SURPRISE • by David Afsharirad

Roger would be home any second now. Eleanor made one final sweep of the house, checking that everything was perfect. Trays of finger foods arrayed on gleaming platters. Liquor and mixers lined up on the pass-through countertop. Cake four layers tall perched atop a crystal cake stand not used but twice since they’d received it as a wedding present all those long, hard years ago.

“Okay, places everyone.”

Eleanor flipped off the lights as guests crouched behind furniture and hid around corners. They weren’t any of them friends, not in the strictest sense. Roger didn’t have friends. But they were close approximations, business associates and members of the country club where he played golf every weekend.

The sound of a car pulling into the driveway. A door opening, slamming shut.

He’d said not to make a fuss. He always said not to make a fuss, and then sulked when no one did. Impossible. But this was his fiftieth, and it had been a rough year for him — and consequently, for her — losing a major account at the office, and then the bad news from Doctor Hansen.

Remember, Eleanor thought, he deserves this.

Keys jangled in the lock. He came through the door.

Lights flashed on. Guests popped out.

Happy birthday!

Roger’s eyes went wide as the serving platters laid out on the dining room table. He clutched his chest, face turning purple-red. He stumbled into the coatrack, lost his balance. He collapsed in the foyer.

“Roger!” Eleanor, ever the doting, devoted, dependent wife, ran to his side.

Guests moved to render aid.

“Stay back.” She waved them away. “He needs air.” Doctor Hansen wasn’t present, his invitation somehow misplaced.

Eleanor crouched over her husband, whispered into his ear, a private conversation in a room full of people. “For the last six weeks I’ve replaced your heart medication with sugar pills.”

Roger slung a heavy arm over her shoulders, whispered back, his hot breath sticky in her ear, as it was on those occasions when she could refuse his advances no longer and was made to endure yet another session of loveless lovemaking.

“And for five and a half weeks,” he said, “I’ve known all about it.”

Eleanor reared back away from him, her face pale as the linen napkins she’d spent hot afternoon hours ironing.

Roger sat up. He reached into his breast pocket, removed a small tape recorder, pressed the STOP button. “And now I’ve got you on tape admitting it.”

The guests shifted from foot to foot, eyes searching for anywhere else to look. Ice tinkled in glasses. Throats were cleared.

Roger stood, brushed dust from his coat. He smiled down at her. A warm smile, but his eyes cold as ever.

“Surprise,” he said.

David Afsharirad is the editor of The Year’s Best Military and Adventure SF series, from Baen Books. His short stories have appeared in various magazines and journals. He lives in Austin, TX with his wife and son.

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