. . . . The boy begins to cry. “Papa, stop. You’re making me sad. Are all the good guys gone?” Looking through the gray skies toward the ashen Lincoln Memorial, where an ape sits in Abe’s chair, the man replies sadly, “Yes, son.”
They sat in silence for some time, gazing at their dilapidated world until the boy spoke again. “Papa, things just don’t make sense.”
Papa’s heart dropped into his empty stomach. He took his eyes off the gray sky and set them on the boy. “How so, son?”
The boy pointed to the Lincoln Memorial. “You said that was a shrine to a great man and that now it’s submerged in sludge.”
“I told you, Republicans melted the ice caps. Everything flooded. Gunk and slime washed up everywhere.”
“Looks like dirt and mud was just piled all around it. On purpose.” The boy turned to the WWII Memorial behind them. “Why wasn’t that buried?” He pointed to the other monuments in the area. “Or any of those?”
A nervous smile snuck onto Papa’s face. “Well, because–“
“That ape sitting in the giant chair.” The boy shook his head. “I watch him climb that sludge hill every morning. Just doesn’t move like an ape.”
Papa swallowed hard, then chuckled. “Well, apes–“
“And those cherry trees, why are they dead?”
“That’s because–ahem–because, um–“

“When the ice caps melted, if the city didn’t sink, wouldn’t there have been a lot of water for the trees?”

Papa’s breathing quickened. Please, boy, stop, he thought. No more questions. They can hear you. They don’t like questions.
The wind howled. As a dollar bill danced in the gust, Papa pointed with fervor. “See? The Great Shutdown closed the Fed. Now money blows around like garbage. They’ve destroyed everything. You can see this for yourself, can’t you? The Shutdown. You understand that, right?”
The boy trapped the bill with his foot then lifted the paper. He inspected it, running his finger along the front and flipping it over. “Is this really what money used to look like?”
“Yes. That’s what I’m telling you. Before the shutdown, when it still had value.”
“Didn’t money have pictures of the great old Americans?”
Papa snatched the bill from the boy’s hand, crumpled it into a ball, and tossed it away.
“If the government shut down seventy years ago,” the boy said, “who’s printing the money now?”
Papa wiped a clammy shaking hand across his forehead. Please, boy, he thought, I’m begging you. No more questions. I can’t tell you that the trees were killed with copper chloride, or the dirt was piled around Lincoln’s chair with bulldozers, or that the money is fake, or that the ape–that the ape is just a man in a costume. Nothing’s true. Maybe you can see this, but I can never tell you.
“It just doesn’t make sense. I mean–“
A deafening, high-pitched tone rang in Papa’s ears. He clutched the sides of his head. Whenever this sound came, he swore his skull was set to explode. He held tight until the ringing stopped and gave way to a calm, serious voice. “Come.”
“Papa, you okay? Is the pain back?”
Papa shook his head and took a moment to collect his thoughts despite the residue of the ringing.
“Hey, kid… son… no more talking. Let’s grab a bite.”
They walked around the corner to the food depot, a large circus-like tent hovering over dozens of folding tables topped with large trays, pots, and boxes of food. Workers with empty expressions handed out small portions and kept the lines moving.
About four hundred people waited their turn in groups of two or three. Each group had one adult. Papa scanned the familiar crowd, making eye contact with a number of the regulars and sending a simple nod of salutation.
The adults were all like him–hungry, tired, and old–with a diminished ability to contribute to the state. Their role, as a result, was to be the assigned parent to a de-parented child–the unnatural bond intended to make it easier for the assignee to ensure the child learn the proper beliefs.
“Go on. Stand in line.”
“Should I get you something, Papa?”
“I’ll eat later.” He pointed to the dead cherry trees that lined the walkway across the street. “I’m going to relax.”
He followed the trees around the corner and beyond the Vietnam Veterans Memorial before stopping between two bare flagpoles. After a quick look around to confirm he was alone, he struggled to lift a metal grate from the ground and stepped down a hidden stairwell.
The steel door at the bottom of the stairs opened when he approached. A guard, dressed in military fatigues, eyed him as he walked past. The long well-lit corridor was lined with doors on each side. Ceiling vents hummed and Papa took a deep drink of the cool, clean air.
It’s not my fault the kid’s asking questions, he thought as he trudged along the underground tunnel. They can’t blame it on me. Kids ask questions. That’s what they do.
He stopped at the last door on the right hand side and rapped his knuckles below the “Department of Belief” sign.
A short fat man answered. His white shirt, dotted with remnants of lunch, hugged his huge belly. The fifth button from the top was missing. A single motivational poster was tacked to the far wall of the otherwise undecorated office–an aerial shot of D.C. with the words “Make it Hurt” in bold red capital letters on the bottom.
The fat man gestured for Papa to sit in the room’s only chair. “Explain,” he said as he shut the door.
Papa sat. He spoke fast. “The boy is asking questions. I don’t know why. He’s just a boy. That’s what they do. They ask questions and play with frogs, right? I can’t help it if–“
“Have you given him reason to question?”
“No! Certainly not.”
The fat man lit a cigar and rolled two thick rings of smoke. “Is it too difficult? We can get someone else.”
“No,” Papa pleaded. “I can do it. I will do it. Give me one more chance. Please.”
The fat man opened the door.
“I’ll do it,” Papa said as he left the room. “I’ll make sure he believes.”
“Make him believe,” Papa recited over and over as he worked his way back to the world above and took his place next to the boy still standing in line.
“I’ve been thinking, Papa. I have more questions.”
“No. No more questions.”
“But if the government–“
“No!”
“If the government shut–“
The high-pitched tone burned in Papa’s ears again.
He clasped the sides of his head.
The ringing grew louder.
Papa squeezed tighter.
Louder.
Tighter.
Louder and tighter.
*
The boy leaned over the man and fished his small hand around the inside of the shattered skull. From a messy glob deep inside the left ear he pulled a penny-sized electrical chip. He dropped it on the ground and dug his heel into it until a sharp crack snapped in the air.
“Go on. Move.”

The boy turned.

A man in military fatigues shoved a much older man from behind.

The old man stumbled up to the boy and regained his balance, a nervous smile on his face.
“Papa?”
*
Read the next Maureen Dowd contest winner:
By C.R. Abraxas & Jamie Wilson
Michelle released a long, pent-up breath as the mai-tai spread its magic through her limbs, making her skin tingle with a warmth that matched the rays of the sun.