When Leigh Opossum came to school one day without her hat on and claimed to have seen a unicorn outside the Post Office, no one dared to believe her except Roger Dillins, and Roger Dillins was not one to speak up. It was because of last week’s Big Quarrel, of course, which had started when Leigh Opossum got the highest score in the spelling bee and received a gold star on her desk. Everyone except Teacher knew that gold stars were only for Linda Teller and her gang. No one knew when it would happen but Big Quarrels always ended with someone’s nose bleeding, and it was never Linda Teller’s.
“There’s a unicorn in Palmer Square” Leigh Opossum announced as soon as everyone had finished blowing their noses outside the classroom.
“No way” Jaime Bicks said, earning a nod from Linda Teller who was holding court around the warmest radiator.
“I’m telling you, there’s a unicorn in Palmer Square” Leigh said again, this time to the boys. For a newcomer with a weird name she was not particularly shy, Roger thought.
“Nu-uh” said Jessie Taylor who was alphabetically doomed to the spot next to Linda Teller and her crochet hooks. Those hooks had a mean bite.
“There is a unicorn in Palmer Square. He got my hat. He said unicorns are from warm places.” Roger wanted to ask how an animal with a horn could wear a hat, but did not dare. The crochet hook made a threatening clang against the radiator.
“You-knee-corns” Linda Teller said “are not real. You are a liar, Opossum. Say you’re a liar or I’ll wash your mouth out with soap.” One of the smaller children started sniffling.
“I know what I saw, stupid. You didn’t see it and even if you did, it wouldn’t talk to you.” Steam seemed to come out of Linda Teller’s ears but Leigh stood her ground.
“Teacher’s coming!” Roger piped up, diverting the crochet hook into the ball of yarn. Linda Teller did not say anything but everyone knew that after school, Leigh Opossum would be sorry, and anyone who did not deliver a kick would be sorry, too.
At lunch time, Roger saw Leigh sit down at the empty kindergartners’ table. Someone had hidden her chair, of course. He felt hot with anger. No one had even considered the fact that there might be a unicorn in Princeton. Who was Linda Teller to run the school, to ruin all chances of adventure? Looking at Leigh at the too-low table, he remembered Jessie Taylor’s bruises and instinctively knew that this would be ten times worse. He had to say something.
“They put soap in my food.” Leigh stared miserably at her plate. Roger wiggled into the tiny chair next to her. He noticed the others staring in shock. Outcasts were supposed to be isolated: he had just broken the rules.
“You should pretend you’re sick and go home.”
“I won’t.” Leigh sounded more stubborn than she looked.
“But… they are going to do something awful. I’ve never heard Linda Teller call someone a liar before.”
“She’s the liar. I know what I saw.”
“But you don’t have any forensic evidence” Roger said, remembering something from TV.
“Not yet, but I’ll get it.” Leigh got up. She suddenly looked like her namesake and for a moment, Roger knew that if anyone could knock Linda Teller, it would be Leigh Opossum.
“Like on CSI?”
“Like on CSI.” Roger shot out of his seat. Unexpectedly his mind was full of images of unicorns chasing Linda Teller out of school and he wanted to cheer.
“I know how to sneak out” he said. “You know, if you want a sidekick.” Leigh smiled.
“The sidekick is always important” she said.
“How do detectives know where to look for evidence?” Roger rested on a tombstone — Cleveland, it said — and watched Leigh wriggle into a shrub. He had begun to worry that their mission would fail. What would happen if they found nothing? Jaime Bicks had come to school with a bandaged arm once. Roger did not want his arms in bandages, or worse.
“Dunno. But it’s like trouble, I guess — my mom always says that if I look for it, I’ll find it.”
“Well, we’ve been looking forever so we must not be doing it right. Are you stuck again?” Bits of ice rattled to the ground.
“Nah, I’m fine.” Leigh came out on the other side, twigs in her hair. “But we should look somewhere else. He wasn’t on the football field and not behind the old hospital and not at the YMCA and it doesn’t look like he’s here either.” They walked out the iron gates.
“Should we maybe sum up our findings so far? For example, was the unicorn small or big?” Roger asked. They waited for the traffic light to change. Leigh frowned.
“He was a bit big. Or perhaps small. Maybe he was a little bit of both. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that we are conducting an investigation. With forensic evidence, we can get rid of Linda Teller. Oh no!” Silently, they watched the yellow school buses roll by in an ominous parade: empty, but not for long.
“They take the little kids first” Roger said at last. “There is still time to find the unicorn but we have to find it now.”
“Right.” Leigh seemed inspired. “Let’s return to the scene of the crime — I mean, where I saw him first. He must have stayed in the same place all along.” Like weasels they scurried across the street.
“Unicorns are shy of people” Leigh said as they trotted up the stairs behind the Post Office. “We have to be quiet.” They tiptoed around the corner, their cheeks puffed out with breaths held back. Roger felt his heart beating fast, fast, like a hummingbird. Soon, Linda Teller would be made to shut up forever. Then his heart turned to stone. There was no unicorn outside the Post Office.
“That is where I met him.” Leigh’s hand made an uncertain curve. “Or maybe it was over there.”
“What?” Jaime Bicks’ arm suddenly did not seem so bad. “Are you sure you even saw it? Don’t you know how sharp those crochet hooks are?”
“If you don’t believe me, go home.” Leigh looked stubborn again and Roger wanted to slap her. Instead, he froze. A bus honked in the distance.
The naked bushes were too thin to conceal them. Terrified, Roger backed up against the Post Office wall, hoping to disappear. Leigh was crouching low, sniffling. Across the square, Linda Teller’s gang began to take shape, pawn by pawn. But all the other children were there too, like little grey shadows trying not to be seen but forced to look. Roger thought of Jaime’s arm again. This was going to be terrible.
“Roger! Psst, Roger!” Deep in the bush, Leigh was pointing to something. First, Roger saw only mud. Then the half-circle edged by a triangle snapped into focus. A hoof print. Leigh’s eyes glittered.
“Sidekick, are you with me?” she whispered. Roger’s ears began buzzing with joy. He grabbed her by the hand.
Linda Teller’s gang had never been attacked before and when Roger and Leigh came storming across the square, they fled — or tried to. Heads clonked together and bullies began to wail as the two assailants bulldozed their way through the gang like two raging bulls. First, Jaime Bicks fell into a puddle and began to cry. Next, the crochet club girls were chased up a lamp post outside Nassau Inn. Terrified, the big boys hid in the cheese store as Jessie Taylor scrambled up the back of the great lion sculpture. Left to her own devices, Linda Teller did the only sensible thing. The crochet hooks flew one way and the yarn another as Linda ran for her life.
“Let’s get her!” Roger did not have to shout twice. Behind him, he heard Leigh’s feet drumming against the asphalt. It sounded a bit like hooves: a thousand hooves, a million hooves. They ran hard down Nassau Street, side by side: the new girl and the boy without friends, joined together by a common mission.
“Roger, over there!” Triumphantly, Leigh pointed down Witherspoon Street. For a moment, Roger thought he saw a tail disappear between the cars, but he was running too fast to be certain. Ahead, Linda Teller had fallen into a dirty snowdrift and was crying openly as she climbed to safety. Without her crochet hooks, without her gang, she was suddenly just a girl: small, frightened, and in need of friends. Roger was about to grab her by the ankle when he heard Leigh’s voice. This time, it held marvel.
“Roger, look!” For a brief moment, Linda Teller’s gaze met Roger’s, but then she looked past him and her face became round with astonishment. Behind him, Roger heard Leigh’s voice again. Then he heard the voices of the entire school. He turned around. Nassau Street was swarming with children, children with ruddy cheeks and glittering eyes and scarves askew. In their midst stood Leigh Opossum, waving her lost hat as a trophy: a hat marred by a single, perfect hole. For a second, the world held only silence, but then the sound of hooves appeared again, louder and louder this time. Someone cheered. Then Leigh threw her hat in the air and all the children broke into hurrahs, cheering, applauding, chanting the same grand word of power:
“Unicorn! Unicorn! Unicorn!”
And from that day on, although grown-ups rarely saw him, all the children knew there was a Princeton unicorn.
Emma Ljung is a classical archaeologist who shares her time between Princeton, where she lives, and Portugal, where she runs an excavation during the summer.