Chapter 1—On the Elflands Express
I knew I was in the Nevernever when I saw a wild elf through the train window. Maybe I said something. Maybe I just stared like a tourist. The armless kid in the seat across from me said, “First trip to Bordertown?”
“Did you see—” I began. Then I caught her tone of voice. “Yeah. Big deal.”
I tugged up the collar of the too-big jeans jacket that I wore and scrunched down in my seat. We passed oaks and elms and sequoias, huge things that would’ve been made into tables or newsprint in the World. Two ravens flew overhead. I saw natural roses in bloom, the color of lips. Through gaps in the trees I could see the red waters of the Mad River. I didn’t see any more slim half-naked people with long white hair and pointed ears.
“It is,” the armless kid said. When I glanced at her, she added, “A big deal. If you believe in omens, it’s probably a good one. The nature types rarely show themselves near the train.”
“Yeah. They don’t like iron.” I didn’t care if the folklore was true. I wanted her to be quiet so I could watch the woods for signs of magic.
She shook her head. “They don’t like technology.” Her hair, a fire-orange mass cut like a monk’s, clashed with her purple cotton poncho.
I laughed. The Elflands Express is a two-car imitation of a nineteenth-century train, only fit for carnivals, tourist traps, and travel between the World and Bordertown. “Ooh.” I mocked the kid and the wild elves at the same time. “They’re afraid of steam.”
“Elves aren’t afraid of technology. Wild ones just don’t like the fancier forms of it.” She lifted a beaded moccasin to point at my wristwatch, an oddly natural gesture. “Maybe ‘cause there’s something whimsical about the kinds that work here.”
I’d borrowed Dad’s watch to pawn or sell if I needed money. It told the time to the sixtieth of a second, had radio and computer functions, and was guaranteed to work underwater or in a vacuum. It must not’ve been guaranteed to work in the Borderlands. Its face was blank.
“Great.” I shook it. The watch blinked to life, promising that it was a little after midnight and about to rain. The afternoon sun and a cloudless sky disagreed.
“It’s the nature of the Borderlands,” the kid said. “Magic and science wash up against each other here. Makes ‘em both fickle.”
I stared at her and back at the watch. It squawked, “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” then blanked its face again.
“I s’pose you knew that.”
I nodded. I hadn’t thought about it affecting little everyday things like electronic clocks. Bordertown probably wasn’t a first-choice vacation spot for people with pacemakers.
“And you wear the watch ‘cause you like the strap.”
“Yeah.” Two snaps held Dad’s watch on a studded black band. I unsnapped the watch and held it out. “You think it’s funny, it’s yours.”
I nodded and flipped the watch out the window. It made a nice arc, glinting in the sunlight against a backdrop of blue sky and green leaves, and called, “Say good night, Gracie.”
The kid pointed her nose in the direction it had gone. “Could’ve sold that.”
“Big market for screwy watches in Bordertown?”
She laughed. “Could’ve sold it to someone going back to the World. It’d work fine there.”
“Thanks for telling me now.”
“Hey, you made the grand gesture, not me.”
“Check.” I looked out the window again. The train tracks still followed the Big Bloody. A blue-and-yellow paddle wheeler churned upriver. Someone sat on its deck, dangling bare feet over the wine-dark waters and lazily strumming a guitar. The only music I could hear was made by the train engine. I smelled wood smoke from the locomotive, dirt and decaying leaves from the forest, and something sweet and decadent from the Mad River itself. Far ahead, a few tall white buildings waited where the slow red river met the sky. I squinted, looking for the Border.
The kid followed my gaze. “Most folks can’t see it. Can’t pass it and can’t see it. Not that seeing it does you any good, if you’re human. You still can’t go past it. But those who see it say it’s beautiful.”
“That wall?” I said. “Going up into the air, all shiny and twinkling like stars?”
“It’s gorgeous. Words fail me.”
“I’m sure.” She looked away, down the aisle.
The car was half-full, with business-types in three-piece never-wrinkles off to dicker with Bordertown’s merchant princes, and noisy rich kids in this week’s styles off for a weekend of slumming in Soho, and even a middle-class family in new sports clothes off a-holidaying to the edge of Faerie. Among them were a few solos like me in scruffy traveling gear, off to the place where magic sometimes works.
I’d taken the seat across from the armless kid ‘cause she’d looked simpatico. Shows how much first impressions mean. I said, “You think I can’t see it?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Yeah, you did. You just didn’t use those words.”
Across the aisle a tourist looked at me, then made sure her two little darlings were safe beside her.
The armless kid said, “What’s it matter?”
“Yeah.” I slumped back into my seat. “What’s it matter?” I hadn’t seen a thing beyond the towers of Bordertown except a rippling green sea where the Old Forest rolled over distant hills.
As we rode on, I watched the woods and the river and the sky. If there were gryphons in the treetops or unicorns behind the bushes, they disguised themselves as squirrels and bluejays. Once I thought I saw a stag, but that must’ve been two dead branches behind a clump of brush.
The kid said, “You running from or running to?”
I looked at her before I could stop myself.
“You get a second chance in Bordertown. You should think about what that means, and what you want.”
“Who says I’m running?”
She grinned, glanced at my pack, glanced back at me. With a little shock I realized she must be much older than me, twenty-five or thirty or more. “’You’re coming solo to Soho,’” she said, quoting a song that’d played throughout the World a couple of years back, one of my brother’s favorites. “You don’t exactly look like an exchange student.”
I wore a gray T-shirt, old fatigue pants, and sneakers that were frayed and paint-spattered from months of odd jobs. The black jeans jacket with the phoenix on the back had been in Tony’s closet forever. I borrowed it from Mom’s shrine to him the same night I borrowed Dad’s watch. The green canvas pack beside me was mine. Back when I believed I was being taught to think in school instead of not to, I’d carried textbooks in it.
“What do you care?”
She shrugged. “I was an ass when I was your age, too.” She tapped the toe of her moccasin against my pack, where a flat rectangle strained the canvas. “Books help redeem you. Unless it’s Mein Kampf. Then it depends on why you’re reading it.”
“You’d like it. It’s The Nazi Babysitter’s German Shepherd. It’s the best book I ever read. Course, it’s the only book I ever read.”
Her grin made me say, “Okay, it’s a Yeats collection. He was this human poet who lived in Ireland, way before Faerie returned.”
She nodded. “’She bid me take life easy, as the grass grows on the weirs; But I was young and foolish, and now am full of tears.’” Then she cocked her head and gave me a little smile.
“Yeah! ‘And therefore I have sailed the seas and come To the holy city of Byzantium.’” The book was Tony’s, too, but the folks would never notice it was gone. They’d never noticed what he read. When things got really bad and Tony thought no one was listening, he would whisper, Come away, O human child! To the waters and the wild With a faery….
The armless woman laughed. “Bordertown isn’t Byzantium. And the sailing’s often better than being there. Which might be part of the point of the poem.”
I shrugged. “Who’s got expectations?”
She said it very simply, making it hard for me to take offense, but I said, “What’re you, a teacher or something?”
“More a perpetual student.” She nodded at the bulky canvas satchel on the seat beside her. The strap ran across her chest, molding the poncho to her torso. “I’m a dealer.”
She laughed. “Book dealer. Rare and used. There’s not much vid in the Borderlands, and since I’m in Soho, I hardly have anything in the way of expenses. I get by.”
“There’s a bookstore? In Bordertown?”
She nodded. “Several. There’s everything you want in Bordertown. There just isn’t everything you need.” She grinned. “I’m Mickey. The store’s Elsewhere. Hours are as erratic as you can imagine, but word gets out when we’re open. A few blocks south of Ho on Mock Avenue.”
“I’m Ron. Ron Starbuck.”
She lifted an eyebrow. “One kid showed up in Soho, said her name was Jinian L’Étoile. Everyone called her Jiggle Le Toilet. She cut out for the World after a week. I’m amazed she lasted that long.”
“Check,” I said. “Just Ron.”
“Good to meet you, Just Ron.”
I nodded, thinking maybe I liked her.
“You never answered. About running from or running to.”
And then I thought maybe I didn’t. “Does it matter?”
“Might. Maybe I’m just being sociable.”
“Maybe I’m not too sociable, Mom.”
“A hit.” Mickey rocked back and laughed. “A palpable hit. Well, that’s fine, Just Ron. There’s plenty of room to hide in B-town, if that’s all you want from life.”
I inhaled loudly. “I’m going to Bordertown. I’m planning to stay. Good enough?”
“Anything waiting for you? Friends? A job?”
“It isn’t easy.”
I rolled my eyes and looked for any sign of magic in the woods of the Nevernever. The trees formed a wall that I couldn’t see past.
She said, “Okay, maybe you guessed that. It’s still tougher than you think. You planning to find a squat?”
“Yeah.” I’d read Tony’s copy of Let’s Go: Bordertown. The main thing I remembered were well-thumbed pages about human and elf kids living for free in the abandoned neighborhoods. Tony must’ve read that section over and over while he decided whether to run and where to go.
Mickey said, “The best places have all been taken. What’s left doesn’t have water, gas, or power, either magical or electrical. If a building isn’t occupied, it’s probably on contested territory. Be in the wrong place at the right time and you’re somebody’s fun, regardless of your size, sex, or species. There’re a lot of gangs in Soho, both human and elf, and the Silver Suits don’t come around for anything less than murder.”
“Gee.” I shrugged. “Sounds rough.”
“Not necessarily. There’s a community. Every community has its rules. You learn ‘em, you won’t get hurt.”
I wanted to say I don’t get hurt anymore. Instead, I said, “Screw the community. I’ll get by.”
Mickey raised her eyebrows. “Spare me the teen machismo, huh? You don’t have to—”
“I’ll get by,” I said a little louder. “I didn’t leave—”
Behind me, someone announced Bordertown as the next stop.
“Oh, great.” I slunk a little lower in my seat.
“What’s—” Mickey glanced up as the conductor’s shadow fell over me. “Ah.”
“Don’t think I took your ticket,” a dark woman in an iridescent blue uniform told me. I looked tiny and pimply and geeky in the lenses of her mirrored glasses.
“And I’m the only one who could’ve.”
“It’s been pretty busy. Didn’t you already—”
“Nope. Care to show me a seatcheck?”
“Uh, yeah.” I hunted around as if I’d lost my ticket. God, as usual, granted me no miracles. I said, “Huh. Must’ve fallen out in the john.” Which was where I’d hidden for half of the trip, until I decided to ride where I could see more of the Borderlands than the ground under the cross ties when I flushed the toilet.
“You have the cash to buy another?”
I did, but then I’d have nothing left for Bordertown. Besides, I could hear her laughing at me. “I had a ticket, old woman.”
“Old woman?” The conductor appeared to be Mom or Dad’s age. She looked at Mickey. “He’s studying to be a diplomat?”
Mickey cocked her head to one side. “Could be a good idea.”
“Hey, screw you both,” I said.
“Listen—” the conductor began, losing her smile.
“He’s just a kid,” Mickey said. “Give ‘im a break. We’ll be in town in half an hour.”
“I don’t know.” The conductor frowned. “Policy’s clear. I can’t let—”
“Maybe—” Mickey began.
“You mean, won’t let,” I said. “Don’t hide behind your junior cop suit. You like jerking people around, huh?”
“Not usually.” She grabbed my sleeve to yank me to my feet. “You’re the charming exception.”
Mickey shook her head. “Careful, Just Ron. You get one new start in Bordertown. You rarely get two.”
“Oh, wow. Real helpful.” I grabbed my pack as the conductor tugged me down the aisle. People stared as if we were hired entertainment. I yelled, “Hey, what’s this, a kidnapping? I just lost my ticket! I want to speak to your supervisor! Now, damn it!” At the back of the car I grabbed the doorjamb and jerked free of her. “You can’t treat me like this, old woman!”
“No!” I shouted so all the petty rich passengers could have their smug little lives broadened. I liked it on the open platform with the wind clutching at my clothes while we rattled along at ten or fifteen miles an hour. “You want to give me to the Silver Suits? Fine. Let ‘em send me back to the World. I’ll run again. But don’t yank me around like some stupid kid. I got rights.” In her mirrored lenses I was mean and disdainful and impervious to anything she might do. I looked so good I nearly smiled and ruined the effect.
She reached for my arm. “Rights. Must be comforting.”
“Yeah. What’ll you do?” I sneered. “Throw me off a moving train?”
“Hey, wait a minute.” I glanced both ways. To the west, between us and the Mad River, a line of trees waited to break my fall. None looked particularly soft. To the east, a meadow sloped downward for forty feet or more before climbing uphill.
The conductor yanked my pack from my hand.
“Probably wouldn’t hurt yourself if you jumped and rolled.” She tossed the pack into the meadow. The flap opened, spilling my possessions into the long grass. Tony’s book fluttered as if it wanted to fly, bounced once, and disappeared. “I’d hate to push you.”
I glared at her. I could hit her hard and leap away before she could do anything.
“Ground gets rocky up ahead.”
I can never decide if I’m a nice guy or a coward. “Remind me to do you a favor sometime,” I told her mirrorshades, and I jumped.