Charlotte Sanger sits on a tree stump in the middle of the forest, leans back, closes her eyes, and breathes in the cool air, listening to the sounds around her. The sun has been up for more than an hour, and Charlotte was here to witness it. She likes the woods, away from everyone and everything, and sometimes sits for hours, thinking, sometimes singing, writing, or interacting with whatever woodland creature happens to cross her path. She’s developed a talent for attracting animals, being very still and non-threatening, in essence, waiting for them to come to her. She’s not very imposing, just a shade under five and a half feet tall, thin but well-fed, with long, strawberry blonde hair that reaches down her back to below her waist and which she often braids to make it more manageable.
In school, Charlotte is known as Echo, because of her disorder which causes her to repeat back words and phrases said to her, accompanied by various facial ticks and contortions. Her brothers and sisters started out calling her that around the house when she was little, but now many of her classmates also derisively refer to her that way. Her friends still call her Charlotte, but they’re few and mostly kids she’s known since nursery school who’ve grown accustomed to her odd behavior.
Her teachers are often annoyed by her disorder at first, but come to realize she’s very intelligent and studious. Ms. Warner, a math teacher, on her first day dealing with Charlotte, quickly became frustrated with her constant repetition.
“Are you mocking me, Charlotte?”
“Mocking, mocking, mock—” Charlotte replied. “N-no ma’am, Ms. Warner.”
Some of the other kids told Ms. Warner, “She can’t help it. It’s what she does.”
“Perhaps you should come to the board and work out these equations.”
Charlotte complied and got them all right, which impressed Ms. Warner. By the following class, she’d read up on echolalia and afterward, gave Charlotte a wide berth in class.
While Charlotte has trouble speaking, she has no trouble singing and sings in the choir at church, where hers is considered one of the most beautiful voices among the members. Her older brother, Brian, who had been the choir director, realized that Charlotte could sing phrases she had trouble speaking and had been working with her to learn how to “sing” responses rather than say them. As a result, she often has a rhythmic cadence to her speech, similar to someone rapping and sometimes she slips into singing words or phrases. Even still, she finds it hard to communicate and often shies away from people. What she likes best about the woods is that she doesn’t have to talk to anyone, and the animals she encounters don’t judge how she communicates with them.
Brian had to leave town the previous year due to an incident most town folk refuse to discuss openly, though Charlotte still hears whispers around her church and school. It had something to do with Tad Williams, the pastor’s son, and while her mother never said what it was, Charlotte knows Brian well enough and pretty much guessed at what had happened. She heard Tad is taking special classes with Pastor Williams, to learn how to be a better husband and father, which pretty much confirms everything Charlotte suspects. Brian is her favorite brother, and has always been her protector, and Charlotte misses him terribly, but he told her before he left that if she wants, she can come live with him in Atlanta when she graduates. That’s now less than a year away.
She leans back on her hands and sings the lyrics to a new song she’s been writing to the tune of a song she learned from the radio. Brian was the one who added music to her lyrics, another reason she misses him. She clears her head of all concerns and allows her mind to wander, allowing thoughts to drift in and out without letting them occupy too much of her consciousness. Nearby, she has her notebook, where she can write down any poems, stories, or new lyrics that come to her. While she’s good at most subjects at school, her favorite is English, and her teacher, Mr. Maynard, encourages her creative abilities. She channels everything she wants to say into her writing, routinely filling notebooks and journals with her words.
Her thoughts are interrupted by the sound of pine straw and twigs crunching. Something big is coming toward her, and Charlotte opens her eyes, expecting to see a deer, or a large dog. Instead a young man trudges into the clearing, looking like he has no idea where he is or how he got there. He’s at least six feet tall and well-built, wearing gym shorts and a varsity T-shirt, and jogging shoes. His dark hair is curly, and he’s clean shaven. Charlotte recognizes him as Ned Branch, the captain of her high school football team, and the most popular guy in her school. He stands in the clearing a moment, as though trying to get his bearings, then turns toward Charlotte, and, seeing her, he smiles. She’s at a loss for words.
“Oh, hey,” he says. “I’m not lost anymore.” He considers this. “Unless you’re lost. Then I guess we both are.”
Charlotte still cannot find words, and struggles to contain the impulse to repeat what he says.
“Was that you singing?” Ned asks.
Charlotte nods with her lips pressed tightly together.
“You sound real good,” he says. Approaching her, he goes on, “Hi, I’m Ned.”
Charlotte opens her mouth to respond, but all that comes out is, “I’m Ned. N-Ned. Ned.” She grimaces. Half-singing, “I’m Charlotte. Pleased to meet you, Ned.”
“Hey, I know who you are. You’re that girl they call Echo, right?”
“Echo, echo —” Charlotte makes an effort to control herself. “S-some people call me that.”
“You don’t like it, do you?”
She shakes her head.
“Then I won’t call you that, okay? Why are you out here in the woods?”
Charlotte looks away from him. In a mixture of speech and song, she says, “I like it here. It’s quiet. No one’s around.”
“Nobody but me, right?”
“W-why are you here?”
Ned shrugs and leans against a tree. “Coach said it might be good to go running in the woods. Said it heightens our awareness or something like that. Of course, I forgot my phone with all my tunes on it.”
“It-it’s better to keep your ears open. Y-you can hear the forest sounds around you. The birds. The animals moving around.”
He nods. “Yeah, that’s a good idea. I wouldn’t want something sneaking upon me.” He strolls around the clearing. “What do you do out here all by yourself.”
“S-sing, write, think. S-sometimes I just listen.”
“Yeah, there is a lot of noise out here.”
“It’s the birds, mostly. S-sometimes squirrels. Sometimes other things. I thought you might be a deer at first.”
“That’d be something, wouldn’t it? What was the song you were singing?”
“J-just something I’m working on.”
“You wrote that?”
“The words. I d-don’t write music.”
“Can I hear it? I mean, I kind of already have, but can I hear more?”
Charlotte lowers her head. “If you want.”
“Sure.” Ned crouches down nearby.
Charlotte sings a few verses of her song, using the music from before. When she finishes, Ned claps. “You’re great. Have any others?”
Charlotte sings one she wrote with Brian. Ned seems to like it as well.
“You should get a recording contract. You’ve got a great voice.”
Ned rises and looks around. “You must know your way around out here.”
“Think you could show me?” he says. “I was running around for nearly an hour before I heard you.”
“S-sure. I can do that.” She gathers her things and puts them in her bag and rises. “W-want to see the lake?”
“There’s a lake? Sure.”
Charlotte takes the lead, guiding Ned along a trail. As they move along, she moves her head left and right slowly, as though she’s looking for something.
“What are you doing?” Ned asks.
A short way on, she stops and holds up her hand. She focuses on something to her right, then points. Ned looks, but doesn’t see anything at first. Suddenly, as if from out of nowhere, a deer appears, followed by two fawns. They wander around, nibbling on leaves and grass, before disappearing back into the woods.
“That was cool. I guess you do need to pay attention out here.”
They continue on until they arrive at the lake. Several ducks are on the shore, but as Charlotte and Ned approach, they start quacking and get into the water, swimming quickly toward the middle of the lake.
Charlotte and Ned sit on some rocks.
“This is nice,” he says. “I see why you like it out here.”
“Y-you’ve never been out here before?”
“No. I always played in the park downtown when I was a kid. Other than that, I’ve always been busy with practice and stuff. Plus I have to study a lot. I’m not doing all that great. Coach says if I can maintain my grades I could get a scholarship to UGA.”
“Y-you’re really good,” Charlotte says. “I thought we were going to lose that game last week but you threw that pass and brought us back.”
“Oh, I’m good. Coach says I’m the best QB he’s worked with but says football alone isn’t going to get me very far, not even in Georgia.”
“G-Georgia — Georgia,” Charlotte repeats.
“Why do you do that?” Ned asks. “I mean is there some medical explanation?”
“M-maybe. I’ve just always done it. Ever since I was little.”
“People at school tease you, right?”
“Tell you what. Next time kids at school start bothering you, let me know. I’ll stop ’em.”
Charlotte laughs. “Okay.”
They talk for more than an hour, then Charlotte leads Ned back to where he parked.
“Look me up on Monday,” he tells her. “Maybe you can help me with my homework.”
“Wh-what will your g-girlfriend say?”
“Cindy? She could use some help, too. Maybe you can teach us both something.”
A grey bird with a long tail lands on a bush nearby and begins singing.
“Mockingbird,” Ned says.
“A family of them lives in a bush in our back yard. They repeat sounds from all these other birds and create their own special songs out of them. Kind of like you.”
“Take care of yourself, Charlotte. See you Monday.”
He gets in his car and drives away.
Charlotte turns her attention to the mockingbird, listening as it sings its song.