A little over a year ago, my mother-in-law died suddenly. Being the geographically closest family members, all of the death responsibilities fell to us. This included rehoming her demon cat, Pumpkin.
To tell the rest of the story, I have to make it clear that Pumpkin was not a cat I hated due to me just not understanding how cats work or what cats’ emotional needs are. When I say this cat was evil, it is because it attacked out of pure malice. Yes, the cat had a troubled backstory: it was a declawed stray trying to survive on its own in the trailer park where my mother-in-law lived at the time. I could understand why such an animal might deceptively coil itself around a person’s ankles as Pumpkin was wont to do, begging to be petted only to suddenly and violently change its mind the last second. That seems like reasonable, albeit traumatized, cat behavior.
So, why, understanding this, do I still maintain that Pumpkin might have been the actual devil? Out of all the times I can recall being attacked by Pumpkin for absolutely no reason, the one that sticks out most was when she ran from the back bedroom of Mother-In-Law’s trailer specifically to attack me as I was leaving the house. Though I hadn’t interacted with Pumpkin at all until that moment, she zoomed down the hallway, straight to where I stood with the door already opening for me to leave. She bit my Achilles tendon, causing my ankle to swell and my shoe to fill with blood. I shook myself free, but it remains second only to the time I was repeatedly bitten by a dog as my worst animal experience.
Everyone who visited Mother-In-Law had similar stories about this cat, who loved its owner and sought to maul any other living human. My children were terrified of her. Hell, grown people were so terrified of her that some of Mother-In-Law’s friends refused to enter her home. The cat was a menace.
Years go by. My husband’s mother moved out of the trailer park, across the state to a town near Flint. Pumpkin, of course, went with her and continued her life as an indoor/outdoor menace, often slinking out any time the front door opened. When Mother-In-Law’s health declined, she hired an unlicensed home aide through the recommendation of another person in her apartment complex. This woman came to the house and did laundry, bought groceries, cleaned the apartment, anything that my disabled Mother-In-Law could no longer do on her own. We were happy that there was someone close by that Mother-In-Law could count on, but the woman was…odd. She was conversationally flighty, forgetting from one second to the next what she’d just been talking about. She moved constantly, almost manic in her mannerisms. She was unrelentingly cheerful and instantly overfamiliar, revealing far too much about herself and her family dramas (of which there seemed to be an endless source) than strictly necessary upon first meeting someone.
“There’s something not quite right about her,” Mother-In-Law said once, fondly. “But she really is sweet. She’s a terrible driver, though. If we go anywhere, I have to drive. She’s a menace on the road.”
Coming from a woman who had once veered across the center line directly into the path of an oncoming semi because she’d taken a few too many painkillers and was trying to answer her cellphone, this was a terrifying criticism.
When it became clear that Mother-In-Law needed to be closer to us if she was going to maintain any independence, she moved into some apartments not far from my husband’s work. In the week before the move, though, Pumpkin disappeared.
Mother-In-Law was understandably distraught. “I have to leave in three days! I don’t know what I’ll do if I can’t get her to come back inside!” But luckily, Pumpkin returned in the nick of time, found in the parking lot by Mother-In-Law’s caretaker.
Pumpkin had some trouble adjusting to the new apartment. Not all that unusual for a cat. She stopped going outside, running away from instead of toward freedom when people came and left. She seemed to have lost some weight while she was missing but never put it back on, despite eating more than she ever had before. But the strangest part of Pumpkin’s behavior was the lack of bloodshed; from the moment Mother-In-Law brought the cat to the new place, it never attacked anyone again.
In the weeks before she died, Mother-In-Law commented on these changes. “I don’t know what happened to her when she was missing, but she’s a completely different cat now.” This wasn’t a negative. It’s always good when people can visit your home without fending off an animal attack. And it was also a great relief, in the wake of Mother-In-Law’s death, to think that we might not have to euthanize the cat for the good of mankind. Old age and one last misadventure had calmed Pumpkin enough that it might actually be possible to rehome it. Somehow, dealing with the demon cat had become the easiest part of the entire ordeal.
I called a friend who has cats because I find that people who really, really like cats either know someone who’s looking for another cat or are looking for a new addition, themselves. After stalking the traumatized Pumpkin around the apartment, I managed to get a few photos of her. I texted them to Cristin, who immediately offered to take her on the basis off her sad story. All I needed to do was take Pumpkin for a check-up and to update her vaccines. I called the vet and made an appointment.
“And how old is the cat?” the receptionist asked.
I tried to do the kind of panicked time math one does when recalling events that don’t directly concern them. Let’s see, she got the cat when her dad was still alive and he died while we were living in Grand Rapids, and it was in the fall so it wouldn’t have been 2006 because we moved away from Grand Rapids in June of 2006. That means she had to get the cat sometime between 2003 and 2005. It was fully-grown when she got it, so even assuming the cat was a year old, that means… “I don’t know. Between thirteen or fifteen years old?”
“But there’s a problem,” I explained. “This cat is so violent. It’s the most dangerous cat I’ve ever seen in my life. We need to probably sedate it.” After all, a tiger can only change so much about its stripes. The cat hadn’t attacked anyone in ages, but nobody had been trying to take it to the vet, either.
The vet’s office gave me some medication I could administer in the cat’s wet food. I did what had to be done and returned a few hours later with my son as backup. I went to the eerily empty apartment armed with thick leather gloves and a cat carrier. I instructed my son to close all the doors and said a silent prayer that I wouldn’t end up in the ER needing stitches. I’d already drugged the cat, but it still put up a fight trying to get it into the carrier. Somehow, we got it to the vet’s office. They only had Pumpkin in the exam room for a short time before they came out and asked to speak to us.
“How old did you say this cat was?” The vet tech asked, frowning at the computer.
“At least thirteen. Possibly fifteen or even older.” I explained how Pumpkin had originally been a stray and how she fit into the convoluted timeline I’d used to figure it all out. “Why?”
“Because there is no way that cat is more than five years old.”
I laughed in disbelief. Then I heard Mother-In-Law’s voice in my memory, clear as a bell: “She’s like a completely different cat.”
The vet came out to explain stuff about tartar and degrees of teeth yellowing and changes to eyes and fur and muscle tone. I just nodded along, stunned. I knew I wasn’t mistaken in my estimate. What I didn’t know was what the fuck was going on. Was Pumpkin immortal? That would have been the second worse news I’d gotten that week.
At home, my husband and I looked through some of Mother-In-Law’s photos, until we found one of Pumpkin. We compared it to the photos I’d taken on my phone.
We were looking at pictures of two clearly different cats.
The resemblance was startling, don’t get me wrong. Their markings weren’t the same, but they were similar enough that it wouldn’t have been apparent without a side-by-side comparison. We were still definitely looking at two different cats. “Pumpkin” wasn’t smaller post-move because she’d lost weight. The cat I took from my Mother-In-Law’s apartment was substantially smaller in length and height, as well. But how did New Pumpkin come into my Mother-In-Law’s care? And what the hell happened to Pumpkin Classic?
“You don’t think your mom would have adopted another cat because Pumpkin died or something?” I asked, even though she had been one of the least likely people I could think of who would do something like that. She wasn’t sentimental enough that the loss of her cat would have sent her into denial. Plus, the new Pumpkin was declawed, something Mother-In-Law opposed and had lamented about Old Pumpkin. She was a practical person and wouldn’t have been so consumed with cat-related grief that she would seek out and mutilate another cat. So, we started tossing around the clues we had.
Pumpkin had been found and returned by Mother-In-Law’s caretaker. The strange, spaced-out woman who seemed to have only one foot planted in reality. Who was a noted reckless driver. Who often let the cat out as she was leaving.
Who brought back a different cat.
Wearing Pumpkin’s collar.
I think you can puzzle these pieces together, here. I regret to say that, outlandish as it sounds, the only explanation that makes sense (and I used that term loosely) is that the caregiver ran over and killed Pumpkin, then somehow (and I don’t even want to know) found a strikingly similar tortoiseshell cat, had it declawed and returned it with Pumpkin’s collar on it.
Today, “Pumpkin” still lives with my cat-loving friend. She’s still cagey and traumatized, but I would imagine that could be due to being suddenly adopted, declawed, moved to two locations in two days, and then having its new owner die only months later. Totally reasonable.
And the original Pumpkin is probably residing happily in hell, where it belongs.