"Are you sure you don't live here?" he asked when he saw the old man sitting in that same bench and staring at the water with the same gaze the next day. He did not want to think about what he was doing there because after the confusing thoughts that had bade him to bed last night, he didn't think he would return to the source of it all. Back to the lake, back to the old man. But here he was anyways.
"As a matter of fact, I do," the old man replied.
The boy looked around incredulously. "Here? In the middle of nowhere?"
Sure, he had already admitted to himself that there was something about this lake, something that silenced all the other noises in his world until there was only that one voice in his head that he had only recently been acquainted with. The voice that questioned, that challenged and that sometimes took on the scratchy low one of the old man. Out in the real world, he would never get used to it, but here, in the shrouded safety and silence of the lake, he would let it take over.
"Not here, but nearby," the old man answered.
The boy nodded. He didn't think the old man belonged outside in that world anyways.
"And have you lived here your entire life?" he asked.
In some corner of his mind, he realized that this was the first question he had asked that wasn't an accusation, disbelief or a jab at his life choices. To be honest, he hadn't really meant to ask him anything, just like he hadn't really meant to come back here. But after hours of merely existing in his house among all the noise and the mess, coming back to the lake was like a welcome change, a breath of fresh air he wasn't used to having. It wasn't a choice.
And since he was already there, he would rather not sit in silence, as refreshing as that might be.
"Mostly," the old man's voice pulled him out of his thoughts and made him listen once again, "Except for when I went to fight in the war," he said, staring into the water with strained eyes. It was different than his usual all-seeing gaze and it made him wonder.
"You fought in the war? But I thought you were scrawny and small?"
The old man smiled. "It doesn't really matter in times like those. Besides I might have been useless in a fight, but I could perform miracles with a barrel and a gun. I was the sharpest shooter in town. They used to say I had the eyes of an eagle, I got what I aimed for. But I wished that same applied for my life as well. But, alas, one must learn to be contented with what one has got."
The boy raised an eyebrow. "But if one was always contented with what they have, they would never reach out for something more, something better. Wouldn't that take half the zest out of life? And where would that get anybody?" He was surprised that the question had come from him, but the old man went on, unperturbed and uncaring of his mild expression of shock at himself.
"But son, if you are always wanting and reaching for more and more in life, how can you ever be satisfied? If you are always looking for the peak of the mountain, how can you ever enjoy your climb?"
The boy did not really understand, but old people talk of such strange things. Still, he couldn't brush the words out of his head as easily as he had before.
"So it's okay to settle then?"
"Never," the old man said earnestly, "But it's important to remember to be happy and grateful for all you have, for all you are."
The boy thought back to that conversation about faults - 'So it's okay to be weak then?' He remembered himself asking that question and decided that this was one point where they would always disagree. He knew he wanted to be the best or nothing at all. He wanted to be the smartest, the funniest, the most successful and loved person in the room. He had to be the first, and when he wasn't, he lost interest. Maybe that was why he could not stand being in his house for too long these days. One day he was the sun of their little family's solar system, the first priority of his parents and suddenly, the next day he was shoved to the corner of their minds, made almost nonexistent, and that too by an infant.
He did not want to think about that anymore. He listened to the faraway whistle of a bird from somewhere, and wondered distantly if the rest of the world had any idea how peaceful this place was. Cloaked away from the unnecessary worries and hurried paces of so many lives, this place was a haven.
"So," he said after a while, "Tell me about the war."
The old man frowned, the lines above his eyes scrunching up in comical shapes with the effort. "What do you want to know? It's war, not a fairytale."
He looked like he did not want to go down that road, but the boy knew he wouldn't deny his request if he asked him to, so he said, "Whatever you want to tell me, I guess. If I had been born a few decades earlier, you wouldn't have been the finest shooter in town. I would've shown them all."
The old man looked at him in a strange way, but not in the way his father did sometimes when he would recount the stories of the days gone by and the boy expressed the same opinion to him - like he didn't know what he was talking about, like he was ignorant, which he supposed he was in these matters. But the old man didn't look at him that way, he just launched straight into stories that were memories for him and he listened to his scratchy low voice all afternoon, something he hadn't done before, and watched his eyes glaze over and forget that he was there.
But the boy was there and he listened. He laughed when he told him about rainy nights spent in tents and grew quiet when he talked about men lost in battle, but he listened all the same and decided that he quite liked this - he liked not being the center of everything for a moment and just sitting in a corner...and listening.
He did not realize when the light began to fade and when the stars began appearing from behind their hiding places, but as he walked home slowly, whistling all the way, he realized that he didn't hate spending his afternoons this way and almost did not mind walking into his house to the cries and rushed footsteps of everyday.