He felt his absence before he saw it.
Standing in the shade at the edge of the clearing, under the trees that did not move, did not greet him with their usual rustle of leaves, the boy knew it would have been easier to turn back around and walk back to his home instead of facing another day of uncanny silence. When he had first walked into the clearing and spied the empty bench, he had felt none of the anger or disappointment of the previous day; in fact all he had felt was a defeated kind of resignation with this reality where the old man wasn't sitting there, staring at the water with his all seeing gaze. He clutched his painting to him and settled into his seat, eyeing the place the old man used to sit. It seemed strange somehow, impossible even, that the lake, the trees, the wind, the entire place could still exist without the old man, but it did. With a strong sense of unease, he decided he did not want to get used to this.
He reached inside his brain, rummaging through possibilities. Maybe he was sick and had no one to look after him. Or maybe, he with his son and making up for the past that was lost. Or maybe he had just grown tired of spending his afternoons in his company. Whatever the reason, the boy realized that it did not matter. He wasn't there, was he?
Giving in to the lingering thought at the back of his mind, he realized that it was alright if the old man had decided to give up on him. He had learnt enough from him in all those afternoons to know that he wasn't going to give up on himself. Not now, when he had seen all that he could be, all that he could still have in life. The old man and this place had given him so much, and he wasn't sure if he would ever be able to return it, if he ever wanted to return it.
So he sat there all afternoon, looking at the lake and sky in his painting and the lake and the sky in front of him, that felt smaller somehow, incomplete, without the old man beside him inspecting the scene with his eyes. Time seemed to have slowed down and each second dragged on to the next almost hesitantly. He watched the sun set as it usually did and then he walked back home with his shoulders slumped, thinking that maybe his parents would like to see his painting.
Returning home was almost a welcome change from the vastness of the lake and it's unrelenting silence. He never thought he would see the day when he would be glad to be home, but then again, a lot had happened that summer, a lot that had made him question and wonder.
But as he walked into his house, he found it alarmingly silent. There were none of the cries and footsteps of everyday, and the absence disturbed him in a way he did not understand. He went through the living room, looking for something, anything that would give him back the noise and commotion and the sense of normalcy along with it. This was too strange, too different and his life wasn't allowed to veer off course without his permission.
He finally found his mother in the kitchen, sitting in a chair and going over some old photo albums he did not recognize.
"What's wrong?" he asked, his voice sounding hollow in the loud silence of the house. His mother's head shot up and she instantly jumped up from her seat.
"Oh there you are! Where have you been? Never mind! We just received some news about your grandfather and your father left a minute ago. I need you to watch your brother and be careful please!"
There were so many questions that the boy wanted to ask but his brain was still stuck at one point.
His mother looked at him with a confliction of emotions on her face. "He passed away. Last morning. He lived alone, and he wouldn't answer the door when the milkman came. The next morning he returned and found the maid standing there. When he still wouldn't answer the door they pushed it open and found him on his bed. He had already been gone for hours by then," her voice broke at that point but she reigned it in with a perfection that made the boy wonder. "We didn't even know he lived here! Not until the police called your father from the hospital this afternoon!"
The boy walked to his mother and carefully folded his arms around her in a gesture that was unfamiliar and foreign to him. She still accepted it for the sign of comfort it was and squeezed him back.
"Take care of your brother please," she whispered, and then she was gone.
The boy stood alone in the empty kitchen that seemed suddenly too big for just one person. He thought about his father and how he never got the chance to make up with his father. He thought about his grandfather and how he went away from this world still thinking that his son hated him. And he could not decide who he felt more sorry for.
He sat down in the chair his mother had previously occupied and tried to stop thinking altogether. He set his painting down on the table and glanced at the album on the table.
He stopped short.
Black hair combed across the head, kind eyes, and a smile that reminded him of a softly burning candle. A face he wouldn't have been able to distinguish from the next aged person's, but a face he would now recognize among thousands. He looked at the old man in his painting and at the picture of his grandfather in the album. And then a feeling erupted inside him that made him clutch the table for support.
All this time.
A million thoughts ran around his head, and a million more memories tried to catch up with them. His scratchy low voice telling him that he had disappointed his son, that war had robbed him and he had lost what he had had left. All the sunsets he had described, he, his grandfather had seen them all through his eyes. And he had never known.
He felt angry. He felt cheated. He thought about the stories the old man had told him, the smiles he had given him, the friend he had been to him. He thought how every feeling and every thought he had experienced beside him had been a new discovery in himself, and he remembered him telling him that he was a good man and his heart nearly collapsed from the unfairness of it all. Loss was a new experience for him as well, and he wished he had never had to know what it felt like, at least not in this way, not in this terrible mind numbing way. No one had prepared him for this, no one had sat him down one morning and taught him how to do this, how to grieve over the death of someone he loved.
He should have known, he realized. He had spent weeks with the man, he should've known. But he had so carefully crafted this fine line between the lake and the world outside, never allowing the two realities to escape, to merge. Maybe that is why, even with the truth thrust upon him without any warning, he still found it difficult to connect the two images in his head. He would try again later, when he could rely on the world to stop spinning before his eyes. For now, he grieved for his friend.
He thought that the weight in his chest was going to crush him any moment, but a sudden cry around the house reminded him that he was not alone. He walked to his brother's room without knowing that he did and picked him up from his crib. He felt so soft in his arms, his wide eyes innocent and blissfully ignorant of the ways of the world.
Yes, he was better off that way.
He felt a tear slip past his eyes, and he traced the tears trailing down his brother's cheeks. They were the same, he realized. The old man, his grandfather had been right. They were family, they would find a way.
He wiped his tears away and sat himself down on the edge of the bed, where he cradled his little brother all evening until their parents came home.