TRAFFIC OOZED over the bridge. Like milkshake through a thin straw, the stream of cars was drawn slowly but inexorably towards a grinning row of Customs booths. The Ruskins, who had been vacationing in Maine, waited patiently for their turn to be gulped down by their Home and Native Land. David and Sally sat quietly in the back, entranced by iPads. Mrs. Ruskin snored vociferously in the front passenger seat. And Mr. Ruskin, at the wheel, stared straight ahead at nothing in particular.
“Almost home!” he announced.
“Hhhrrrhhhrrrhhh—wha?” said his wife.
“I said we’re almost home!”
“Oh,” said Mrs. Ruskin, wiping drool from the corner of her mouth. “I’ll, uh—I’ll get the passports out.”
The Ruskins pulled up to the Customs booth.
“Hello!” said Mr. Ruskin, handing the passports to the Customs officer. “How are you?”
“Take off your sunglasses.”
“Where do you live?”
“Where in Canada?
“Oh, uh, St. Catharines. Ontario.”
“How long away?”
“Oh, uh, one week.”
“Value of the goods returning?”
“About six hundred dollars.” Mr. Ruskin held out a wad of receipts. The officer took no notice of them.
“Alcohol or tobacco?”
“No, just clothes and souvenirs.”
“Firearms on board?”
“Oh, firearms—No! No, of course not! Just a family vacation! In Maine!”
Mr. Ruskin realized that he was still holding his hand out with the receipts, and quickly withdrew it.
“Receipts,” requested the officer.
“Oh, sorry! There you go!”
The officer pulled out a pad of paper and started writing. When he was done, he handed back the passports and the receipts, along with a small white piece of paper. “Pull over there, to the right. Just a random check.”
“Oh, uh—over there? Okay. Thank you, sir.”
“Great,” said Mrs. Ruskin as they drove towards the large, maggot-like Customs building. “Just great.”
“They have to—you know,” Mr. Ruskin explained. “The computer tells them—every so many cars, probably. Nothing to worry about!”
Mrs. Ruskin’s eyes narrowed. “Why do you always have to be so nervous at the border? That’s why they pulled us over, you know. Here they come, stop sweating so much!”
Two officers approached the car and asked everyone to get out. They conducted a search of the vehicle, sifting through luggage and shopping bags.
“These yours?” one of the officers asked, holding up a pair of extra-large Superman underwear.
“My wife gave them to me,” Mr. Ruskin explained. “For my birthday. I—uh—I like Superman.”
“We’re going to have to ask you to come inside with us, please.”
“Because of the underwear?”
“No, of course not. Just a random check. Pain in the ass, I know, but we have to go through all the steps just the same. You understand.”
“Oh, okay. In here?”
“Wait,” said Mrs. Ruskin. “This isn’t going to take long, is it?”
“No, it shouldn’t take long at all,” said one of the officers. “We’ll have your husband back to you in no time. You can stay here with the kids.”
“Okay,” said Mrs. Ruskin.
Mr. Ruskin was taken to a small room with nothing in it but three chairs and a stainless steel table. He sat down in one of the chairs with his back to the wall. The officers sat across from him. One of the officers held a metal box from which he produced a mysterious object, some sort of device—only it seemed to be made of living matter. It was covered with what looked to be human skin, with a big fleshy ear on one side of it, a pinched-looking orifice on the other side, and a hairy nipple in front. On the top was a mop of black hair intermixed with wires and rubber tubes. The whole thing pulsed and throbbed and quivered with life.
“Wh—what is that?”
“This? This is the new E-9-RX. All the border crossings are getting them.”
“What does it do?”
“Pretty much everything. All of the computer systems, all the gadgets and machines in this building, all of it is obsolete, now that we have this little guy.”
The three men regarded the weird device with reverential awe.
“Well, I guess we’d better get started,” said the first officer. “Place your thumb here, please.”
“You—you mean on the—uh—the nipple?”
“Just right here, please.”
Mr. Ruskin pressed his thumb on the nipple and nearly jumped out of his seat when the device began to whir and click.
“Sounds like a fax machine,” he said.
The first officer then tickled the earlobe and said, “Koochie-koochie-koo,” and the E-9-RX produced seven photographs from a slot in the back. The officers flipped through the photos and their faces darkened.
“What is it? What are those?”
“Perhaps you can tell us,” said the first officer, placing the photographs on the table one at a time.
“I—I don’t understand,” said Mr. Ruskin. He stared, baffled, at seven pictures of himself standing in his backyard, wearing nothing but his Superman underwear. He wasn’t posing or anything, he was just standing there. They were all the same but for minor details: he was blinking in one of them, scratching his ass in another, smiling in yet another. “Is this—some kind of joke?”
“Joke! We don’t find this very funny. Do you?”
“No! I just—I just don’t understand.”
“You don’t understand!”
“I suppose perverts never understand why they do the things they do,” said the second officer, who had remained quiet until now. “Do they, Mr. Ruskin?”
“But—but that’s not me!”
“That’s not you?”
“I mean—it is me, but I never took those photographs! That never happened! And look! I have a mole on my thigh in that picture! I don’t have a mole there! And I have a moustache in that one!”
The first officer wrote something in his notebook while the other eyed Mr. Ruskin with unconcealed disdain.
“Wait a second,” said Mr. Ruskin. “That’s not illegal! Is it? You can’t arrest me for this! Can you?”
“So it is you, then. You admit it.”
“No! I just—”
The officers conferred with one another briefly then left the room. Mr. Ruskin gathered up the photos and turned them face down on the table. Then he realized that he had been left alone with the device, which, though it had no visible eyeballs, seemed to be watching him. He stared back in fearful fascination and noticed that the orifice on the side had begun to throb. “Hello?” he called out into the empty hallway. “I think something’s happening!” And then pffffffffft, the thing farted. A smell as thick as cheese filled every corner of the small, unventilated room, enveloping Mr. Ruskin and damn near suffocating him.
It was at this moment that the officers re-entered the room. “Gah!” said the first one. “Christ Almighty!” exclaimed the other. “That’d gag a maggot!”
“It wasn’t me!” cried Mr. Ruskin. “It was the E-9 thing!” But they had already retreated from the room. Mr. Ruskin hung his head in shame.
The officers didn’t return again until the air had cleared a bit. “Okay, let’s try this again.” The first officer put on a latex glove and applied lubricant to his index finger. He then inserted his finger into the orifice, and the device flushed and hummed with apparent gratification. After several moments of fingering, blat! a foul-smelling green fluid was deposited on the table. The officer stared intently at the goo for a long while, as though he were reading tealeaves. Then he looked up at Mr. Ruskin and said, “Okay, sir, you’re free to go. Thank you for your cooperation. You and your family have a safe drive home, okay?”
“And don’t forget your photos.”
“Okay. Thank you. Uh…”
“Just this door here. Your family is waiting for you outside.”
“I can go?”
“Yes, sir. Have a nice day.”
“You too. Uh. Thanks.”
Mr. Ruskin joined his family and they all got back in the car. “What’s that?” asked his wife. “Huh?” He looked at the photos, which were still in his hand, but he didn’t seem to understand what they were. He just stared at them, transfixed.
“What are those? When did you take those?”
“Put them away, before the kids see them. Why would you take those?”
“I don’t know. I mean—I didn’t!”
“Then who did? What happened in there?”
“They have this thing—some sort of—it’s called an E-9-something.”
“Yeah? And? What, it took naked photos of you?”
“I don’t know! This thing—it must have used telepathy or hypnosis or something. I think they’re really cracking down on—on I don’t know what! It had a nipple!”
“What had a nipple?”
“The E-9 thing!”
“It had a nipple…and it hypnotized you. Mm-hmm, okay. Was that before or after the naked photo shoot?”
“You know what, forget it. I want to get home before the sun goes down. You’re really weird sometimes, you know that?”
Mr. Ruskin pulled the car out and headed home. A sign said WELCOME TO CANADA. ∞
Sean Donaghue Johnston used to be a Customs officer. Now he’s a beer delivery guy who moonlights as a philosophy professor. He lives in St. Catharines, Ontario, with his wife Caroline and their two kids, Atticus and Finula. This is his first published story.