Tim Jordan slipped his thumbs through the straps of his backpack and breathed deeply, the warm, clean mountain air filling his lungs and his heart. He stopped, looked around at the towering Redwoods, and nodded happily. This...this was where he belonged.
Next to him, Dave Parker slumped his shoulders. "How much farther?"
Tim cocked his head in thought. "Oh...two miles."
"Two miles?" Dave asked, looking at him.
Tim nodded. "Yeah. About."
Tim had known Dave for close to three years: Their offices at Clayton Tech back in Sacramento were right next door to each other. They had passed many boring hours over the years talking by the water cooler, and had come to know one another well enough that Tim no longer considered Dave a mere acquaintance. He was more of a...chum? Buddy? Something like that. A week before, Tim invited Dave on a hike. He figured it would be fun to get outside and talk. But Dave...poor Dave was a wreck after only two miles. Tim didn't get it. He seemed to be in good shape.
"If you wanna go back to town and grab a beer or something, that's fine with me."
Dave shook his head. "No. I wanna see this spot."
Tim smiled. His "spot" was a ridge commanding a sweeping view of the Santa Clara Valley and its endless rolling sea of trees. Standing up there, Tim felt close to God...even though he didn't believe in god.
Presently, Dave pulled a crumpled pack of Marlboros from the breast pocket of his vest and plopped one into his mouth. He lit it and sighed contentedly.
"That would explain it," Tim said.
"What?" Dave asked.
"Why you're dying after two miles. You're killing your lungs."
Dave waved one hand. "I'm fine. My doctor says my lungs are perfect."
"You're doctor's a quack."
"Best damn doctor in the city."
Tim leaned against a boulder flanking the trail and took a drink of water while Dave finished his smoke. When he was done, he dropped the still lit butt on the ground.
"Alright. Let's go."
Tim sagged. "Dude...you can't just leave that there."
Dave looked honestly perplexed. "What?"
"Your butt! You're gonna cause a forest fire."
Dave chuckled. "What, is Smokey Bear gonna get me?"
"No," Tim said, "worse. They..."
Before he could finish, a beefy man in a maroon track suit with white stripes on the sides emerged from the brush, startling Tim. He was about fifty, and his black hair was streaked with white. He wore a badge on his ample bosom. RANGER DEPUTY, it said.
For a moment he stood on the west side of the trail with his hands on his hips, so close to Tim that Tim could smell his aftershave. When he spoke, it was with a thick Brooklyn accent. "What the fuck is that?"
Dave looked stricken. "W-What?"
"That fuckin thing on the ground. What, you got little Indians sendin' smoke signals?"
"It's...it's just a cigarette."
"Just a cigarette? Just a cigarette? You know what just a cigarette can do? You see this fuckin' forest? Now imagine it's on fire. You got trees fallin' down, fuckin' rabbits gettin' cooked alive, little baby deers with their fur burnin' up and their eyes meltin' out. Is that what you want?"
Dave held his hands up. "Look, I..."
"You like startin' fires? Makes you feel like a big man?"
"When you start fires...does your dick get hard?"
"So it doesn't work at all then. I get it. Instead of bustin' a load like a real man, you come out here and toss cigarettes around like Johnny fuckin' Appleseed. "One for you, one for you, and one for you.""
"It's not like that, I..."
"That's not how it is? So you're just fuckin' stupid. "Hey, let me throw my cigarette on the ground. What's the worst that could happen? It's only been a fuckin' month since it rained.""
"I'm sorry; I wasn't thinking," Dave admitted.
"Sorry? Yeah, yeah, that brings all the little woodland creatures back to life, heals up all the firemen walking around lookin' like Freddy Krueger. "I'm sorry, Vinnie! I didn't mean to burn twenty million acres! It was just a cigarette, Vinnie." You make me sick. You know...it's assholes like you who ruin it for everyone else. I wanna come out here and bury a body, but some piece of shit couldn't fuckin' put out his cigarette and now badda-bing, it's all ash and fuckin' soot."
"I'll pick it up..."
"Yeah, you're gonna pick it up, or I'm gonna stab your boyfriend here in the face."
"I'm not..." Tim started.
"Your husband. Whatever you wanna call him. Now pick it up."
Dave bent over and picked up the butt.
"Eat it or I'm gonna slap you on a meathook and use your nutsack as a punchin' bag."
Dave looked from Vinnie to the smoldering butt and back again.
"I ain't got all day."
Dave tentatively opened his mouth.
"Pretend it's his dick if you have to."
Dave plopped the butt into his mouth and struggled to swallow, wincing. When it was down, he gasped and reached for Tim's canteen, but Vinnie snatched it and threw it into the bushes. "Fuck you. Water's for people who don't start fires."
Dave was on his knees now, coughing and holding his throat.
"How'd it taste? Was it good?"
Dave was choking.
"Fuckin' hurt, didn't it? What that fuckin' thing did to your insides it coulda done to this forest."
Vinnie looked at Tim, and Tim's stomach turned.
"And you were gonna let him do it."
"No, no," Tim said, lifting his hands and backing away. "I was trying to tell him not to."
"Yeah?" Vinnie asked, nodding. "Good."
Vinnie looked down at Dave. "You should be more like your friend here. You don't see him gettin' off on burnin shit down."
"I'm sorry!" Dave wailed.
"Think twice next time."
Shaking his head, Vinnie went off the way he came, muttering under his breath.
"I tried to tell you," Tim said, helping Dave up. "They got the mob out here now."