Read an ExcerptINTIMATE BEINGS
By JESSICA INCLÁN ZEBRA BOOKS
Copyright © 2008 Jessica Inclán
All right reserved.
Chapter One Claire Edwards had just absolutely had it, again, for about the sixth time that day. She wanted to scream and shout and stomp her feet, but since that reaction was exactly what was bothering her in others, she could not do any of that. She didn't want to roll around on the floor in tempera paint like Annie or pee in her pants like Thomas. She didn't want to fall into instant and hysterical weeping and cling to a pillow in the corner like Sam. Maybe she wanted to stand shocked still in the corner with the rest of them, but theoretically, she was in charge.
She was-Claire finally realized as she picked up the thrown barrel of blocks in order to get to Sam-the adult. She was the one paid for keeping things flowing educationally and psychologically for Annie, Thomas, Sam, and the twelve other children in her charge, all of whom were staring at her right now with wide, frightened eyes. Claire was in charge of "environment" and "attitude." Claire was in charge of "educational outcomes."
"Sam," she said, her voice like the blanket Sam was missing, the one that his mother insisted he go without "cold turkey" this very morning, "I promise you that when you get home, your mommy will give you your blankie. It's just that it needs to stay at home for now. While you are at school."
"I want my blankie!" Sam wailed. "I want it now!"
Annierolled toward Claire, smearing primary colors everywhere. Thomas clutched his pants, whimpering.
The rest of them chimed in, crying in sympathy for this horrible scene; all of them suddenly wanted their blankies, their mommies, the toilet, an afternoon snack, their pets, anything but this classroom.
Claire knew that she shouldn't do it. Couldn't do it. Really, really, mustn't do it, but she wanted to close her eyes, think of a spot, any spot on the planet. She wanted to focus on the Kelani Resort in Maui or the Mendocino Hotel in Mendocino. She wanted to think about the Tuileries Gardens in Paris. Frankly, she would be happy at the Starbucks on the corner of Masonic and Fulton. Or the French Laundromat on Stanyan, the air thick with steam and soap. Anywhere but here.
The problem always was, of course, that she could go wherever she wanted to. Anywhere on the planet. Just like that. Just by thinking. By picturing a place, she could be there, and she had performed this trick for herself a hundred times or more since she discovered it when she was six. She could send herself anywhere, but coming back home wasn't easy. Claire wasn't sure why she just couldn't bounce herself back home, but there really wasn't a resident expert on this kind of thing. There was no Teleportation for Dummies at the local bookstore. There wasn't anyone she could call up and ask, "Hey, can you tell me why I can't get home the way I got here? You can't? Oh, well, could you just explain to me why I can't get even close?"
Sure, she could triangulate her way around, flinging herself from place to place until she ended up closer to home, but mostly she had to do it the old-fashioned way: bike, car, bus, cab, boat, train, plane. Of course, when she decided on a whim to disappear, she hadn't managed to pack a thing (not that she could take anything with her) and on one sad day when she failed a college exam in statistics, she'd ended up in Hawaii without a bikini or a credit card. She cringed when she thought of the phone call she'd had to make to her mother, though the two days' wait for her driver's license at the Oahu Holiday Inn had actually been fun.
But who cared about that now? In less than a second, she could be away from all of this and drinking a mai-tai on the veranda of Kelani Inn-assuming, of course, the staff took pity on her credit-cardless self. Annie, Thomas, and Sam would think they blinked too long and Claire had just stepped out of the classroom. The children would stop crying, surprised and then excited that they were left all alone, by themselves, no adult in sight. After a moment of exhilaration, they would start crying again, this time even harder. Chaos would ensue. All the children would throw paint, pee in their pants, and sob in the corners. They would be forever marked and ruined by this horrifying abandonment and become troubled, overpierced, drug-addicted teenagers who would look back on this class and all of their education as an abusive waste of time.
What was worse was that-if Claire wanted to-she could dive into their minds, see the patterns of shock and confusion and understanding. As quickly as she could travel to any place on the planet, she could get into the little stream of consciousness that flowed strong through Annie's mind. What would Claire find there? Images of school and home, friends and pets and siblings? Or something worse, something scary and horrible, images Claire would never recover from? After hearing things meant for no one but the thinker, after seeing grief and despair and sexual positions and partners no one should know about, Claire stopped. She didn't dip into anyone's mind but her own, clamping down tight and holding on to her thoughts and her thoughts only.
Childhood was too fraught a place, full of dark forests with evil stepparents, confusing events no one explained, and nightmares that made sleeping with the light on crucial. She didn't want to do that one last thing that would ruin everything for them. Claire knew how hard it was to overcome something from childhood. She had been trying to overcome her "gifts" since forever.
"Sam," Claire said, picking him up and cradling him in her arms, knowing that if she were a male kindergarten teacher, she could never do this. "It's okay. It will be all right."
Claire looked out at her class, all of them staring at her, even Annie, who glanced up at her with a blue smeared face; even Thomas, who stopped his incessant whimpering. "I promise you, it will all be okay."
They stared at her. The big white clock on the wall moved its long black hands in clicking seconds. Claire stayed in the classroom, held Sam who stopped crying, too.
"Really?" Annie asked, and Claire nodded, wishing she were agreeing to what was true.
"Yes," she said. "It will all be one hundred percent okay."
"Little demons," Yvonne said as they walked out to the parking lot. Yvonne Meyer taught the morning kindergarten class and was usually present in the afternoon class as Claire was during Yvonne's. There, but out of the way, prepping for the construction-paper projects that filled slow half hours of time or counting out beans or organizing colored paper or filling out the mountains of paperwork sent each day from the district. But just before the mini-explosion of emotion and incident, Yvonne had gone outside to call her son, who was at home ill.
"Thank God it's the weekend," Yvonne went on. "I can spend the next two days convincing myself to come back to work on Monday. Maybe I'll reward myself with chocolate or heroin."
"They aren't that bad," Claire said. "They're just-"
"Demons. They should be home-schooled or sent to baby boot camps. Rolling in paint! And then there are the parents. Why should we be the ones who have to potty train or wean their children off blankets? It's horrid."
Yvonne stopped at her car, putting her hands on her hips. She was forty-five, a little round, her wild red hair a puff around her face. She loved to wear outfits with bangles and beads, everything in either reds or oranges. When she walked, she emanated patchouli and spice.
"I'm sorry I left. I should have seen the Annie fit coming a mile away."
"Please don't worry about it," Claire said. "I should be able to control them by now. It's my second year here. I guess I just don't have it in me."
"Nonsense," Yvonne said. "You have it in spades. But teaching-well, it's not everyone's cup of tea, and I just feel that there's something else for you out there. Something bigger. Something-I'm not sure what it is. But I'll tell you this. Whatever it is, it's going to be just perfect for you."
"But the children-" Claire began.
"Listen, Claire, you are a gorgeous, smart, talented woman. You have beauty and brains," Yvonne said. "Not that teachers can't be all that. Not that I didn't have it all going on when I was your age, of course." Yvonne stopped to swivel her hips slightly. "But you are wasted here, love. You are fit for some other setting altogether. I'm not sure where it is, but it's certainly not here."
"Get out, darling," she said. "Get out while there's still time."
"That's what you say every afternoon," Claire said over her shoulder. "And I'm still here."
"I have no idea why," Yvonne called after her. "You could do whatever you wanted. You could be anywhere in the world."
Claire waved, knowing that Yvonne had no idea how right she was.
As she drove home in her used but functioning Toyota Matrix, heading down Fell Street and turning right on Cole, Claire wondered why she didn't just leave San Francisco and put herself in a place she would enjoy. After all, if she didn't like the new locale, she could change that one, too. She had a college degree, a teaching credential, the insurance money from her mother's death. She also had the house she'd grown up in, in West Portal, that she rented out because she couldn't bear to live there. She could sell the huge four-bedroom place, take the profit, and buy a house or condo anywhere she wanted to. No matter where she went, she'd be okay, whether it was Hawaii or Seattle or Boca Raton.
But every time she decided that she'd had it with teaching or the rent increases on her small, one-bedroom apartment or the parking derby with the law students across the street at the university and the tourists going to the Haight-Ashbury district on the other side of the Panhandle, she couldn't leave. Maybe it was because San Francisco was the only town she'd ever lived in, having gone to the University of San Francisco after completing high school.
For some reason, she was waiting for something, right here, where she'd always been.
Claire turned right on Cole Street, and in a small act of magic she didn't possess, there was a small but available parking space just across the street from her apartment building's door. Claire let out a relieved breath, pulled in, and pulled up on the parking brake. For a moment, she stared at the large cement wall of the law library, thinking. Yvonne was right. She wasn't cut out for teaching. But she didn't seem to be really cut out for anything. She'd majored in liberal studies, which was like a buffet of everything, perfect for a grammar school teacher and not much else. She couldn't use her one amazing skill for anything because no one would believe her if she tried to tell them. And she never had told a soul, not even her mother, not even in the last days when her mother was so sick she wouldn't have understood anything.
What would she have said? "Mom, I forgot to tell you that I can close my eyes and leave. Disappear. Really. Just like that. And I can go anywhere I want. It's a little odd when I arrive, but by the time people start to wonder, I can rush off. I've gone to Disneyland-that was when I was seventeen and you told me we couldn't afford a trip that summer because we were saving up for my college. And because of Dad. Leaving. You should have seen me trying to wangle thirty bucks for a bus ticket to get home before you got off your night shift. And I've gone to Yosemite, Round Table Pizza on Mission, and Alcatraz. I went to Stonestown Mall when you grounded me in ninth grade. Susie Thompson's house that night you told me I was forbidden to go there because Susie's mom smoked pot. Yes. All by myself. No, I can't take you with me. I can't take anything but my clothes. I tried taking a suitcase once, but it wouldn't go through. I even tried a teddy bear. Wouldn't fit through either. Fit through, you ask? I don't know. It's like there is a small space, space enough for me, and that's it. Just enough room for my skin and a millimeter. That means clothes usually make it. Not jackets or coats. But at least underwear."
No, her mother would never have understood. Nor would any teacher or friend or lover (not that there ever really had been a true lover), so this skill was hers and hers alone. Unused and unnecessary, even now, when she was all by herself-no family, no boyfriend-and could do whatever she wanted whenever she wanted.
Claire pulled the keys out of the ignition and put them in her bag, carefully opening the door and slipping out, trying not to ding the car next to her. She wished that others were as careful. Her Toyota looked as though it had been through a battle with rubber bullets.
The sky was a light shade of gray, warm, like a perfect wool sweater. Claire walked across the street and sighed. This life would have to do. She could work harder, join Date.com, try harder with the children. She could go to more foreign films, read more literature, go to a hair stylist more than once a year. She could take her bike out to the Marin Headlands and get some sun and air and exercise, not to mention a good look at men in spandex. Things could get better. After all, her life was a good life. Just about good enough.
That night after a dinner of leftover lemon pasta from Beppe's and a half glass of Sauvignon Blanc, Claire had the dream. She had thought she would never have the dream again, the images fading almost from her memory. How old had she been the last time she conjured forth the images? Thirteen or fourteen? And then, when was the last time she had thought about it? Actually, she had talked about it five, six years ago, back in college, that one drunken night she had told her roommate Marissa the story.
"You came to Earth on what?" Marissa had burped into Claire's ear, leaning against Claire's shoulder, her body heavy with Heineken. "You came here on a spaceship?"
"That's right," Claire had said. "A big dark one full of children."
"So, um, you were, like, one of them?"
"Yeah." Claire nodded.
"You can't remember a spaceship from when you were one," Marissa said. "No one remembers a spaceship from then."
"I do," Claire said, feeling the warm soft air of the ship, the breath of the children sitting next to her, feeling it the same way she felt Marissa's now. "I was in a spaceship."
"Ha. Spaceship," Marissa said, lying down on the floor and passing out, her hair a dark brown fan in front of her, her last words a slurry mumble. "I want to be in a spaceship. It will take me away from my statistics exam."
"A big dark spaceship full of children. Two of them-two of them I know," Claire said to no one, burping herself and leaning against the wall. She fell asleep, and in the morning, Marissa and she had headaches too intense to talk about anything, much less the spaceship saga. And that had been the last time she thought of it until she woke up tonight, sitting straight up in bed, the pasta a lump of anxiety in her stomach.
The dream unfolded as it always did: She sees her knees and shins and shoes out in front of her. She moves them back and forth, imagining that her feet can talk. Her feet are her parents-the left one her father, the right her mother. But she can't remember her parents. She can't see them or feel them or smell them. For a second, she imagines a shoulder, warmth, heat, tears, but then she is looking at her feet again.
"Sophie," someone says, and she knows that she is Sophie.
Claire-the Sophie in the dream-doesn't say anything but she turns to smile, looking at the girl next to her. The girl is older, her legs longer, her parent feet bigger.
"Home?" she says, and then leans against the girl. But the girl isn't paying attention to her. She's listening to a boy, who is much, much bigger, his legs truly long. He's enormous, powerful, and Sophie is almost scared of him.
There is rumbling under her. The space darkens. The children sitting all around them quiet down. Some cry out, but there is nothing but the movement of the ship, the girl's constant breathing, the whir whir of some giant engine under her.
Home, Sophie thinks. Home.
But before she can even imagine what or where home is, the dream begins to fade, turns into a smattering of color, bursts of fading dots, disappearing altogether.
Claire breathed in the night of her bedroom, looked out the window to the blinking red eyes of Sutro Tower. Off, on. Off, on, all of them winking at her. She shook her head and lay back down, staring at the ceiling. Why the dream now? When she was little, she used to make up stories about the children, imagining they were her long-lost siblings. They were all going on a trip together, going somewhere safe and warm. She even named the other children, murmuring their names under her breath. What did she call them? Something with an M. Something full of vowels. A or E or O. (Continues...)
Excerpted from INTIMATE BEINGS by JESSICA INCLÁN
Copyright © 2008 by Jessica Inclán. Excerpted by permission.
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