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.
(a short story in the world of Ashes)
The rain smothered the windshield—sheet after pounding sheet—and it didn’t look like it was going to ease up any time soon. A country western song played on the radio, just loud enough for Tom to feel his ears threatening to bleed. He looked at Jason, his giant brother hulking behind the SUV’s steering wheel, and couldn’t decide if there was more scar tissue on the ogre’s knuckles or his furrowed brow. Jason had been in Corrections for twenty eight years, time enough to lose any sense of idealism he’d once had and add more than a few extra pounds to his mid-section. Once an animal, Tom thought, stifling a yawn, always an animal. Pop sure trained him well. The impromptu cross-country trip still felt surreal to Tom. The sooner we get to Seattle and spread the old man’s ashes, he thought, the sooner I can return to my life. But for reasons he preferred to ignore, the truth of it didn’t make him feel any better. He looked back at Jason and sighed. Being at this point in his life—where time was much too precious to spend with anyone but someone he cared about—his brother was just more unwanted baggage. Whether I’m here or there, he thought, I can’t win either way.
Although Jason was clearly struggling to read the road signs in the monsoon, it didn’t stop him from babbling on and sharing another of his twisted memories. “When I first started staying over at Josie’s place,” he said, “I didn’t know her parrot could talk.” He shook his head. “One night, about two in the morning, I got up to take a leak. As I passed the bird’s cage, I heard something whisper, ‘What are you doin’?’”
In spite of his foul mood, Tom chuckled aloud.
“I must have jumped a friggin’ mile,” Jason said, grabbing for his chest. “And it took a few seconds before I realized it was the parrot talking.” He shook his head. “With my heart pounding out of my chest, I leaned into the cage and screamed, ‘What am I doin’? What the hell are you doin’?’”
“Did the bird answer?” Tom asked.
“He didn’t make another peep,” Jason said, shrugging. “After changing my shorts, I hurried back to bed.” Grinning wide, Jason shook his head again. “I’m still having nightmares over that one.”
“You’re really sick, do you know that?” Tom said above the nauseating country music yodeling in the background.
Jason nodded. “My relationship with Josie didn’t last long, anyway.”
Although a wise voice in his head begged him not to ask, Tom couldn’t help himself. “And why’s that?”
Jason’s grin erupted into a full blown smile. “Josie had a bad habit of applying the Heimlich maneuver on folks who weren’t choking.” He nodded. “Trust me, if you want to make someone shit themselves, just sneak up behind them while they have a mouthful of food and start squeezing for no reason.” He began making a mock choking sound. “It ain’t pretty,” he added, laughing at his own sick humor.
Fighting off a pair of heavy eyelids, Tom shook his head before glancing toward the back seat where their father’s ashes sat in a plain, walnut box. You’re the reason Jason’s so screwed up, he told his deceased father in his head; he then gave the subject a little more thought and cringed. You’re the reason we’re both screwed up.
Jason and Tom’s father, Stuart Prendergast, had been a bastard in every sense of the word. And by all accounts, he’d been that way since childhood when his game of choice was playing the neighborhood undertaker. Whether or not he’d intentionally killed any of his clients was always a bit hazy from the stories, but once their hearts stopped pumping he was happy to give them a proper burial in the expanding graveyard he’d established. By the time he’d grown into a man—and the role of father—Stu had submerged himself into a pool of alcohol where he prided himself on being able to swim with the best of them. The only thing heavier than his drinking habit was his hands, which he often used on his terrified sons.
In the hypnotizing rain, Tom stared out the side window, watching the world whip by in one massive smudge. It didn’t take long before his head grew heavy, wedging itself between the passenger head rest and the window jam. “How long have you been divorced now?”
“Not long enough,” Jason quickly replied; he was serious.
“So the process wasn’t so bad, then?” he asked, trying to sound as nonchalant as possible.
Jason sighed heavily. “If I’m being honest, it sucked something awful. If it had been just me and the old lady, it would have been as easy as getting a rotten tooth pulled.” He looked at Tom and smirked. “One quick yank and a few days of pain, and it’s all over.” His eyes drifted off for a moment, and his face turned sorrowful—in a way Tom had not witnessed in years. “I’ll never forget the morning Miranda confronted me about the break-up. ‘Why are you and Mom splitting up?’ she asked. ‘You guys haven’t even been fighting.’ She sounded like a six-year-old again, confused by the whole nightmare. I can still remember how she…” Jason stopped, while his Adam’s apple bounced from the emotion that had obviously ambushed him. He peered out the driver’s side window, lingering in the awkward silence for a few extended moments. “‘And that's the point,’ I told her. ‘Your mother and I haven't fought in years.’” He swallowed hard. “I can still picture the pain in her eyes when I let her know it had been years since her mother and I cared enough to waste our breath.”
“Damn,” Tom muttered involuntarily.
“I know,” Jason muttered, “but Miranda still couldn’t understand how the marriage was coming to an end after everything our family had been through.” Jason took a deep breath. “That’s when I told her it had been a loveless marriage for as long as I could remember.”
Tom grunted his disapproval again.
Jason’s head whipped sideways, his eyes turning to threatening slits.
Oh shit, Tom thought, his backside puckering like it did when they were kids—just before his brother beat him down.
Instead of striking out, Jason slowly nodded his head. “It definitely wasn’t one of my finest moments. To this day, it’s still the dumbest thing I’ve ever told my kid.” He paused. “It was the absolute truth, but I still shouldn’t have said it,” he muttered, now talking to himself.
Tom nodded. I imagine you’ve said a lot of dumb things to your kid, he thought, knowing he’d lose teeth if those words left his lips.
“As much as I wish I could have spared Miranda the pain, I just couldn’t stay with her mother. The toxic relationship was killing all of us.” He took a deep breath again and exhaled. “I was suffocating, you know?” He nodded. “I think we all were back then.”
“Fighting apathy can be exhausting,” Tom said, drawing a sideways glance from his brother, prompting him to quickly change the subject. “I wish I’d been a better dad,” he blurted, immediately scolding himself for sharing something so intimate with his long-estranged brother. That was stupid, he thought. Why am I even talking to this donkey?
“And how’s that?” Jason asked, leaning in toward the windshield to read the next blurred road sign.
Tom shrugged, careful to take better care with his words. “I don’t know,” he said. “Even though my kids live under the same roof, I’ve spent years taking them for granted.” He shrugged. “I was always too damn busy chasing down money and success, you know?”
Jason shook his head. “That’s what fathers do, right?”
It wasn’t the sarcastic reply Tom had expected, and he was taken aback, leaving him suddenly speechless.
“Though I’m not surprised,” Jason said. “You’ve always been completely self-absorbed.”
Now there’s the asshole I know, Tom thought. “You don’t even know me!” he barked.
Jason laughed. “Relax, lollipop. I’m just playing with you.”
“Whatever,” Tom said, ready to surrender to the sleep that was trying to claim him. I guess it serves me right for even trying to have a normal conversation with the Neanderthal.
“I was just playing,” Jason repeated. “Success is a good thing.”
“Yeah,” Tom said, closing his eyes, “as long as it doesn’t cast a shadow so wide that our children are left in the darkness.”
“Oh, I don’t think either one of us has to worry about that.”
Tom opened both his eyes and his mouth, but nothing came out, surprising himself.
“I knew you’d agree,” Jason said, chuckling again.
He’s still as crude as he is honest, Tom thought, nestling his head back into the window jam where his unrelenting mind began to ponder their current stations in life. He and Jason were now middle-aged, taking longer—much longer—to get anything done. But what I lack in energy and enthusiasm, he told himself, leaving out his brother, I make up with experience and wisdom.
“You know, at this point in life, we should be doing what we want,” Jason said, letting Tom know he was contemplating the same thing. “We’ve raised our kids…”
“…And we’re on the back-end of our careers,” Tom interjected.
“So we should be able to eat anything we want,” Jason added, grinning.
“What?” Tom snickered, peering out from his cozy corner. “That’s the last thing you need to be doing, tubby. With your weight, you’ll be lucky if you don’t join Pop in…”
“A few years ago,” Jason interrupted in his booming voice, “people started asking me, ‘Are you putting on weight?’ I’d tell them, ‘No. Actually, I just lost forty pounds.’ ‘Wow, you look great!’ they said.”
“You don’t take anything serious, do you?” Tom asked.
“Actually, I do,” Jason countered. “Just last month, at the prison, I filled a specimen cup with apple juice, labeled it, and placed it into the urinalysis testing fridge. When I finally spotted a few younger officers standing close by, I opened the fridge and started guzzling the juice. ‘God, that’s twangy,’ I told them. ‘I definitely need more fluids.’” Jason started laughing.
“Nope, nothing’s serious to you,” Tom said, struggling not to laugh along with him.
“It’s how I’ve stayed alive and sane all these years,” Jason answered, any hint of humor erased from his face.
Tom nodded. The second part’s debatable, he thought, but I get it. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be locked in there every day with all those rapists and murderers.
For a while, besides the rain, only the God-awful country music filled the cab of the SUV until Jason showed some mercy and shut off the radio. As the rain drummed off the SUV, creating a soothing rhythm, Tom stared out the passenger window and noticed that a speeding train was running parallel to them. I can’t remember the last time I rode on a train, he thought, focused on the long line of passenger cars. “Are you happy with life?” he suddenly asked aloud; it was no more than a thought that had slipped off his tongue, surprising him as much as his brother. Stupid, he scolded himself again.
“Happy with life?” Jason repeated in a tone that dripped with cynicism. “Who the hell is happy with life at our age?”
Stop talking, Tom told himself. Just stop!
“I suppose when we were kids,” Jason said, “there were times when I…”
But Jason’s voice had turned muffled and distant, sounding just like their father’s—minus the man’s threatening tone. Tom felt like he was a young boy again, listening to the deep voice of a man talking in the other room. He tried to nod in response to something Jason had said, but his head wouldn’t budge. Two deep breaths later, his mind was removed from reality—set free to roam the unrestricted dream world he preferred to dwell in.
After one final bite of dry toast, a black Lincoln Continental waited patiently just outside the marble foyer. Tom donned his coat and hat and darted for the open door. Once inside the car, a wave of heat hit his face, removing all of winter’s discomforts.
Shamus Donovan, his friendly driver, looked over the front seat. “Where to?” he asked.
“How about FAO Schwarz, for starters? I’m in the mood to buy some toys.”
“As you wish, sir.”
While Shamus Donovan parked at the base of a giant teddy bear and exited the car, Tom spent the time admiring the even burn on his Cuban cigar. It was a gift from a colleague, the smoothest tobacco he’d ever tasted.
“We’re not open until ten,” the store’s self-appointed lawman bellowed to Shamus just outside the car, “and I don’t care which rich cat is sitting behind that tinted glass.”
Tom lowered the fogged window and smiled at the angry little man, who evidently expected a different reaction and was taken aback by the sincere gesture. Just as Shamus threw up his hands, Tom stepped out of the car. “Would it be a problem if I spoke to your manager, sir?” Tom asked, killing him with holiday kindness.
Another seemingly angry soul approached. “I’m the manager. What’s the problem here?” His voice was colder than the December wind.
“There’s no problem,” Tom claimed before glancing down at his Rolex, “I know we’ve arrived a bit early and that you’re not open for another forty minutes, but I was hoping you could help me.”
“And how might I do that?” the manager asked, his teeth chattering in the frigid air. Tom was obviously not the first person to ask him for a favor.
Tom grabbed his cell phone, punched in several numbers, and lifted his index finger for the irritated man to be patient. There was a brief pause. Tom grinned kindly at the man before speaking to the person he telephoned, talking loud enough for everyone to hear. “Rick, it’s Tom. I need you to get in touch with The Salvation Army and the Marine Corps Recruiting station. Have each of them bring the biggest truck they own and report to the front of FAO Schwarz within the hour. Also, I want Channel Twelve and someone from the Times to cover the story. Have them here twenty minutes after the trucks arrive.” There was another pause, enough time for Tom’s grin to widen. “Yes, Rick, the manager has been kind enough to open early for us. He wants to ensure that every orphaned child in this city believes in Santa Claus this year.” After one last pause, Tom concluded, “That’s correct. I don’t want my name mentioned. Mister…” Tom placed his hand over the phone and looked up at the store manager. “I’m sorry,” he said, “what did you say your name was?”
“Fiore,” the shivering man replied. “Faust Fiore.” His eyes were as big as flying saucers, his mouth half hung in shock.
“Mr. Faust Fiore is the kind soul who deserves all the recognition, Rick,” Tom concluded. “Be sure he gets it.” He ended the call with a smile.
“I suppose we could make an exception this one time,” Mr. Fiore squeaked.
It was nearly noon when Tom wrapped up his shopping frenzy. Hundreds of Barbie dolls and an equal amount of superhero action figures made their way toward the register. He purchased every stuffed animal, yoyo, and sled in the store. Pyramids of board games, sporting goods, and baby dolls were stacked inside one of the dozen shopping carriages being pushed in the giddy man’s wake. In record time, Tom had personally selected a mountain of toys. Each time he threw something that beeped, whistled, or cried into a carriage, he felt the spirit of giving illuminate his soul. It’s already the best Christmas I can remember, he thought, feeling his face glow.
Sharing the same truth, Shamus Donovan giggled like a young schoolboy from the first aisle to the last.
Tom threw the gifts onto his platinum card while Shamus shuffled out the door to pull the car around back. As Tom tiptoed out the back, the first rolling camera made its way through the store’s front door. Turning back, he couldn’t help but smile. Faust Fiore was being swarmed upon by a pack of hungry media. “He can have it,” Tom whispered, ducking into the limo—to where Shamus was still giggling.
“Where to?” the Irish chauffer managed through his glee.
“I don’t know about you, Shamus, but all that shopping’s made me hungry.” There was a thoughtful pause. “I think we should get some lunch. How does the Four Oaks sound?”
Shamus pointed the car west, his face confused over the lunch invitation. After a few awkward seconds, he nodded and grumbled something incoherent.
The limo pulled into the front of the Four Oaks. Tom had belonged to the private club for years. Though he disliked most of the arrogant and pompous asses that frequented the place, its creative chef grilled the best swordfish he’d ever tasted. And no one’s going to deny me that, he’d decided long ago.
Tom jumped out of the back and nearly watched Shamus’s face go white when he opened the driver’s side door. “Why don’t we valet the car today?” he suggested.
Shamus couldn’t speak. He merely slid out of the seat, threw the keys to the valet attendant, and followed his boss into the dark mysterious den.
In the foyer, a paunch, middle-aged man quickly approached, smoking a cigar half the size of his face. “Tom, we’ve missed you at the Racquetball Club of late,” he snorted, awaiting a reply that never came. “The offer still stands, old boy—double or nothing?”
“I’ve been busy, Charles. Why don’t we just call the wager at even?”
The man strutted away with a smile that engulfed his bloated face.
Tom turned to Shamus. “It was like taking candy from a baby, anyway,” he whispered. “Chubby Charles doesn’t have an athletic bone in his body, but for as long as I can remember he’s been hell-bent to beat me at…”
“Your regular table, Mr. Prendergast?” the maître d’ interrupted. His face showed blatant signs of disapproval, each sign directed toward Shamus.
“The regular,” Tom countered. “And since it’s Christmas, why don’t you spoil us by sending over a bottle of Dom.”
The man nodded robotically, shot another bad look at Shamus, and scurried off.
Tom Prendergast and Shamus Donovan finished their swordfish, the bottle of bubbly, two warm brandies, and a pair of fine cigars. Shamus looked like he’d finally discovered heaven while Tom sat amazed by how little he’d known about his kind chauffer prior to their lunch. Life really does get in the way of the important things, Tom thought, vowing to never let it happen again.
“Well, hello, Tom Prendergast. Isn’t it fancy meeting you here?” purred a woman so beautiful that even her soft, shapely body couldn’t distract from her angelic face. Without being offered, she took a seat. She smelled like gingerbread.
Tom grinned wide. Shamus swallowed hard. “Hello, Tricia,” Tom started. “It has been some time, hasn’t it, my sweet?” Tom had a way with the ladies, even those who appeared unapproachable. If his looks couldn’t reel them in, then his charm blew them ten feet out of the water. This petite goddess was no different. She was nearly drooling. “I hear you’re still modeling that beautiful face for the world,” he said with a wink.
“It pays the bills for now,” she kidded, “at least until you marry me and make me an honest woman.” Her smile could have melted the silver butter dish.
Tom stood, grabbed her hand, and kissed it softly. He then glanced over at Shamus and winked. “Ms. Tricia Quintal, I’d like you to meet an old friend.” There was a strange pause. “Mr. Shamus Donovan.”
Clearly taken aback, Shamus nodded slightly.
Tricia smiled. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Donovan,” she crooned, but quickly gave her undivided attention back to Tom. “So, what do you say?” she teased.
Tom smiled. “Tragically enough, I don’t think my schedule would permit a wedding right now, but I’ll give you a call sometime in the near future, okay?”
She stood, smiled brilliantly, and walked away. Her eyes, however, never left his gaze until the foyer swallowed her whole.
“Women,” Tom chuckled. “The greatest test of a man’s will…”
Shamus ran the cloth napkin across his mouth and, to Tom’s surprise, said, “Then you are a very strong man indeed, Mr. Prendergast.” With a chuckle, he…
Tom awoke. It took a few strange moments to register any sense of reality. Like a chapped desert, his mouth felt completely dry, letting him know he’d been snoring—maybe even struggling to take in air from his mouth while he slept. He opened and closed his lips a few times to try to generate some moisture—nothing. Happy with life? he repeated in his head. Maybe when I sleep, but that’s about it. Trying to wipe the cobwebs from his mind, he thought about that for a moment. It's pretty sad when I can only find happiness in my dreams, he decided, where my true aspirations can only be fulfilled. Having recently turned fifty, most of the sand in his hour glass had already sifted through his fingers, and he was struggling to reconcile it.
“Welcome back to the real world,” Jason said. “And you really need to go see a doctor about your snoring. Do you use one of those CPAP machines at home?”
Tom tried to shake his head, but his neck was all knotted up from being wedged in the window. Instead, he moaned, still trying to locate a few drops of saliva somewhere in his mouth.
“Carmen must really enjoy that at night.”
Who gives a shit! Tom thought. Whatever Carmen enjoys, it sure as hell isn’t with me. He yawned wide before looking over his shoulder at his father’s wooden box. My life’s more than half over and this is where I’m at? he thought. Unreal…
Returning completely to the present, Tom realized the rain had finally stopped, leaving behind a sky so blue it looked like he could fish in it. He also discovered that Jason was eager to pick up the conversation where they’d left off.
“So why all that talk about divorce earlier?” he asked.
Tom half-shrugged. “No reason,” he quickly answered, concealing his emotion behind another long yawn.
“Listen,” Tom said, wiping the sleep from his eyes, “if I needed to talk about my marriage, you’d be the last person in the world I’d confide in.”
Jason smirked. “So, you’re not ready to talk, then,” he said sarcastically. “I’m here when you’re ready.”
Old, jagged feelings shot to the surface, increasing Tom’s blood pressure. “What I need is for you to make a pit stop somewhere so I can use the bathroom,” he said, looking out the window. “Where are we, anyway?”
Jason held his smirk, fighting off his laughter.
“What?” Tom asked, hardly amused. “We’re lost, aren’t we?”
“Chill out, sleeping beauty. I might have taken a wrong turn a ways back, but no big deal.”
“How in the hell…”
“Chill out,” Jason repeated, only this time he wasn’t asking. “It was raining something vicious,” he said before pointing to the GPS stuck to the center of the windshield, “and sometimes Google Maps can be wrong so…”
“If you were using my map,” Tom said, unfolding the giant paper square onto the dashboard, “then we wouldn’t be lost.”
Jason looked at him and shook his head. “As long as we’re together,” he said sarcastically, “then we can never be lost.”
Tom looked at him in disbelief. “You think this is funny?” he asked, feeling his blood throbbing in his ears.
“I do,” Jason said, “I really do.”
As the bickering ensued, Jason drove onto the shoulder of the road and whipped the SUV into a U-turn. At the lip of the asphalt, the SUV hopped back onto the road. Tom looked back just in time to see his father’s box of ashes bounce once and then twice until falling onto the back floor. He leaned over the front seat to ensure the lid was still closed and that none of the contents had spilled out. The old man’s fine, he decided and, with a single shrug, he turned back around, leaving his father on the back floor.
“Next bathroom I see, we’ll stop,” Jason promised.
“Gee, thanks,” Tom said, the needle on his annoyance meter tacking in the red.
“We need gas, anyway,” Jason said, “and I’m out of snacks.”
“Of course you are. And lottery tickets too, I’m guessing,” Tom said sarcastically.
Jason peered at his brother and grinned. “Listen, you have your retirement plan, and I have mine.”
Tom drew in a deep breath and held it for a few counts. It’ll be a miracle if I survive this trip, he thought. Between my simpleton brother and a box of ashes that hardly deserves this effort, it’ll be a friggin’ miracle.
“Oh, good!” Jason blurted, breaking Tom’s train of thought. “A gas station.” He steered the SUV into the lot and parked beside the pumps. “It looks like we’re not lost anymore, Tommy.”
Sure, Tom thought while the rising bile in his throat triggered a slow burn. We’re exactly where we should be. He felt ready to vomit.
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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