Lisa Castle is not an idiot. Her dad used to say she got her brains from her mom, but her dad is smart about a lot of things, too. He’s just bad at being there, at being home.
That’s why it’s not surprising that he’s not around when she wakes up. When they take her out of the hospital and tell her that her name has to be Allison now. When they move her way out far from the city and into the suburbs with a smiley woman with gray hair who says she’s supposed to tell people that she’s her grandmother.
But Lisa isn’t stupid. She’s in middle school. She can read, she can listen well, and she’s good at pretending she’s unaware of what’s going on around her, because she knows that people say more when they think you aren’t paying attention.
So Lisa knows what her dad is doing, and she knows why he isn’t here. Mrs. Olsen doesn’t seem to realize that the sound from her TV carries right through the vent near Lisa’s bed, so when she listens to the news about Frank Castle, Lisa listens to it too.
Murderer. Killer. Vigilante. Lisa listens to the news and curls up around the penguin stuffed animal Mrs. Olsen gave her, and she doesn’t know how to feel about him. It doesn’t sound like her dad. Her dad went to war. He killed people. She knows that. But this?
Sometimes people in school, mostly boys but there are some girls too, show up with skulls on their shirts and on their jewelry, and they whisper to each other that it’s a Punisher reference, and she doesn’t know how to feel about that, either.
Most people say her dad is dead, that the Punisher is just a copycat. Lisa doesn’t know what to feel about him, but she gets angry when they say that. Angry and sad. Hollow down deep, where her family should still be.
She knows how her mom would feel about what her dad is doing. Maria would drag Frank back home by one of his big ears, yelling the whole way.
But mom is dead. Frank Jr. is dead. And her dad is dead, too.
Mrs. Olsen is listening to Trish Talk again. She does that a lot. Lisa likes Trish Talk, so when she’s home sick from school, she always curls up on the couch and pretends to be asleep so Mrs. Olsen won’t turn it down or turn it off (because sometimes Trish Talk can be “racy”, and Mrs. Olsen doesn’t realize that Lisa knows these things already. That middle school girls talk and that Lisa has friends).
Today, Trish Talk is about The Punisher.
Lisa has never pretended to be asleep so hard in her life.
The woman they have on as a guest is a reporter. Someone who knew her dad. Lisa recognizes her name, Karen Page, from some articles she read online about her dad’s trial. She was on her dad’s legal team. Two lawyers and “Karen Page”, and Lisa had wondered who she was. If she wasn’t a lawyer, what was she?
“First of all, Frank Castle was a good man,” Karen says, and Lisa perks up. She hears people say her dad is good in whispers. She doesn’t hear them say it proud.
“A good man and a mass murderer?” Trish wonders.
“It was difficult for me to figure out, too. But if you live in this city long enough, and you see how sick it is, it’s enough to wish you could do something about it. Frank Castle lived through a tragedy. Through a nightmare. His wife and children were taken from him, and he was shot in the head. That’s not a normal stresser. We aren’t talking about a guy getting turned down for a date or getting fired from a job and going on a shooting spree. We’re talking about a man who saw his tragedy covered up by systematic corruption and decided to do something about it to prevent the same thing from happening to families like his. No matter how you feel about the guy, he has good intentions.”
“You just said ‘has’. Do you think Frank Castle is still alive?”
“I don’t know. I hope so.”
“You hope so. Why? I remember the police saying a few months back that he was looking for you. That you were a target.”
“I never believed that. Frank punished the guilty. He did everything in his power to make sure the innocent were never hurt on his watch. If this is a copycat…I don’t know. Better the devil you know.”
Lisa likes Karen Page immensely before she even meets her, is the point.
She pretends that she doesn’t know who she is, though, when she comes home from school and finds Mrs. Olsen talking with a beautiful blonde woman and a man with long blondish brown hair. She stands in the doorway to the kitchen and looks back and forth between the three of them, and when Mrs. Olsen introduces her as Miss Page, Lisa sticks her hand out to shake like her mom taught her.
“Hello ma’am,” she says, like her dad taught her, and Karen lets out a little laugh as she shakes Lisa’s hand.
She’s really, really tall. Really tall and really beautiful. Her friend Foggy is funny and nice, and he talks with so much energy that he reminds Lisa a little of Frank Jr., when he used to get excited about something. But Lisa doesn’t say much. Doesn’t tell Foggy that, doesn’t tell Karen that she’s tall and beautiful even though she wants to. She sits down at the kitchen table and answers questions.
Karen comes by a few more times. Usually with presents: plastic dinosaurs that Lisa is too old for but loves anyway. Fancy hairbrushes and pretty nail polish colors. A new softball glove after Lisa’s gets ruined in the rain. Lisa doesn’t know how to react to the presents, so she usually just thanks Karen politely and waits until later, until she’s alone, and then she sits in her room and hugs her presents to her chest and whispers thank you over and over and over again, except this time with feeling, with everything she meant for it to sound like before.
Lisa likes Mrs. Olsen, and she likes her new school, but she knows that she can be a handful, and she knows that Mrs. Olsen is only temporary. The nice lady with the curly hair, Mrs. Reyes, told her that when she drove Lisa here.
Mrs. Olsen is good about the nightmares, and she’s good at pretending that Lisa is normal. It’s easy for Lisa to forget sometimes that she isn’t normal, not by her little-girl standards, anyway. And Mrs. Olsen is good when Lisa remembers again. At school getting scared because someone dropped a book on the ground and it was so loud. Or walking home and hearing a car coming too fast. Mrs. Olsen is good at hugs and telling Lisa it’s okay if she’s sometimes not okay.
But Mrs. Olsen breaks her hip during a frosty morning early in the fall, and that’s the end of that.
Lisa doesn’t want to go, but she packs her things and all her presents, and she’s dreading moving to a new house, because she’s met some other foster kids at school and she knows the consensus is that she got lucky, but then she walks down the front steps and sees Karen and Foggy waiting, leaning against a car, and she can feel a huge smile growing on her face.
“Hi,” she says when she reaches them. “Are you here to take me to my new home?”
“That’s right, kiddo,” Foggy says brightly. “You’re gonna be staying with Karen. Is that all right?”
Lisa doesn’t actually know what to say at first. It’s that kind of relief that hits you hard and low, knocks you breathless.
“I’m gonna live with you?” she asks, teary-eyed.
“If you want,” Karen replies nervously. Lisa drops her bags and flings her arms around Karen’s middle, her head resting against the tall woman’s stomach.
“Thank you,” she whispers, with all the feeling she never said except alone, except after Karen left.
They’re on their way back into the city, Lisa with her eyes closed, feeling the rocking motion of the car. Sometimes when she does this, she can pretend they’re on their way to Central Park. She and Frank Jr. and mom and dad. She can remember singing some stupid song with Frank Jr. Can remember her dad singing along. Her mom laughing. And Lisa was just thinking, this is how it’s going to be now. Dad’s home. He’s home. He’s not going to leave anymore.
The memory ends after that, and then she wakes up in a hospital, and Frank Jr. and her mom are dead, and her dad is gone.
“Is she asleep?” Foggy asks, and Lisa hears Karen turning around.
“Lisa?” she asks softly, but Lisa doesn’t answer. She feels Karen lightly tug the corner of her sweatshirt, which is falling off her shoulder. Fixing it. Smoothing it down.
Her mom must have done that a thousand times.
“After all the strings Hogarth pulled, I expected the kid to throw a fit or something. Not want to come. Seemed too easy for her to just…get in the car.”
“I know. Thank you again for this, Foggy.”
“I have to ask, Karen.”
“No you don’t.”
“Did he ask you to do this?”
“No. He didn’t ask me to do any of this. In fact, he didn’t come by for almost a week after he found out we went to visit her the first time.”
“There are worse punishments. How’s he gonna feel about you taking custody of his daughter, Karen?”
Lisa can’t breathe. At first, she can’t decide if she’s happy or not. They’re talking about her dad. Talking about him like he’s definitely alive, like he sees Karen sometimes. Talks to her. Gets mad at her like he’s just a normal person who can get annoyed and then forgive later. Not some psycho murderer who kills everyone who looks at him funny. He’s alive, and if he knows Karen, and she’s going to be living with Karen, that means she’s going to see him.
Does she want to see him?
“I told him I was thinking about it. Explained that the longer they keep her away, the harder it’s going to be for her, and for me to find her if he changes his mind. At least in the city, he can keep an eye on her. He seemed open to the suggestion.”
“Well, he’s already keeping an eye on you. Two for one deal, I guess.”
“Don’t get me wrong. I think this is very noble. I just also think you’re bananas.”
“You’re like the person who decides to go cage diving with sharks while I stand on the shore and think you’re a brave, brave lunatic.”
“Frank isn’t a shark. Frank is a person. And Lisa is a person. And they both deserve better than to be forgotten by the system. I can help her. I can help them both.”
“And who’s going to help you, Karen? Raising a kid isn’t going to be easy. And this is The Punisher’s kid!”
“Nothing about any of this has been easy. But Lisa deserves my help. So I’m going to give it.”
Lisa wonders if she’s a burden. Lisa wonders if her dad still sings along to songs in the car.
Karen’s apartment is really big and really clean.
“Did you just move in?” Lisa asks. She asks because Karen went to put her keys down on a table that doesn’t exist, and now she’s blushing like she’s embarrassed. Those are the kinds of things that always had Maria calling Lisa clever girl in a silly voice. Little observations that made Maria laugh with wonder.
Lisa misses her.
“Yeah, actually. My old place was too small.”
“Too small because of me?”
“Too small because of me. You were just a good excuse,” Karen says, smiling, knowing that that’s the real question: am I a burden? Am I too much?
“Landlord says we can paint the walls whatever color we like.”
“Who’s Landlord?” Lisa asks, tilting her head to one side, and Karen quirks an eyebrow at her, knowing somehow that Lisa is messing with her, that Lisa is playing dumb for the sake of a stupid joke. She and Frank Jr. used to do it all the time to Maria. Pretend not to get something.
“You don’t fool me, kid. You’re just like…” she stops, blushing again.
Just like your dad.
Lisa pretends that she doesn’t know what Karen was going to say.
“Can I paint my room with one wall pink? And one wall blue? And one wall green and the last wall…”
“It’ll be really ugly, Lisa, but absolutely.”
Lisa laughs and goes to check out her new room.
Karen doesn’t mention Frank at all the first day. Lisa is glad. She has her first day at a new school tomorrow, and she doesn’t want to think about her dad. She sits in her room after Karen cooks them dinner, and she hugs her new stuffed turtle to her chest, and she strains her ears for any sound, but there’s nothing except Karen typing, her fingers scattering across the keys of her laptop loudly. But it’s soothing, and Lisa falls asleep, and Lisa doesn’t even have a single bad dream.
It’s the next night that it happens, and Lisa is lying in bed, watching the patterns on the ceiling from her new nightlight. It’s a jellyfish looking thing inside a little tank of water. It changes colors and floats around and makes waves on her ceiling, and Lisa loves it. Foggy gave it to her as a housewarming present today, and he and Karen and Lisa went out to dinner at a fancy restaurant, and Lisa is that happy kind of full. Pleasantly filled with food.
She hears something. Hears a quiet knock on the door outside, and for a second she thinks it’s Karen asking to come in, so she gets out of bed and goes to unlock it, but then she hears Karen’s footsteps crossing the living room floor.
“Frank,” Karen breathes when she opens the door. And Lisa can’t move. She’s stuck, frozen in front of her bedroom door, one hand splayed on the wood, and she listens with everything she can. It’s been more than a year since she’s heard his voice.
“Is- is she here?”
“She was going to another foster home. I know you didn’t want to lose her in the system, so I pulled some strings.”
“I didn’t ask you to do that.”
“I knew you wouldn’t. But it makes sense. This way, you can keep her close.”
Lisa hears a heavy sigh, and then a rustling of clothes, and she thinks Karen might be hugging her dad, or maybe she’s just putting her hand on his arm the way she did to Lisa earlier before she left for school. Smiling comfortingly at him. Letting him know that everything is going to be okay. Karen is good at that.
“Did you, um. Did you tell her?”
“Not yet. I wanted to see what you wanted to do first.”
“Tell her you know me. That I’m…around. I want her…I want her to make her own decision.”
“Okay. I’ll tell her tomorrow.”
“And let her know it’s no rush, right? She don’t want to see me, that’s okay. My girl’s not stupid, yeah. You know, she’s gonna be listening to what people say and she’s gotta form her own opinion of the shit I been doing.”
“I’m sure she will,” Karen says in a voice that says she’s sure Lisa will choose to see him.
She could see him right now. Her bedroom door has a direct line of sight to the front door. She could crack it open and see her dad. She could run to him, right now.
She stays standing where she is until Frank says “goodnight, ma’am” and leaves. Then she gets back into bed.
The next morning, Karen makes Lisa waffles. Sits her down at the table. Asks her about her first day at school. Says she’ll be by to pick her up after Lisa’s done with her after school program. Doesn’t tell her about Frank. Lisa is glad.
Her new school is a private school in the city. Not a super fancy one like on TV, but nicer than the one she went to when she lived with Mrs. Olsen. Her name here is actually Lisa, but she’s Lisa Page. She likes Lisa Page. It’s a nice name.
Her teachers tell the kids she has a scholarship here. Which Lisa doesn’t think is true. She had good grades, but not good enough for a scholarship. She thinks that Karen probably pulled some strings. Like she said she did with taking Lisa. But it makes the kids have an impression of her that she’s really smart, which she likes.
Four kids in her class, three boys and one girl, are wearing Punisher t-shirts.
Karen makes a casserole for dinner that’s really good and warm, and it makes her feel better. She wants to tell Karen about the Punisher t-shirts, but she doesn’t, because she’s not sure she wants to talk about Frank yet. She thinks the casserole is because Karen is going to talk about Frank, but she’s not sure yet. And she wants to make the good feeling last as long as possible.
She tells Karen about his she already made a friend, Yasmin, whose parents own horses. Karen asks all the right questions (how many horses? Does she have a favorite? Is she nice, or do you just like her because she has horses?) and she makes Lisa laugh when she talks about how she fell off a horse once because the horse tried to chase a dog that was bothering it.
After dinner, Karen helps Lisa with some of her English homework. Tries to help her with math, but Lisa ends up teaching Karen a bunch of algebra she forgot. Her parents used to be the same way. Look at each other and shrug, disbelieving smiles on their faces. Lisa’s always been really good at math.
Then the homework is done, and Lisa knows it’s coming, because Karen gets really quiet for a little while, not really paying attention to the Animal Planet show they’re watching.
“I need to tell you something,” she says. She presses pause on the TV, and Lisa turns to face her.
“You know my dad,” she says.
“Oh. How did you…?”
“I heard you talking about him on Trish Talk one time.”
“That was…that was a long time ago. So you’ve known? All this time I’ve been going to visit you?”
“Yeah. You and Foggy were his lawyers.”
“Yeah, sort of. And I’m his…friend.”
“He’s still alive.”
Not a question, but Karen answers her like it is.
“Yeah, sweetie. He’s still alive. But I don’t think I need to tell you not to tell anyone about that, right?”
“I can keep a secret. I won’t tell anyone he’s my dad, either. I don’t want anyone to know.”
She hears the tears in her own voice, and the face Karen is making at her is one that makes her want to cry even more, because it’s so sad. So sad and so understanding. Like Mrs. Olsen the first time Lisa wet the bed after one of her nightmares.
“Why don’t you want anyone to know, Lisa?” Karen asks. She doesn’t try to touch Lisa, doesn’t hug her or anything, just moves her hands a little closer so Lisa can take them if she wants.
“Because he’s a murderer. He kills people, right? He shoots them and he cuts them up, and he kills them.”
“Yeah. Yeah, he kills people.”
“And that’s…he…” she looks away and tries really hard not to cry. But she can’t help it. She can’t always be strong like her mom and dad taught her, especially not now. “He kills people and some people think he’s a good guy for it. And some people want him dead too. I hear them talking about it all the time. They say they hope the police shoot him. Or they say he’s better than the police, because the police don’t do anything. And some people are so scared of him, and some people say you shouldn’t be scared of him unless you do something wrong. And I don’t know.”
Karen does hug her now, pulls Lisa into her arms, and she smells good, smells like perfume and shampoo and the powdery makeup Lisa’s mother used to wear on her face. Lisa doesn’t pull away from the hug.
“I know it’s hard,” Karen says into Lisa’s hair, after Lisa’s sobs have stopped a little. Karen’s got Lisa pulled half into her lap, and Lisa’s curled up against Karen’s chest, and she feels like she’s a baby again. “It was hard for me to figure out how I felt, and I’m thirty-two! I’m a grown up! It’s not an easy thing to think about.”
“Did you figure it out?”
Karen sighs. Rubs circles on Lisa’s back.
“It’s complicated,” she says first, and Lisa thinks that’s going to be her only answer, but then Karen says, “I’ll try and explain it, okay? I think that sometimes, good people do bad things. And I think that sometimes, good people do things that would be bad if other people did them. Or if they did them for different reasons. Or if they did them to other people.”
“Some people say that my dad only kills bad people.”
“Yeah, sweetie. He kills bad people.”
“But what does bad mean? Does he kill people who steal?”
“No, no,” Karen says, giving a watery little laugh. “No, he’s not that dramatic. He only kills people who are so bad that they kill other people.”
“That’s why it’s hard for me to choose. Does that make sense? Because it’s not right to kill someone. But Frank, your dad, he’s my friend. And I know he has his heart in the right place. And I know that he has done a lot of good things, even when he’s doing things that are bad. Does that make sense?”
“Yeah. But I still don’t want to see him yet.”
“That’s okay. There’s no rush at all, sweetheart. When you’re ready, I’ll tell him, and he’ll come by. Or we’ll meet him somewhere if that makes you feel better, okay?”
“Okay.” That sounds reasonable. She can do that. “You’re good at this.”
“Explaining. You’re very honest. Thank you.”
Karen laughs, maybe at Lisa’s formal tone. Her mom always used to say that she sounded like a little adult sometimes. It always made Maria laugh too. In the same fond way that didn’t make Lisa feel like she was being laughed at.
Someone comes over again that night. This time, Lisa is ready. She opens the door a tiny crack and lies down on the floor so no one sees her eye staring back out at eye level. Karen goes to open the door and Lisa holds her breath.
But it’s not Frank. It’s a man wearing sunglasses and carrying a walking stick, and Lisa sighs with something like disappointment, and the sunglasses turn towards her like he’s heard her even though he’s all the way down the hall.
“Why is there a child in your apartment?” he asks Karen, and Karen says a very bad word very loudly. “She’s listening.”
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Lisa. Lisa, sweetie, why don’t you come out here?”
Lisa’s embarrassed to be caught, but she obeys, waiting to get yelled at. But when she gets close, Karen pulls her over, puts her hands on Lisa’s shoulders, bends down a little to speak to her.
“Lisa, this is my friend Matt. Matt, this is, um. Lisa Castle.”
“Goddammit, Karen,” Matt sighs.
“Hey!” Karen hisses.
“You said a worse word,” Lisa points out, which makes Matt laugh even though he clearly doesn’t want to.
“I did, and don’t do that. Your father would ki…well. He’d be really annoyed.”
“I knew it. I knew something was going on. Foggy helped you with this, didn’t he?”
“Yes, because Foggy is my friend,” Karen says pointedly. “And he supports me even when he doesn’t completely agree with my decisions.”
“I do support you. I’m just…surprised.”
“Well, now you know.”
“Is this a permanent thing? Or temporary?”
“Lisa is going to be with me as long as Lisa wants to be with me,” Karen replies. She has this stubborn, short voice that reminds Lisa of her dad, a little. When it was time for bed, and she and Frank Jr. would be playing Xbox and would try to tell him that they only needed ten more minutes. Mom was usually the more serious one, but dad could be too when he was home. He’d say things in a tone that left no argument. Just like Karen.
“Well then. I guess I should start bringing better presents,” Matt says, holding up a bag of Chinese food. It makes Karen laugh, so Lisa laughs too.
But, okay, she hopes he means it about the presents.
“Is Matt your boyfriend?” she asks the next morning. Karen makes a face that reminds Lisa of her favorite emoji: the one with the upside down smile who looks like he’s probably thinking yikes.
“Matt was my boyfriend,” Karen says after a second. “Now we’re trying to get back to being friends.”
“He doesn’t like my dad.”
“No, he does. He just has…complicated feelings.”
“Yeah,” Lisa sighs. “Me too.”
“But of course he likes him. Matt probably wishes he didn’t like your dad as much as he does. He was one of his lawyers too.”
“Oh. Matt Murdock.”
“That’s right. You really kept up with the case, huh?”
“Yeah. Everyone kept talking about it.”
“I know. Trust me.”
Lisa smiles a little at Karen’s exhausted tone. Even all this time later.
“Is that why you’re not a lawyer anymore? You work at a newspaper now.”
“That’s part of it, yeah. I started working for the newspaper because I was trying to uncover the truth about what happened to your family. Working for lawyers wasn’t cutting it.”
“Why isn’t Matt your boyfriend anymore?”
“Because. Sometimes things just don’t work out.”
“My dad used to say that was a bad excuse.”
“Yeah, well, your dad says a lot of things I don’t listen to,” Karen replies, and Lisa laughs again.
Every day, Lisa loves Karen a little bit more.
Karen does things like leaving notes to remind Lisa of things she has to do, and she always signs them with a heart and puts them in Lisa’s backpack. She also is really, really good at brushing and braiding hair. She loves movies and lets Lisa watch some of her favorites even if they’re PG-13. Whenever Lisa has a bad dream, which is less often now, Karen lets her sleep in her bed. Doesn’t even say anything. Just hugs Lisa close until she falls asleep.
Sometimes Frank comes by. But Lisa doesn’t ever see him. She just crawls out of bed and stands behind the door and listens. Matt can always tell she’s listening when he comes over, but she doesn’t think Frank can.
The first time is right after Lisa told Karen that she didn’t want to see him. Karen makes Frank coffee and Lisa can hear them sitting down on the couch. She imagines it. Imagines her dad sitting down with his big machine gun and the trench coat he’s always waring in the pictures she sees online. It’s hard to imagine him looking normal. Wearing a t-shirt or a flannel shirt or anything except the black coat.
“Guessing she said no,” he says, and it doesn’t sound like her dad. Not really. It sounds gruff. Angry. The way he used to sound when he was talking to his war buddies in the kitchen.
“I’m sorry, Frank. It’s still too soon. She needs some time.”
“What did she say? Uh. Did she seem…scared of me?”
Lisa knows what her dad sounds like when he’s trying not to cry. She wants to run out there and tell him that she’s not afraid. Wants to go to him and make him happy so he doesn’t want to cry anymore. Just like every other time she’s seen him fighting back tears.
“No, I don’t think so,” Karen says softly, and she must know what her dad sounds like when he’s like that too. “I think she has a lot of questions. I answered them honestly. I think she just needs time to see if she agrees.”
“Don’t know if I want you being the one to tell her about me.”
“Why not?” Karen asks, obviously hurt. Frank laughs a little.
“You’re too soft on me. Not objective at all.”
“I was perfectly objective. Don’t be an asshole.”
Lisa covers her mouth to hide her surprised giggle as her dad laughs openly.
“Sure you were,” he teases. But it grows silent again, and he clears his throat. “Oughta be going. I’ll stop by some time in the next few days. Maybe I’ll start calling first. Texting at least. Just so she don’t end up seeing me accidentally or anything.”
“Okay. Hey, did you get the email I sent you about the dockworkers thing?”
“Yeah. Oughta have answer for you on that soon. I’ll call.”
“Far as I’m concerned, you don’t gotta thank me for anything again. And I know what you’re gonna say, but listen. I’m gonna drop off some money next time I’m here.”
“She’s my kid. Let me take care of her even if I can’t be here, all right?”
Karen sighs. She doesn’t say anything, but Lisa thinks she must be nodding.
The next time, they don’t even say much. Karen asks if he’s okay, and Frank says he just needs somewhere to lie low. Karen makes coffee and they watch a movie on TV. At one point, Karen asks if Frank is still awake, but he doesn’t answer. Lisa hears Karen getting out a blanket from the hall closet. Lisa makes sure to stay in bed extra long the next morning, just in case. He’s gone by the time she gets out there.
Usually, they just sit and talk. Sometimes it’s about her. Those times make Lisa want to open the door and run out and hug him. But then she remembers the other times, when he comes in gruff and angry, tells Karen to stay away from something, or tells her about the murders he’s been doing, and Lisa clutches whatever stuffed animal is closest and closes her eyes and tries to remember her dad. Her dad. He loves Halloween and flannel. Wore those unicorn slippers she bought him one Christmas until he wore out the bottoms. He makes the best cheeseburgers. He always reads her her book. That’s her dad. Not this. Not this monster.
One time she hears a knock that’s more like a thump, something heavy and slow, and she’s curious enough to open the door a crack. Part of her thinks it’s Matt or Foggy, because they usually do bring presents, and it sounds like someone is struggling with something heavy, and she’s wondering what kind of present it could be.
But Karen opens the door and gasps as Frank staggers in, thrown off balance. She catches him, steadies him, and Lisa sees her dad. He’s got bruises on his face and his hair is longer than she remembers ever seeing it, kind of curly and black. He’s wearing his long coat from the news, and the vest, like she imagined, but he doesn’t have his gun. Karen’s hand is pressed against the white skull on his chest as she helps him steady himself, and then when she takes her hand away there’s a red handprint there, and Lisa can see the blood on her palm when she pulls it away.
“What happened to you?” Karen asks, leading him out of sight, towards the couch. Lisa can still see him in the mirror next to the door, where Karen checks her hair before going out. She can only see a little bit of him, but she can see a grimace on his mouth as Karen lowers him to the couch.
“Some prick got lucky. Most of the shots hit my vest. Think he broke some ribs. But he got me up on the shoulder too.”
“You need me to call someone?” Karen asks, which makes Frank laugh bitterly. “Microchip, maybe?”
“Micro don’t know shit about this.”
“Neither do I!”
“No, but I trust you with it more.”
“You’re trying to flatter me,” Karen says as she helps him out of his jacket.
“Is it working?”
“A little. You’re not expecting me to stitch you up, are you?”
“That’s exactly what I’m expecting. You think you’re just gonna slap a bandaid on it and be done? No, wouldn’t need to trust you to do that.”
“Oh God,” Karen sighs. “I don’t even know if I’ve got a needle…”
“I got everything you need in my pockets. Coat’s not just for style, you know.”
“I can’t believe you’re making jokes when you expect me to stick a needle in you!”
Frank laughs, low and fond, and he’s looking up at Karen like he used to look at Maria sometimes, and Lisa feels something hot and angry inside her. And she wants to burst out the door and tell him to go away. Tell him to stop coming here, stop looking at Karen like that, stop making Lisa feel confused and just let her have Karen to herself.
She has to scramble back to bed when Karen comes down the hall to grab a towel from the bathroom, and Karen spots the door open an inch and tugs it lightly closed. And Lisa listens as their voices become low murmurs as Karen fixes him up and sends him out again.
“You scared the shit out of me,” she hears Karen say at the door. “I thought you were dying.”
“No ma’am. Wouldn’t come here if I was.”
“You trust Micro enough to handle that?”
“Nah. I’d go to Red, probably. You give more’n half a shit about me. Wouldn’t want to put you through that. Red might throw a party.”
“Go home, Frank,” Karen says, soft and fond. And Lisa hears him laugh as the door closes.
The next day, it’s Saturday, and it isn’t even Karen’s fault. Karen’s standing at the sink, talking about her plans to take Lisa to the zoo. It’s been two months since Lisa started living with her, and Karen can’t believe she hasn’t taken Lisa to see the lions.
“There’s a dinosaur exhibit, too,” she says, teasing a little, and she sounds exactly like Maria used to whenever Lisa was in a bad mood in the mornings. Trying to cheer her up by saying little fun things they were going to do when she got home. And after last night, after seeing the way her dad looked at Karen when Karen was helping him, it all just collides in her brain.
“You’re not my mom,” she says. It comes out cold and serious, and Karen stops, surprised.
“Oh, sweetie. I know…”
“I don’t want to go to the zoo with you. I don’t want to go anywhere with you. I want to go home, but I can’t! I’m stuck here with you, and I don’t want to be, so just leave me alone!”
She never raises her voice. Just stares Karen down and then stands up and goes into her room. She doesn’t even slam the door. She closes it gently. Sits on her bed and grabs the closest stuffed animal. And it’s the triceratops that Karen bought her, and Lisa wants to rip off its stupid horn for a second, but instead she just hugs it tight to her chest. Tight enough to hurt. And she’s whispering you’re not my mom you’re not my mom you’re not my mom over and over again, and she closes her eyes and thinks of Maria laughing and smiling and…
Dead. Maria is dead. And Frank Jr. is dead. And her dad’s all that’s left, but she doesn’t know if she still wants him to be, and there’s Karen. That’s it. That’s all there is. Just Karen, and Lisa just told her that she didn’t want her, and if Karen sends her away, then Lisa won’t have anybody.
She doesn’t remember the last time she cried, but she cries now, hugging that stupid dinosaur. And all she wants to do is go to Karen and talk to Karen and ask Karen to take her to see the lions. But she can’t do it. She can’t do it. She just sits there instead.
Karen’s on the phone later. Whispering, but Lisa can hear her.
“I don’t know. I don’t know what I did wrong. I think it’s just too much. I think she thinks I’m trying to replace her mother.” A short silence. “No, I know. She still hasn’t seen him. He comes by sometimes. He asks about her every day. But we aren’t going to push it.” Another long sigh. “I don’t know, Trish. She obviously can’t go live with him even if she was talking to him. Maybe he’ll have an idea. I don’t know what to do if she wants to leave. Oh, God. Why did I think I can do this?”
Karen doesn’t mention it later. But she doesn’t talk much at dinner, doesn’t smile much either, and then she has one of the old lady neighbors come over to watch Lisa while she goes out, and Lisa knows she’s being a baby, but she sits in her room and cries some more and tells Mrs. Rodriguez that she isn’t feeling well and is going to bed early.
When she wakes up, it’s late, and she sneaks out of her room to see if Karen came back. Karen is curled up in her bed, looking even more beautiful than ever because Lisa was afraid she wouldn’t be here. Lisa pauses in the doorway, then creeps forward. She thinks Karen is asleep, but then she rolls over and blinks up at Lisa, and there’s a heartbeat of a moment where Lisa doesn’t know what to do, and then Karen sits up, and she isn’t angry. She’s frowning with concern, reaching for the light by her bed.
But Lisa says, “I’m sorry,” and that stops Karen from moving. She lets out a long, sharp breath.
“It’s okay,” she says. “I understand. I know sometimes- sometimes you just lash out at people because they’re the only ones there. Because there’s no one else to blame.”
“I didn’t mean to say those things.”
Karen laughs a little, leans back against her pillow and moves aside the covers. Lisa climbs in next to her gratefully, settles in the empty side of the double bed. Karen looks at her for a little while, smiling.
“I said some things to your father one time that I regretted.”
She says it lightly, giving Lisa an opportunity to change the subject if she wants, but Lisa wants to hear it.
“What did you say?”
“I told him if he did something, he’d be dead to me.”
“Was he killing someone?”
Karen hesitates, then rolls on her side, arm tucked under her head. She looks at Lisa, keeps eye contact. And Lisa knows she isn’t going to lie or change the subject.
“Yes,” she says.
“Was it someone bad?”
“But you didn’t want dad to kill him.”
“Because I wanted to save your dad, and I thought that killing that bad man would make your dad a monster.”
Monster. It’s the word Lisa thinks to herself on those bad nights when she hears Frank through the door and he sounds broken and scary.
“Sometimes I think he’s a monster too,” Lisa whispers, and Karen smiles faintly and reaches out, plays a little with Lisa’s curly hair.
“He isn’t,” she says.
“Are you sure?”
Lisa nods. Considers that. She likes this. She likes that Karen is answering her honestly. Not trying to change the subject. Not looking away or making jokes. She’s answering questions like she would answer them to a grown-up. It makes Lisa feel like a grown-up.
“I trust you,” she says, doing her best grown-up voice. “And I’m sorry I said those things to you. I know you aren’t trying to be my mom. I was just scared.”
“Scared of what, sweetie?”
“That mom would go away. That her voice and her face would be gone, and it would just be you instead in all my memories.”
Karen makes a soft, sad noise and pulls Lisa into her arms. She doesn’t answer. Doesn’t say anything. Lisa is glad.
The next day, she finds a framed picture of her whole family on her bed. They’re at the carousel. Lisa’s dad is there. Her mom. Frank Jr. Everyone.
She hugs Karen later in the kitchen for a long, long time. She doesn’t cry this time, just presses her face into Karen’s stomach. Karen hugs her back.
“Where did you find this?”
“Your house. Before it burned down. Your father has the original, but I made copies when I first took it. You wouldn’t believe how long it took me to find this. My office is a mess.”
“This is the best present ever,” Lisa says, and she means it, and Karen kisses the top of her head and holds her there.
The next three weeks are easy, and Lisa knows that Karen forgave her for saying those things, and they do eventually get to see the lions. But Lisa remembers, and Lisa feels guilt, and one night when it’s past supper and Karen still hasn’t come home, and won’t answer Lisa’s calls or texts, Lisa thinks back and wonders if this is her fault.
She doesn’t know what to do. She doesn’t want to go see Mrs. Rodriquez until she knows something’s wrong. But this isn’t like Karen, and so she sits on the floor in the living room with her phone in her lap and she prays for it to ring.
It doesn’t ring.
The knocking is loud, steady, and sure.
“Karen?” comes her dad’s voice. “Karen, you in there?”
And he’s worried, and that means that Lisa was right to worry, and she sits there with her chin in her hands for a second, staring at the door.
It’s been so long now.
But he’s her dad. And even though she isn’t sure what he is now, what he is anymore, she knows he’s the kind of person who fixes things. He will fix this. All she has to do is open the door.
“Dad!” she cries out, scared suddenly that he’s already gone. She doesn’t hear anything on the other side of the door, so she jumps up and unlocks all the locks. Karen installed five, all of them low enough for Lisa to reach. When the last one is unlocked, Lisa yanks the door open hard, and Frank’s standing on the other side, his hat in his hands, looking down at her with this look like he’s going to start crying again. “Don’t cry,” she orders, but her own voice breaks when she says it. She’s usually so good at keeping it together. She was always supposed to be the strong one. Look after your brother, Frank had said, every time he left for war. Look after Frankie and help your mother. I’m counting on you, my brave girl.
“I won’t cry if you don’t,” Frank replies gruffly, and Lisa sobs as she reaches for him. Last time he came home, he groaned with the effort when she wanted to be picked up, but this time he picks her up without complaint, without making a single sound but folding her into his arms, lifting her high so she can hug her whole body around hers.
“I’m sorry,” she’s crying. And she can feel her dad’s tears on her skin, and she can’t stop apologizing as he shushes her and carries her into the apartment and closes the door before really losing it.
They cry for a while like that. But it’s Lisa who breaks out of it first, because Lisa has to be the strong one.
“Dad, Karen isn’t here,” she says, and Frank looks at her all hard and serious. Not like how she imagined all those nights listening to his voice get gruff and angry, but like how he used to look when he was getting ready to leave and he was telling her that she had to be strong.
“Where is she?”
“I don’t know. She called and said she would be only a little late, so I didn’t need to get Mrs. Rodriguez unless I really needed something. But it’s been hours now and she still hasn’t called. This isn’t something she does.”
“No,” Frank agrees. “No, she didn’t answer my calls either.”
He bites his lower lip hard and looks around the apartment. In the light, Lisa can see under the bruises on his skin and she can see her dad again.
“She didn’t leave, did she?” she asks, unable to keep from letting the fear come out, and Frank lets out a ghost of a laugh.
“Without you?” he asks. “Never. She never shuts up about you. Lisa, listen. I need you to go get Mrs. Rodriguez. Stay in her apartment. Will she let you do that?” When Lisa nods, he kneels down on one knee beside her. “I’m going to go find Karen. I got a few ideas of where she might be. Don’t you worry about us. We’ll be okay. Just get some sleep. You got school in the morning.”
“It’s Friday,” she says with a watery sigh. “Dad…you can’t just leave again.”
“I won’t. I’ll be back. I promise.”
He kisses her on the side of the head, just like he always used to do, and he jerks his head to her bedroom. She follows his meaning and goes, grabs some stuff. Her laptop and her pajamas. A book to read because Mrs. Rodriguez doesn’t like when she’s on her phone or laptop too long. She shoves it all into a tote bag Karen gave her, and then she heads back out to her dad.
“I’m sorry,” she says when she’s back in the living room. “I should have…I listened every night. But I never opened the door, I should have opened the door sooner.”
“It’s okay,” Frank says. “Wanted you to do it when you were ready.”
“I was afraid.” When she sees his face falling a little, she says, “I was afraid you’d be different.”
“I am different,” he warns, and it clearly hurts him to say it.
“Yeah. But I’m different too.”
After Mrs. Rodriguez goes to sleep, Lisa sneaks off the couch and sits on the floor next to the apartment door, leaning her head against it and listening. She sleeps for a while, but wakes up when she hears the jingling of keys in the hallway. She stands on her tiptoes to see out the peephole and sees her dad holding Karen in his arms, trying to hold the keys right to open the door.
Lisa goes out into the hall.
Karen is curled against Frank’s chest, her legs hanging down, her feet bare and bloody. Her hair looks bloody too, streaked with it, and she doesn’t move as Frank spins to face Lisa, panic briefly on his face. When he sees it’s Lisa, he heaves a sigh of relief.
“Let me do it,” Lisa says. And Frank nods. She takes the keys from his fingers, and he fixes his grip on Karen so it’s less precarious, and Karen still doesn’t move, and she doesn’t move when Frank carries her into her bedroom and lays her down.
“Do me a favor and get me a towel. Wet it with warm water. And grab that first aid kit.”
Lisa goes without saying anything. Does exactly as Frank says. Frank uses the towel to clean off Karen’s face, where the blood on the side of her head is matted to her cheek. He wipes it clean gently, and he looks like her dad again. Kind. Scared. Then he uses the towel to clean off Karen’s feet, and he puts bandaids on her heels and the one long cut on the bottom of her left foot.
“Is she going to die?” Lisa asks. Frank looks at her, and Lisa sees something in her dad that wasn’t there before. This lost, terrified look. It reminds Lisa of how she felt after she told Karen she didn’t want to live with her anymore. Panic. Indecision. Feeling like there was nothing good that could happen. She thinks of what Karen said: her dad is different now, but that doesn’t mean he’s a monster.
“No,” Frank says, looking down at Karen. Moving her hair away from the wound on her head. To Lisa, it looks like Karen has been shot, but she supposes her dad knows more about this than she does. He presses a gauze pad to the bloody spot and tapes it down.
“She can’t die too,” Lisa says firmly, and she expects her dad to laugh at that. At how bossy she sounds. Okay, little miss bossy, he said sometimes, before. But he doesn’t. Just holds his arm open, and she crawls over to him and tucks herself into his side, not caring that he’s still dressed like The Punisher, not caring that he smells like guns and something stronger that she knows is probably blood, that sparks a quick flash of memory of a hospital bed and a beeping machine and a bandage on her arm that was stained with red.
“I know,” her dad says finally. “And she won’t. She’s gonna be okay.”
Frank doesn’t leave. He sleeps on the couch, and Lisa leaves her door open a crack so that she can hear him breathing. He gets up a lot to check on Karen, and she can hear their soft voices if she holds her breath. She hears Karen crying at one point, hears her apologizing over and over again, and Lisa wonders if she’s apologizing to Frank or if it’s like Lisa does sometimes, apologizing to thin air because she doesn’t know what else to say.
Frank must say something nice, or something funny, because the crying ends with a short laugh and a few sniffles, and Lisa hopes that Karen is getting a hug. Karen sounds like she needs a hug, and her dad was always a good hugger. She hopes he still is.
She waits a little while after that, waits until her dad is back on the couch, and then she tiptoes down the hall to Karen’s room. Karen is still awake, staring at the door, and her face does this little scrunchy crying thing when Lisa walks in, but she doesn’t actually cry at all.
“Hi,” Lisa says.
“Hey,” Karen replies with a watery laugh that has Lisa wanting to hug her again, because she doesn’t want Karen to be sad at all.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I’m okay.”
“Did my dad save you?”
“Did you get hurt?” Karen hesitates. Nods. “Was it because of me?” Now Karen sits up, brow furrowed.
“Why would you think that?”
“Matt said you would end up hurt because you took me. And Foggy said it too.”
“You were listening.”
“I always listen.”
Karen sighs and pats the bed beside her. And this time Lisa doesn’t give leave space between them, just crawls in right beside Karen, nestled against her, and hopes that Karen can feel how much she loves her. How much Lisa doesn’t want her to be hurt.
“What I do, what I write. I’ve been trying to avoid doing the dangerous stuff, because I need to be more responsible with myself than I was before.”
“Because of me.”
“If anything, you being around probably made me less in danger.”
“Really. But I was covering for someone at work, and I found out something big. I thought I was good at covering my tracks. Your dad was helping me. So was Matt. I wasn’t as careful as I should have been. So some of the people that I was going after, they took me. They wanted to know what I was doing. They were asking me questions. But I didn’t tell them anything, and I managed to fight my way free. That was when your dad found me. Helped me the rest of the way.”
“You saved yourself,” Lisa says decisively, proudly. Karen’s proud too.
“Yep. That’s me. Always saving myself,” she says with a laugh.
“Maybe you should be a superhero too. Like Captain Marvel.” A doubtful look. “You’re not Captain Marvel, are you?”
“No,” Karen laughs, a quiet giggle. “I wish. She can fly. I could have flown my way out of there.” She goes quiet and serious again. “I’m sorry you were left alone, kiddo.”
“I was okay. And now I’ve seen dad. And I’m not scared anymore.”
Karen seems relieved by that. And she drops a kiss to Lisa’s temple.
“Good. I’m glad. Told you so.”
“Shut up,” Lisa laughs.
The door creaks open a bit, and Frank’s bruised face appears in the doorway, frowning in a stern way Lisa remembers from before. Not scary-serious. Just dad-serious.
“I’m just saying goodnight,” Lisa says petulantly, which makes her dad laugh. He looks a less little broken when he laughs. She wants to keep making him laugh until he doesn’t look sad anymore.
“Shoulda known you weren’t really asleep. Come on. Let Karen rest.”
Lisa snuggles closer to Karen, wrapping her arms around Karen’s stomach.
“Karen can sleep right like this,” she says. Karen looks up at Frank, laughing.
“It’s fine, Frank,” she says. “She’s a stubborn one. Wonder who she gets that from.”
Frank looks unimpressed, but he turns to go.
“If you’re sure,” he says.
Lisa pats the bed beside her, and Frank flashes a quick look at Karen. Lisa feels Karen nod, and Frank makes his way over to the other side of the bed.
“Just for a little,” he says, but Lisa doesn’t believe him. He looks as tired as Karen. Maybe even more tired. He’s in pajama pants and a t-shirt, and it’s softer than Lisa has ever imagined him looking again. She wonders if he’d wear those big unicorn slippers if she bought them for him again. She wonders if he still makes the best pancakes. She wonders if he still likes dogs so much. Maybe he’ll let her get a dog.
“Can we get a dog?” she asks.
“Yeah,” Karen says sleepily.
“Nah, this is how she gets you,” Frank says as he rests his hands behind his head. “She gets you all sleepy and pliable and then she asks you for something. Used to do it all the time.”
“He’s lying,” Lisa says, and Karen chuckles as she looks at Frank over Lisa’s head. Lisa spins around to look at Frank, and she reaches out for his hand, and he gives it reluctantly, a little suspicious.
“A dog would be nice,” Karen argues. Still a little sleepy.
“We’d end up doing all the work,” Frank replies, which makes Lisa pout.
“Not true. I’m not a baby anymore. I can take care of a dog.”
Holding his hand like she is, all serious like she is, she makes Frank laugh again.
“I’m not walking it,” he says finally. Lisa turns to look at Karen, turns to ask her if she was telling the truth about getting a dog, but she sees that Karen is asleep. She turns to mention this to her dad, but then she sees that he’s asleep too.
It’s not necessarily a plan, but she leaves them there and goes back to her own room. And when she wakes up to go to the bathroom just as the sun is coming up, she peeks in on them, and she sees that Karen has tucked herself under Frank’s arm, and that Frank’s face is buried in Karen’s hair. And just a few weeks ago, it made her angry to see Frank care so much about this woman who isn’t Maria, but it’s been a long few weeks. And her friend Sylvia at school has a step-dad who’s really nice, and even though her dad died, her mom married this other guy, and that’s something that happens all the time, and Lisa thinks that if her dad is going to marry anyone, it should be Karen.
So that’s how she gets the idea.
Lisa has never been very subtle, but ever since she woke up in the hospital she’s been better at pretending she doesn’t know anything. So it’s easier now than it would have been before. It starts with little things that weekend, like suggesting that Frank make pancakes for Karen in bed. Or that they should all watch a movie on the couch and then insisting that they all sit real close because she wants to sit near them both. And she asks if they can take her to get a dog together.
It’s not entirely for their benefit; having them both together makes her feel safe, loved, part of a family. And Frank promises he’ll come around more often, if that’s okay with Karen. And Karen says of course it’s okay like he’s an idiot for thinking it wouldn’t be, and the tips of Frank’s ears go all red.
He still kills people. People at school and on the news still talk about him like he’s a bad man all around. But she has her secret part of him, the part that only belongs to her and to Karen, behind the walls of Karen’s apartment. And when he comes home gruff and angry, she always stays in bed and waits, because she knows that Karen will talk to him, make him feel better, because Karen’s like one of his war buddies he used to talk to, is someone he goes to for advice and comfort both, and Lisa knows that when he’s ready, when he’s not so upset, he’ll come say goodnight. Sometimes read the book she’s way too old for if she asks.
In the end, it’s almost a little disappointing. Because she watches all these movies and she does all this research. Her Google search history is all about how to get people to fall in love. She’s always arranging for them to go somewhere and then deciding she has to go to the bathroom at the right moment, giving them some time alone. She’s always pretending to fall asleep on long car rides, during movie nights, giving them opportunity to talk. And she thinks it’s working. He seems softer around Karen. And Karen seems stronger around him. And Lisa is prepared to try some truly wild stuff after Sylvie and Yasmin give her some ideas.
She thinks it’s working, but sometimes Karen still goes out at night, dressed up nice, and sometimes Frank stays away for a week or so, and Mrs. Rodriguez has to come over and watch her when Karen goes out on dates, and it’s so frustrating because Lisa tries to drop as many hints as she can, but whenever her dad sees Karen getting ready to go out, and Lisa will try to get him to compliment her, he’ll grunt out something vaguely polite and then leave. Lisa thinks it would all be so easy if they just realized that how they look at each other isn’t just how people look at each other.
But then one night, she can’t sleep. She’s up much later than she usually is, stressing out about this stupid math test she knows she’s going to fail. She’s lying awake in bed, and she hears a quiet knock from Karen’s room. Karen’s window. And she lies there, frowning, wondering, and she goes to the edge of the bed and grabs her glass of water. Dumps it in one of her plants and presses it against the wall, like she’s seen in the movies.
“You okay?” she hears Karen ask in a low whisper.
“Yeah. Bad night. Didn’t, uh. Didn’t want to go to the safehouse.”
“What kind of bad night?”
“Don’t really feel like…”
“Okay. That’s fine. You need a shower?”
“Nah, I’ll just wash up quick. Don’t want to wake her. Go back to sleep. I’ll be back in a minute.”
Lisa listens to Frank go to Karen’s bathroom. Listens to him washing up. Then she listens to him go back into Karen’s room. Into Karen’s bed.
“Thought I told you to go back to sleep,” he says, a smile in his voice.
“Like I ever listen to you,” Karen fires back, sleepily content. “When are we going to tell her? I miss you.”
“I’m here all the damn time! More, now.”
“I know. But I miss waking up next to you, and it doesn’t feel right lying to her. We have to tell her soon.”
“Pretty sure she wants us to be, anyway.”
“Every time I’m watching her she’s goin’ on about her friend Sylvie’s stepdad and how cool it is that Sylvie still gets to have a dad even though hers died.”
Karen giggles quietly.
“Yeah. She’s not subtle, my girl.”
“Wonder where she got that from.”
“Think she’ll be mad? I just keep thinking about how angry she was when I wanted to take her to the zoo.”
“Nah. Think she just had to adapt to caring about you. Think it scared her that you were there and trying so hard to be something to her.”
“Sounds like you’re speaking from experience.”
“You know I am.”
Their sleepy murmurs drop off, and she puts the glass down and creeps out into the hallway. Creeps into Karen’s room as quietly as she can.
They’re snuggled up in the middle of the bed, her dad wrapped around Karen. Both of them smiling contentedly in their sleep.
Lisa can’t believe it. All that research. And she’s pretty sure they’ve been doing this the whole time.
She wants to be mad. She wants to say a very bad word very loudly. But instead she goes back into her room, back into her bed, and she lies there looking at the little plastic stars on her ceiling, and she can’t stop smiling.
Lisa Castle isn’t an idiot. But she’s never been so happy to be wrong about something.