CHAPTER 7—FRENCH DIP

Miles had a crush on Claire all throughout high school, but she was his best friend and he figured that's all she'd ever be. He and his friends all planned a trip to the Grand Canyon. He was excited when Claire agreed to go with them. The plan was for Miles, Claire, Chris, and Sean to drive from southern California and spend the week rafting through the canyon. Claire traveled with Miles and the others agreed to meet at the hotel.

"Where are you guys?" Miles asked, into his cell phone.

"Not gonna make it," Chris said.

"Dude, we already booked a hotel room for the week." Miles' left hand cupped around the receiver. He didn't want Claire to listen in. "Both you and Sean pitched in. I doubt we can get a refund at this point." He paced back and forth in the hotel parking lot, glancing at Claire and then back at the ground.

"Sean and I never had any intention on going, nor of getting our money back," Chris said.

"I don't understand?"

"Just say thank you and I'll say you're welcome."

Miles began to blush. His best friends had set him up; a half expenses paid trip with the woman he loved.

"It's about time someone did something with the two of you," Chris laughed. "You ever wonder why Claire never got serious with anyone else? She's been holding out for you, dude and she's stubbornly patient."

"Chris, what am I supposed to do?"

"Have a good time, be cool, and confess your undying love for her."

Miles laughed nervously and looked up at Claire. She couldn't hear, but met his eyes with a smile. That smile always slew him. That perfect smile brought her adorable freckles to her bright blue eyes. And those eyes shone brighter when unobstructed by her shoulder-length amber colored hair.

"What's Chris saying?" Claire shouted loud enough for Chris to hear. "Are they stuck somewhere?"

"Don't keep her waiting," Chris said and disconnected.

He wasn't sure if the cell phone ran hot or if it were his nerves, but the phones plastic casing was damp with his sweat. He closed the phone, put it back in his pocket, and ran his right hand through his short black hair.

"What's going on?" Claire stepped up behind Miles and slid her left arm in along his side and around his right arm. She held onto him tight.

Miles stared straight ahead, too nervous to meet her gaze. "They're not coming," he managed to mumble.

"What?"

"They said something came up and they're not going to make it. I'm sorry, but it's just going to be the two of us."

"That's perfect," she said in a soft tone. "We'll still have fun."

"You don't want to turn back," he looked into her eyes.

"Why would I. We're here, the room's already paid for, and we've got the whole week to ourselves."

Miles smiled. "You're right, we'll still have a ton of fun."

"Yeah! Forget Sean and Chris. If they want to miss out, that's on them."

"Well, let's check in," Miles opened the back of his Subaru and removed their luggage.

Claire followed him into the hotel's lobby and to the front desk. He set the luggage down and greeted the clerk.

"Good morning," the clerk grinned. "How may I help you?"

"Just checking in," Miles said. "We have a reservation under…" Miles provided his last name.

"We don't have anything under that name," the clerk frowned.

"Okay, how about…" Miles provided Chris', Sean's, and Claire's last names.

"Sorry, nothing under any of those names."

"Just a second," Miles pulled his phone out of his pocket and dialed Chris.

It rang twice. "Hello," Chris answered. "What's up?"

"I'm at the hotel," Miles whispered. "What name did you place the reservation under?"

He heard laughing on the other line and Chris whispering to someone else, followed by more laughing. Chris cleared his throat. "The reservation is under the name Loveshack."

The color drained from Miles' face. "You've got to be kidding?" he whispered.

"No, dude. That's the magic word."

"I'm gonna kill you."

"No, you'll be thanking me." Chris disconnected and Miles put the phone back in his pocket.

"The name is Loveshack," he told the clerk.

The clerk smiled. Claire stood directly behind Miles, but he didn't dare look back at her. He was a mix of petrifying fear and exorbitant jubilance. An entire week with Claire could present numerous opportunities to tell her how he felt.

"So, we've got one bedroom reserved, with two queen beds," the clerk confirmed.

"Perfect," Miles said and looked back at Claire. "Unless, you want a separate room?"

Claire looked down at her feet, smiling. Then she raised her head to meet Miles' gaze. "One room will be just fine."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes."

"Perfect," the clerk turned to the desk behind him, removed the room's keycard and handed it to Miles. "The room is on the first floor, number 1C."

"Thank you," Miles put the card in his pocket.

"Will you be needing any help with your luggage?" the clerk asked.

"No, I can manage." Miles lifted the luggage and walked to the left side of the lobby and down the hall to their room. He fumbled with the keycard, his nervous a jumbled mess. He slid the card in and out of the lock. The lock light turned green and he pulled down on the door handle. After sliding the luggage inside, he held the door open for Claire.

"Thank you," she smiled and he stepped in after her.

The room was spacious, well lit, and of average design; many red and yellow colors, in a floral theme. Miles set the luggage on the beds; his bag on one and Claire's on the other, making it clear, his intention was not to share a bed. Not that he didn't want to, but he wanted Claire to feel comfortable. He was respectful, always had been.

"So, what do you want to do for the rest of the day?" Miles sat on the end of his bed. "White water rafting isn't scheduled until tomorrow."

"I'm getting kind of hungry," she said.

"Perfect. I saw an ad for a deli restaurant just down the road, in Cameron. I love French Dip and heard they have the best."

"Sounds good to me."

Claire reached for Miles' hand and her fingers interlocked with his as they walked to the Subaru. He opened the car door for her and closed it when she sat. There was silence during the short trip to the deli.

She had not objected to sharing a room, she delighted at the thought of just the two of them spending time together, and she clutched his arm and held his hand whenever opportunity permitted. Her cues weren't all that subtle, but Miles still worried he'd been reading too much into them.

After entering the restaurant, they sat at a booth in the northwest corner, up against the front window. The server greeted them and they both ordered the French Dip.

Beth glanced across the table, at Miles. She lightly tapped her fingers on the tabletop and Miles fiddled with his silverware.

"Remember Monterey?" he managed to blurt, breaking the silence.

Claire laughed. "Of course I do. We were both ten years old."

"Good times." Miles felt like an idiot, but sometimes acting deliberately awkward, put him at ease. What's wrong with me? He thought. Claire's been my best friend since we were five. I should be able to talk to her about anything. But the pressure got to his head. He'd been given the chance to let Claire know how he felt about her, but worried his confession would end their friendship. Part of him would rather remain lifetime friends, than risk losing her.

"I miss the clam chowder," she said.

"And the aquarium," he added.

"And Cannery Row."

"Don't forget Seventeen Mile Drive."

"And all those beautiful homes."

"Too bad I suck at golfing."

"Yes, you do," she smiled.

He crumpled up a paper napkin and threw it at her.

She picked it up and threw it back. It was juvenile yet exhilarating.

"We've really done a ton of stuff together," he smiled.

"Yep, we've hardly been apart. Best friends forever."

There it is, those two words that can either mean nothing or everything; Best friends. But what about that forever part?

"You promise?" he said, raising his left eyebrow.

"Promise what?" she tilted her head.

"The forever part?" His heart raced.

"I'm not sure what you mean?"

"We can be best friends, forever?" He scratched at the corner of his eye; a tick Claire knew. Recognizing his nervousness, Claire felt more in control of her own emotions, but just barely.

"Sure. Why wouldn't we be?" Her smile dropped.

"What if you found a boyfriend and he objected to us being best friends?"

She paused, trying to collect her thoughts. Miles was getting at something and she felt the need to guard herself. "I hope it never comes to that."

"Comes to what, your boyfriend objecting?"

"No…" she hesitated, feel a sudden burst of confidence, "The boyfriend part." That confidence faded and gave way to heavy pounding within her chest. She worried the sound would alarm Miles.

"Not sure if I understand. Are you saying you don't want a boyfriend?" Miles could read her face; the small opening of her mouth, her wider eyes, and the tensing of her shoulders. His inquiry came on too strong, so he smiled and watcher her sink back into her seat.

"No, I just don't want another boyfriend." She was rubbing her hands together, the nervous tick Miles knew.

He continued to press. "So, you have a boyfriend or had a boyfriend and are not wanting another relationship?"

She bit her lower lip, another nervous sign. She held back, unable to say what she thought. Further questioning would only yield short, implicit answers. Miles knew this, but Claire continued. "I've never had a boyfriend," she said.

Miles reached across the table and held her hands. This calmed her. She felt her muscles relax and her heart find its normal beat. He'd always had a calming effect on her.

"Good," he said, his eyes meeting hers.

"What do you mean, good?" Now, she pressed, anxious for his reply.

"It's good that you don't have a boyfriend," he smirked.

"And why is that?" She was sure she knew the answer, but wanted to hear it from him. She wanted to hear that he liked her. Now, she had the upper hand. Miles could either deflect or answer.

"Because I love you." He heard himself say the words, but wasn't sure he'd actually said them. Perhaps he imagined it. But her expression said otherwise.

Her mouth dropped open and she stared into his eyes. She hadn't expected such a straightforward admission. He didn't look away and she didn't recoil. This staring contest seemed like an eternity.

What is she thinking? He thought, legs shaking with the rapid beat of his heart. Best friends can love each other. Maybe I need to clarify.

"There hasn't been a day I can remember," he said, "where I didn't wake and first think of you and long to see you, hold your hand, put my arms around you, and kiss your perfect smile." Miles' legs ceased shaking. "When I say I love you, I don't mean it as the friendly love that shares in joys and sorrows—yes, I like that too, but my love is more than that. It's the kind of love that kisses your forehead in the morning, cuddles on the couch for a late night movie, cares for our two plus kids, and fetches your walker for a night out, playing bingo. I've only had eyes for you and if you're willing, I'd like to spend the rest of my life trying to make you happy."

Miles winced. Had he come on too strong? His words sounded more like a wedding proposal than a request to go steady.

Claire slid out of the booth and moved to Miles' bench. Her eyes were wet when she looked at him. She placed both hands on the sides of his face, pulled him close, and kissed him, deep and long. "Seventeen years," she said and grabbed the crumpled napkin to dab her eyes. "It took you seventeen years to come clean."

"What?" He blushed. Had she always felt the same?

"I wonder which of us has loved the other longer," she smiled and kissed him, again.

He wrapped his arms around her and she nestled into him, as she had always wanted.

"Here you are," the server interrupted, her voice loud and abrasive. She slid the plates on the table and they clanked together. Miles and Claire sat up straight and moved their arms away from the table to avoid an accidental French-dipped sleeve.

"Thanks," Miles mumbled, secretly cursing the server and her timing.

"Will you need anything?" the server asked in a monotone, trying her hardest to convey reluctant compliance, should further service be needed. That's how it was with such establishments. The food was not only great, but also the only real dinning business for miles. Cheery customer service wasn't required.

Miles saw the signs. "No, we're good," he said, folding a napkin across his lap.

Claire leaned forward and sniffed her sandwich. "Hope it tastes as good as it smells." She took a bite and a man caught her eye, as he passed by the window. She tugged on Miles' sleeve to get his attention. "Take a look at this guy. Who would wear such a heavy coat in this heat?"

Miles watched the man make his way to the front door. He was dressed in a long brown duster, with a black hoodie underneath. The hood was pulled up over his head and a red scarf covered his face. He stood before the entryway, brushed dirt off his arms and shoulders, opened the door, and stepped into the restaurant. This was a drifter, in the real sense.

He pulled the scarf from his face and waited for the host. The patrons sitting near the drifter clutched their noses in disgust. He must've not bathed in days.

"Can I help you?" the host asked, her ponytail bobbing as she approached.

The drifter didn't say a word. He reached out with his right hand and placed his palm on top of her head. He squeezed and popped her skull like a zit. Blood and brain sprayed out the sides, across the tables and plates, and onto the clothing and faces of the nearest patrons.

Miles' posture straightened. He wasn't sure if what he saw was real. There's always that moment of hesitation, when shockingly violent circumstances trigger cognitive reasoning that seems to slow time. He processed the imagery. The drifter was impossibly strong and likely to lash out and kill others. The man had killed without hesitation, conveying an apathetic disregard for human life.

Fight or flight, Miles thought. He had more than just himself to protect and couldn't risk his love. He grabbed Claire's hand, slid out of the booth and pulled her across the room to the kitchen entrance, but paused to look back.

The drifter pulled off his hood, revealing his bald head and grey skin. Scar tissue covered his face in intricate patterns. The grey man mumbled, low and indecipherable. The restaurant shook and a black smoke rose up outside and pressed against the windows, blocking out all sunlight. The smoke formed around the entire exterior of the building.

A large man, brave enough to fight the beast, leapt forward and drove his right fist toward Augri. The keqk extended his arm in a counter strike; hand open, fingers pointed up, and the outer ridge of his palm meeting the assailant's fist. Augri split the man's hand between the middle and ring fingers, cracking through the wrist, separating the radius and ulna bones of the forearm, and following out through the man's elbow. The man screamed as his bones, muscles, and skin flapped freely like grass strands of a hula skirt. His screams lasted a quick second before Augri removed his heart and ate it.

That's not possible. Miles continued to pull Claire through the kitchen to the back door. They pushed pass cooks and servers.

"You're not supposed to be back here," one warned. The kitchen noise was too loud to hear the patron screams. The sound of two gun shots rang throughout the kitchen and the restaurant staff hit the floor to find cover.

Another man had pulled his concealed handgun and fired two rounds at Augri. Nothing happened. The invulnerable keqk moved through the gunman, splitting the man's body in two.

Several customers ran for the front door, but none of them had the strength to pull it open. The door was immovable. Another customer picked up a chair and threw it at one of the large front windows. The chair smashed to pieces, but the window remained unbroken. It was the black smoke. Somehow it trapped everyone inside.

Augri moved through the people clustered by the door, his arms cutting through the air in swiping motions, slashing though bodies with minimal effort. Blood splattered the walls like Jackson Pollock's paint. Augri pulled the bodies off each other, taking hearts as he discarded their shells. He took time to eat, while the remaining customers tried the side exit.

The people screamed and cursed as they failed to pry the door open. Miles and Claire had no luck with the kitchen exit too.

A cook, not present for the other futile attempts on Augri's life, ran at the keqk with a large butcher knife. The blade splintered when it hit the back of Augri's head and a large piece flew into the cook's left eye.

The cook hurried to remove the metal and pulled out his eye with the shard. He fell forward, spraying blood from the empty eye orbit as he spewed then slipped in his own vomit. When he hit the floor, the remaining piece of metal, still attached to the blade's handle, pierced the cook's chest and slid into his right lung. He continued to spew, but now blood came with bile. He coughed, wheezed, and died; no effort on Augri's part. The keqk regarded the scene with a subtle amusement, then knelt down to eat the cook's heart.

Miles pulled, pushed, and kicked the door, but it wouldn't move. Most of the kitchen staff returned, after seeing the slaughter guests. They tried to help with the door. One man wedged a knife under the pin on the top door hinge and popped it off. He did the same with the bottom and then pulled on the door. It still wouldn't budge.

"Miles, what do we do?" Tears streamed down Claire's face.

"We'll make it," he reassured. "We have to keep trying."

Miles took a mallet off the counter and beat it against the door handle. If the door was locked, he'd try breaking through it.

More screams came from the main room. Augri feasted on the remaining customers before moving to the kitchen. Everyone pressed against Miles and Claire, making one last attempt to escape, but the door would only open inward. Even if the door opened, it wouldn't with everyone pressing against it. Irrational panic had set in.

Miles pushed against the group, forcing some back. Augri moved closer, slaying those that stumbled back too far. One of the cooks, the last with any sense of self preservation, reached for a pot still sitting above an open flame, water boiling within. He tossed it into the keqk's face. The water splashed against Augri and into his curse-speaking mouth.

Augri stopped his movement and his mouth and brought his hands to his face.

Miles pulled on the door and it opened. He reached for Claire's hand, pulled her out of the restaurant and into the black smoke.

They heard screams from the kitchen, but were unsure if anyone else made it out. They couldn't see anything in the black smoke.

"Stay with me, Claire," Miles shouted, gripping her hand tight.

"I love you," she shouted back.

"I can see light. We're almost out."

Claire tripped, but Miles caught her fall. He put his hands under her arms and helped her through the smoke.

"We made it out. Come on, Claire, we need to make a run for the car," he shouted, squinting in the sunlight, but she couldn't catch her feet. No, she was dragging her feet. Miles looked down, to catch her eyes, but they were gone and so was her head. Her carotid artery pumped blood that pooled at the base of her neck and spilled over down her chest. Claire was gone.

Miles dropped her body and fell to his knees. He wailed and cried like he never had before. A lifetime of love and a long-awaited confession, made his greatest dream a reality. Claire had loved him as he had loved her and she was his, for the last five minutes of her life.

He had nothing left. No reason to run. He stared into the black smoke and watched the keqk emerge. Miles looked death in the eyes and saw a single tear run down Augri's face. The beast pitied the mortal, before crushing the man's skull and removing his heart.

Augri finished the lover's hearts, then waived his hand, causing the smoke around the restaurant to dissipate. The keqk pulled at his duster and sweater, tearing off the clothing to exposing his bare, muscular, chest and arms. His tight black pants, the skin of the graceful felqa and his boots, compressed hide of a skreet. This clothing was unrestrictive and light, giving him full range of motion, but most importantly created less drag when flying. It was the finest apparel one could afford in Sedrenal.

Augri raised his arms, lifted off the ground, and flew through the air.