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Whatever Doesn't Kill You














I was six days old when Travis Bingham murdered my father. I’ve made my brother, Simon, tell me the story a thousand times: how Travis held up my dad’s store, how my dad was already giving him the money, how Travis shot him anyway and left him to die on the floor in a pool of blood, the money scattered all over the floor and a ten-dollar bill still clutched in his hand.

I’ve seen the newspaper clippings too; Simon has them all in a file folder in a box in the basement that he doesn’t know I’ve looked through every chance I’ve had. There are stories in there from the days and weeks right after it happened, articles about what a great guy my dad was, a real “pillar of the community.” There are pictures of him with the kids’ softball team he sponsored, pictures of him grinning with Simon and my sister, Emily. They all say how tragic it was that his days-old baby (that’s me) would never get to know him, and there are pictures of my mom standing in front of my dad’s boarded-up store, holding little me and looking sad. Travis had turned eighteen a week before the botched robbery, old enough for an adult trial. His high school picture was plastered all over the papers, him shaggy-haired and surly and looking every bit like a killer should look. I’ve spent hours looking at that picture, enough time to memorize every contour of his face, every pimple, every fleck in those cold, yellow-green eyes.

And they’re the same eyes, even in black and white, staring back at me now from yesterday’s paper, which someone has left on our table at McDonald’s. I don’t know how long I’ve been staring into them, like I’m expecting him to blink, to turn tail and run, to do something other than stare out of the picture on page A8, but finally Griffin pokes me and I snap back to reality.

“Jenna? Everything all right?”

Marie-Claire laughs. “That’s the longest I’ve ever heard you go without talking,” she says.

“You’re funny.” I look at the paper again and reluctantly fold it up. I turn my attention back to the group at our table: besides me, Griffin and Marie-Claire, there’s my best friend, Katie Becker. We’re camped out in the corner of McDonald’s, as far away from the busy counter and the kids’ PlayPlace as we can manage.

We come here once or twice a week for lunch, the four of us. There aren’t a lot of kids from our school who make the trek here at lunch hour, and the throngs of stay-at-home moms who bring their kids here to let them tear around the indoor playground while they sit and chat are a nice change from the cafeteria crowds.

Griffin and Katie and I have known each other since grade three. Marie-Claire, who is a year older than us, was the loser at her school out on the east coast before we all met up in high school last year. Marie-Claire went to a French school out east, so she’s a year behind in English, which is where we met her. Katie gets mocked for her weight, me for my clothes, Marie-Claire for her thick French accent and Griffin for…well, being Griffin. Together, we’re the Loser Club, an assortment of sore thumbs at a school full of punks and jocks and wannabe rappers.

Of course, they all know the story about my dad. It’s hard to keep secrets in a group this small, and anyone who’s been to my apartment is bound to ask why I live with my older brother and sister instead of my parents. But the feeling of suddenly seeing Travis Bingham— fifteen years older and a little weathered-looking but absolutely, unmistakably him—where I expected to find the comics page…well, I’m not ready to share that just yet.

Katie’s the only one still eating—two double quarter-pounders with cheese, a Coke and an extra-large order of fries. Griffin has finished his Happy Meal with chicken nuggets and is playing with the toy that came with it, a little stuffed bear with a tiny pink T-shirt you can put on and take off. He is drawing a skull and crossbones on the front of the shirt with a Sharpie. I’m surreptitiously picking at the contents of the bag lunch I brought from home and tucked into the corner beside me so the staff won’t see me eating my own food and throw us out. I’m broke this week: none of my babysitting clients have paid me in awhile, so even a couple of bucks for a hamburger is out of the question.

I force some small talk. “I can’t believe how cold it’s been all week.”

“I hear it’s supposed to warm up next week. We’re supposed to get snow on Wednesday.”

Katie shakes her head between bites of hamburger. “You can’t trust the long-range forecast. It’s got, like, a thirty percent chance of being right.”

“I could probably have a thirty percent success rate if I just made something up.” Griffin chortles. He always laughs before he says something he thinks is going to be funny. “I predict three weeks of sunshine and thirty-degree temperatures, followed by hurricanes, and crickets falling from the sky.”

Griffin is such a geek that he says thank you if you call him one. He also answers to “nerd,” but he draws the line at “dork.” He reserves that word for the few kids lower on the social totem pole at school than he is. You’d think someone who’s had his ass kicked twice a week since kindergarten would want to spare other people the same treatment, but frankly, he can be a bit of a jerk sometimes.

When I think no one’s looking, I carefully roll up the entire section of the newspaper with Travis’s picture in it and tuck it into my tie-dyed messenger bag alongside my school books, hoping no one has noticed me taking it. I don’t think we’d really get kicked out of McDonald’s for stealing an old newspaper, but since I didn’t buy anything in the first place, I’d hate to push my luck.

Griffin catches up to me as we wait for the lights to change at the Delta, where Main Street switches from one-way to two-way—or vice versa, I suppose, depending on which way you’re going. Ordinarily I don’t pay a lot of attention to traffic lights, especially when it’s this cold out. If there are no cars coming, I’ll take my chances and run across. But crossing the Delta means making an odd hop, skip and jump across three separate intersections, and jaywalking here means taking your life in your hands. Even crossing with the lights is sometimes more dangerous than a trip to McDonald’s is worth.

“So what’s with the newspaper?”

I should have figured he’d be the one to notice. Not much gets past Griffin Paul. “Nothing,” I tell him, determined to be mysterious. “Just an interesting story.”

Griffin doesn’t buy it. “Marie-Claire’s right: you’re never quiet. Come on, what was so interesting that you’d take the newspaper?”

“It wasn’t anything big. It really wasn’t.” I struggle for a lie, but nothing comes to mind. “There was a story about some software company making a donation to this halfway house so criminals can learn to type and get jobs after they’re released back into the community.” Which is technically true: that is what the article was about.

“Well, that definitely sounds like an article worth holding on to.”

I try to think of some reason I might have wanted to keep the article—a school project it might relate to, a personal interest it might have piqued. But I can’t come up with anything. So I tell him the truth. “Travis Bingham is out of jail.”

From across the street in the middle of afternoon traffic, Marie-Claire hears what I say to Griffin and jogs across at the light to catch up with us.

Now, I should tell you, Marie-Claire thinks she’s a vampire. For real. She wears black clothes and silver chains and goes to parties with university kids who think she’s nineteen. They drink vodka and tomato juice and pretend it’s blood. Of course the other kids at school mock her relentlessly, but that’s why she hangs out with us. If she didn’t have a place with the rest of the losers, she wouldn’t have any age-appropriate friends at all. But I swear, sometimes I wonder if there might be something to this whole vampire thing. It’s like she’s got superhuman hearing sometimes.

“No kidding,” she says. “The guy who killed your dad is out of jail?”

“I guess so, if he’s in a halfway house.”

“I thought he got twenty-five years.”

“That doesn’t mean anything.” Katie has caught up to us too; she’s pushing three hundred pounds and doesn’t have a lot of “hustle.” Despite lagging a few steps behind the rest of us, though, she seems to have caught up on the gist of the conversation. “If you don’t get in any trouble in prison, you automatically get out after you serve two-thirds of your sentence. Plus, if you’re in jail for, say, two years while you’re waiting for your trial, you get credit for four years.”

Katie can be a know-it-all, but it’s hard to argue with her when she really does seem to know it all sometimes.

Marie-Claire grabs my arm, her black-painted fingernails digging into the ratty fabric of my coat so hard I can feel them through my clothes.

“We have to go see him,” she says.

“What?” It takes me a second to even process what she’s said.

“Travis What’s-his-face. Burnham.”


“Whatever. Don’t you want to confront him?”

“Well, I…” I frown. “I guess I’ve never really given it much thought.”

I don’t think I’ve ever seen Marie-Claire smile before, but she’s grinning now with an almost hungry look in her washed-out green eyes. “Come on, you’ve known about this guy your whole life. He ruined your entire family, and now here he is, out in the world where you could just walk right up and talk to him? Where is this place? We have to go!”

“I don’t even know what I would say to him,” I protest.

“You’ll know,” she says, her voice dripping with melodrama. “You’ll see him and you’ll know exactly what you’re supposed to say. We’ll go with you. We can go after school.”

“I can’t tonight. I’ve got to meet the kids at the bus.”

“Well, then, tomorrow.”

“I can’t go tomorrow. I’ve got to work after school,” Katie chimes in. Apparently this is a group activity now.

“Saturday then,” says Griffin. He pushes his heavy glasses up his long, pointy nose. “You don’t have to babysit this Saturday, do you?”

“I’ll…have to check my schedule,” I manage. But I’m a lousy liar. Without any particular input from me, it’s been decided. We—the four of us—are going to stalk Travis Bingham.


After school I’m late meeting the kids’ bus, and I have to stand on the corner behind a herd of women from my apartment building, all of them smoking, chatting on their cell phones and ignoring their screaming kids in strollers. I don’t know why they always have their phones pressed up to their ears when there is a perfectly serviceable group of people they could talk to standing right beside them. It’s not like they’re discussing anything earth-shattering; mostly who is newly pregnant, who is newly split-up, who is cheating on whom with whom. If they would all just share this news with the people standing at the bus stop every day, I’m sure they would all have much lower cellphone bills. Once or twice I’ve heard them complaining about how unfair it is that the superintendent is after them for not paying their rent on time, but since the superintendent is my brother, Simon, they’ve started looking over their shoulders a little more frequently to make sure I’m not standing there.

I’m picking up five kids today. Some days it’s seven or eight, and some days it’s just two or three. But today I have Carlie and Courtney, the twins from 304, who are seven; Henry from 521, who is five; Xavier from 107, who is ten and really too old to need a babysitter; and Wex, of course. Wex is my nephew—my sister Emily’s son— and he lives with us. So does Emily, allegedly, although I haven’t seen her in a couple of days.

On nicer days we go to the park for an hour, and the kids’ parents are usually home by the time we get back, but on miserable, cold days like this one, we just hang out in my apartment for the hour or so. It’s like Jenna’s After-School Fun Club, only it’s not really all that much fun. Mostly they spend the hour fighting over who gets to play with Wex’s PlayStation.

Still, there are worse things I could do to make a buck, and it’s the twentieth of the month so I know everyone’s Baby Bonus will be in the bank today. Odds are, I’ll at least have enough money to buy lunch tomorrow.

Outside, the air smells like a giant fart, from the sulfur and crud the side-by-side steel plants down the street are spewing into the air. Inside the apartment building, the hallway smells like fish and old socks. Henry holds my hand all the way down the hall to our apartment, which would be cuter if he hadn’t been wiping his runny nose on the back of his hand all afternoon. He always seems to have a cold, and his sleeve and hand are constantly covered in dried snot. Henry chatters away, telling me elaborate tales of his day, every couple of words followed by a question mark to make sure I’m still listening: “And then? We went? To the gym?”

The other kids chatter among themselves, except for Wex, whose hands are buried in the pockets of his scruffy gray coat; his chin is down against his chest. Poor kid: he’s a ridiculous-looking little guy, with one huge front tooth that sticks almost straight out of his mouth and stringy hair that looks greasy about five minutes after it’s washed. He’s weird, too; talks to himself, lisps, trips on his own feet. The kids in our building aren’t horrible to him. They just don’t have a lot to say to him. I’m pretty sure he gets his ass handed to him at school though. Nobody that odd has a great time in elementary school. I should know.

The door is locked when we get home, but Simon’s inside, stirring up some sort of pasta and canned soup in a casserole dish. I bang on the door till he lets us in, the dish still in his hands.

“Ooh, you’re so do-mes-tic,” I singsong. “What’s for supper, jerk?”

“Worms and slug slime, you turkey,” he singsongs back at me as the kids pour into the apartment. “Take your wet shoes off in the living room, you little punks.”

“What’d you lock the door for?” I ask him.

“I didn’t. Emily’s home. She must have locked it.”

Wex lights up, as much as he ever does. When he smiles, his lips peel back, showing off that massive snaggletooth of his. I think he’s actually trying to train himself to keep his mouth closed as much as possible. He wasn’t that cute a kid even before his adult teeth started coming in pointed every which way; now, he’s just crazy-looking.

“Mom’s here?” And he bolts off to the back bedroom that I sort of share with my big sister, his wonderful mother who hasn’t seen her son since Saturday morning. I follow him down the hall to throw my bag in the bedroom. Emily is sprawled out on the double mattress of the bottom bunk, snoring away. At least she’s on it alone, for a change—I’ve found a number of different short-term houseguests there over the past couple of years, guys she’s picked up at bars or parties and brought home for a “visit.”

“Hey.” I pick up a shoe from amid the clutter on the floor and toss it at her. “Rough night?”

Wex scowls. “Don’t throw stuff at my mom,” he says.

“Wex, Mommy’s sleepy,” she mumbles.

“That’s okay.” Wex slips into the bed with her and curls up beside her. “I’m pretty sleepy too.”

I head back out to the living room, where the usual afternoon chaos is going on. Xavier’s mother picks him up first, and gives me ten of the thirty dollars she owes me.

“My check was a little short,” she says, not quite looking me in the eye. There’s a brown paper bag tucked under one arm, so I’m sure the check wasn’t quite as short before she stopped at the liquor store on her way home, but ten bucks is better than nothing, I guess.

“That’s fine. You can get me the rest next week.”

The twins’ mother is next, and she gives me the full twenty she owes me. She’s not a bad sort, even if she does smoke like a chimney and dress her kids alike, which is totally lame. At least she pays me on time and always says thank you when she picks them up. People don’t say thank you nearly enough, if you ask me. Especially around here.

Henry’s mother, Yolanda, still hasn’t shown up by suppertime, so Simon sits him down at the kitchen table with a plate of the soupy casserole while I go call Wex for supper.

Henry is on his second plate of food by the time Wex starts picking at his first. I don’t think Henry gets a lot to eat at home. Henry’s mother is what Simon calls a “special case.” There are a lot of those living in this building.

Yolanda’s got about four teeth left in her head, and you can barely understand a word she says, but somehow she’s got a job at Nora’s, a cruddy little coffee shop crammed into the corner of a strip mall, between a used-computer store and a payday-loan center. I’ve never been inside Nora’s, so I have no idea how it stays in business. You can tell just by looking in the window that it’s disgusting. Besides, this is Hamilton. There’s a Tim Hortons on every corner. Why would anyone go to some roach-infested little hole-in-the-wall with crackheads behind the counter when they can go to good old reliable Timmy’s? It seems un-Canadian to even think of it. But somehow the place stays in business, and somehow Henry’s mom manages to show up to work there on what seems to be a fairly regular basis—or at least often enough not to get fired.

“So did your mom wake up and tell you where she’s been for four days?” I ask Wex. He hunches over his supper and shrugs.

“She didn’t wake up yet,” he mumbles.

Henry chatters away, more stories that go nowhere. Nobody’s listening, but he doesn’t care.

“And my teacher? Mrs. Biggs? She said we could play? Outside on the playground?”

There’s a knock on the door then, and Henry hops down off his chair and bolts to the door to see if it’s his mom. Funny how Wex and Henry both have such crappy moms but are always so excited to see them.

Yolanda is more lucid than usual and has a big smile for Simon.

“Hey, cutie,” she says. “Haven’t seen you in awhile.”

Simon smiles back, sort of. It’s more of a grimace, really.

“You saw me yesterday. Right here. Right about this time.”

“Was that just yesterday?”

“Yep. Sure was.”

She giggles weirdly. “Whoops. I must have forgot.”

“How about that.”

Henry steps into his enormous yellow rubber boots and tromps off down the hall toward the elevator. Yolanda lingers, trying to flirt with my brother, who either has no clue what she’s doing or is choosing to ignore it. Since Simon hasn’t been on a date in…well, as long as I can remember, anyway…I figure it could go either way.

“Hey, Yolanda.” I step out of the kitchen, where we’re eating. “You got money for me yet?”

“Oh, sure, honey. How much I owe you?”

“Fifty bucks,” I tell her, my voice flat.

“Okay.” She fumbles through her big black purse, dropping loose cigarettes and wadded-up Kleenex on the floor of our entryway. Coins and wrapped candies fly everywhere before she pulls out a rumpled red bill and hands it to me. “There ya go, hun. Am I all caught up now?”

“Yeah. We’re good.”

Fifty dollars. I tuck it in my pocket, trying to look nonchalant but secretly feeling this weird little rush of excitement, like I’m suddenly rich. Usually if Yolanda gives me five bucks I’m impressed. Fifty has got to be some kind of minor miracle. With the money the other kids’ moms gave me earlier, I’m feeling a little giddy with wealth. Now all I have to do is keep it away from my sister.


After supper Katie texts me: Want to come over? My mom’s going out. We can watch a DVD.

Every text I’ve ever gotten from Katie is perfectly spelled and punctuated. I don’t think she’s ever made a spelling error. She’s certainly never made a math error. She’s been on the honor roll every year since I’ve known her. In fact, if it weren’t for the size and shape of her, I’d say Katie Quinn was just about perfect. Fortunately, she doesn’t really rub it in. Much.

By the time I’ve changed my clothes—fresh jeans with holes worn in the knees and almost all the way through the butt, but still decent enough to cover everything, and a long-sleeved T-shirt with a faded peace sign on the front—Emily is up and shuffling around the room.

“So where have you been all week?” Emily seems to have a headache, so I talk as loud as I can without actually shouting.

“My boyfriend’s place.”

“Boyfriend, huh? Did you get his last name this time?”

“Screw you.”

“Screw you? That’s an unusual name. Is it Russian?”

I have to duck to avoid the shoe she hurls at me. I make a quick stop at the bathroom mirror to check my hair, make sure it’s still more or less restrained in the braid I forced it into this morning. My hair—crazy and orange and completely undisciplined—is as ridiculous as Wex’s front tooth. I try to force it into submission with braids and hair elastics and bandanas, but it still manages to escape and do whatever it wants.

Wex is playing hockey on the PlayStation when I get out to the living room. I step into my worn-out sneakers without untying them.

“Where are you going?” Simon calls from his bedroom.


“It’s a school night.”

“That’s fine. Maybe some of her smarts will rub off on me and I’ll do better in school tomorrow.”



“Turkey,” he yells through the closed door.


Katie and her mother live in a crooked little white house on Cannon Street, two doors down from a variety store with food on the shelves that looks like it all expired sometime last century and right next to a house with a sheriff’s notice taped to the door proclaiming that the property has been seized by the bank. Apparently, with all the partying and drug dealing going on among the previous inhabitants, nobody had bothered to pay the mortgage in awhile. The neighborhood has improved a little since then, but not by much.

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