vintage photo circa 1914 of people standing in line

The First 200 by Ashley Naftule

158 tried to tune out the angry muttering behind her, but it was like turning your back on a wasp’s nest—you’re just counting the seconds until those buzzes turn into stings. Over the last ten hours, the angry muttering had steadily increased in volume. What was once an inarticulate gnashing of teeth had amplified into a GODDAMN MOTHERFUCKER that the person behind her was chewing on like a thick wad of bubblegum. 158 could feel that bubble building behind her, pushing its pink skin against hers. It finally popped when 159 grabbed her sleeve and gave it a hard tug. “Hey! Hey, asshole! No cuts.” 

158 finally turned around to face her neighbor. 159 was an older woman—Short, ash-colored hair, gold-rimmed spectacles as thick as Oreos. Her lined face was pinched in a deep scowl. “I saw you cut,” 159 hissed. “You better move to the back before I tell the others.”

158 hadn’t cut in line, but she had seen what happens to cutters. Someone had tried to slide into the 1-50 section and gotten called out immediately; the Elect, so close to attaining the Prize, were magnanimous enough to send that cutter to the back of the line with nothing but an “oh, you scamp” chuckle and fingerwave. The first one hundred were guaranteed to get the Prize; what difference did it make if one or two people tried to slide into the middle?

The poor bastard who tried to cut in front of 201 wasn’t so lucky.

158 saw a cluster of people from 190-210 encircle the cutter and beat him into a bloody tangle of shattered bones and loose teeth. Even now, that broken cutter lay moaning on the sidewalk, begging for help. The queue organizers left him there as a warning to anyone else harboring wild ambitions of leapfrogging their way to the front of the line.

“You better move,” 159 whispered, giving her sleeve another urgent tug. “Don’t think I won’t.” 

The Prize was different each time. Sometimes it was a new smartphone. Or a pair of limited edition artisanal sneakers. Or free healthcare. One line in Seattle won debt forgiveness for the first two hundred in line. Nobody knew what was waiting for them at the end of this line, but they were willing to fight tooth and nail to get their hands on it. Even this shrunken old woman, who was probably someone’s beloved grandmother or volunteer librarian outside the line. 

“I’ll kick your little chiclets in myself,” 159 said, jabbing a finger at 158’s teeth. “Such nice teeth you have. Did you get them from last year’s line?”

Last year’s queue gave free dental work to the first eighty in line; 158 had missed it by two people, trapped in the 83rd spot in line. She had to get her new teeth the old-fashioned way: On loan from downtown’s First National Organ Bank.

“I’ve been standing in front of you this whole time,” 158 snarled back at her accuser. “I’ve got the time-stamp scan on my watch to prove it.” The old woman barked a laugh. “You think anybody’s going to bother looking at your receipt? This lot? They’ll be too busy tearing you into little pieces.”

158 knew she was right—Angry mobs weren’t known for giving dotted i’s and crossed t’s much mind. It’s far easier to pick up a pitchfork than a nuance.

158 thought about the Prize. She thought about her kids back home, her sick father, the overdue mortgage on her container house. Whatever was at the end of this line could be worth the wait. Even a fancy pair of shoes could be sold second-hand for a few hundred—Enough to keep the lights on and the meds refilled. 

The only issue was the cut-off. They never announced in advance how many people would be in the Elect. Sometimes the cut-off was 125 or 150; sometimes it could be as much as 300. Sitting pretty in the middle 100’s, 158 had a good chance of getting in. But sometimes the cut-off was odd—131, 149, 208, 299. Everybody standing between you and the Prize was a potential hurdle to clear.

158 looked at the old woman in the queue. The old woman whose breath smelled like Ricola, who wore a paisley shawl with a golden owl pin on her shoulder, who probably got called Nana or Gram Cracker by someone whose breath smelled like Fruit Gushers. The old woman whose hazel eyes burned with desperation, hoping that whatever was at the end of this wait is worth the degradation.

158 looked into that face and knew what she had to.

“We got a cutter,” 158 shouted at the people behind her as she pushed 159 into the arms of the grumpy giant standing in spot 160. “This bitch is trying to cut in front of you guys.”

158 didn’t look back at the hive buzzing behind her. The screams of denial, the enraged condemnations, the sounds of limbs popping out of socket. She stood in place, waiting for the line to move. A light flashed on her watch. Looking down, she saw on the screen that she had moved up in the queue. She was 157 now.

Ashley Naftule is a writer and theater artist from Phoenix, AZ. He’s been published in Longreads, Pitchfork, Bandcamp, Rinky Dink Press, Barren Magazine, Bright Wall/Dark Room, The Outline, Coffin Bell Journal, Moonchild Magazine, Four Chambers Press, Amethyst Review, Bone & Ink Press, The Molotov Cocktail, and The Hard Times. He’s a playwright and the Artistic Director of Space55 theatre.

Lead image: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division: George Grantham Bain Collection. “Awaiting relief — Paris” [between ca. 1914 and ca. 1915]. Digital image. Retrieved from http://www.loc.gov/pictures