Lisa waits until seven, but by five she knows that Frank’s not making it home tonight. She didn’t expect him to. And she tells herself that because she never expected it, it’s okay; you can’t be disappointed, or mad, or, God forbid, sad over something you knew was never going to happen in the first place. Anyway, she’s getting too old for birthday parties.
When the microwave clock flashes 6:00 she turns to Laura, who’s been waiting with her this whole time. “That’s it. I’m officially thirteen.”
Laura doesn’t answer, or even nod, but that’s Laura for you. Lisa opens the cupboard under the crummy sink, looking for a clean pot—birthday party or not, she makes a mean mac and cheese, and it’s not waiting until tomorrow.
“Chips on top or not?” she asks, but Laura’s left the room. Lisa shivers. She’s never been around another kid as silent as Laura. Not Frank Jr. (but don’t think about him, and don’t think about Mom either, you don’t want to go there, not now) and not Lisa herself, even though she was always the quiet one, at least according to her dad.
Lisa fills up the pot. She puts it on the heat, not wondering about where Frank is, if he’ll come back tomorrow, or the day after that, if he’ll ever come back. When she turns around to get the cheese packets Laura’s back at the table, a pink-wrapped present sitting in front of her.
She pushes it toward Lisa. “Abrelo.”
“Open it?” Lisa’s never taken Spanish.
The package itself is small, the size of the velvet-lined jewelry box where Mom keeps—kept—her pearls. It’s topped with an absolutely gigantic purple bow. Lisa unties it carefully. It’s trickier to get the paper off in one piece; she takes her time with that.
That used to drive Frank crazy. Christmases Lisa would get a whole boatload of presents, and she’d unwrap each one just like that. The paper was just as pretty as the presents; she wanted to keep all of it. Finally Mom and Frank Jr. would go to the kitchen to start making breakfast. Only Frank would stay with her.
Come on, he’d say. It’s not made out of gold. Sometimes he’d try to bribe her into going faster. Would you do it for fifty bucks? How ‘bout a hundred? When she refused he’d shake his head and huff out a laugh that was half impressed, half pissed. I hate to break it to you, honey, but you ain’t no businesswoman, he’d say, like he’d seriously been about to fork over a hundred dollars.
Underneath the wrapping is a fuzzy black box—a jewelry box, definitely. Lisa sneaks a peek up at Laura, but her face isn’t giving away anything. It almost never does.
It’s a heart-shaped locket, sterling silver. Lisa squints to read the words engraved on it, so fine you’d swear they’d been written with a reed. Lisa & Laura. She flicks the clasp open. Partners in Crime.
Lisa takes a deep breath. Then she walks around the table and hugs Laura, hard.
“It’s perfect,” she says, meaning it with all her heart. “Best gift I’ve ever gotten.”
Laura shrugs out of her grasp. “De nada.”
Laura doesn’t want chips on top of the mac and cheese but Lisa does, so she crumbles half the bag and leaves the rest for Laura to eat on the side. They’re setting the table with three of the four dinner plates in the apartment when someone bangs on the door.
Lisa jumps, almost dropping the casserole dish. She can’t help it; remembering the noise of the guns. Can’t help remembering Mom on top of her, long past screaming, now just gurgling and dripping.
Now Laura pries the dish out of her hands, sets in the center of the table so delicately you’d think it was fine china, not an awful puke-green thing that Lisa forced Frank to buy from a thrift store. That done, Laura stomps over to the door, cocks her ear, then unlocks each of the three deadbolts, slowly, before swinging open the door. Just as slowly.
“Cabrόn!” she snaps.
“Forgot my goddamn keys,” Logan snarls back. He unhooks Baxter from his leash, and the pit bull barrels into Laura, whining and slobbering like it’s the last time he’ll ever see her.
Frank Jr. kept breathing after Mom did. Not much longer, but Lisa listened to her brother dying three feet away from her, too scared to crawl toward him, to even take his hand. She was supposed to protect him. That was all her dad ever asked of her. Her brother still ended up dying alone.
Maybe Baxter has the right idea.
Logan ducks into the kitchen. “Tell you what, Blondie—you can walk him next time.”
Lisa finds their only serving spoon smeared with half-dried baked beans in the sink. She scrubs it under the tap, then slaps it down by the mac and cheese. “Bite me.”
Logan grumbles but gets three drinking glasses down from the cupboard, filling them at the tap. He doesn’t ask if she’s heard from Frank. He’s smarter than that.
After Laura dumps a cup of food into Baxter’s dog bowl (“One cup, got it? Otherwise he’ll get fat.”) they sit down to eat. It’s not the best batch Lisa’s ever made. She mixed in too much powdered cheese, so the sauce is gritty. Laura gulps down half the casserole dish anyway.
“Hey. Hey!” Logan grabs the serving spoon out of her hand. “You’ve had enough.”
Her mouth still full, Laura lets loose a stream of Spanish.
Laura swallows. “Liar.”
“She can have the rest,” Lisa butts in. “I’m not hungry.”
“She’s not, either,” growls Logan, and Laura growls back at him.
Lisa sighs. She watches Logan and Laura snarl at each other across the dented table and knows what her mom would say if she could see this. A zoo, Maria would say. This is a complete zoo. And she’d be right.
She didn’t see Frank for a long time after the shooting. Exactly six months. They took her out of the hospital and placed her with a family on Staten Island, a family with a pool in their backyard and a spare bedroom painted blue. She went to school, where two kids got suspended for spray painting the Punisher’s logo on the side of the building. Lisa saw it before they could paint it over. She didn’t feel anything—anything at all, it was like she’d been emptied, scooped hollow. And maybe that was good; maybe it meant she was on her way to forgetting.
Except she didn’t. She couldn’t, when she always knew he’d come back for her. He did, in the middle of the night, when all she had time to grab was her backpack and a few changes of clothes. No books, no starred report cards, not her new charm bracelet or dinosaur-shaped keychain. Frank made her leave everything except for a note.
She’s still mad at him for that. She understands, but that doesn’t make it okay. Lisa sometimes cries at night, and half the time it’s for Stan and Carla back in Staten Island, not Mom and Frank Jr. Not for Frank.
They got into their first huge fight two weeks after he took her. Lisa can’t remember how it started, but she sure remembers how it ended. She remembers that by then they’d been screaming at each other for so long that her throat rasped like sandpaper. She was shaking, maybe because she was so mad, maybe because they’d never really fought before, not as loud and long and ugly as this.
“Where’s my dad?” She said that. “’Cause whoever you are, you’re not him!”
Something behind his eyes, something she hadn’t realized was still there, switched off. “He died a while back,” Frank said, and Lisa will never forget that, not because of the words, but because it was like staring emptiness in the face. There was just nothing left, nothing of the dad who read her story books and rigged them a kite out of a trash bag and some electrical tape, who danced their mom across the family room while Lisa and Frank Jr. watched from the couch, laughing their heads off. None of that was coming back.
It still hasn’t. Lisa knows why, she knows what he’s been through, but she was there, she’s felt everything he’s felt, and there’s still some part of her from before that day—even if it’s a small part—that’s still alive. She held it even closer after that fight, after she realized how things were, and she’s not exactly mad at Frank, because people don’t deal with things the same way, but if she could do it, couldn’t he at least try?
Back then they were holed up in a condemned apartment in Hell’s Kitchen. Two days after the fight Frank brought Logan and Laura home with him.
He’d told Lisa he was helping out a man and a little girl on the run from bad people, so she wasn’t surprised. Maybe she wished he’d told her a few more things, like how close these bad people were, or that the little girl couldn’t (wouldn’t) speak English. Or that she could pop a knife out of her knuckle as easily as Lisa cracked hers.
Mutants. She heard about them on the news—they were always on the news, especially after Westchester, but that happened three years ago, before everything, before Lisa knew to listen. Now she grabbed the first aid kit from beside her mattress and headed for the unconscious man, who Frank had dumped on his mattress. She could see bullet holes in his shirt, blood soaking through his jacket. Too much blood.
Lisa rounded on Frank. “He’s going to die.” She hadn’t thrown more than two words his way since the fight. Now she sounded more pissed than scared and didn’t care.
The girl--she was tiny, half Frank Jr.’s size; her pants were held up by a man’s belt with extra holes pricked in it—stopped sucking a bloody slit on her knuckle long enough to snap something. Her voice was as tiny as she was, shrill and sharp like broken glass.
The man’s blood was soaking through the mattress, pooling on the sticky floor. Lisa flicked open the latch on the first aid box, her hands shaking and making a mess of all the carefully sorted wipes and bandages inside. The girl snapped again.
“She says ‘Wait’.” Frank had taken Spanish in high school.
“He’s bleeding out,” Lisa answered without really hearing him, balling up a pad of gauze and pressing it to the man’s side, under his jacket, because people will die around her, that’s just the way it is now, but she’ll die herself before she curls up in a ball and leaves them to do it alone.
“You’re not helping him.” Frank’s voice was exhausted, rough from shouting and too many cigarettes. He reached down to sift through the kit with his thick fingers, making Lisa’s mess even worse. “He’s a mutant.”
“Right,” She reached for another pad; the mattress was ruined. “I’m not fucking stupid.”
“You’re not listening,” he growled. He’d lost the right to tell her what to say and they both knew it. Frank pushed Lisa’s hands away and lifted the edge of the man’s shirt.
The gash was as thick as Lisa’s arm, turning his side red and gushing and meaty. She was about to look away when the gushing stopped.
Just like that.
Lisa watched as his skin knit back together with a soft, slippery-sticky squelch, droplets blood oozing out of the shrinking slit before hardening to scabs. She even touched it. She felt the gash join, smooth, become whole again.
“It’s like a miracle.” Mom had herded them all to church twice a year—on Christmas and Easter. Both days you could count on the preacher to talk a big game about miracles. Lisa was pretty sure this would qualify.
Frank wasn’t. “Leave him be and see if that little girl wants something to eat.”
Lisa touched the man’s side one last time—still whole—and got to her feet. Her hands and the knees of her jeans were covered in his blood. “Where did she go?”
“Down the hall.” Frank ripped open a suture pack with his teeth. “You yell if her claws come out.”
The bathroom door was closed. Lisa knocked, not expecting an answer.
“Hey, um—” She darted back to the living room. “What’s her name?”
Busy threading a needle, Frank didn’t look up. “Laura.”
Okay. Lisa knocked again, louder this time. “Hey, Laura? Do you need any help?”
Still no answer. Lisa wondered if she should just leave a sandwich by the door. Then the knob twisted, and the door swung open a crack.
Lisa nudged it with her foot. “Can I come in?”
Silence. She heard water dripping—and that same sharp, broken-glass voice.
Inside Lisa could practically feel new mold sprouting on the cracked, mustardy wallpaper. Laura stood in the shower, already stripped down to her underpants, jimmying the faucet like she had a grudge against it.
“Oh yeah.” By some fluke they still got water, but not a whole lot of it. Lisa reached over Laura’s shoulder; the younger girl whipped her head around and glared at her. A mist of blood scattered like faint freckles across her cheeks.
“Hey,” Lisa tried to keep her voice steady, like Mom whenever she or Frank Jr. used to get ornery. “I’m just trying to help. You’ve gotta kind of yank it—” nothing but a rusty dribble “—or whack it.” Lisa twisted the faucet with her left hand and smacked it with her right. She stepped back. “You try.”
Laura sniffed (actually sniffed, as if she were picking up Lisa’s scent) suspiciously. But she stepped up and twisted and whacked with all her might, until the showerhead grumbled, spurted, and finally pissed out a stream of yellowish, lukewarm water.
Laura stepped under the flow without as much as a gracias, bending her head to let it run through her hair. Streams of cloudy red water circled down the drain, but when the blood washed away Lisa didn’t spot any cuts.
She remembered Frank Jr. choking on the grass, then Mom’s story about dating a mutant boy for a week in middle school before his parents packed him off to Westchester. Different dad, different genetics. Would anything have changed then?
The girl’s head cocked in her direction. With her hair still slung dripping over her face, it was more than a little creepy, like that one movie about the drowned girl in the well that Lisa had insisted on watching when she was eight.
“Is the man outside your dad?”
Laura tensed. “Si.”
“What’s his name?”
Logan. She hadn’t even heard his voice yet, but Lisa bet the name fitted him just right, the same way “Laura” fitted Laura. Tight as a skin.
She scooped up the clothes puddled on the floor. Jeans, belt, and pony T-shirt, all splotched red. She stoppered the sink, and, after working the same magic on that faucet, filled it with cold water. The shirt and jeans went in. Hopefully the stains would soak out.
It came out short and sharp, almost a command. Lisa actually jumped.
“Did Frank tell you my name?”
“Si.” Laura raked hair back from her face and eyed her from the toes up. “He said you were—” she stopped, not like she couldn’t find the right word; Lisa guessed you could speak English just fine when she wanted to. It was more like Laura was trying to translate for her. “Nice.” She finally said. “He said you were very nice.”
She hadn’t been lately. Least of all to him. Lisa dunked her hands in the sink, feeling Logan’s blood, crusted and itchy, under her nails.
“He said you could get blood out of anything.”
Something Mom used to say popped back into Lisa’s mind—she’d always be half-laughing, half spitting mad when she said it. Geez, Frank. You sure know how to charm a woman.
And he’d just stare back at her with the biggest, most shit-eating grin Lisa had ever seen.
“Sure I can,” said Lisa. “All you need is cold water.” Then, maybe because she’d remembered Mom, or was too tired to prove Frank wrong, or—or because Laura was there, and she knew, somehow, that Laura needed her, even though she’d never say so, and Lisa would never ask her to—she said, “You want me to shampoo your hair?”
Maybe the same thoughts were running through Laura’s head. Maybe not. She stared at Lisa (not quite a glare, but close) for a full minute. Then shrugged.
“Okay,” Lisa repeated. She grabbed the bottle from the side of the shower and squirted a dollop into her hand. Better make it two dollops. “Here, bend your head back so it won’t get in your eyes. My mom taught me how to do this….”
Don’t think about Mom. Don’t think about Frank Jr. Don’t think about Logan, still out cold on Frank’s mattress. Don’t think about the people after them, the ones who tried carving Logan and Laura up. Don’t think about Frank, stitching his own cuts alone.
It’s going to be okay, thought Lisa. Everything’s going to be okay. For the first time in a year, she believed herself.