FICTION: excerpt from WE ARE THE WEIRDOS, a novel by Maranda Elizabeth
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We Are the Weirdos is now available everywhere! You can purchase paperback copies at schoolformaps.etsy.com/WeAreTheWeirdos, and paperbacks and ebooks through CreateSpace, Amazon.com, and Amazon.ca. And I invite you to add it to your bookshelf on GoodReads!
The following text contains the first two chapters of my second novel, We Are the Weirdos. Please click here to see the successful crowdfunding campaign for our magical collaboration!
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CONTENT NOTES: We Are the Weirdos is a work of fiction. It contains trauma, abuse, school violence, police violence, incarceration, poverty, racism, ableist language, misgendering, queerphobia, transphobia and transmisogyny, self-injury, dysmorphia and dysphoria, rape threats, gynecology, and menstruation.
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DESCRIPTION: In this work of experimental fiction and magic realism, Maranda Elizabeth writes a vulnerable tale of perpetually misunderstood and powerless teenagers in a small town. We Are the Weirdos is an exploration of trauma, gender, poverty, invalidation, and memory, as well as themes of trust, abandonment, confinement, and revenge. The characters encounter one another, as well as authority figures and ghosts, at home and through institutions: school, court cells, a detention centre, and a group home, dreaming of magic and escape.
Indigo is a 13-year old goth and teenage criminal with a history of antisocial tendencies, shoplifting, destructive impulses, cutting, and dysmorphia/dysphoria. When they start bleeding petals and flames along with their blood, they make connections between alienation, magic, and survival.
Grey is Indigo’s best friend, a shy trans girl with stolen Sharpies and heavy sketchbooks whose illustrations come to life and make spells come true.
Both are the only children of poor, depressed, single moms in a small, mostly-white town in Southern Ontario. In 1999, their favourite movie is The Craft, their favourite band is Marilyn Manson, and their favourite activity is spell-casting. When they find a book about witchcraft hidden among a series of letters written to and from their mothers, who claim not to know each other and refuse to speak — one is mostly-absent, the other is obsessed with a talk show hosted by a psychic and Saturday night episodes of Cops — they choose to communicate with ghosts, and each other, instead.
As the two are separated, and Indigo is charged with crimes they barely remember committing, each of them continue casting spells — or trying to — in dangerous and painful attempts to stay alive. Shuffled through the juvenile injustice system, Indigo encounters Sea, a clumsy and curious social worker who hates her job and feels complicit in the pain of teenagers, and Mint, a 16-year old Black girl with a stick-and-poke tattoo of moon phases on her wrist, rage of her own about isolation and incarceration, and a longer sentence for a non-violent crime.
Each of them wants to be believed, to be real, and to create their own form of justice.
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If this were a movie, it would open with the view from my window, the way the leaves of the trees look pixelated like Tetris in each square of the screen. A screen that cannot be ripped apart with scissors or knives or razorblades, let alone pens and pencils and finger nails, the screen I cannot touch through the bulletproof glass. It’s not a spectacular view, it’s just trees. The greens and blues remind me of the video games I played on irregular alternating weekends at my dad’s house, if he remembered to pick me up, if he could afford to rent the game console overnight. In the movie, I would be played by some up-and-coming Canadian actress with a sad, pale face who I haven’t heard of yet. I could be an art film or a CBC miniseries. I could be a PBS documentary or a Hollywood horror story. I could be an after school special, a very special episode, an exposé, a talk show theme. I could be a comic strip, a letter to the editor, a headline, or a P.S. I could be a music video, a Concerned Children’s Advertisers warning, a fairy tale. It depends on who you listen to. It depends on who you believe.
On Saturdays, I clean this window with Windex and a roll of paper towels. Sometimes I just stare at the little squares of the screen and watch the maple leaves and oak leaves shift with the breeze until it’s too dark to see. It’s hard here, to feel the magic, to feel the ground and dirt and air and spirit I’m supposed to care so much about, supposed to feel deep down inside of me like we’re all one. I wish I could feel the flames in my blood, dirt on my feet. It’s hard here, to know who I am, to know where I’m going, to hold on. But every now and then, I have these moments where I feel like somebody somewhere might listen, somebody somewhere might try to help me.
If this were a movie, there’d be a quick montage: scenes of me with blood, knives, crystals, fire, glitter, all spliced together, a scary and magical mess. Scenes in concrete cells, waiting rooms, windowless vans, places I’m supposed to call home but can’t. Scenes in the places I miss the most. My bedroom, which was supposed to be safe but never was. Grey’s bedroom, where the illusion of safety was enough. Our magic circle under the willow tree, paved over to build new homes for families with more money than ours. If this were an art film, I could show you the ways Grey’s comics and illustrations come to life and free us. In a fairy tale, I could show you my wings, show you the way pills become crystals and blood becomes glitter and ink becomes freedom.
Sometimes I hear the sound of tires on the gravel parking lot beyond my window, the way the little pebbles get caught in the rubber and sputter out in the dust. The parking lot is invisible to me, hidden around the corner of the walls that lock me up, the path leading away from here. Invisible like the way my hair hid my eyes from the cop who found me down at the river, wishing I could swim. Invisible like the visions of blood and fire from the ghosts, the messages the Ouija spells out for Grey and I, the messages only we can see.
I don’t know if the forest by my window is big or small. It’s big enough, I guess. That’s what they told one of the boys when he dared to ask. They marked it in his file. Nobody would ask unless they were planning to escape, right? But if you had an escape plan, why would you be so stupid as to ask the warden how to get out? Why would you still be here at all? We’re not allowed to wander through there, to go on hikes. Otherwise, we’d know where we were. And then we’d run away.
The same reason there aren’t windows in the vans the cops drive us in, back and forth between the courthouse and here, one cell to another. They don’t want us to know where we are. That’s too risky. I’ve been called high-risk, at-risk, antagonistic. Don’t ask me what that means. Maybe they’re scared of me, maybe they’re expecting me to do bad things, worse things than I’ve already done. They don’t want to give me a chance to map out my escape. I get nauseous each time I’m in one of those vans. I’m afraid of puking on my feet. I only have one pair of shoes, and the toes are wearing out. They handcuff me before each ride. I sit on the black metal bench with no seatbelts, facing sideways, staring at the steel wall, no windows. To my left is the metal grate, like a traveling cage in a morbid circus, keeping me separated from the cop behind the wheel; to my right is the door I would jump out of if this were a movie.
I used to watch Cops with my mom on Saturday nights. She’d make fun of the drug addicts and hookers for being stupid, for getting caught, but I would silently cheer them on, will them to get away, run away in their handcuffs if they have to, get a friend to saw them off when they find a safe place. I hated listening to the cops banter at the camera while they waited for a call to come in. I hated watching them plant a bike around the corner of a convenience store, wait for the unsuspecting target to pedal away, then chase him down to the ground, nudge their knees against the small of his back, face against the pavement until he couldn’t breathe. I hated watching white men trap Black men and beat them up. They reminded me of the skinheads downtown, they just wore a different uniform, carried different weapons. Everybody on the show looked so beat up, beat down. When my mom went to bed, I’d stay up and watched Beavis and Butthead, the volume low so she wouldn’t know.
Now I live at Birchwood Centre for Youth, also known as Bitchface. Who knows who named it. Or when. It’s a detention centre for criminal youth, so-called troubled teens, juvenile delinquents in the old days. A grey brick building hidden from the roads, the kind of place people trade rumours about when they drive by the sign at the end of the driveway. I guess birch trees grow in the secret forest, the bark peeling into paper for fairies and elves to write their spells on. This is where they lock us up when we are too young to go to jail, when they don’t know what else to do with us, when everyone else has given up. I still watch Cops on Saturday nights, still feel sick on behalf of each of the accused. It’s everybody’s favourite show. The boys yell pig at the screen, oinking and snorting, and I remain silent.
They call me defiant, they talk about my outbursts and temper tantrums. They call me destructive and dangerous. They say they’re afraid of what I’m going to do next. But I don’t know what I’m going to do next. I don’t plan these things. They are just suddenly happening. Fire burns my blood and my limbs act without asking my brain for permission. Stubborn girl, my mom says, grow the fuck up, and I cringe. I’d grow up if she let me. I’d leave.
But it’s not a movie, and no plain-faced, snarky Canadian actress is auditioning for the role of [XXXXXX] Carson, aka Icky Indigo, Indigo Away, whatever they’re calling me these days, whoever I am. Teenage criminal, a witch with weapons.
At breakfast, us inmates gathered at the long dining room table. There were usually twelve, thirteen, fourteen of us, the numbers shifting depending on who was in court that day, who came back, who was newly arrested and making their Bitchface debut, or triumphant return. Ring the bell for another round.
There were trays of toast, room temperature white Wonderbread. Nearly empty plastic jars of peanut butter and jam with sticky fingerprints and gooey, crusty rims were passed around. There were crumbs in the family-size tub of margarine. I thought about absurdity of FAMILY-SIZE glaring at me in tall, bold red and yellow letters. Those jagged corners and smiling mascots, birds and bees, should have said JAIL-SIZE. Dented boxes of Cheerios and Froot Loops. I wasn’t hungry. The others talked like they were friends, stuck out their tongues with chewed up breakfast, tried to gross each other out with dumb jokes and icky gestures. I refused to meet their eyes.
What did you do? they were always asking.
A new inmate, always a boy, would arrive on Tuesday afternoons, and somebody else would disappear. The conversations carried on as if they all knew one another, been in school together for years. They didn’t shove the food away from them like I did, stare at their empty bowl waiting for time to pass, starving themselves so they could avoid the bathroom. They ate as much as they could, and for everything that confused me and grossed me out about them, I understood their fear that this might be their last meal, that they’d better eat as much as possible just in case. Maybe they had moms like mine, broke moms who couldn’t feed them, depressed moms who couldn’t drag themselves to the grocery store on payday anyway.
“I stole booze from my mom and trashed her house with an epic party,” one of them bragged.
“I beat up my sister,” said another.
“I lit my ex-girlfriend’s house on fire.”
“I punched this fag in the face and sent him to the hospital. I broke his cock-sucking teeth.”
As if I could keep my breakfast down if I were able to eat in the first place.
After breakfast, one boy walked around the table, collecting dishes, another gathered the sticky jars and damaged boxes. One walked clockwise, the other counter-clockwise, until they met up on each side of me. As one boy reached for my empty bowl, he elbowed me, trying either to grab my barely-there breasts, or bruise them. I wasn’t sure which. The other boy squeezed my shoulder and pulled my hair.
The first time it happened, I shoved them away, and everybody laughed. Neither Rusty, who was sitting at the head of the table, distracted as he talked to a new kid, nor Sea, in the kitchen making sure nobody stole any knives or forks, witnessed the altercation. My whispered wincing, shrinking away, were invisible. No one was punished.
The next morning, I tried to leave the table as the dishes were being collected, before anybody came near me. I shoved my chair back, metal legs scraping the carpet, shoulders hunched to hide my chest. I was wearing my favourite t-shirt, Marilyn Manson’s body painted against mine, a talisman to protect me. My fingertips, shortened and dry from nervous picking, hugged my elbows.
“Where you going?” Rusty asked. “Who gave you permission?”
“Nowhere,” I said. “Nobody.”
I knocked over a glass as I skirted my chair back to the table. The spilled milk ran red. Nobody saw it but me.
Sea knocked on my door and strode in. I never understood why staff bothered knocking, they just walked right in without waiting for a response. What if I said no? Was I allowed to say no?
There were locks on the exits, warnings of alarm systems and severe punishments, but no locks on our own doors, no way to keep either staff or inmates out. I was sitting cross-legged on my bed, staring at the wall. A blank, white wall. The day I got here, the staff washed blood off the walls while I refused to be strip-searched. I don’t know whose blood it was or where they ended up. There was a rumour that a boy my age smashed his own head against the wall, over and over, but I didn’t know what to believe.
“You have a doctor’s appointment,” she told me.
We left before noon, as lunch was being prepared. A giant pot of macaroni and cheese. I’d helped cook lunch the day before. Twelve boxes of no-name macaroni and cheese, slightly tangier than the Kraft I ate at home, a whole bag of milk, massive spoonfuls of margarine, and salt and pepper shaken from industrial-size canisters. The pasta stuck to the bottom of the pot, the way bad memories stuck to the edges of your skull, locked inside forever, nothing strong enough to scrape them away.
Sticky, gooey bottles of ketchup and barbecue sauce were shaken and passed around. There was a platter of cold cuts in the centre of the dining room table. We passed it around with greasy fingers. The uneaten bologna darkened and curled at the edges. The staff fried it up for supper instead. I never tried it.
It was Sea who strip-searched me, eventually. She was the first person to ever see me naked, despite my mom’s accusations.
“[XXXXXX], it’s time to go. Indigo. Indigo, sorry.”
I knew she’d been shuffling through paperwork when she forgot my name, my chosen name, my real name.
Since it was just me and her, I got to sit in the front seat of the big white van with tinted windows. No black metal grate obscuring my view of the road ahead. I hate doctors, but at least it was a brief escape.
I followed her through one hallway, a doorway, another hall, and downstairs, where everyone’s coats, boots, and other belongings were hidden. I found my shoes, and she found the Ziploc bag my shoelaces were sealed away in. She passed them to me, and I sat on the floor while I laced up. I felt childish in this pose, childish in having harmless items confiscated from me. Like I could do any damage with my shoelaces. But I guess somebody had.
We walked back upstairs together, and she pressed buttons with the secret code to escape the building. I’d forgotten what fresh air smelled like, felt like. We followed a narrow path of concrete squares to the parking lot, and approached the van. We were surrounded by trees. It felt like a crime to be forbidden from entering the forest, to have such a terrible place located within the forest.
Sea flipped on the radio. Shitty radio rock ’n’ roll songs with static and an obnoxious announcer trying to convince us to get excited about classic rock, a contest to win a signed guitar, the deals in the next commercial break. I wondered what that irritating man dreamed of doing with his life before he got stuck on small town rock radio.
“I used to have crooked teeth like yours,” Sea told me, eyes on the road, glancing back and forth between me and the pavement. “Fangs, but more mangled,” she said.
“Then braces. My parents had the money for it.”
I nodded. I didn’t want to talk about money.
“How come you never smile?” she asked.
I pressed my tongue against the back of my teeth, the edges, tightened my lips.
“I don’t feel like it,” I said.
I was starting to think she was as dumb as the cop who took my mug shot. Why would I smile here?
“So you’re never happy?”
I remembered old pictures hidden away in shoeboxes, pictures of myself when I was a kid, not smiling, squiggles and clouds around my body that I hadn’t seen when the camera flashed. As my teeth fell out, they grew in crooked. I thought I’d grow a third set to make up for it, like it was a mistake, but that wasn’t happening.
“I’m not never happy.”
I wasn’t really unhappy all the time, and even when I was, hadn’t I earned it? So what was everybody complaining about? But I hated my teeth and couldn’t let anybody else see them. I stared at them in bathroom mirrors. I had little fangs and my bottom teeth were everywhere. In my school pictures, I frowned. The photographer would say, “Gimme a smile, little girl, aren’t you glad to be back at school?” and I’d roll my eyes and tighten my jaw. The photographers gave me the creeps. Glamour spells never fixed my teeth. And my mom never bought any copies of those awkward pictures, never framed them and hung them up on the wall, never mailed them to friends and family, whoever was left. She said she couldn’t afford them.
The doctor’s office was half an hour away. We entered the cool, damp darkness of a parking garage. Sea steered carefully but jagged, self-conscious, found a spot near the exit, and parked as crooked as my teeth.
“I’m not used to driving this thing,” she admitted.
We slammed the heavy doors shut behind us, and I followed her through the lot, through another door, and up the concrete staircase. She read out loud the signs on the walls, directing us to the waiting room.
Sea dug through her purse, brown leather with tassels and buckles, worn out edges, and pulled out some papers and cards. She held onto my birth certificate and health card, which were kept hidden in a beige envelope with my name written in Sharpie. Beside my name was a number I didn’t understand and couldn’t memorize. If I were an adult, I think that’s the number that’d be printed on my prison uniform. I sat down in an ugly chair as Sea handed my health card to the receptionist, checked me in. I stared at the floor, finding faces and animals in the swirls and dots of the patterned carpets, like clouds in the sky when I was a kid.
“You can leave your shirt on,” the doctor said. “And cover yourself up with this.” She passed me a towel and left the room.
In the past, the metal stirrups had been shockingly cold on my ankles, like you’re-skating-on-thin-ice-little-lady, so I knew to keep my socks on this time. My jeans and underwear were folded on the chair beside me. The scratchy paper on what I imagined as an operating table for freaks like me — young criminals with forced lobotomies, abortions, and sterilizations, whatever they do to us weirdos — crinkled under my back and my bum.
I almost wished I weren’t prescribed birth control, otherwise they wouldn’t do this to me. They’d just put a popsicle stick in my mouth, a stethoscope on my chest, whatever that other thing was in my ear. But I insisted on getting my shot, needed it, fought hard for it, endured their questions and their warnings and their touching. I tried so hard to stop bleeding, to fix my body, to have control.
The towel rested on my lap and over my knees, hiding my crotch from view, as if my body were a secret even to me. Okay, sometimes it was, I guess. I closed my eyes. The gloves, the speculum, the elongated cotton swab.
“I’ll be back in a moment. You can get dressed, hon.” The doctor peeled off her latex gloves, tossed them into a white plastic wastebasket by the door, smiled gently, and disappeared.
My underwear had old period stains. The elastic waistband was turning dishwater grey. I sighed as I slipped them back on.
“Next up, you’ll be seeing a psychiatrist,” Sea announced, back in the van.
“Why? What does a psychiatrist do?” I asked.
“Mine gives me pills,” she laughed, and I wondered if she was being sarcastic. “I don’t know what yours will do. Ask you a lot of annoying questions, probably. It’s court-ordered. Part of your sentence, or treatment.”
“I don’t like drugs.”
“Neither do I.”
When I was a kid, I refused to take pills. I crunched down on a Tylenol once, convinced I would choke if I tried to swallow it whole, and gagged on the bitter white chalk dust. My mom yelled at me for wasting it, and gave me another one.
“Just put it on your tongue,” she advised. “Swallow it with water. It’s not difficult. People do this everyday.”
When we went out of town, she gave me pills for motion sickness. She’d stop at the drugstore downtown and come back to the car with a little pink box and two bottles of pop. Ginger ale for me and Coke for her. I waited for her in the backseat, watched her disappear behind the swinging door, and return with a white plastic bag.
She opened the box, popped out a pill from the silver blister pack, and passed it back to me from the driver’s seat. As she started up the car, I brought the coral pill to my lips, sipped my pop, but kept the pill between my fingers. When she wasn’t looking, I dropped it on the floor and flicked it under her seat.
I got sick, as I knew I would, and leaned over and held my head between my knees like my mom told me, stared at my ankles and my scuffed up shoes, the fast food wrappers crumpled on the floor. I closed my eyes and pretended I was somewhere else, anywhere else. I pretended I was behind the trees along the highway, hopping over the barbed wire fence like a bunny. I shivered and sweat simultaneously, imagined jumping out of the car and into a ditch, soft and safe.
That was the day, for the first time in forever, she cleaned out the car. She pulled over to the side of the road. She said the garbage, the smells, the clutter were disgusting and she had to do something about it before she could drive one more kilometre. Maybe she’d seen me press the pill to my lips and knew I didn’t swallow it. Maybe she was just in a bad mood. Maybe she was sick like I was.
As she quickly pulled mud-stained magazines and greasy paper bags from McDonald’s and Wendy’s out from the floor beneath my feet, the salt smell making me crave another cheeseburger with a little pickle in the middle, the little pills flew up and out the door, all over the side of the road, out into the next lane.
It was strange what happened then. As each pill hit the ground, bounced along the concrete, some toward the yellow line and others toward the ditch, they began to glow, change shape, bloom. The bitter pills became tiny clear quartzes glittering in the sun, pale pink rose petals unfurling against the concrete.
My mom bent down and picked up a few pills between her thumb and forefinger, examining them. They were a little mottled, like when sugar rises to the top of an expired chocolate bar. As she rolled the pills around in her palm, one of them began to morph as well, becoming clear quartz. Her face remained expressionless. I couldn’t read her.
I was still sitting in the backseat, seatbelt on, feet up on the seat to keep out of her way. The door was ajar. I held my body as still as possible. It hadn’t occurred to me that once I threw the pills away, they’d remain in the car. I thought they’d disappear into another universe and I’d never have to think about them again. My mom stared me down for a moment, then threw the tiny pink pill at me. It bounced off my shoulder and back out onto the road.
I knew without her saying that she wanted me to unbuckle my seatbelt. She grabbed my scrawny arm and pulled me out of the car. Cars flashed by, red and black and silver and loud, close, as she screamed, screamed at me that I was a liar, she couldn’t afford to take care of me, I was wasteful and ungrateful. She yelled that I didn’t understand how hard her life was or how much money wasted trying to keep me alive when I didn’t act like I wanted to be alive anymore.
“You’re wrong, I do want to live,” I shouted back. “Just not like this.”
She squeezed my left arm, hard, leaving a thumbprint bruise that turned purple the next day, green by the end of the week. Nobody ever asked me what happened. She dragged me around in the gravel as the colourful cars continued speeding by, unaware, passive witnesses, split seconds. The crystals and roses were invisible to them. I thought they’d swerve around, take pictures, crash their cars. But it was only mom and I who could see what was happening.
She dragged me by my left hand and made me collect the scattered pills with the other. I knew the sharp crystals and soft petals were trying to communicate with me, but I couldn’t hear them. Like her face, they were unreadable, their efforts futile. I know you might think they’re just objects, no mind or energy of their own, but I felt like I’d let them down.
I wondered how my mom would feel if I broke free from her grip and dove into traffic, splattered my guts all over the hood of a stranger’s car, forcing them to acknowledge the scene they ignored. But I knew I didn’t want to hurt myself that day.
“You’re lucky I don’t make you swallow them all,” she muttered as we got back into the car. I shoved the pills into my pockets, like I should’ve been doing all along.
“Buckle up,” she said, suddenly concerned for my safety.
Sea drove on, trying to tell me what a psychiatrist’s job is, but I was barely listening. I couldn’t figure out the difference between psychiatrist, psychologist, psychotherapist, counselor, teacher, mom, judge, warden, no matter how many times it was explained to me. They could all poison me. They could all lock me up.
“What else did the court order?” I asked.
“I’m not sure. I’ll have to look it up in your file.”
I was already taking antidepressants. I couldn’t tell if they were doing anything.
If this were a movie, maybe the scene would end here, me and Sea on the road, talking about pills and doctors. Maybe she’d miss the exit that takes us back to Bitchface. We’d just drive off together, and you’d never know where we ended up.
But Sea never missed the exit. The right turn signal beep beep beeped at us, the radio announcer droned on, and we took the curve that brought us back to that mysterious forest we weren’t allowed to explore. Birchwood Centre for Youth, read the holiday green sign, with a white arrow pointing into the trees.
Sea brought me back inside. She punched a code into the keypad at the door, a secret handshake to be welcomed to the club, and I followed her in. She scribbled her name in forest green ink on the staff marker board, signed me in with black ink on the inmate marker board, and I went back to my room and waited for dinner.
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