Hard and Cold

–As Narrated by Margaret Theas

When the shiv slid out of my side I knew I was alive.

It was funny. I cried a bit, which is what one does. I hung around the prison yard. The sun inched eastwards across the sky, from evening into morning, and then I slept for the very first time in my hard prison bed.

I watched the girl who’d stabbed me sometimes.

I asked her once, why she’d done it.

She said, “I was angry.”


“It’s a lot of responsibility,” she says. “Creating someone. Bringing someone from the deadworld into life. It haunted me every day. So when I saw you laying there dead in the yard I just couldn’t help it. I lost control. I stuck a shiv in you.”

“Thanks,” I said.

She looked at me. There was a lot of emotion in that look. It was hard and confused and happy and sad all at once.

“Don’t make me angry any more, okay?”

I hugged her.

Her name was Shelley.

I didn’t get my trial for three or four years, but that was pretty good. A lot of people stayed at the prison for a lot longer before their trial.

The judge leaned down towards me, when it began. He said, “Listen, Margaret. You are going to kill a man.”

“How do you know?”

“It’s because you’ve been in prison,” he said. “That’s how I know. You’ve been serving out that sentence since the moment you were born.”

“I have free will,” I said.

But all through the trial they kept reminding me. I’d been in prison, they said, like that meant they knew what would happen. I was reckless. I was bad. The people who came out of prison—they were reckless. They were bad.

My lawyer didn’t try very hard.

So when I came out I didn’t have much. I had some shoddy clothes. A purse without much in it. And I could feel, as the police car pulled out from the station, the beginnings of a drunk.

It doesn’t mean you have to drink, Shelley told me once. When you feel the drunk coming on. You have the choice. You can drink. Or you can just be stressed. Hit on the head. Be giddy with joy.

So I told myself, really hard, that this one would be joy.

But it had the hard stomach-punch kind of feel of the dizziness that drinks.

The car dropped me off.

The cop told me, “Here it is, Margaret. Here’s where you kill him.”

He dropped a gun into the dumpster for me.

“Why not just hand it to me?” I said.

And he leered at me. “Free will.”

Because it’s always your choice. You don’t have to stab someone. You don’t have to shoot someone. Just because you’ve been in prison doesn’t mean you have to yank someone from the deadworld down to Earth. You could be “innocent.”

I could be innocent.

But it looked like a dangerous neighborhood, and I was feeling pretty bad, and I didn’t want to be raped.

So I walked to the dumpster. I felt around. And as the cop pulled away, I pulled out the gun.

I’m really dizzy now. And sick.

They told me what he’d look like. Where I’d find him. But I have free will.

He’s just around the corner. A few streets back. Laying there dead, sprawled on the ground.

But I have free will.

Except that I don’t. There was a physics wonk in my block. She’d told me about it once. “The future’s the same as the past,” she’d explained. “It’s all written down in the book of the world. The only reason we think any different is that our memory only works one way—aligned against entropy with the ordering of the world. But that’s an illusion. It’s not the truth. The truth is, it’s all just there, future and past, lifeworld and deadworld, hard and cold.”

And there’s a pounding pressure in my head now. Just shoot him. Just shoot him and get it over with.

He’s so dead. It turns my stomach. It makes me feel sick. I don’t know how the coroners can stand it.

Just shoot him. Then he’ll get up. He’ll leave. You can go find your home. It’ll all be over.

I can see an ant crawling on him. Dimly. Through the haze. He’s so sickeningly dead.

I lick my lips.

What is he like, this man, my putative son? What will I bring into the world? Will he do good or harm?

I have free will.

The gun falls from my hand. The corpse is still there.

“Take that,” I say to the judge and the cops and the jury and them all.

I stagger back to the steps of the stoop of a nearby house.

I sit there, blank, shaking, the sickness all in and through me.

And I have the first sense that it will not be drink that ends this dizziness in my head but rather shock or fear or maybe joy.

11 thoughts on “Hard and Cold

  1. A world where consequences tend to precede actions, rather than follow them.

    It seems pretty hellish. My thought upon reading the first few lines was, is Ink now Margaret? (I kind of doubt it, though; Ink’s story is important, and following it in a world like Margaret’s would have to involve serious difficulties for both author and audience.)

  2. I have to admit, I spent most of this entry thinking, “Okay, how is this different from Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis?” And then I found out.

  3. So…Margaret’s exercise of free will redefines her prison sentence as having been unjust. She can have free will, or dharma, but not both.


  4. Hmm. The space this idea occupies in my head has an interesting shape.

    I realize that that description of my reaction is only the faintest touch from uselessness, but it’s also the most accurate one I can come up with at the moment. Such is life.


  5. Interestingly enough, it appears that Margaret’s exercise of free will has broken not only her dharma, but the structure of the world. The man is still dead, but now nobody has shot him.

  6. Who says nobody shot him? Someone else shot him, and Margaret just found him. (And picked up the gun, which seems if nothing else imprudent, but what can you do?) That’s always-already the way it was.

  7. This reminds me of Martin escaping the fire wood earth.

    Refusing to accept a dharma that is forced upon him; a task everyone else thought was impossible.

  8. isn’t this just backwards time?

    No, because in the end she doesn’t shoot him – but he’s dead anyway.

  9. I don’t see how that’s any different than backward time. If I went to the future, and he was dead, then went to the past and didn’t kill him, and watched him past the point I had previously saw him dead and he was still alive, then went back in time and he was still alive.. there’s no reason that has to be impossible. It’s just convenient to say that it is.

  10. It means that someone else is going to shoot him. Someone who didn’t come from prison.

    No woglies here.

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