It was a night just like any other. Drake couldn't keep still.
The restlessness, the agitation, the anxiety—when it got to be unbearable he would pace across the creaking floorboards of the basement and moan in anguish.
I listened to the rapid pattering of his bare feet below me and wished he would go to sleep. It scared me, his psychosis. There were times when I was tempted to up the dosage of his meds, but I never did; his doctor had specifically said no more drugs. His body couldn't take it.
A banging noise resonated from downstairs and I jumped. Then sighed. This was getting ridiculous. I needed to talk to him. I needed to calm him down. I forced myself out of bed and groggily meandered down to the dimly-lit basement where, for some reason, Drake felt safe. My bones creaked almost as much as the stairs did as I descended them. I was horribly sleep-deprived. I'd been staying up all hours of the night for the past couple of weeks and it had taken its toll on me. His doctor suggested having him committed, but I couldn't do that. Ever since his mom walked out, he was all I had left.
It wouldn't have done much good anyway. There was no way I'd have been able to sleep with him locked in some padded cell.
The basement was dark: no lights, no candles, just the distorted glow of the round, swollen moon pouring in through the dirty overhead window—the only one in the room. Carefully I stepped around a broken vase on the floor (his mom's, one of the things she didn't take with her) and then raised an eyebrow when I spotted an overturned bottle of rubbing alcohol lying in its own little puddle next to Drake's toes.
Drake himself was crouched in a corner, as far away from the moonlight as he could possibly get, his knees drawn up to his chest, his trembling hands clasping his head. I squatted and reached out to touch him. Right when my fingers came in contact with his shoulder, Drake flinched and pulled away. "Don't," he hissed.
But I was persistent. I touched his shoulder again, this time stroking it. "Hey," I said. "It's late. Why don't you go upstairs and get some sleep?"
Drake shuddered and moaned, and that was all I needed for a response.
I scooted closer and gently squeezed his shoulder. "It's okay," I said.
He whimpered, then clenched his hands into fists and banged his knuckles against his forehead—once, twice, three times.
"Drake, stop," I told him, grabbing his fists and tugging them away from him. "Don't do that."
Drake looked at me, the whites of his eyes barely visible in the wedge of white light spilling into the interior of the basement. "What do you want from me?" he asked, his voice desperate. "Tell me the truth."
"I want to help you," I replied.
Drake snorted. "Lying asshole."
"Calm down," I said, keeping my own voice steady. The doctor had told me that he'd say things like this, and that I shouldn't lose my cool over them because he didn't really mean them. "Tell me what's bothering you."
There was no reply.
Drake leaned his head back against the wall and closed his eyes for a moment. "I'm sorry," he murmured.
"It's alright, buddy."
Drake paused, deep in thought. "I still see it, you know?"
I nodded. I knew what he was talking about—Afghanistan. He'd seen some nasty shit while he was over there, one of the worst being a little girl who'd run out in the middle of a street with a bomb strapped to her and had gotten blown to bits, taking with her a good friend of Drake's who'd tried to remove the bomb. Drake had cried over it once during a therapy session.
"I know," I said, "but you need to stop seeing it." I wanted to smack myself. That was something an idiot would say. (My ex-wife had not been kidding when she told me I said some of the dumbest things.)
Drake shook his head. I could barely see it in the dim light, but there was a tear rolling down his cheek. "You raised a monster," he muttered as I wiped it away.
"What are you talking about?" I asked. "Don't say shit like that."
His face scrunched into a grimace and a sob escaped him.
"Hey, hey," I said, "it's okay."
"You deserve a better son than me."
"Don't say that."
He shut his eyes.
"Drake," I said, "look at me."
"That is not true. So don't say it—not ever."
There was a long moment of silence between us. Even before he broke it, I knew there was something he wanted to tell me—something he'd been wanting to tell me for awhile. "Dad…?" he said.
He started to tremble. I reached out my hand. My fingers found his forehead; it was wet with fresh sweat.
"Drake, what's the matter?" I asked.
He shook his head, a loud whimper escaping him, and then leapt to his feet. "I can't," he said. "Not with you looking at me!"
He shoved past me and darted across the basement, emerging into focus under the moonlight for a brief moment before vanishing into the dark obscurity of another corner. I waited, deciding it best not to approach him again.
"I dreamed of killing you," Drake confessed, his tone eerily apathetic.
A swift chill rushed up my spine. I didn't think he'd actually hurt me, but in the mental state he was in, I couldn't be sure.
"I really did," Drake continued. "Well, I think they were dreams—all that salt I poured in your wounds. You made me weak."
"How did I make you weak?" I asked, but Drake did not answer.
"No one needs you," he said matter-of-factly. "You're not human. You don't have a heart—or maybe you do, but it's not flesh and blood. It's stone."
Right then I realized that he was talking to himself.
"You have no soul," he added, his voice cracking. "You're all the things people believe they're allowed to be when they don't have reasons. But you know the truth. You have no soul."
Tears pooled my eyes. "You have a soul, Drake," I told him.
Drake moved again, further into the shadows. "It's about goddamn time you were honest with yourself," he said. "Nothing tells the truth like war."
"I love you, Drake." The words came out automatically, without me thinking, and it dawned on me as I said them that I needed to say them more.
"And love," Drake added. "But I think war's better at it."
Despite the darkness, I could see Drake cradle his head in his hands, and rock back and forth as if trying to soothe a chronic headache. He moaned.
"I lost it."
"Everything—everything I was, everything I wanted to be."
I was surprised that Drake now referred to himself in the first person. It was strange that he'd switched like that—almost as if two different people were speaking.
"I wanted it all back. My innocence, my humanity, my future—I wanted to be clean again. But it was impossible. Once the blood is on your hands it never goes away." And just like that, seemingly without any reason, Drake burst into tears. "It never goes away!"
"You did what you had to, Drake," I tried to console him. "You were a soldier. You followed orders. Sometimes in life we have to do things we don't like, and it's hard—it's fucking agonizing—but it doesn't make us monsters."
"That little girl was so beautiful," Drake sputtered. "She was crying. I wanted to save her. Joseph,"—that was the name of his friend who got blown up—"he actually tried. Crazy motherfucker."
"That wasn't your fault, Drake." I took a step towards him, and then another, trying to get a better view of him in the dark. "That was the fault of whoever strapped that bomb on her in the first place."
"The revenge I took on them was mine."
"Revenge?" Drake had never mentioned revenge before. "What do you mean?"
"Shot them down like the animals they were!" Drake shouted. "Me and the others. We found them and shot them down. Kicked them as they prayed. Burned their holy book. Laughed in their faces."
I nodded, coming to grips with what he meant. He'd killed unarmed people in a vengeful rampage after the death of his friend and the little girl. He'd stooped to the level of a common murderer.
"It hurts, Dad."
My stomach churned. "What hurts?" I asked, swallowing the bile that was oozing its way up my throat.
"The memories—they're burned into my brain."
The tears returned. When I spoke, my voice was low and feathery. "I still love you, Drake."
"You don't know what you're really doing until it's too late." Drake gave a humorless laugh. "You can wash your hands with anything, but it does you no good. The blood has soaked through."
My eyes went to the overturned bottle of rubbing alcohol on the floor. Then back to him.
"The guilt festers on the inside," Drake mused. He lifted up the hem of his shirt, revealing bright red slash marks across his stomach and chest. "So I tried to cut it out."
"Oh my God!" I gasped. "What have you done to yourself?"
Without thinking I rushed over to him, and he scurried away, this time going over to the staircase. He lingered there a moment, and then rushed up the stairs in a frenzy, his bare feet creating erratic thumping noises as he ascended.
I followed him, shouting at him to stop. But he didn't—not until he reached my bedroom, which I'd foolishly forgotten to lock, where he knew I kept my gun. The one issued to me when I'd joined the police force. By the time I entered the room, Drake had already snatched it and was brandishing it in front of him.
"Drake, put it down!" I yelled.
He didn't do it. "Everything's going to be okay," he declared.
I sighed, defeated. Anger would get me nowhere. "That's right, Drake," I humored him. "That's exactly right. But first you have to give me my gun back. It's not yours."
"You'll forgive me," Drake said, more to himself than to me.
"I already forgave you," I said. And then I realized what he was actually talking about, and every nerve in my body ignited with panic. "No…"
A single tear fell from his eye and journeyed down his cheek. "Oh yes, you will."
"Please," I begged, holding out my opened palm, "give me my gun."
"It's a funny thing, revenge. In the end it takes more from you than you gain from it. And those things we give away…they never come back."
Slowly, Drake turned the gun around so that the barrel of it pointed towards himself—right at his chest. He looked at me and smiled in reassurance. "You understand?" he asked.
I shook my head, not because I didn't understand but because I couldn't believe what he was about to do.
"You will," he said.
"Drake," I muttered, "please…"
Still smiling, Drake closed his eyes.
He pulled the trigger as I ran towards him.
The gunshot rings in my ears to this day.