A shanty town has sprung up around the entrance of Best Buy. Tents, small and large, cluster near the building, hoping to catch the wisps of ambient heat escaping from the store’s foundation. A few of the more resourceful squatters have brought generators, heaters, sub-zero sleeping bags and, in the event that things go south, as they so often can, an extra AK-47 or 2.
The vibe is one of ordered lawlessness as I approach. People mingle amongst the dumpster fires, drinking cups of hot soup filled with the flesh of feral dogs. Protein is scarce in the line, but necessary to maintain the energy and morale required to defend against roving bands of marauders and line-budgers. When I hit the edge of the village, a pair of child-soldiers in makeshift armor stop me with improvised spears and ask for my papers.
I produce a knife in my right hand, a hundred dollar bill in my left. “The choice is yours,” I say. They trade glances and accept the bribe.
“Report to Kurt,” the younger of the two says, gesturing at a six-man tent at the head of the line. “He’ll show you around. If you leave his side, no one can guarantee your safety.”
I nod and head for the tent, whistling to make myself known.
It takes me no time to find Kurt. He’s perched on an upended five-gallon bucket near the front of his tent, sharpening a scimitar on a whetstone. Even now, in a period of relative peace, he wears the glimmering shirt of lightweight armor, a flexible mosaic of shattered DVD’s from years past, hot-glued to a Wisconsin Badgers sweater: a symbol of previous wars, prior conquests.
“Greetings, outsider,” Kurt says, rising from his seat and offering me a traditional warrior’s handshake. “I’m told you’ve come to learn about the line?”
“Yes,” I reply. “I’ve never been in the line myself. I’d like to find out what it’s all about.”
“Never been in a line,” Kurt says, his eyes suddenly glistening. “A summer child, not yet haunted by the specter of war. Come, I’ll show you around.”
He leads me along the row of tents hugging the side of the Best Buy, occasionally calling out to one of the people busying themselves with the daily tasks of the line.
“This is Jerry,” Kurt says, pointing at a tower of a man that stands nearly six feet tall. From a distance I can tell that Jerry has seen action. Beyond the cold stare and the bloodshot eyes, the bridge of his nose flares down the center hinting at several cycles of breaking and mending. “Jerry is one of the enforcers I keep on hand to hold order in the line. Good guy. Heads up a small group of Black Friday mercenaries that hire themselves out to the highest bidder. For the last few years, that’s me.”
“Do you have to use him much? I mean, does it really get that bad?” I ask.
Kurt laughs. His voice is two sheets of rough slate rubbed together. “Yes. A time or two. Yes.”
I wait, hoping my hesitation will prod him to divulge more information.
“Listen,” he says, going on. “We’re talking rock-bottom prices in there. The promise of treasures like those that wait just beyond those doors…” he trails off, his eyes dreamy, unfocused. When he returns from wherever he’s gone, he looks a little ashamed. “It’s enough to make people crazy. It’s my job to make sure that doesn’t happen. That’s why I’m here, why I do this.”
We walk on, past the humming of Kurt’s generator, the musky odors of boiling dog and vermin, and the frantic scratching of line-dwellers as they make their plan of attack for the moment the doors open.
“Those are the Anderson brothers,” Kurt says. The brothers are huddled around a card table examining a crudely assembled diorama of the Best Buy sales floor. Four green plastic army-man figures, one for each brother, are positioned in a tight cluster in the Audio Electronics section of the store.
“They’re after headphones,” Kurt continues. “Special headphones, designed by a doctor. Hypo-allergenic, or orthopedic or something I guess. Normally $700.00 a pair, but shaved down to a measly $150.00 for Black Friday. No limit. They’ll get ’em, too. Those boys have been in the shit for years. They know the game.”
One of the brothers, noticing our scrutiny, lifts his eyepatch to display the empty socket. Tiny curls of steam rise from the damp flesh exposed to the crisp November air. He spits a black wad of tobacco at my feet and growls.
“Careful,” Kurt whispers. “My presence can only do so much. These boys have been snorting wizard dust for the last few hours as part of their Viking battle preparation ritual.”
I step back gingerly, never turning away from the feral brothers or their diorama. Something dogs my vision and I notice that bits and pieces of several red army-men have been spread throughout the aisles and shelves. Are these grim proxies for the fallen, or simply extras left in place during the heat of planning? I’m afraid to ask.
The further back in line we travel, the more chaotic things become. The crowd expands and contracts like a living, breathing thing, surging toward the locked Best Buy doors. Kurt’s face becomes anxious as he notes the scores of newcomers swelling the end-line ranks.
“Fair weather standers,” Kurt mutters. “No respect for the game. They show up last minute and join the line — MY line — and expect the same respect as the warriors up-front. Parasites. They’ll suck up the savings in there, regardless of whether they’ve earned it or not.”
As he finishes his rant, a couple, rosy-cheeked and smiling despite the cold, approach to ask the time. I show them the face of my watch and they thank me.
“Any idea when the doors open?” the man asks.
“Tell them nothing,” Kurt says, swatting a protective hand over my chest and pushing me back a step. “Give them nothing at all.”
“Hey, man. We just want-”
Kurt moves faster than I expect of a man his age. His hand clamps on the man’s throat, his knuckles vibrating and white. “I know what you want. I know exactly what you want. You want the savings. The very same savings that I’ve been here waiting on for days upon cold days. But I won’t let you have it. I am the Cobra that swallows the world. The Cobra that swallows all of the savings, all of the rock-bottom prices, all of the deals so crazy, so mad, that one is forced to wonder how the store even remains open when they’re practically giving their inventory away at prices like this. The kind of deals that leave one richer simply by virtue of purchasing goods at such an incredible savings. I am the Cobra that, through the alchemy of discount pricing, purchases wealth, such wealth, that the rules of man and nature lose every hint of meaning and I become a god-king, adorned in cell-phones, Blu-Rays, laptops. I am a pharaoh. A king. A god-king cobra.”
By the time he trails off, the man has gone slack. Kurt’s hand is the only thing keeping him upright. The wife sobs, watching the life flee from her husband’s body. There is a dull thud as Kurt drops the corpse and attempts to compose himself.
I can’t say where they come from, but an army of stick-wielding youth have surrounded us. They drag the body away, around the corner of the Best Buy. A whisper of smoke finds my nose and I recognize the burning meat, the tangy reek of the funeral pyre, and I wonder how many broken bodies have come to their end around that same corner.
“The tour is over,” Kurt says, shoving me away. “The hour is upon us.”
He produces a polished ox-horn from beneath his armor and blows a single, mournful note into the crisp air.
“Now is the time, my children. Now is the time!”
The crowd surges forward, pushing against the sliding doors. The salesmen inside are wide-eyed and pale, terrified.
The doors open. All become one.
The last thing I see as I flee to a safe distance is Kurt, scimitar in hand, surrounded by sellswords, cutting his way toward the shining racks of blu-rays.