Differential Success of Better Boy Tomatoes

by Daniel Coble
Upon reflection it seemed to Marcus that mailing himself might not have been the best idea ever. He was used to realizing things way too late and feeling epically stupid, but not specifically accustomed to this violent level of cold. It crushed his head with Himalayan brutality, even through two hats and a heavy parka hood. It tore into his chest, yanking choke-flavored gasps from his core. Was the air thin enough now that he should use the aqualung? Wait, he had already put the regulator in his mouth and turned the knob, but nothing had happened. How long ago had he done that? And why had the throbbing roar of the plane’s engines gone away? He wondered why it didn’t alarm him more to have to wonder whether he was dying.

Marcus had known for a while now that wanted to disappear. He sort of wanted to die. He was abused, after all. Dad hadn't hit him since a sad attempt at coathanger-meets-butt discipline when he was eight, but Marcus definitely considered himself an abused child. If pressed to back up the characterization, he would have produced as evidence last year's Christmas letter, emailed to dozens of relatives, including Mom, but likely read by few. Some choice excerpts:

"We had planned on visiting cousin Jean in New York in the Fall, but our finances did not support this scheme. Marcus had taken a part-time job at Henry's to pay for a computer, and we fronted him the money for the machine, but since he quit the job after a week and couldn't pay us back we weren't able to take the trip. On the plus side Sharon and I now have a spiffy new computer for our room. LOL"

"Speaking of pluses, Marcus has been consistent about them. He hasn't gotten a C without a plus or an A without a minus all year, and so his career as a spy is assured, with no pesky high grades to make him stand out and get caught by enemy agents. He needs to work on his physique in order to really pull it off. Spies that look like the Michelin man tend to stand out. But maybe he'll shoot up in eighth grade and the weight will be spread over a taller Marcus. LOL It's all about genetics, so we'll see. Marcus wanted a shaving brush and razor for his birthday, but I told him that he'll need to have a lot more testosterone action going before he'll need anything like that. With his total lack of interest in sports it may be that there's no actual Y chromosome anyway. Or maybe he just needs to stop snorting the crushed Smarties and go back on the Afghan opium. That would thin him out. LOL"

If Marcus were to kill Dad in a fit of teen PTSD, no jury in the country would convict him, he was sure. Especially if the judge would admit into evidence Dad's "comforting" response to the most depressing and embarrassing episode of Marcus's whole life.

It had all been about Melissa Carter. He had been holding a squirmy and tingly crush on her since second grade. She was so smart, and so beautiful, and so talented that Marcus was sure every boy in the district must be in love with her, too. He knew he had no chance of her liking him, or of any girl liking him, but he couldn't help but adore her.

It happened at the eighth grade dance, on the last day of the school year. Melissa's best friend, Diane DiGenova came up to Marcus and addressed him. The fact of that was startling in itself, but he rolled with it.

"Ok, so do you like Melissa?" she demanded without preamble.

Marcus never even considered lying. It would be blasphemy.

"Wow, I really, really do," he said. "She is so awesome. Amazing. You're so lucky to be her friend. She's wonderful. Awesome. I said that already." He laughed and could feel his face reddening, but he didn't care. It felt good to say it out loud.

"Ok," said Diane, "well, she wants to know if you want to go with her."

Marcus was confused. What did she mean? Go with her? It took him a moment to figure it out. She must think that he needed a ride home. Melissa lived half a mile away, but Marcus lived just a half block from school, so it wouldn't work out to accept the offer and ride with her, no matter how delightful a thirty-second drive that would be. He would have to decline.

"I live just down the street," he told Diane.

She blinked at him, like in a cartoon. "Huh?"

"I live just down the street, so I don't need a ride home. Please tell her thanks, though." He smiled brightly.

Diane looked at him for a moment longer, shook her head in disgust, and left.

It had taken two weeks for Marcus to realize what had happened. What he had done.

The realization felt like being disemboweled. It was over. Everything. He had been too stupid. And now Melissa was with her family in Europe somewhere. And she would be going to Tyler High, not Kingsman. He would never see her again. She had somehow, inexplicably, due perhaps to some transient aneurysm or something, wanted to date him, and he had missed it.

As this knowledge hit him like a mail truck hitting a terrier, Marcus had wanted to vanish. Just not exist. And when he came to Dad, who was sweating on his barbells in the living room, and explained it all, Dad’s response could only have been explained by his wanting Marcus to die.

“Smooth move, Sherlock,” Dad had said.  Marcus had waited for more, but that was it. Nothing else. Just those nonsensical three words.

Love was stupid, Dad was stupid, and Marcus was the stupidest of all for thinking that either Dad or love would ever have a kind word to say to him. That was when he knew that he would vanish from Dad’s world. He would ship himself to Mom in Indiana via air freight. It combined the key imperatives: leave Dad, maybe reappear with Mom, and maybe die. All good things.

He had started to forgive Mom a long time ago. She had tainted her beautiful intellect with the stupidity of believing Dad’s lies, and Marcus had hated her for it. How many “affairs” had his father had? It had been hard to tell from what he overheard of the shouting bouts in their old place, but maybe five? Only one at a time, his father had explained to Mom at one point. Apparently he was a reasonable, faithful, serially-adulterous slut-man, not some polyamorous man-whore with a woman in every town. That would be gross, it seemed.

How could Mom have not known? Wasn’t it her job to protect the family from disasters like this? But she had been shocked. Barely angry at all, it seemed to Marcus, but intensely surprised. The divorce was quick and quiet, and Mom had gone through it all placidly except for the jolt Marcus himself had given her when he declared his wish to live with Dad. It had made Mom sad, but Marcus just couldn’t be with her anymore.

With cold robot-fingers in three pairs of fluffy, acrylic gloves he turned the knob again, and he tried to suck on the mouthpiece and get some air. Was it too cold for this thing to work? It didn’t matter, really.

Dad would know how to fix it, of course. Mr. Technomancer Genius Invento-Head. He used to be a big-shot chemical engineer. Years ago he had created a swimming pool water additive that turned the water itself into an SPF 50 sunscreen, promising to prevent millions of nasty sunburns and make his employers a vast amount of money. His cruel, corporate masters had paid Dad huge bonuses for this, and everything looked rosy as hell. Then it turned out that after about six months of regular exposure the additive caused cancers and horrible birth defects, and dad was fired, disgraced, and became completely unemployable.

Mom hadn’t divorced him for this. She supported him financially, and was encouraging and respectful when he got the job repairing movie theater self-service soda machines. It wasn’t until the affairs finally came out that she left him.

It was hard for Marcus to remember what it had been like to admire Dad and to want to be a science guy like him. But even if those feelings had survived the divorce, they would have been killed off at the end of sixth grade.

Marcus had a science project due near the end of the third trimester of that year, but, reeling from the divorce, had done nothing. Not even an idea of what to do. Three days before it was all to be turned in, he came up with a lame idea. Mom had been a gardener, and had cultivated a row of beautiful tomato plants in the side yard. She said they were called “Better Boy” because they were an improved offshoot of a variety called “Big Boy.” But after she left, Dad didn’t water them or anything, and they started to die. They depressed Marcus more and more as they withered, and he was about to kick one down in disgust when the idea came to him.

Two of the five plants were totally dead, two were mostly dead, and one was semi-ok. He had no idea why there were differences, but in a desperate attempt to not fail sixth grade he had made up reasons. His report, called “Differential Success of Better Boy Tomatoes,” claimed that each had been given a different kind of fertilizer. The dead ones got store-bought garden fertilizer, the half-dead ones were assigned cat droppings, and the hardy fifth was supposedly given compost made up mostly of eggplant and pasta. The six-page report was made entirely of lies, and the lame poster he made had lying pictures scrawled on it in six colors of Sharpie.

He got an A minus for this steaming mess of falsehoods. Mr. Hong said that he would have gotten an A if he had a sixth plant as a control, getting no fertilizer at all. Marcus kicked himself for not pretending that one of them was like that. But an A minus was ok with him.

But not with Dad, of course. He expressed such complete contempt for Marcus’s project that it almost made Marcus throw up from rage. “A half-baked embarrassment,” he called it. Marcus didn’t tell Dad that it was all lies and that he was therefore just like him. But Dad probably knew it. Maybe that was why Dad never seemed to like his son much. Maybe he saw that Marcus was a lying piece of crap and thus too much like him. That could explain why Dad seemed to want him gone.

Stephanie was another matter. Dad’s ghastly new wife definitely wanted Marcus there. Not because she liked him even the least little bit, but for the child support checks. She had even said as much one afternoon when Marcus complained about her refusing to get him new shoes. She obviously thought that she was incredibly generous just to let him be around, but she made it clear that he would never have the place in her heart that her own children would have. If she ever had any, which Marcus thought would probably never happen. He was pretty sure that no one could use as much much hair dye as she did and not become sterile.

Marcus realized that he was rhythmically banging his heavily-padded head on the inner wall of his crate. He tried to stop, but wasn’t sure if he did. There was a pounding in his skull, so it might be that he was still banging it. He sucked as hard as he could on the scuba regulator, and kicked at the knob with his icy, sleeping, booted foot.

It occurred to him that Mom might not want him any more than Dad did. Maybe she would reluctantly accept him so she wouldn’t have to keep paying the child support. Maybe she had gotten married without telling him and had two babies she pushed around in a side-by-side double stroller. Probably the babies would hate Marcus themselves, sensing with their innocent little brains that he didn’t have anything true or smart or interesting or good about him.

But Marcus was fairly certain now that those little children, whom he had named “Fancy” and “Prancy” in his head, would never have to decide whether or not to despise him, because they would never meet. He was dying here in this crate, thousands of feet over the ground. There seemed to be no white light to walk into. The next light to shine on him would probably be the sunlight as some poor guy uncrated his corpse at the Fort Wayne office equipment warehouse to which he had shipped himself on Dad’s credit card. Savagely bright morning sun would show a dead Marcus, padded in so much winter clothing that he would look like a little parade balloon.

Would he already smell by then? Or would he still be mostly frozen from the trip there? Or was there some other universe in which he had planned better, or gotten some kind of special, cold-water air tank, or not gotten into the crate at all? Was he the cat-scat-fertilized version of Marcus, his withered body destined to be taped to a giant piece of poster board for God’s science fair project? Was there another Marcus in Universe 27 who was doing great and already living with Mom?

Was that hissing sound the scuba tank? Was it leaking, or was air flowing through the hose? Would he be able to breathe, finally? He chomped on the regulator and tried to suck. Tried to inhale. Hoped for air. Maybe it would come. Was that a beeping sound? Maybe the plane made that sound when it started to descend. Or maybe he was in a hospital, trying to breathe from a mask on his face, Mom standing nearby, shaking with worry. Maybe.

Then pure light and total darkness merged and absorbed him, and he finally disappeared.
Daniel Coble is a Web developer proudly serving his corporate overlords in Southern California. He has a couple of odd Master's degrees and two very odd and supremely splendid daughters. He is continually distracted from his nine zillion hobbies by the imperative to write or die, like some sort of bespectacled prose-shark.

© 2014, Daniel Coble