The sun is rising over the cliffs and somewhere faraway, Carla can hear a bird singing its heart out, singing for no reason at all, just because light is slowly seeping back into the world and somebody's hateful God is letting the wasteland have another day.
There are other women corralled in the wooden pen. Most of them are rough-skinned and scraggly-haired, but a few might have been pretty once. She's always been good at noticing these things. On the Strip, a girl had to know her competition.
Outside, the legionaries are starting to assemble around the auction block, their bronze breastplates gleaming,their swords clanking against armour as they compose themselves into ranks.
The baby squirms inside her, lashing out with its feet. It's only then that Carla realizes how fast her heart is racing.
She forces herself to take in a deep, slow breath. Her ribs rise and expand under the silk of her dirty negligee, the bars of another prison, one made of bone and skin and blood instead of wood and nails. Her vision reels and she stumbles to her knees, her stomach doing flip-flops.
She bows over, mortified, wondering if she will vomit. Thankfully, there's no food in her gut to throw up.
Somebody's hands gripping her shoulders, steadying her.
"You okay, honey?"
Carla turns, seeing the homely face of the girl who'd introduced herself as 'Ruthie'.
"I'm – fine."
"Looked like you was about to toss your cookies. Considering the circumstances, can't say I blame you."
"I...don't think I have any cookies to toss," Carla says weakly.
"Prob'ly fer the best." Ruthie pats her shoulder. "Don't look at those bastards. Not yet. Not 'til you got to."
It's good advice. Carla sits down in the dirt, combing her hands through her frazzled hair and stares up at the clouds, trying to think up something nice, trying to remember something pretty.
She was wearing her best dress the night they met, the one that made her feel lucky.
It was blue with white polka dots, snug around the bust and the waist to show off her hourglass figure but still demure enough that nobody was gonna figure her for a whore.
And Carla wasn't a whore, not really. She was an escort, a companion, the kind of woman a man could feel proud to have on his arm. They took her with them to the tables to blow on their dice and, if they struck it rich, they might squire her around town a bit before they retired to a suite at the Tops. She was in a different league than those other girls, the ones who strutted around in studded leather chokers and fishnet tights, dispensing back-alley blowjobs to grizzled scrappers.
Carla must've been a funny mood that night, because she usually didn't give soldiers the time of day and this guy had 'soldier' written all over him. The First Recon beret was a dead giveaway, but even without it, she would've had him pegged at a hundred paces – shaved head, ramrod straight posture, broad, sun-burned shoulders cutting through the crowd.
Oh, he was nice enough to look at, alright, but to see him shambling along the Strip, blinking dazedly into the marquee lights, was to know that he was just another poor sucker on leave, not a high roller or a big spender.
He might've been saving up, she reasoned. Maybe he has the caps and he's looking for one last fling on the town before he ships out. There'd been a lot of nights when she'd paid the rent by going with someone she didn't like. Wouldn't it be lovely to enjoy her work for once?
She strolled over to him anyway, touching her platinum blonde pin-curls to reassure herself that they were still in place.
"You're looking a little lost. Is this your first time in town?"
He fixed her with an incredulous stare. "Yeah. Guess you got me figured out."
Hmm. A tough nut to crack. She laughed to cover her nerves. "Oh, I doubt that. I wasn't trying to pry. But if you want, I could show you the sights. There's a nice lounge near the Tops where we can get a cold sasparilla, listen to some tunes, watch the lights glittering. At the least, it's air-conditioned so you don't have to mope around out here, kicking up dust and getting all hot and sweaty."
His expression was guarded, his face concealing whatever might have been going through his head, but finally, he nodded, as if giving his surrender. "Alright. Show me."
They went into the lounge and sat in a booth, giving their drink orders to the robot waiter. She had a Sunset on the rocks, with a cherry and a slice of orange.
He had a beer and chugged it straight out of the bottle, his adam's apple pulsing as he drank. When he was done, he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and sighed, the weariest sound she'd heard in a long while.
"What's your name?" she asked him.
"Corporal Boone. NCR, First Recon."
She hid her consternation behind a giggle. He was easy on the eyes, but kind of weird. She wasn't sure if it was the sort of weird she liked, but she figured he could buy her a few more drinks before she'd jump to any conclusions.
"I meant your real name. Like, what your mama called you."
He looked abashed. "Craig."
She smiled, lowering her eyes and looking up through her eyelashes coquettishly. It was one of her signature moves and if she pulled it off right, most fellas went gaga for it. "Well, hello there, Craig. Nice to meet you. I'm Carla." She offered a handshake across the table.
Craig hesitated, seeming to contemplate her hot pink manicure before grasping her hand in his had a good strong grip, as she'd expected he would. His palms were calloused, his skin emitting a dry warmth like desert sand.
He held onto her hand a much longer than he needed to, giving her fingers a light squeeze and all at once, Carla was sure that, despite his silence and his stoicism, he wanted her – no, didn't just want her, was set to adore her if he could. Those narrow grey eyes of his had softened, their habitual squint of concentration turning into something sweet and sad and puppy-dog eager. She'd had lots of men want to fuck her, some even talked about marrying her, but few had looked at her with such yearning, as if she were an angel haloed by the lights of the Strip, as if he could wrap his arms around her and they could fade away together into a desert twilight. With him, she might start to enjoy it.
They had a few more drinks before the crooner on stage launched into a mournful old tune and they stumbled out of the booth and fell into each other's arms, swaying in a drunken slow-dance under the spinning lights of the mirror-ball.
Carla pressed her head against Craig's shoulder, savouring the strength of his arms around her. She could feel the outline of his cock, rigid against the fly of his pants and she suspected that it wouldn't be long until he'd be on top of her, inside of her, their clothes lying in a rumpled pile at the side of the bed.
"Sweet," he whispered in her ear. "Too sweet. Don't deserve it..."
She craned her neck back to look into his face. His sunglasses had slid down his nose and his beret was pushed back so that she could make out the red-gold stubble along his hairline. She pressed a finger to his mouth. "Shhhhh, now. Shhhhhh."
A few hours later, they were getting married in the Two O' Hearts Chapel. It cost seventy-five caps for the ceremony and the fake-gold wedding rings.
Carla started to think better of it when she saw the minister in his white ten-gallon hat, a black leather lariat tie around his neck decorated with a silver cow skull, but then Craig Boone looked at her with those sorrowful eyes and a queasy, hopeful smile, defenceless without the screen of his sunglasses, and she couldn't do anything but say, "Yes, I do".
Craig paid for everything, but it was still the best bargain a man had ever gotten with her – seventy-five caps (well, a hundred and a eight if you counted the drinks) for a lifetime of love, fidelity and commitment, smiling, kissing, fucking and laughing at jokes included, although she couldn't cook and didn't intend on learning. Best deal in New Vegas. Maybe it'd be good for her too. The game had been getting a bit stale and now she had a big handsome meal ticket who looked at her like she'd just taken the first vertibird down from heaven. Maybe this was just the break she'd been waiting for.
The honeymoon lasted for five days, days when they only left the hotel room to get more ice for their drinks or to scrounge up something to eat. She traced her fingers over his tattoos so many times that she could draw them in the air. When she asked about them, he never had much to say about how he got them or why.
Craig wasn't much of a talker, period, but when she spoke, he'd focus his attention on her as if it was a matter of life and death, even if she was just nattering on about songs she liked on the radio or the best way to cure a hang-over. She liked that. She'd never felt so much like she mattered to somebody.
When he went back to his unit, he left her with kisses and promises and the fake-gold ring from the Two O' Hearts and she'd never felt so lonesome, missing the sight of him padding around the room in his boxer briefs and that silly red beret, drinking lukewarm NukaCola.
He came back with a plan. He and his buddy, Manny Vargas, were getting a release from the unit and that meant they could all move out to Novac, this quaint little town out in the Mojave.
"It'll be better," he told her. "Quiet. Good place to start a family."
Carla hadn't been thinking about kids. Still, with the frequency that she and Craig were fucking and the fact that she'd become unusually lax with her birth control, babies and white picket fences seemed like a distinct possibility. Knowing her luck, she was knocked up already and she hadn't gotten the memo yet, wouldn't figure it out until she started getting up in the mornings to spew her guts out.
"Manny says it's a nice little town," Craig told her. "Decent place, decent people and a big dino statue standing out front. What's not to like?"
She didn't answer, rolling over and offering her back to him, knowing full well that he'd seize her and drag her back across the mattress into the sleepy warmth of his chest.
When he did it, his hands were rougher, more desperate than she'd expected and his fingers left pink marks on the soft flesh of her upper arms.
He gave a soft huff of breath that tickled the nape of her neck. "What?"
"You hurt me."
"Oh. Damn. Sorry."
"You should be," she said, allowing a hint of amusement into her voice. "Clumsy oaf."
There'd be bruises tomorrow and then he'd be sorrier still, eyeing her wounds balefully, confused at how easy it was to hurt what he'd always been so eager to protect.
"I'm sorry. Guess I'm not very good at being careful. I'll try to be...better." He pressed a consolatory kiss against her cheek, stubble rasping against her skin. "All I want is for you to be happy. Stuff would be easier in Novac. Trust me."
His erection prodded against the base of her spine, just saying 'good morning' and 'how nice to see you', a reminder of what'd gotten her into this mess in the first place.
If she wasn't pregnant already, the man was intent on getting her that way. It was funny, but part of her wanted him to do it, to make her surrender complete. There was something so comforting about the crush of his body on top of her.
"All right," she said. "We'll go for a little while. Try it out."
"Good." He cupped her breasts in his hands, giving them a soft squeeze. "Good girl. You aren't going to regret this."
She would regret it. She was already beginning to, even as she writhed up against him, craning slightly forward to help him ease his cock inside her. He sighed, giving a light, pre-emptive thrust and she wriggled against it, encouraging him, knowing that it wouldn't be long before he'd give up this charade of gentleness and claim her with all the urgency and pent-up rage inside him, pound her until she dug her nails into the pillow and cried out his name.
Maybe tonight he'd put a baby inside her. After that, there'd be nothing left to do but go to Novac, her new home sweet home.
A couple of legionaries come clanking over to their holding pen. One of them, a swarthy man with pock-marked cheeks unlocks the gate and strides into the coral, grinning.
Carla shrinks away from him, certain that she will be among the first to go to the block. He grabs Ruthie and another girl instead, dragging them towards the wooden stand where the auctioneer and a jeering crowd await them.
The first girl, a skinny, knock-kneed little thing, is sold to a centurion for 50 denarius. He clamps a metal collar around her throat and leads her away in shackles.
He's a burly, hard-featured man, probably a strict master, but he seems almost civilized compared to the rabble around him. Carla wonders how hard he'll beat her and how many times he'll rape her before he tires of the novelty. Maybe he'll end up liking her cooking or enjoy the warmth of her scrawny body in his bedroll. She might live a few years then, long enough to bear a few of his children, to travel a few hundred miles of desert and asphalt, before they toss her bones back to the wasteland.
Ruthie isn't so lucky. Four rank-and-file soldiers pool their savings together to buy her. They rip off her dress as they're carrying her away, laughing and spitting curses at her. Carla doubts the girl will live to see nightfall.
She crouches down and writes her name in the dust with her finger.
It's a silly thing to do. Maybe she's going bonkers. The heat will do that to a person.
She rubs out the letters, her knuckles making little craters in the sand.
"Boone, man, you made it. Good to see you. You took your sweet-ass time about it. I was starting to think you'd never show."
Manny pulled Craig into a bumbling one-armed hug, more of a collision than an embrace, then reached up and knocked off his beret.
"What the hell?" Craig punched him hard in the shoulder, before taking a light jab at his gut. "Asshole. I didn't fucking miss you. At all."
He crouched down and picked up his beret, dusting sand off the red fabric.
Manny smirked, looking down at his friend's freshly shaved scalp. "I forgot you were so bald. We're free and clear now, man. No reason to keep the haircut."
"So happens, I liked the haircut."
"Makes you look like a giant prick. Just so you know."
Seeing Manny for the first time, Carla thought it was funny that he was the brains of the outfit, the one who'd come up with this pipe dream of Novac.
The man was a runt, nearly a head shorter than Craig, fine-boned, hollow-eyed and sallow-skinned, with the wistful face of a martyr. He tried to hide his suffering behind a scruffy black beard but she could see it right away, just from the idolatry in his eyes as they raked over her husband's body, the way he kept joking around, pawing at Craig, trying to scrap with him.
Carla watched Craig's face, wondering if he knew. For a man who prided himself on his eyes, he was remarkably blind to everything that happened outside the scope of his rifle.
"So who's the little lady?" Manny inquired. It was a friendly question but he looked at her with a grim mouth and narrowed eyes that implied she was an intruder.
Craig slung an arm around Carla's shoulders. "This is Carla. My wife."
"Oh, yeah," Manny slapped a hand to his forehead. "Sure. Don't know how that could've slipped my mind."
He gave Carla a nod, the bare minimum of welcome. "So, you're a New Vegas girl, huh?"
"I was. Of course, that's changed, now that Craig and I are married. I go where he goes." Carla feigned a smile, leaning against her husband, reassured at the feeling of his body moulding to hers. She rested a hand on his back while the other grazed lightly over his stomach, his abdominals tightening against her fingers.
Manny's eyes followed her movements, gauging the situation. His mouth twitched and he glanced away, defeated. "Craig. Heh. Thought you hated that name."
Craig bit his lip. His eyes were guilty behind the sheen of his sunglasses. "No. Not with Carla."
"Ah, I stand corrected then. Carla and Craig. Cute."
Manny snickered and Craig elbowed him in the ribs.
"Shut up. You don't know shit, Vargas."
"Alright, alright. Chill out, man. Don't take things so serious. Anyway, how about we go see Jeannie Mae and get you two love-birds hooked up with a room? "
He led them across the courtyard to a ramshackle building spackled in peeling white paint. Carla wouldn't have been able to distinguish the hotel lobby from the half-dozen other run-down huts in Novac, except for the fact that it had a big sign planted out front, its lights flickering even in the blaze of high noon.
They walked into the lobby only to be confronted with a bird-like little woman in horn-rimmed spectacles. "Why, hello there, Manny. Who're you bringing me today? Don't suppose I could set you folks up with a room?"
"Heya Jeannie Mae," Manny said, planting his elbows on the lobby desk. "This here is my buddy Boone. The one I been telling you about."
Carla smirked. Clearly Manny didn't think Mrs. Boone merited an introduction.
"Of course, of course." Jeannie Mae gave Craig a tight little smile, all eagerness and hospitality. "From what I hear, you're pretty handy with gun. That's a talent we could use around here, believe you me! We're up to our necks in radscorpions and all sorts of nasty business and there's been ghoul sightings hereabouts, if you can believe it. Plus, there's always the Legion to fret about. When Manny told me, he was thinking about moving down hereabouts with a First Recon friend, well, I just about stood up and jumped for joy."
Boone darted a glance to the door as if tempted to beat a quick retreat from this barrage of words. "Uh, yeah. Hear Manny's got the day shift covered. Figured I could work nights."
Jeannie Mae shrugged her shoulders and wiped her hands against the thighs of her dingy jumpsuit. "Whatever suits you, honey."
She turned to Carla, close-set eyes staring down a beaky nose. Carla wasn't sure she liked being the object of the woman's curiosity. "Well, I see Mr. Boone hasn't come to Novac all by his lonesome now, has he? And aren't you just a pretty little thing too! Is that a ring I see on your finger?"
She hated showing people the ring. Anyone with eyes in their head could tell it was gold-plated. She stuck out her hand anyway, so the nosey old biddy could make her inspection.
Jeannie Mae gave her a syrupy smile, her beady eyes glinting with the realization that the soldier's trophy gal had been duped by the glister of fake gold. "Well, then, Isn't that lovely? In case you didn't know,sweetie, here in Novac, we're all about down-home values. Marriage and children and all that. We leave the vice and the debaucheries to those nasty folks out on the strip. This here hotel is a family-type business. When I rent out rooms, I'm always right careful to make sure there isn't anything unwholesome going on behind closed doors. We don't cotton to that kind of hanky-panky 'round here."
Carla shot a look at Manny – this must be news to him. She doubted he'd have come to Novac if he'd known some prudish old hotel manager would be looking over his shoulder, making sure his close, personal friendship never got too friendly. Hell, she might've felt sorry for the poor bastard if the man he was pining for wasn't her husband.
"Novac is a good town," Manny said. "Good people."
From where Carla stood, he didn't sound too convincing.
Jeannie Mae handed Boone the keys to their hotel room. "Ground floor. Real cozy little place."
'Cozy' wasn't how Carla would have described it. More like a hole in the wall, just a bed, a TV, a washroom and kitchenette, all crammed together in a space no bigger than a NCR-CF prison cell.
She sat down on the saggy bed, tempted to put her head in her hands and cry.
Craig put away their suitcases, plunked down on the end of the mattress and flicked on the TV. "Not bad. What do you think?"
A dozen answers sprang to mind.
I think that this room is some kind of cosmic joke.
I think that Novac is the biggest eyesore in the Mojave.
I think that Jeannie May is prune-faced old spinster.
I think that Manny Vargas wishes you were fucking him instead of me.
I think I'm pregnant with your baby and I can't stand the thought of bringing our child into...this.
She crawled across the bed and draped her arms around his neck.
The dirt of the road was still on his face and his shirt was damp with sweat, but she enjoyed him this way. Back in Vegas, the gamblers and gangsters had oiled their hair, doused themselves in cologne, strutted and preened like peacocks. For all Craig's faults, she'd married a man, not a pricey suit and a bottle of cheap after-shave.
"I think that you don't want to know what I think. 'Cause I'm afraid it isn't going to be a positive review."
Frowning, he managed draw his eyes away from the cartoon antics on the TV. He took off his aviators and set them down in his lap, grey eyes small and anxious. "You don't like it."
"I like you." She ran her tongue along the sun-reddened tip of his ear. "Especially when the door's locked and I've got you all to myself."
He gave her a dead-eyed stare and despite its frequent lapses, it was clear his bull-shit detector still worked on occasion.
Without his sunglasses, his expression was intense, hawk-like, as if he were trying to find her from very far away and squinting to make out her silhouette against a sprawl of desert and the glare of a merciless sun.
"Tell me what's wrong. I want to know."
"I just don't know what we're doing here. We could've stayed in New Vegas and it would've been fine..."
"This is a job for me, Carla. I can do this. I'll work nights and during the day, I'll be with you. And when we have kids, they won't have to grow up on the Strip, looking at hookers and drunks."
"If we stay here too long, I'll be a drunk. Then they'll have to look at me." She didn't say anything about the hooker part.
"Let's just give it a shot. If it doesn't work out, then I promise, we'll go."
He stroked a hand through her hair. "Wherever we need to go."
"Then I guess I can wait. I guess I can... stick it out for a while."
"It'll get better," he promised her. "You'll see."
"Yeah, I'll see," she said.
She stretched out on the lumpy mattress and stared up at the grainy plaster ceiling, wishing they were still honeymooning under the lights of New Vegas.
A few weeks passed and sure enough, Carla missed her period and started to get nauseous in the mornings when Craig was still asleep from pulling night watch.
When she was alone under the washroom's fluorescent lights, listening to the gentle wheeze of her husband's breathing from the other room, she'd rub her hand over her flat belly and try to imagine the fetus growing inside her. She wanted to think benign, maternal thoughts but sometimes she felt as if her body was no longer her own, as if it had been co-opted by an alien life form who ate her food, eavesdropped on her conversations, made all her dresses just a little too snug. When she felt a craving, she could no longer be certain if the want was her own or if it was another of the baby's demands.
She resolved to tell Craig before he went to work, as they sat across from each other at the small folding table where they ate their dinner. It took her time to work up her nerve and so she stared at her plate, prodding at overcooked carrots sliced into orange wagon-wheels.
Craig wasn't a picky eater. He shovelled forkfuls of food into his mouthful, barely seeming to taste a bite, working his way through each portion until he scraped his plate clean.
"Honey," she began, "there's something I think you ought to know..."
His fork and knife clattered against the side of the plate. "What?"
He blinked, processing this. "Yeah?"
"Well, I'll be..." Craig gave her a rare, full-out grin, bolting out of his seat, his chair pushing back along the lineoleum floor.
He crouched down beside her and placed his palm over her abdomen as if he might be able to feel a difference, but Carla knew it was still too early yet. He kissed her belly anyway.
"So what are you hoping for? A boy or a girl?" she asked him.
She'd been considering it and she thought it'd be better to have a son. Less worry. Craig could show him how to shoot and he'd be set for life. She didn't have anything good to teach a daughter.
"Doesn't matter. I'm hoping for whatever you got in there."
She smiled. "Not too picky, huh?"
"If it's a girl, we'll name her after you."
Carla wrinkled her nose and shook her head.
She'd never liked her name. Her momma'd been expecting a boy and they were gonna name him 'Carl' after her gramps, but then she'd popped out. In their disappointment, they'd gotten lazy and settled for adding an 'a' to the end.
Craig looked down, scrutinizing the kitchen tiles, evidently hurt at this refusal. "Okay. Fine by me. What names do you like?"
Just please don't name him after Manny. Or that goddamn dino statue.
"I don't know. We got a while to think about it, don't we? A whole eight months or so, by my count."
He nodded. "Yeah. Guess so. It's just good news. I'm gonna be somebody's old man. Kind of weird." He gave a soft chuckle. "I ought to go buy me and Manny a couple of cigars to celebrate. Don't know where we'll get those in Novac."
With the baby on the way, the tight circle of her world became even smaller, more claustrophobic. Craig returned home from his watch post atop Dinky the Dinosaur and hit the sack with the morning light. While he slept, she tiptoed around the house, tidying up and fighting her daily bout of queasiness.
When he hauled himself out of bed, they'd eat lunch together. Craig prepared most of their meals and was always ridiculously cheerful about it, whistling songs from the radio while he fried their eggs.
He had this idea in his head that he had to monitor every scrap of food that passed her lips for Rad-content. To top it off, he absolutely forbade her from dying her hair, even though her dark roots were starting to show through the platinum blonde and she thought it made her look skunky as anything. All her dresses were too glitzy for Novac and with the swell of her stomach, they didn't fit properly anymore. She felt as big as house and frumpy, waddling around the hotel room in a loose checkered house-dress without a trace of make-up to enliven her face or conceal the dark circles under her eyes.
"I like you natural," Craig told her. "Besides, those dyes and shit – they're not good for the baby."
She snickered, giving him an impatient smile. "Yeah? Maybe you should carry this thing around in your stomach. See how you like it. "
"Look, if I'm bossing you around, it's because I care."
She sighed. "You care, huh? You don't seem to care too much about my sanity, cooping me up in here, all day."
"If you're feeling lonely, go visit Jeannie Mae and talk about woman things. You don't have to stay in the house all day."
When Carla was feeling really blue and she couldn't stand staring at the same four walls of their hotel room any longer, she took his advice. She plunked a sunhat on her head to cover her goddawful roots and went to loiter around the lobby with Jeannie Mae. She wasn't sure it helped all that much. She'd wanted to vent, to lay out all the complaints she held back from Craig, but the old woman wasn't having any of it.
Jeannie Mae glared at her over the top of her horn-rimmed glasses. "Is that all you can do? Whine? Well, if you hate it here so much, maybe you'd just be best to beat a path back to whatever hole you came from."
Carla hadn't expected that the old biddy would get her panties in such a twist. "I don't like it here. That isn't a crime. Anyway, I'm here for Craig. When I can convince him to go, we'll go. Leave this pit behind."
"Aren't you just a princess? Your husband doesn't seem to mind it around here. Maybe you should stand by his judgement."
She could have laughed. Craig didn't have expectations about much of anything. He didn't care where he crashed for the night so long as it had a TV, a bed and somewhere he could buy a beer or a pack of smokes on occasion.
Carla got up, chucking the rumpled pre-war beauty magazine she'd been skimming through onto the side table.
"I love my husband. But I've got my own judgement, thank you. And if I want to hate this town and curse it all to hell, I'll do just that, you hear? There isn't a thing you can do about it."
As she trundled to the door, slowed by the weight of the baby inside her, she heard Jeannie Mae mutter something under her breath. She couldn't quite be sure but it sounded distinctly like "We'll see about that".
Carla turned. "What'd you say?"
Jeannie Mae shrugged, taking a long gulp of her Nuka-Cola. "I don't have any words for you, missy. You aren't somebody who deserves 'em."
"Oh, go to hell, you old hag."
Carla slammed the door behind her, still fuming as she shuffled her way back to the apartment on swollen ankles. She scowled at the tumble-down shacks that circled the hotel courtyard.
At last, her gaze fell on Dinky the Dinosaur, the T-rex statue that loomed absurdly over the town, holding up his stubby pincer arms to new guests and wearing a predatory grin of greeting. She reached down, scooping up a handful of rocks and threw them at his chipped green body. They pinged off his painted scales and rolled out into the cracked road.
"Goddamn bastard dinosaur. Stupid piece of crap."
Clive, the gift shop owner, heard the commotion and looked out a small window in the dinosaur's back. "Hey, what the hell are you doing? You're gonna damage Dinky. You break 'im, you bought 'im, you hear me?"
She didn't spit back a reply, just turned and plodded back to the hotel room. Craig was finally awake, towelling off from a shower, his sunglasses already perched on his nose and a lit cigarette hanging from his mouth.
When he saw her come in, he stubbed it out and tried to fan the smoke away with his hand. He'd been vehement that the hotel room should be a no-smoking zone now that the baby was on its way, but apparently the rule really only applied to her.
Craig wrapped the towel around his waist and settled down on the bed, trying to look innocent although she'd caught him in the act. He flicked on the TV and the screen flashed to some pre-war game show featuring a woman in a sequined evening dress showing off dozens of fabulous prizes: a washer and dryer, a cleaning robot, a new dinette set.
"How're you doing, babe?"
She answered him from between clenched teeth. "Not good."
"Come on. Don't be that way." He patted the mattress. "Sit here by me. I've seen this show before. It's not bad. Kind of...distracting."
"It reeks of smoke in here."
She made a face as if she couldn't stand the smell, although she didn't really mind it that much at all. It was the hypocrisy of it that grated on her, that and the fact that he always seem to get off easy with things. She had to move to Novac. She had to have a baby. He got to play soldier with Manny and swagger around like the town hero, smoking and drinking and doing whatever he bloody well pleased.
"Heh, yeah," He gave a nervous chuckle. "Guess it does. I'll, uh, open a window."
That almost coaxed a smile out of her. "How 'bout we get out of here? This place is a dump. And the people are cowards. They're just using you, not paying you even half of what you deserve."
He stared at her, a haunted look in his the TV, the studio audience was laughing and clapping, evidently approving of the latest showcase.
"What I deserve? This is a lot better than I deserve, Carla. You don't even know."
She sat down on the bed, folding her arms together in her lap.
"Then tell me. Let me know."
"No." He turned his gaze back to the TV.
She positioned herself in front of the screen so he'd have to look at her. "So that's it? You're just gonna shut me down?"
She felt her hands curling into fists, her impatience rising. "You can't go around saying stuff like that and expect me not to inquire. I want to know. I want to know you. Is that too much to ask?"
"Maybe it is."
"Like hell it is."
"It's just – when you're under orders, you don't always get to do what you want. Sometimes you end up doing stuff you don't like. And maybe it makes you into a person you don't like either."
That didn't sound good. She'd heard rumours about stuff that'd happened out in the Wasteland skirmishes. The NCR were supposed to be the good guys. And they were. Mostly. Compared to the Legion. But pretty much anything looked reasonable compared to the Legion.
"What did you do?"
"We're not having this conversation. Let it be."
"Alright. If you say so."
He put his arm around her, trying to bridge the space between them."Don't go getting pissed off about it. Trust me, you're better off not knowing. I don't want to bring that between us. It's poison."
Carla nodded, concealing her hurt and her anger, packing it into a tight ball inside her. He'd fuck her, sure. Hell, he'd even put a ring on her finger. But he wouldn't trust her. And without trust, it couldn't be love. Just another fantasy, like the ones she'd sold dozens of johns before him.
"Whatever you think is best."
"I love you, babe."
No, you don't. Not me. Just your illusions.
"Love you too." It wasn't a lie, just a half-truth, like so many things she'd told him.
He leaned in, pressing his face to hers. "Good. That's everything. Everything, Carla."
But it wasn't. It couldn't be. Or maybe it was everything to him, but it wasn't nearly enough to fill up her empty spaces.
That evening, after he'd left for his shift, Carla pulled a notepad out of the nightstand. Nibbling the end of a hotel pen, she stared at the image of Dinky the Dinosaur embossed on the top of the paper for a few seconds before she began to write.
I can't live like this. I'm sorry.
Please don't come looking for me. It's better for both of us this way.
Carla set the note down on the pillow and pried her wedding ring off her finger, resting it on top as a paperweight. Her eyes went hazy with tears and she had to stop a moment to rub them away with the backs of her hands, then she hauled her trunk out of the closet and started packing her things.
Carla had almost filled the suitcase when the baby started to kick, frantic motions that sent her reeling back to the bed. She turned, falling forward, and hugged the mattress, sobbing, her heart hammering against her chest.
She was a coward. Scared of leaving. Frightened of what she'd become if she stayed. Even if she could summon up the guts to walk out of Novac, she didn't have a compass or a gun, no way to defend herself against the radscorpions and ghouls that plagued the road back to New Vegas.
Carla crawled to her knees and picked up the ring, sliding it back onto her finger. As she crumpled up the note, her mouth twisted into a scornful grin, her throat racked with a sound between crying and laughter.
She decided that crumpling it up wasn't good enough. Craig might pick it out of the trash. She smoothed out the paper and ripped it to pieces, shredding it until it was white confetti and one could barely make out her pen strokes. She dumped the pieces into the scummy hotel toilet and flushed it all away, then unpacked her suitcase, careful to put everything back in its proper location.
If Craig ever figured out what she'd been contemplating, he never let on. He was just the same as ever, drinking beer with Manny and watching endless hours of TV, stolid and sullen at times, oddly affectionate at others, always the infuriating mystery that she'd married.
Six days later, two heavy shadows stole into her room and pressed a wet rag against her mouth, stifling her shrieks. She'd got her wish. She'd never see Novac again.
When they drag Carla up to the auction block, pinioning her arms behind her back, she turns her eyes from the legions arrayed before her, gazing up into the searing blue of the desert sky. Her hands are trembling but the baby is still as a stone inside her and for once, she feels brave, defiant.
She has decided that she will bite her tongue out before she screams and that she will claw her eyes out before she gives them the victory of her tears.
Carla knows the baby won't live if she dies. It's still too small for them rip it from her womb.
Maybe it's for the best. If the child lived and grew into a man, they'd make him into one of them, a beast in bronze armour. And if the child was a little girl... well, better for her to die now and know nothing of a world where life was almost invariably a stroke of bad luck.
Carla doesn't notice the outcropping of rocks atop the cliff to her northwest or the faintest silhouette of a man's head and shoulders stooping behind them. She doesn't see the rifle as he lines her up in his scope, the anguish on her pretty face divided into clean quarters by the targeting reticule.
The red speck of his beret is the last thing she never saw, as the noise of the crowd stills, the desert sand dissipates and all the vastness of the sky washes over her, breaking like a wave.