A cat named Hemi, who vanished without a trace in 2011 and reappeared just as mysteriously last week, will soon make a jet flight halfway across the country to rejoin the family that never stopped missing him.
"It's pretty crazy," said Jennifer Connell, who adopted Hemi in 2009 in North Carolina, but now lives in Bismarck, North Dakota.
Hemi was a kitten when Jennifer and her Marine husband, Robert, found him curled up on their car's engine block at their home in Havelock near Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station. They weren't going to keep him, but then they fell in love with the gray kitten with an unusual curl at the tips of his ears. His time under the car's hood won him the name Hemi.
But when Robert Connell deployed in 2011, and his wife and their two children moved to base housing at Cherry Point, Hemi disappeared.
"He kept looking for my husband and couldn't find him," Jennifer Connell said. "And one day, he got out, and we were never able to find him."
She called the shelter daily to see if Hemi turned up, and returned to their old home several times a week to look for the cat.
"He was my husband's cat," she said. "And I had to tell him Hemi ran away."
In 2013, Connell left the Marines for a job as a train engineer, and the family moved to Bismarck, still heartbroken about Hemi.
Then last week, a woman called the Craven County, North Carolina, animal shelter about a cat that was hanging around her house. Shelter staff found a microchip on Hemi and called the number.
"Are you missing Hemi?" animal control supervisor Trinity Smith recalls asking Jennifer Connell. "She cried when we called her."
No one but Hemi knows where he's been since 2011, and Hemi isn't saying.
The Connells' former baby sitter, who now works for an airline, plans to pick up Hemi on Monday and fly with him on Wednesday, Jan. 27, to Bismarck, Connell said.
The family has set up an account to raise money to pay for Hemi's portion of the flight and to reimburse the friend for associated costs. Any extra money will be donated to the Craven County animal shelter, Connell said.
In the meantime, a veterinarian will check out Hemi for free and make sure he has a clean bill of health before he flies, Smith said.
"Getting Hemi home is our operation," Smith said. "We're happy that we can reunite a much-loved cat with a very deserving family."
As for Robert Connell, "he's trilled he's getting his cat back," his wife said. "He can't believe it."