EVERYTHING was ready for the surprise party. Chase had decorated their Seattle condo with gold, purple, and white streamers and matching balloons, giving the place a Mardi Gras feel. A specially made banner hung above the dining room table with Toby’s high school graduation photo and the words, “Over the Hill? Happy 40th, Toby!” emblazoned across its slick white surface.
Their condo, in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, felt alive with the electricity of anticipation. Even what lay outside the windows, which overlooked the Space Needle and downtown Seattle, appeared to be lit up for a party this early spring evening.
Chase had gathered all of Toby’s friends for the bash, swearing them to secrecy and getting them in on the weeks-long planning for his partner’s milestone birthday. They were spread out now throughout the kitchen, dining, and living areas, clutching cocktails in their hands, chattering about Toby and how he looked too young to actually be forty, and how surprised he would be when he walked in the door. Chase himself relished the idea of Toby’s handsome face wide-eyed in surprise and delight. No one appreciated a party like Toby. Chase saw his man in his mind’s eye, even as he bustled around the condo, making sure the hors d’oeuvres were in place. The dining room table was laden with bowls of Pad Thai, pot stickers, chicken satay with peanut sauce, and prawns enveloped in wonton wrappers; Chase had dusted the tablecloth with purple glitter. He could just picture Toby’s face—the short blond hair, the wide-set blue eyes, the finely chiseled features—alive with total shock and pleasure at everything Chase had assembled to celebrate his special day.
The food and the local friends weren’t the only things Chase couldn’t wait for Toby to see. Diagonal to the dining room table, Chase had a bar set up, sparing no expense to have it stocked with top shelf liquor, wine, beer, and mixers. And the bartender was yet another in a long line of surprises Chase had arranged. The guy was pure eye candy—Latino with olive skin, buzzed black hair, the darkest eyes Chase had ever seen, and ripped and bulging muscles that should have put him on the cover of a fitness magazine rather than behind a bar. These were visible because his outfit consisted only of tight black pants and red suspenders. Best part was that the guy seemed truly affable and friendly. His excitement at Toby’s arrival did not seem in the least faked.
And the best surprise of all stood in the corner by the windows with the view they had bought the place for. Mike. Chase had been thrilled when Toby’s old best friend from Chicago had agreed to fly out for the party. Mike and Toby went back years, to their college days at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. When Chase and Toby lived in the windy city, he had to admit to himself that he would be lying if he said he wasn’t jealous of the two men’s closeness, but Mike had always seemed genuinely happy that Toby had found Chase, after years of searching for the one in and out of leather bars all over Chicago’s north side.
Although Toby had left the leather scene behind—and sold off his chaps, harness, and bar vest on Craigslist—Mike had never gotten away from it, which was evident even now. Mike was tall, verging on six-five, with buzzed salt and pepper hair, a matching beard, pale gray eyes, and a deep tan. In another life, Chase would have gone weak in the knees at the sight of this hunk. Now, he seemed more like a loving brother-in-law. But once he had arrived at their condo from Sea-Tac airport, earlier that day, in jeans and a Bears T-shirt, he had changed into full leather regalia for the party—tight black leather jeans, a clinging T-shirt that showed off his ripples and bulges to good advantage, leather vest, and combat boots. He looked like some sort of Tom of Finland fantasy.
Apparently, Chase was not the only one who thought so. Right now, Mike had a full entourage of new friends gathered around him, all Seattle men, dressed in their usual garb of sweat shirts, fleece, jeans, and, even in March, sandals (some with socks, but that was Seattle for you).
Chase hurried over to Mike and managed to pull him away from the crowd of fawning admirers that had gathered around him. The two men stood near the front door. Chase eyed Mike. “So are you excited?”
“Oh God, yes. It’s been how long since we’ve all gotten together? Seems like forever.” Mike asked.
Chase thought about it. The last time he and Toby had been back to Chicago must have been four years ago, when they returned to the city in August, in miserable heat, to visit Mike and go to the Halsted Market Days street festival. It had been a fun time, but both Toby and Chase were ready to return to Seattle’s cool temps and summer sunshine by the end of that week, a sure sign that Seattle had usurped Chicago as ‘home’. This trip was Mike’s first to Seattle. He had planned on staying a week. Chase brought himself back to the present and answered Mike, “I’m thinking four, maybe even five years ago.”
Mike shook his head. “That long, huh? We should never let that happen again.” He pulled Chase close in a bear hug. “You guys mean too much to me to see you so infrequently.”
Chase pulled away, a little breathless. The guy didn’t know his own strength; he’d almost squeezed him to death. Not that Chase minded—in fact, the truth was he was a little turned on by Mike’s closeness and brute force—but here he was, waiting for his lover to come home to the surprise party he had spent the last several weeks of his life planning. He looked over the room, which had gone a little hushed, with several people moving to the windows to peer outside.
He turned back to Mike, glancing down at his watch. It was a quarter ‘til seven. “I don’t know where that man is; he’s usually home by six fifteen at the latest.”
“He’ll be here,” Mike said, grinning. “Probably just got tied up at work.” His eyes went a little faraway. “I can just picture it.”
Chase punched his shoulder. “Cut it out! I know what you’re picturing.” Just then, he felt the vibration and then heard the ring tone he had set up just for Tony on his cell phone. He pulled the device out of his pocket, glancing at Mike and saying, “Speak of the devil.”
He pressed accept. “Hey honey. Get held up at work?” Toby worked at Microsoft as a technical writer and the days could often get really long—especially when one figured in the commute from the campus in suburban Redmond.
“Yeah. I won’t bore you with the details. Sorry I didn’t call you sooner. I just wanted to get out of there and then I fell asleep on the bus. I guess I really am forty! No energy!”
“Well, we’ll fix that when you get home.”
“What’s for dinner?”
“Leftovers. We still had chili left from Wednesday night.”
“Sounds good. And Chase?”
“I’m glad you’re respecting my wishes to not do anything special for my birthday. I really do just want a quiet evening at home with the man I love.”
Chase thought he’d get that later, when they were asleep and everyone had gone home. He looked around at the throng, grateful they had all gone quiet when his cell phone rang. Someone had even been thoughtful enough to pause the playlist of eighties dance music that was going. He felt a little twinge, hoping Toby would truly be thrilled—and not disappointed or angry with him—for planning this shindig.
After all, how many times does a guy turn forty?
“You know I love you, honey.” Chase looked at Mike, who had an expectant expression on his face. “So where are you? Close?”
“Better. I’m just stepping off the bus.” Chase heard the punctuation of the hiss of the pneumatic doors closing and the bass of the bus’s engine as it roared off. The drop off was just at the corner. Surprise party time was almost here!
Toby said, “I can stop and pick up some cornbread from that bakery on Olive if you want, it would go great with—“
Chase’s blood went cold at the sudden ceasing of Toby’s words. It wasn’t just silence he heard, but a sharp intake of breath, screeching brakes, a blaring horn, a bit of static and then…
Chase felt as though his heart had stopped. What had just happened? Surely, Toby had simply dropped his phone or something. His cell would ring again in a minute and Toby would pick up where he’d left off.
But the cell phone didn’t ring. And with a feeling like he was moving in slow motion, Chase began to move toward the window that overlooked their street. He had heard the screeching brakes and horn more than just through the phone, he thought with a nauseating sense of dread.
He barely heard Mike calling after him, “Chase? What’s the matter? You just went white as a ghost.”
Outside, he could hear the sirens in the distance. Outside, the traffic stopped in the street below them. Outside, a crumpled figure lay in the middle of the road, still. A woman stood nearby, her SUV door open, weeping.
That figure—the one lying twisted on the pavement—that wasn’t Toby, was it?
It couldn’t be. Chase peered through the darkness and knew that it was, but something inside him refused to believe it. No, that’s not my Toby. It couldn’t be. I’ve told him a dozen times, at least, to pay attention and look where he’s going when he’s outside on his cell.
Chase sat down suddenly, and hard, on the floor, staring numbly at the concerned faces of his friends as the sirens outside grew deafening.