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A Nightjar's Whisper

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Chapter 1

Echo Birch sat on a chair. Not a particularly special chair, to be honest. It looked like every other chair in the hall, except instead of rude comments, it simply had the words “the end is nigh” scribbled onto the back of it. Her legs were uncomfortably cramped, pressed up against the seat in front of her. Clearly, Echo thought, the chairs were spaced to seat much smaller people than she. She shrunk down so that she wouldn’t tower above all the other matriculates surrounding her. Echo Birch was a noticeable person, with her long, unruly black hair which never seemed to stay where she put it and her bright, light green eyes that always seemed to be looking at a different world than the people around her could see. Her fine features reminded one of either a porcelain doll or a sharply drawn anime character, and she was tall enough to reach the school bathroom’s roof without jumping and flat enough to win many a limbo competition. Even so, Echo didn’t like attention, and rarely rose to the occasion to be seen by anyone. She looked up from her cramped position for a moment, to stretch her neck. On the school’s overcrowded stage stood Principal Brower, whose immense size made the podium look even smaller. He was lamenting about the water polo team’s latest loss. Somewhere to her left, a girl was carving a new message into a chair. Someone else was whispering urgent gossip into their friend’s ear. Several thumbs could be heard tapping at phone keys, and boys scuffed their shoes on the floor in an attempt to leave their own twisted mark on the school. Echo didn’t pay attention to any of it. She was now lost in the world of the little specks of dust, floating slowly downwards in a ray of sunlight. She wondered what it was like to be a speck of dust, flying gracefully and yet always flailing, falling towards impending doom. A smile flitted across her face. It felt weird to be so mesmerized by the tiny golden flecks, but at the same time, she could not stop staring at them.

“Echo, you’re drooling.” Drienne whispered from beside her, and Echo slowly turned her head to look at her best friend. Drienne was far shorter than Echo was, and had none of the problems that Echo had with the cramped seating arrangements. She wasn’t quite as flat or distinctly different as Echo was, either. She was rather well endowed; a fact much discussed by the male population of the school, but with her auburn hair tied up in a loose bun, her average height, friendly features, hazel eyes, and caramel skin, Drienne fit in far more comfortably. Drienne tapped Echo’s shoulder roughly when she didn’t react, and Echo gradually became aware of her surroundings again, sounds filtering through her brain like an annoying fly, and she grimaced.

“I was watching the dust.” Echo said softly. Drienne raised an eyebrow.

“You were watching the dust.”

“Yes. The dust.” Echo lifted her head above the chair in order to end the conversation, and she eyed Principal Brower, who’d ended his dramatic monologue on the water polo team’s valiant battle, and had started reading the daily announcements amidst a torrent of heavy breaths, as he tried to regain the use of his lungs after such a tremendous speech.

“Your birthday is in a week.” Drienne spoke painfully close to her ear, and Echo tried not to flinch.

“I know that. It’s been on the same date for years.” She answered, keeping her eyes locked on Brower, who was trying to make the announcements exciting and failing miserably. Drienne pulled a face.

“You know what I meant.”

“Do I?”

“You should.” Drienne pulled her phone from her pocket to check the time. “Seven fifty-two. Eight more minutes of hell.”

“Do you want to talk about hell, or about my birthday?” Echo looked at her shoes, and wiped off the dust that had settled there, wondering where it would travel to next. “Or both?” Drienne didn’t answer at first, since a teacher glanced their way with an irritated look on her face. Echo kept her head down. Drienne held her eyes high, staring straight at the teacher in defiance. Seven fifty-three ticked by, and the teacher finally looked away. Drienne smirked, before turning back to Echo, who was, once again, contemplating dust.

“Your birthday.” Drienne snapped her out of it.

“What about my birthday again?” Echo didn’t look up. She started toying with a frayed piece of string on the edge of her dress.

“That’s what I want to talk about. Pay attention for once.” Drienne said, and Echo noticed that the girl to their left had stopped carving the chair. One boy stopped scuffing his foot. “You want me to have a party.” It was a statement, not a question. They’d spoken about it several times, and Echo didn’t see the point of talking about it again. Drienne, however, wouldn’t stop speaking about something until it had been approached from every possible angle.

“Because you’re turning eighteen and that’s what people do when they turn eighteen.”

“People do meth, too. Would you tell me to do that, Drienne?” Echo stuck her fingers into the ray of sunlight, and grinned while she watched it dance around them.

“I would, but you seem like you’re already on it.” Drienne sighed, pulling her phone from her pocket once again. Seven fifty-four. She looked up at the principal, who wiped his hands on his pants nervously before continuing with the morning announcements.

“You can throw me a party.” Echo decided. Drienne’s face lit up, and Echo knew she did the right thing. “It better be a good one.”

The bell rang once Principal Brower finished his final sentence, huffing and wiping his glistening forehead with a red handkerchief, making him look like some sort of overweight matador. Children fled from the hall, filling the school’s corridors with excited chatter. Echo and Drienne headed outside without hurrying. They waited at an intersection for Sam Fletcher to join them, and when he did, in all of his bespectacled, dark-haired glory, they immediately headed down the least populated of the school’s corridors. Halfway down it stood Nathan Warren, the school’s most beautiful student and captain of the chess club. Eyes the colour of summer caught Echo’s gaze, and she bit her lip in order to avoid sticking her tongue out at him.

“You’re Echo Birch, aren’t you?” a voice of velvet accompanied those gorgeous eyes and his luscious blonde locks, but it only served to annoy her further.

“You’ve known me for five years.” she said snidely, spotting her own bag amongst the cluster of similar ones leaning against the outside of the classroom. Drienne and Sam left her there so they could go and sit in the sun.

“And yet I don’t. Not really.” Nathan walked forward, until he was standing so close to her she could smell his sweet cologne. She wished she could have said that it sickened her, but it had a lovely, inviting aroma, and that was irritating. “You don’t want me to know you, do you? What a waste.” He didn’t touch her, didn’t continue talking. He just left. Echo thought that was a bit of an anti-climax, but she didn’t go after him. She walked over to where Drienne and Sam sat.

“You left me alone with him.” Her voice was more apathetic than angry.

“We thought it would be funny.” Sam shrugged.

“It wasn’t though. What a let-down.” Drienne put one leg over the other. “Try to be more entertaining next time, would you?”

“I’ll try my best.” Echo’s eyes trailed over to where the rest of their class had begun to arrive. “You were lying, Drienne.”


“When you said that we only had eight more minutes of hell left.”

Echo sat in class, staring at a pair of pigeons outside the window. They seemed to be arguing about something monumental. She wondered if one of them had perhaps put a twig in their nest the wrong way, or maybe forgot their egg at pigeon day care. Maybe they were just mad because pigeons didn’t have much to do in their free time, and enjoyed spending it arguing.

“Echo?” someone was trying to get her attention, but she was lost in the pigeons’ world. She watched them dance around a tree, still screeching angrily at one another. One was a little chubby and seemed to be having trouble keeping up with the other. Maybe she was pregnant with another pigeon’s eggs.

“Echo Birch.” She finally relented to the voice that had grown ever louder to gain her attention and turned her eyes toward the teacher. He reminded her of the chubby pigeon, although he probably wasn’t pregnant with anyone’s eggs. He was a puffy sort of man with a round, red face and a balding head, whose eyebrows sat at such a strange angle that they made him look permanently startled. His shirt was struggling to stay tucked in his pants, which were having an equally hard time containing his legs. He was Principal Brower’s cousin, and Echo could definitely see the resemblance. She let her eyes travel past his face, and fixed her gaze on the blackboard behind him.

“Yes?” she said sweetly, as if she didn’t understand why he was in such a hurry to get her attention.

“Are you listening?” she wanted to tell him the truth – that she’d never listened to him a day in her life – but she kept quiet and nodded slowly instead. “Then what was I saying?” A quick scan of the blackboard gave her the answer.

“You were talking about the structure of an eye, Sir... retinas and stuff.” A chuckle wafted through the class, and the teacher breathed his first breath in probably two minutes, grumbling under his breath.

“Just, just pay attention, Birch.” He said grumpily, before returning to his incredibly boring lecture.

Something odd outside the window caught Echo’s eye. It wasn’t the pigeons – they’d made peace and returned to their nest. There was a big barn owl sitting on a thick branch near the trunk of the pigeons’ tree. It was a ghostly pale colour, as if it was a three-dimensional pencil drawing. Normally, Echo wouldn’t even notice the bird, except she’d never seen a barn owl during the day, and its black eyes stood out like a shadow on snow. She wriggled in her chair, discomfort sweeping through her like fire. She wasn’t a paranoid person, but it was definitely staring at her like it was going to peck her ears off. Somehow, however, Echo wanted to reach out and touch it. It had a magnetic energy that was hard to resist, and she raised her left hand to the window. The owl tilted its head to one side, seemingly surprised at Echo’s reaction – but could an owl really be surprised? It tilted its head the other way, and purred softly. Echo jumped to her feet without thinking, and turned to see the entire class raising their eyebrows at her in shock.

“Bathroom.” she stated simply, and stormed out of the classroom, careful to choose her path so that the teacher wouldn’t see her. She sneaked along the side of the building, feeling quite silly that she was out of class to go see an owl that made her feel a little weird.

Echo turned a corner which would lead her down the garden where the owl had been. She crouched down and hugged the wall so she wouldn’t be seen through a window, and crept forward as silently as the dry twigs under her feet allowed her to. The owl still sat where it was, and it swivelled its head to look at her. Those midnight eyes locked onto her face as it hissed blusteringly. A piercing sound that sent her paranoia into overdrive. She kept low, expecting someone to come around the corner and bust her for lying and sneaking, or something, but luckily, no one did. She was now locked in a staring competition with the unrelenting owl. She moved her head slightly to the right, and watched as the owl’s eyes followed her movement.

“What do you want?” she whispered, feeling instantly stupid. The owl gave another piercing scream, clearly not interested in giving her an answer. She was in the process of stealthily readjusting her leg, when the toll of the school bell jolted her head first into the ledge of the window overhead.As she fell into an embarrassing, unconscious heap in the school garden, the owl purred mockingly and opened its wings. It was gone by the time her head hit the ground.

“Uhm... Echo?” the voice hovered somewhere above her, tickling the inside of her skull like a million annoying ants. “Are you okay?” A groan escaped her, abating the ants for just a second. She felt someone’s hand on her arm. For a second, she was surprised – she’d forgotten she had an arm. Echo’s eyes fluttered open to see Sam and Drienne standing over her.

“Oh you’re awake. Good. What the hell were you doing in the garden?” Sam helped her to her feet, and Echo felt a pounding headache rushing in from all sides.

“I hit my head.” She said, wondering for a few seconds why she had wandered out into the garden. Suddenly, she remembered the owl’s burning eyes, and she involuntarily gasped, whirling to stare at the tree again. The bird was gone, and there was no trace of it left.

“You came to the garden to hit your head?” Sam was clearly unimpressed, but Drienne snorted at the idea.

“But... it was right there.” Echo ignored Sam’s question, and instead, pointed at the tree, holding her head up with one hand.

“What was?” Drienne inspected the tree, as if she expected to find an alien baby hidden in one of the branches. Echo found the spot she hit her head on – and a big bump was forming under her hair. It felt tender to the touch, and she was still dizzy.

“Guess I imagined it.” Echo answered, taking her bag from Sam, who was still looking at her with a puzzled expression on his face.

“We’re late for the next class.” He walked off, grumpy as always, and Drienne and Echo followed at a far slower pace.

“Who stepped in his corn flakes this morning?” Drienne whispered, watching as Sam angrily stormed ahead through the corridors.

“I really don’t know.” Echo was already thinking about something else. Her mind wandered to the owl again, and she tried to remember why she didn’t want to tell her friends about it. She couldn’t think of a reason, but she knew instinctively that she needed to keep it to herself.

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