Charlie wasn’t my cat. He’d belonged to someone once, but it wasn’t me. He showed up yelling at my back door one morning, not quite grown, black and white with a lopsided Charlie Chaplin mustache on his upper lip. His buddy Punkin, big and fluffy and orange, was beside him, silent, Teller to Charlie’s Penn, but looking just as hungry.
They were very clean for strays. Clean and well aware that food came out of back doors. Dumped probably. Or abandoned when someone walked away from their foreclosed home. They looked up at me with every expectation of being fed even though we had never met each other before in our lives. Charlie pressed up against the screen door and squinted up at me with bright green eyes.
I dug a can of cat food out of the cupboard and split it between the two of them. Charlie started to purr at the top of his lungs, eating and purring through his entire meal. Punkin occasionally gave me a pleased golden stare between bites.
And suddenly I had some outside cats.
Now my inside cats are older and Siamese, sure of their territory and unwilling to share. But Charlie was never one to recognize boundaries. He’d come in anyway, just to check things out or sleep on the bathroom rug.
Charlie claimed the abandoned doghouse out back. Punkin took up residence on the roof of my car. I had to run the gauntlet to go anywhere. First belly rubs for Charlie (but not too many because he got feisty) and then some head scratches for Punkin while I tried to convince him that I needed to drive his bed to work. Charlie would be there to meet me when I got home, running up when I opened the car door, purring. Punkin would lead me to the house and dart inside to steal some dry food while I got a can ready for them.
About a week ago, Charlie showed up as usual, purring and wanting attention. He took me to the back door and ran inside, but he didn’t want any dry food. Instead he walked through the kitchen, paused a moment, then walked into the living room and hid behind the TV. An hour later, he sauntered out again and flopped over on the floor. I petted him and he purred, but he still didn’t want any food.
I checked him over to see if he was all right. No bites, no sore spots. He didn’t have a fever. His tongue was nice and pink. He looked fine, only he wasn’t. I can’t even say what exactly was wrong, but somehow he wasn’t quite Charlie.
I made him a dish of tuna, which he didn’t want, and coaxed him back outside. He sat by the back door looking up at me and purring. I told him that if he wasn’t acting normal in the morning, I was taking him to the vet.
I never saw him again. We looked all over, but there was no sign of him anywhere. He wasn’t in his doghouse, he wasn’t in his flowers by the back door, he wasn’t watching birds at the end of the yard.
He just wasn’t.
And he still isn’t. In my heart, I hope he found some incredible new place to live. In my head, I know he probably hasn’t.
But Punkin and I can still pretend.