"Oh Mike." I whispered in appalled disbelief. "This can't be happening."
He pulled his shirt back on and sat down beside me. "It would seem it can."
I gazed at his profile as he stared at his hands, grappling with his own thoughts. He's going to die. It seemed impossible that I wouldn't see this face every day. In just two days, it had become as familiar to me as my own face in the mirror - the square jaw with the dimpled chin, the curve of his top lip that hinted at an inner romantic, the broken nose and the calm grey eyes that seemed to read me like a book...
Mike straightened as if he had come to a decision. "Do me a favour. When we get to the beach don't tell the others."
I swallowed, trying to fight back a hysterical desire to scream at the unfairness of it all. "All right. Oh, Mike, I'm so sorry."
He nodded. "The thing is, Lori, I've decided I'm not going to getting back on the boat with you." He held up his hand to forestall my protest. "I'm not going to make you guys responsible for putting me down when I turn and I sure as hell don't want you to remember me as one of them. I don't want you to go after me. Promise me, Lori."
Oh God, this can't be happening. Tears blurred my vision as I nodded jerkily.
"Tears for me?" He asked gently, his thumb brushing my cheek gently. It's raining, how can he tell? I wondered vaguely as I tried to blink the tears away.
"Yes, tears for you, you bloody idiot." I hissed fiercely at him. "As hard as it is to believe, I'm going to miss your ugly mug." The tears turned unexpectedly into gut wrenching sobs. I tried to stop but I couldn't. My body shook with the violence of my grief. Why couldn't I stop? Oh Mike, Mike, Mike.
Mike gathered me into his arms, covering my face with soothing feathery kisses. I flung my arms around his neck and pressed my lips against his with hungry, desperate need. Responding ardently, he pressed his lips hard against mine as his hands entwined in my wet hair. I wanted, needed, to feel his lips, his hands, his body against mine. I gasped as he traced my neck with his mouth, hands kneading my hips against his. He murmured endearments against my lips and kissed away the tears that mingled with the rain.
"I would have loved you for a lifetime, Lori." He whispered against my hair. It was too much. Sobbing, I leant my head against his chest, feeling the strong beat of his heart.
"Please don't leave me, Mike. Not yet." I knew it was a cruel, childish thing to say but I couldn't help myself. I felt crazy with grief, even as he stood before me, still alive and healthy. Mike wrapped his arms around me, pressing me closer to his chest.
"It is what it is, Lori. I don't regret a moment I've spent with you these last few days, Lori. I don't want you to, either." He grasped my shoulders and held me at arms reach, holding my gaze. In my eyes, I let him see all the things I couldn't say. For a long moment, we stood in the rain facing each other. Then he dropped his arms as he stared over my shoulder at the horizon. I followed his gaze and saw the soft glow of the dawn lighting the distant skyline. We had run out of time.
Dropping his arms, Mike restarted the engine. My stomach churned with the need to say something and the helplessness of knowing that nothing I said would change anything.
As Mike brought the boat close in to shore, I did a quick head count and saw with relief that everyone on the shore was accounted for. Mike put down the anchor and we jumped out in the shallows to greet the others.
"Thank God!" Ken thumped our backs. "You were out there for so long, we were starting to wonder if something had gone wrong!"
I avoided looking at Mike. "We're fine but we really need to get going."
Michele paused by me a moment and squeezed my hand. I guess she has as much trouble expressing herself as I do because her eyes said so much. Jessie shyly smiled at me as she passed with the dog still in her backpack. "I'm glad you're okay."
"I'm tough," I smiled. "like you." As we talked, Mike reached out and rubbed his dog's head. The sadness in his eyes broke my heart.
I held back as the others grabbed their backpacks, plonked babies on shoulders and started wading through the water towards the anchored speedboat.
I looked at Mike. He was watching them leave with blinkered eyes. My throat tightened. Catching me watching him, he shrugged wryly. Pulling off his backpack, he held it out to me. "You'd better take this."
"And look after Lizzie. She's a loyal little thing." As he walked away, I impulsively called after him. "I could have loved you for a lifetime, too, Mike."
He turned and grinned that familiar crooked grin at me. "Well, hell, maybe next time round, eh?"
The darkness swallowed Mike as he trotted up the face of the sand dune. I watched him until I could no longer see him, all the while wanting to call him back with every fibre of my body, aching with the need to hold him close and tell him everything would be okay. Letting him walk away was one of the hardest thing I'd ever had to do in my life. As I turned away and headed for the boat, I thought I heard my name whispered on the wind. My heart leapt as, for a moment, I thought he'd changed his mind. But it was just my imagination clinging at straws.
"Where's Mike?" Ken frowned as he started the engine.
"He's not coming." I forced out, trying to appear composed. "He was infected."
"Oh no..." Kaye stared at me, a hand rising to cover her mouth.
I shrugged, struggling to breathe through the tightness in my throat.
"Such is life."