Matthew could feel the drumbeat of his heart everywhere. He and Paul ran as fast as they could through the thick vegetation, leaping over tree roots and stumbling on vines and unexpected potholes. Leaves rustled and twigs snapped.
They didn't know if Matthew's dad was still chasing them; they had last glimpsed him waving around his inherited revolver, calling out that he was going to "fucking kill them". Paul was sure he'd never seen anyone so angry in his whole entire life. They were too afraid to stop and listen out to see if they were still being followed. Paul was beginning to struggle to breath. "Matthew, we gotta stop," he panted, slowing down. "Fuck, babe, I can't breathe."
They sat down between the trees and caught their breath, listening intently for footsteps. It was dark under the cover of the trees, except for where the lacework of leaves let in the intense, silvery moonlight. They were quite hidden, and Paul was sure they could just wait for Matthew's dad to pass them, if he was still chasing them, and then run back towards the church. If they were quiet.
"What're we gonna do?" Matthew whispered, sobbing quietly again. "I can't go home now."
Paul suddenly became fierce, grabbing Matthew's hands between his own and kissing him. "We'll go. I promise, if you have to go then I will come with you." It was suddenly clear to him what had to happen. "We'll run back to your house and take the car. My sister will give us money, and then we can go."
It had never occurred to Matthew – despite how many times he'd said it that night – that they might actually, really go. A desperate fear clamped over his heart and he started to cry even more, his breaths getting out of synch.
"Calm the fuck down," Paul whispered, clapping a hand over Matthew's mouth to make him breathe evenly through his nose. Quieter that way.
Neither of them knew how long they sat there, Matthew cradled in Paul's lap like a child.
When a hot, orange-and-blue dawn began to rise around them, Paul gently woke Matthew and they got to their feet. Gingerly, sore from staying in one position too long, they made their way back to the church. The clock told them it was 4AM. Everything felt grainy and unreal, and their nerves were wrecked in a way that only happens when you don't sleep at night.
They walked in silence from the church to Matthew's street, hiding in the shadows in case someone saw them. Matthew sighed in relief when he saw his father's car, the powder blue Cadillac that had gotten them into so much trouble, in the driveway. He suddenly remembered what Dixie had said about those thugs smashing the car up, but it looked OK. Good enough to get them out of here, for good.
"Stay here," he told Paul halfway down the street, and he crept up to the back door of his house to let himself in. Paul waited for what felt like hours, seemingly holding in one single breath. He was just about to go after him when Matthew emerged again with his school bag and something silver that flashed in his hand, glinting in the rising sun.
Paul couldn't see from where he was, but he knew it was the mother-of-pearl inlaid pistol. For some reason, the thought of Matthew stealing away the very gun his father had threatened his life with unsettled him. It felt dangerous. It was dangerous.
He jogged across the street to get in the car with Matthew, praying for the household to stay asleep. The engine seemed especially loud as it revved into life, and they both froze in horror, but nobody came. Paul could hardly believe that they were going to get away with this, that Fate (normally so cruel to them) was going to let them slip away into the North Carolina dawn like this.
"Why the gun?" Paul asked, his voice barely above a whisper that the morning air snatched away as they sped towards the farm.
Matthew was intently watching the road. "I dunno… I think, in a weird way, my Pa was trying to save me… From judgement, and all that. From sins."
"Nobody saves anyone with a pillbox revolver," Paul said bitterly.
"That's why I took the damned gun."
Paul didn't get it, so he shut up until they reached the farm.
Matthew drove the Cadillac right into the cobbled farmyard, so that Paul could be in and out as fast as possible. He had to shush Benson, their paranoid guard dog, with a bone from the larder, but after that it took him a matter of minutes to do everything he needed to. He woke his sister, explained the situation with a few omissions, a few lies, ("It's nothing to do with me, Matthew had a fight with his dad", "I'm coming back, just as soon as he gets settled in the city…") and she willingly gave him the money he needed. It was under a hundred dollars, but it was enough for now, for another tank of gas. He folded it and put it in the breast pocket of his shirt, kissed his sister's forehead tenderly, and shut her bedroom door quietly behind him.
He paused in the doorway of his own bedroom, realising that he would never sit in the stone windowsill and stare out at the rainy vineyard ever again. That he would have to leave behind his books and magazines and most of his music. For a second Paul wondered how the hell Matthew ever came to be so important that he was prepared to do this for him. But there just wasn't time for thinking. He paused for a moment and then did what Matthew had done, emptying his schoolbag and throwing his clothes and a few treasured tapes in it.
Back outside, he didn't bother opening the Cadillac's door; he just threw his stuff in the back with Matthew's and jumped in.
Matthew had kept the car running, but he didn't move to drive off immediately. "Are you sure?" he whispered, head turned away from Paul as if he couldn't bear it, as if the answer might be no.
"Matthew," Paul said gently, and it was answer enough. Matthew slowly manoeuvred the car out of the farmyard and back onto the road. They had to drive all the way back through town to get onto the interstate, which Paul secretly thought was a cruel twist of fate. It meant they had to stare at everything they were leaving behind, it heightened the risk of getting stopped by the cops. He picked up Matthew's provisional driving licence and held it tightly.
They went past the diner where this whole mess had started, its melamine booths and 1960s decorations dimly visible through the window, its black tarmac car park still cracked, still sprouting verdant weeds. They went past the 7-11 with the abandoned Pontiac, the turquoise paint blossoming with flowers of rust. They went past the church. To Paul, everything that had just happened there already felt like a lifetime ago.
Finally, Matthew turned onto the interstate and really put his foot down. As the town and the vineyard and the church dropped out of view, growing smaller and smaller in the rear view mirror, Paul began to think about the past few hours. Began to pick over the already-fading memories, sort through everything that had happened. He didn't know what was going to happen now: whether the Cadillac was going to run out of gas five miles out of Churchville, where they were going to stop, how they would manage when they eventually did… But somehow, with Matthew quiet and calm beside him – more at peace than Paul had ever seen him – it didn't really matter.
Half an hour later the sun rose over the black tarmac horizon, blazing crimson-yellow-orange. It was an omen to Paul and Matthew – it was warm and purifying and new, and it felt good on their skin. This was the dawn of their first day of freedom. Each passing second a took them a little bit further away from the dark, dank town of their childhoods.
Matthew saw a sign indicating a rest stop at the next turning. "You hungry, babe?" he shouted over the rip-roar of the wind.
"Since when d'you call me "babe"?" Paul shouted back.
"Since now. You hungry or not?"
Paul laughed. "Yeh. I'll buy you a damn hamburger."