She was a fluffy gray ball about the size of my fist, with enough hiss and spit to run off all the other kittens in the shelter.
"She loves people, but won't tolerate other cats," they explained.
After watching her sixteen-ounces-of-fire-breathing-dragon display, I was amazed to have her climb up my sleeve and lick my face. She purred gently, steadily, convincingly: the message was clearly Take me home, you are mine. And I will kill any cats that annoy you, too.
A 2001 Christmas surprise for Jason and Savannah, she spent a couple of days at the shelter's veterinarian's office before coming home. While there she contracted an upper respiratory bug that made her spend most of her early days with us huddled in her litter box, where she seemed to feel safe. Our vet checked her out and said she'd be fine, but possibly had a dry-eye condition that would require a million dollars or so in ophthalmic ointment over the course of her life. I decided to wait and see if maybe she'd outgrow it.
Her coat looked like it had been sprinkled with pepper; the naming was easy. Pepper became our beloved pet, with gloriously normal, no-cost eyes and an enormous affection for her family and chasing the little lizards Florida presents to amuse its cat population.
We found lots of disconnected lizard tails, frantically switching back and forth.
Pepper was devoted to us, the four humans in the Duke family, but ran under the nearest bed when anyone else approached the house. She seemed to want to limit her social sphere to us and the kingdom of tiny reptiles she ruled. Many visitors questioned whether we actually owned a cat; she was a gray phantom without menace. Our dear neighbor Beth Monette occasionally fed and watched over her when we left town, and Pepper chose her for Favorite Alternate Human. They bonded, but no one else was allowed into her feline heart of hearts.
She tolerated Beau the Maltepoo when he joined the family in 2004, and offered him occasional affection.
After years of indoor life, Pepper moved to the Alabama countryside and found herself among giant chickens and a Labrador Retriever. It brought about an amazing transformation. While she still loved to be carried around the yard like a baby, surveying it all from a lofty perch, she also became the huntress she was born to be. She'd disappear into the neighbor's pasture and return with a mouse or vole clenched in her jaws. The chickens gave her a wary wide berth, and so did the Lab. Exploring outdoors made her confident and she was less prone to hiding from people.
She blossomed here.
After Jason graduated college and moved to Georgia, Pepper went to live with him. I loved seeing her when I visited there, and he brought her home often. She was hell on the cardboard box transport he had in the early days, chewing right through to express her displeasure.
I think she liked coming here and loving on us, despite the hated car trips. I did my best to spoil her.
Several months ago Pepper began to show signs of declining health. Jason was told it could be an infection, or it might be bone cancer. We gave her antibiotics and hoped for the best.
She began to waste away before our eyes. Nothing helped.
Over Thanksgiving I found myself stroking her fur and telling her the story of how she adopted us, tears splashing onto the bed where she lay purring and listening intently.
She loved that story.
Yesterday, with the help and support of his wonderful sister Savannah, Jason took Pepper to the vet for a final goodbye.
I'm still crying.
You were a sweet, fun, loyal, affectionate cat, Pepper. Thank you for choosing us. Thank you for loving us.
Love from Delta.