The BSFA Awards will be announced this weekend at EasterCon in Manchester. You can read my shortlisted story below. If you’re attending the event, I hope to see you there.
RIDE THE BLUE HORSE
By Gareth L. Powell
WE WERE breaking into shipping containers the day we found the blue horse.
My friend Dan had convinced me we should give it a shot. The stacks were dangerous, but since getting the sack from the call centre, we were desperate.
“I heard of a guy two towns over,” Dan said, rocking back and forth on his heels in the call centre parking lot, “who cracked a container of canned fruit. Peaches, cherries, and mandarins – stuff you just don’t see any more. It made him rich.”
“Rich enough to leave town.”
We had to walk to the freight yard, and it took us the whole day. Heat shimmered off the empty road. The place had been abandoned since we were kids. With the big ships gone, it just hadn’t been economical to keep open. And once the port authority stopped dredging, it only took a couple of years for silt to choke the harbour. All that was left now were these rusting container stacks, and the wiry little green fireworks of grass that had smashed their way up through the shattered tarmac.
The perimeter fence had been broken down in several places.
“Are you sure there’s going to be anything left?” I said.
Dan gave me one of his looks. He was still wearing his call centre clothes, dark jeans with a white shirt and black tie, and his top button was undone.
“Look at the size of this place. It’s about a bazillion square kilometres. There are literally thousands of crates.” He stepped through the fence with the sprightly confidence of a door-to-door evangelist. “The ones at the edges may have been looted, but I’ll bet you there’s still plenty of good shit further in.”
“You’d better be right.”
“Of course I am.” He clapped his hands together and rubbed them briskly. “Now come on, Spelman, let’s hustle.”
As it turned out, he was right. But we had to open six crates before we found her.
The first three were full of plasma TVs, electric kettles, and other unusable junk. The fourth was empty, and the fifth strewn with the discarded rags of a shipment of long-forgotten immigrants.
At that point, I was ready to give up for the night. The sun had gone down and the sky was ripening towards the colour of a day-old bruise. Dan convinced me to continue.
“Just one more.” He slapped the side of the next container in line and the metal made a deep booming sound. “Come on,” he said, “I’ve got a great feeling about this one.”
Unfortunately, Dan injured himself as we were prying off the lock. The crowbar slipped, and the end of it gashed his palm.
“Are you okay?”
“Just peachy.” I watched him suck the wound. Thankfully, it didn’t seem deep. We both knew we didn’t have enough money to get him a tetanus shot.
With his hand still in his mouth, he kicked the door.
“Get this sucker open, Spelman.”
“Yes, sir.” I stooped to retrieve the fallen crow bar, and carefully popped the lock.
The door opened on rusty hinges.
“What have we got?”
I frowned into the gloom.
“Some jerry cans and kit bags… and something wrapped in a tarpaulin. I think it might be a car.”
Dan pushed past me.
“Well, there’s no need to sound so disheartened.”
He crouched in front of the covered vehicle and pulled at the edge of its shroud.
The cloth came away and he stood there like a conjuror awaiting the applause of the crowd. I looked at what he had uncovered.
“Pretty?” He dropped the edge of the tarpaulin and walked around to the driver’s door. His fingertips brushed the blue-painted bodywork. “You don’t even know what this is, do you, Spelman?”
He shook his head sadly, as if disappointed in me.
“It’s a 1960s Ford Mustang with a V8 engine and four-speed manual gearbox.” Dan was quite the student of classic Americana. Plus, his dad had once owned a garage out near the Interstate. He opened the door and slid behind the wheel. “And the keys are in the ignition.”
I walked over and kicked one of the jerry cans. The dull thump told me it was full. I unscrewed the lid.
“This is petrol. And these bags are full of camping supplies and dehydrated ration packs.”
Dan was beside me in an instant.
“Put all of it in the trunk.”
I raised an eyebrow. “You think it’s worth something?”
“Are you kidding?”
He helped me load the car, and then we both climbed in.
“You know what this is?” He gave the steering wheel an affectionate pat. “It’s somebody’s cache. It’s their end-of-the-world back-up plan, only they never came back for it.” He laughed. “Just imagine for a moment, some wannabe Mad Max trapped in a departure lounge in Washington or Buenos Aires, knowing the planet’s going to hell but being unable to reach all the gear he’s so carefully squirrelled away.”
He pulled a pair of sunglasses from the glove box, and admired himself in the rearview mirror.
“So,” I said, “how much do you think we can sell it for?”
He looked aghast.
“Where’s your imagination, Spelman? This might be the last functional car in America. Do you know how far a blue horse like this could get us on a full tank of gas? At least two or three hundred miles. And then we’ve got the refills in the trunk.”
“And when they run out, then what?”
“And then we’ve got all this neat camping gear, and these rations. I’ll bet they’re super tasty. They’ll keep us going until we find someplace.” He put his hand on my shoulder. I could feel warm, sticky blood soaking through my t-shirt. “We can hit the road right now, and never come back to this ungrateful crap-hole.”
My skin prickled the way it did before a thunderstorm.
“Nope.” He lit the headlights and we blinked against their sudden brilliance.
“One question.” I fastened my seatbelt. “Do you actually know how to drive?”
He turned the key in the ignition. The engine coughed twice, and then bellowed. The metal walls amplified the sound. I caught a whiff of carbon monoxide. Dan released the parking brake.
“No, I can’t say I do.” With his bloodied hand, he crunched the gearstick into first and eased up the clutch. We began to roll forwards. “But really, how hard can it be?”
© Gareth L. Powell, 2015.
First published on Medium.com, July 2015
Image courtesy of Barn Images.