Tuesday Tales: Bratsbury
Updated: Jan 20, 2021
This year would mark Dylan and Dad’s sixth time attending the annual Bratsbury Sausage Fest. He’d only been nine when Dad first dragged him along for the five-hour drive to nowhere. It had turned out to be an unsettling trip then; it was even more so now that he was in high school. I’m going to a sausage fest with my dad, he imagined revealing to his friends. Yeah, right. He’d take that one to the grave (or at least past high school).
“You feeling sleepy, pal?” Dad asked, keeping his eyes locked on the road, hands in the ten-two position. He found any other approach to driving unacceptable, and he’d do all in his power to make Dylan feel the same way. “You can feel free to shut your eyes. I don’t mind one bit. Big day ahead of us tomorrow!”
Dylan’s eyes disappeared into the back of his head, then returned. “I don’t do naps anymore, Dad. I can stay awake for a couple hours in the car.” He crossed his arms and let out a huff, just in case his response wasn’t enough.
He did find keeping his eyes open to be a challenge, though, especially every time he recalled where the road would dump them off. A road trip’s draining when the destination is garbage. Bratsbury, the town that America forgot. That’s probably wrong, Dylan mused. Can’t say America had ever remembered the place to begin with. Bratsbury had a population of a hundred and twenty, and Dad swears he once saw the city limit sign’s population dip into double digits. There was no technology to be found in the town, either, at least none that showed itself during the annual festival. Something like that couldn’t be mere coincidence. A single, rusted-over pickup truck sometimes made an appearance during the festival, but its only purpose was to deliver more fresh meat by the overflowing cargo bed. Dylan supposed it was bold to assume the truck belonged to a townie.
It was more than the town that clawed its way under Dylan’s skin year after year; it was the celebration in its entirety that really bothered him. The way everyone danced around and sang their made-up ditties about what was glorified shrink-wrapped meat. The townies and the majority of attendees pranced around with smiles plastered across their faces for the full twelve hours of the event. Worse yet was the name drawing. Each year, a few weeks before Sausage Fest, the founder digs his hand into a box full of past attendees’ names, pulling out a single piece of paper to award one lucky guest with a most-prestigious (or -idiotic, Dylan thought) award: the Sausage Prince of Bratsbury. Yes, the Sausage Prince. Why a prince? Well, the title of king was forever owned by Randy McHenry, the seventy-two-year-old founder of Bratsbury Sausage Fest.
McHenry was on his fiftieth year as Sausage King. Fifty years of the Sausage Fest and Dylan had no doubt the only thing that’d strip the geezer of that title was death itself. (The old man had actually declared as much at the festival a few years back, which everyone but Dylan seemed to ignore at the time. Even Dad brushed it off.)
Dylan and Dad had the lifelong king to thank for their introduction to the festival; their car had broken down on the highway just shy of the exit to Bratsbury while the two were on their way to Oklahoma for their first-ever father-son road trip. The old man had been walking on the side of the road, stopped to find out what was wrong, waited with them for a tow truck to arrive, and asked if they’d allow him to make their day a little brighter. That’d been the first time Dylan had heard the words ‘Sausage Fest,’ but it certainly wouldn’t be the last. Sausage King Randy added that the celebration was the next day. After a complimentary place to stay was tossed into the equation, Dad jumped on the proposal. The rest was history, or as Dylan called it, trauma.
Two weeks ago, Dylan came home to a sealed envelope on his bedside table. ‘His Greatness Dylan Highmore,’ it read. He didn’t need to open it to realize what was inside, for he had been dreading the arrival of the next Sausage Fest since the last one concluded eleven months prior.
“Dylan Highmore, Sausage Prince of Bratsbury,” Dad had said from his bedroom doorway, throwing a fist in the air in celebration before continuing down the hallway. “Has a nice ring to it!”
Dylan was staring at the clock in the car, finding himself thankful after another minute passed, each one a step closer to the end of his nightmare. A nightmare of nightmares, really, now that he held the title of Sausage Prince and all the extra attention that’d come with it.
“I’m not even sure I’ll be able to spend much time with you!” Dad had exclaimed as they were packing the car that morning. “From what the letter said, it sounds like you’ll have the V.I.P. treatment, your own tent and everything. Away from all us peasants!” He smiled at his son, raising both hands and dropping forward in a worship-like gesture. “We’re not worthy!”
Another hour of driving passed, this time without a single word shared between them. Dad kept his eyes on the road; Dylan kept his on the digital clock. He fought through the sleepiness he had previously dismissed, thankfully able to find a little elation each time the number at the end of the time changed. He was continuing to prove a point to Dad while dreaming of what life would be like in forty-eight hours. He’d have his freedom back, and that embarrassing title of Sausage Prince would be a thing of the past.
Dylan finally broke the silence. “How much longer, another twenty minutes?”
Dad smiled, eyes still set on the road. “Tack another forty minutes on there and that’ll be more like it!” He laughed. It was innocent joy, but Dylan read it as maniacal.
“Another hour!” Dylan shouted, slamming his fist against the passenger airbag. “You drive like a grandpa! We’d be there by now if I was behind the wheel.”
“Ah, but you can’t drive, can you, mister?” Dad said, smile somehow growing wider. “Maybe next year we’ll let you get behind the wheel of ‘Ole Faithful for an hour leg of the trip.” He put a hand to the dashboard and gave it a few gentle pats.
Silence struck the car again, this time only for a few minutes. It was a boring, empty road with nothing but an endless army of corn, so when something else passed by it was difficult to miss. Dylan’s eyes broke away from the car’s clock as a brown blob entered his peripheral. He turned toward it, but by the time he was able to focus they had nearly passed it. He was certain it was a wooden sign, though, and was able to catch a single word on it: ‘Sausage.’
His eyes were locked on the road now, hopeful for another sign, but mainly just wanting a break from his one-way staring contest with the clock. Another brown blob grew in the distance. He squinted to try and catch a little more of what it said this time around. The white message was sloppily hand-painted, meaning it would’ve been difficult to read even if they weren’t passing it while going sixty-five (the limit was seventy, but Dad always drove five under), but Dylan was somehow able to decipher the message in full.
“Sausage Fest. Shortcut 1 Mile on Right,” he read aloud (only ‘Right’ was spelled ‘Rite’). Turning to Dad, he continued, “There’s a shortcut to Bratsbury up ahead! That wooden sign back there said it’d be on our right in a mile!”
“Easy now, chief,” Dad started, “I’m not sure we want to be takin—”
“Jesus, Dad, just do it!” Dylan whined, arms crossed again. “Don’t be such a baby.” His voice dropped to just above a whisper, “The sooner we get there, the sooner we can leave.” He knew everything reached Dad’s ears, but didn’t much care at this point.
Dad—a man who lived and died by the idea of being a role model for his son—was now breaking his own rules, taking his eyes off the road to stab Dylan with brief (but sharp) glances. The smile was gone from his face, and although Dylan kept his eyes forward, he could tell his pale complexion had went almost sunburn red.
“Is that what you want, Dyl?” Dad asked, his voice as sharp as his stares. The tone was foreign to Dylan, only creeping out of his mouth when something was to be stated with undeniable authority. “Will that make you happy?”
Dylan didn’t respond to this, still sitting with one arm over the other. If I told him what I really wanted, Dylan thought, the floor mat would be sopping wet with his tears. He’d have no choice but to turn this car around, and I’d never hear the end of it from Mom.
They drove another three-quarters of a mile. Dylan’s heart raced as he spotted a clear break in the otherwise endless row of cornstalks. To his surprise, the car slowed, almost to a full stop (and it could’ve; they hadn’t seen another vehicle on the highway in miles). Dad glanced once more over at his son, then cranked the wheel all the way to the right in a single motion. He hit the gas, hard.
The road was almost strangely smooth at first, the only aspect differing from that of the highway being the dust clouding up the back windshield. After a few minutes of powering onward—Dad still trying to teach his son a lesson with a lead foot on the gas—the tires were greeted with several imperfections from below. ‘Ole Faithful would give off a light thud upon meeting these bumps, then continue racing forward without a problem. Minutes more passed, and the bumps grew into mounds. They feel more like mini hills, Dylan thought. The car maintained its speed despite the deteriorating condition of the road. Dad knew ‘Ole Faithful was getting pushed to its limits, but every glance at his pouting son seemed to make his foot press down a little harder on the pedal.
“Dad . . .” Dylan said, turning to face him for the first time since they’d started on the narrow road. “Turn around. We can take the normal way, it’s fine.” Dad didn’t didn’t acknowledge this, so Dylan continued, “Dad! It’s getting real bumpy. I can hear things rattling! We should stop and turn—”
The car clanked once more, this time sending both Dylan and Dad an inch off their seats. This was ‘Ole Faithful’s cry for help. It was tapping out of the torture, rolling forward until it lost all life. Dad’s foot was still slightly on the pedal, but the car was motionless. The father and son sat in shock, eyes wide and full of regret. Dylan was feeling guilty over the words he’d said to Dad; Dad was shaking his head at his decision to listen to Dylan—a moody fifteen-year-old.
Shock morphed into disbelief, then into a mutual appreciation for coming out of what had just happened in one piece. Dad reached over to Dylan, placing a thoughtful hand on his knee. “You alright?” he asked. The sharpness had faded back into a caring tone. “Must’ve been some rock, huh?” He turned around to look out the back windshield. His eyes grew impossibly wider. “Oh, crap.”
Dylan put an end to his racing thoughts when he heard Dad curse (well, as close to cursing as the man ever got). He, too, turned to the back windshield. Sitting in the middle of the dirt road fifteen yards away was a rock, alright. Next to it, a puddle of something amber. The liquid was heavy nearest the rock, trickling ever more narrow into a stream that led right up to the backside of ‘Ole Faithful. Their fuel line had apparently taken the worst of the car’s damage.
Almost in sync, they returned their attention forward, eyeing the fuel gauge. The needle had given up, far below the red ‘E’ serving as a driver’s final, final warning about the need to refuel. Dylan didn’t know the turn signal from the headlight control, but he was certain of what the fuel gauge was telling them. Stuck, he thought. We’re stuck here, at least twenty minutes driving time back to the highway. His sight went to the clock again, only this time it was to determine how much light was left in the day. It was half past six, and usually black by seven.
They immediately took to their cellphones. No service. They held it up to the roof, confident it wouldn’t make a difference but trying anyway. Nothing. They got out of the car and poked their heads underneath to study the undercarriage. It only made their hearts race faster. After fifteen minutes without a solution in sight, they retired back into the car. Dusk had yanked down the sun; the narrow beams of ‘Ole Faithful’s headlights were becoming the only light around them.
“We can’t just sit here!” Dylan shouted. His focus was set on the point where the headlights’ beams disappeared into the darkness. He hadn’t looked at the clock for awhile now, believing the sight of it would only send his thoughts racing. How much longer would they be stuck here? And, once they—no, if they managed to get out of this mess, how long would it take to get the car fixed? “Dad, we should start walking back to the highway.”
Dad was fiddling with his iPhone again. Dylan leaned over the center console to discover him searching for available Wi-Fi networks. He laughed at this, a sort of desperate chuckle stemming from a lost sense of hope. “Unreal. We’re in the middle of a damn cornfield and you’re looking for Wi-Fi. I’m pretty sure we didn’t have reception on the highway, either.”
Dad turned to him with an index finger lifted. “Language, young man. Just because we’re in a pickle doesn’t mean you get to cuss. Besides, if we walk back we’ll risk getting struck by some other car.”
“Another car?” Dylan laughed again, this time louder than before. He wasn’t going to let his old man’s fear leave them stranded. “No one’s passed by since we broke down!”
“The answer’s no, chief,” Dad said with a lowered voice. He returned to his iPhone, turning the Wi-Fi off, then back on. Off, then on.
Dylan sighed, returning his eyes to the headlights. He raised a brow. The beam appeared brighter, perhaps even covering more ground in front of them than before. He turned back to Dad. “Did you turn the brights on?”
“What? No, of course not.” Dad lifted his head to see what Dylan was talking about. He put a hand in front of his eyes, finding himself blinded. There was another light, and it was shining directly into ‘Ole Faithful’s front windshield.
“Hello there!” a man’s voice called out. It could’ve come from anywhere, but it was a man’s voice, alright. They hadn’t been stranded long enough to start hallucinating, or so Dylan concluded. “Mind shutting these here lights off? Just about blinded me, ya did.”
Dad fumbled for the headlight controls. He was caught off guard, and when that happened one’s gross motor skills often seemed to fail. His hand finally landed on the control, and he twisted it to shut off the lights.
The man who had addressed them revealed himself (Good, a real person, Dylan was relieved) at the driver’s-side window. He turned off his flashlight and clanked it against the window. “You folks having a little car trouble? Awfully nippy out here to be campin’ under the stars, so I don’t s’pose that’s what you’re up to.”
“Yes, sir!” Dylan exclaimed, leaning over the center console. “I think all our gas spilled out back there.” He lifted an arm and extended it toward the back windshield.
“Dylan . . .” Dad said between his teeth. “Remember, stranger danger.” His eyes darted to the door. Already locked.
The man clicked on the flashlight once more and shined it beyond the car, revealing the puddle next to the rock. “Boy, it’s a darn good thing I was out walkin’ ‘fore supper,” he said. He snorted, cleared his throat and let one fly. “Not sure your car’s goin’ nowhere tonight. No matter. How’s about you come up to the farm for the night. We can give ya a lift to a payphone in the mornin’ to get someone on up ‘round these parts.”
Dad rolled down the window to respond, but only just so that it was cracked. “We appreciate the offer, mister, but would you be able to drive us out to a payphone tonight?” He didn’t bother asking if there was a phone at the farm; this was the middle of nowhere, just outside Bratsbury. And the people of Bratsbury didn’t believe in phones. He was surprised this guy had a flashlight. “I’ll pay you for the trouble, even fill up the tank.”
The man leaned down to reveal his face, nearly sticking his nose through the crack as he did so. His face was rugged, a white beard that no doubt hadn’t been tended to since it started growing. There were streaks of dirt across his cheeks and forehead. He smiled politely to reveal yellow teeth, more than a few missing. “Thing is, sir, we don’t got a car of our own. Course you’re in luck since Cousin Bill’s getting in sometime early morning with the pickup.” He clicked his cheek and let off a wink. “That’s on account of Sausage Fest tomorrow.”
Dad’s ears perked up; Dylan’s chin sunk to his chest. “Sausage Fest?” Dad said with a smile. “That’s where we’re headed anyway. Over in Bratsbury, right?” He turned to his son with raised eyebrows, elated by the news. Any sense of that ‘stranger danger’ he had spoken of went out the window with his next words to the bearded man. “Any Sausagie is a friend to us!” He rolled down the window entirely to shake the man’s hand. “What’s your name?”
“Tim,” the man said, grabbing Dad’s hand. “But most ‘round here call me Butcher.” He waited for their reaction, which seemed to be exactly what he had expected: alarm. He guffawed and slapped his knee. “Nothin’ to be alarmed about, promise! I’m the one who gets them animals ready to be made into our scrumptious sausage.” They were still staring at him with open jaws, but found themselves at least slightly relieved with after that clarification. “Hey, it’s no pretty job, but someone’s gotta do it, eh?”
Dad shrugged at the man called Butcher, then turned to Dylan. “What say you, chief? A warm bed’s a lot better than the inside of ‘Ole Faithful, as good as she’s been to us over the years.” He patted the dashboard again.
Dylan didn’t want to go, but it didn’t matter. He was a kid, and kids didn’t get to make this type of decision. The thought of sleeping in one of Butcher’s beds made his skin crawl, but he supposed Dad was right: they’d go crazy in the tight quarters of ‘Ole Faithful for a full night. And who knew when (or if) they’d be able to flag down a passerby on Shithole Road?
They pushed the car to the side of the road and started behind Butcher, guided only by the light of his single flashlight. He took them a ways further down the rocky road, eventually stopping at a break in the cornfield anyone would miss should they not already know about it. They trailed him on a path that was narrower and rougher than the road they’d been on, walking another ten minutes behind the rugged man—cornfields at either side—until they came upon a clearing.
“There she is,” Butcher said. He shined the flashlight across the open land, illuminating the exterior of a single-story farmhouse. It wasn’t painted at all; naked, rotting wood would show itself to any unfortunate soul who stumbled upon it. The only light it emitted was from a few faint candles in one of the first-floor windows.
Dylan tugged at Dad’s shirt, tossing him a disgusted expression. “I’d rather be in the car, Dad,” he whispered. “Don’t you have a funny feeling about this?”
Dad was consumed by the warmth of Sausage Fest, believing any man associated with it was surely upstanding. He tilted his head down toward Dylan. “Chin up, Dyl, it’s only for a night. Besides, this is a real taste of Bratsbury.” Then the Dad joke came, “We’ll get to see how the sausage is made.” He smiled at this.
The interior of the house (if you could even call it that) was worse off than the exterior. It was livable, but just barely. Like the exterior, there wasn’t much décor, the walls lacking both wallpaper and any art. Fortunately, they were only able to see what the light from Butcher’s flashlight was touching at a given moment. Dark inside, just as it had been outside. He guided them onward, into the heart of the house.
While Dylan had convinced himself to get over the visual state of the interior, he felt like tearing off his nose. A vomit-like, sour odor mixed with that of days-old raw meat left at room temperature punched him in the face at every step. He once more looked to Dad, prepared to ask him to reconsider again. He decided against it; if he was going to get the respect he deserved as a teenager, he’d have to rise to Dad’s level. No more complaining.
Butcher stopped suddenly as another source of light began to shine on him, trumping that of the flashlight. He shut off the flashlight and tossed it aside, stepping to the side of the room to reveal dozens of candles illuminating a kitchen (or what was supposed to be one). They shined on Dylan and Dad now. A room full of candles was certainly out of the ordinary, but it was a welcome sight after having to brace the dark of a rural night.
“Greetings,” the voice of another man entered the room. It came from across the kitchen, just beyond another doorway. “His Greatness Dylan Highmore, I presume.”
Dylan’s heart sank, as did Dad’s. He felt a little urine wet his undershorts; not enough to be seen through his pants, but enough to serve as a final warning that something was very, very wrong with whatever was going on here.
“Who are you?” Dad asked. Instincts kicking in, he pushed Dylan back a bit to stand in front of him. “How do you know my son’s name?”
“And you must be Dad,” the voice responded. The man revealed himself, stepping out of the shadows into the candle-lit room. His hands were raised, slightly cupped with his palms up the way a priest does during prayer. “You ask who I am? After we have been in one another’s company on a great many occasions?”
He walked further into the room. Dad pushed his son backward again. Butcher hustled over to the counter, grabbing something from it. He brought it to the other man.
Dylan and Dad couldn’t call the man a liar: there was something familiar about him. Like Butcher, he had a thick, white beard. He, too, was covered in dirt, from his worn boots all the way up his blue overalls that were hanging onto the little original color they had left. The man’s face was filled with wrinkles, capturing lines of dirt that were far darker than other areas. He was at least two decades older than Butcher, or so it appeared.
Butcher knelt in front of the man, holding the object he had grabbed from the counter out in his hands. The man bent over, and Butcher placed the possession on his head. It was a crown, and seeing it on the stranger’s head no longer made him a stranger to the two guests. It was Randy McHenry, Sausage King and founder of Bratsbury Sausage Fest.
“I am most grateful, Butcher, for your work here,” the self-proclaimed king said, placing a hand on Butcher’s shoulder. “Now, please gather your tools. The night is already upon us, and it will not be long before the light of Sausage Fest graces us with its might.”
“Yes, my lord,” Butcher said, bowing his head. He stood up and hurried out of the kitchen.
The Sausage King turned his attention to his guests. His eyes settled on Dylan, who was peeking out from behind Dad’s torso. “Do not be afraid, my child. You are a prince, destined for eternal glory. Your greatness will strengthen dozens, sustaining them with the ultimate gift.” He was looking at Dad now. “Your father, of course, will not be as fortunate as you, but rest assured he will make the stomachs of countless Sausagies happy. No sacrifice goes unappreciated, my friends.”
He took another step toward them, hands once again lifted in worship. Dad shoved Dylan backward, harder and further this time, then turned around himself. “Go, Dylan!” he yelled. This was a voice Dylan had yet to hear from his father. Terror. “Run! Run toward the road!”
Dylan took off as instructed, pants now soaked and sloshing along as he went. Dad followed, looking back only once to find the Sausage King strolling toward them. The old man was taking his time, grinning from ear to ear, confident in how this would all turn out. It was as if he had lived this moment countless times.
They made it out the front door. They sprinted faster than either had ever run in their lives. They were soon past the narrow opening in the cornfield leading back to the road. Dad and Dylan were out of sight, chasing down their lives in the middle of nowhere.
The Sausage King stood still on the porch. He reached up and readjusted his crown. Butcher appeared in the doorway behind him, axe in one hand and a cloth bag in another. “Best I get after ‘em, my lord.”
“Not yet,” the Sausage King said through his smirk. “They taste better when they’re afraid.”