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Aster embarks on an unexpected road trip in a self-driving car

San Francisco, CA
Thursday, 11 a.m.

Aster had been up since 6 a.m. It was summer vacation, and her mom had forgotten to book her in any summer camps this year. Due to this, the better parts of her days were now spent sitting alone at home and watching videos about cats on her tablet.

This morning, she was pleasantly drinking her decaf coffee. She swirled the foam with her tea stick. She had always wanted to be like her mom, and though it took a lot of convincing, her parents finally got her some coffee of her own, sans the caffeine. As far as she knew, she was the only fifth- (soon to be såixth-) grader who enjoyed it.

She looked at her phone nervously. She picked it up and dialed her mom. The phone went into voicemail immediately. She hung up and called again.

“This is Jessica—oh. Hey, Aster. Please, I’m in a meeting. Call back later.” “Wait! Mom, please, I miss you so much, can you do something? Please, Mom, please!” Aster cried.

The phone was silent.

“Fine, you can come here. Bring a book and you can play in an empty room.

I’m sending a robotaxi to come get you. Bye.” Beep.

The phone hung up. Aster breathed a sigh of relief.

*          *          *

She packed her book, her phone, an energy bar, and an apple into her backpack. She also grabbed her water bottle and darted into the street. The car smoothly parked and she climbed into the back seat.

“Hello, Aster. Thank you for using Top Hat Cars. I am car number 342w7hy.

Please, make yourself comfortable.”

Aster settled in and looked out the window as the car drove off. She pondered the strangeness of being in a car with no driver at the wheel. For some reason, her mom liked these cars and expected she would feel the same. Aster didn’t know what she felt about them. She curled up and started to cry.

“New destination confirmed. Arrival time: 3:21 p.m. Please buckle your seatbelt.”

“I wish that I could be with Grandma. She pays attention to me. I wish I could be with her in Alabama!”

Suddenly the car pulled into a driveway and stopped, sending Aster into a heaving jolt. She collected herself. The car made a brief humming sound and then:

“New destination cannot be carried out. It is out of my controlled area.

Please—” It paused again.

“New destination confirmed. Arrival time: 3:21 p.m. Please buckle your seatbelt.”

Aster stared.

“Wait, no! Redo the location thing! No!”

She was frozen with fear. She took out her phone and dialed her dad. “Hi, sweetheart! I’m sorry, I’m in a meeting. How have you been?” “Okay. But Dad, you wouldn’t guess—”

“Please tell me later, sweetheart. I am a bit busy. I love you!” The phone hung up. She sighed. “Alabama, here I come.”

Grosford, CA
Thursday, 5:31 p.m.

The car rolled through the streets. Aster’s stomach growled. She had been saving the apple, though she had already eaten the energy bar. She had to go to the bathroom. She spotted a Wendy’s restaurant.

“Um, car? Can you please park at the Wendy’s across the block?” she asked. It obeyed her, dropping her off in front of the fast food place.

She walked inside. She did not like Wendy’s, but because everything around here was fast food, she decided she would order something. She quickly went to the bathroom, after which she returned to the counter and ordered a large burger. She ate one half and saved the other. Then, she bought some more water and returned to the car.

“Continuing journey.”

“Actually, it’s getting dark. Can I sleep?” “Searching for nearby hotels.”

“I can sleep in here,” Aster said reproachingly. The car purred. Its engines whirred in silence, almost apologetically, as if it had made a mistake. “Canceling search. Please get some rest.”

Kingman, AZ
Friday, 8 a.m.

The car rumbled through the streets, waking Aster. She grumbled.

“Mom, stop shaking me, I’m—oh.” She remembered that she was in a self- driving car.

“Good morning, Aster. I am equipped with snacks and refreshments under the armrest that you can have for breakfast.”

She flipped open the hatch, only to find energy bars and old candy wrappers.

She wrinkled her face in disgust, slamming the armrest abruptly.

“Can you direct me to a breakfast place? I’m not sure energy bars are my thing in the morning.”

“As you wish. Going to: Emmy’s Pancakes,” the car replied, and turned a corner.

Aster thought. She could not remember all those digits that the car called its name. Something else would just have to do.

“Um, car, can I name you something I can remember? I can’t just keep calling you ‘car,’ y’know.”

“Very well,” the car agreed.

“Uh . . . I think I’ll name you Zinnia. It’s my grandma’s favorite flower. She would like that. You know, my mom didn’t know what to name me, so my grandma did. Mom disapproved but accepted it because it was last minute.”

The car whirred and responded: “What an interesting piece of family history. I appreciate your willingness to devise a new character out of me along with a new name.”

Aster snorted at the sentence. Just like an electric car would say. “We have arrived at Emmy’s Pancakes.”

*          *          *

After a filling meal of a triple stack of pancakes, a blueberry muffin, and orange juice, Aster and Zinnia took off. Aster thought. Her mom was probably worried sick. They might have called the police. She might have a squad after her! Considering she had been gone for two days made her shudder. Maybe she could call it off, tell Zinnia to go back, end this madness . . . But really? They had gone so far together, just to go back? No. This was a story she had to finish. The mechanical rant of Zinnia broke her thoughts.

“I will need to recharge soon.”

Aster nodded. She liked her new buddy. After all, it also needed to eat. They pulled over at a nearby charging station.

“Oh no! I don’t have enough money,” she exclaimed, looking at her phone wallet balance.

“You should find a charge card in the glove compartment,” Zinnia told her. She looked inside. A small rectangular card beamed in the sunlight as she contemplated it. The glory of the card shined in her eyes, and it appeared golden in the light of day, causing her to go into a dreamy reverie.

It was a new sensation, self-driving cars, with their hat-like sensors and cameras, like Zinnia’s, stacked atop the car, whirring as they scanned the streets.

The distant honk of a car in the streets broke Aster out of her trance. Enough shenanigans. Back into reality, she calmly inserted the card and whistled as she plugged in the electric wire. The car beeped, and she took out the plug. She stepped back in. “Let’s go, Zinnia.”

Dallas,  TX
Friday, 10:43 p.m.

The car drove through the streets, lit by the countless city lights. Aster slept in the back seat, ignoring the rumbling. It was a new sensation, self-driving cars, with their hat-like sensors and cameras, like Zinnia’s, stacked atop the car, whirring as they scanned the streets. The neon red stripes shined as lights reflected across its side. It turned the corner in an inhumanly perfect glide. The wheel turned and settled. The reality of robotaxis was still very new to the girl, as they had slowly begun their revolution quietly, in the dark, until this new technology populated the streets of her city at almost every turn. Aster fluttered her eyelids. She had been reading her book before she fell asleep, and it was next to her.

“The ghost in the machine, yes, Zinnia . . .” she murmured.

The soft, immaculate padding on which her head lay had gotten drool stains from the short nights of her sleeping. She had become accustomed to the infrequent meals, which had cost her three pounds. The car decided to take a stop at a safe corner, where it parked for a few minutes before continuing on. The whole city, Aster, and even Zinnia were tired.

Hamilton, AL
Saturday, 1:35 p.m.

The car rumbled on.

“Estimated one hour and thirty-eight minutes left till destination,” Zinnia proclaimed in an almost cheery tone. Clearly it was ready to get somewhere where it could rest and recharge, maybe even go through a car wash.

Aster yawned. She smacked her lips with the realization that she had not brushed her teeth in three days.

“Can you make a stop at a grocery store?” she asked Zinnia.

“Of course,” it replied, and parked in front of a store called Grocerymart. Aster stepped outside. The heat smacked her in the face, almost taking on a physical force she had not been accustomed to. The humidity choked her as her body tried to understand the swift change of temperature.

She rushed into the market. The unnaturalness of the cold, air-conditioned store was equally jarring. She stumbled around, woozy, and grabbed onto a grocery cart. Her brain was trying to process the change as she contemplated the store. Looking among the rows and rows of food made her drool with hunger. She crashed through the aisles, grabbing a tube of cheap toothpaste and clumsily getting a toothbrush too, before bursting into the bathroom.

She collected her disheveled self and brushed her teeth. She sighed. Fresh breath, finally. Feeling more stable, she bought some mints, water, and lemonade. Being cooped up in a car for days felt like being in a prison where water was a rarity and the prisoners stashed their bottles and never shared.

She returned to the car, took a seat in the front passenger seat, and leaned it back as far as it could go. She sipped her lemonade. “Ahhhh . . .”

*          *          *

Zinnia sped on.

“We are quickly approaching destination,” it said. Aster could barely contain her excitement. Finally, a place where there were people! The car rolled into the city. More and more houses lined the road. They had arrived.

Alabaster, AL
Saturday, 3:23 p.m.

Aster watched as they rolled past all the houses, waiting for Grandma’s to appear. They stopped at an old, light-blue house. The front yard was bustling with flowers and plants. Aster’s grandma had a knack for gardening.

“It’s here! It’s here!” Aster yelled excitedly. She ran outside, knocked on the door, and—

*          *          *

There was much surprise, love, hugs, and kisses that day. Aster’s eyes filled with tears as she explained her adventure, Zinnia, and the miscommunication. “So, now cars can talk and drive without a driver, eh? This is what this old world’s come to . . .” her grandmother said drily in her sweet Southern accent.

“Zinnia is very nice, Grandma, so you’ll like her.” The car rolled into the driveway.

“Can we keep her?” Aster pleaded.

Grandma looked at it up and down, inside, and patted it. “I don’t think it’s that simple, dear . . .”

Aster looked down.

“Though it would be good if we were allowed to, considering that we need a new car.”

“You threw the old one away?”

“Her engine died. She was a good car,” Grandma murmured. She sighed. “Come in. Dinner will be ready soon.”

San Francisco, CA
Thursday, 1:01 p.m.

Aster looked out from her bedroom window. It had been five days since her trip to Alabaster, Alabama, with the malfunctioning self-driving car, Zinnia. Aster had stayed with Grandma until Tuesday. She had explained to her mom about the situation, and they had agreed on letting the trip not be a total letdown. Her dad had even taken time off from his work in India out of worry. Her parents spent two whole days with her.

She was happy that she was home. Though now she missed Zinnia. Even though, according to her mom, it was just a car, it was the car that had brought her from here to her grandma. It was the car that had taken her on the adventure of a lifetime. The car that cared.

*          *          *

There was a knock at the door. Aster hurried down, in the small hope of finding Grandma or someone bringing Zinnia. Instead, there was a tall, lean man with a small scruffy beard in a pair of Converse sneakers and a top hat.

*          *          *

Aster learned that the tall, lean man was, in fact, the CEO of Top Hat Cars. He had come to discuss the matter of Zinnia with her parents. Aster was told to go back up the stairs to her room, but she heard small clips of conversation from below like, “My apologies for the inconvenience” and “will never happen again.”

Finally, after what seemed like hours, Aster was called back. The lean, top- hatted man spoke up first.

“Ah, the viral sensation Aster Ford. I feel like I’ve already met you, I’ve seen your face on social media so many times. It seems your little adventure has made us both a little more famous.”


The man smiled a friendly smile. Aster thought he was very young to be a CEO. “But seriously now: my apologies for the mistake with car number 342w7hy. I still don’t understand it. But as I’ve already told your parents, this will never ever happen again, I assure you, and our experienced technicians are already making changes to the code in our cars. 342w7hy is being modified and will soon be back to normal in no time.”

Aster stared at the man as he wiped the sweat off his forehead with a small, dainty handkerchief. She understood what he meant by “normal.” Zinnia had been reset, and Aster could do nothing about it. The car that had changed her life was now a lifeless piece of engine once again.

“As a courtesy gift, the team and I decided to give you a well-deserved year of free rides from Top Hat Cars.” The lean, top-hatted man handed Aster a small card with a promo code.

“Many apologies, once again, and we hope to see you riding with us again soon!” He tipped his hat, stepped into the back seat of the self-driving car parked in the driveway, and like that, he was gone.