I didn’t think much of it when I showed up to the Lorries’ and found seven year old Rona June cuddling a stuffed unicorn. It seemed like she had a new toy for every day of the week; her parents’ answer to any complaint the kid might have. Loneliness, boredom, sadness, it all could be cured by a plush friend. Easier than actual parenting, I supposed. Not that it was my place to judge; they were paying me to tutor her twice a week in reading and writing, not play family shrink.
Still, it was hard not to notice the overflowing toy boxes lined up against one wall of her study room.
“Who’s this?” I asked cheerfully while I cleared off the small table we used for our lessons.
“Rudy,” she said, stroking the unicorn along its back.
Unlike most of her things, Rudy the unicorn seemed a bit on the bedraggled side. His mane was short and frizzy, his white coat noticeably stained in some spots, and his horn leaned noticeably to one side. He was so round and fat that Rona could barely wrap her arms all the way around him. Despite his somewhat questionable appearance, Rona seemed completely enamored with Rudy.
I figured that such ardent kid love explained his condition. He’d probably been dragged every which way since he’d become Rona’s flavor of the week.
“He’s very cute. Did Mom and Dad let you pick him out?” I asked.
Rona giggled. “No, Miss Eliza, I found him out on the porch! He said he came from the woods out in the backyard to be my friend.”
“The porch, huh?”
“Yeah! He said he’d wanted to be my friend for a long time and that he wanted to stay with me!”
At least her parents were getting creative with how they gave her things. I didn’t think they were capable of putting that kind of thought into their childcare. After all, they were barely around enough to talk to her, much less come up with cute schemes.
“Yup. Rudy’s the best, he knows lots of stuff and he talks to me all the time and we have lots of fun!”
“Well I’m glad! He sounds like a good pal,” I said, and Rona nodded enthusiastically. “For now, though, let’s put him aside so we can get some studying done.”
“Can he sit at the table?”
“I don’t think so, kiddo. We don’t want to get distracted.”
“But Rudy hates being left alone,” Rona pleaded. “He gets grumpy.”
“Do you promise you’ll focus on your work if I let him sit with us?”
I relented and she put Rudy in the little plastic chair next to her before we flipped open her word book and started to run down the vocabulary list. She kept her word and didn’t let the unicorn distract her.
The following week when I returned for our next lesson, I was surprised to see Rudy still holding the coveted place of honor on Rona’s lap. Usually toys didn’t last quite so long.
“You ready to start?” I asked as soon as I was settled.
Rona nodded and brought Rudy over to the table. I noticed almost right away that she seemed a little less chipper than usual and that she kept yawning and rubbing her eyes. While she was trying very hard to pay attention, little of what I was saying seemed to be getting through to her.
“You feeling ok?” I finally asked after I had had to repeat myself yet again.
“Yeah,” Rona said.
“You seem tired.”
“How come? Couldn’t sleep?’
“Rudy was talking a lot. He kept me up.”
I leaned forward slightly and wagged a finger at the unicorn, who continued to smile vacantly. “That’s very naughty, Rudy.”
Rona shrugged and gave his nose a pat. “He just likes talking at night is all.”
“Well he needs to stop that. Little girls need their sleep.”
Rona shrugged again and I let the matter drop. We plowed ahead with our session and practiced handwriting until time was up.
On my way out, I paused in the doorway and half turned to Rona. “Maybe leave Rudy in here tonight when you go to bed. He can chat with your other stuffies instead.”
She hesitated, uncertain, but then agreed.
The next time I saw her two days later, Rona was very upset.
“You made Rudy mad at me!” She said as soon as I walked into the study room.
“What?” I said, a bit taken aback by my usually even tempered student’s tone.
“You told me to leave him in here and he got mad! He wanted to be with me!”
“I’m sorry, Rona, but you needed your sleep.”
“He said you’re stupid!”
“Rona, that’s not nice.”
“I don’t care, he’s right!”
I wasn’t the kind of tutor to put up with such behavior and I quickly put my foot down. “He’s a stuffed animal; you’re the one saying unkind things.”
“Nu uh! He said it!”
She continued to get more red faced and frustrated over the fact that I wouldn’t let her shift the blame over to the unicorn until she burst into tears. I let her cry it out for a moment before excusing myself to get her tissues and a glass of water.
She’s still overtired, I thought with a shake of my head as I closed the door, leaving her to sniffle in peace. She’s allowed to stay up however late she wants and, as long as she doesn’t bother her parents, they don’t care. It really was a shame.
Once I’d grabbed a box of tissues and filled a small cup with water, I headed back to the study to help Rona calm down. I was standing just outside the door, shifting the tissues under my arm to free up one of my hands, when a sound from within made me pause.
A voice that didn’t belong to Rona was speaking.
It was muffled and so quiet that I couldn’t make out what it was saying, but deep, recognizably male. For a moment I thought that Rona’s father had made one of his rare visits to the study room, but an unsettled flutter in my stomach made me dismiss the idea just as quickly and I shoved open the door.
Rona, her cheeks still splotchy and tear stained, jumped at my sudden entrance. In front of her, Rudy was on the table facing her.
“Were you just talking to someone?” I asked, slowly looking over the room.
“Yeah,” Rona said huffily, “to Rudy.”
Rona remained cranky for the remainder of the lesson, especially after I’d had her take Rudy off the table. He sat in a chair opposite me, smiling his vacant smile all the while.
I told myself later that I must have heard Rona speaking in a funny voice meant to be Rudy’s.
Her behavior continued to deteriorate over the next week, and not just during our tutoring sessions. Her other tutors also noticed a marked change in the girl, as did the house staff members.
“She gets furious when I tell her to put that unicorn of hers away,” her math tutor complained to me when we crossed paths at the study center where we both worked. “So unlike herself.”
One of the housekeepers pulled me aside during a lesson break one afternoon and asked me if I thought I could get Rudy away from Rona long enough to wash him.
“She screams whenever anyone else tries to touch it, but it’s getting pretty gross,” she explained apologetically. “She’s always liked you, though; maybe she’d give him to you?”
But when I tried, I was met with the same resistance.
“Don’t touch him! He doesn’t like it when anybody but me does! I know you’re just trying to take him away; he said you would! Go away! Go away!”
She hefted the fat unicorn up and ran from the room. No amount of asking or cajoling would get her to come out of her locked bedroom afterwards and I left early, our lesson unfinished.
A few of us tried to get in touch with her parents, but it was just so many unanswered emails and voicemails. We had expected that that would be the case; they had a habit of only responding when they wanted something. Some considered just taking Rudy away and hiding him, but a fear of unemployment kept them from actually going through with it. The Lorries didn’t like for the staff to meddle, especially if it meant that they might have to deal with an upset daughter.
It turned out not to matter, however; people started to lose their jobs anyway.
I walked into the house one afternoon to find one of the younger housekeepers sitting at the kitchen table in tears while a few others comforted her.
“I swear I didn’t take it,” she said through sobs. “I never even opened her jewelry box!”
“We know, we know,” the others said soothingly.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Mrs. Lorrie’s on the warpath,” I was told. “One of her rings is missing and she thinks Becky took it. She fired her.”
“But I didn’t!” Becky cried.
I stayed a moment longer to offer what little comfort I could before I had to go upstairs to tutor a surly Rona. As always, Rudy was there, too.
A necklace went missing next, then a pair of earrings, a watch, and a money clip with a large amount of cash, all in the span of a few days. Mrs. Lorrie dismissed half the staff and put the rest on warning: they’d be next if they didn’t tell her who the thief was. The house became even more tense than it had already been and the housekeepers begged the Lorries to put up security cameras in the hallways to catch the real thief, but they refused. They didn’t want to feel watched in their own home.
The commotion was also having an effect on Rona. She was restless and easily distracted and didn’t want to do her lessons. She just wanted to be left alone with Rudy.
“I don’t care about this stuff,” she said after a few minutes of practicing cursive. It was only our second attempt at it and she was finding it frustrating and difficult. “Rudy says nobody even writes like this!”
“What have I told you about saying things like that?” I said calmly.
At only seven, she sure had perfected the put-upon eye roll.
“Come on, with a little practice, you’ll be great at this.”
She grabbed up her pencil again and hunched over her paper. “I hope Mommy fires you next,” she grumbled. “So does Rudy.”
It stung a little to hear her say that, but I just kept encouraging her to keep practicing her script.
As I packed my things once our time was up, Rona gathered up her fat unicorn and held him tight against her chest.
“Don’t come back Thursday,” Rona said from over his head.
“Why not?” I asked.
“Sorry Rona, even if you’re not happy with me, we’ll still have our lesson.”
She and Rudy just stared at me until I left.
The calls started to come in Wednesday afternoon when I was with another student at the study center. By the time I checked my phone, I had a dozen missed calls from the Lorries and other tutors and employees. I ducked into an empty office and called the house directly. Mrs. Lorrie answered.
“Have you heard from Rona?” She asked as soon as she picked up.
“No, ma’am, sorry. Is everything ok?”
“That girl,” Mrs. Lorrie grumbled. “She’s being a brat. She left a note saying she was the one who took my jewelry and she and Rudy are going to his home with it. Who even is Rudy?”
“Her unicorn,” I said automatically. My stomach was churning with icy waves. “The one you got her a couple weeks ago.”
“Oh, that dirty thing she was hauling around? I didn’t get that for her; I thought one if you people did.”
“Do you have any idea where she could be?” I tried to keep my voice steady, but the fear I felt got Rona and the fury I felt at her dismissive mother made it hard.
“No,” she admitted after a moment, “but she’s probably around here somewhere.”
“The note said she was going to Rudy’s home,” I said, more to myself than Mrs. Lorrie.
I thought long and hard for a moment, revisiting every memory that I had of Rona and that fat unicorn until I found myself back at the beginning. She had told me that she’d found him on the back porch, I recalled. He’d come out of the woods to be her friend.
“Mrs. Lorrie, I think we’re going to need a search party.”
The Lorrie property was large and covered many acres, a lot of which was untouched woodlands. By the time I arrived an hour later, Mrs. Lorrie had reluctantly called the police, who arrived with dogs, lights, and megaphones to seek out Rona. While Mrs. Lorrie worried about what her neighbors might think, I told the commanding officer why I believed Rona might have gone into the woods.
“She hasn’t been seen since this morning,” he shouted to the assembled searchers made up of his cops and household staff. “She could be lost or hurt. We’re going to fan out slowly across the property; if you see any sign of her, blow the whistle you’ve been given.”
We entered the woods in a long line with the sun setting at our back.
I called Rona’s name until my throat felt raw. All around me, my cries were echoed by the others. As darkness seeped into the woods, little flutters of panic began flit across my mind. She might have been moody and misbehaved in the last couple of weeks, but I knew she really was a good girl and I cared very much for her.
Please answer us, Rona I thought desperately. Please.
Somewhere off to my side, a whistle began to blow.
I crashed through the woods towards it, praying that they had found her safe and sound.
All that was waiting for us, though, was Rudy.
He was lying on the ground, his vacant smile turned towards us. One of the nearby officers had us back up while he put on gloves and knelt to pick the fat unicorn up.
“It’s heavy,” he said with some surprise. “It feels like…there’s something in here!”
He turned it over slowly in his hands, looking it over for any kind of clue. Something caught his eye when he was inspecting the belly and he leaned in close. A moment later, he was tugging roughly at the seam that ran down the length of Rudy’s round body. It gave way after a few sharp pulls. The officer shined his flashlight into the unicorn’s open stomach before reaching inside.
When he pulled it out again a moment later, he was holding a small radio.
Rona had never stopped insisting that Rudy had spoken to her. He kept her awake, making her irritable. He told her we were dumb and trying to take him away, making her isolated.
She had tried to tell us all along, in that unconcerned, straightforward way that children have. I’d even heard his voice one afternoon through the study door, but I’d come up with some logical sounding excuse to dismiss it. After all, what adult believes a child when they say their toys are alive?
Someone had counted on that doubt.
Someone had watched her. Someone had carefully crafted a plan to lure her, along with some of her parents’ wealth, away from the safety of her home. Someone had spent weeks listening, talking, convincing.
And now someone had her.