It was the cheapest motel on the beltway. Dakota knew it was a crapshoot how large a dent his mother had made into the amount owed on his sole credit card. He’d nearly shit himself when the tired old man behind the front desk told him the room’s cost. Couldn’t Barclay suck him off in a Walmart parking lot? Was the bathhouse on Fannin Street really that gauche?

       “Just you tonight, young man?” The old man coughed.

       “Tried to make Louisiana, but I’m too exhausted to even think.”

       “Sign here. I’ll get your keycard. Ten bucks if you lose it.”

       The plan was simple, the plan to avoid paying for both himself and Barclay, his guest. He’d call Barclay from the room and disclose its number. Barclay would slip past the front desk, casual but quick. Most importantly, he’d conceal the pipe, crystal meth, lubricant, and other trappings of a dope fuck inside his cargo shorts’ numerous deep pockets.

       Dakota tried not to think about Finn crumpled on the floor, dead before he could remove the needle from his arm. It was all he thought about, however, and only the speed neutralized those thoughts, made them nebulous and innocuous, like Dakota’s love of puppies.

       The room was surprisingly spacious. He felt small perched on the edge of the bed. The mattress was hard as brick, the bedspread a vertigo-inducing plaid. He turned on the television but found himself too high to follow the intricacies of the Friends rerun. He drew the drapes. The possible view didn’t interest him. A battered air conditioner exhaled a current cold enough to rival the December air outside. Tweaked and ambivalent, he considered not answering when Barclay knocked. 

       They smoked the dope. They undressed. They smoked more. They fell onto the bed. There was nothing memorable in this scenario. Dakota didn’t find Barclay dull but became distracted by the possibility of more men. When Barclay visited the toilet, Dakota whipped out his smartphone and fired up Grindr, the app with which he brokered his sexual encounters.

       Grindr tracked the location of all the gay men in the user’s immediate vicinity. Not all of them were looking for sex, but most were horny, albeit selectively horny. A grid of profile pics spooled down the smartphone’s screen, the user’s finger determining how quickly the faces (and occasional torsos) flickered past. If the user tapped a certain profile pic, the picture expanded to fill the screen, the guy’s headline tucked into the lower left corner. Below blurbs like “Top Looking for Now” and “Lick My Ass,” you found how far that guy resided from you. Control-freak users could track a trick’s trek, the mileage dwindling as he neared your doorstep.

       “See anything promising?” Barclay peered over at the smartphone’s screen. 

       “The usual faggots and flakes.”

       “I can’t compete, you know.”

       “Compete? What do you—”

       “That app.” Barclay smiled ruefully. “It sucks you in.”

       “I’ll be done soon.” Neither man believed him.

       Barclay fired up a porn download, his laptop feeding into the room’s television. When Dakota activated his “white men only” filter, men over two hours away appeared on the screen. He looked at Finn’s profile pic twice before realizing it was him. He’d been dead six months. According to Grindr, he lurked 120 miles away. Dakota dropped the smartphone.

       “You all right, stud?” Barclay didn’t look up.

       There was no way Dakota could talk about Finn. He didn’t discuss his ex-lover with anyone. At least, he didn’t with anyone who saw him naked. He picked up the smartphone and refreshed the screen. Tucked among the grid of profile pics, still, was Finn. Dakota again tapped his profile pic. He’d come closer. Only 105 miles now separated Dakota from the embodiment of his darkest secret.

       He’d been a pretty young man, Finn. Not handsome or beautiful, but pretty. His face arranged itself in a way that pleased but did not excite. Dakota always envisioned him as the callow prince from one of Disney’s old-school animated epics: by story’s end, he’d prove his newfound maturity by foiling whatever evil plot threatened the kingdom. If Dakota persisted with this fanciful metaphor, however, it left him to fill the role of winsome maiden, forever anxious at the sidelines.

       Dakota had approached Finn, on a balmy June evening two years ago, offering his future prince a cosmopolitan. The drink had been intended for Dakota’s then-boyfriend, Grover. But from the moment he’d spied Finn’s earnest wholesomeness, Dakota had found thoughts of Grover increasingly rare.

       The general consensus on Dakota was clear: too fickle for marriage. He was handsome, he was witty, he was fun—and, before you knew it, he was gone. His fellow queers mocked what he firmly believed were painful upheavals, these un-couplings all demanding private and pious reflection. Often, he’d been forced—he didn’t enjoy breaking hearts!—to choose between loves old and new. 

       He wouldn’t have admitted this to another man, but he yearned for a lover to command his eye uninterrupted. Constant hunger for new flesh exhausted him. He’d vowed to make whatever compromises necessary to become, along with whichever partner, an old and tiresome queer couple who ignited envy among younger men. 

       Barclay narrowed his eyes in quiet alarm and asked if Dakota was all right. Beside him, a porn download played on his laptop, the same image simultaneously airing on the plasma television. The nude models’ moans, from both computer and TV, merged and spawned an uneasy stereo effect. Barclay offered Dakota the pipe, assured him the bowl wasn’t yet empty.

       In some dim, neglected recess of his mind, he knew Finn’s seemingly impossible return from the grave would require a sober strategy. That dim and neglected recess, however, forgot to raise its hand and be called on. Dakota sucked on the stem, birthing one immense white bank of smoke after another.

       “Feel better?” Barclay seemed mollified.

       Dakota nodded, the urge to confess exacerbated by the speed. Another dim, neglected recess of his mind, fortunately, insisted on discretion. He explained, in as casual a tone as possible, that a deceased lover had just surfaced on Grindr. 

       “Someone’s gotta be fucking with you, dude.” Barclay betrayed no sign of fear or wonder, and Dakota felt foolish for assuming this was anything more sinister than a prank.

       “Half the profile pics on that app are fake,” Barclay continued. Someone obviously had hijacked a photo of Finn from somewhere in cyberspace and created a bogus account. Barclay sneered, and it touched Dakota to see his trick express disdain on his behalf. “That’s one sick fuck.” He grinned. “Looks like you’ve made an enemy.”

       Dakota returned his grin as if the news delighted him. He waited for Barclay to turn away. He told Dakota he needed a shower. There was enough room for both, he added. After the dope, after the sex, Barclay was still trying to charm him. When did men who try become ripe for ridicule? 

       The bathroom door shut, and Dakota’s smile went flat. It was unnerving, his first moments alone following a trick. What to feel with no one watching, anticipating? It embarrassed him to sit only in his briefs. He scanned the room and located his clothes, scattered in a moment of long-expired lust. As if underwater, his movements were clumsy and slow. He almost didn’t notice the app make the thunk that announced a new message.

       His insatiable need to acquire more men fueled his thumbs, tapping this screen and that. He needed distraction from not-Finn’s ghoulish online return. Instead, a message from not-Finn greeted him: Be careful. Looks like you’ve made an enemy.

       Dakota sprung off the bed, gasping. Someone was in the room! Someone was listening! He checked behind the drapes: an uninspired panorama of the parking lot. They were on the second floor; no chance of anyone peeking in from outside. Barclay had left his smartphone on the bed. Eyes wide, Dakota was aware and awake and alive, blindly hoping someone hid under the bed. No one. He was alone, an evil world using his smartphone for access.

       He refreshed the screen and scrolled back to Finn’s profile pic. The information bar informed him that Finn was now less than 90 miles away. If traveling by car, only an hour and a half. He was traveling, however, too fast for Houston highways. Finn would arrive in less than half an hour at this steadily accelerating rate. Dakota’s heart pounded as he sat helpless, in his briefs, on the ugly bedspread. 

       Barclay said something from behind the bathroom door, but the running shower muffled him. Dakota gingerly tried the knob and found that his trick had locked him out. He needed Barclay to assure him this was a hoax, don’t be scared, this was a hoax, you’re not really a bad person.

       Dakota fumbled with his clothes, scanned the room for anything forgotten. Barclay remained oblivious in the shower. 

       He’d be pissed. Dakota couldn’t help that. He was headed for the safest haven he knew, desperate for explanations or maybe a reprieve. He slipped out the door, the shower falling silent. Dakota had made another enemy. 

       Speeding north on Highway 249, out of Houston, out of the sleaze and into the suburbs, Dakota dreaded the next thunk. Finn might write anything: an accusation, a threat, a spasm of grief. He never fiddled with his smartphone while driving, so he hadn’t refreshed the procession of profile pics since Finn’s message. How long had he been driving? Ten minutes, fifteen? He was too wired, and terrified, to do the math: if my dead ex-lover travels x miles every minute, then what time will he arrive at…?

       He hadn’t visited Grover in two months. They’d see one another on Twitter or Facebook or Snapchat or Instagram, and they’d banter like two men with full desire for, but no faith in, the other. He lived in a far corner of the county, an outlet mall dominating the neighborhood. He rented a garage apartment from a divorcée who demanded payment in cash and strictly forbade overnight guests; tonight, however, she was away at a revival. Dakota relied on his ex-lover, mild and pragmatic, to put his quixotic notions in necessary perspective. Shortly after he’d dumped Grover—but not soon enough—he’d realized that Grover had banished him from his life forever. What’s done is done, he reminded himself, but the tenor of integrity he strived for had long since departed.

       After Dakota’s wild story, Grover signed into his own Grindr account. His theory, he said, was that he should be able to see Finn’s profile pic, too, among the others. 

       “I didn’t know you used Grindr.” Dakota’s pang of disillusionment surprised him.

       “More accurately, it uses me.”

       “I wanna see your profile.”

       Grover, a whole head taller than Dakota, hoisted his smartphone above his head, beyond his guest’s reach. He arched an eyebrow, a small and measured gesture. “You’re being harassed by a cyber-ghost. Seeing my sad little selfie won’t help.” After Dakota relented, Grover’s thumbs danced upon the smartphone’s screen. His puzzlement wilted into worry. 

       Dakota had hoped a boost of his ex-lover’s sensibility would silence his fear. His voice thick and uneven, he asked Grover what he saw.

       “Finn’s profile pic isn’t on my grid,” he said. “I’ve refreshed it five goddamn times.”

       He asked to see Dakota’s smartphone, deploying his thumbs once more. Moments later, he shook his head, defeated, and returned the phone. “My only guess would be that someone’s hacking your phone from a remote location,” he said. “It’s like a puppet onstage with the puppeteer high above. Easy to forget he’s there.”

       “But what happens when he gets here? He’s moving so fast.”

       Grover reclined on his sofa, a monstrosity of cushions and fabric culled from discarded sofas. In his royal blue dressing gown and silk pajamas, his unexpected elegance ignited within Dakota a lukewarm and confusing desire. After a split, Dakota wished his ex-lovers to oblige him and lose their looks and charm and kindness. Romantic history was a tenacious temptress.

       “We’ll both wait on him,” Grover said. “Traveling that fast, he’ll be here soon enough.”

       “But he’s dead.”

       “It’s just a hacker, Cody.” Grover hadn’t called him that since their breakup. A silence followed the slip: a sad understanding passed between the two men.

       Grover cleared his throat. “On the off, off chance an actual physical being shows up, just ask him what he wants.”

       What Finn wanted? He’d lied to Finn the day of his suicide, even after promising the hysterical man, during their final phone conversation, that it would be done. If you ever fucking loved me, Finn had sobbed, make sure they get that envelope. If you ever fucking loved me. If there were an afterlife, he must’ve been furious, that fury at last manifesting itself in cyberspace.

       Six months before, he’d offered Finn, his would-be prince, a cosmopolitan meant for another man. It was a gesture, empty and soon forgotten—unless successful. Dakota refused to hold himself responsible for what followed. He was handsome, he was witty, he was fun….

       Tears threatened to descend. Grover had never seen him cry. To Dakota, that was sacrosanct, like watching a trick sleep for a few moments before beating the sunrise out the door. He refreshed the screen of his smartphone. Dakota and Grover had been talking for a bit. Who knew how much closer Finn had come? He’d been silent since spooking Dakota in the motel.

       His dead ex-lover, he learned, neared the 60-mile mark. He was 62 miles away, to be exact, and Dakota knew as the distance dwindled, he would need to be exact. Finn’s parents had moved into a smaller home after his death. He tried to recall their address. Finn’s mother had reached out to him a few days after the funeral. Hadn’t she told him?

       Dakota viewed suicide not as the ultimate white flag but, instead, as a failure of the imagination. When he’d broken the news to Finn, over the phone but at least not via text, he’d already envisioned himself with a new man. Indeed, an assortment of potential lovers had presented itself. Finn, on the other hand, had seemed, at least to Dakota, incapable of pondering any future that insisted on his absence. The heartbreaker hadn’t any idea how to bestow upon Finn this clarity of vision, this optimism. People with no imagination can’t imagine what it’s like to have one, and people with an imagination can’t imagine having none.

       “You know how relationships are,” he’d assured his ex, finally answering his cell on the tenth ring. “You’ll be shitting on my good name before your one-week anniversary.”

       Finn had never pretended that his solace provided a moment’s comfort. “We had a one-week anniversary.” He’d groan. “One month, two months, six months!”

       Dakota had returned home that evening, the evening of his lover’s death, Finn’s frantic final phone call looping endlessly inside his head. His warm body offered both evidence and rebuke to Dakota’s attempt at devotion. 

       Heroin. He’d plucked the syringe from Finn’s lifeless arm but had no idea what to do with it. He’d finally placed it, gently, on the glass coffee table next to Finn’s body. Upon the table, he’d found an envelope addressed to Mom and Dad. This was the message Finn had desperately wanted him to safeguard. He’d scanned the room, hoping Finn had allotted some last words to him, too. He’d lifted the sofa, wondering if beneath lurked a note festering with pathos.

       Dakota’s expected assortment of potential lovers had failed to arrive. No one, it seemed, was eager to date a man whose last lover chose death over an evening clubbing or afternoon shopping. Unconscious of whether it was payback, he hadn’t kept his word. Finn’s parents had blamed him for their son’s death. He’d skipped the funeral. He’d never opened the envelope, though, loathe to know what Finn had written, knowing he’d never speak, in this world, again.

       Creased and rumpled from months of hiding, the envelope remained in his back pocket. One day, he still promised himself, he’d grant his ex-lover’s dying request. Dakota, unfortunately, broke promises—to others and himself—like a stuntman breaks bones. 

       Finn’s parents still believed their son overdosed by accident. In fact, his friends and co-workers believed that as well. In the beginning, Dakota’s primary motive for silence had been to spare himself whatever painful message he carried in his back pocket. The shame of never coming forward, however, and the outcry likely ignited by the written revelation, muzzled him. He’d simply tripped over a lie, unavoidable as a weed, and hoped it might thrive—he’d shown it tenderness, vigilance, and care.

       Finn’s family sported an oddly spelled last name. Since his parents kept their landline in service, all Dakota needed was a quick stroll through the White Pages to get the address. Grover had promised he would call every hour to assure Dakota’s safety. Dakota drove to the south end of the city. Not a short drive—at least thirty minutes. When he refreshed Grindr, Finn was at 39 miles and counting.

       It was a modest, fearful neighborhood. Every bungalow boasted burglar bars. Mildewed furniture and standing ashtrays embarrassed the porches. Finn’s parents lived between a green old-model Cadillac rusting in a dirt driveway and a tool shed with flaking white paint, the door chained shut. Dakota’s mother had rescued him from the fallout of his shopping sprees; he’d known Finn came from a “working class” background.

       Dakota opened the screen door and knocked.

       No answer. No lights. Of course, it was almost two in the morning. They were obviously sleeping. He knocked louder. He called their names. Neighborhood dogs howled. Among the neighboring houses, a handful of windows blazed with new light. 

       They weren’t home. It hadn’t occurred to him that they might’ve had a life outside Dakota’s ham-fisted bid for redemption. His tremor worsened, more from terror than a pipe. His brow was damp. He fondled his back pocket, the tattered envelope inside. What the fuck was he doing? Knowing the truth wouldn’t benefit a soul. All pains, in his mind, were on level pegging.

       An old woman in curlers and an untied pink robe called out to him. Finn’s parents had gone to California. At least a month, maybe two. They’d be back before Easter, though. Did Dakota want to leave a message, drop off anything? He apologized, said it wasn’t important. I’ll try another time, he said. Anytime after Easter, the woman in curlers repeated.

       Back in his car, Dakota refreshed his screen. Finn had only 28 miles to go. He didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t return to Grover; a dim and neglected recess of his mind was convinced that “Finn,” whatever version of him was now in play, might wish Grover harm. He needed somewhere indoors but with a crowd, a mass of people to camouflage him. Finn couldn’t hurt what he couldn’t find.

       Finn’s parents would never learn the truth about their son. If he couldn’t tell them now, why tell them at all? Finn would reach him long before their return, and wasn’t his desperation to confess compelled solely by his fear of that reunion? If he’d finally admitted to himself that he would never show them Finn’s message, he should probably dispose of it. Quickly, before his curiosity overcame him. Quickly, before his guilt bested his fear.

       He ripped open the envelope. 

       Written in black laundry pen, all capital letters, centered on the page: HE DID TO ME WHAT WINTER DOES TO A BUDDING ROSE. His heartbeat dared his gasping breaths to keep up. His hands were damp. Every muscle in his body tensed as if there were a roll call. He held the note in his hand, motionless, until finally that part of his body detached itself. 

       I don’t understand, Dakota thought. 

       And then: I don’t need to understand. I don’t want to understand.

       It felt good to stop thinking. It felt good to blindly accept.

       By the time Dakota reached Montrose, Finn was at spell-out miles. He hadn’t intended to return here. This gay club was rowdier than its high-toned competitors, cheaper drinks but fewer hot bods. In winking red neon, above the wide main entrance, a sign greeted all: The Desperado Den. During their time together, Finn had always nagged Dakota to return to the place where a rerouted cosmopolitan had ignited passion. 

       After buying a beer, Dakota drank in the roughneck ambience. Being Tuesday, well drinks and mixed potions were half off. A drag revue on the club’s main dance floor was just concluding, garrulous queens blowing kisses and scooping up dollar bills. Men held drinks in one hand and smartphones in the other. A handful scanned Grindr’s turnstile grid of men. He checked his own phone: nine miles. He could now count the miles using only his fingers.

       He found a table on the lanai, a corner table, hardly enough room for chairs thanks to the bountiful plastic plants. Having no one share the view sparked a pain almost physical. These men can’t help me, he thought. It was stupid to hide. Let him find me. I’ve saved him a seat. Without looking at the screen, he powered off his smartphone. Nine miles, three miles, six miles: every journey invariably took you home. 

       A trim and dapper man, a waiter, stepped through the crowd, balancing a tray. A single drink caught a ride. 

       The waiter stopped at his table. A cosmopolitan—what else?

       “I didn’t order this,” Dakota said mildly.

       “Compliments of the gentleman at the bar.”

       “The bar by the entrance or the one in back?”

       “In the back, sir.”

       Dakota thanked him. He savored his cocktail’s alkaline jolt. Not thinking, he rose from his table and crossed the lanai back into the club. He’d neglected to call Grover. It had been well over two hours, nearing a third. Dakota hated to disappoint, but he did it so well.

       As promised, a man waited at the back bar. He reminded Dakota of a callow prince from an animated epic. After saving the kingdom, he’d come back for his fair maiden. When their eyes met, the man lifted his own cosmopolitan in toast. Dakota joined him. He was handsome, he was witty, he was fun. Let me show you, the man said, what winter does to a budding rose.


Thomas Kearnes holds an MA in film writing from UT-Austin. His fiction has appeared in Gulf Coast, Berkeley Fiction Review, The Adroit Journal, Gulf Stream Magazine, Sundog Lit and elsewhere. He has been nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize. He works as an English tutor and lives near Houston. His debut short story collection, ‘Texas Crude,’ is currently available from Lethe Press.

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