Force Of Nature
by Nicole Clevenger

Rube lay on top of the bed - head pillowed on interlaced fingers and still fully clothed - staring up at the ceiling. That sickly hollow feeling was still there, trailing him from the moment in the diner that he'd first realized she was gone. Like dog shit on the bottom of your shoe - wipe and wipe and wipe and you're still not getting rid of the smell right away. It lingered, that smell, taunting and horrible until you finally learned to live with it.

Or until you walked over enough dry grass.

When he closed his eyes he could still see her, dripping and shivering as she climbed out of that river. The look in her eyes was a fiery mix of excitement and pride, and he wondered - as he sometimes did - what it would've been like to know her when they were both alive. He wouldn't have jumped with her either, probably - only a truly fearless nut would've leapt off that cliff, and Rube still guarded a fear or two - but he sure would've liked to hold her hand. To feel that energy bubbling up from somewhere deep down inside her, that joy flowing like sparks between their touching skin. She knew how to laugh with her eyes, that one, and he was willing to bet that she could teach others to do it too. Maybe she could've convinced him to jump after all.

Betty had loved everything she'd done - and hadn't bothered with doing it if she didn't - and he saw that in those big eyes the moment she stepped out of the water. Hell, she hadn't even seemed all that upset that the guy up top hadn't jumped with her, only a little disappointed. A girl who didn't need anyone running with her, appreciating the company but perfectly able to make it on her own. A bit of a nut, sure - because, let's face it, she did jump - but a woman capable of standing without any man to prop her up. Rube saw all that in her eyes, shining there under that white swim cap above those red lips, and he saw it again and again in all the years that followed.

She'd taken to being a Reaper like no one else he'd seen, even gaily finding herself a "signature." That photo taking business was something he'd never understood - not really - though he'd nodded along and looked appropriately interested when she'd show them around. He supposed she felt a connection to those souls she popped, a link with life that she no longer had.

Him - well, he just looked to Betty for that, most days.

There were just so many of them, piling up in bags and boxes over the course of all those years. And she remembered them all, knew names and details and how they'd gone. Of course, you had to really work at forgetting, even with such numbers. You might not remember a lot of things from your own life, but those faces... they stuck with you. Came back to circle through your thoughts in the quiet moments, unless you were lucky enough to learn how to make them fade away.

Rube wondered if George was going to start up the photo thing, now that Betty wasn't around. He wondered if the way she went was going to give George any crazy ideas.

In truth, part of him was surprised that Betty had stuck around as long as she did. She never could sit still for very long, that girl, but the job had given her enough variety to keep her happy for quite a while. He remembered how well she'd handled her own death, the few tears shed being mostly for the fact that the corpse she left behind was going to be far from pretty after floating all the way down river. Always looking for the next new experience, that was Betty. Turned out that being a Reaper was experience enough to last for decades.

And now? Rube rolled over onto his side, eyes focusing aimlessly on the lamp sitting on the bedside table. Was she having an entirely new experience, something none of them could imagine? All he knew was what he'd been told: They couldn't go where she'd gone. Or where she'd tried to go. He hoped she'd landed somewhere safe, hoped that she wasn't suffering for what she'd done.

He hoped like hell that she wasn't still falling.

A flash of George, at the table: Why do I keep losing all the things and people that I care about? Tears running down her face, warring in his mind with the image of Betty's smiling eyes. He'd told her that that was what life was - loss and carrying on - but part of him had wanted to take her into his arms and just let her cry. Maybe even cry with her, a little - not for Betty, but for them. But he knew that what he'd said was true, sure as he knew that Betty wouldn't have wanted tears. She was a jumper, through and through, and she'd just done what came naturally. Didn't think, didn't hesitate, just jumped. Strength of character, she'd called it, and Betty had never been one to mince words.

He'd wanted that last picture, was this close to asking George for it or even just tucking it away without a word. But there was only one picture in his wallet, and Peanut needed it more than he did anyway. He could just close his eyes, after all, and there she was, stepping wet from that river. Red bathing suit and red lips, and those eyes that just made you want to smile. In his mind he took off his coat again, draping it over her smaller shoulders. She pulled it tight around herself with one delicately-fingered hand, and allowed him to lead her off to begin her new adventure.

He wasn't supposed to ask questions, wasn't supposed to wonder. Follow the rules like a good public servant until the time came for his promised reward. But there were just some things that were more important than toeing the line. Some questions that you just couldn't help but ask. Some faces that you didn't want to try and forget.

Rube rolled off the bed and onto his feet, pulling a pad of post-its and a pen from the table drawer. He watched her jump again and again in the space of scrawling the words on the yellow square, and the sound he heard when he stuck the note to the front of his door was the sound her body had made when it hit the water.

What happened to her?



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