After the four-hour layover in Hong Kong, we got on a plane for New York. Marlin seemed cold toward me during the flight, but I didn’t think much of it. The funeral had been just a few days ago, after all. Now I wonder: Is it possible to give someone too much space to grieve?

We disembarked into a humid tunnel in JFK, and despite our quick-stepping, we found ourselves as always in an interminably long line for noncitizens by the time we reached the border checkpoint. Our stream of aliens fed into about half a dozen booths, each with a computer terminal and a nonalien uniformed officer perched inside, visible from the waist up. As we got closer to the head of the line, I played this silly mental game where I tried to predict which officer would call on us, and then to hazard whether that was a good or bad thing. From our experience, the border agents varied widely in their attitude toward the aliens they processed. Admittedly my game relied upon judging by appearances, equating deep scowls with mild xenophobia or a tinge of alcoholic rosacea with a haughty impatience. But on that day, I won the game. I’d immediately picked my last choice out of the six non-options arrayed before us. This worst-case officer might have been in his early forties, his hair dark enough to approach the black of our own and spiked into a formation that looked like he wanted to erect fences on his head. He had a baby face, which should have endeared him to me, but there was something churlish about the curl of his mouth that put me on guard.

He waved us forward. It was clear from his first words that we were in trouble.

“What is the purpose of your visit?” he asked, when we had not even proffered up our passports, which are admittedly not blue. The deep blue of tasteful woven fabric couches, that shade of star-studded night skies as interpreted by painters, the hue of expensive wedding suits — no, our passports are not even close. I was a bit flushed, I think, my color “high,” as they say, from drinking free wine on a sixteen-hour night. Marlin has the advantage of being dark-skinned and so hid it better, although his forehead glistened a little. He was also wearing a scrap of black cloth pinned to his left T-shirt sleeve to signify mourning, and I was suddenly afraid that this could look suspicious to the officer.

Something had changed. Marlin and I had done this many times — passed through American borders, I mean. In the past, officers usually waved us off with a “welcome home” after they accessed our records on their computers and saw how much of our early adulthood had been spent in America. That never failed to warm our hearts. “He said ‘home,’” we’d announce to each other at baggage claim, both beaming, a little in awe still. “I heard.” We’d nod, and in verifying this piece of good news, we seemed to double its potency.

But we hadn’t gone through checkpoints since the Muslim ban, and now it sunk in that we might not be hearing the phrase “welcome home” anymore. The agent before us glared at our groggy faces.

“Uh, visit?” Marlin stammered. “My father passed away, so we went for the funeral…”

Wrong. He trailed off, finally understanding what was happening. What is the purpose of your visit? The agent was asking about our purpose visiting the United States of America, of course, even though to us “visiting” is something we do outside the US, and “returning” is what happens when we land at JFK. Clearly the definition of words had flipped since we last flew.

I squeaked out that we worked in the city and were reentering the country so we could return to our jobs. “Tech companies,” Marlin added, half supplicating, half faux boastful, hoping to impress.

“You two traveling together?”

“Yes, we’re married.”

“Oh, but you have different last names.”

“Where we come from, it’s not customary for women to formally change their names after marriage,” I said. Surely a better answer than to say all of my immigration paperwork is under my maiden name, and I would never in a hundred years (which is approximately how long it takes for immigrants from certain countries to get their green cards) jeopardize any bureaucratic process by something as trivial as taking Marlin’s family name.

But it seemed I’d doomed us with that “where we come from.” This appeared to have the effect of highlighting our alienness to the agent. His lips withered. He rifled through our papers and tapped on his keyboard. He sighed so forcefully it was like he wanted to huff us plain out of sight. Then he uttered the dreaded: “Come with me.”

Marlin and I looked at each other, alarmed.

“Where?” I muttered, but my feet were already in motion to obey instructions, even as in my mind I stood a little in admiration of my single-word response that could, maybe, just a little bit, be construed as daring protest.

“Just follow me. The officers on the other end will explain it to you.”

Marlin walked ahead of me. I wanted to tug on his arm, hold him back for a quick discussion. Then I noticed that his passport was swinging from the agent’s hands, and I realized with a start that I’d been handed back my passport, which I’d absentmindedly pocketed in the confusion, while Marlin’s proof of legal existence was being held hostage. We had no choice but to follow. Or, rather, he had no choice.

Belatedly, I asked, “Can I stay with him?” I jogged a little to make sure the agent heard me, but then became paranoid and slowed down to my previous tempo. A few quick, nervous glances to the side reassured me that no one had a gun trained on me.

We shuffled down a long walkway, the bank of Homeland Security agents in their individual booths to our left. It was a familiar sight made strange by the fact that all the agents now had their backs to us, their bottoms of various sizes visible, squished against their stools. I turned back to see where we had come from. Our agent’s booth gleamed under harsh lights, empty.

I didn’t know his name, I realized. What if we needed to file a complaint later? Then I caught myself and almost laughed. Yeah, right. Two immigrants filing a complaint against the Department of Homeland Security. Sure to turn out well.

At the end of the walkway was a room with a door ajar. I strained my eyes to see into its jaw. Sixteen hours in a plane cabin had dried out my eyes completely, and the more I tried to see clearly, the more I needed to blink. I could feel pain creeping forward from the back of my eyeballs, threatening to also crawl up into my skull. “Pain shivers,” I’d once said, trying to relay the sensations of an impending migraine to Marlin, who’d never had one.

When we crossed into the room, the lighting changed abruptly, becoming much dimmer. I watched our agent hand over Marlin’s passport to a colleague seated behind a desk, uttering some kind of code word, numbers and letters that could be an acronym. As our agent turned to leave the room, I tried to catch his name tag. But already he was moving away, his steps unhurried, presumably back to his station.

The room was gloomy, with low ceilings and sharp angles everywhere: rigid furniture, posters and signs that looked like they could cut. Against one bland wall was a row of four desks, three of them occupied by two men and one woman, all in uniform. The man closest to the entrance had Marlin’s passport, which was laid carelessly next to his mouse pad like a paperweight or a stapler or a stapler that no longer worked repurposed into a paperweight. It stunned me. Never would we ever leave something so important simply sitting out like that, faceup even, without so much as a pinkie hovering over it in caution.

We were told to sit in a couple of gray-green chairs that faced off the row of desks. I carefully aimed my eyes a few feet above the officers’ heads, the same way I acted on a packed subway.

“What do you think this is about?” Marlin asked after a long time.

I tried to come up with a way to say what I wanted to say without getting us into more trouble, just in case the agents had been hired for their superhuman senses of hearing. Instead my tired mind, reluctant to perform any kind of sustained work, cast about for distractions. I read a sign that in stern font forbade cell phone usage. Next to it was a larger poster with denser paragraphs, which I skimmed just enough to understand that it was illegal for agents to commit sexual offenses against — I registered with a shock — Marlin or me, and that should we experience such offenses we should file a report via the following avenues…

Eventually I could no longer ignore Marlin’s questioning look. I answered quickly, keeping my voice as low as possible:

“Well, we’re from the same country, we have the same kind of passport, are on the same type of visa, we basically work in the same industry, and we just got off the same plane. What’s different?” I directed my eyes meaningfully at his hand, then at my own.

“You mean it’s because I have dark skin,” he said.

I shushed him. As if on cue, Marlin was summoned to the table closest to the door, where his passport flopped limp and casual, just like that. I itched to take my phone out so I could look up what was legal (meaning what should be tolerated) and what was not (meaning what should be tolerated after feeble protests) in our situation. But I was afraid to, because of the sign that said no cell phone use allowed.

An air steward popped his head in. I recognized him; he’d served us egg dishes in plastic containers and recommended the free white over the free red when I’d asked.

Still here? his disappointed and slightly amazed expression indicated, and I realized that he might not be able to leave until Marlin was cleared. I looked at my watch; it’d been an hour.

In front of me, Marlin was nodding along to something the officer said. The back of my husband’s head was the wrong shape, as if someone had bashed it in. The long flight had flattened his curls and flared them out to the side like bat wings. I didn’t know it then, but I would soon be staring at the back of his head quite a lot, yearning to have more direct access to the secret machinations of his mind.

Why would the air crew on our flight need to stick around until we were done? It wasn’t as if they could deport us (him) on the same plane back. The crew was tired and would need to rest after such a long job. Could it be that the air steward would be called a character witness? (The time I dropped my blanket into the middle of the aisle; the time I tried to race the dining carts to the bathroom; the time Marlin repeatedly pressed the air steward icon on his screen because something was wrong with his overhead light; how Marlin and I maybe asked for too many glasses of free wine; how he yelped when turbulence spilled hot water from his cup of noodles onto his arm…)

The air steward disappeared from the door frame. I settled on what seemed the most reasonable explanation to me: that he was responsible for collecting our luggage, should Marlin be deported, so that our baggage could be banished alongside our bodies.

A numb sort of panic set in. I realized I wasn’t sure whether we could afford plane tickets back to Malaysia. I had no idea if a deported person was required to pay their own fare for a forced removal. We might be able to afford one ticket, but definitely not two; not until we both got our next paychecks. There was a chance, then, or was it a choice, that I would have to remain while Marlin was sent away. Unless I caused a scene right then — I recklessly thought — and got deported alongside him. Maybe all I had to do was take out my phone. But I’d only want to do this if the US government covered a deportee’s air travel expenses. How to find out this information without disobeying any posted signs?

The panic buzzed a little louder. Maybe it was too late, and I’d already made the wrong choice. I’d come with Marlin into this room to be by his side. Should I have left instead, in search of a lawyer? I’d read that lawyers had camped somewhere in this very airport, volunteering their time and expertise to help people affected by the Muslim ban. But that had been in 2017, a whole year ago. Were there still lawyers around? Would they help us? Did we qualify? We were not Muslims, though we carried passports from what many saw as a Muslim country.

Marlin started walking back toward me. At the same time, an officer at the other end of the room got up and strode in my direction. My heart sank. It took all my willpower to keep my eyes on Marlin instead of on the approaching officer. Marlin reached me first, sitting down without saying anything. From my peripheral awareness I sensed the officer walking past me, and I thought bathroom with relief until I heard the start of a conversation.

I gaped at Marlin: We’re not alone. I turned around to see a door behind us, open. I must have registered it as a cleaning closet or server room or something, one of those spaces that are unseen until they are needed. But no, there was another person in there. Maybe the room was some sort of holding cell. I tried to eavesdrop but couldn’t make anything out.

“What did the officer say?” I whispered to Marlin.

“Says he’s waiting on confirmation of my details from some central branch.”

“What kind of details?”

“They want to know that I am who I say I am? I guess? He asked for my height and weight for some reason.”

“They don’t have access to a computer database? Why does he have to wait? Someone has to go into a huge room with rows of filing cabinets or something?”

“Edwina, I don’t know.” He sounded exasperated. The officer from before emerged from the holding cell (?) into my field of vision, his whistling preceding him and raising prickles on my scalp. I couldn’t help looking at him. He had sandy hair that ended in mismatched horns at the nape of his neck, the left one dipping lower than the right one. He also had narrow shoulders that dipped and rolled when he made for his desk, where he shuffled some papers spread around with no apparent organization. I didn’t spot a passport, although there was a Batman bobblehead figure, rendered in a style some people call chibi.

The officer straightened up when a woman walked in.

“There you are,” he greeted her.

The woman wore a different kind of uniform, in lighter shades of blue. I couldn’t tell if that meant higher rank or entirely different position, or what. Before he walked up to her, the officer absent-mindedly pawed Batman and set him going.

Suddenly there was a flurry of activity. All of the remaining seated officers got on their feet. I must have missed a signal somewhere, perhaps nothing more than a nod from the woman. The gang headed past us to the not-closet room, and we were left unsupervised, my husband and I.

My first irrational instinct was to snatch up Marlin’s passport and make a run for it, but when I swept my gaze along the desk by the door, the passport was no longer there.

“Should I call someone?” I whispered. “I think Katie said her cousin is a lawyer, remember? When we had dinner with her?”

He shook his head. “It was IP law or something. Corporate law. Definitely not immigration law, anyway.”

I reached for his knee and squeezed it. He was staring at his hands in his lap. I did this thing he normally hated, where I bored my eyes into his profile and willed him to register the intensity of my gaze until he looked up. It was something I liked to do from across our studio. He used to say it creeped him out. I joked that it was a test of our telepathic bond.

The whistling started up again from behind us, getting louder. I didn’t recognize the tune. There was an accompaniment going on—it took me a second to make out that it was the jingling of metal, maybe of keys.

Neither of us turned to witness the events. We both prolonged our ignorance for as long as possible, until a man was herded into the space between the officers’ desks and where we sat. He wore a hoodie, so we couldn’t see his face, but I, trained, conditioned, primed, looked immediately for his hands to determine his skin color. They were curled behind his back, and they were the color of certain hotel Bible covers.

“The next flight to Saudi Arabia is tomorrow, early morning,” the officer with the Batman bobblehead said. “Do you understand?”

There was no response.

“He’s a little slow, huh.” The officer with Marlin’s passport raised one hand and spun lazy circles around his own temple.

I looked away, wishing we could say or do something. Give the man in the hoodie some comfort. Instead I stared at the only other movement in the room. As I tracked chibi Batman’s judders, two opposing thoughts raced to my consciousness. I wondered if Batman was cheering the officers on with nods of approval, or was he trembling with rage, wobbling to intervene?

I imagined the sense of power and justice that must flood through the officer every day when he came into work and saw Batman on his desk. I imagined the temperature of cuffs going around wrists.

Maybe this, rather than the loss of his father, was what gave Marlin doubts about life in America. Maybe the episode poisoned all that we had built in New York, and he could no longer bear to live in that vulnerability. When feeling threatened, some people self-destruct rather than let themselves be destroyed. Or they pass on that feeling of helplessness to someone else, hoping to regain some power. Perhaps that was what happened. America made Marlin feel unwelcome, and so he left me.

Excerpted from Edge Case by YZ Chin. Copyright © 2021 by YZ Chin. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

YZ Chin

YZ Chin is the author of Edge Case and the story collection Though I Get Home, which won the Louise Meriwether First Book Prize and the Asian/Pacific American Award For Literature Honor Title. Her writing has been published in Harvard Review, Gulf Coast, Somesuch Stories, Electric Literature, Lit Hub, and elsewhere. Born and raised in Malaysia, she now lives in New York, where she worked most recently as a software engineer.