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On the day she lost her best friend, Emma Williams bounded off the school bus and into her front yard.

Bright red hair streaking behind her as she sprinted through the front gate, Emma tossed off her backpack and began her afternoon ritual of hide and seek.

She was always the seeker.

Flutter, the tiny chicken that moved into the Williams home about nine months ago, always hid.

But on this day, a crisp October morning hinting at cooler ones to come, Flutter stayed hidden.

She was nowhere to be found. She didn't come out when she was called, like she usually did. She wasn't hiding in the bushes or hiding under the seat of the little girl's toy car, where Emma usually found her.

"She was just ... gone," Emma's mother, Theresa Williams, said. "We looked every­where, but there was no trace of her. No feathers, no nothing."

Now there are days Emma makes it all the way outside to play before she remembers.

Then come the tears.

Emma, 7, has autism.

She doesn't do well with change and sometimes struggles to connect with people. But she bonded with Flutter from the moment her parents brought the chick to their house in Canyon Rim.

"Flutter was a really special chicken," she said recently, clutching a scrapbook filled with Flutter's feathers tight to her chest. "She was a little bit brown and a little bit white. If someone finds her, can you tell them to bring her home?"

The tiniest chick • Flutter was one of two hens the Williams family bought early this year.

Williams, who had grown up with chickens running around her Orange County, Calif., home, thought it would be nice for her family to raise their own birds, farm their own eggs.

At the store, surrounded by crates of chirping chicks, Emma ran up and down the aisles, thrilled by the sounds and the sights and the smells.

The little girl paused as her mother asked a salesperson about the different types of chickens and discussed backyard farming. She peered down, into a pen, reached in and pulled out the tiniest chick.

"This one," she said, triumphantly.

It was no use arguing, Williams said later. They bought it.

Emma sat by the chicks' pen every day. When her parents weren't looking, she would reach in, scoop Flutter up and hold the baby bird gently against her small chest.

Maybe it was the heat of her daughter's warm body or the tenderness with which the girl handled the chick. Whatever it was, the mother said, Flutter loved being held.

As she grew, Flutter learned to come when her name was called. She followed Emma around the house and sat with the family as they watched television in the evenings. At mealtimes, she would sit patiently at Emma's feet until the girl handed down a scrap of food.

"She loved macaroni and cheese," Emma said, with a grin. "Just like me."

When Flutter was big enough to fly, Emma taught her how.

"I put her on my hands and did this really slow," the little girl said, moving her upturned palms up and down. "Then she opened her wings and flapped and flapped and flew all across the room."

When Flutter lost her feathers, Emma would scoop them up into plastic bags and save them in a scrapbook organized by size and color.

When the hen laid her first eggs — behind the couch in the family's living room — Emma picked them up gingerly, her bright blue eyes widening in awe.

Missing • Flutter has been missing from the Williams home, about 2300 East and 3200 South, for about a month.

In the time since, Emma has tried to play with the other chicken, Snowy, to little avail.

The white hen doesn't come when she's called. She doesn't like being held.

When Emma tries to scout for bugs and play hide and seek, Snowy wanders off. When the little girl brings her into the house for TV time, the chicken squirms out of Emma's lap.

"She's standoffish," Theresa Williams said. "I mean, she's a regular chicken. She's not like Flutter."

Emma talks about Flutter nearly every day. She wonders where she is or what she's doing.

She asked her parents if Santa Claus can bring her back.

"I just miss Flutter," she said recently, turning one of the chicken's brown and white speckled feathers over in her small hands.

"We've had people call and offer us chickens to give her," the mother said. "But she doesn't want a chicken. She wants her chicken."

No one knows what happened to the bird.

Neighbors think she was eaten — by a cat, a dog, a bird of prey.

Williams thinks the chicken was stolen, plucked from their fenced-in front yard, where the chickens roost.

Emma believes she's still out there.

In an effort to find her, the family has put up signs in their window and around the neighborhood asking for the hen's safe return.

On each, Emma draws Flutter's likeness and tapes one of her feathers to the paper.

"Maybe if Flutter knows we miss her," Emma said, "she'll want to come home, too."

Twitter: @Marissa_Jae

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