Excerpt from All the Breaking Waves
Growing up in Pacific Grove, a coastal town on the Monterey Peninsula in California, I had spent many Sunday mornings combing beaches, hunting for sea glass. I once believed the surf-tumbled glass had come from mermaids when the mythical creatures wept for sailors lost at sea, their tears hardened and washed ashore by the latest storm front.
Mermaid tears were treasure, meant to be guarded close to one’s heart. They brought wishes of true love and kept you safe from those who meant harm.
But time taught me two valuable lessons: fairy tales and fables paled in comparison with real nightmares, and psychic abilities were a power the human body should not possess.
Monday, before dawn
Burrowed under a down comforter and a silver blanket of light, I stared at the crescent moon outside my window and waited. The moon, looking like a tear in black silk, journeyed across the sky. The night grew older and the air colder. Still, I waited.
I inhaled deeply and scrunched my nose against the odor that was part of the house. Musty wood, damp towels, and molding leaves. We lived in San Luis Obispo in a small bungalow built before World War II, where over time the windows had been painted shut inside their frames. Brittle air stole through warped doors, and thin cracks webbed plaster walls. Black mildew spotted the baseboards where water had leaked into walls the landlord had shown no interest in repairing.
A dank, musty odor stung my nostrils with each breath. Pressure built in my sinus cavities as though I had an infection. Cassie had been sick, too, several times this past winter, but there were other reasons aside from our unhealthy environment that contributed to our colds. Lack of sleep, for one.
We needed to find a new place to live. Hopefully somewhere in the neighborhood so Cassie wouldn’t have to relocate to another school.
I rolled to my side, pulling my knees to my stomach, and squinted at the clock’s glowing digital numbers: 2:58 a.m.
The lease is up in June.
It’s only April. I’ll start looking for a rental next month.
I held my breath, listening, and counted. Five seconds. Ten.
Pressure built in my chest. Twelve. Thirteen. Fourteen.
Cassie’s sob whispered through the house. My ears pricked up. It drifted into my room, seventeen seconds after the hour. Like clockwork, I thought, exhaling in a whoosh. Rolling to my back, I coaxed my weary limbs to move, dreading what I knew would come next.
The scream pierced the air, a blade of noise that sliced down my spine. It tore through my chest. Cassie screamed again, the sound rattling my bones, jolting my legs into action. I leaped from the bed and stumbled to the floor, my foot caught in the sheet. I landed hard on my knee. Pain shot down my shin and up my thigh like a starburst.
I pushed to my feet, then limped-ran across the hall and into her room. In the dim glow of her night-light, she lay curled on her side under a pile of blankets, both hands clutching her head.
Cassie screamed, eyes squeezed shut. Her knees pushed farther into her chest, and she rocked onto her elbows, face pushed into her pillow, then flopped back to her side. She whimpered.
I rushed to the bed and shook her shoulder. “Cassie, wake up.”
She rocked back and forth, fingers gripped like turkey prongs around her head. Tears leaked from the corners of her closed eyes. She groaned.
I gave her shoulder another shake. Tried prying her hands from her head. Her elbows were locked. “Cassie,” I demanded. “Wake up.”
Her eyelids fluttered open, and her hands eased away. She straightened her legs and rolled to her back, gazing at the ceiling with a blank expression.
“Jesus, honey. Wake up.” I snapped my fingers several times, by her ear and in front of her eyes.
She blinked rapidly, drawing me into focus. “Mommy?” Tears sprang like water from a well and leaked across her temples into her matted blonde curls. She clutched her stuffed rabbit to her chest.
The alarm in her gaze reflected my own. “Same dream, Mermaid?” I crawled into bed with her. Her reaction to the night terrors scared me as much as they did her.
Cassie sniffled and nodded, bumping my chin. My heart still thumped wildly in my chest. We were on day four of the same dream, and it was the worst night by far. Tonight should be the last night for this particular nightmare. Thank God. Those screams of hers left an imprint. I’d be hearing them for months.
I inhaled deeply, coming down from my adrenalin rush. “Did you learn anything more about Grace?”
She nodded and rubbed the side of her head. Her dreams left behind echoes of pain in the exact spot where Grace would fracture her skull.
I smoothed Cassie’s hair from her damp forehead and hummed, waiting for her sobs to subside. More than anything I wished to tell Cassie she’d be all right, that she’d grow out of her condition.
But she wouldn’t. Her abilities were as much a part of her as the freckles on the bridge of her nose.
Cassie murmured a few words. I bent closer to her face. “What did you say?”
“I saw her skull. Her hair and skin were gone in one spot. And”— her breath hitched—“and there was blood on the ground.”
I squeezed my eyes shut against the disturbing image Cassie’s words put in my head. A broken young girl with the contorted metal of her bike in the street nearby. My stomach twisted like a knotty vine.
“The dreams are getting worse, Mommy.”
“I know.” I kissed Cassie’s head, sniffed the innocence of her kiwi shampoo. God, she was too young to be having dreams like this. She was too young to see injuries of this kind. Like an untreated ailment, her premonitions were getting worse, more gruesome. The accidents she foresaw were followed by nightmares that recurred until the premonition came to pass.
I had no idea why, nor how to stop them. Since her toddler years, Cassie had had a heightened awareness when someone she cared about was injured, almost as though she hurt right along with them. Like a nurse, she’d flutter about them, trying to soothe their pain. Somehow, with the onset of her abilities, her visions tapped into her nurturing side. She only foresaw accidents, and always about someone she knew. And as soon as one premonition resolved, the next one followed not long after. A cycle that tormented us both, and I had to find a way to stop it.
“I told Grace a car will hit her,” Cassie confessed in a whisper. “She doesn’t listen to me and she doesn’t believe me.”
People never did.
“Do you remember what we’ve discussed?” I spoke the measured words against Cassie’s head, ruffling her hair, and felt her hesitant nod under my chin. “Don’t talk about your visions or your nightmares. Not with anyone. Your friends don’t understand.” No one understood.
Even I barely understood.
Cassie looked up at me with sad eyes. “But if I tell her, Grace will stay off her bike. I don’t want her to ride her bike to school. She might die.” Cassie rubbed her face against her stuffed rabbit. “I only want to help.”
And I only wanted the visions to go away.
I rubbed Cassie’s back as we stared wide-eyed at the ceiling. When it looked as though neither of us would fall back to sleep, I asked, “Do you want a glass of milk?”
“Yes, please.” Cassie kicked off her blanket and I stood, holding out my hand. She clasped my fingers, and we padded down the hallway and into the kitchen. Her bare feet whispered across the cold floor. My heavier step found every squeaky board. She sat in her chair by the window, propping Bunny in her lap. The stuffed animal’s plastic eye—the other eye had been lost in the sand at Avila Beach last summer—peered over the table. I poured two glasses and set one before Cassie.
The fridge hummed, and the house creaked as though shivering in the early-spring air. I watched Cassie offer Bunny a sip from her glass, tipping the rim until the liquid reached the worn fur, leaving behind a milk mustache. She used her nightgown sleeve to wipe Bunny clean.
I drank from my glass, allowing the milk to skim my upper lip. Cassie giggled when I showed off my milk mustache, and warmth radiated through me. I loved that sound. She hadn’t laughed enough lately.
Cassie moved to the couch when she finished. I rinsed the glasses and turned on the TV, muting the sound. Then I sat down and snuggled with her.
The remainder of the night wasn’t different from any other night since Thursday, and many other nights these last three months. Nestled against my side within the enclosure of my arm, Cassie watched the images play on the screen until she drifted to sleep. I remained awake and thought about the girl in Cassie’s vision, her best friend. Poor thing. I did hope Grace survived the accident without brain damage. But I still prayed for the car to hit her.
The sooner her pain started, the sooner Cassie’s would end, even if only for a short time.
I stopped at the curb in the school drop-off loop. As the Jeep Cherokee idled, Cassie watched a small group of girls huddled together like a soccer team before a game starts. There were five of them clustered by the open gate into the schoolyard, backpacks slung over shoulders and binders clutched against still-flat chests. They chatted among themselves until a lanky brunette pointed at my car with her chin. Four heads turned in unison toward us and ogled my daughter.
Vicious little monsters. Echoes of my own grammar school experiences vibrated through me. The taunting and jeers, then the cautious glances that eventually relegated me to the corner of the schoolyard. It was easier to play the role of social outcast than to explain the odd things I saw or seemed to make other people do.
I twisted around in my seat to look at Cassie.
She turned to me, bags heavy and dark under her blue eyes. “I don’t want to go to school today.”
The corners of my mouth turned downward in understanding. But I had an art history class to teach at the community college, and no
one was available to stay home with her. “I have to work this morning, Cassie. And I have a meeting with a client this afternoon.” A beachwear boutique downtown wanted to see selections from my summer line of wire-wrapped sea glass jewelry. Otherwise, we’d have both remained home and taken a long morning nap.
She massaged Bunny’s ear and turned back to the window. “Grace’s accident is supposed to be today. I hope she didn’t ride her bike this morning.”
“If she didn’t and she’s here, don’t say anything. Promise me you won’t talk about your vision.” I reached behind the seat and gently squeezed her knee.
“I promise.” She popped open the door. Leaving Bunny behind, sprawled on the backseat, she slid outside.
“I’ll be here when the bell rings,” I said before she slammed the door.
Cassie made her way toward the schoolyard, chin tucked as she cut a wide berth around the girls. Their gazes followed, and after she walked through the gate, they tucked their heads together. I was sure they gossiped about Cassie.
Warmth danced along my spine, and electricity tingled my mouth. Power simmered below my surface of control.
I tightened my grip on the steering wheel. “Think happy thoughts, Molly,” I mumbled to myself. Happy thoughts.
Flexing my fingers, I sighed. It turned into a yawn. Coffee. I needed some desperately. Shifting into gear, I left the parking lot and headed to the café up the street, my thoughts drifting back to Cassie.
Her abilities had only recently manifested, and I worried she was already a social outcast. If only she’d learn not to talk about them at school. Then again, I hadn’t listened to my father, I acknowledged with a heavy weight of guilt and a pang of unease. Why should I expect Cassie to listen to me?
A short time later, coffee in hand, I was returning to my car when a call came in. Juggling keys and coffee, I dug out my phone from the bottom of my purse.
“Ms. Brennan? This is Bev Marsh from the school office. Cassie is okay, but Principal Harrison has requested to meet with you. Are you available this morning?”
My heart clenched. Thoughts about any number of scenarios barreled through my mind. The girls I saw earlier pushing Cassie on the ground, tugging her hair, or mocking her with their words.
I glanced at my watch. One hour before my class started. “I can come right now if that’s all right with you.”
“Thank you, Ms. Brennan. I’ll let Principal Harrison know.”
The school’s office smelled of instant coffee and printer ink. Along the rear wall, a copier thumped. Papers steadily piled on the output tray. Late arrivals lined up to collect tardy slips, their disgruntled, sleepy faces a telltale sign they’d overslept.
I rested my damp palms on the high countertop. “I’m here to see Principal Harrison,” I told the woman sitting behind the counter.
“One moment. I’ll let Principal Harrison know you’re here.” She picked up the phone. “Why don’t you have a seat while you wait?”
I turned toward the waiting area. Cassie sat alone, swinging her legs, face downturned as she fiddled with a bracelet on her wrist. Her backpack took up the space by her feet. I went over and knelt in front of her.
“Cassie, darling, what are you doing here?” I felt her legs, her arms, and cupped her face, making sure she was all right, that all her bones were intact. I held her hands.11
She lifted her face and shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know. Right after the bell rang, Mrs. Pierce told me to get my backpack and go to the office.”
That didn’t sound good. I sat in the chair beside her and smoothed her hair, wondering what had happened to have the principal calling us both in. “Principal Harrison wants to meet with me. Anything you think I should know, or that you want to tell me?”
Cassie shook her head and dropped her chin again. She clasped her hands in her lap, and the bracelet slipped from her sleeve, drawing my gaze. Embedded in a thin weave of frayed twine was a triangular piece of pale-blue sea glass. A memory surfaced, like the rising tide. It sparkled with a distinct clarity and took my breath away. I saw myself as a young girl several years older than Cassie, holding out my hand to receive the pitted glass, found in the sand by a boy I once knew. Owen. I wanted to linger on the memory, get lost in the rush of sensations it brought forth like water surging toward shore. A mix of longing and regret. Heartache.
I took a deep breath, realizing I’d been holding the pendant I wore around my neck. Another long-ago gift from Owen. It’d been a long time since I’d thought of him so clearly, and a long time since I’d left him.
Adjusting the bracelet on Cassie’s wrist, I asked, “Where did you get this?”
“Found it.” Cassie tugged her sleeve, hiding the glass.
“Cassie,” I prodded. “Were you digging through my jewelry box again?”
She popped a shoulder. “I liked the color.”
Aside from a collection of expensive necklaces and earrings I had designed, there were a few delicate pieces that had belonged to my mother. And a few special trinkets from Owen, like the bracelet Cassie wore.
I was about to remind her not to play with my jewelry when Bev called my name.
“Ms. Harrison will see you now.”
I stood quickly, and my shoulder bag dropped to the floor. The thud echoed through the office. I picked up the bag and coaxed Cassie to her feet with a word of encouragement.
Bev’s gaze jumped from Cassie back to me. “I’m sorry, just you, Ms. Brennan. Cassie, you can wait here until your mom’s done.”
Cassie flopped back into her chair.
I bent until my eyes were level with hers. “I won’t be long.” I angled my head toward the bookcase under the bulletin board. “Go find a book to read.”
Cassie moistened her lips and walked over to the bookcase. She flipped through the books, selecting one with a kitten on the cover, and returned to her chair. Cassie loved cats, had even asked for a kitten from a litter up for adoption outside the corner grocery mart. One day, I had told her. Caring for an animal was too much when it seemed lately I could barely care for my own daughter.
I straightened and followed Bev down a hallway. Jane’s door was open. Bev rapped her knuckles on the doorframe. “Principal Harrison, Ms. Brennan is here.” She pointed at the two chairs in front of the desk. “Have a seat.”
I murmured my thanks and took the seat closest to the door. Bev left us alone.
“Give me one sec to finish this e-mail.” Jane typed on the keyboard, her back to me. Sunlight poked through the blinds, spilling across the soft-blue walls in diagonal lines. A calming color. Voices filtered from the hallway.
Jane punched a key, turned off the monitor, and swiveled in the chair. She gave me a considering look through magenta-framed glasses, her eyes tired, like she hadn’t slept much last night.
Join the club.
A smile, appearing more forced than genuine, stretched Jane’s tinted lips. She clasped her hands and dropped them on the desktop.
Bracelet beads rattled and clicked on the wood. “Thanks for coming in on such short notice.”
I had known Jane Harrison since she’d taught Cassie in first grade. Last year she had been promoted to vice principal and had assumed the role of principal this year after Deidre Whitmore retired. Jane was a fair principal and interacted well with students. I guessed we were about the same age, but Jane was married with no children. She had once confided that she and her husband, Quinn, were planning a family. That had been almost three years ago.
Jane straightened pencils already neatly aligned on the desk and frowned. A shadow fell across her face, and I sensed her mind drifting. I gripped the armrests, irritated and impatient. From deep within me I felt a rush of electricity. The desire to redirect her thoughts back inside the room rippled up my spine. To coax her to spit out whatever it was that had Cassie sitting in the waiting area and me across from Jane. I turned my gaze inward and let my eyelids fall closed for a moment. I took one deep inhale and felt my body relax, my mind ease, as I regained control.
Better, I thought, with another rise and fall of my chest. My eyes snapped open, and I plastered on a pleasant smile.
Jane’s fingers twitched, causing a pencil to roll out of formation. She pushed it back and clasped her hands again.
“I would have contacted you on Friday, but an emergency came up and I had to leave early.”
“The emergency doesn’t have to do with Cassie, does it?”
She shook her head. An onyx curl bounced over her glasses frame. “Cassie is a different matter. An incident between Cassie and her friend Grace that occurred Thursday afternoon was brought to my attention. Grace’s mother, Alice Kaling, called me Friday morning. I’ve spoken with the girls and their stories match, as do other witnesses.”
“What exactly happened?”
“Cassie was berating Grace about her bike helmet. She insisted Grace get a new helmet or not ride her bike to school.”
“And what’s wrong with that? Cassie only wants her friend to be safe.”
“Cassie told Grace she was going to get hit by a car and that her blood would be all over the street and her head cracked open. That she’d be asleep in the hospital for a long time. Cassie said she had a vision about this.” Jane leaned forward. “She screamed this during lunch period, and it was witnessed by a lot of kids. Cassie really spooked them, especially when she chased Grace into the bathroom and cornered her in a stall. Grace stood on the toilet bowl calling for help. She slipped and fell.”
I pressed my back into the chair. My eyes burned as my heart went out to my daughter. I needed to get help, and not the kind found under a doctor’s care.
“I’m afraid, effective immediately, Cassie is on suspension.”
I straightened. “Suspension?”
Jane regarded me for a moment. “We have a zero-tolerance policy for bullying, you know that. And this wasn’t Cassie’s first infraction.”
“She was only trying to help Ethan,” I defended in reference to Cassie’s other offense.
“If you say so.” Jane picked up a pencil, rolled it between her fingers. She frowned. “Odd how he broke his leg exactly how Cassie said he would.”
Something shifted inside my stomach. “What are you implying?”
“Nothing. But I do wonder if Ethan saw her harassment as a challenge. He might not have swung so high and jumped from the swing, otherwise.”
“Interesting theory.” I shouldered my bag, itchy to leave. “But it’s my understanding from Cassie that Ethan runs around with a group of boys who push one another to do daring stunts in the play yard. Perhaps you need better recess monitors.”
Jane pursed her lips and set down the pencil. “The suspension is only a week. But if there is one more incident—”
“I know, I know,” I interrupted with a loose nod. Cassie would be expelled.
Jane’s face softened. “Cassie’s a wonderful girl, and a gifted student. She used to be well behaved inside the classroom and out in the school yard. Now, though”—Jane turned her palms upward—“she seems more withdrawn, unless the other students don’t listen to her, which makes her extremely upset. Her stories are quite colorful and disturbing. They scare the other kids. Is everything all right at home?”
“She hasn’t been sleeping well,” I said, leaving it at that.
Jane scribbled on a notepad. “There’s a child psychologist I recommend here in town.” She ripped off the paper and handed it to me. “Give her a call. She might be able to help.”
If only. But I doubted a local child psychologist had expertise dealing with Cassie’s abnormalities. I slid the note into the front pocket of my purse without looking at it.
“How’s Grace?” I asked.
“Aside from a bruised elbow, she was fine when I saw her last Friday. I’m sure Cassie will be fine, too,” she added hastily. “The suspension is only a week. Maybe the time away will be good. She can catch up on her sleep. But do get some help for her. I’d hate for us to reach the next step. We’d miss her.”
“Yes, that would be unfortunate,” I agreed, resigned to what I had to do next. There was only one person I knew who could possibly help Cassie.
Jane glanced at the wall clock. “Unless you have any more questions, I have another appointment.” Without waiting for my answer, Jane pushed away from her desk and stood.
I did the same, straightening my skirt with damp palms. I would miss my class today, and then I would have to convince Admin I’d need the rest of the week off, even though I was already maxed on sick time.
It’d been a rough few months with Cassie, and I’d put off the inevitable long enough.
Jane directed me into the hallway as she thanked me for my time. Her gaze then shifted, caught by something happening behind me.
I turned around. Bev was rushing down the hallway toward us.
“Principal Harrison? Mrs. Kaling phoned.”
“Put it through to my office. Ms. Brennan and I just finished.”
“She left a message with me.” Bev shifted her feet, her eyes avoiding mine.
“What is it?” Jane asked.
Bev leaned in and whispered in her ear. Jane’s gaze swung in my direction. Bev gave me a fleeting glance, then hastily walked away.
A chill rippled over my skin. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s Grace,” Jane replied in a strained voice. “There’s been an accident. She’s in the hospital.”
My stomach lurched.
“It happened exactly like Cassie said it would,” Jane whispered.
She looked behind me and turned two shades paler than fair. “Oh my.” She backed into her office and closed the door.
“She’s afraid of me.”
I turned around and looked down at Cassie. A lone tear dripped over her cheek, and my heart dropped with it to the floor.
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