Frank Castle never expected to live forever, or even until next week. He held no illusions about retirement, or riding into the sunset. Vigilantes didn’t meet their ends peacefully, surrounded by family and loved ones. It was always going to be Bullseye, or Kingpin or Bushwacker that stopped aiming for the bulletproof skull on his chest and instead aimed for the unprotected skull on his shoulders.
Frank was staring down the wrong side of sixty, with joints made of ground glass and a body hewn from scar tissue. He began dying his hair ten years ago not out of vanity, but because criminals weren’t afraid of grey haired old men. The coal black hair and cobalt blue eyes showed suggested vitality and danger.
He was The Punisher and today, he was going to die.
In a world of spider men and planet eating gods, the life expectancy of an old man with a gun was decidedly short. His longevity up until now was either a miracle of God, or His idea of a cruel joke. He decided on the latter and today was the punch line.
For the past two days, Frank had been living in the type of Hoboken motel that only accepted cash and rented rooms by the hour to anxious middle aged men and sad girls with hollow eyes and too much makeup. An Internet sex offender registry map would light up like a Christmas tree at Inn America Budget Motel.
The previous tenant of Frank’s room was a salesman, but not the type that went door to door selling Hoovers and Avon. He was the type selling plastic baggies filled with crystal meth. When he disappeared after a ‘meeting’ with Frank, the only people missing him were the same sallow girls and middle aged men that passed Frank’s window each morning.
The Inn America Budget Motel formed a vicious cycle that Frank was going to end. Labs on the third floor cooked meth that was sold by pushers to hookers, pimps and perverts. If the cycle began and ended there, it would have been beneath Frank’s notice. He’d always been of a mind to let fools remove themselves from the population and never no mind by he.
But he’d received a tip from a reliable source that when the degenerates were in short supply, the pushers took their wares up the road to neighborhoods with kids. That same reliable source also mentioned that when the hookers were in short supply, the degenerates took their ‘needs’ up the road to a middle school. He believed his source, mostly because men aren’t inclined to tell many mistruths right before being set on fire.
“Getting old” Frank thought, as it dawned on him that he never got the room number of the meth lab from his source before lighting a wooden match and setting him alight. His next thought was “there’s always tomorrow”.
That was last night. Today it was quickly becoming apparent that there wouldn’t be a tomorrow, because Frank Castle was going to die.
Around the time that he began purchasing Just For Men hair color, he also found the need for a semi rigid sleep schedule. But for the first thirty years of his career as The Punisher, Frank rarely slept. There was work to be done and most of it was at night. During the day, there was work to be done preparing for the night’s work. He’d spend the day cataloging pistols and rifles, hand cannons and things made by madmen in spandex and armor that defied physics.
They were his tools. Each required cleaning, checking and if possible, field testing. His room at the Inn America Budget Motel had several of these tools – a set of twelve carbon throwing blades with rubber grips lined a Formica countertop. Two modified M1911A1 pistols lay neatly on a makeshift table made from blue plastic apple crates with planks of wood on top. Next to the twin Colts lay a .50 caliber Mark XIX Desert Eagle that was disassembled for cleaning next to a stack of magazines, bolt assemblies and barrels that Frank had been meaning to organize. Lining the peeling walls and fixed into place with sinker nails were two M16A2 rifles, a Heckler & Koch MP5A5 and a pistol gripped Ithaca 37 that Frank ‘appropriated’ the night before.
Ammunition was organized by caliber in open cardboard boxes on threadbare carpet which may have green once upon a time. A box of .45, a smaller box of .50 Action Express, a plastic bin of shells and a great big box of 5.56 ammo.
So much ammunition for hungry tools, but Frank Castle was going to die before he had the chance to use it. He hadn’t worried about someone finding the guns, as The grand Inn America Budget Motel lacked both an interior decorator and a cleaning services and when he went to work, all of his tools came along for the ride in the back of a black Chevy panel van.
His dying mind panicked at the thought of some addict breaking in and finding a goldmine of weaponry, wondered at whose hands would hold his tools and what acts they would commit with them. He’d overpaid for two weeks, so while it was unlikely that hotel management would be checking up on him, it was doubtless that the other patrons of Inn America Budget Motel would smell Frank’s body before his two weeks were up.
Frank considered this while sitting unmoving in a natted up armchair that stank of old cigarettes and body odor. The left side of his face sagged in a stubbled frown, showing every bit of his 65 years. His arm lay limp by his side and he’d wet himself at some point.
When he slept, it was never in beds. Not only did the softness make his old back scream with pain, the thought of what may have occurred countless times under the Inn’s musty sheets brought too much revulsion.
His vision wandered onto the room’s peeling wallpaper next to the old television set. Faded pink flowers with curly q stems arranged in a repeating pattern begged for mirth. A small painting in a plastic frame with a boy and girl sitting together on a grassy hill caught his eye next and for the first time in years, Frank thought of his children.
He’d kept a Polaroid of his family for years, taking it from place to place and stashing it under his body armor when he worked. He’d kept up with it for a remarkable number of years, but it burned along with a safehouse before the new millennia.
From time to time, the news would run a piece on The Punisher and Frank would catch a glimpse of a young stranger smiling with his wife and children, with blue skies and trees behind them. Where was that photo taken? Central Park? He couldn’t remember, but that was okay because he was dying. People were allowed to forget all sorts of things when they were dying.
All those years and all those bullets, yet it wasn’t a mob boss or spandex clad super villain that ended the war. Frank was dying from a stroke. He reckoned that a clot from the webbing of clotted blood and scar tissue deep inside his battered frame must have broken free, travelling through his bloodstream and completing a task that not even Doctor Doom could accomplish. He supposed it didn’t matter now. For people like him, dead was dead. As he woke up that morning, a sharp pain filled his chest and head, followed by a weakness and vertigo so complete that he found himself sitting back down again with a thud. Sit down, old man.
He looked again at the painting. A boy and girl sitting on an idyllic hill – probably a cheap reprint purchased decades ago in some thrift shop - seemed so innocent and out of place at the seedy Inn America Budget Motel that it hurt Frank’s heart.
That hill, so much like the hill in Central Park that Frank and Maria sat with their two children, Frank Jr. and Lisa the day they were gunned down. The public believed that hill was where The Punisher was born. Historians and documentarians are quick to correct with the story of a much different hill in Vietnam, as Francis Castiglione beat dozens of Vietcong soldiers to death with the broken butt of an M-16. They would tell you that The Punisher was born that day, but they too were wrong.
As Frank Castle closed his eyes for the last time and darkness filled his world, the memory came to him in a dim wash of light and color.
The world was upside down and Frank felt pressure around his ankles. He felt a sharp crack on his backside, causing him to howl with pain and rage. He opened his eyes for the first time, clearing a thick, mucous from his lungs.
“Mister and Missus Castiglione, it’s a boy”
Frank had only one tool available to him that day. With a sense of satisfaction and relief, he unleashed a hot spray of urine onto his captor and deep inside, he smiled. The Punisher was born.