Published by: The Story Plant
Publication Date: February 21st 2017
Number of Pages: 260
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Middle-aged brothers Jason and Tom Prendergast thought they were completely done with each other. Perceived betrayal had burned the bridge between them, tossing them into the icy river of estrangement. But life – and death – has a robust sense of irony, and when they learn that their cruel father has died and made his final request that they travel together across the country to spread his ashes, they have no choice but to spend a long, long car trip in each other's company. It's either that or lose out on the contents of the envelope he's left with his lawyer. The trip will be as gut-wrenching as each expects it to be . . . and revealing in ways neither of them is prepared for.
At turns humorous, biting, poignant, and surprisingly tender, Ashes puts a new spin on family and dysfunction with a story that is at once fresh and timelessly universal.
Ashes Excerpt – Spooky Town
As Tom walked, the unique atmosphere of Salem during Halloween seeped into his bones. Some tourists, with painted faces, giggled nervously at the sights. The more serious, however, wore gothic attire and had clearly traveled north to embrace the dark side. Either way, it was the land of ghouls and goblins where people made their imaginations come to life. Salem was the type of place that could spook a person from their dreams; where the most terrifying nightmares could become reality—as they did back in 1692. He forged on.
One block down, a sign read: Crow Haven Corner—Salem’s First Witch Shop & Purveyor To Witches Around The World. It was the most famous witch shop in all of Salem and the competing scents of many strange aromas nearly bowled Tom over. While other shoppers purchased everything from mother’s wort to frankincense, Tom purchased a plastic baggie of powdered mercury. The label claimed benefits toward imagination and writing composition. I can use all the help I can get with my poetry these days, he thought, stepping out of the shop to get some air.
Surrounding yards were bordered in black wrought iron fences, their sharp stakes warning off any unwelcomed visitors. Small English gardens were carefully tended. Even the weeds appeared intentional. The colonial houses, with their small windows, offered a warm feeling of home. Tom was inhaling it all when a door swung open and his hulking brother stepped out of one of the shops. Whether Jason didn’t see him or pretended not to, he walked right past him without so much as a look. It’s amazing how much I still despise him, playing me for such a pathetic fool like that, Tom thought, angry with himself that his brother still had any impact on him at all.
Samantha’s costume shop on Essex was the best in town. Tom admired a turn-of-the-century poet’s costume, while some hot-looking woman in her mid-thirties paid for a wench’s dress. It looks like someone’s in for a fun night, he thought, recalling when Carmen used to surprise him with similar delights. But those times are long gone for me, he sadly realized.
Just up the block, he stepped into the Derby Square Book Store. He’d just started browsing when two words echoed from his belly into his head: I’m hungry.
As he walked out, an old lady hobbled in hanging onto the arm of a teenage boy. “Take your time, Brian,” she said. “I’m not a young chick anymore.”
“Yets Mama,” the lanky kid said.
Although Tom could see that the boy was cognitively impaired, what struck him most was the deep bond shared between the peculiar pair. What I wouldn’t give to have that with my children, he thought.
Red’s Sandwich Shop on Central Street had once been The London Coffee House, a meeting place for the Patriots before the American Revolution, and still served as a landmark. Tom teetered between the taco salad and the lobster ravioli in a spinach cream sauce. Pasta, it is, he thought. The meal was rich, but the bill was cheap—recharging his energy level back to full.
One street up, he paused in front of Salem’s old police station and jail. An elderly photographer was snapping away when he looked up from his camera and smiled at Tom. “They say if you take photos of this place, when you develop the pictures you’ll be able to see orbs hovering behind those rusty bars.” He paused for effect. “They say the spirits of the damned are still imprisoned behind these hoary walls.”
“I’m sure they are,” Tom said, skeptically, and continued walking. Halfway down the sidewalk, though, he stopped to take a few pictures with his cell phone. I’ve got to take another leak, he thought and began looking for a public bathroom.
After relieving himself, he arrived at The Burying Point, the oldest cemetery in the city. From Mayflower passengers to the Justices of the Witchcraft court, many of the famous and infamous rested beneath its lumpy sod. Tom read several faded tombstone inscriptions until locating the one that brought his neck hairs to attention: I am innocent of such wickedness. As he started to walk out of the eerie sacred grounds, he spotted a sign: Open dawn til dusk. No gravestone rubbings. His mind instantly returned to his childhood when he’d been scared out of his wits—in this very same place.
It all began as a thrill-seeking joke, Tom and Jason, along with Mike, their half-witted friend, roaming the cemeteries at night in search of the living dead. The Burying Point was the creepiest cemetery in the city and, as such, reputed some legendary stories of multiple ghost sightings. There couldn’t have been a more perfect night for a spine-tingling scare.
Strolling through the fields of granite, young Tom fumbled with his tracing paper and charcoal stick, stopping at every other headstone to get the perfect imprint. Most of the stones were cracked and faded; badly decayed from the decades of harsh rains and battering winds. There were others, however, that had endured terrible desecration, having either been defaced or toppled during senseless acts of vandalism. The graveyard was split into two sections. The old section was located at the front of the grounds, with the recently departed planted toward the rear. For a while, the boys lingered in the front. It promised more goose flesh.
“Get off my land,” an angry voice hissed in the distance.
Tom leapt to his feet and dropped his artwork all over the black ground. “Stop it,” he yelled at Jason. “You almost gave me a heart attack!”
Jason’s mouth hung open, but he said nothing.
Turning his suspicions toward Mike, Tom discovered that his friend’s eyes were as big as moon pies. Mike was obviously using them to scan the area and he was no longer laughing. Every hair on Tom’s body turned to spikes.
“Don’t make me come out there,” the disembodied voice called again. This time it was closer and much meaner.
Mike screamed. Tom tried to match it, but couldn’t. All three boys were paralyzed with fear.
Suddenly, the invisible entity let out a shrieking laugh.
Fighting through the freezing numbness of shock, Tom took off at a sprint. Looking back, he saw Jason grabbing as many papers as he could before beating him and Mike out to the street. They were a full block and a half from the cemetery before a word was spoken.
“Tell me we didn’t just…” Jason started to ask.
Tom was trembling so badly he could hardly speak. He nodded and kept nodding, trying to reclaim his stolen breath. He opened his mouth to say something but nothing came out. He couldn’t even think. The brief experience was so unnerving, so unsettling that he couldn’t decide whether it was reality or merely their wild imaginations.
Without a word, Mike took off running and high-tailed it out of there.
“Mike!” Jason yelled after him, but the petrified boy kept running—never once looking back.
Tom and Jason tried to rationalize in whispers. “Something’s not right with this,” Jason said, taking a knee on the sidewalk. “I think somebody’s playing with us.”
Tom had finally recovered the air he’d lost in his lungs. “It’s not like…like we can tell anybody,” he stammered. “Who would believe us?”
Jason shook his head. “This is bull, Tommy,” he blurted. “I’m going back.” He stood and started marching down the sidewalk.
Still perplexed by the disturbing experience, Tom’s heart and mind were instantly thrown into mortal combat. Like his older brother, he was attracted to the mystery of the supernatural. But the thought of a confrontation with some angry apparition terrified him. Go with Jason, he remembered screaming in his head and, one deep breath later, he was able to coax his legs to start moving.
As the anxiety levels turned Tom’s goose bumps into sandpaper, he discovered his brother hunched down in some bushes just outside the cemetery gates.
“Shhhh,” Jason whispered, his index finger pressed to his smirking lips. He pointed toward something with his other hand.
In the distance, an old man—presumably the cemetery’s grounds keeper—was half-concealed behind a large elm tree, scaring away a new band of thrill-seekers.
Jason stood and looked at Tom. “So you came back,” he said, impressed.
Tom nodded, never feeling more proud about anything in his young life.
“I told you there’s no such thing as monsters,” Jason said, laughing.
“Except for Dad,” Tom said, still overjoyed he’d found a fraction of his brother’s courage to return to Jason’s side.
Jason nodded. “True, except for Dad.”
As Tom returned to the present and left the decrepit cemetery, he decided that besides Author Nathaniel Hawthorne, his favorite Salem son was Giles Corey. The man had been accused of practicing witchcraft and was subsequently pressed to death beneath a pile of stones on September 16, 1692. The jailer of that time jammed Giles Corey’s swollen tongue back into his mouth with a walking stick before asking for the man’s final words. “More weight,” Corey replied.
Many of the accused back then were weighted down and placed in water, Tom recalled. If they floated, then they were a witch and would be hanged. If they sank, then they were free from the conviction. He shook his head. Either way, they were condemned to a horrible death.
Horse drawn carriages and vendors peddling their goods filled Salem’s bustling streets near The Pickering Wharf. Boris Karloff’s Witch’s Mansion, Terror on the Wharf and Salem’s Museum of Myths and Monsters beckoned toward the brave at heart. These fake haunted houses charged top price to have college kids dressed in torn jackets and rubber masks jump out at you and scream loud enough to jumpstart your heart. Salem had become a tourist trap where trinkets and souvenirs helped create visions of bubbling cauldrons and diabolical spells. Tom was filled with a sense of simple joy, watching the herds of people. The wide eyes of children absorbed each detail, while the natural suspicions of their parents kept them close. I love this place, he thought, laughing to himself. For too many reasons to count—most of which seemed foolish at the moment—it had been years since he’d been to the haunted city. It’s already the most fun I’ve had since I can remember, he thought.
As an aspiring poet, Tom found Nathaniel Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables to be breathtaking. He gawked at the place and, when he could gain control over his jaw muscles, he recited a passage from the famous author in his head. Halfway down the bystreet of one of our New England towns stands a rusty wooden house, with seven acutely peaked gables, facing towards various points of the compass, and a huge clustered chimney in the midst.
One mile later, Tom arrived back at Salem Common Park. He approached the statue of the city’s founder, Roger Conant. In his conservative puritan dress, the settler’s dead and distant eyes stared sternly from beneath the brim of a pilgrim’s hat. He was faded and weathered from a century of battering winds and punishing New England winters. He’d clearly stood in this very spot for far too long, guarding the park before him. And he’s paid dearly for it, Tom thought. The statue’s face was pock marked, his flowing cape oxidized to green.
There was an unusual nip in the air. A soft but consistent wind howled through the clusters of shedding trees that populated the sparse grounds. Tom looked around, thinking, I can’t believe this place is so abandoned. Suddenly, it hit him. Everyone’s at the hotel’s costume ball. It was the most famous in the world. So much for getting a good night’s sleep, he told himself.
Beneath the frugal light of a half moon—and an avenue of sturdy oak trees that danced in the late autumn wind—Tom strolled through the park. In the distance, he swore he spotted his brother’s massive silhouette sitting on a park bench. He walked a few feet more to be sure. What a piece of work, he thought about his brother. You couldn’t care less about this place, huh? He studied Jason’s large outline. After all these years, you’re still just an uncultured gorilla. Shaking his head, Tom turned his back on the unfriendly shadow. I need a drink, he told himself, and another piss.
Steven Manchester is the author of the #1 bestsellers Twelve Months, The Rockin’ Chair, Pressed Pennies, and Gooseberry Island as well as the novels Goodnight, Brian and The Changing Season. His work has appeared on NBC’s Today Show, CBS’s The Early Show, CNN’s American Morning, and BET’s Nightly News. Recently, three of Manchester’s short stories were selected “101 Best” for the Chicken Soup for the Soul series.
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