Tomi Tomita was having a very bad day. It wasn’t that her tour had been cancelled at the last second, or that she was stuck in Toronto overnight with no hotel to stay at, or even that all twenty-two of her bags had somehow been sent to Toledo...the problem was entirely her.
“No, listen, it’s all wrong,” she said to Horace, her personal assistant, and then sang another arpeggio up to high C. The few other passengers in the airport glared at her unhappily. “There? See? It’s off.”
“It’s not that I don’t believe you,” said Horace. “It’s just that—”
She did another run, and back down again. And again. “I need to see Dr Fulton.”
“Dr Fulton is in Vancouver, ma’am,” Horace said patiently. “And since no flights are leaving tonight—”
“Facetime,” said Tomi. “Facetime him.”
Horace smiled patiently. “Dr Fulton, if you’ll recall, told you not to worry.”
“But it might be,” she countered.
“But it’s not.”
“How do you know?” she snapped. “You’re just an overpaid bellboy! You don’t have a medical degree, do you?”
“No, ma’am,” said Horace. “Only a PhD in clinical psychology.”
“Ha!” she laughed. “Facetime him.”
Horaced sighed as he took out Tomi’s tablet and made the call. As it rang, he gave Tomi an unhappy glare. “He won’t be pleased.”
“I pay his salary. He’s always pleased to see me.”
The call connected, and the second Dr Fulton saw Horace, he rolled his eyes and grumbled: “Oh for God’s sake.”
“I apologize, doctor,” said Horace. “She insists.”
“Fine. Whatever. Put her on.” Horace turned the iPad around, upon which Dr Fulton said: “You don’t have coronavirus, Tomi.”
“But my timbre!” she pleaded.
“Your timbre is fine.”
She did yet another run of arpeggios, pausing at the highest note to really illustrate whatever point she thought she was making. “See? My timbre is all off, and my timbre is what makes me special.”
“I think I can say with some certainty that your timbre is not what makes you special.”
“Don’t be crass, darling.”
“Ms Tomita, your timbre is fine. You are not sick, and you do not have coronavirus.”
“But how can you be so sure?” she squealed. “You won’t even test me for—”
“Because tomatoes can’t contract coronavirus!” Fulton yelled, patience fully gone. “Human-to-human, yes. Human-to-animal, maybe. Animal-to-human, probably. But human to vegetable—”
“Fruit!” she snapped, bouncing up and down angrily. “I’m a fruit!”
“Fine, sure, whatever,” said Fulton. “It doesn’t change the fact that tomatoes—even world-famous soprano tomatoes—cannot catch coronavirus.”
“No,” said Fulton. “I am not prescribing you hydroxychloroquine. You have so much botox in you, you’d probably explode. Stop bothering me, go to your hotel and submerge yourself in a vodka bath and just soak there ‘til the worries stop, OK? I have so many better things to do right now, I can’t even—”
He cut the connection.
Horace sighed, stowing the iPad again, while Tomi stewed. “Don’t gloat,” she said.
“I would never dream of it,” said Horace with a grin.
Tomi looked off across the concourse, where a digital display switched to show a poster for the Pomodoro Tour, featuring a luscious close-up of her round figure on a striking midnight stage. “Mesmerizing!” read the quote, and she burst into tears.
“It’s over!” she cried. “It’s all over!”
“It’s not over,” said Horace, with a tinge of sympathy. “It’s delayed a little, that’s all. Now look, I have a lead on a penthouse we can use for the night, if you—”
“Do you know how many tomatoes get where I am? Get to do what I do?”
“Exactly none,” said Horace.
“Exactly! None! And now here I am, on the cusp of my greatest triumph, only to have to ruined by some stupid virus that never worked a day in its life. How is that fair?”
“It’s not,” said Horace. “But it’s what you’ve got. You can either sit here all night and feel sorry for yourself, or you can let me bring you to the penthouse where you can get a good night’s sleep and be ready to fly home in the morning. The choice is entirely up to you. I’ll be sleeping on a chair either way.”
Tomi harumphed. The digital display dissolved, changing her majestic form into a warning about social distancing. Like a sign. The end of art, and the beginning of sorrow.
“Fine,” she said. “Let’s go. We’ll pick up the vodka on the way.”
Horace nodded happily, scooping up his backpack and her two carry-on items, and barely keeping his balance in the process. “I texted ahead and they said they’d have a selection of brands ready for your perus–”
He turned to fetch her, but in the process, had the oddest sensation under his left foot. Like he’d stepped on something very soft, and very squishy. Which had promptly gone squelch.
Horace closed his eyes and whispered a prayer: “Please God no please God no please God—”
He looked down and saw that yes, Tomi Tomita, world-famous soprano, was splattered all over the airport floor.
He lifted his foot a little and whimpered: “Tomi?”
Tomi did not answer.
He tried to kneel down to check on her, but the remnants of her body on his shoe make him slip, and he landed on top of her, flattening whatever chunks had been left.
“Ah!” he yelped, then shushed himself, for fear of alerting the other patrons. He scooped up the bits of her that he could find, and made a little pile. “There we are,” he said to himself. “There we go. All better.”
The pile started to ooze outward, like it was done being a tomato.
Horace scrambled with his bag until he got to the iPad. It didn’t recognize his thumbprint on account of the tomato juice there, so he licked it clean—and then gagged at the realization of what he’d done. He used the security code instead, and a few seconds later...
“Seriously!” snarled Dr Fulton, pulling off his face mask. “Tell her I’m not—”
“It’s not that,” said Horace, voice cracking. “It’s—”
“Horace? Horace, what’s wrong?”
“I was getting the bags, and she never walks, so I don’t even bother...” He slumped, trembling. “She was on the floor.”
“And?” asked Fulton. “She was on the floor and what?”
Horace couldn’t even say the words. He turned the iPad around to show the puddle of seedy red goo on the tile.
“Oh,” said Fulton.
“What am I going to do?” asked Horace. “They’re going to charge me with manslaughter. Or worse. She verbally abused me the whole way here...there were so many witnesses, they’ll go for the death penalty for sure!”
“We don’t execute people in Canada, for starters,” said Fulton. “And more importantly, it’s actually not a crime to squash a tomato.”
“Maybe not legally, but morally—”
“Not morally, either,” said Fulton, so dispassionate, Horace did a double-take.
“How can you say that?” he said. “She was a star! A talent! One of a kind!”
Fulton shrugged. “I wouldn’t say that. I wouldn’t say that at all.”
Horace hugged the iPad a little closer, spoke a little quieter. “What do you mean?”
Fulton, wherever he was, moved into another room. A darker room. A more intimate room. “What kind of doctor do you think I am, Horace?”
“A... uh... plastic surg—”
Fulton laughed a vaguely maniacal laugh. “No, nothing quite so base. I’m a geneticist. An experimental geneticist.”
Fulton frowned. “Experimental?”
“Have you heard of genetically engineered organisms, Horace? GMOs?”
“Sure, I, uh—”
“I spent the better part of my career in a fool’s errand, trying to make a tomato that wouldn’t spoil. So many experiments run, so much funding wasted, all for naught. But then one day, I had a breakthrough...a tomato that could sing.”
“How did you even—”
“At first, it was a mere curiosity. But then I realized it was learning news songs it heard on the radio. And the more songs it was exposed to, the greater its vocabulary grew, and soon—”
“Wait wait wait,” said Horace. “Are you saying Tomi Tomita was grown in a lab?”
Dr Fulton raised an eyebrow. “You found it more probable she was discovered by a talent scout in the fields outside Kyoto?”
“She is a product, Horace, like any other. A lifetime of investment, of trying again and again and again in the hopes of spectacular returns. And she delivered. Oh, she delivered...”
“But she’s dead!” Horace yelped, then quieted himself down when he noticed a pair of janitors across the way looking at him strangely. “She’s dead, and you’re—”
“Oh, Horace, this isn’t the first Tomi Tomita that’s been spoiled. She is, in fact, the twenty-seventh of her name. Each generation has been a little stronger, a little smarter, a little more talented. And, as you have doubtlessly realized, a little more paranoid.”
Horace thought back to her hysterics about coronavirus. Or her hysterics about Italian grandmothers. Or her hysterics about latex gloves and test tubes.
It all made sense!
“So what do we do?” he asked, taking a sharp breath to cleanse himself of doubt and worry. “Clearly, nobody knows the truth, so you must have some sort of protocol for keeping it quiet, or—”
“Astute, Horace, very astute. The remains must be disposed of carefully, and all record of her travels scrubbed from the record. This outbreak affords us at least a little cover, but chances cannot be taken.”
“I understand,” nodded Horace, trying to think of a way to sneak past the janitors to the washroom, to flush the tomato sauce down the toilet. “You can count on me, sir. I won’t miss a drop.”
“Oh, poor dear Horace,” laughed Fulton. “You misunderstand.”
“I... I do?”
“The advances in genetic engineering went far beyond fruit products.”
“You are, in fact, that twenty-first of your name,” said Fulton.
Horace couldn’t believe it. He wouldn’t believe it. Him, a lab-grown creature? It made no sense! He had a PhD in clinical psychology from... from...
He couldn’t remember the school. Or what it looked like. Or how long he was there. Or even what clinical psychology really was.
“But I have a family...” he whispered. “Uncle Campari. Aunt Kumato. Grandpa... Marzano...” His mouth hung open in shock. “It was all a lie...”
“Memories implanted to help you ripen faster,” said Fulton. “You were made to be the tireless assistant, Horace, and you performed admirably. But like the others before you, when your Tomi is tread upon...”
Horace looked up to see the janitors heading his way. The lead one was screwing a silencer to the end of a pistol, while the other soaked his mop for a very heavy clean-up.
“...you become another nameless ingredient in the sauce of my success.”
Written for Ania, who requested, on Topic Tag Tuesday, at two o’clock: “tomato timbre tread.”