Flash Fiction: Good Country by Travis Dahlke

It has always been there because that stuff doesn’t go away. Imagine an aboveground pool overflowing with glittering chili. Imagine the hamburger is a color somewhere between limes and fake money. Someone’s twelve-year-old great-grandma discovered it after carving a hole in the fence with her pocketknife. The generations followed her, curling the chain-link and stomping a path to where a factory had been. No one knew what kind of factory left it there. Using her knife, the great-grandma carved Doris or Trudy or Mildred or some great-grandma name in the alloy.

The sludge turns people into all kinds of supermutants. None of them live for longer than a minute. Their bodies are found blessed with glowing abs or psychic laser vision or mohawks made of fire, still flickering a little. The only thing to have survived the sludge was a yellow-throated sparrow dying from salmonella. When it emerged, not only was it perfectly healthy, but its voice was splashed with spring reverb and it could see in the dark. That bird taught other birds how to see in the dark and the nights got so loud that we had to sleep with our windows closed.

You and I are raised by the neighborhood outside the forest that harbors the sludge, in Tudor-style homes with trellises below our windows. I am the boy next door and you’re the girl next door. In the home’s instructional manual I found underneath the bathroom sink, there is a step-by-step guide for sneaking out your window and climbing down the lattice. This is shown by illustrations of people who wear sideburns, whipped blouses and skirts above the calf.

Every August 1st there is a festival to commemorate the discovery of the sludge. A life-sized wax replica of the great-grandma is displayed. They fill an aluminum foil wrapped trough with cornstarch and food coloring. Our parents let us swim in it when we were kids. The festival has a carousel and a stand that sells fried dough. Sometimes you can get pad thai or chicken on a stick. There’s a fireworks display put on by our volunteer fire department. Since it’s in the daytime the fireworks are almost impossible to see.

This younger generation thinks the sludge is pollution and should be pumped out. They say the great-grandma didn’t discover it if has always been there. They say the sludge is totally lame-o. They post TikTok videos of the mutants still slick with slime. They start a rumor that the sludge has attracted undesirables, like artists or a cult who thought it would be neat for baptisms. This younger generation isn’t afraid of the dark and they don’t care about the birds. I’ve heard they’ll sing right along with them.

There’s a petition going around to have the festival’s fireworks replaced with a recording of fireworks, because the birds make a really scary sound when they fly into them. I’d describe it as a murderer murdering another murderer very far down a beach. It ruins the festival. On page 43 of my house’s manual it says you can leave anytime you want. The trellises are there and you can climb down them to meet the grass. Pictures show a diagram of kids kissing beneath the moon. On page 13 it explains where the sun dries muddy boots best. On page 30 it shows every wire intersecting as purple veins through fleshy insulation, and how to decorate the downstairs bathroom in case you’re throwing a fondue party. I use a key I found under my welcome mat to carve my name in the manual’s paper. I think it’s difficult to read. I think someday your name will be a great-grandma name.

At the festival, the youth have gathered at the gate to protest. They’re dressed like dead supermutants. They look like they’re having a good time and one of them has snuck out some meat on a stick, which he lifts a rubber Creature from the Black Lagoon mask to eat. New additions to the festival include peppermint hot sludge sundaes and glow wands. If the festival had been a day earlier it would’ve been completely rained out.

Keynote speaker Miss Delaware makes a speech that rings over the PA system. She’s wearing her sash under a camouflage jacket. Her handlers have laid hay down over the mud, leaving a golden trail from her car to the stage. She says, “The sludge reminds us that we’re all born with something special. Something no one else has.” A reporter jots this line down.

Miss Delaware continues, “The sludge is a reminder that if God made us and we made chemicals, then God created chemicals as he created those supermutants.” A few people clap. “And even though those supermutants don’t last long, in my heart of hearts I believe they found what truly made them special, even if it was only for a moment. Because isn’t it better to have lost in love than to have never loved at all?”

People are crying from the beauty of her speech. Even I feel somewhat moved. They’re playing country music underneath her but it’s not the good kind of country music. Men in front of us have rolled up festival programs in the back pockets of their jeans. Their shoulders give little shakes because they’re trying not to cry in front of their wives.

When I turn to you in the crowd, you’re waving a glow stick you bought for twenty-five dollars. It makes a zig-zaggy trail that tastes like onion rings. I say, “The thing about the great-grandma who discovered it was that she tested the sludge first with the tip of her pocketknife, carved her name, and decided none of it was for her.” Shouting over the fireworks beginning to pop and shiver in the sunlight, you say you’ve felt different about us for a while now.

Travis Dahlke is a writer from Connecticut with work forthcoming or appearing in Joyland Magazine, Outlook Springs, SAND Journal, Sporklet, and The Longleaf Review, among other literary journals and collections.

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