The Stars at the Edge of His Mind

As the storm door shut behind him, Theo sniffed the warm, dry air. A faint odor lin­gered in the hall­way, iden­ti­fi­able even among the scents of cleanser, per­fume, and the met­al of the old radi­a­tors that heat­ed their drafty house. He brushed snowflakes from his beard and coughed on the itch in his throat; this was mildew and rot­ting leather. The smell inten­si­fied in the kitchen, where a book with a worn brown cov­er rest­ed on the table. He reached for it, halt­ing at the men­tal image of grimy fin­gers touch­ing the pages. The front door creaked, and Joan­na appeared, her cheeks red and hair windblown.

“Hey,” he said. “What’s the book?”

“Remem­ber that cou­ple whose house just sold? They sent me this as a thank you.” She grinned. “It was writ­ten by a local author in the 1920s.”

He nod­ded and forced a smile. Joan­na had been fas­ci­nat­ed by his­to­ry for as long as he had known her, and their Mid­west­ern col­lege town was a well­spring of antiques and curiosi­ties. Even her dri­ve to work in real estate was spurred on by the near­by dis­tricts of homes built in the ear­ly 1900s. “A piece of his­to­ry. That was kind of them,” he said.

Joan­na brought the book up to bed that evening. Her eyes flicked from line to line with an inten­si­ty that he found endear­ing, though he had to quash the irra­tional pang of dis­gust when she failed to wash her hands after touch­ing it. Theo lay there after the lights were off and they had kissed good­night remind­ing him­self that most peo­ple liked how old books smelled. But this one gave off a sick­ly sweet­ness like rot­ten fruit. He crept into the bath­room, and he washed his face and hands with hot, steam­ing water until they stung.

#

The next week, a pair of pack­ages arrived on the porch. The box­es were heavy, and even through the stur­dy card­board, he caught the odor of books. He brought them inside, leav­ing them on the shelf near the front door. Then he show­ered in near-scald­ing water.

Theo hur­ried to his office in the back of the uni­ver­si­ty com­mu­ni­ty cen­ter and kept him­self busy enough that he didn’t need to think. By the time he returned home from work, Joanna’s coat hung on the wall, and the pack­ages had dis­ap­peared. He descend­ed the stairs to the base­ment, not­ing the light under her study door. He knocked, and when no answer came, he entered. The smell of decay­ing paper washed over him, and he cleared his throat.

Her study was a cozy room with plush car­pet and warm light­ing. Book­shelves lined the walls, half of them filled with books, the oth­ers lit­tered with trin­kets and knick­knacks. His eyes flicked to the two shelves of clear, green­ish-yel­low plates, cups, and bowls—uranium glass. The stuff freaked him out, even if he under­stood it wasn’t dangerous.

Joan­na sat at the desk on the oppo­site side of the room, rest­ing her head on her arms. The books that had arrived ear­li­er lay near­by. All three were sim­i­lar, with cov­ers made of dark brown leather embossed with images. Near­by were piles of papers: pho­tos of oth­er sim­i­lar books and pages scrib­bled with notes. Theo bent down next to her, and her eye­lash­es fluttered.

“I’m back from work,” he said.

She blinked as she turned toward him. Shad­ows shift­ed across her face, obscur­ing her fea­tures, and trig­ger­ing the fleet­ing thought that she was not Joan­na, but a stranger sit­ting at her desk. Then she groaned and stretched, he knew her again. “Oh, hi,” she said, her voice low with sleep.

Theo rest­ed his hand on her shoul­der. “Want to come upstairs?”

#

Each evening, the scent of rot­ten paper inten­si­fied, cling­ing to him through­out the day. When his cowork­er returned from lunch and com­ment­ed that the office smelled like a used book­shop, Theo retreat­ed to the bath­room. He sniffed at his clothes, hands, and beard, search­ing for the source.

The next morn­ing, he shaved his beard. An unfa­mil­iar man stared back at him in the fog­gy bath­room mir­ror, and he tried to push away the thought that the body he observed there was not his own. His heart pound­ed, the rush of blood pul­sat­ing in his head, erupt­ing in stars that twin­kled at the cor­ners of his eyes. He shook him­self and returned to the bed­room to change. Joan­na rest­ed one hand on his back and smoothed her palm across his cheek.

“You look good. Feels like I haven’t seen your face in a while.”

“Almost didn’t rec­og­nize myself,” he said with a strained laugh.

She pat­ted his arm. “I rec­og­nize you—I like you either way, but you don’t need to hide behind your beard.” He huffed and kissed her.

Joan­na grinned back at him. “I’ve got news. Allen Mox­ley’s house is up for sale.”

“The author of those books?”

“Yeah,” she said. “He was active in the late 1920s. In the 1950s, he dis­ap­peared, though there were no records of his death. After he van­ished, his house was sold. It passed through a bunch of dif­fer­ent own­ers since then.”

“And you want to check it out.”

“Absolute­ly. I already spoke to the list­ing agent, said I planned on see­ing the house this afternoon.”

“Can I come with?”

Her eyes lit up. “Would you? I’d like that.”

“Sure.”

Admit­ted­ly, he wasn’t as delight­ed by the prospect as Joan­na was. But the books both­ered him as much as they fas­ci­nat­ed her, and he felt a sim­i­lar dri­ve to under­stand some piece of their author’s life. They climbed into her old maroon sedan, trav­el­ing down the brick streets of the his­toric dis­trict and into an unfa­mil­iar neigh­bor­hood. The street where she parked was qui­et and lined with giant trees, their branch­es build­ing a canopy over­head. A small “for sale” sign sat in the yard, sur­round­ed by patchy grass. Dent­ed white sid­ing cov­ered the house.

“Was this place aban­doned?” Theo asked as they climbed the porch steps. 

“Sort of. The last own­ers were house flip­pers, but they didn’t do any­thing with it. The house sat here for years before they put it back on the mar­ket,” Joan­na said.

She with­drew a key from the lock­box. A musty odor hit him as she opened the door, and he clapped his hand over his nose. Joan­na was unaf­fect­ed, and she strode through the house, her knee-high boots tap­ping against the floor. The house was emp­ty, with the main hall­way open­ing into a small din­ing room and a larg­er liv­ing room. A dat­ed gas stove and an ancient, tan refrig­er­a­tor occu­pied the kitchen.

The wood creaked under his feet as he fol­lowed her upstairs. Joan­na walked quick­ly, her eyes flick­ing back and forth like she was search­ing for some­thing, but the rooms were bare. They returned to the main floor, and Joan­na opened the door to the base­ment. The tem­per­a­ture dropped and the air grew stale as they descend­ed. A sin­gle light­bulb cast a dim glow over the base­ment, bare­ly illu­mi­nat­ing a floor cov­ered in dirt and debris. Theo shined his flash­light over cob­web-cov­ered pipes and a rusty water heater. Some­thing brushed the back of his neck, and he slapped his hand there. He found noth­ing, yet his mus­cles twitched like some­thing was squirm­ing under his skin. The sen­sa­tion sent bile ris­ing in his throat.

“I’m going back upstairs,” he said, but Joan­na didn’t respond.

Swal­low­ing his fear, he walked near­er to her, his feet slid­ing on the damp floor. As he reached her, the sen­sa­tions at the base of his skull inten­si­fied into a pres­sure, like some­thing claw­ing its way in. He scrubbed his hand over his neck, still search­ing for the source when his foot caught on a thick cord, and he pitched for­ward with a yelp.

Joan­na turned, catch­ing him around his waist. “You alright?”

“Yeah, thanks.” He glanced at the floor, where he had tripped. “Is that a tree root grow­ing into the basement?”

“That doesn’t bode well for the foun­da­tion,” Joan­na said. “I want to see the yard before we go.”

The back­yard was emp­ty save for a mas­sive wil­low tree. At the edge of the lawn, oth­er large trees led into a dark wood­ed area that stretched far behind the house. The willow’s roots stuck up from the patchy dirt, extend­ing down near the foun­da­tion. Joan­na stared up at it, mes­mer­ized, her eyes mov­ing from the cas­cad­ing branch­es all the way back to the roots. As he watched her, he swore he caught the odor of rot­ting paper in the air. It must have been the stag­nant smell of the house cling­ing to his cloth­ing. He blinked hard and saw the after­im­age of the tree against the over­cast sky, soon fad­ing into tiny spots that swirled in the dark­ness of his closed eyes. He opened them again.

“You ready?” Theo asked.

“Sure.”

#

The next morn­ing, Joan­na lay next to him, the warmth from her body spread­ing out across his back like a hug. He stirred, and she kissed his neck, sling­ing her hand over his shoul­der. Her fin­ger­nails were cracked, and two of them were red and bruised. He stared at them. 

“Joan­na?”

“Mm, what is it?”

“What hap­pened to your hand?” He rolled over to face her, touch­ing her hand. “Your fingers.”

She blinked, hold­ing them up to the light.

“I don’t remem­ber see­ing them like this yes­ter­day,” Theo said.

“You don’t need to wor­ry,” she said. “Though I have to go—I have a show­ing soon.” She climbed out of bed, hur­ry­ing into the bathroom.

Theo fol­lowed her. “Are you sure you’re alright?”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” she said. She threw her paja­mas into the ham­per and stepped into the show­er. Theo hov­ered in the bath­room before sit­ting down on the bed. A weight set­tled in his chest, and he didn’t notice Joan­na as she emerged.

“I’ll see you lat­er,” she said and kissed him goodbye.

Down­stairs, the front door opened and then closed again. Theo stood, slow­ly walk­ing to the ham­per of laun­dry. Under­neath the clothes she had worn to bed and a pair of his shorts, he found jeans and a shirt. Dirt streaked the knees of the jeans and front of the shirt. The side­walks were still slick; she might have slipped and for­got about it. But her hands weren’t like that yes­ter­day. A ten­sion set­tled in his fore­head, and he pulled on his sweatpants.

He head­ed down­stairs to Joanna’s study. The books sat on the table, musty as ever and now anno­tat­ed with sticky notes. Near­by was a wood­en box. It was encrust­ed with dirt as though it had been buried. The box was emp­ty, but next to it was a stack of papers, yel­lowed and torn and creased down the mid­dle. Odors of dirt, sick­ly sweet­ness, and ozone reached him as he lift­ed the papers to read them. The writ­ing was leg­i­ble but dif­fi­cult to com­pre­hend. He flipped to the last page and was unsur­prised to see the sig­na­ture of the author, Allen Moxley.

Theo gri­maced. “Did Joan­na go back to that house and dig this out of the yard?”

He set the papers down and flipped through the first book Joan­na had acquired. He found sto­ries about ani­mals and nature; there was lit­tle omi­nous about them at face val­ue. The last sto­ry in the book described find­ing buried trea­sure under a wil­low tree. It was illus­trat­ed, and the draw­ing unmis­tak­ably showed the author’s home and tree behind his house. He flipped back to the papers, skim­ming the author’s notes on the sym­bol­ism of the sto­ries. “Med­i­ta­tions on nature as a por­tal,” the author called them. The back of Theo’s neck itched.

The next book showed rivers on the cov­er, and he opened it to a page Joan­na had marked. It described a man find­ing a foun­tain that opened to anoth­er world. “As he gazed into the foun­tain, he saw the sky, the far-off neb­u­lae of dis­tant worlds. The neb­u­lae came clos­er until they lay only inch­es beneath the water’s sur­face. The man reached down into the foun­tain and held the stars in his palm,” the pas­sage stated.

Every oth­er page was illus­trat­ed with beau­ti­ful engrav­ings of foun­tains and of the sky. They had more depth and detail than he thought pos­si­ble, and so he turned page after page, the rep­e­ti­tion lulling him into a strange relax­ation. It was hyp­not­ic, and the room dark­ened. Stars twin­kled in the dim light of the study, a wash of blues and greens splash­ing over his face.

The chair beneath him fell away until he was float­ing in that sea of space, watch­ing the light pass around him and through him. Some­thing touched the back of his skull, and his hair stood on end. The pres­sure built, and he forced his hands to reach back. They hit some­thing cold and wispy, like long vines snaking up around him. His neck ached where they had embed­ded them­selves, bur­row­ing into his skin.

Theo clawed at them, try­ing to rip them out, but they moved through his fin­gers as soon as he grasped them. He bent for­ward, curl­ing into a ball in the void where he floated.

He woke, gasp­ing for breath and tast­ing met­al. He snapped the book shut. Theo arranged the books as Joan­na had left them and returned the papers to their pile. The study door creaked open.

“Theo?”

He wasn’t pre­pared. He didn’t know how long he’d been out, and half his mind was still mushy, mired in the sleep he’d fall­en into.

She stepped toward him. “Did you read the books? What did you think?” Her eyes glit­tered and excite­ment tinged her voice.

“Joan­na, what is this? Did you dig this out of that guy’s backyard?”

She held her hands out in front of her, and he noticed her fin­ger­nails were intact again. “Yes, I did. I know it’s strange, but please lis­ten. These books were meant for me. For us.”

“What does that mean?”

“You read the book. You must have felt something.”

Theo crossed his arms. “I don’t know what I felt.”

“Just give it time.”

Shad­ows swirled over her face, with­draw­ing behind her back as she slow­ly reached for him. Joan­na ran her fin­gers through his hair, paus­ing for a moment on his neck. Her hand soothed away the strange, phan­tom sen­sa­tions he felt there, and he leaned into the touch.

“It’ll be alright,” she said.

#

As the days passed, Theo’s neck crawled each morn­ing when he woke. He dragged him­self from the bed, show­er­ing to shake off the sen­sa­tion. He felt fuzzy and dis­ori­ent­ed, and as he glimpsed him­self in the mir­ror while brush­ing his teeth, he saw an alien fig­ure. His hair was wrong; his eyes were wrong. His mus­cles seemed odd and mis­shapen. He avert­ed his gaze, pinch­ing the bridge of his nose. Despite every­thing, he had no desire to grow his beard back to cov­er his face again.

Theo curled up on the couch near the fire­place. He stared into the fire, watch­ing it shift and sway. It remind­ed him of the strange neb­u­lae he’d seen when he picked up the book, but he was too tired to move. As his eye­lids drooped, dark, feath­ery shapes emerged from the walls, danc­ing over his arms and cradling his head. The light in the room burned yel­low and orange and his heart thumped.

He woke to a shad­ow pass­ing in front of him, and as he blinked, bleary and dis­ori­ent­ed, Joan­na was there. “What time is it? God, did I sleep through the day?”

She rest­ed her hand on his knee. “It’s alright—you need­ed sleep. I’ll put more wood on the fire.”

He clenched his fists against his thighs as the fire crack­led. “What’s wrong with me? Is this my anx­i­ety or is it the books?”

She sat on the couch near­by. “I think it’s a bit of both. It’s an adjust­ment period.”

“Adjust­ment to what?

She lay down with her back against the arm­rest. “Let me hold you,” she said.

He sighed and did so, rest­ing his head on her chest. Her voice vibrat­ed against his cheek. “You’ve been expe­ri­enc­ing strange sen­sa­tions, haven’t you?”

“Like some­thing claw­ing its way through the back of my neck.”

“Maybe what you’re feel­ing isn’t some­thing else try­ing to get in. What if it’s anoth­er part of your mind try­ing to speak to you?”

Her voice echoed soft­ly as she spoke, and he sat up and stared at her. It was like he’d nev­er seen her before; every part of her face looked dif­fer­ent, sub­tly altered. Theo climbed over the couch, putting it between them.

“Who are you? What are you?”

“It’s me,” she insisted.

“No, it’s not. I know what Joan­na looks like, and you aren’t her. I don’t know if I’m me either. There’s some­thing wrong with those books, and they aren’t doing either of us any good.”

He bound­ed down the stairs to her study, scoop­ing up the books and the yel­lowed paper. The nox­ious smell invad­ed his nose and mouth, but he ran up the stairs and over to the fire­place. Joan­na now stood near the couch, but she made no move toward him.

“Burn­ing the books won’t do any­thing,” she said. “There are more of them out there, and they will always find those who need them.”

“Are you going to stop me?”

“No. I would appre­ci­ate if you didn’t burn them, but I understand.”

Theo scowled and tossed them into the fire. He coughed on the smoke as they burned, watch­ing the papers curl­ing into ashes.

“Do you feel bet­ter?” she asked, no sar­casm or anger in her voice. She walked clos­er to the fire; her whole body moved dif­fer­ent­ly, like the space around her twist­ed and warped to allow her to pass. “Would you let me help you, Theo?”

He crossed his arms. “I don’t want your help. What­ev­er you are, you aren’t Joanna.”

“I am me. Please, let me show you.”

“Show me what? The books are gone,” he said, ges­tur­ing down at the fireplace. 

But the fire­place wasn’t there either. The room melt­ed away, the glow of the fire turn­ing to the dark­ness of dense woods. Theo whirled around as the warmth of their front room van­ished, leav­ing him cold.

“Where are we?”

“The woods behind Allen Moxley’s house,” Joan­na said. She stretched her shoul­ders back and forth, the bones crack­ing as she raised her­self to her full height. An old foun­tain stood near­by, half cov­ered in dried vines and leaves and lit­tered with cans and bro­ken glass.

“Is that the foun­tain from his sto­ry?” Theo asked.

She nod­ded. “I was hap­py when you want­ed to come with me to his house. That was where every­thing made sense to me,” she said, voice rever­ber­at­ing in the dark­ness. “I final­ly start­ed to remem­ber who I am. Since I’ve known you, you’ve nev­er shown your whole self. I want you to see how beau­ti­ful you could be.”

The woods dark­ened and a mass of shad­ows emerged from her back, writhing around her and above her head. Some were small and feath­ery, while oth­ers cas­cad­ed down like the leaves of the wil­low tree. Theo backed away, his foot hit­ting the con­crete of the fountain.

“Isn’t it won­der­ful?” she asked.

The air above her rip­pled, and stars blazed in the undu­lat­ing mass above her. Tiny points of light flood­ed his vision, and he blinked, try­ing to clear them away. The pres­sure at the back of his neck grew, and he knew it wasn’t com­ing from Joan­na. Yet it was react­ing to her, grow­ing stronger. He sank to the ground. As he squeezed his eyes shut, he still saw the stars and shad­ows mov­ing around him.

“God, every­thing is com­ing in, Joan­na. I don’t want to see it.”

Joan­na walked toward him, the feath­ery black mass extend­ing out behind her. “It’s alright, Theo.”

He clam­bered to his feet, scram­bling away from her, toward the foun­tain, where he grabbed a glass shard and bran­dished it. But she mere­ly tilt­ed her head and looked at him with con­cern in her dark, star-filled eyes.

“Please, I do not want you to hurt your­self,” she said.

“Get away from me.”

“I’m sor­ry this was so much at once, but I can­not leave you in this state.” A ten­dril shot out from behind her back, grab­bing his arm and attempt­ing to wrench the cold glass from his hand. He fell toward her. She caught him in a firm grip, and his heart pound­ed. As Theo flailed to escape, she held his arms down and slow­ly pried the glass from his hand. His fist clenched around it, and it broke into her palm. Joan­na winced and threw the frag­ments to the ground behind her.

Then she gripped his wrist and held it up to the light. “Your hand,” she said. “You’re bleeding.”

A trick­le of blood ran down her arm, damp­en­ing her sleeve, and he real­ized it was com­ing from her own hand. The sight of it pulled him out of his haze of pan­ic. “So are you. And it’s my fault.”

She raised her oppo­site hand to his heart and held it there. “It’s okay—breathe.”

Theo’s heart­beat slowed, and he let out a shud­der­ing breath. When he squirmed, she let go, and he stared into her eyes as she stood still. She ges­tured to the flat stone of the fountain.

“Would you sit with me?”

He sat beside her, and she held out her palm, where the glass had ripped through skin. Dark ten­drils spilled from the wound, knit­ting the flesh togeth­er and pulling the blood back into her veins. The last small thread van­ished inside her skin as it closed.

Theo reached out his unin­jured hand and touched his fin­gers to her palm. “Does it hurt?”

“No, not any­more.” She smiled at him, and her eyes crin­kled with mirth. “I am Joan­na. I sim­ply awak­ened to the parts of myself that I lost. And I believe you can do the same if you so choose.”

As she watched him, he real­ized that he want­ed to know this Joan­na, this ver­sion of her that was so dif­fer­ent and yet so sim­i­lar to the Joan­na he knew. He want­ed to see her smile like that, with the stars and swirling neb­u­lae in her eyes. “Can you for­give me, Joan­na? I’m sorry.”

“Of course.”

Theo wrapped his arms around her and sighed. She smiled and held up his hand. He felt a flut­ter­ing from the back of his neck as shad­ows emerged, drap­ing light­ly down his shoul­ders, com­fort­ing him, and hold­ing him close as Joan­na did. They watched togeth­er as the bro­ken skin on his palm slow­ly began to heal.

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Cather­ine Yeates (they/them) is a writer and artist. Their fic­tion has been pub­lished in Wyn­graf, Tree And Stone, and Twin Bird Review. They live with their part­ner, cat, and two ram­bunc­tious dogs. Find them at cjyeates.com or on Insta­gram at cj.yeates.

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