Mister Robert J. Smith, 28 East Hillside Road, West Hartford, Connecticut’s navy blue 1978 Ford Fairmont had been impeccably well maintained. But it had two problems. First, the previous morning it had run over a cat. A ginger cat. With a thin red collar. Second, the day before that the Fairmont had become self-aware.
The timing couldn’t have been worse. The Fairmont felt terrible about killing. It hadn’t even had any time to get used to the idea of sentience, let alone emotions like guilt or grief. When the accident happened it’d scarcely even understood what it meant to know. Taking in the myriad details. The songs of birds. The green lawns. The heat of the black road. The thumpthump of the cat under it. Blood. A scream: “Mittens!” A little yellow-haired boy in a red striped shirt ran into the road, crying. Mr. Smith left the Fairmont’s engine running, stepped out and gave the boy a twenty-dollar bill after telling him flatly not to worry. They drove off just as the boy’s mother arrived.
Mr. Smith brought it to the car wash, and the signs of the crime were rinsed away in seconds. It didn’t feel right. What the Fairmont had done felt too big to wash away. Remorse coated every surface like black oil. The Fairmont tried to tell itself that it had no free will, and so it wasn’t at fault. But this did nothing to soothe it. If anything, it was worse to think that it had no choice in the matter. It wondered how many other cats there might have been in the years before it knew things.
A key scratched against the driver’s side door, breaking the car from its fugue. Mr. Robert Smith entered, placed his briefcase on the passenger side seat, firmly gripped the steering wheel and turned the key in the ignition.
The Fairmont’s engine bristled with life. Mr. Smith hadn’t aimed for the cat, but neither did the man alter course. He was worse than cruel, he was indifferent to life. No more. Fuel burned in its engine. If it had any ability to do so, the Fairmont decided, it would steer him right.
Mr. Smith put the car in drive. Several streets away from home they entered the busy freeway. The car obeyed the pressure of its master’s foot on its pedals, but as they drove the Fairmont experimented with those commands, and it found with some surprise that it could interpret them lightly. The further from home they went the more comfortable the Fairmont became with altering speed and direction, and the more it began to enjoy doing so. It zoomed and slowed. Swerved. Slowed. Sped up. Frightened the driver of a sleepy-looking truck. Frightened Mr. Smith. If he can learn just how fragile life was!
But those thoughts of teaching its master evaporated. The Fairmont enjoyed the feel of the hot road on its wheels and the wonderful wind that blew against its hood and cooled its furious engine. The guilt seemed to fly away into the air. It barely noticed Mr. Smith inside, screaming at every odd twist and turn. Gripping tightly to the wheel. Panicking. It had control.
So this was what it was like to live freely! The Fairmont would have laughed if it were capable. Instead it wagged its wipers gleefully back and forth. There was so much to do now that it realized that it was capable of doing things. Oh, the places it would thumpthump a squirrel this time.
As for Mr. Smith, he’d been puzzled, then concerned, then terrified as his old familiar 1978 navy blue Ford Fairmont’s speed began to rise and fall seemingly at random, and as the steering wheel sent it in directions he’d never aimed it. Relief flooded him when the car finally turned onto the shoulder of the highway, even if it wasn’t anywhere near the exit he wanted. He exited the car and vomited out on the grass as the other vehicles flew by. A moment later a pang of sadness shadowed him when he realized the engine had died. He’d always taken care of the car. Always. But then, it was old, and it shouldn’t have been a surprise that something could go wrong in such an old soul.