The clapping droned like a wave of angry locusts. Will stared at the stage, his hands thudding together as if compelled by some queen bee somewhere. Could Central do that? He didn’t know, nor did he care. His daughter was up there on that stage. She’d done some kind of dance. He didn’t remember what it was, nor did he care. The stage whirred back to life, and the bows began. His daughter would bow last because she was the lead. He didn’t know which part she really had, nor did he care.
“I’d suggest we take a tab, dear,” said Shannon, sitting next to him. She was his … oh, what was that word? Wealth? No, wife. That’s what she was.
Will nodded. “That is what the usher advised.”
“Do you think she cares? Do you think she took the tab we gave her?”
He nodded. Their daughter performed with emotion; nobody could do that without the tab.
“Do we have enough to pay?”
That was right, Will remembered. They wanted the money at the end. Something about something. Why any parent would pay good tabs to see their child, he didn’t know. Then again, he was paying good tabs to see his child. He’d blame it on Shannon later.
Will looked at his tabs. He didn’t care enough to count them, so he lied, said he counted them. “Plenty.”
“Good.” Shannon popped a tab into her mouth. An usher came over, asking them if they wouldn’t please be quiet because the bows were going on and it was rude to the performers. Somebody had taken too many tabs this morning.
Will took the package back from his wife. At first glance, it looked like a pack of gum. Four of the pouches were broken; there were six left. Will popped one of the blue pouches with a satisfying crunch like a chip and out fell a crystalline tab no thicker than a sheet of paper. He held it up to his fingernail. One fit over the other seamlessly. No missed corners. Not that he cared. Not that he cared about anything.
He saw his daughter walk to the center of the stage for her bow. He laid the tab on his tongue, letting it fizzle. Some kind of chemical reaction Central had invented all those years ago. He didn’t care enough to think.
His eyes popped open. Emotion poured – no, flooded – in. His daughter was there, on stage, a star! So beautiful, so pure, so talented! Pride washed over him like a tsunami flooding a dinghy. His eyes filled with tears. Tears – tears! He looked at Shannon beside him. He clenched her hand. He felt so much, and all of it good. He loved his wife. His hands rattled against her cheek, and he kissed her just below her ear as they watched their daughter bow.
The clapping wasn’t a drone of locusts. How could he have thought that? It was a symphony, a bloody deserved one, played by the hands of a maestro par excellence. He joined in the symphony, plunking out its notes on the two-note piano of his hands. He screamed for his daughter. His legs pushed him up out of his seat. The seat fizzled back into the floor, leaving him plenty of space to stand.
“That’s my Jessy!” he screamed, amid the snot and the tears. Oh God, he realized, he just remembered her name. That’s why he only now had screamed it. He didn’t care enough before the tabs. Life without the tabs was a wasteland, like the Sahara, only more dead.
“I want to have another daughter,” he said to his wife. “I care so much.” Only when you’re on the tabs, whispered that annoying, niggling voice in the back of his head. He told it to shut up. It had no right to criticize him. Everyone needed the tabs. Nobody felt, nobody cared, nobody lived without the tabs.
Jessy finished her bow – oh, how she careened back up, her back like the glistening neck of a swan who’s just come out of the water. That was a beautiful metaphor. He took note of it. He should write it down – write a poem! It was the right thing to do with a picture as beautiful as his daughter’s bow.
The once-black walls drained of their color, and in poured the sunlight. That feature was new, and so perfect; when had Central found the time for that kind of art? Central wasn’t the kind of thing that had time for anything. Central could barely find time for itself. He didn’t care about that drudgery, though, not when the walls had so much beauty.
“Have your six ready,” said the usher. He walked down the rows with a mesh bag in his hands, something to make sure the tabs didn’t go bad.
The school had told him five last night. He was sure of it. He pulled out the brochure – he needed to make sure. He couldn’t put Jessy through this. She’d done so beautifully, too beautifully for him to ruin it.
He was wrong. The brochure said six. He’d misread. He’d misread. He’d misread … his brain ran on a loop, cutting out the background noise while he tried to think. Thinking was so hard on tabs. Things just flowed in and out of the mind, like a bad author trying his hand at free association, and he couldn’t latch onto reason.
He needed six, but he only had five.
The tears kept rolling down his face, but now instead of life-giving floods, they became murderous floods. His idiocy would ruin Jessy’s night. His daughter’s night. A failure, that’s what he was. He ruined his daughter’s show.
“Six, please,” said the usher.
Will mumbled that he didn’t have it.
“I don’t have it!”
The words echoed around the auditorium hall. He couldn’t look up at the stage; even feeling Jessy’s icy, fiery glare was enough to send shivers down his spine and to inflame his anguish. He knew what would happen. He prayed that Jessy would turn away.
“I love you, Shannon,” he said. “Please, tell Jessy I love her more than anything.”
His wife nodded. It was all she could do.
Strong arms and bright lights clamped down on Will. He didn’t hear much after they smashed his head with a truncheon. Suddenly, a cliff. Feeling, then no feeling.
The tab wore off, and his objective, emotionless self stopped caring about Shannon, stopped caring about Jessy.
It hurt, but Will didn’t care. He hadn’t had enough tabs, enough money. He ruined Jessy’s night, but, hell, he couldn’t care a bit.
Thwack. Thwump. Clonk.
Stars, whirring around. Will followed them. Around and around they went. He didn’t think they were pretty. They just moved, so he followed them.
Then the man in white from Central shot him in the back of the head. The man didn’t care; this was his job, and they didn’t let him take tabs while on the job. Sometimes he felt something – what was it? Pain? No. Regret? Yes – that was the word. Sometimes he felt regret while he was on the tab. Sometimes he wondered what it was all for, but only when he was on the tab.
So instead he was nothing.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.
This piece won the March 2016 Teen Ink Fiction Contest.