We're offering three free stories on this site to give you a taste of Bordertown. (We hope, however, that you'll support the series and its writers by buying the actual books! We can't keep the series going without you, dear readers!) "Exile" was first published in Bordertown (New American Library, 1986). The story appears here with Terri's permission. The pencil sketch is by Iain McCaig.
She never talked about Elfland.
She had lost all but the echo of her accent, dressed pure Bordertown from the fairy dust in her hair to her boots' pointed toes—she should have fit right in with the street rabble down in Soho. But even if one did not immediately guess her origins, there was something noticeably odd about the girl (this in a city where oddity is the norm), a fey sort of wistfulness that had nothing to do with this world or life on the Border.
I first saw Dez on Chrystoble Street, my eyes caught by her halo of hair the color and texture of dandelions that have gone to seed. From that color, and the slanted eyes, the high cheekbones, the death-white skin, you did not need to see the ears hidden by the dandelion fluff to know of a certainty that they were pointed. I was startled to see her there, calmly eating a bagel on the steps of the Lightworks. Trust Dez to never notice that she had stumbled into a human neighborhood, and was holding her picnic on the Pack's front stoop. There were a couple of Pack gang-bangers watching her from the center courtyard, probably too surprised to find an elf on their turf to decide just what to do about it. I considered rescuing the girl, hustling her away before the Pack made their move. But I'm not a guy prone to gallantry, not when I have to risk my ass to do it. I shrugged and went my way.
The second time I saw her she was also in trouble— squeezed between drunken toughs and a brick wall in a rowdy crowd milling around the Dancing Ferret. Dez, as you may have gathered, was often in trouble—that girl could get herself mugged in a room full of grandmothers. She attracted the unsavory element the way the Riverside Market attracts flies. It was terribly unsporting, two big humans against one slender elfin girl; but once again I did not feel compelled to play knight errant. You learn to take care of yourself first down in Soho. If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.
The third time I saw Dez, I was the one in trouble. I'm one of the fastest lock-pickers south of Ho Street, a skill that earned me half a year in the Juvie Jail on Water Street before I made good my promise to my mother and went legit with my current job in the kitchen of the Hard Luck Cafe. But I was seriously contemplating returning to a life of crime when I spotted the sweetest, sleekest motorcycle I'd ever seen, a vintage 1989 Italian racer imported up from the World and modified for the Borderlands, locked only with a flimsy human lock and a chain. The chain was wrapped around a steel post in the alley behind Danceland. Anyone stupid enough or cheap enough to leave the bike alone without a proper spell-lock deserved to have it carted away.
I pulled my Swiss Army knife out of the pocket of my jeans, flipped open the pick and squatted down to examine the lock, muttering an apology to my mother under my breath. Well, after eighteen years of life with me she should know better than to trust one of my promises anyway. The alley was not empty. I was counting on the fact that the evening was still young and the bike's owner was probably getting drunk or trying to score in a dark corner in Danceland, and that no one but the bike's owner was likely to care.
A big, ugly elfin Blood parked beside me as I worked. He favored me with a slow, speculative smile. His own cobbled-together machine looked like a bad joke next to the Italian racer and he was no doubt wondering if once I liberated it from the post he could liberate the racer from me. I'm not tall, as humans go; he was a lot bigger than I was. I casually snapped open the blade of the pocket knife, looking the fellow straight in the eyes to make sure he caught my drift. He did. He locked up his own bike with a murmured spell and sauntered out of the alley. I wondered if he'd be back, with friends.
I snapped down the knife blade and pried up the pick again, bending over the lock quickly in case the ugly dude returned. My skills were rusty, but not gone; I listened closely for the click of the lock's release. There was a loud cracking sound. And then the pavement was in my face.
"What the fuck do you think you're doing?" asked a curiously soft voice, too well-bred to match the words.
A pointed toe prodded at my ribs. I rolled over and groaned and stared up at the evening sky.
"You were going to steal my bike, weren't you?" Dez asked mildly. "I mean, I wouldn't have hit you otherwise." She sounded anxious about that, as if it were important to make that clear. What was I going to do, call the Silver Suits?
I could taste asphalt in my mouth, and the tang of blood. Gingerly I touched my nose. She had flattened it—even before I hit the ground. "My nose is broken," I announced to no one in particular.
"Shit," she said in Elvish (one of the few words I know), pronounced in the distinctive accent of the Realm. She squatted down on the pavement and something soft was pushed against my face. I reached for it and brought it into my line of vision: a glittering scarf of elvish weave from over the Border, covered now with my blood.
The elfin girl rocked back on her heels and regarded me with an expressionless stare. She was a dark shadow against the shadows of the alley, dressed in an old black leather jacket that was too big and new black jeans that were too tight; her halo of dandelion hair was the brightest thing in the waning light. I recognized her as the girl from Chrystoble Street. And wondered what game Fate was up to now.
Her hand grazed my cheek, then slid around to the back of my head. I wondered if it were true about her kind—that they could heal with touch alone if they chose to—but all she was doing was pulling me up-right, gently at first, more roughly when I tried to resist. I wanted to be left alone. I wanted to sleep in the alley forever. Or at least until the blood stopped, and the pain went away.
Dez brought me to my feet and made me stand— clutching her scarf to my nose and watching the ground tilt under my feet—as she kick-started the bike. Then she ordered me to climb on behind her, although I was dripping blood all over the fancy racer's seat. "Where do you live?" she shouted over the roar of the engine. I couldn't think of any reason not to tell her. The bike slipped into gear with a kick that jolted right through me, and then we were weaving through the traffic on Ho, and down the dark streets toward Hell's Gate and home.
Home is a townhouse on the south side of Hell, a block of Georgian brick buildings badly ravaged by time. "Mine" is in the middle of the row. Only the ground floor is habitable, protected from the leaky roof by the two floors above it. The pipes are still intact, connected to the lower city water system, one fireplace still functions and the back bay window still has all its glass—luxurious living by Soho standards. Beggars can't be choosers, but my squat isn't half bad.
Dez parked her bike beside the front stoop, binding it to the railing with her worthless lock and chain. She was going to have to use a spell-lock if she wanted to keep the bike for long—she was a Trueblood, after all, she didn't even have to pay for a spell like I did. I mumbled the spell that unlocked my front door while Dez hung politely back out of hearing distance. When the door swung open, she followed me in.
Perhaps it was nausea, or the loss of blood, or perhaps I was already caught up by that aura of unreality that clings to Dez like the smokey aftertaste of a spell, making the most peculiar circumstances or coincidences seem perfectly ordinary—but it didn't seem odd to me when she followed me through the door.
Or when she started a fire in my fireplace using human matches instead of a simple elfin spell.
Or when she put me to bed in my roll of blankets by the fire, and then nestled in beside me.
She wasn't like anyone else.
She wasn't like the other girls I knew. She didn't flirt. She didn't laugh at my jokes. She seldom even spoke; and sometimes I wondered why she hung around at all.
"She likes you, bro," Buddy said to me above the hiss and crackle of the deep fat fryer in the kitchen behind the Hard Luck Cafe. "Why else she come around all the time, now you tell me?"
I shrugged, and spooned fish-fingers out of the grease. I wasn't sure why she hung around. But it wasn't like Buddy thought it was; though she slept beside me I'd never touched her, at least not that way. I didn't want to. I didn't want to get that close to anybody—didn't want to worry about anyone's life but my own. Everyone else who met Dez seemed to want something from her, whether it was the money in her pockets or the glamor that clung to her as an exile from the Elflands. I didn't want to take anything from her, and I didn't want to take care of her. I just wanted to be a pal, so long as there were no strings attached. But that wasn't a thing Buddy would understand.
"You gotta tell me what they're like, elf girls," Buddy said. "I heard say that they're really hot, and then I heard say that they're stone cold. I ain't never had one. So you gotta tell me, when you find out. Okay, bro?"
"Yeah sure. When I find out."
Liza, the best of our waitresses at the Hard Luck, thrust another handful of orders through the window into the kitchen. Everybody was hungry tonight; at this rate we'd have the grill fired up until dawn. I could hear the dull roar of conversation in the room beyond, and Wild Hunt played on the cafe's sound system. By day, the Hard Luck was a quiet sort of place, but at night, with Danceland hopping across the street, it could get fairly rowdy. Rumor had it that Wild Hunt had put in an unexpected appearance at Danceland just the night before and the lines were unusually long in front of the club, kids hoping it would happen again.
The boss staggered up the cellar stairs with yet another keg of ale; we were going through the stuff like it was water. "Hector, give me a hand with this," he ordered. I took the load from him and backed through the swinging doors into the cafe.
The room was jammed with people, the marble floor sticky with spilled ale. I looked around the cafe picking out gang colors—too many Bloods or Packers and there could be trouble. I caught a glimpse of Dez at a table in the corner. I could always spot her in a crowd; her hair was a beacon that always drew my eye. She was looking particularly pretty tonight, wearing a long pink kimono over elfin tights and cowboy boots. She sat with Billy Buttons, a seedy looking halfie with lank yellow hair and crooked teeth, and he was smiling at her with an expression that I wasn't at all sure I liked.
Liza followed me back into the kitchen. She perched on the counter's edge and lit up an herbal cigarette.
"What chew doin' girl?" the boss complained.
"Break. I'm on break," she said. "Leave me alone."
Scowling, he went into the cafe to cover for her; it was too wild a night to leave little Peach on the floor alone. She'd get eaten alive.
Liza glared at his broad back as he went. "I should have kept the job at the Ferret," she muttered. She pushed a long strand of fuchsia-dyed hair out of her eyes, and sighed. "Full moon tonight. Everyone's gone crazy."
"What's the moon got to do with anything?" I shouted over the noise of the deep fat fryer.
"Oh come on, Hector—the full moon. You know. That's when everyone goes looney. They've done studies on it and everything."
"That's when the werewolves come out," Buddy added with a grin. He threw back his head and howled.
"Yeah, sure," I said sarcastically—glad nonetheless that I knew exactly where Dez was tonight. "The only werewolf this town's got is tame as a pet poodle."
"But you don't see no Wolfboy out tonight, do you?" Buddy pointed out.
"Maybe Wolfboy does it in reverse," Liza speculated. "Maybe the full moon turns him human again."
She opened up the Scandal Sheet lying on the counter—one of those newspapers like my mother reads, filled with stories of U.F.O. visitations and the Bordertown fad diet of the week. Today's headline read: MONSTER SIGHTED!!!
I was drawn to the paper in spite of myself and read the article over Liza's shoulder. It was the same old nonsense. Some drunk spots something at the edge of the city and the entire town gets all worked up that the monsters are going to start strolling in from the Nevernever, when everybody knows they avoid the city like we've got the plague, more afraid of us than we are of them. It's only when you go into the wilderness beyond the city that you stand in any danger of the monsters—the beasties warped by magic leaking under the Border, or created by elfin spells that have gone awry. This was just the same old shit: something spotted lurking at the edges of Tintown—that sad little shanty town south of Soho—and no two reports agreeing on what it was. It was a man, no it was an animal; it was covered with fur; it had spiral horns. Hell, it was probably just Wolfboy out to take a leak. It fled back into the shadows when a light was turned on it, and that didn't sound very vicious to me.
"Full moon, I'm telling you—that's what brings 'em out," Liza said, flicking her ashes onto the floor.
"If the full moon flushes 'em out, it's a good night to go hunting...." Buddy mimed holding a rifle to his cheek, and made a sound like a burst of gunfire.
"Yeah, sure," I said. Guns are unreliable here on the Border at best, and insanely dangerous at worst. If Buddy owned a gun, which I very much doubted, the fucking thing would just explode in his hands. I turned back to the grill. "You've been watching too many old movies, man. Now you want to be a cowboy and ride with the posse at dawn. Spare me."
"They are forming some kind of posse," Liza said. "I heard a couple of Packers talking about it. They want to go out and get this thing before it crawls through somebody's window at night." She shivered, and took a drag on her cigarette.
Okay, I admit it, sometimes you can't help but get nervous as a human living on the Border. Truebloods have their magic. What do we have but guns that won't fire and machines that won't work without a goddamn spell? Most of these monster sightings are just hot air and hysteria. But every once in awhile some beast does come marauding—there was one hunted down when I was a kid. The sight of its bloody carcass on display at Traders' Heaven, those rows of gleaming, deadly white teeth, had given me nightmares for weeks.
"Hey, I'd like to get in on a hunt," Buddy said excitedly. "I'd like to go kill me a real monster! Wouldn't that be something to talk about, hey?"
I snorted. "Why go looking for trouble?"
And then I thought of a pretty elfin girl who trouble always seemed to find. Maybe finding it first, and doing it in, wasn't such a bad idea....
She's not your problem, she's not your responsibility, I reminded myself. Everybody's gotta look out for themselves. It was none of my business where Dez went the nights she didn't tag along home with me, or the times she disappeared for days on end. It was none of my business where she picked up the bruises and scars that appeared from time to time. Not my life. Not my problem.
The next time I looked out into the cafe, Dez and the seedy-looking halfie were gone. She did not reappear at the back kitchen door at the end of my shift, as had become her custom.
"Lose your girlfriend tonight, Hector?" Buddy said with an unpleasant smile.
I shrugged, buttoned up my overcoat, and began the long walk back home.
She hated the city.
Unlike most of us living in the abandoned buildings of Soho, she hadn't been lured there by the promise of magic, or independence, or drugs, or fast bikes, or rock'n'roll. She hadn't wanted to come to Bordertown at all; she'd been kicked out of her home back in the Realm. Or if not precisely kicked out, at least strongly encouraged to leave.
"Truebloods love perfection," she told me. It was one of the few times I ever heard her sound bitter. "They can't tolerate a cripple. They get rid of them, like drowning puppies. That's what they did with me."
"Why?" I asked. There didn't seem to be anything wrong with her, no physical defect that was obvious to me. But she was done making revealing statements for the evening. She fed wood into the fireplace at my squat and left my question hanging in the air. Just as well, I decided. If you knew too much about a person, you started to care, and if you started to care, you started to feel responsible. My mother, for instance, could have you feeling responsible for the whole sorry state of the human race if you gave her an inch—and I didn't intend to be responsible for anybody but myself. That was hard enough.
The fire caught on the fresh wood and the flames danced high, pushing back the autumn chill. It wasn't really that cold yet, but Dez sat as close to the fire as she dared. She was always cold. Whether it was warmer in the Realm or she was just particularly thin-blooded I never knew. She wore two of my sweaters under her jacket, so large on her they hung down to her knees. I took the blanket I'd been sitting on and wrapped it around her thin shoulders. Then I rose to fetch more wood from the salvage pile stacked up in my back yard.
"Stay close to the fire," I said needlessly. Where else was she going to go? There was no furniture in my townhouse—just the blankets by the fireplace and big, empty rooms. I liked it that way. It was as though I didn't really live there, another thing I wasn't responsible for.
I unbolted the back door and stepped onto the rickety porch. A narrow, overgrown yard ran from the townhouse down to the Old City Wall. Beyond that wall was Tintown, and Dogtown, and beyond them the wilds of the Nevernever. The evening was cold enough to make my breath frost but no colder. What would Dez do when real cold weather came?
In the distance was a sound like the howling of some strange beast. Alley cats probably—but my thoughts immediately turned to monsters. Prowling through the Nevernever. Coming to get Dez. Coming to get me. The monster I'd seen displayed at Traders' Heaven had looked like it was twelve feet tall. Of course I'd been much smaller at the time; probably it hadn't been so huge at all. It had been covered with dark fur, with a great crimson hole where the spear had gored it. Yet in spite of the claws and fur, I remembered, the monster had walked upright like a man.
Through the branches of a sour-apple tree I could see the silver disk of the moon. It was waning now, but it still looked full; a Wolf Moon, as Liza would say. I jumped when I heard a movement behind me, but it wasn't a wolf-man or a monster—just Dez, dragging the blanket with her. She too was looking up at the moon, her face turned silver, her hair glimmering with its own fey light. The wind caught the blanket and set the edges flapping. And then a curious thing happened—a trick of that strange moonlight perhaps. I saw Dez as she might have looked back in the Realm (as I imagined it); standing in some wooded glen, her elfin robes stirred by the wind, her slanted eyes dark, her expression wild.... And then the moment passed, and I saw her once again as she really was: clutching a tattered blanket around an equally tattered leather jacket, standing in weedy yard where moonlight glinted off of broken glass.
"Is it hard for you, living in a city?" I asked. It had never occurred to me before. I've never lived anywhere else myself.
She pulled the blanket tighter against the cold wind. "It's ...different," she said in a halting voice. " There's a different kind of ...rhythm here. It took me awhile to understand. When I first came I was too ...wide open. That's how we're raised, where I come from. Open to the sound of the earth moving, the messages in the wind, the voices of trees.... You can't be open like that in a city."
"No." I laughed. "The trees here don't talk."
"Oh yes they do," she said quite seriously. "Only I don't like what they have to say."
She was always in the wrong place at the wrong time.
She had a proper home, a room in a House for Young Ladies over on Dragon's Tooth Hill, paid for by her family (titled and powerful) across the Border—blood money, she sneered once, and I never dared to inquired further. She'd never actually set foot in the House for Young Ladies (though it amused me to try to picture her there: in a long green velvet dress, practicing the harp, sipping tea from porcelain cups); instead, she'd pawned her jewelry from the Realm, found the best bike her money could buy, and headed down to Soho, like every other runaway before her. She'd crashed in squats both good and not-so-good—never staying in any single one for long—and found herself a job as a bike messenger, delivering parcels all around the city. This took her into every corner of Bordertown, so that she, after a scant six months, knew it better than me, born and raised right here—including the shadier quarters where a lone young woman should never go. It wasn't that Dez couldn't handle herself in a fair fight—the lump on my nose is proof that she can. But the nastier types of Bordertown can't always be counted on to fight fair.
This was something a girl raised wherever she'd been raised could not quite understand. She could not accept that there was any place in Bordertown that she was obliged to avoid, and her simple innocence—the vulnerability of a foreigner in a strange, unfathomable land—drew the nastier types to her as inevitably as moths to the light of a flame. While the rest of the city joined the monster hysteria, my fears were of more common things: Dez beaten in some dark alley, Dez with her throat cut on the docks of Riverside, Dez walking blithely into some elf-baiters den....
Not my problem, I repeated over and over, not my responsibility. She'd have to learn to take care of herself, the same way I did.
On Monday evening, on my way to the Hard Luck, I ran into a big crowd gathered on Ho Street near Mock Avenue—unusual for this time of the week. I paused to find out what was going on. A tall black boy in the colors of the Pack was standing on the steps of the Puck Building shouting something with his fist raised. Two Dragons stood beside him, and I wondered what on earth would make these rivals band together.
I saw a boy I knew at the edge of the crowd. "Hey Sammy," I said. "What's going on here?"
"Monsters," he said succinctly. "We saw one last night."
"Where?" I said, my stomach tightening. Sammy Tucker, the Pack's leader, isn't the kind of kid prone to hysteria. If he said he actually saw a monster, you could believe he saw a monster.
"Down by you, Hector," Sammy answered cheerfully. "At Hell's Gate, trying to get into Soho. Riff-raff got a knife into the thing, but it got away from us before we could finish it off. We're talking about getting some muscle together to go out there and hunt it down."
I remembered again that bloody corpse at Traders' Heaven. I'd thrown up in the parking lot afterwards, and my mother had scolded me all the way home.... I looked across the crowd, picking out the gang colors: Dragons, Scorpions, Packs, Rats, Dragon's Fire...and no sign of silver hair. I nudged Sammy. "Where are the Bloods in all this, then?"
"Laying low," he snarled, "if they know what's good for them. Lots of folks blame the Truebloods for the monsters. Some people say they make them deliberately—send them to roam the Nevernever to keep humans away from their precious Border."
"Do you believe that?" I asked him, startled. The Packers are no friend to elves—but to believe that these monsters are deliberately created ....
Sammy shrugged. "I figure maybe it's not intentional," he said slowly. "I figure maybe they have spells that go wrong, accidents they want to get rid of.... The monsters have to come from somewhere. And they weren't here before the Border."
I let out a slow breath. This was all Soho needed. The tension between elves and humans was already running high—we'd had more than the usual number of incidences in the Hard Luck this week. Instead of fighting monsters we'd be fighting each other, if these gang-bangers had their way. At least the Trueblood kids had the sense to stay away from this mob scene.
Except, of course, for one.
"Goddammit!" I exploded. Sammy followed the direction of my exasperated gaze.
"Why there's a pointy-eared darlin' lookin' to get her pretty little head bashed in," the boy drawled.
I cursed a bit more creatively as I shouldered my way through the riled-up crowd. Dez was strolling up Ho Street oblivious, as usual, to the rest of the world around her—to the crowd of thugs and the hostile expressions on every face she passed. As I pushed my way toward her, I could feel the crowd around me grow nastier. Go fight monsters, you dumb-ass jerks, I wanted to shout. What's the point of beating a harmless girl?
Two big bruisers with the black bandannas of the Scorpions took up step behind Dez. I slipped past them and grabbed her roughly by the arm. "For fuck's sake, Dez," I hissed in her ear, "get your ass out of here!"
She looked up at me as if waking from sleep, unable to place my face for a moment. "Hector? What's the matter?"
"Just shut up Dez and follow me."
Not exactly the most diplomatic way to put it, and Dez, as naturally stubborn as I am naturally surly, immediately pulled out of my grasp and stood her ground. The thugs behind us were grinning with the anticipation of a good trashing.
"Come on!" I yelled, grabbing her wrist, and this time I did not let go.
I hauled the girl up Ho Street, hearing laughter—thank the gods—rather than footsteps behind us. I wouldn't let her stop until we reached the Hard Luck, then I pushed her through the doors ahead of me, breathing hard, my heart pounding like a hammer. The cafe was quiet and empty, and I sunk weakly into a chair.
"Hector," she said, glaring at me from beneath a tangle of her dandelion-fluff hair, "what the hell was that all about?"
Relief made me giddy, and that in turn made me embarrassed. What the hell had that all been about? I could have gotten my own head bashed in trying to protect this elfin fool.
"When are you going to learn how to take care of yourself?" I exploded, my own confused emotions turning into anger. "You can't expect me to be around to save you. I'm not some goddamn knight in shining armor! Maybe I should have just left you there, let the Pack and Scorpions rough you up. Maybe that would finally teach you to use a little sense and stay away from elf-baiters!"
She looked aghast. "I can take care of myself, Hector. I don't expect you to take care of me."
"You walk around in a goddamn fantasy world—well wake up, sweetie-pie. This is Bordertown, not your precious Realm. There are some b-a-d people hanging 'round this town, and you can't be countin' on me to save your ass."
"Hector, what are you talking about? I've never asked you to look after me—"
But I was on a roll, I wasn't listening. It felt great to be mad. It felt great to sweep all those nights of worrying about her away. "I don't want to be responsible for you anymore," I went on ranting; "you can damn well look after yourself from now on! I don't care about you, I don't care what you do, I just want to be left alone, you got that?"
"Yeah sure," she said quietly. "I got that loud and clear."
In contrast to that quiet voice, Dez slammed the door loudly as she left. She was heading in the wrong direction, the freakin' idiot—heading back up Ho Street in the direction of the gangs. "I don't goddamn care," I said aloud, turning my back on her.
I discovered then that the room was not quite empty after all. Liza was wiping down the bar, watching me coolly with an eyebrow cocked. "If you don't care, then why are your eyes wet, Hector?"
I stalked back to the kitchen. Buddy was animated that night, with talk of guns and monster hunts; he droned on and on until I thought I was going to throttle him. Liza kept giving me the knowing eye, and even little Peach was getting on my nerves until I snapped at her once too often and the child burst into tears. I don't care, I repeated to myself all evening long. As the long night dragged through the hours until dawn I almost convinced myself that it was true.
At the end of the shift, I put on my long overcoat, wound a scarf around my neck, pulled a wool cap over my ears. The night was very cold. I wondered briefly where Dez would sleep, and then forcefully pushed the thought away. Ho Street was quiet, the crowd long gone. Even the drag-racers on Carnival had all gone home. My sneakers made a soft slap-slap against the pavement as I headed down to Hell. My fingers were frozen by the time I reached my house, muttered the elfin spell and turned the human key in the lock. Warmth greeted me as I opened the door.
A fire blazed in the fireplace. Dez's pale hair was turned red by its light. She looked up as I came in, her eyes two dark shadows. Was she bruised again, or was that just a trick of the firelight?
"I'm not staying," she said quickly. "I just came...to say I'm sorry. For causing you any trouble."
I couldn't think of anything to say myself. So I didn't speak.
"I, uh, brought you a present," she added, nodding toward a jar of flowers on the mantle.
I stood there thinking, idiotically: No one's ever given me flowers before. They were deep purple, wild looking, like nothing in the shops of Bordertown.
"Well, I guess I'll see you around," she said softly, sadly, turning to go.
"Wait a minute, Dez," I said, finding my voice. "If you need a place to stay...?"
Her pale face brightened. "I appreciate that, Hector. I really do. But I've got somewhere to go tonight. I just came over here to tell you that I'm sorry...and also, um, to say... Well, to say thank you, for what you did today. Looking out for me the way you did. I'm just not used to that."
She suddenly reached up and touched my face, gently tracing the bump where she'd once broken my nose.
"Still pals?" she asked me quietly. She was smiling but her eyes were worried.
"Yeah sure, still pals," I assured her, as something loosened deep within my chest.
Then I settled down before the good warm fire that Dez had made for me, and listened to the roar of the bike as she took off for god knows where.
She never talked about the Nevernever.
Everyone else could talk of nothing else: of the monster who'd been wounded by members of the Pack, and of the other monsters who were probably out there too, just waiting to steal into city and slaughter us all in our beds at night. Posses of thugs were gathering to go out hunting in Borderlands: Packers who wanted to finish the job, Bloods who wanted to strike a blow for the tarnished honor of Elfindom, stupid-assed kids like Buddy who just wanted a thrill.
"It's been spotted again, East Side this time, by the river below Troll Bridge," Buddy told me. "They say you can't kill a monster with a gun—but I'd sure like to try it for myself! You remember that monster got one of them Fisher Folk a couple years back? They shot that one dead with a gun. Used silver bullets and it worked just fine."
"What's this thing supposed to look like?" Liza asked him.
"Hairy. Big and hairy, Sammy Tucker says."
"It's the boss," Liza wisecracked.
Little Peach giggled.
I tied on the waiter's apron, my turn to do the floor. Thank god it was quiet tonight. This monster scare was keeping kids off the street when the sun went down.
"What about you, Hector?" Liza wanted to know. "You going on this monster hunt too?"
"Me?" I asked. "You've got to be kidding."
"Oh excuse me, Mr. I-don't-give-a-shit-about-anything. I forgot you don't do anything unless there's something in it for you. If there was cash money offered up as a reward, you'd be the first one out there, Uzi in hand."
"And Buddy here is doing this out of the goodness of his heart? Give me a break. He just wants to kill something."
"Damn straight," Buddy said cheerfully.
"It's his hormones," Liza muttered.
"What about you, then, Liza? Are you planning on joining the hunt?"
Liza looked at a torn fingernail painted with fairy-dust, and grimaced. "I'm more than happy to leave this to the gangs. Let them make themselves useful for once."
"Does anybody know," asked quiet little Peach, "if this monster is actually dangerous?"
Liza looked up from her fingernails and raised an eyebrow at the younger girl. "Honey, at this point, I don't think anybody cares."
This was the night chosen for the hunt. The moon was full in the sky once again, lighting the open hills with a clear and silvery light. The boss let Buddy off early, in plenty of time to join the caravan. I almost laughed to watch them go—with such a crowd they'd scare any monster within ten miles away—but there was something sobering about the sight of all those fresh young faces, eager to kill. I kept seeing that dead monster at Traders' Heaven. The gaping wound in its shaggy pelt. The hairy, almost-human face, contorted like a man in pain.
The town seemed unusually subdued as I left the Hard Luck late that night. The shift had been hard, without Buddy's help, and my feet were aching as I trudged toward Hell, wishing I had a fast, sleek motorcycle to carry me home. I was slowly saving up for one, but bikes cost a lot in Bordertown, and unlike Dez I had no elfin jewels to pawn for one. My steps were dragging as I walked up Hell, the sidewalk lit by the moon's clear light. And that's when I saw the trail of blood...leading right up to my squat.
Godammit, Dez, what have you gotten yourself into now? I was thinking as I sprinted up the street, my breath like a tight fist in my chest. Sure enough, her Italian racer was parked in the rosebushes beside my stoop. I vaulted up the stairs, fumbled with the key, had a moment of panic trying to remember the damn lock spell. The door opened after an eternity; I slammed it shut behind me as I pounded up the hall. "Dez!" I shouted. "Dez, Dez, where are you? Are you all right?"
She appeared in a doorway off the hall, looking even paler and more waif-like than usual—wearing one of my shirts, which was stained all over with dark blossoms of crimson blood. I grabbed her by the shoulders. "Dez, my god, what happened? Who did this to you? Where are you hurt?"
She pushed me away with more strength than I'd expected. "Hector, I'm okay. Stop shouting, please! This isn't my blood. I'm not the one who's hurt. It's ...it's my friend."
I looked over her shoulder into the room beyond, and froze in horror. The nightmare of my childhood lay sleeping beside the fireplace. It was covered all over with a pelt of red-brown fur. It's side, like the day I'd seen it at Traders' Heaven, was a jagged, crimson hole. But no—I shook myself out of memory. This wasn't the same creature. That one was dead and this—
I turned to Dez. She shrank from my expression.
"Hector, please. He's hurt. And he's my friend."
"He's a monster," I whispered, horrified.
"He's my friend," she repeated stubbornly. "He came to the city looking for me. He was worried about me. He lives out there in the Nevernever, and I swear to you he's harmless."
Dez knelt on the floor beside the beast, her hand on the hideous creature's brow, looking pathetically young and wan and terribly breakable beside him. "I go there sometimes," she tried to explain. "I hate the city, Hector. I can't breathe here. The trees say horrible things and the ground is smothered in concrete and it feels like prison. I just have to get away sometimes...so I go out into the Nevernever. I grew up on the land, back home. I need to be out on the land. It was cruel of them to send me to a city. They must have known..." She shuddered. "They did know. And they didn't care."
The monster groaned, and she put a hand on its brow again, which seemed to calm it. I shuddered myself, just watching her—that tender gesture, that gruesome creature. The monster's wound was not so bad, at second glance, but it seemed to have lost a lot of blood and its breath came out in tortured gasps. It's eyes were closed—thank god, because I didn't want to know what they looked like.
Dez continued to kneel beside him, smoothing the fur of his terrible head. "Try to understand, Hector. I'm just like he is, a reject from the Realm. A mage's daughter born without magic—not even the littlest bit. No better than a human. Can you imagine what that's like beyond the Border? Like being blind, deaf, and dumb ...."
"That doesn't make you a monster, Dez."
She laughed bitterly. "Tell that to my parents."
She rose, wiping her bloody hands on the shirt she had borrowed, completely ruined now. The creature at her feet was barely conscious—but if he was anything like elfinkind, then his body was busy healing itself. He was frightening to look at—not because he was so different from the rest of us but because, except for his size, and his hairy pelt, he was so much the same.
"Will he heal?" I asked,
"I don't know." Her voice caught. "I think he will, but not here. He needs the land. I have to figure out a way to take him home before anyone finds him here."
"Yes, home. The Nevernever."
"You can't go back out there!" I was shouting now. "Are you totally out of your mind? That could be you, with a hole in your side. It's dangerous in the Borderlands!"
She just gave that bitter laugh again. "I've been hurt by my family back in the Realm. I've been hurt by complete strangers here in the city. I've never been hurt in the Nevernever. They seem to like me, the wild ones. Please, Hector, will you help us? I can't take him on the bike, you see—it frightens him...."
"You want me to get him back to the Nevernever?"
She looked up at me through her dandelion hair. Not your problem. Not your responsibility, the voice in my head reminded me.
I took a deep breath.
Shut up, I told the voice firmly.
"Okay," I said
She loved the Nevernever.
It was strange to see her there—to see how obviously she belonged to those wild hills, as obviously as she had never belonged in Bordertown. We'd used the bike to carry her "friend" home—we'd had no choice in the end, it was too far to go any other way. It took two days, or maybe just two hours. Time runs funny in the Nevernever. And then I'd turned around and driven the racer back to the city, alone.
She said she'd come and visit me, but I told her I knew she never would. She'd grow wild like the land and then she'd avoid the city like the others do.
Well, I was wrong. She still turns up in front of my fire from time to time.
Monster fever died down some time ago. The hunt was unsuccessful and even Buddy grew bored with the whole sorry affair. Sammy Tucker would still like to know who's trail of blood led to my door that night, but he's given up asking, and the gangs are back to fighting each other, as per usual.
I still live alone. I still mind my own business. Like Liza said, I don't do anything unless there's something in it for me. Nothing's changed, really.
Except that now I have the sweetest little Italian racer to get me back and forth to the Hard Luck Cafe.
Editor's note: We meet Hector again in Elisabeth Kushner's story "Changeling" (The Essential Bordertown, Tor Books, 1996), where he's now directing shows for Soho's Changeling Theater. The tale of his transformation from misanthropic kitchen worker to theater director and community activist is still waiting to told.
Liza Malone, the fuschia-haired waitress, also appears in the background of other stories while working at the Hard Luck Cafe, or in her former job at the Dancing Ferret. And she, too, has an interesting future ahead of her as one of Bordetown's hottest young chefs.
"Exile" copyright c 1986 by Terri Windling. The story may not be reproduced in any form without the authors' express permission.