Freedom the fat cat found himself far from home and in need of a ride. Then serendipity pulled up in a maroon Ford Expedition.
Freedom's odyssey began in Brunswick, Ga., late Wednesday afternoon when he slipped out of his owner's truck at a Cracker Barrel restaurant.
His owner, Mike Miller, was on a 750-mile trip back to his Wellington home from Raleigh, N.C. A friend there had been pet sitting two of his dogs and two of his cats, including Freedom, over the summer. Miller was bringing them home.
Miller, 48, stopped at the restaurant, bought a book on tape and let the dogs out for a bit before he got back on the road. He didn't see Freedom slip out of his truck.
Freedom crossed a busy, four-lane highway and an access road, ending up in the parking lot of a Knight's Inn.
That's when the Youngs came along.
Tony Young, 50, of Clearwater and his 22-year-old daughter, Crystal Young, were on their way home after a two-week trip to Alabama and North Carolina. They pulled into the Knight's Inn about 10 p.m.
Crystal stepped outside for some air, she said, and Freedom walked right up to her. "He just rubbed up against me," she said.
As Crystal petted the cat, his collar got caught on her shirt and came off his neck.
She saw the collar had two tags with phone numbers. She tried the first number. Disconnected. She tried the second number. Bingo.
It connected her with Miller's North Carolina friend, the pet-sitter.
The friend called Miller. He was just an hour away from home and still had no idea Freedom was missing.
"I almost slammed on the brakes on (I-95)," said Miller. "I pulled over to check, thinking 'He's got to be in the back seat.'"
Miller called the Youngs. They offered to bring Freedom with them to Clearwater, where Miller could pick him up.
On Thursday, Miller got back on the road, this time for the four-hour drive to Clearwater from Wellington, which is near West Palm Beach on Florida's east coast.
When Tony Young pulled his Ford Expedition into his driveway in Clearwater on Thursday afternoon, Freedom was perched on the armrest.
Minutes later, Miller pulled up.
"Fatso, oh, my God!" he said, reaching for the large white and gray cat.
Miller cradled the huge cat in his arms while the Youngs filled him in: He slept most of the night on the edge of Crystal's bed; he laid on Crystal's leg most of the way home; he probably needed a litter box.
And one more thing.
"He's quite the escape artist," Crystal Young told Miller. "He learned how to work the window."
Miller thanked them for taking good care of his furry friend.
The Youngs said they just did what they believed was the right thing to do.
"If I'd lost my animal, I'd hope someone else would do the same thing," Tony Young said.
And after the series of strange circumstances brought them together, Miller and Tony Young learned they have a lot in common: they're both Christians, both are property managers and both are animal lovers.
"God always works in mysterious ways," said Miller.
The Youngs learned something else - the meaning behind Freedom's name.
Miller bought him outside of a Publix supermarket on Sept. 11, 2001, from a little boy selling kittens to raise money for victims of the terror attacks.
Rita Farlow can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4157.
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