Off the Path
by Nicole Kornher-Stace


Melissa comes home with fingers broken, hair gummy with clay dirt, crushed worms, mulch. Bramble-slashed, root-tripped, both knees skinned, ankles turned—nights afterward, muscle memory jars her awake: legs pumping, lungs heaving, hands crabbed to claws, head turned to glance behind.

*     *     *

They had said: touch nothing here. The apples, redder than your shoes—the berries dark as drowning—eat of them and they will eat of you, as sure as teeth, as hungry for your heart as flame for tinder, and you'll waste for want of them, your heart as hungry for them as tinder for a flame.

So she'd been warned. She didn't heed. Despite or because of that, they'd let her go. Turned her out for the game of it, like coursing. She would run herself to ground.

*     *     *

Five days home, her mother starts to chide. You have to eat, she says. Again she says, It's been two weeks. Where have you been?

Hands clumsy with the bandaging, Melissa tries. Toast and eggs, soup and sandwiches, ice cream. It chokes her like a collop of wet sponge. Retching, she dashes down the hall.

Her mother calls out after her, Is this about some boy?

*     *     *

Her mother drives her to the hospital. She's clucked at, administered a pregnancy test, hooked up to a saline drip, sent home. While she takes a bath, her mother's in the kitchen, baking mocha brownies with a soft fierce concentration: Melissa's favorite, before. She thinks to write Welcome Home on top with icing, then thinks better.

There's nothing wrong with her, the nurse had said. These things do tend to pass. Don't draw attention to it. Just—keep an eye on her. Still not keeping food down in a week? Bring her back in.

Stepping out into her robe, Melissa's startled at the sharp wings of her ribs and hipbones, the sudden rosary the light tells on her spine. The brownies cloy like carrion, crumble in her throat like char.

*     *     *

The therapist's office looks like her grandmother's living room. The chairs are pretty much the same, as is the gradient of light. Respectively: plush corduroy, repressive.

You aren't eating? says the therapist.

Can't, says Melissa.

Would you like to talk about it?

Melissa's mouth opens and the memories come: lights flickering through trees; the smell of ozone and wet greenery; a thread of music, slick and itchy, that fishhooked her and reeled her in and through —

Better you didn't let me leave at all, she thinks, than leave like this.

Melissa's mouth shuts.

The therapist's fingers steeple like a cartoon mastermind's. The lilies on her desk are fake.

*     *     *

Her suitcase won't hold much. Toothbrush, hairbrush, mascara, deodorant, nightgown, change of clothes. She muscles that heap down, then squeezes in a sketchbook, charcoals. Two or three novels. A half-read magazine.

Her mother's leaning in the doorway. This isn't a punishment, she says. It's best for you. If you won't eat—

Melissa whirls round, dizzies. Yells, to keep in focus, keep from blacking out: I. Can't.

The room starts slipping anyway. Her mother snaps: Believe it or not, I was fifteen once—

Melissa comes to on the floor, her mother tipping sips of orange juice down her throat. It draws a cold line down the length of her, then comes up warmer, acid. Melissa shuts her eyes.

*     *     *

Her room isn't like a hospital room, not quite. There's some effort toward being welcoming, upbeat: bright walls, plump blankets, a potted hyacinth. Out the window, May grass verges on a distant treeline. Amid dandelion constellations, the browsing trapezoids of deer. The window's painted shut.

Melissa makes the rounds. The shower heats up fast; the bed is firm. In the closet is a cabinet with snacks. She manages a saltine before she starts to gag. Crossing back to the window, she sets her jaw, glares out toward the trees. Swallows hard and holds her breath. Her splinted fingers clench on nothing. Flip a coin, she thinks. And it stays down.

*     *     *

She keeps to herself at group. The other girls are different. She is the only one among them unafraid of the multivitamins, the protein drinks, the peanut butter crackers. They have tricks, though, for the weekly weighings, which she learns. Where to hide the rolls of quarters. How to hold your breath. It's not enough. She weighs one-oh-seven, one-oh-five, one-oh-four, one-oh-four, one hundred dead. Her belt's run out of holes. Her teeth feel strange. The insides of her cheeks peel off like molting skins. The eyes in her mirror are the eyes of one who wanders outside looking in.

*     *     *

Eventually they find out she's been burying her zinc pills in the hyacinth. Nurses hold her down, come at her with a cup of chocolate milk. It tastes like nails, coins, keys. Dry heaves jackknife her around herself. She's too exhausted to fight, too dehydrated to cry.

Waking, there's a tight pain in her elbow-crook. The IV crouches on her like a feeding spider, languid and self-satisfied. She pulls it out. There's blood. They gauze her up and stick the IV in the other arm. She pretends to sleep. Then she does sleep.

*     *     *

She wakes. A smell has hauled her headlong from some dream. Lush and blowsy, this smell, black and green. Her eyes prickle. Her skin. Her blood stabs her with some memory— blind longing grapples, roots, metastasizes—gone. Something in the air, the light? She pulls up the sheet and sniffs its edge. Not that.

Minding the IV, she sits. Her vision swims and clears. Movement snags her eye. She turns. The rose-print curtain bellies, calms. High wind rushes in the distant trees. Snowflakes—no, chips of white paint—eddy on the floor. She stands.

The window is open. The moon is very bright.




About the Author:

Nicole Kornher-Stace ( was born in Philadelphia in 1983, moved from the East Coast to the West Coast and back again by the time she was five, and currently lives in New Paltz, New York, with one husband, two ferrets, the cutest baby in the universe, and many many books. Her short fiction and poetry have appeared or are forthcoming in several magazines and anthologies, including Best American Fantasy, Fantasy Magazine, Ideomancer, GUD, Goblin Fruit, Lone Star Stories, Farrago's Wainscot, Jabberwocky, and Idylls in the Shadows, and have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Her first novel, Desideria, was released in December 2008 (




Story © 2009 Nicole Kornher-Stace. Painting by Johann Wilhelm Preyer, 1832.