Middle-aged brothers Jason and Tom Prendergast have been estranged for years, each thinking their relationship was irrevocably severed. Perceived betrayal, resentments, and pride burned the familial bridge connecting them.
They are brought back together when their cruel father dies and his attorney advises them that the old man had one final request. In order to receive what he has bequeathed to them, they must travel together across the country to spread his ashes, and provide confirmation when they have done so. Determined to learn just what their father has left them, they have no choice but to endure spend a long car trip in each other’s company . . . or lose out on the contents of the envelope their father entrusted to his lawyer.
The journey proves to be as gut-wrenching as each brother anticipates, but also revealing in ways neither of them is prepared for.
After serving in Operation Desert Storm in 1991, author Steven Manchester embarked on a career as a prison investigator and studied criminal justice. But when one of his professors challenged him to write about corrections, Manchester found his calling. Twenty-five years and four best-selling novels later, his latest effort, Ashes, features the character of Jason Prendergast, a hardened Correctional Sergeant nearing retirement. The elder brother, Jason has spent his working life dealing with inmates incarcerated in a penal institution, and knows how to fight. Jason’s life is out of control — he’s overweight, drinks and gambles too much, and is facing a disciplinary investigation that might end his career prematurely. The one bright light in his life is his daughter. She’s planning an elaborate wedding — encouraged by her mother, Jason’s ex-wife — and Jason is hell-bent on financing the fairy tale day for his princess. With his debts and bad habits mounting, Jason is motivated to make the cross-country trek with his brother by the promise that just maybe their father managed to leave them something of value.
Tom, a college professor, has a son and daughter who don’t communicate with him unless he threatens to discontinue their cellular service, and his own marital problems. He’s also facing a health crisis, but his curiosity and need to escape the stresses of his day-to-day life propel him to attempt to discover what motivated their father to condition their inheritance, such as it may be, upon the completion of such an emotionally and physically trying trip.
Jason and Tom’s father is a key character in the story, revealed through each son’s memories of a difficult childhood. After losing their mother, the boys were left in the care of a man who was mean-spirited and abusive. He bestowed horrible nicknames upon each of his boys, humiliated them publicly, and instilled in each of them — for similar, but distinct reasons — a lifelong hatred of him. Neither of them is sorry he has at last died, making for some tragically hilarious moments as they transport the box containing his ashes in order to comply with his final demand upon them.
Anyone with a sibling will find much to relate to in Ashes. Outwardly, Jason and Tom are opposites who detest each other’s habits and preferences in just about everything, including food, music, hotel accommodations. They negotiate who will drive and what type of radio station they will listen to, along with the types of restaurants and hotels they will patronize. Their bickering is frequently hilarious — anyone with a sibling will relate to their frustration with each other. Equally humorous is their commiseration about the exasperating and bewildering challenges of growing older with which readers in the same age range (50’s) or older will relate. Yet despite the falling out that separated them years before, they are forever bound together not just by blood, but their childhood experiences, described by Manchester in heartbreaking detail.
Manchester includes a plot twist many readers will never see coming that changes everything for Jason and Tom, causing them to complete the process of self-evaluation and reflection that their reunion ignites for each of them. The brothers gradually open up to each other, finally discussing old assumptions and grudges. Their insights take readers on an emotional, highly relatable journey with Jason and Tom.
Manchester has crafted a story that is both entertaining and touching, demonstrating repeatedly that those we think we know best are often the very people about whom we actually know the least. The result is a poignant reminder that assumptions, coupled with anger, can damage relationships seemingly beyond repair, but sibling relationships are at once the most tenuous and resilient. Ashes is a surprisingly touching story of two brothers who receive a wonderful gift — a second chance to truly be brothers despite all that they have endured collectively and individually. Finding out whether they accept that gift makes for an endearing and worthwhile reading experience.
Excerpt from Ashes
Tom wheeled his late-model, platinum-colored BMW into Attorney Russell Norman’s freshly paved lot and parked between a brand new Lexus—sporting the license plate JUSTIS4U—and a custom pickup truck. Looks like I’m going after the hillbilly, he thought when he spotted the faded Massachusetts Department of Correction sticker in the rear window. His blood turned cold. “It must be Jason,” he thought aloud. I didn’t think he’d come.
Tom took a few deep breaths, not because he was nervous about his father’s death or talking to any lawyer but because he hadn’t seen his Neanderthal brother—for fifteen years, I think. He paused for a moment to give it more thought. Although their relationship had essentially vaporized in their late teens—the result of a fall out that still haunted his dreams—they’d occasionally wound up in each other’s orbits; weddings, funerals, and the like, enough to remain familiar with each other’s career choices, wives, and children. But even that came to an end fifteen years ago, he confirmed in his aching head before opening the door. While his toothache-induced migraine threatened to blind him, he took one step into the oak-paneled waiting room. His and Jason’s eyes met for the briefest moment. As though they were complete strangers, they both looked away. And here he is, Tom thought, disappointed. This is just great.
Through peripheral vision, Tom noticed that his older brother now wore a scar over his right eye, just above a bushy eyebrow that could have easily belonged to a homeless Scotsman. A jagged ear lobe, a piece clearly torn away, pointed to a crooked nose that sat sideways on his face—all of it rearranged since birth. What a big tub of shit he’s turned into, Tom thought, struggling to ignore his throbbing face and head. He’s as fat as a wood tick now, he thought, grinning, and he looks like he’s ready to pop. Jason looked straight at him, as if reading his mind. Tom immediately looked away, his rapid heartbeat starting to pound in his ears, intensifying his physical pain. Unbelievable, he thought. After all the years and all the distance, his elder brother—by only two years—still scared the hell out of him. He’s just a big asshole, that’s all, he told himself, but he still couldn’t bring himself to rejoin his brother’s penetrating gaze.
The secretary answered her phone before calling out, “Mr. Prendergast . . .”
Both brothers stood.
“Attorney Norman will see you now.”
Tom walked in first, letting the door close behind him—right in Jason’s face.
“Still a weasel,” Jason muttered, loud enough for all to hear.
“What was that?” Tom asked just inside the door.
“Don’t even think about playing with me,” Jason warned as he reopened the door and entered the room, “’cause I have no problem throwing you over my knee and spanking you right in front of this guy.”
I’m fifty years old, for God’s sake, Tom thought, and he thinks he’s going to spank me? I’m surprised the prison even let him out.
The attorney—his hand extended for anyone willing to give it a shake—looked mortified by the childish exchange.
Tom shook the man’s hand before settling into a soft leather wing chair. Jason followed suit.
The room was framed in rich mahogany paneling. The desk could have belonged in the oval office. Beneath a green-glassed banker’s lamp, stacks of file folders took up most of the vast desktop. An American flag stood in one corner, while framed diplomas and certificates, bearing witness to the man’s intelligence and vast education, covered the brown walls.
Attorney Norman wore a pinstriped shirt and pleated, charcoal-colored slacks held up by a pair of black suspenders. He had a bow tie, a receding hairline that begged to be shaved bald, and a pair of eyeglasses that John Lennon would have been proud to call his own. There’s no denying it, Tom thought, trying to ignore his brother’s wheezing beside him, he’s either a lawyer or a banker. He couldn’t be anything else.
While Jason squirmed in his seat, visibly uncomfortable to be sitting in a lawyer’s office, his hands squeezed the arms of the chair. What a chicken shit, Tom thought, trying to make himself feel better. Peering sideways, he noticed that his brother’s knuckles were so swollen with scar tissue they could have belonged to a man who made his living as a bare-knuckle brawler. He’s still an animal too, he decided.
Attorney Norman took a seat, grabbed a manila file from atop the deep stack and cleared his throat. “The reason you’re both here . . .”
“. . . is to make sure the old man’s really dead,” Jason interrupted.
In spite of himself and his harsh feelings for his brother, Tom chuckled—drawing looks from both men.
“The reason we’re all here,” Attorney Norman repeated, “is to read Stuart Prendergast’s last will and testament.” He flipped open the folder.
This ought to be good, Tom thought, while Jason took a deep breath and sighed heavily. Both brothers sat erect in their plush chairs, waiting to hear more.
As if he were Stuart Prendergast sitting there in the flesh, the mouthpiece read, “My final wish is that my two sons, Jason and Thomas, bring my final remains to 1165 Milford Road in Seattle, Washington, where they will spread my ashes.”
“Seattle?” Tom blurted, his wagging tongue catching his tooth, making him wince in pain. Quickly concealing his weakness, he slid to the edge of his seat. “Oh, I don’t think so,” he mumbled, careful not to touch the tooth again.
Jason was shaking his head. “Hell no,” he said.
The attorney read on. “I’ve always been afraid to fly, so I’m asking that I not be transported by airplane but driven by car.”
“No way,” Tom instinctively sputtered.
Jason laughed aloud. “This is just great. The old bastard’s dead and he’s still screwing with us.”
The less-than-amused attorney revealed a sealed envelope and continued on. “As my final gift to my sons . . .”
“Only gift,” Tom muttered, feeling a cauldron of bad feelings bubbling in his gut.
“I’m leaving this sealed envelope for them to share, once and only once they’ve taken me to my final resting place.”
“What the fuck!” Jason blurted.
Every cell in Tom’s overloaded brain flashed red. Don’t do it, he thought. You don’t owe that old man a damned thing. But every cell in his body was flooded with curiosity. He looked at Jason, who was no longer shaking his fat head.
“Maybe the bastard finally hit it big at the dog track?” Jason suggested.
Tom nodded in agreement but secretly wondered, Could it be the deed to the land Pop bragged about owning in Maine? He stared at the envelope. For as long as I can remember, he claimed to own forty-plus acres with a brook running straight through it. He stared harder. Could it be? he wondered, wishing he had X-ray vision. A parcel of land in Maine sure would make a nice retirement . . .
“How ’bout we travel separately and meet in Seattle to spread the ashes?” Jason said, interrupting his thoughts.
“Great idea,” Tom said, hoping against all hope that the idea would fly with their father’s lawyer.
Attorney Norman shook his head. “I’m sorry, gentlemen, but your father specifically requested that you travel together with his remains to Seattle. Any deviation from this can and will prohibit you from attaining the sealed envelope.”
There was a long pause, the room blanketed in a heavy silence. Son of a bitch, Tom thought, this couldn’t have come at a worse time. He turned to Jason, who was already looking at him. “What do you say?” he asked, already cursing his inability to curb his curiosity.
Jason shook his head in disgust. “The last thing I want to do is to go on some stupid road trip with you.”
“Trust me, that’s a mutual feeling,” Tom shot back.
“But I don’t think we have a choice,” Jason added. “Our fucked-up father wants to play one last game with us, so to hell with it—let’s play.”
This is insane, but he’s right, Tom thought. With a single nod, Tom stood. “Okay, let’s have the ashes then,” he told the lawyer.
The attorney shook his head. “I don’t have them. They’re currently at a funeral home in Salem.”
“Salem?” Tom squeaked, unhappy that his tone betrayed his distress.
“That’s right. You have to take custody of your father’s remains from the Buffington Funeral Home in Salem, Massachusetts.”
“You must be shitting me.” Jason said.
The attorney smirked. “I shit you not,” he said, throwing the letter onto his desk.
Salem? Tom repeated in his head. Just when I thought Pop couldn’t be a bigger prick . . . The migraine knocked even harder from the inside of his skull, making him feel nauseous. Amid the pain, his synapses fired wildly, considering all this would mean: I’ll have to take bereavement leave from school and find someone to cover my classes. I should probably double my treatment with Dr. Baxter tomorrow. And what about Caleb and Caroline? he asked himself, quickly deciding, They’ll be fine without me for a few days. Then he pictured his wife’s face. And Carmen, she’ll be fine without me for a lot longer than that. The nausea increased. Screw her.
“Are we done here?” Jason asked, obviously itching to leave.
The lawyer nodded. “I’ll need proof in the form of a video or a series of photos that you’ve deposited your father’s remains where he wished. Once I have that, the letter’s all yours.”
“How wonderful,” Jason said sarcastically. He stood, turned on his heels, and headed for the door.
Tom also got to his feet. He looked at the lawyer and, trying to ignore his physical discomfort, he smiled. “Don’t mind him,” he said, shrugging. “That imbecile is exactly what our father trained him to be.”