by Bryce Emley
Something about the smell of smoke made Gret check his flannel’s pocket for a pack he knew wasn’t there. It wasn’t just the familiar tobacco haze around the guy outside his motel room, but also the charred, elemental scent that permeated Heber. Smoke was everywhere, inescapable. He might as well drop his suitcase and join it.
The smoker was almost done when Gret approached him, his gaze lost in the miles of pines riding the valley up into the horizon. He must have been at least ten years younger than Gret and had a restless air about him—his unwashed clothes, how he mindlessly turned the wheel of his lighter as if just to hear it scrape.
Gret bummed a cigarette and introduced himself: a contract logger starting the next morning nearby. The smoker said he was Teddy, a travel writer, then something about a “different kind of logging.” After he flicked his cigarette butt into the dirt parking lot he said he was opening a bottle of Jack and Gret was welcome to join him.
“It’s Sunday,” Teddy said. “Not like you can get anything in town, anyway.”
Gret finished his cigarette and went back to his room to unpack. It wasn’t late, wasn’t even dark yet, but it seemed an odd thing to get drunk in a motel room with a guy he’d only just met. He plopped onto the bed and flipped on the TV.
As Gret scanned the channels, he could hear the stilted percussion of plastic striking plastic from the next room: three clacks, silence, and then three more clacks, over and over.
Teddy answered the door holding a clear plastic cup. Gret didn’t correct him when he called him Brett—years of contract work and motel stays had taught him not to bother correcting people he’d probably never see again.
Clothes, food wrappers, and empty bottles riddled the floor and surfaces in Teddy’s room, and the stiff musk of stale cigarette smoke clung lightly to the air. As Teddy ripped the plastic off another cup with his teeth and then filled it, Gret noticed a plastic dartboard propped against the wall by the TV just opposite of where his bed was.
Teddy handed over the cup and lifted his toward Gret. “To Heber, Arizona.”
Gret clacked his cup against Teddy’s. “To Heber.” Gret took a quick sip, but Teddy threw his head back and finished his drink. “You never told me what brought you here. Doing a story or something?”
“Why not here?” Teddy called back as he headed for the counter. He took the bottle back to the edge of his bed then poured more into Gret’s cup as his phone began to ring. He took it out of his pocket and checked the screen, silenced it, then tossed it onto the bed and gestured toward the only chair in the room.
“Everyone’s got a reason to be in a motel,” Gret said, sitting down. “Not the most interesting town.”
“That’s why I’m here. There’s something to say for little nowhere-towns, you know?”
“So you’re here because it’s in the middle of nowhere?”
“Places like this are hard to find. Most of the time when you stay somewhere, it’s some rundown interstate town that only exists because of Cracker Barrel and La Quinta. You don’t see sad strip malls or foreclosed buildings in towns like this. This is the kind of town that knows what it is, doesn’t try to attract anybody. It just is. You know?”
Gret didn’t really know, but he took a sip and nodded.
“Plus it’s goddamn beautiful. Trees and canyons and rivers. We don’t get this in Phoenix.”
“That’s where you’re from?”
Teddy twirled his wrist in circles, watched his whisky swirl around before throwing it back. “We moved there from Tulsa a couple months ago.”
“You and your family?”
Teddy took his lighter and started flicking the wheel again. “My girlfriend and I.”
“Her parents are there.”
“Oh. Are they—sick?”
“No. They’re fine.”
Somehow this was explanation enough for Gret to feel he understood—there weren’t that many reasons for a young couple to move near parents, he thought. He finished his cup.
“That’s how I found Heber.” Teddy poured out another drink and refilled Gret’s. “We cut through here on the way and it just stuck with me. It’s so hidden. So—alone. You know?”
Taking a final swig from his cup, Gret thought he did know as the liquor started to wind his brain around a kind of foggy logic.
Both went silent for a moment until Teddy got up and pulled the darts from the board, crossed the room, and threw them. “Do you have kids, Brett?”
“No, no kids,” Gret said, setting his cup on the table. “You?”
Teddy stepped toward the board but tripped on something and tumbled onto his bed. Without getting up, he lit a cigarette.
“This a smoking room?”
From the bed, Teddy took in a deep draw then released a lazy billow. “Maybe.”
The whiskey’s buzz whirled into a warm fatigue as Gret sat silent for a while. “Well, looks like you’ll be around a while—probably see you tomorrow.”
From the bed, Teddy waved through smoke, his cigarette jutting upward like a lone lit pine. “’Til then.”
At 4:05 a.m. Gret slapped his alarm clock and lay half-awake until the sound of Teddy’s door closing rattled him awake.
“You’re up early,” Gret said as he stepped outside, tucking his shirt in.
Teddy offered over his pack of cigarettes. “Haven’t even been down yet. I get my best thinking done at night.”
Bloodshot eyes, dull skin—Teddy had already looked tired the day before. Through the thin veil of pine smoke illuminated by motel lights, he looked unchanged as he drew from his cigarette and coughed.
“Forest towns always this smoky?”
“Just when there’s controlled burns.”
“To get rid of dead trees or something?”
Gret pointed with his cigarette toward the woods sprawling out in the valley. “Keeps the natural fires in check.”
“Natural fires? Like spontaneous combustion?”
“The pines’ resin catches fire on its own every now and then. Gets out of control if people don’t manage it with smaller fires.”
Teddy held his breath for a moment, then let smoke pour from his nostrils. “Why’s that happen—ecologically? Seems self-destructive for trees to burn themselves down all the time.”
“Fertilizes the ground, lets new saplings grow in.”
Teddy studied the darkness for a moment, turning his lighter-wheel. “So the adult trees have to burn down to let the new ones in?”
Teddy stared down at the dim cherry of his cigarette for a while before flicking his ashes to the earth below.
The parking lot outside the motel was empty when Gret got back. As he stepped into his room he found a note on his floor:
Guess it’s time to let the resin burn. Thanks.
Gret couldn’t think what he did for Teddy, but thought somehow he knew what it meant.
Below the signature was a dark smudge of what must have been cigarette ash that had spilled onto the white sheet.
Bryce is a freelance writer and MFA student at NC State. His work can be found in Best American Experimental Writing 2015, The Normal School, Mid-American Review, Prairie Schooner, Your Impossible Voice, etc., and he serves on staff for Raleigh Review and BULL: Men’s Fiction.