“He pretends I don’t exist. Why would I like him?”
“Wait… you’re telling me that he sees you, too? He’s talked to you?”
“I’m not imaginary or… a spirit, if that’s what you’re thinking. Of course, he can see me. Anyone can. They only have to want to.”
“You’re… in a fireplace. We usually expect to see, well, fire in these things. If we were at one of our ghost hunting locations, I’d be completely behind this… it…. you? But… okay, answer me this: how are you not burning? Isn’t it hot? You should really—”
I blinked, stunned by his interrogation tactics.
So easy to discredit.
So quick to judge.
He may have been Taloo, but he certainly didn’t trust my word as much as he used to. Maybe that was a cost of war. Maybe that was a cost of time or distance. Maybe I didn’t care why that was because he was staring at me like a freak in a circus or a lion in a zoo and it ripped me apart, inside out.
“It’s not like I chose to be here, Taloo!” I snapped, his charming features wearing thin.
I bit the back of my hand to fight the sudden, painful urge to curl up in a ball and bawl my eyes out. I knew better than reach out so far and quickly and yet I always let myself forget on the hopeful whim that this time—the next time—would be different.
That it would go my way and be written off like some romance novel you get at the Five and Dime.
That I could forget what happened.
What kept happening.
But I couldn’t. No matter what I did; no matter how hard I prayed, or begged, or pleaded with whatever God or magic entity was out there and no matter how hard or long I tried to will it so, he was never going to be my Taloo.
He couldn’t be.
This Taloo was some time ahead or alongside of mine. Some completely different world away, just like all the other Taloos I’d been able to find. And, knowing my fortune, this Taloo would turn out just like all the others—an utter disappointment.
A lost cause that cemented my eternity of pining for a life—my life—that just would not be.
I hated whatever it was inside of me that still dared to hope.
“Taloo,” I began softly, “do you remember me at all?” I latched onto his fierce green eyes and waited for an answer, willing it to come swiftly.
He stared back, with the same look Taloo always had when stunned silent, and did nothing.
“Taloo…” I muttered, feeling the tears squeezing their way out.
“Yo, Drew!” a voice, which I was certain was Alex by the slight hard-to-place accent, came from somewhere behind Taloo. “What the Hell, man? We can’t be late to this research site, ya know? They were very serious about locking the gates to protect the innocents and some other super weird mambo-jambo. So… put the drink down before we get in too deep with our feelings and forget to go. You know damn well you shouldn’t be drinking now anyhow.”
“Yeah, hang on!” Taloo shouted over his shoulder.
“Is it Prohibition then?” I asked, grateful for the distraction and chance to collect myself and my struggling tears.
“Prohi—what? No… it’s… uh, what’s your name?”
I stood, refusing to look into his eyes and see the cluelessness yet again. “It doesn’t matter,” I said, leaving the fireplace and the aged furniture behind. “It just doesn’t matter.”
I eyed the radio dial in the car and fiddled with it to find a station. The plane ride had been short and full of cramming more research into my brain, but it didn’t erase her. The way she had looked at me—with utter betrayal. She was just a figment, a ghost in a fireplace, but I felt sorry for it—for her.
I wanted to apologize though I couldn’t reason out why. Not that I could reason out why a ghost was in my house or how it was able to manifest itself and its surroundings so clearly without much energy to pull from in the surrounding area.
The lights hadn’t been on.
My TV and computer were nowhere near that room.
I had used the front room only to drink, clinging to some ideal my mother had instilled in me that, when you buy a home, it must have a formal reception area for guests. An “off-limits” room, she called it, whose sole purpose was to provide civil entertainment. In my house, its sole purpose was to hold my bar and an uncomfortable couch.
“Did you get the sense from our last investigation that something…maybe…followed us home?” I asked, trying to sound completely cool.
“Like something dark?” Alex asked between shoving wads of cheese-covered fries into his mouth. He took a long slurp from his lemonade, making that mind-grating noise he knows damn well I can’t freaking stand, and stared at me expectantly.
“No,” I snapped. “I don’t think it’s dark.”
“Describe it!” Damian said, leaning against my seat from the back row as he dropped his voice ever so slightly. Not that his volume mattered. We were inside the van en route to our shoot location and the driver had headphones in since he couldn’t stand listening to me dial through static-filled station after station. I would lay bets he had a soft spot for Broadway musicals from the way the music swirled out of his earbuds at times, but I had never bothered to ask.
“Hang on!” Damian chirped. “Let me get my notepad.”
“Screw your notepad, Dam. He’s just hungover,” Alex said, mouth full.
“I’m not hungover,” I said, completely unconvincingly. I shook my head and sighed. I could only hope that I actually was hungover and that the girl, the woman, was nothing but a one-too-many-shots prank on myself.
But her eyes.
I couldn’t get past her eyes… the tealish blue I could only accredit to the Gulf of Mexico right after a storm. They were so real. So full of life.
It wasn’t that we’d never considered that chance of some of our “work” following us home. That was a risk we took quite often and liberally. We were ghost hunters—pissing off demons and dark energies wasn’t exactly unheard of and it was hardly unexpected. We wouldn’t have been doing our jobs right at all if we didn’t eventually bring some tagalong home with us. Usually, they were pranksters or demonic energies easily exorcised by our friendly neighborhood priest who had a slight obsession with the occult.
But, I’d never heard of a dark energy wearing such a vivid blue dress and rich pink lipstick. Or doing her fiery red hair so perfectly in fat curls.
“What sense did you get from it?” Damian asked, pencil tapping the notepad expectantly.
“She was annoyed… very annoyed that I didn’t believe her.”
“She?” Alex scoffed. “No way it’s a she, man. That abandoned asylum was reserved for men only, remember? Total sausage fest.”
I watched him turn and look out the window, tuning out the world as he usually did when he was done offering his opinion, except this time he snapped back to the conversation another wad of cheese smothered fries later. “Wait… there were nurses there. How old was this spirit?”
Both Damian and Alex eyed me. I should’ve gone with a less specific number, but I was never really good at bullshitting anything. That was always Alex’s strength.
“That’s pretty exact… did it… it talked to you, didn’t it?” Alex asked.
“She did. Yes.”
“Holy shit man, that’s… that’s amazing! Was she sad to be dead? Is your house bugged? We could really use this for uploading to the site. If we don’t get a gig out of something like that—I don’t know what will!”
“Calm down, Damian. I unfortunately still believe in privacy and what not—no cameras there. No meters. No readers—nothing.”
“Well, that’s stupid,” Damian retorted. “Just because something hasn’t followed you home and tried to hurt you, you don’t lay preventative steps at all? You do remember what happened to me last summer, right?”
I shook my head, having no other explanation. Damian had a point, but it was nothing I cared to hear. I was never home much for a need to track anything there; I always had some bed to share or couch to crash on. If I got down to it, why I’d bought the house at all eluded me and, Damian knew that, whether he cared to admit it or not.
“So, I can confirm from our research on the asylum that no woman under the age of twenty-six ever worked there,” Alex said, slurping his lemonade cup dry. “Sorry, Drew… not your girl.”
I leaned back into the bucket seat and sighed. It figured. The asylum’s heyday was in the wrong time period anyway and nothing—absolutely nothing—was simple when it came to ghost tracking. The logistics of hunting otherworld entities had became routine enough for me after spending years trying to build up enough of a following for our team’s ghost hunting to garner a TV show or at least media attention for our findings—albeit rather insignificant until the fireplace girl. But, every now and then, when I just knew we were onto something—something big—there was always a flutter, a hiccup that lodged in your chest and throat and spread, searing your heart and mind. A flutter that screamed something was beyond explanation—supernatural.
We’d never caught it on tape yet, but we would.
Privacy be damned, sooner now than ever before we would have it.
I just have to remember he isn’t actually my Taloo—my Thomas. I mean, he is on the inside, but on the outside he’s some new person in some new decade while I’m stuck here. It would be fine if I didn’t have to live this week over, and over, and over.
I get it.
I forgot something… something important.
The rain hit the windowpanes hard, like it always did on Tuesday, and I knew that right now Father would be in his office, door closed, hand over a nice glass of scotch as he stared at paper after paper.
Mother was in the kitchen with my sisters.
Nanette was cleaning upstairs.
And I was hiding in the library.
There was something comforting about the books in the library that I hadn’t appreciated before my confinement, as I like to think of it, began. At least I could count on the books to take me away from this mess—they take me worlds away. They set me free.
I snatched Steinbeck’s The Moon Is Down and slid into my worn spot beside the big oak fireplace. Resting my head on the tiles, I let the flames lick my face as the words sprung from the page. Words about cold weather and darkness. Things I hadn’t felt or seen in years. Decades.
When the floor creaked, I knew it wasn’t mine. Considering it had only been one day, I was almost certain it would be the same room and the same dumb half-drunk Taloo as before. Part of me didn’t want to know if I was right. Part of me wanted to just revel in the fact that this Taloo, drunk and ignorant he might have been, was the first to talk to me in… what I am pretty sure was years.
I had missed his voice.
“What the hell?” he said sharply.
I peered up from the pages of beautiful words and couldn’t help but smile. He had come back for the first time in too long. “Hello again, Taloo.”
“Where else would I be?” I sighed and shut the book. Peering through the flames, I could see exactly what his panic was about. It wasn’t the same room as before. It was warmer. It smelled of fresh paint and cleaning spray and there were odd-looking child’s toys strewn about. “Oh… that.”
“You’re really here...”
“And you’re there…. and here.”
“Afraid so,” I muttered.
“Am I crazy?”
“No, Taloo.” I smiled and tucked my straggling bangs back. “You’re not crazy. This is crazy. But you’re not. I promise.”
He sat and leaned against the fireplace, his voice dropping to a whisper. “So, presuming you’re not the average ghost, what is going on? Who are you?”
“Ghost?” I blew a blast of air through my bangs and shook my head. Clinging the book to my chest, I did what I could to convey just how angry I was with him. I even mimicked my mother’s twisted lip scowl. I willed him to feel my anger… to see my disappointment. From the confused look on his face, I was sure only a twisted streak of strife was oozing out. “I’m not a spirit,” I snapped. “I’m June.”
“That’s your name?”
“And I’m Taloo?”
He shook his head and ran a hand through his hair. It was a new habit, at least new from what I could still remember, but it was endearing all the same.
“But my name is Drew,” he said slowly.
I rolled my eyes and scooted closer to the flames. I didn’t mind the added heat this time. I didn’t even think to grumble about why Father insisted on leaving the fireplaces on in the middle of the summer. “Where are you anyhow?” I asked, looking out at the new surroundings.
He shook his head and waved a hand at me. “I’m the one asking the questions right now, June.”
I cocked an eyebrow. “Sir, yes, sir.”
Taloo flashed the glinting smile that usually made me shiver, in a warm, good butterfly way. But right now, the wonderful flutter was smothered by a growing pang of displeasure for his twisted scowl and squinting glare.
“Where are you?” he asked me again, clearly annoyed.
“The library, remember?”
“No. I don’t remember. Where?”
I blinked and shook my head. There was little point in going back and forth on the matter. If he wanted the bigger picture, he could have it. All of it.
“Virginia,” I said.
“Oh, it’s possible.”
“But I’m in California.”
My heart skipped slightly. California. God, I’d have killed to see California. They had never-ending sunshine and Hollywood stars there. “I’ve always wanted to go there…”
“This is crazy,” he muttered beneath his breath.
I watched him glance behind him at the approaching footsteps.
“I set up the upper floor. We good in here?” Alex asked.
He didn’t see me, truth be told, I never thought he would. He wasn’t the sort even if his day job pleaded otherwise.
“Yeah, just fixing some of the tech up here on the fireplace. I’ll be back down in a minute.”
“Dude, what could poss—”
“A minute, all right?”
Alex grunted and disappeared back down the hall. Taloo waited a few beats before turning back to me. When he saw I was still there, waiting, a glimmer of surprise and glee crossed his face.
I hadn’t seen that in Taloo in so long.
“What year is it?” he asked.
“The year… let me guess… your hair, the curls and… that dress...”
His green eyes met mine in a shroud of confusion. I hadn’t gotten this far in years. And, if I wanted to keep him, I knew that I should go slower with him. But, he was insistent as always and I could never say no to him—to Taloo.
“It’s 1944 here,” I said softly.
“So you died in 1944?”
“Taloo!” I hissed. “I am not dead!”
“It’s not uncommon for ghosts to not know they’re dead yet… have you seen any lights… or felt any—”
“I am not a spirit!” I snarled. “Open your eyes to what is right in front of you instead of coming up with ridiculous things to explain what is so obvious!”
“Ghosts are not ridiculous to me,” he said grimly.
“Nor I. I believe in them, Taloo, I do. But you’re not listening to me. I am not a ghost!”
“I’ve spoken to you through two different fireplaces that are portals to your one room. That’s so spirit realm worthy, I can’t logically explain it as anything but. It’s alright to be scared or upset at the idea. In fact, it’s quite normal.”
“You’re not listening, Taloo. I’m not upset at the idea of ghosts. I’m upset that you’re not listening to me—a person speaking to you right in front of you.”
“I am listening. It’s what I do. In fact, there are so many ways to listen and if you’d just humor me and explain what you see and feel about you in the spirit world—”
“Stop saying that word, please.”
Taloo didn’t listen. He kept going on and on about how spirits could remain, linger in the wood of their surroundings. I believed him, to my core I did, but I wasn’t dead. I still had fresh blood on my fingertips from the splinter my earlier outrage had cost me.
“It’s my job, June. It’s what I do… I research paranormal activity—ghosts, spirits, paranormal entities trying to bring light to the—”
I snapped my hand out for him and grabbed his forearm. He was warm, so warm. And it wasn’t the flames that hurt me most, it was the longing feeling that swelled up from my stomach and rushed to my throat. I wanted to hold him again. To feel his embrace.
“I am real!” I blurted before yanking my hand back and blowing on it. The heat from the flames stung, but I didn’t care. I had his attention.
He was staring at me—right at me.
Right through me.
“So… I could come in there?”
“I… I don’t know… I’ve never gotten that far before.”
“Before? You mean this happens a lot? Popping up in random fireplaces?”
“Yes and no. They’re not random.”
“Then how do you—”
“Whatever this is, Taloo, it makes me follow you.”
“Is this a prank? Damian put you up to this, right?”
“Forget it,” I sighed and stood, my favorite book falling helplessly from my lap. I kicked it to safety, away from the flames, but left it there on the floor. I didn’t have the heart to bend down and pick it up—to look at him anymore.
“Wait—don’t go,” I heard him say.
As if I could actually go anywhere.
“I have to leave the library now,” I lied to the empty room. “Don’t worry though, I’ll be back. I always am.”
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