A warm south wind blew through the open doors from the terrace. It brought the breath of the ocean, mixed with the faint scent of wet sand and eucalyptus. The palm trees rustled rhythmically outlined indistinctly in the darkening California sky.
Lewis took a Hennessy. The apartment was also semi-dark, diluted only by the backlit screen of a mobile phone. The man watched as it was silently bursting with messages, and loosened the knot of his tie. His white shirt gleamed with a dull stain in the deepening darkness, clinging and intrusive.
It was Christmas Eve.
But warm California was not generous even for the rains. Lewis had already weaned off snow, although all his childhood he lived in the north. And he didn’t miss the cold, snowstorms, and skiing.
It seemed to him that the ice streak had cut him off from the past forever. In the small mining town Longfoot, west of Crested Butte, everything was overgrown with moss. Including him. The insecure, pain-ridden teenager remained on the state border.
Lewis turned around reluctantly, his gaze falling on the parcel next to the stack of magazines. He drank from the glass and just as reluctantly walked to the table.
The package, whatever it was, didn't weigh much. The return address .... Well, Lewis remembered it very well.
The man walked with the bundle into the bedroom.
The switch flipped, and a yellow spot of the table lamp flooded the cream-colored walls, dropping short shadows of the furniture.
Lewis sat down in a chair, thought for a second, and finally got rid of the annoying tie. He tasted the bitter alcohol on his tongue; somewhere from the very depths resistance rose at the sight of smooth lines in the sender's graph. A light fog filled his head, and Lewis hesitated for a while, looking at the yellowish paper.
Strangely, the past never lets a person out of its clutches. The silence of the room was broken by the rustle of paper, equally indecisive and timid.
There was a sigh.
In front of him was a homemade photo album on his knees. Which housewives like to make, pasting memorable photos in openwork frames and signing them with something like: "Little Danny is on a bicycle for the first time."
Lewis remembered these albums as well as the return address. They had a whole stack of them in their house: family, friendship, wedding, separately for Lewis and Ben.
Mrs. Bryce glued lovingly each shot and sometimes decorated it with either a dried mimosa twig or a paper butterfly. Lewis always thought it was silly sentimentality, and had no idea what to do with such stuff.
And now, one of them lied in front of him.
There’s the family photo on the cover. Mom, dad, and then, in the middle, he with Ben. They were only 2 years old. Ben smiled, and Lewis knew he had a dimple on his right cheek, even though he couldn't see it. But Lewis was always gloomy. From early childhood. A split character, as Mom said. One for two.
He opened the album.
"The best moments of the Bryce brothers". Mom's handwriting, delicate, neat with an ornate C, is impossible not to recognize.
"When you were born, and you appeared first in this sinful world," Mrs. Bryce, winks at her son, kneading pancake batter: "You did not utter a sound. Your respiratory tract was cleared, the umbilical cord was cut, but you were silent. You know, newborns don't know how to focus their gaze on a close object. But you did. "
The pan sizzles slightly and the first portion of dough is poured onto it in a neat circle.
"You looked so closely at the nurse with your black eyes that she said to me later: "Your son will be a heartbreaker."
The dough turns reddish at the bottom, acquiring an appetizing brown tint.
"You never cried, Lewis. Even when you were hungry. When you fell and got hurt, when fought with the boys at school. I cried instead. While treating your wounds, I cried from powerlessness and the realization that I couldn't protect you from all the injustice of this world."
The pancake deftly turns over, exposing the fried side.
Lewis looked at the photo. It was him, in a blue baby T-shirt, crawling right towards the camera.
"Lewis is 1 year old."
The gaze slowly slides to the second photo. He's with Ben on it. In their second year of birth, they were still sitting in their ridiculous chairs with crossbars, round balloons, red, blue, green, and one cake for two with a large number 2.
“We didn't celebrate your first birthday,” Mrs. Bryce pours him a cup of cocoa and sets a plate of hot, aromatic pancakes in front of him.
"You were too small, but we could not refuse the second one. We got you, both of you, with big hard... It was just a small holiday with a family of four. There were already four of us, can you imagine it?"
She smiles as if remembering that day in every detail.
"Ben smiled at the camera. You saw the video, right? And you were still so serious, frowning. Dad tied the balloons, although he has been afraid of them since childhood." Mrs. Bryce laughs, her hand gently ruffling his curly hair, which he hates so much.
"And Ben, this naughty boy, tried to bite one of that balloons."
Now both of them laugh, and Lewis imagines the chubby brother opening his mouth in an attempt to bite the elastic latex.
"And when you was four you got your first bump. I called it a baptism by fire."
The man turned a couple of pages.
"We bought Ben a bicycle, a three-wheeled, with 9" wheels. And you preferred messing in the bushes, picking up thorns."
Yes, following the pattern, the dark blue Sonic Sprite with a funny sticker in the form of an accelerating cartoon hedgehog and Ben, proudly sitting on his first "iron" horse. He was smiling at the grown-up Lewis from the past, from a slightly yellowed shot. Nearby, right on the lawn, Lewis sat, as always frowned and with just a huge scratch on his knee.
"You wanted to catch the neighbor's cat," the sun's rays tangled in Mrs. Bryce's blonde hair. She gazes thoughtfully out the window, her hands laid on the unfinished sewing.
"And you hurt your knee, of course. For Ben, that accident was just as important as his new Sonic." Her fingers absentmindedly tweak the thread.
"He brought you home, and while I was treating the wound, he didn't leave you for a minute. You, as always, endured steadily, and Ben ..." She looks at Lewis, smiling sadly with only her eyes. And he sees in them a whole universal sadness, incomparable with any galactic catastrophe. "... And Ben was crying for you."
Lewis took a sip of cognac, without tasting a thing. Another page was turned over and he saw himself with his brother, again. It was Christmas, a huge tree decorated with golden bows, snowflakes, red garlands, and little snow-white angels.
The boys sat in the center, surrounded by a pile of gifts, lovingly wrapped and signed. Some of them had already been unpacked and examined, Ben was wearing an army cap and a child's gun in his hands. He always wanted to be a soldier. Always.
"Not always," Mrs. Bryce pulls a frozen chicken out of the fridge.
"In the fifth grade, Ben dreamed of flying into space. Then to climb Mount Everest. Then, to create a spaceship."
The chicken is sent under running water.
"He was always smart. The smartest in the class. After you, of course," the woman winks conspiratorially at her son.
"You knew yourself better than Ben. He had so many goals and desires that he didn't know what to take on."
Arugula and fresh asparagus emerge from the bag.
"I think five years old is a great age to start realizing the beauty of Christmas, don’t you think?" Mrs. Bryce puts on a plate (his, Lewis's, favorite one - with a gold border in the center and around the edges of the miniature wrens. True, Ben always says that these are tits) a slice of apple pie.
"You could say that was your first conscious Christmas. Santa gave you ..."
Puppy. Lewis got a puppy.
It was him that he held in the photograph, sitting in his pajamas, happy and also smiling. A golden Rottweiler named Randy, who for many years became an unsociable teenager's best friend.
Lewis ran his finger along the smooth, glossy surface. It was the best Christmas of his life.
"The best Christmas ever was when you and Ben turned nine. And you invited Rose Mills to dinner with us. Remember?" Mrs. Bryce pours milk for him and pushes her laptop aside. "You were so happy."
The triple photo. Lewis, Rose, and Ben. Ben, who looked like him as two peas. But his brother’s sweater was green, and he had a dimple on his right cheek.
And Rose ... Well. That was Rose. She had the most beautiful curls of the color of the sunset and blue eyes, like the water in Big Bass Lake. And she was also the most popular girl in school, but she always treated the silent Lewis well. And even signed in his annual album. What it took to invite her! He prepared a gift for her - a compact girly diary with pink stars and a lock. But Ben ruined everything. Ben always messed things up. There was too much of him, too funny and noisy. He always became the center of any company, unlike depressed and shy Lewis. Even at the age of nine, his brother took everything from him: attention, fun, first love.
All evening, Ben and Rose chatted and played Monopoly, while Lewis was sitting on the sidelines, forced to watch the girl laughing at the stupid antics of his twin.
"I know you were upset." Mrs. Bryce leisurely runs the iron over his plaid shirt. "But your brother did it not out of spite. He never meant to hurt you."
The wrinkled folds obediently smooth out, the triangular nose is ducking under the collar. "And yet it was your best Christmas. You worked up the courage to call Rose."
Then it ceased to be the best.
Lewis looked out the window. The night has already fallen, filled with warm bliss and measured calm.
"At 13, Ben brought lice from school." The tulip bulb is carefully covered with loose dark soil. A little rain is pouring from the watering can.
"It's incredible, how can someone get these parasites at 13? Nevertheless, he infected us all." Mrs. Bryce turns her face to the sunlight. Spring and summer are short in their town, but tulips will have time to bloom in April.
“The day before, he fought with the boys who threw your bag in the trash. And he met his holiday with a huge black eye."
Rose, Lewis, and his brother on their thirteenth birthday. In this photo, she already had a soft outline of her chest, hidden under a light blouse. Since that memorable Christmas, the three of them had become inseparable. Ben and Rose rode bicycles, Lewis did his homework, school physics projects, wrote essays, including for them too.
"I don’t need college. I’m gonna be like Ray Seals." Lewis muttered softly, quoting his brother from the distant 98th. In the shot, he was still a child, even the swelling from his cheeks did not go away. Funny paper caps adorned only Lewis and Rose, Ben famously demonstrated a football helmet. Signed by Jerry Rice. The older brother did not take off it for a week, hugging the helmet even in his sleep.
"Ben is good at football" Mrs. Bryce is digging a new hole and her hand is shaking slightly.
"He was good." Lewis examines the face so similar to his own. Intransigence. Ben had it all, he was promised a great future in the NFL. But he had to ruin everything.
"Why? What was wrong with you? What else did you need?"
There was suddenly stuffy in the room. The man closed his eyes, listening to his heartbeat. It seemed to echo throughout the apartment.
This photo was taken fifteen minutes before Lewis's dog, Randy, was hit by a car.
The poor Rottweiler, who had faithfully served the boy for eight years, flue back over 10 feet.
Lewis spent his thirteenth birthday in a pet cemetery mourning his only friend.
He never visited him again.
Here is "The best moments of the Bryce brothers."
Somewhere in the depth of the rooms, the telephone rattled again, illuminating the empty darkness in a narrow column of light. The wind outside the windows had died down, and now from time to time, it was playfully tangled in the branches. Above the calm surface of the ocean, the full moon smiled at its reflection, painting dormant waves with yellowish flashes to the very horizon.
The tired man sat in a chair, lit only by a table lamp. Tall shadows rose behind him, bending over an old photo album. In the false electric light, the faces in the photographs seemed even more unreal, distant, and alien.
Left beyond that icy line.
Ben's first game, first cup, first victories. He was the school's best quarterback: strong, tall, fast, uncompromising. Smiling Rose in her cheerleading captain's short skirt. She didn't date Ben, but she had been in almost every photo since high school. Always with Ben.
And Lewis was among the fans on the farthest benches.
He looked at her face, young and fresh, and did not feel pain. All that froze a long time ago, and only the stinging bitterness of resentment sometimes sprouted in that permafrost. What was so strange that the girl preferred the successful Ben to his hapless nerd brother?
The last photo ... was also pasted into the album. It was a prom night with the trivial name "Northern Tale", and Lewis again decided to invite Rose.
“You should be more decisive,” the girl tweaks his collar. "Pluck up the courage and ask Dominic out." She winks and rushes to training. Dominic is the president of the school biology club, but she is clearly not Rose Mills. Although, probably the best and only pair for Lewis.
He musters bravery all day along.
"Rose!" A flock of girls pours out of school and it costs Lewis a lot of self-control to call her in front of everyone. It seems that they all stare at him.
"Lewis? Why are you here?"
But he is wrong. Her friends don’t even notice Lewis, as if looking through him.
The girl's face is in a blush after training and showering, wet curls of hair sticking to the white skin of the neck.
“I wanted to ask,” he shifts from foot to foot, hiding his eyes. "I wanted to ask you ... Would you like to go to the ball with me?"
When he finally looks at her the answer becomes obvious. He doesn't even have to wait for her words. It would be better if he didn't do it at all!
"Oh, Lewis ..." Rose is silent. "I can’t."
He walks away, trying not to hunch over, but it seems impossible to straighten his shoulders. Leaves, feeling her sympathetic gaze and despising himself even more.
Rose went to the ball with Ben.
He is in a strict suit, svelte and strong, like a young tree still not broken by storms. She is in a cream dress and curls fall over her bare shoulders.
This was the last photo in the album. Which Mrs. Bryce pasted in any way. No matter what happened.
Young, cheerful, full of hope and charm, brother and Rose are forever frozen in one frame, capturing youth and one single moment that will never happen again.
Lewis ran his finger along the edges of the photo.
Ben was supposed to be home by 11 p.m. An hour earlier, the headframe at the old mine, which had been closed ten years ago, collapsed. The entire area around it was surrounded by a fence, with warning signs hanging everywhere. The mine operated for almost 25 years until the coal supply ran out. And now the headframe stood abandoned, covered with rust, and waited for dismantling.
Once Lewis read about an accident on the news: an eight-year-old boy suddenly jumped out onto the road, literally throwing himself under the wheels of a van. Just like that, leaving behind a misunderstanding mother. Then the man thought that when the time comes Death fogs up both the brain and consciousness, just to reap its harvest.
Otherwise, he couldn't explain why Ben dragged Rose and four other guys to that damn mine.
The cage with them went down to the closest working area when the headframe tilted. Rusty and unstable struts were destroyed, the cribbings, unable to bear the weight of the structure, jumped out and the mine lift crushed down on the mast.
Cages with teenagers fell.
Lewis stared at the photo, at the smiling brother. Who caused the death of four people.
The silence in the apartment became unbearable, crushing him like a layer of water. It poured in, through the pores of the skin, filling the void with itself and in the middle of this silence the walls crackled.
When the incident in the closed mine became known, their father and several other rescuers went down. But the fallen cages were only the beginning, the entire trunk turned into a grave falling apart in pieces.
They found only one of the four students.
Lewis and Ben's father also stayed down there. He was crushed by a broken winding skip ...
Four coffins covered in black silk. Four portraits. Four open graves. Lewis stood in the church when the whole town came to say goodbye to the departed and did not recognize the faces of the dead. Lewis stood at the graves when the first clod of clay flew down, showering rose petals in funeral confetti.
"It's your fault! Your fault!"
The ground already smelled of early cold wind and oozed the pain of the mourners.
"It's his fault! If not for him ... If not for him ...!"
Mother's eyes dimmed like the autumn sky. Winter has settled on her hair. She forgave Ben, but Lewis couldn't. His last words were filled with hatred and bitterness, he shouted them in his mother's face, because he could not spit it all out at Ben. Because Ben …
Lewis slammed the photo album shut. As he once slammed the door behind him for almost twenty years.
Silence froze in the corners of the room. Her womb silently digested the memories of the man sitting in the chair.
He covered his face with his eyes and froze, not feeling the moisture accumulating between his fingers.
The next morning Lewis packed his bag and left the Silence alone.
He was returning home.
There were sixteen hours and nearly 1,200 miles, through Las Vegas and Utah to the snowy peaks of Colorado. Christmas came, the airports were either not working, or there were no free flights, and Lewis just got into his Land Rover and left.
The road lay easily in front of him as an even ribbon, as if waiting for him.
"You're too young, dear." Mrs. Bryce opened her play cards, examining them. "You will be betrayed, abandoned, hurt. Not once or twice. But you must remember: sometimes all we need is forgiveness."
Lewis left her. She needed him the most, and he left her. He left Ben, his father, preferring to run away and not return. Do not come to the cemetery as he did with the poor Randy.
He left himself.
Twilight overtook him in Crested Butte. The ski town at the foot of the mountains flashed with dozens of garlands that hung all the streets and houses. And everywhere, everywhere there was snow. Dazzling, iridescent with hundreds of multi-colored sparks, with the taste of childhood.
Lewis rolled the window down, inhaling the frosty mountain air. He was at home. There were only a couple of miles to go to Longfoot, and with every minute his heart was filled with calm. It was the solace. As if he had been wandering in the forest darkness for a long time, and now finally found the path.
The trees, entwined with garlands, friendly bent their bare branches. After the noisy Crested Butte, quiet little Longfoot seemed to fall asleep at the most inopportune moment. Lewis remembered the road. He slowly drove the car, recognizing memorable places even in the semi-darkness of the night. And almost with a sinking heart, he peered at the rare passers-by, as if expecting to see a familiar teenager with pimples on his forehead and frowning eyebrows ...
Even the porch of their house had not changed. Only it seemed to be smaller.
The man climbed the steps, raised his hand ...
"Lewis?" The door flew open. "Lewis?"
She hugged him just like in his childhood. Like he was still a kid with a scratch on his knee. She smelled the same as twenty years ago.
"Oh. God, sonny! Ben! Look who's here!"
Lewis froze, then turned. Looking at his own reflection, only with bristles so that the dimples on his right cheek were probably no longer visible. And in a wheelchair. The only survivor in that ill-fated mine.
"Hi, Ben ..." The heavy lump in the throat slowly dissolved, allowing Lewis to breathe. Only now the man realized that he had lived with it all these years.
The brother said something, but Lewis did not hear him. He was drunk with lightness, feeling that he had finally thrown his own coffin from his shoulders. A coffin that was full of mistakes, resentments, and bitterness.
The smell of apple pie mixed with the smell of things familiar from infancy. It hovered around the house, awakening long-forgotten feelings. It began to snow outside, wrapping the town in a soft blanket and covering the windows with a white veil.