WE WERE stuck in customs.
I sat in the quarantine lounge and tried not to bang my head against the walls out of boredom. My parents had left me alone while they went to complain to the Australian customs officers. I could already picture them harassing some poor desk jockey—We’re celebrated Interpol agents! How dare you make us wait like regular civilians? I felt bad admitting it, but my parents were kind of high maintenance.
Meanwhile, I had to amuse myself in quarantine. The lounge was a long white room filled with long rows of plastic chairs—it looked as sterile as a hospital and just as inviting. An artificial intelligence projected onto a screen at the front of the room occasionally called out names: “John Seaman, please report to the customs desk now. Delia Carangi, your papers have been cleared. You may now progress to room six.” There were a handful of other people in quarantine with me, other poor travelers who’d fallen afoul of customs. Some were well-dressed business types whom I guessed had probably forgotten to organize the right travel papers. A couple were young people in their early twenties, one carrying a surfboard—I picked them for either wannabe drug smugglers or people who’d overstayed their visas and were waiting to be deported.
There were a bunch of ragged people at the back of the lounge who looked like they’d been stuck in customs for a long time. Maybe even months. Their clothes were worn and crumpled and their hair matted—they’d probably had to wash and dry it in the lounge toilets. I shuddered at the idea and hoped my parents would be back soon with good news. I didn’t want to spend even a night in quarantine if I could help it.
“How long has it been now, Miche?” my boyfriend Benny asked.
“Six hours and forty-four minutes,” I said, checking the time on my phone. “And counting.”
Benny pulled an “ew” face. “Sounds awful,” he said. “Wish I was there to cheer you up.”
“Me too, babe.”
Unfortunately for us both, Benny was talking to me using the video-chat function on my phone. Right now he was comfortable at home, sitting on the balcony of his house, bright sunlight streaming down behind him. Through the phone, I could faintly hear the sound of the ocean as it washed up on the nearby beach and the occasional sounds of gulls.
Benny lived on White Island, which was one of several floating metal islands off the east coast of Australia. We had never met in person. I know, it’s pretty weird to have never met your boyfriend face-to-face, especially when we’d been together for almost six months. But we made it work. We almost always had our phones on (never mind how much my parents complained about the bills) and we sent each other presents in the mail.
This quarantine lounge in Australian customs was the closest I’d ever gotten to Benny. If my parents had their way with the customs officials, we’d finally get to meet.
I couldn’t wait to kiss him.
“Are you still okay about meeting up?” Benny asked me.
“Of course I am. I can’t wait. Why… have you got cold feet?”
I was only teasing, but Benny’s uneasy smile didn’t inspire me with hope. Benny had been nervous about us meeting up ever since I’d told him the good news about my parents’ upcoming secondment to Australia. I couldn’t understand why—we talked so much on the phone that I knew we’d get on just as well offline. Benny was a gorgeous guy too: a blond with sun-bleached hair, a tanned surfer body, and serious brown eyes. We’d look great together.
“I don’t know,” Benny said. “It feels… kind of early for this.”
“Kind of early for what? Most people have actually met their boyfriend face-to-face before they fall in love with them, you know.” I chewed my lip. “I just want to see you, Benny.”
“I know, I know. I want to see you too.”
I sighed. I would have tried to reassure him, but our conversation was interrupted by a severe-faced customs officer.
“Children are not allowed to be left unattended in the quarantine lounge,” she snapped at me.
“I’m fifteen! Anyway, my parents are… around, somewhere.” I looked about vainly to see if I could spot them. No luck. Knowing them, they were probably standing in an office somewhere, demanding to see the management. Or the Australian prime minister. “They’re Interpol agents,” I added lamely. “They’re, um, famous.”
I’d hoped my parents’ jobs might have some currency with the customs officer, but she just gave me a look like she didn’t believe me in the slightest. I guessed she thought everyone stuck in quarantine had to have done something wrong. “You are not allowed to use mobile devices unless supervised by a customs officer,” she said.
“Sorry,” I said. I switched off my phone with a muttered “bye” to Benny.
“Thank you for your compliance. Now I’ll need to see your papers and get your fingerprints. Have you been through infectious agents screening yet?”
This was going from bad to worse. I was aware some of the other people in quarantine were starting to look over at us. It was probably the most excitement they’d seen in quarantine for quite some time. “I’m with Interpol,” I said, squirming. “I mean, I’m with my parents, and they’re… well, we shouldn’t have to do that. We get special checks on base.”
The customs officer folded her arms and glared at me, her eyes tiny behind her thick e-glasses. On the inner surface of those e-glasses, I knew she was searching my body for any signs of weapons or disease. “I’m going to have to ask you to stand up and come with me,” she said.
“I’m waiting for my parents—”
The customs officer reached for my arm, intent to haul me out of my chair. Then she froze, her face stricken with sudden fear.
“I’m going to pretend you didn’t try to touch my son,” said my mother.
“Step back and walk away,” said my father. “Don’t even think about looking back.”
Both of them were holding Interpol lasers to the back of the customs officer’s neck. Quarantine is supposed to be a weapon-free zone, but there are always special rules for the more powerful members of Interpol. The customs officer swallowed thickly and began to edge away, her hands in the air. When she’d gone a few meters, she started running. A second later, she’d vanished through one of the exits.
My parents, satisfied that they’d made their point, sheathed their weapons.
If you can’t tell already, they love making a scene.
“Come on, Michel,” said my father briskly, placing his hand on my shoulder. “Let’s get out of here.”