I’ve been hoping to pull this rejection out for a while, as it’s one of my favorites, but I haven’t. So I took matters into my own hands and went looking for it:
I just find the editor’s comment at the bottom about “only publishing fiction” highly amusing — I get a little giggle every time I see it. I don’t think that the story in question, “Customs”, ever ended up getting published anywhere, but it’s still one of my personal favorites. Not that I ever had any trouble like this when I used to go to Canada. This story predates 9/11 and ICE and all those other new three-letter agencies, as well as the requirement that one have a passport to cross the border. Ah, simpler times.
Billy Williams figured he’d better check everything one more time before hitting the border, so he pulled into a diner a mile or so shy of Canada, parked in a distant corner of the lot, and got out to have a look at the trunk. On the long drive north, the hidden panel had jogged loose. He opened it and checked the compartment between the trunk and the back seat. Everything looked good. He replaced the panel and tapped it down until it blended invisibly with the surrounding material.
Billy yawned and rubbed his itchy left eye. He needed a little something to perk him up. He went into the diner and ordered a large coffee, keeping one eye on his car the whole time. Nobody came within a hundred feet of it.
As he was heading out he noticed the headline on the papers they were selling: Canadian Man Found Shot and, in smaller letters below that, Body of Customs Agent Discovered Just Across Border. Great, Billy thought; the border was probably tighter than his old man between paychecks. But he could hardly turn around, could he? He had to keep going and hope for the best.
Billy got back into the driver’s seat and checked himself in the rearview. He looked pretty calm, he thought. Looked pretty average. Just an average American guy trying to cross into Canada.
He pulled out of the lot and continued on toward Customs. The lights of the border checkpoint glared in the evening dimness. Two northbound lanes were open. One had five cars backed up to it, but the other was clear. In the cold air the exhaust of the vehicles formed misty clouds that billowed like fog, drifting downwind to shroud the other lane.
Billy, already running late, made the obvious selection.
“Good evening, sir.” The customs officer stood in the shadowy booth, little more than a silhouette beyond the window. “And how are we today?”
“Fine, thanks,” Billy said.
“American citizen, are we?”
Billy nodded. “Uh-huh.”
“And what’s our business in Canada today?”
“Vacation,” Billy said. A mistake: he was supposed to say he was going shopping. Minor slip-up, he thought. Minor.
“And where are we going on our vacation?”
The officer nodded, all bland official interest.
“Toronto! Long drive ahead of us, sir. We might want to drive with our windows open, help keep ourselves awake. A sleepy driver is a dangerous driver, eh, sir?”
“Sure,” Billy said. The condescension of we and our was starting to annoy him. It was the way you’d talk to a child, not a grown man.
“So, have we anything to declare? Animals, fruits, vegetables, firearms, suchlike?”
“Nope,” Billy said.
The man leaned out of his booth. He was tall and gaunt and distressingly sharp-eyed as he looked Billy’s car over. “This vehicle registered to us, is it?”
“No, it’s registered to me,” Billy said.
The officer’s gaze snapped to him and Billy realized with a sinking feeling that he’d let his irritation slip. He knew what was going to come next. The customs agent was going to flex a little muscle. He was going to look right into Billy’s window and say:
“Mind pulling your vehicle over there, sir?”
“Is something wrong?” Billy said.
“Oh, no, sir,” the man said. “Don’t let it trouble your mind. We just search a certain percentage of cars, you understand.”
“I haven’t done anything.”
“No one is saying otherwise, sir,” the customs officer said. “Just pull your vehicle over there and we’ll get you on your way as soon as we can.”
Billy drove to the indicated spot, sweating now. His palms felt clammy on the wheel. Why’d they have to send him on this run, anyway? He’d never asked to be a courier. He was perfectly content keeping the records of what got shipped and when. But Carl had gotten sick, and they’d come to him and said Billy, how’d you like to make a quick five hundred bucks? And now—
The passenger door opened and the customs agent got in. Billy had thought all the doors were locked, but obviously not. He glanced back at the checkpoint. The same cars were still lined up at it. Yep, the border was rough tonight, he thought.
The customs agent gestured toward a big free-standing garage some distance behind the customs building. Through the drifting fog, Billy could see one of the doors open like a beckoning black mouth.
“Right in there, sir,” his passenger said.
Billy drove slowly into the garage. The overhead door scrolled down behind him and hit the ground with a bang. “Please get out of the vehicle, sir,” the agent said. He pointed at a wooden bench against the wall. “You can have a seat over there.”
Billy went to the bench and plopped down onto it. The customs officer climbed into the driver’s seat and looked the dash over. He opened the glove box and peered inside. He popped the hood and poked around the engine compartment. He opened the trunk.
“I see we have no luggage,” he said, not looking up from his intent study of the trunk. “Traveling light on our vacation, are we, sir?”
“Oh,” Billy said, and that was all. He couldn’t think of anything remotely plausible. He just sat there with hot, nervous breath coming out of his open mouth, until finally he closed it again.
The customs officer opened the back door of the car and examined the rear seat. He stepped away from the vehicle, his head turning left and right. Finally he went back to the trunk and climbed nearly all the way inside. Billy heard him thumping around, searching for the hidden compartment. A moment later the man snorted and said, “Exporting our filthy American obsession north, are we, sir?” He came out of the trunk holding one of the assault rifles. He carried the weapon to where Billy sat. “Aren’t enough of your children murdered by these things?”
This was a sort of running joke among Billy’s group. Without thinking, he said: “Only the ones who aren’t quick enough.”
The customs agent stared at him a moment, then lifted the rifle and pointed it at Billy’s head. “Is this loaded, sir?”
“I don’t know.”
“Shall we find out?”
Billy said nothing. The man was bluffing. He had to be. This was America, for Christ’s sake, the government couldn’t just shoot you with impunity. Then he realized that it wasn’t America, it was Canada; but same difference, right?
Apparently no one had told the customs agent what he could and couldn’t do. He moved the muzzle down to touch Billy’s face between his nose and his left eye. Billy tried not to flinch, but the steel was ice cold, and despite the chill sweat was trickling down his back, and he couldn’t help but start to tremble. He turned partially away. Now the muzzle was at his neck.
“How quick are we, sir?” the officer said softly.
He pulled the trigger.
A click rang out.
Billy whipped his head around and screamed, but the cry died in his throat. He was sitting in his car. He was looking up at the customs officer, who was not holding a rifle. He hadn’t even come out of his little booth.
“Are we all right, sir?” the customs agent said.
“Are we all right? Feeling okay? We made a noise just then.”
“Uh, no. I mean yes. I’m fine.”
“Not feeling a bit frightened or something?”
Billy didn’t know what to say. He was very confused.
The border guard smiled broadly. “Well, enjoy your visit, sir. Mind what I said about driving with your windows open.”
“Oh, uh, sure” Billy said. “Um, thanks. Thanks a lot.”
He stepped on the gas and left the border behind. He glanced over his shoulder. The man was leaning out of his booth, so far it looked like he should fall out of it and land in a heap on the concrete. But there he was, grinning, waving goodbye to Billy Williams.
What the hell?
Billy shook his head. He’d never had a particularly vivid imagination. Quite the opposite: he was plagued by an almost total lack of imagination of any kind. Must’ve been stress, he thought. Fear of being caught activating latent fantastic notions of what it was like to be interrogated at the border. Yeah, that was all.
He checked his rearview, to see if the agent was still hanging out of his window; but now it looked as if the lane he’d used to cross the border had vanished, which was ridiculous and impossible, so he adjusted his mirror to get a better angle, and—
Billy swerved onto the shoulder, hearing gravel crunch under the tires as the car bounced and half-turned and came to a shuddering halt with its nose in the high grass along the side of the road. Billy spun in his seat, gaze stabbing wildly into the back, looking for the person he’d just seen in his rearview mirror, knowing he wouldn’t be there. Because the head he’d seen had been missing its upper third and you just couldn’t be sitting upright with your brains shaved off like that. You couldn’t be grinning. You couldn’t be staring with such malign awareness in your eyes.
You couldn’t be anything but dead.
Billy turned and faced straight ahead. He gripped the wheel. His hands clenched, unclenched, clenched, unclenched. After a minute or so he backed out of the weeds, got straightened out, started driving again. Very slowly. Checking the rearview almost constantly. The apparition did not reappear.
Ten miles into Canada, he made a right onto a narrow secondary road, then a left onto a rutted dirt track. He stopped at an old, abandoned mobile home parked under a copse of trees. As he got out of the car, the door to the trailer opened and several men in suits came out, making Billy think of the way clowns tumbled out of those tiny cars at the circus. The last one out was Mr. Goshen, who had paid for the guns. He closed the door neatly behind him, passed through the field of flunkies, and led them to Billy’s vehicle.
Funny, Billy thought. Mr. Goshen looked like a perfectly nice man. He wondered if the stories about him were true. Then they got closer, and Billy got a better look at his face, and decided he didn’t look like a nice man after all.
Mr. Goshen came right up to him and said, “You’re late.”
“I got held up at the border.”
Mr. Goshen grunted. “Wasn’t any trouble, I hope.”
“Not really,” Billy said. He watched Mr. Goshen’s henchmen open the trunk, heard them remove the panel on the hidden compartment.
After a moment, one of them said: “Mr. Goshen.”
Mr. Goshen gave Billy a look that froze his blood, and went slowly to the back of the car. Billy went, too. When he saw what they were looking at, he thought he was going to faint.
The secret compartment was empty.
Mr. Goshen looked at Billy. He smiled. The temperature of his expression was in the negative digits.
“Where are my guns?” he asked.
“They were there,” Billy said. “They were right there. Honest to God, Mr. Goshen, I checked before I crossed the border.”
“This is the second time you people have come to me without the merchandise I asked for. I thought sending Carl back to you with his feet in a shoebox would teach you a lesson in responsibility. You must be slow learners.”
“I don’t know what happened, Mr. Goshen. They were there. They were right there!”
Mr. Goshen stared at Billy for a long moment, then nodded at one of his men and walked away.
“Mr. Goshen, please!” he cried. Mr. Goshen didn’t turn around. He kept walking, right through the pallid grey-green figure of a man missing the top third of his head. The man was watching Billy Williams with eyes like burned-out lumps of charcoal, and this time Billy noticed that he was dressed in the uniform of a Canadian customs officer.
And what was left of his face looked like the guy at the checkpoint, the guy who’d said we and our and had grinned at him so widely as he’d driven away. The weapons Billy had been transporting were piled at the phantom’s feet, glowing with the same spectral light.
The thing’s lips moved. As if from a great distance, Billy Williams heard the custom guard’s voice say, “We’re not quick enough, are we, sir?”
A cold, hard muzzle pressed against the back of Billy’s neck. It felt just like when he’d imagined it at the border.
Except this one went off when the trigger got pulled.
The moral of the story: Don’t mess with Customs. And also don’t forget to vote for the next scene of the month.