Tempus : A story by Cassidy Johnson

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Tempus : A story by Cassidy Johnson

Tempus : A story by Cassidy Johnson

Cato should have focused on the road. He should have, but he couldn’t focus with the windows down and the wind whipping in and out. He should have rolled it up, but Kimi was adamant about having it down when she was feeling queasy. It was the outcome of countless nights in seedy motels and bad fast food, of a failed testament to their youth and wild dreams. The closer they came to the north the more expensive gas became, the more the weather began to turn sour, and the more Cato and Kimi seemed to fight.

Now, more than a week into their journey, they were driving up the coast of New Hampshire on their way to Maine and Canada border. The radio was between stations again, and their breakfasts hadn’t settled right in their stomachs. An eighteen-wheeler blew out black smoke ahead of them and Cato almost drove into the median when he caught a whiff of it. Kimi cast him an ugly look but said nothing. Cato rolled his eyes as he righted them in their lane and took the car off cruise control.

The radio decided to settle on the news station, just in time for the weather. Anything East of I-95 is looking at some heavy rain and winds this afternoon as a storm brews off the coast. Be prepared to ride this one out, folks, looks like it’s gonna stall.

“Great,” Kimi said, shoving her chin into her hand. She wasn’t a fan of being in a car when it rained, and Cato wasn’t a fan of being anywhere near her when it did. “Why don’t you pull in at the next town?”

Cato quietly mocked her and checked his blind spot so he could get around the truck. “We could just outrun it.” It was something he had said plenty of times before—it was what had led them out east in the first place.

“Why the hell would we try that?” Her usual response, but like everything else on this trip put a bad taste in Cato’s mouth.

“Because, I don’t know, we said we would keep going for the border? Don’t you remember anything?”

“What I don’t remember is you being such an ass.”

Cato scoffed and turned the radio up. Traffic’s looking good for your commute into downtown—

Kimi reached over and twisted the knob so hard that it popped off into her hand.

“Now look what you’ve done,” Cato said and pressed the button on his door to roll all the windows up. “Add ‘breaking my car’ to the list.”

“Oh, would you just shut up? It’s a stupid knob, you’re the one who turned it up too loud.” She pressed her button to roll the window back down, but Cato kept his finger on his switch. Kimi glared at him and tossed the knob at the front windshield where it bounced back into the floorboards. “Fine, be an ass.”

Cato bit the inside of his cheek but couldn’t stop the words from spilling out of his mouth. “I ought to just kick you out right here, see if you can make it on your own.” He didn’t mean it, but he did want to stop someplace they could be apart for a little while.

“Try me, D’Prioux. Maybe it won’t be the volume I break next.” She rolled her eyes and folded her arms across her chest. “Jay wouldn’t be such an ass.”

“Y’know what? We are stopping at the next town, and I’m leaving you there.” He had come on this trip for all the wrong reasons, and it was about time that he own up to it—at least to Kimi. The Texas government could wait.

Kimi opened her mouth to retort, but the grey skies growled over her. Her skin bristled and she retreated into her seat, lips pressed together in a fine line. She looked out the front windshield through her lashes as if she were trying to flirt with God for some clear skies. Cato smirked.

Kimi was quiet, but he knew what she was thinking—she wished Jay had come away with her and Cato was the one in jail. When he glanced her way he knew he was right; she had her lip between her teeth and her hands clasped together in her lap like a prayer, the same way she looked every time she talked about Jay. Jay this, Jay that. WWJD? He was tired of hearing what Jay would have done, and decided that he didn’t mind him taking the fall. Cato was risking everything to get them both to Canada, where they could fight extradition while they managed to sneak off to some other country, and she was acting like she was going to go off on her own at the border without so much as a thanks.

He took the next exit and they started down a cliff-side road. The drop was steep and the asphalt looked newly paved. Kimi stared at the storm with fearful awe, the rumbling even starting to worry Cato. He wasn’t sure if he was really going to kick her out, especially with a nor’easter storm on its way, but he was damned tired of her bitching. This trip was supposed to prove that nothing could stop them, that they had the power to push boundaries and be the type of people that didn’t listen to the traditions of their hometown. It was supposed to be a testament to their ability to escape any penalty, to their wasted youth and privilege and everything that came with making bad decisions and getting away with it, but it had instead done the exact opposite. Now Cato just wanted to feel free.

He figured he could drop her off at a store or something and come back for her when the rain let up—get some alone time and teach her a lesson while he was at it. Two birds and all that.

He rounded a curve and the road opened up into a small town, one side of every building clearly blasted by the salty air for years. It looked good enough; not too old, not too luxurious. It looked like the movies where the cops were on the wrong side of competent and newcomers cold blend into the society if they tried hard enough. In the distance there was a ripped ticket sign with only BLOCK illuminated. He turned left about a half mile before it and pulled into what looked like some mangled version of a supermarket and pulled up the emergency brake. Kimi finally looked away from the window and stared at him.

“You can’t be serious.”

“If you’re scared I can walk in there with you.”

“I can’t believe you.”

“Jesus Christ on a stick, woman, believe it.” He decided he wanted to milk this. It was just barely drizzling now, but if the tales of New England storms had meant anything back home, he didn’t want to stay long. But, that didn’t mean he didn’t want to buy anything either. Get a water, an apple, a little boost in his ego, and be on his way to the border. “C’mon, I’ll walk you in and buy you a water.”

“Fucking gentleman.”

Despite the enormity of the building on the outside, the inside looked fairly small and resembled a ma-and-pop shop or old-timey convenience store. An old white man sat at the counter and smiled when the bell above the door rang. “Welcome to Tempest Fruits. I haven’t seen y’all before, traveling through? Need me ta direct ya to a phone booth?”

Kimi opened her mouth, no doubt to snap some insult at the old man when Cato laid his hand heavily on her shoulder and spoke over her. “No, Sir, was hoping I could leave her here while she waits for her ride. I’m looking to ride out past the storm.”

“No problem a’tall. We got a generator here, she’s in good hands.” He smiled the kind of smile Cato’s parents talked about before they left Texas, the kind that their grandparents did when kids didn’t have to worry about stranger danger. It put whatever worry that had crept up Cato’s chest to rest.

“C’mon, Kimi, what do you want? My treat.”

“I want—” Jay. She wanted Jay.

Cato walked through the aisles without listening. His mouth watered at sugary options but his stomach ached in protest. He ended up grabbing a couple of water bottles out of a fridge in the back, passing a little area for kids with toy cars out on a little felt roadway rug. He smiled at the thought of this guy’s grandson playing here and thought of his own nephew he had left back in Texas—it made him falter in his movements. Maybe he was being too harsh. Kimi had reason to miss Jay, and Cato was sort of being an ass. He was cranky from the drive and stress, but so was Kimi. When he looked over the rows and had the vague thought that this store looked like something out of The Twilight Zone, he saw Kimi looking out the doors of the store with fear masked by anger. That look had taken Cato nearly a month to understand, and had been one of the reasons he had decided to let her come with him and Jay when they set off their last display—when they set a car on fire and let it roll into the high school in the middle of the night—and what led them here in the first place. 

Besides, Jay had told him to take care of Kimi, to make sure she didn’t get hit with anything the police threw at them. “They can’t take down all of us,” Jay had said, but Cato knew they could. They could, and they would, if they didn’t make it to the border and keep on going. That didn’t make Kimi’s words hurt any less, but not he was thinking about the police catching them here and hauling them both back to Texas. He didn’t regret doing what they did—stealing, vandalizing, beating people up and setting things on fire—but something told him he would regret not having Kimi at his side when he made it to the border. 

He snagged an apple and banana on his way back to the counter. He knew he wouldn’t leave her here for long, but he still wanted to milk this so he motioned with a bored expression for Kimi to grab whatever it was she wanted, and she scurried through the aisles only to return with some sugarfree gum and a bottle of apple juice. The old man rang him up and he paid with his dwindling cash. Finally looking at something that wasn’t fried in oil made his stomach growl. He tried to laugh it off. “Been on the road since morning and haven’t had good food since we were home.”

“You on one of yer self-finding journies?”

Cato faltered but smiled through it. “Used to be.” He used to try to find himself in the spines of Stephen King novels and ended up down amber bottles and in the brawls behind the buildings in the sketchy part of town. Now he was the Running Man with freedom as his reward. He handed the banana to Kimi but turned back to the old man. “If you don’t mind me asking, you don’t sound like you’re from around here.”

The old man leaned on the counter and pulled a box of cigarettes from his shirt pocket. “Well, sonny, neither do you. I was on my own journey when I was your age and I ended up here in Maine. Though I never could get the south outta my voice.”

“I thought we were still in New Hampshire?”

“No-sir-y.” He shook his head and stuck a cigarette in his mouth. He made no move to find a lighter. “Border was coupla miles back. Lots’ a folks make the mistake.”

Thunder rumbled overhead. Kimi stiffened and folded her arms over her chest. She looked so small that he thought of the school animals that had gotten burned by their antics and felt something close to guilt. That didn’t stop him from wanting to teach her a lesson, but it was something other than anger.

“Well, bye,” he said.

She eyed him like she expected him to take pity on her and just leave her here for the storm. When she realized he was serious her hostility returned. “You’re horrible! Jay wouldn’t—”

“I don’t give a flyin’ rat’s ass what Jay would have done, you ungrateful—”

She was fixing to slap him, but the old man at the counter piped up over them and somehow they both stopped long enough to listen. “That’s no way to talk to someone, and you can’t compare what you don’t see.”

Cato’s first instinct was to ask him what his problem was, butting in on their argument and all, but the moment he looked at the old man with the lit cigarette hanging out of his mouth he shut his mouth. What was he doing, flipping between feeling sorry for her, wanting to teach her a lesson, and genuinely convinced she was the finest scum on Earth? He needed to get away from her before he said what he was really thinking.

God, he needed to let off some of this tension. Break something, hurt someone, anything. He glared at Kimi as he made his way out and knew she was thinking the same thing—if he came back at all, it would be a miracle.

“Cato—”

“Save it, Kimi.” He was trying to stop himself from snapping at her, but he knew that his patience was wearing thin.

“No, Cato—”

“No, Kimi. I’ve carted your ass halfway across the country for you, to get you to safety. I don’t care what you say or what you think I care about. I am so sick and tired of you badgering me about the stupidest shit, makes me wish I had taken the fall instead of Jay.” He looked back at the old man and felt some semblance of guilt, but pushed right over it, even when he saw Kimi’s face contorting in an ugly way to hide the tears. “Fuck you, the horse you rode in on, and the person who supplied the oats. I don’t care what Jay would have done, he’s not here and I’m the one with the keys.”

He stormed out of the shop, not feeling any better when the door slammed behind him. He got in his car and hit the side of his steering wheel with the palm of his hand but that didn’t help him either. He was too riled up. He figured that a town this size and this impression of a lax police force would have something he could get into and not get caught. The coming storm would be his cover, even if he misjudged the police force, but as he looked for trouble he ended up on the other side of town with firs and spruces lining the road. No matter how far he drove he couldn’t seem to escape the trees. By the time the rain started up his urge to go break something had fallen away and he felt empty. He found a sign welcoming him to Maine, and wondered lamely if he had somehow driven in a circle in his hate. He regretted saying at that to Kimi, especially with that old man nearby, but he felt that it needed to be said by one of them. But he was starting to be conscious of the gas meter and of his own guilt and decided to stop at the next path so that he could get out of the way if anyone else came up the road.

The radio began to fitz out again, stumbling from “Hell’s Bells” on one station to the chanting of another in a barely audible roar until Cato just shut it off. He figured he could try to find the knob while he waited, but there was no way he could outrun the storm at this rate.

The drizzle quickly turned into a downpour like a sudden shake of a snowglobe, washing over his windshield like a carwash stream. Cato slammed the breaks and pulled over at the first spot he could and put on his hazards. The temperature inside the car seemed to drop the longer the rain went on, no matter how high he turned the heat. He shivered in his seat and tried to see out past his driver’s side window.

Through heavy streams, he could make out the road and a light coming up in his side mirrors. He hoped he was far enough out of the road, or that his hazards were bright enough to be seen in this deluge, but as the lights grew bright enough to be seen in his rearview they vanished when the car came right up on him. He looked around his seat to see if it had stopped in his blind spot, but even when the rain didn’t completely coat his windows he couldn’t see anything. The heater had fogged up the windows so badly that even when Cato wiped his arm across it but couldn’t make anything out. He felt incredibly trapped.

But—he was alone. He could breathe, even if he felt a little uncomfortable, without someone breathing the same air. He loved Kimi, he had to for even agreeing to go on this damn trip with her, but Jesus that girl could hold a grudge. It was all nice through Arkansas, but then Nashville came and went and something had pissed her off—they were pretty sure they were in the clear by then, but it seemed that she got angrier and angrier each time they switched license tags. Her fuming had infected him more as the miles went on, as their money had begun to run out, as fast-food dollar menus began being all they could afford if they wanted to have enough to make it out. Now they were here, so close to being free, and he was lonely.

Lonely, in a good way, he tried to reason with himself. Sure he had left her at that weird grocery store, but they both needed space, and he kind of liked watching storms. Since Kimi hated them they usually stopped somewhere and took shelter, but it was nice to be out, finally, with a roar in his ears different from his blood pressure. Still, he felt bad for leaving her there; he should have stayed if not for the sake of their relationship then for the shelter it offered. It hurt him to admit it, but Kimi had been right—Jay wouldn’t have left her there, and it was wrong to do it.

He settled into his seat again and turned down the heat. He shut his eyes and listened to the rain pelting his car and the asphalt, to the branches of the trees creaking in the wind like old screen doors. He sat, he listened, he fell asleep.

And when the car shook as if some drunken god had picked it up and dropped it, Cato jerked forward so quickly he almost slammed his head into the steering wheel. He breathed hard, tried to steady himself as he whipped his head back and forth trying to find what it was. The storm had subsided enough where it was just misting out, and through the back window, he managed to make out a branch leaning on the trunk of his car. He breathed slowly through his mouth, feeling his heart fall out of his throat and back into his chest. He checked the time, but he didn’t know when he fell asleep so it didn’t help him any.

Cato chastised himself for falling asleep with the car on but got out anyway to move the branch. He scratched at his ear as he made his way around and stopped in his tracks when he didn’t see anything on the car. He figured maybe it fell off when he opened the door so he walked around to the passenger side. When he looked around he didn’t even find trees with thick enough branches to shake the car—none of the trees had broken limbs.

Maybe he was still asleep, or homesick. A mix of the two, which meant it was time to go get Kimi. He got back in, turned the car around, and made his way back to town.

The ride back felt longer, drawn out as Cato’s adrenaline wore off. He was cautious of the slippery roads and the drop on the other side—but he could have sworn that the road out of town was filled with trees on either side; it was the road into town from the highway that had this cliffside drop. The spruces and fir he had fallen asleep near were nowhere in sight. He tried to shake the worry that had erupted in his gut, but he couldn’t. He drove a little faster.

When he managed to make it back to town, he passed the same buildings in the same order they had when they first arrived. The grocery store was on the left like it had been, but the ripped ticket sign down the way flickered BUST now. Cato pulled into the same spot he had before when it began misting again.

A bell above the door—that Cato was sure hadn’t rung last time he was here—welcomed him before the old man did. “Welcome to Tempus Roots.”

The old man looked a little different. His shirt pocket didn’t have the imprint of a carton of cigarettes in it.

“Wasn’t it ‘Tempest Fruits?’”

The old man laughed a full belly, drunken laugh. He didn’t reply.

“Hey, do you know where Kimi is?” When the old man gave him an odd look, Cato held his hand up to his chin. “Girl I was with earlier? About this tall? She said she was gonna stay here to ride out that storm.”

“Yeah, that storm was a biggie, wasn’t it?”

“Mister, Kimi?”

“I’m sorry, young’an, but this is the first time I’m meetin’ ya. Need me to direct ya to a phone booth?”

***
Cassidy Johnson is an English major at Francis Marion University and plans to graduate in December of 2020 with a BA in English and a minor in Psychology. Coming from Columbia, South Carolina, Cassidy hopes to become either an English professor or an editor.  

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