Fall, 2019. Prepare to escape.
Harold Vincent hated his first name. As a youth, he’d hoped “Harry” would catch on, but his parents called him Harold and friends went with Hal. Currently he used Vincent Norman; the change worked for an independent contractor. While flying across America, he remained the name on his birth certificate. That made him feel more vulnerable to tentacles from the past— dragging him back.
Albuquerque’s Sunport was easier to navigate than big city airports. It still had the audio wash of announcements converging, “Rental car shuttles are at the far curb,” while tourist videos played on a loop: “Welcome to the Land of Enchantment,” from a vaguely Indigenous female voice, possibly computer-generated. “Relax in the high desert and find your bliss.” Images of a couple soaking in hot springs, adobe houses with hanging chiles, cowboys on horseback, snow-capped mountains, and open air markets where young women in traditional dress danced.
TSA PreCheck had been an essential investment. Vincent hated those weird naked photos the full-body scanners took. The radiation from them can sterilize you. Where were the images stored? Some huge database beneath Langley, or in the DOJ’s blackmail files, that’s where. PreCheck status meant you could party like it was 1999.
“Need a burger, or some tacos,” Vincent told the TSA agent. He used food and sports trivia to connect on a superficial level.
The agent waved him through the old-fashioned doorway-shaped metal detector.
Shit, his Phoenix flight was delayed an hour. Vincent exited Security into the brightly lit bazaar. Food courts showed the pathetic desperation of travelers—to pay any price, to eat even when not hungry because it was available.
He desired a drink, and not a tiny $3 bottled water. Somewhere to gather his thoughts and study the passage of humanity to and fro. A restaurant lay at the fulcrum of the main thoroughfare; people perched on stools around the square-shaped bar. Never take the neighboring seat by a lone woman at an airport bar. No, Vincent chose a spot between two females, leaving unoccupied stools. Ignored them completely. He focused on the game playing on the mounted screen and read the menu.
Dangerous levels of mercury in tuna fish.
Though he’d been married, Vincent was not a ladies man. And at forty-nine, he sensed his minimal quota of charm and looks fading. He did yearn for one last adventure before riding off into the sunset.
“Jeez, they’re getting murdered.” He pointed up at the game.
“You from Philadelphia?” The bartender smirked.
“No. Originally from New York,” Vincent said. “How about a Maker’s Mark?”
Vincent stared at his phone screen, waiting for the miracle that never came: a sweet job offer, the dream girl texting, a sports car contest prize. He glanced over his shoulder; the sensation of being followed haunted him in airports.
“Heard you mention New York,” a woman said. She appeared fortyish, well put-together, sensible hair and a handsome face. “From upstate?”
“Nope, Manhattan.” He swiveled on his stool. “It’s been years though.”
“Born in Connecticut, but I relocated west.” She eyed him. “What do you do?”
“I’m a land surveyor. Also do structural engineer work.” Keep the lie close to the truth.
She nodded with a faraway look, not quite understanding, but satisfied that he existed in an acceptable income bracket.
Time to engage with the bartender—after he deposited Vincent’s whiskey glass. “A grilled cheese sandwich and French fries.” He tapped the image on the laminated menu.
“Sir, that’s the L’il Buckaroo menu…for children.”
“My flight’s delayed.” He leaned closer. “Help me out and I’ll take care of you.”
“Let the poor guy have his sandwich,” the woman said. “I’ll swear he’s a L’il Buckaroo to your boss.” Nearby customers laughed.
“Thank you,” Vincent said. “Didn’t catch your name.”
“Diara,” she said. He squinched his eyes. “Dee-ah-ra,” she repeated slowly.
Vincent faced the bartender, who looked uncomfortable, the center of attention.
“Okay, okay,” he finally said. “If my manager shows, tell him it’s for your kid.”
“Do you have children?” The woman’s forehead scrunched; she scrutinized his fingers.
“I was married, long ago.” Vincent gulped his whiskey. “Now I’m alone, unencumbered.”
Diara grinned. “I have two kids. That’s plenty.”
“Understood.” He raised his drink in salute. “To Diara.”
“The goddess of renewal,” she said, “and of fertilizer and compost.”
For whatever reason, Vincent only attracted women when in motion, as a transient figure. His successful relationships and affairs had been instigated at airports or train stations. Some patina of mystery glazed over him while traveling. A determined man, here, there, and gone in the heat vapors rising off the tarmac. On his way to kick ass and take corporate numbers. When Vincent actually came to rest, those same females soon lost interest. As a stationary object, he was devoid of enthusiasm, dreams, and that all-important curiosity in a partner’s feelings.
“Between work and raising kids since the divorce, I don’t want to waste my life binge-watching Netflix series.”
Diara’s words briefly piqued his attention. Vincent had planned all year to simplify, escape big cities, the noise, chatter, the tech gadgets and constant updates. The tyranny of screens. A typical modern adult spends thirty years staring at screens over their lifetime.
Freedom from credit card fees and corporations harvesting all his private information. Vincent waved the empty glass for a refill and felt observed. Two stern men watched from the outer esplanade.
“Online dating basically sucks,” Diara continued. “I’m looking for adventure, for someone who’s on the path. Someone who’s worked hard on themselves.” She seemed to be straining to see inside him, to find potential.
“I hear you,” he said, but had gone deaf to others’ needs years ago.
The friends Vincent confided his escape plans to thought he was joking. Who would want to turn their back on the glorious clusterfuck of instantly available data, on competing bubbles of 24-hour news, from social media, online dating, perpetual access to faraway strangers who never did and never would give a damn? The world now had total connectivity. Only a damaged soul could walk away from this, the best moment in human history.
“Don’t even care about happiness anymore.” Diara closed her eyes. “I’m just seeking contentment.”
“You’re pretty,” he said for no reason, and the blunt surprise of it made her smile. Vincent imagined her as a teenager in New England, running across a field wielding a Lacrosse stick, her girlish features flushed and sweaty, turned mannish by the intensity of the competition. But now, after her divorce, insecurities had caused her to grasp onto quasi-New Age beliefs.
Vincent was guessing, but he had to sum people up quick. Like those two curious strangers. The black man wore a suit and dark sunglasses; the white guy had short hair and a mustache. Arms crossed, their body language remote.
“You have to keep breaking your heart until it opens,” Vincent said, staring at the bar top.
“That’s Rumi.” Diara’s tanned mask of a face softened. “Do you practice meditation and chanting?” Her gaze radiated hope that he hated to crush.
“I have,” he replied. “All forms of spirituality interest me, though I’m not wedded to any one in particular.”
Vincent thought the dudes seemed familiar. But it felt important to discern between real threats and possibly just two random travelers idling. He washed down the bourbon, paranoia a part of his internal make-up. The whole world was after him, but nothing personal. Everyone was being followed, spied upon. The rules plain: no one gets to escape their interconnected, monitored life.
Diara kept talking. “I’ve been partnering with coworkers on a project. It’s exhausting. Adulting is much tougher than I expected.”
She now irritated him. Vincent noticed Diara turn to smile at the two strangers. He tensed up. “You know them?”
“Wow, you’re edgy. Just being friendly.” She finished her Bloody Mary. “My ex and I do nesting once a week to give our daughter Merlot and son Eckhart stability.” She hiccuped. “We stay overnight at the same residence, platonically, just for the kids. Parenting is so crazy these days.” She cocked her head at a semi-inebriated angle. “Flying to Denver now, not sure where I’ll be wintering.”
Vincent checked again. One man watched; the other spoke into a phone. He snapped. “Would you please stop turning nouns into verbs. I was a lit major. It’s making my head explode.”
Diara recoiled. “You don’t need to mansplain grammar to me, mister. I was a schoolteacher, taught civics and P.E.” She wagged a finger. “Don’t judge me until you’ve walked a mile in my yoga pants.” Diara stormed off, a rolling travel bag clattering behind her.
“Uh, you’ll have to cover the lady’s drinks,” the bartender said, plunking the grilled cheese platter onto the bar.
“Fine.” Vincent wolfed the mini-sandwich down, barely tasting it. After paying, he moved toward the A gates instead of B4, his departure gate.
“Mr. Harold Vincent to the white courtesy phone,” the intercom boomed.
When he picked up, the line buzzed. No one there.
Merging with the crowd of waiting passengers and those deplaning, Vincent lost sight of the trailing men. He’d seen a similar pair at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. Vincent humped it over to his gate and slouched into a seat far from the check-in counter.
Overlapping departure announcements sounded as he half-dozed from the drinks. Vincent roused back into consciousness and saw his Phoenix flight boarding. Clutching a paper boarding pass, he rushed toward the uniformed woman by the gate door. Never use a smart phone pass; they’re traceable.
Deplaning in Phoenix Sky Harbor, Vincent felt dehydrated. 96 degrees in mid-September. He considered a water fountain and remembered.
Fluoride dumped in state’s drinking water destroys brain cells.
Vincent crossed three moving walkways to reach Gate B17. Approaching it, he recognized the same men from Albuquerque questioning a female gate agent. He slipped into Hudson News and watched them reflected in a sunglasses rack mirror. The gate agent stared at her counter screen then told the men something. They nodded with approval and boarded.
Vincent felt no rush to reach Los Angeles, to train the guy who would replace him in January at Architectural Design Unlimited. Their main headquarters located in Phoenix. He’d tell ADU he missed the flight. What were they going to do? The irony. Vincent was at his most valuable just before being downsized.
He wandered through the concourse searching for a quality bar with wood paneling and dim lighting. None of this open plan, brutally lit, esplanade bullshit. Near an elevator bank stood a young woman with dark hair, bangs, and an olive complexion. From her clothing, he caught a bohemian vibe, and she neither stared at her phone nor chattered on it.
She turned and scrutinized Vincent. Her expression held no alarm or flirty interest, but more a scientific detachment. A professor examining a zoo animal before making lab entries. The moment ended when she slipped into the elevator.
Vincent found a stairwell. On Level 3, he saw Compassion Corner, which held a chapel and a sensory room for quiet contemplation. The surrounding stores were either closed or under construction, so he entered the chapel. It resembled a conference room with rows of steel-frame chairs facing a man at a lectern. Vincent took a seat in the same row as the mysterious woman but on the opposite end.
“I am Chaplain Younger,” the man said. “This is an all-faith place of worship, so no sermons, just affirmation and hope.” He mopped his brow. “It’s good to see six of you today. Most passengers who have fears about flying go to the airport bars not this chapel.”
They all laughed.
Chaplain Younger discussed how statistically safe air travel was compared to driving.
Vincent couldn’t engage with the woman there, so instead made a gamble. He walked over into the connecting sensory room. Two kids played games on their phones, but otherwise deserted. He sank into a comfortable leather chair and closed his eyes, attempting to meditate. Ten minutes passed. Maybe he fell asleep.
“You don’t seem a typical churchgoer,” a soft voice said.
Vincent startled awake to see her on the next chair, pitched forward praying mantis-style. “I love the design of chapels, but that was like a conference room.” He spoke quietly even though the kids had left. “Let me guess, you’re from Europe, but studied at American universities.”
“The Church is part of you, being Italian, being Catholic, though now you’re lapsed.”
She allowed a breathy laugh. “I’m Luna Paz.”
“Ah, so Spanish,” he said. “But the rest…”
“Mediterranean,” she said. “And I’m a Pagan. But all places of worship interest me.”
“I’m Vincent Norman.” He sat up straight to concentrate. “So then—”
“Don’t get your hopes up.” She smiled. “I rarely speak to strangers, and I’ve never left an airport with one.”
“Who says I’m leaving?”
“You don’t look in a hurry to get anywhere.” She nodded. “What’s wrong? Are you not an American businessman?”
“Yes and no.” He smirked. “Why are you wasting time on Level 3?”
“My connecting flight to Flagstaff got canceled. Last one today. Customer service gave me a rental car voucher. Haven’t picked it up yet.”
“A two-and-a-half-hour drive. Nice during fall. What’s up there?”
“I’m a travel writer,” she said. “I track down spas, resorts to write articles about. Flagstaff will be my home base to make day trips from.”
“Where does business take you? What are you?”
“An architect.” The truth for once. “I bailed on my Los Angeles flight. Paranoia or something.”
“I love architecture.” Luna’s face lit up. “Gaudi’s work in Barcelona is amazing, and your Frank Lloyd Wright is—”
“I don’t do anything creative. I write construction specifications and technical manuals for my employers. They build box stores on the outskirts of Phoenix and Albuquerque, where people buy massive supplies of food and medicines. Ugly buildings with no windows that come in big or bigger.”
“How tragic.” Her mouth went sad. “For how long?”
“Doesn’t matter. I’m walking away from the position before Christmas. Walking away from everything.” He pointed around. “All of this.”
“Thanks for offering to drive me,” Luna said as they sped north on Interstate 17. “I’m curious though. Your job?”
“I took two personal days,” Vincent said. “Can go hiking and clear the cobwebs out.” He glanced across at Luna in her remote passenger seat world.
She frowned. “You spoke of vanishing, tearing up credit cards. Cash only. Where would you go, Hawaii?”
“Maybe…” His mind drifted to the past. Time elapsed.
“Vincent?” Luna nudged him. “Thought I lost you on a stretch back there.”
“Did you leave them behind?” she asked.
Vincent’s neck jerked. “I never left anyone behind.”
“I meant your dreams.” Luna smiled and shook her head.
Vincent awoke early, a grayish pre-dawn light filtering through the curtained windows. Perhaps alerted by nearby rustling, movement. He remained contorted on the living room couch of their La Posada hotel suite. Heavy breathing; eyes nearly shut.
Luna padded out from the bedroom on bare feet and approached to examine him. Satisfied, she slipped into sneakers and edged out the door. He saw slender limbs in a T-shirt and shorts, a pony tail sprouting under her baseball cap. Jogging at sunrise was smart.
Men launched themselves on late-morning runs around the Phoenix outskirts only to wake up in a hospital after a minor heart incident. Women in visors played tennis under the afternoon swelter and came to with a bedside nurse discussing their mild heat stroke.
Vincent waited to make sure Luna wouldn’t return. Something felt odd. A goodnight kiss on the cheek at their Flagstaff hotel, then again here in Winslow, and her request that he sleep on the couch. Yet she wanted to be near him, acted touchy-feely, seemed fascinated. Was he chasing her or vice versa?
He rose and rummaged through her belongings. Travel writer, my ass. He dug into a knapsack and two hippie clutch bags. Not finding a wallet, he scooped out a slim leather card holder containing her driver’s license: Luna Romano from San Jose, California, with a temporary DMV card listing her Phoenix address for the last months. So Luna was Italian. She hadn’t lied about her age or first name. Vincent respected that. Keep a backbone of truth and the fabrications become manageable. They were much the same, but on opposite trajectories.
He studied plastic cards from Google, from Facebook. One listed her as an Identity Agent, the second as Information Specialist. Another card from an IRS special agent. He found folded print letters from collection firms in New York and Albuquerque saying they’d be happy to comply with her recent requests.
Damn, he thought. Too good to be true. Vincent carefully put everything back. He recreated his cramped position on the couch, blanket draped onto the carpet. Breathing through his nose, he imitated borderline snoring. Luna slipped inside minutes later, hovered over him, and disappeared. Vincent soon heard the shower pounding. He quietly called Enterprise, then the front desk clerk.
They dined in the hotel’s Turquoise Room. After ordering breakfast, Vincent made eye contact. “I’ll be moving on today.”
Luna leaned forward and stroked his arm. “But I thought this was leading somewhere.” She squinted, trying to read him. “Sorry about the couch. Didn’t want to rush things. I’m getting over a—”
“You’re really good.” Vincent gulped his fresh orange juice. “You track down hidden resorts? No. But you are a tracker.”
“What did you find?” Her voice cracked.
“Enough.” Vincent nodded. “Those guys following me at the airport. Partners?”
“I work alone, being a travel writer.”
Vincent laughed and it must have sounded harsh.
“Okay, okay.” Her pouty face ran calculations. “You figure things fast.” Luna took his hands in hers. “We could work together, be a team.” She lowered her lids. “And I’m not ruling out anything else either.”
“I just have to go back, make amends. Pay fines.”
“You can’t run away from debts. And what about your kids?”
“Kids? One turned eighteen last year and the other will be an adult in a year.”
She sighed. “There’s the money thing…”
Plates descended on their table, steaming eggs and pancakes, bacon and cornbread.
Vincent wondered if she wore a wire. “Is this about my name change?”
“That’s the problem, Harold.” Luna morphed into a cross schoolteacher. “The years add up. A hundred thousand unpaid, plus penalty fees. The IRS is unstoppable.” She leaned forward and whispered, “I’m your best option. I can broker a deal. You could help find other cheats, and by doing so, help yourself.”
“You’re no cop.”
“You guessed right before.” She rubbed her face in exasperation. “Running away from life, from responsibilities put you on my radar. You deactivated your Facebook and Instagram accounts, the name change in New Mexico. New e-mail every two months, changed passwords every few weeks. Deleted your browser history on Google nightly. Impressive, but red flags. Information agents are watching anyone who exhibits certain behavioral patterns, social media withdrawal.” She exhaled. “You should have thrown away your iPhone, traveled by car, not plane.”
Vincent ate his poached eggs and crisp bacon. Facing the restaurant’s entry, he watched the hotel manager approach.
“Excuse me,” the manager said, “Mr. Vincent, please come to the front desk.”
“Is everything okay?” Luna protested. “Can I help? They know me at Facebook and Google.”
The manager half-smiled. “It’s just a minor matter.”
“Guard my food,” Vincent said. “Be right back.”
Luna laughed. “Of course you will, Harold. I have these.” She jingled the car keys.
At the front desk, the manager said, “You asked me to summon you when Enterprise Rent-A-Car came.”
Vincent nodded. They picked up renters. “Yes, thank you for playing along. It’s a surprise upgrade for my ladyfriend. Let me settle our room bill now.” He counted out the cash. Vincent had bought himself a little escape time. Extreme paranoia sometimes paid off. He walked outside.
A Month Later
By mid-October, Vincent had established himself in Jerome, built high on a massive upthrust of ore. A former copper mining town, now a tourist stop. Population: 460. Situated between Sedona and Prescott, Arizona, because hiding nearby seemed wise. A normal fugitive would have fled to Mexico or Alaska. Vincent grew a beard, did abstract painting in a studio toward the top of the winding paved road that climbed the hill. Went by Harry Vindell. Cash only.
He had a clear view of the town center from his upstairs window. Vincent saw her arrive in a Chevy Outback with one man from the airport, asking questions outside the post office while displaying photos. Passersby shook their heads. Eventually they motored downhill. Vincent packed up and left two days after.
Farmington, New Mexico near Four Corners seemed safe. Grizzled uranium cowboys dreaming of past glories and dour Native Americans gave him no notice. He worked at Uncle Burt’s Auto Repair, paid off the books. Face and hands blackened with motor oil, a green jumpsuit and a faded cap. He’d shaved his beard and wore a crewcut. Unrecognizable.
The week before Thanksgiving, Burt approached him near day’s end.
“A young lady came asking questions yesterday while you went to lunch. Left these photos. Recognize him?”
Grainy images, taken off low res video feeds in Arizona gas stations. Damn, Luna was thorough. Keep the lie close to the truth.
“He looks vaguely familiar.”
“Really?” Burt showed no hidden agenda. “Well, she’ll be back tomorrow to interview mechanics she missed. You mind speaking to her?”
“Not at all.” Vincent smiled. He walked off work and never returned.
He bought cheap land with derelict outbuildings near Tonopah, Arizona. Fifty miles west of Phoenix on I-10, then ten miles north over a brutal dirt tread only a jeep could handle. Remnants of a ghost ranch. An empty mine shaft in a black volcanic mountain toward the east, and leftover stable paddocks along with a rusted derelict pumpjack from oil drilling days. He made the largest structure livable, installed a generator, pumped a minor amount of water from the property’s well, and stocked up on supplies. Months passed. 2019 turned to 2020. By mid-March, Vincent sensed freedom from pursuit, from retribution. He relaxed, wrote essays, painted, and rode a dirt bike over the lunar terrain.
Vincent played solitaire one day and watched a car approach for fifteen minutes, trailing dust. No point in fleeing anymore.
A masked woman staggered out into the afternoon sun, deciding which building to enter.
He went to the doorway, held his hands up in surrender. “I could’ve run, but you’d just find me again. You here to take me back?”
Luna kept her distance. “Back where?” She had aged. Thirty-one going on forty. Tiny crows feet around her eyes from squinting into the sun day in and day out, hair unkempt, and frown lines on her forehead. “I’ve been let go by Facebook, by Google, by every firm I freelanced for. The economy’s in shambles.” Luna slumped into a wooden chair, breathing heavily.
Vincent brought her water.
“You won. To find you, I became you.”
“Like Kurtz. Or Moran in Beckett’s Molloy.” Vincent saw she didn’t recognize his references. “What about those airport men?”
“Detectives hired by your grown-up kids,” she said. “They wanted to meet the father who left before they formed any strong memories.”
“That’s it.” Luna wiped sweat from her brow. “Nobody ever beat me before. Are you happy?”
“No, not at all.” Vincent’s escape plan had been for himself. He never sought collateral damage. “I can take you home, to Phoenix, or even San Jose.”
“Have you read the papers lately?”
“Not since February. Your mask. Did that thing come here?”
“Yes, it’s everywhere,” she said. “There’s really nowhere to go back to now. It’s fucked.”
Vincent had burned with an odd desire for Luna in September; now he was confused. Both of them broken, like the hulking rusted machinery haunting his desolate property. For once in his detail-oriented, pre-planned life, Vincent felt unsure, with no clear idea how to proceed.
“Sure.” Luna moved to the table. “Winner take all…”
Max Talley is a writer and artist who was born in New York City and lives in Southern California. His writing has appeared in Fiction Southeast, Atticus Review, Entropy, Litbreak, Santa Fe Literary Review, and Litro. Talley’s curated anthology, Delirium Corridor, debuted last December, and his fiction collection, My Secret Place, is forthcoming this summer from Main Street Rag Books.