Ed slumped beside the barn because it was what Matty had told him to do, and Ed trusted Matty’s judgment. He could not have known then whether this was a good idea or not, but he trusted Matty; Matty was the closest thing Ed had to family, and that was enough.
Matty limped, half in the road, his thumb, purple and blue and ugly swollen and attached to an equally busted hand, out in front of him. “Please, ma’am, just a ride to the hospital. My brother’s got a bad appendix. Please, ma’am, some charity.” And when the white-haired woman drove past without doing so much as braking, he shouted after her, voice splintered, “And God have mercy on your soul!”
“Look a little sicker!” Matty snapped at Ed.
“I don’t even have an appendix!”
“No one’s got to know that!”
“Why do I gotta stay here on the corner? Aren’t you worried someone’ll recognize us?”
“You think a man with a busted appendix is gonna be able to hail his own car? Stay down, Ed. They said they didn’t know who did it yet. We got time.”
Their Plymouth had broken down just twelve miles from town last night, near an overgrown farm that looked like it hadn’t been harvested in years. They’d managed to push the car behind a sagging barn, where they’d stayed the remainder of the night.
“I don’t like being out here like this,” Ed said. “When d’you think we can get a ride?”
“God willing, the next one’ll stop. Now act sick.”
“What if you held up some money? Bet someone’d stop for that.”
“Someone’d shoot us for that, you moron.”
Ed knew this. He really just wanted to see the money again. “I hope we get a Benz. Leah’d love me in a Benz.”
“We wouldn’t even be in this situation if Leah got us a better car.”
“It was pretty short notice, ” Ed defended. “But a Benz—that’s her favorite car.”
“We’ll get what we get. Next car is a Lambo, we’re in it. If it’s a beetle, we’re in it.”
“It’s not gonna be a Lambo.”
“A car’s coming, I see the lights.”
“Is it a Benz?”
“Get over there and look like you just got kicked in the gut.”
Ed complied. Matty stepped farther out in the street. “Please! Please! Just a ride, please! That’s it! I’ll pay you for gas! My brother is so sick!”
The car slowed down for them. It was a white Buick LeSabre, innocuous, inconspicuous, and ugly. It pulled to a stop at the curb and the driver’s window cranked down. With the same sort of dread that he used to get when his father came home, he saw that there was another figure in the passenger’s seat.
Matty remained cool. “My brother needs to go to the hospital, sir, he’s got something awful goin’ on in his stomach. Pain like you’d not believe. Think he’s got a kidney stone, sir, he’s had ’em for a while—er, he gets them pretty often. I got money, sir, I can pay you for the gas” — Matty held up a few bills — “and I can give you more when we get there. But please, show us a little Christian charity, sir.”
The driver jerked his head. “Yeah, of course, get in.”
“Bless you!” Matty exclaimed. “God bless you, sir!”
Matty ran back to the corner and braced himself under Ed’s arm. “The hell’s going on?” Ed hissed.
“We gotta improvise, they’ll think it’s weird if we don’t get in, and we can’t get them both out now,” Matty murmured back. There was no one Ed trusted more than Matty. When they were kids and Ed’s folks fought, they would camp in the woods behind Matty’s place. Three years ago, during Ed’s first and only run-in with the law, when he had been in jail for a week, Matty had paid his bills and then his bail. There was no one in the world who had his back like that.
Matty flung open the door and pushed Ed into the backseat. Ed widened his eyes at him. “Groan, motherfucker,” Matty mouthed. Ed stared at him. Matty’s foot stamped down on his foot, hard, and Ed swore.
“Which way is the hospital?” the man asked.
“It’s about twenty minutes from here, if you take 35,” Matty said.
“I hope your brother can take it.”
“He can,” Matty said. With one hand he began cutting at the bottom of his seatbelt with his knife. Neither the man nor woman noticed.
“I can,” Ed said through gritted teeth.
“Not sure flannels are enough for this weather.” the passenger commented. It was a high, female voice, twangy. Ed winced and tried to get a look in the rearview mirror. “It’s so cold this time of year, and this early in the morning!”
“I think this is the coldest morning this year so far!” Matty said. “We work construction, in Mount Vernon, and our car doesn’t have a heater, and the heap of junk broke down the other day.”
“God bless you,” the woman said. “Will the hospital south work? I know it’s smaller.”
“That’ll do just fine.” Matty leaned over the seat. “Where are you all off to, heading south?”
“Virginia,” the woman said. “We’re getting married.”
“Wow! Congratulations. That’s just awesome. Really awesome.” Matty didn’t turn to Ed. Ed kicked him. He scarcely reacted. “Virginia is for lovers.”
“My name’s Bernadette,” the woman said, “and this is Emiliano.” She extended a hand and Matty finished cutting the seatbelt before shaking it.
“I’m Wilson,” Matty said, “and this is my brother, Harry. Are you both from this area?”
“We are. It’s just so hard to get married in a town this size, you know?”
“I’m ’fraid I don’t,” Matty said, laughing. It sounded snot-like and guttural and Ed hated the sound of it. Then he became serious. “I’m ’fraid Harry does, though.”
That was true. He and Leah had talked about that life, that is, whatever life might be like if they ever escaped town, often, so that sometimes they had deluded themselves into thinking the future was some fuzzy home instead of a wolf scratching at the door, fangs bared. In the summer they had gotten by pretending that time spent and pure emotion and vague romantic abstractions were enough to sustain a love bedeviled by an empty checking account, her ashamed father, and no places to go. When summer ended it was time to get serious, so when things were going steady it became necessary for concrete plans to materialize.
“People in town can’t mind their business,” Bernadette said. “It’s easier to leave.”
“Oh, they’re the worst,” Matty agreed. “Easiest to just take the money and run.”
Ed didn’t understand why Matty was taking so long. This wasn’t the way it should have gone. They should’ve thrown them out of the car as soon as they’d pulled over. They should have flagged down a car with only one person, an old lady or something, someone who’s definitely not got a gun in the glove box. He started cutting his own seatbelt. They should have knocked it off as soon as Emiliano and Bernadette had stopped. He didn’t understand why they were humoring them. If Leah didn’t know yet, it was only a matter of hours. He wondered if she would leave with him if he came to her in the night, the car idling in her driveway as Matty smoked. If she didn’t, if she sent him away with the threat of a call to the police and to tell them everything she knew, he hoped she at least told the baby that its father had wanted to love it very much. How could he ever explain what it felt like to be surrounded by walls on all sides, the floor opening up over a lightless, yawning pit?
Matty liked to say that endings were spelled out in the crooks of every oak’s limbs, predestined to bend and break off under next winter’s snow. And Matty knew a thing or two about ways out; he had the scars across his knees and cigarette burns on his back to prove it. It had been the day after she’d told him about the baby that Matty had asked him if he wanted to do a job with him. He took it as divine providence. Ways out don’t just present themselves every other week, and Ed knew he could find work as a farmhand in Idaho so long as he made it there, a thousand miles away with the same glittering stars overhead blinking his new name to Leah in celestial Morse code, their lights shared fixtures of a separated union.
“Did you hear about that gas station that got robbed last night?” Bernadette asked. “They said on the news this morning that the attendant ended up dying.”
“No, I didn’t,” said Matty, “but that don’t surprise me one bit. There are lots of rough folk around in these parts, I believe.”
They were getting closer to the ramp to the interstate. What were they supposed to do when they turned onto it? Throw Emiliano and Bernadette down the highway?
Bernadette turned the radio on and a folk song crackled softly. “How is Harry doing?” Ed could see that she was holding Emiliano’s hand over the console and he felt slightly sick.
“Who?” Ed asked, blank for a millisecond before Matty stepped on his foot and said, “Oh, Harry? He’s in- He’s in a lot of pain-”
“Feel like I’m gonna puke!” Ed said, and he started cranking the window down. Acid burned in his throat and mouth and spilled over his lips onto the side of the door, onto the blurring ground below. How was he supposed to do last night all over again?
“Can you pull over?” Matty asked.
Emiliano pulled over. Was he supposed to open the door? Or should he go for Bernadette now? Was he supposed to reach over the seat and throw her out? How would he get the front door open? Matty leaned back; Ed knew he was grasping for his gun.
“I’m going to have to ask you to get out of the car,” Matty said evenly.
“What?” Bernadette asked dimly. It was clear that she had not registered what he had said. Ed ached for her, a woman trapped in her own fantasy, eloping to Virginia for what he imagined were the same reasons he had agreed to hold up the gas station yesterday. No amount of money nor right-standing was going to change that he will unequivocally never be fit to marry her. It was so hard to get married in a town like this.
Emiliano turned and stared at him. “Is everything okay, son?” He looked angelic, majestic, terrifying. His eyes were torches. Ed realized this was the first he had seen his face. Woe to me! Ed thought, I am ruined.
“Get out of the car,” Matty said again, his voice hard. His pistol was out. Ed reached for the knife in his pocket. “Get out of the fucking car!” He threw the tattered seatbelt around her neck and tightened it. She tried to scream. “Ed, keep the gun on him while I tie her.”
Ed complied, his hands wavering under that fiery gaze as Matty took the belt from her neck. “Gimme your feet, ma’am.”
She lifted them. He tied her ankles together, tight. “Now get out of the car.”
Emiliano turned to her. “Get out of the car, hon.” Shaking, she managed to open the door and tumbled out onto the withered grass. She promptly fell and stayed there, a wounded dove fallen from her nest. Emiliano turned to look at them. He just kept staring at Ed and Matty with those beautiful, horrible eyes, and Ed thought he would surely burst into flames, sparking the faux leather interior, the Buick a fireball on the side of the road.
“What are you doing?” he asked Matty, with what Ed thought was genuine confusion. “You’re so young, son.”
“You don’t know a thing about me,” Matty said. “Get out of the car.” Matty didn’t seem phased by his eyes. Ed wanted to run as far away as he could. He couldn’t articulate what it was like to be so close to life’s threshold if someone asked him, but at that moment, stuck in the backseat of the car, Ed knew it was like being sucked into an infinitesimal orbit around the Sun, so narrow it was possible at any moment for gravity to drag him in without regard to his desired direction. And he could do nothing but watch as Matty leveled his pistol at Emiliano.
“You think killing me will fix your problems,” Emiliano said. “That this car will fix your problems. Think you ain’t big enough to change what’s going on? You think this is the only way?”
“I couldn’t help it,” Ed said. “I had no choice.”
“I don’t believe you,” Emiliano said solemnly, “and you don’t believe it, either.”
“I’ll kill you right here,” Matty said. “Don’t think I won’t.” He was electric.
“You did this to yourself,” Emiliano said.
Matty struck him in the face with his bruised hand. “You think we chose this?” he spat as he reached over the seat and jerked the door handle, “you think we chose any of this?” He climbed over the seat so that he was perched in the passenger’s seat and lifted his legs to kick Emiliano out. “Remember this. You chose this, too.”
Emiliano sprawled out of the car. His legs were tied in seconds. Matty took his place and shifted back into drive, and they flew down the road.