DISCLAIMER: "Herbie," "The Love Bug," and all related titles, names, characters, and indicia are the property of Disney and none of my own. Used without permission. No copyright infringement is intended and no money is being made.

Smart Metal

A smart metal is an alloy that "remembers" its original, cold, forged shape.

He wasn't sure when he'd really first become aware of himself as a particular and separate bit of the world: there had been some very faint and distant memories of being built, of bright lights and the tingling-sparkling-not-quite-comfortable feeling of welding torches and noise and laughter and the ringing of metal on metal, and then some indeterminate space of time before he'd realized that he was, in fact, awake. And aware.

And waiting for something. He'd been sold to various people, puttered around here and there and always been traded in for something flashier and newer and with a bigger engine. His engine was in the back, unlike most cars' in this country; it was air-cooled, and sounded (to be charitable) somewhat like a sewing machine when it was running at full tilt. A sewing machine with an amplifier. The individual ignition strokes were clearly and individually audible: rattle-rattle-rattle-rattle, or if he was trying to get up a steep slope in thin mountain air putt-putt-putt-putt.

Now he'd come down to San Francisco, and he'd been sold to a lady's domestic, and had frightened the daylights out of the poor girl when he'd absently taken over and selected a more interesting route back to her mistress's house: he liked the hills, liked playing with the torque and momentum and timing required to smoothly manage traffic lights on an incline, moving off as surely and adeptly as if he had a newfangled Torque-Flite automatic transmission rather than his rattly little manual. Rolling backwards on a hill start, or revving noisily, or relying entirely on the handbrake, was amateurish.

But the maid had panicked and returned him in a hurry to the dealer, a tiresomely look-at-me-I'm-British sort called Thorndyke; Thorndyke had not been happy to have such plebeian rubbish on his property. He'd been subdued when they got back to the dealership. For all he knew it wasn't her fault, her shock and horror and denial hurt a bit.

Then there was Jim Douglas. He separated his existence mentally into before Jim Douglas and after Jim Douglas. Before, life had been quiet and exploratory and constantly wanting to find an excuse to show off; after, life was a lot more dramatic and painful and interesting, and he had friends. Real, actual friends. His driver was more important to him than Herbie had thought possible, and Carole--and Tennessee, who had been kind long before anyone else had thought of it--were worth everything to him.

Sitting in the garage now and listening to his own metal go pink-pink as he cooled from the day's driving, Herbie remembered: the first time anyone had been kind to him, really, honestly, actually kind.

He hadn't really understood what was happening when Thorndyke unscrewed his filler cap and poured something hot and sweet and thick and heady into his tank: the water in the mixture had sunk beneath the gasoline, and the solids in the suspension had settled into layers. There was something sharper than just sweetness in whatever he'd given Herbie, something like the kick of kerosene shot into his carb in cold weather; it felt warming and rather pleasant. Then he'd had more, and more, and quite soon felt himself beginning to drift off into a strange sort of blank doze.

It had been hard to wake the next morning, but he'd managed to gather his energies in a dull numb kind of way as they prepared for the race. He'd felt a bit sick as he started his engine, but it had passed off for the moment: as they ran after Thorndyke he really began to feel as if he had a good chance in the race, but in the second half he suddenly felt the fuel coming through his pump and into his carb change texture and flavour and a moment afterward choked in a horrible hiccup of nausea.

He lost power; tried to make it up again, tried to run through the sickness, but it wouldn't stop, and he lost all sense of direction, helplessly drifting back and forth, aware of Douglas trying to steer and unable to help. Tennessee was waving a sign: COME IN. He tried. It was terribly difficult to work out how to direct his drive-wheels, and he could feel the awful slimy substance, whatever it was, working through his exhaust--having cooked itself onto all the surfaces of his engine, a burnt-caramel stink that made him feel even sicker--and suddenly, humiliatingly, spluttered out a great gout of something white and foamy.

Tennessee, tasting the mess: Irish coffee.

The rest of the race passed in a sort of awful daze for Herbie; he'd been pushed most of the way off the track to where they'd got a trailer and ramps set up for him, and he'd really tried not to be sick again, but he couldn't help it. More of the foamy stuff spewed from his twin exhausts as Tennessee coaxed him up the ramps, and he didn't even realize until afterward that he'd got Thorndyke but good.

That was some small consolation.

The trip back home had been miserable. He hiccupped and spluttered even with his engine off, involuntary efforts to rid himself of the poison. The feeling of all his fuel lines glazed with caramel was unlike anything he'd ever experienced, and yet he was almost glad of it as a distraction from the nausea.

When they'd got back, Tennessee and Jim had pushed him into the garage, and Jim had left--without a word. He shuddered with another unhappy expulsive effort, and that got Tennessee to pull over a work light and open his hood and have a look at what went on inside.

Jim had left the keys, and Tennessee tried to turn his engine over: with a few unhappy splutters it caught, but it sounded horrible, and he couldn't get cool; there was too much rubbish in the air-cooling channels to let air through. He wondered if he was going to be scrapped, and thought: no, but Jim Douglas drove me, he will help me, he'll fix this somehow, won't he? Won't he?

Tennessee was wiping some of the mess from his engine, and the gentle care with which he did it made Herbie, hot and miserable as he was, want to nudge closer to him. "Poor little fella," he said, sounding worried. "You got a temperature. --Don't worry, Jim'll be back soon. He never would've left if it wasn't something important."

Herbie hiccupped again, and his engine made a thick sound and cut out. He'd never felt so sick, not even when he'd been on the cargo ship. Tennessee patted his manifold. "I know," he said. "Nothing worse than an Irish coffee hangover."

Then there was someone at the door, and he'd strained to hear Douglas's voice, but it wasn't him; it was Miss Bennett. Herbie wished he felt better so he could enjoy listening to her, but he couldn't concentrate on anything other than feeling sick. Dimly he could hear Tennessee talking with her, and then there were cool fingers on his manifold, and then they went away; he could have whimpered. She was saying something. Not with Peter Thorndyke any more. I don't think his way.

Oh, I know that, Tennessee said.

How do you know?

Herbie wouldn't like you, otherwise.

Even through his sickness the Bug heard that, and thought: yes, it's true, I know she's all right. She always has been.

Carole Bennett wriggled into a spare set of coveralls, and found the right wrench for the application, and then he shivered because there were those lovely cool fingers on his hot metal again, and they were gentle, and kind, and after a few minutes he could stop thinking so hard and just sort of drift, aware that unpleasant things were being done but not paying a great deal of attention to them.

Whatever happens, he thought, I don't want her to go away. I want Jim Douglas to come back and say that he will take care of me, and I want her to stay, and I want Tennessee, and, and, and....

Herbie, under the sure and gentle touch of her hands, finally drifted into exhausted sleep.

Now, in his own garage, sitting on fat luxy Wide Ovals and gleaming with newly-waxed shine, warm with the awareness of every part being just exactly as it should be and nothing out of place, Herbie wriggled a little in happiness, and in relief, that the memory was just a memory, and that in the morning the people who came to open the door and light his engine and take him out onto the road were people who loved him, and whom he loved.