This is one of the Newcastle Herald Short Story Competition 2020 finalists. For a full list of the finalists revealed so far, head here.
Her eyes sprung open. Pitch black, suffocating.
'Geddup.' the screw banged on the door.
She batted the pillow off her head, a fruitless attempt to muffle her cellmate's snoring, then swung her legs over the side of the bunk.
'Hurry up, 'aint got all day,' the screw said.
Meegan leant across to the other bunk and shook Shannon's shoulder.
'Shanno. Head count.'
'On ya feet, both of ya,' came through the door grill.
They rose slowly to their feet. A moment of silence, before the ritual was repeated at the next cell.
Shannon stumbled across to the toilet and emptied the contents of her stomach into its stainless-steel bowl.
'Too much punch, eh?'
She dry-reached before slumping back onto her bunk. A waft of vomit followed in her wake. Two slop-in-a-boxes appeared through the door flap.
'Won't be wanting yours?'
'Just leave it.'
Meegan picked up the two boxes, bread and orange juice cups and put them on the bench. She washed her face at the basin and straightened her hair with her fingers, then flushed away Shannon's vomit. Shower wasn't for another hour. The mirror revealed crows-feet and the faint brown scar that protruded above her left eye, a permanent reminder of a drunken backhander from her stepfather.
Back at the bench, Meegan peeled the foil lid off her box, releasing a fermented odour that didn't make the sloppy porridge more appealing. She picked at it with the plastic spoon. After three thousand, six hundred and fifty of these, she knew what to expect.
Through the window the yard was empty. Above the razor wire the sunburnt through the smoky blue haze. Shannon resumed her snoring. Meegan finished breakfast and placed the container ready for collection, then cleaned her teeth.
She reached across to her neatly arranged shelf under the TV and pulled out her journal. Her mind raced at seeing the photo of the twin boys, which was taken after their third birthday.
How happy they looked that day, and how her life since had changed. No play days now or grazed knees, no first day of school or fun family holidays, sleepovers and parties, formals, girlfriends. She picked up her pen and opened a clean page.
Her mind raced on. What if she'd refused to leave the city with Harry? It was his idea to escape the rat race. She'd liked the city apartment. But cramped in with two toddlers and both working, she and Harry started to fight. The lifestyle block in the country promised a new start. Quitting work to concentrate on family seemed right.
And it was right at first. The boys loved it; endless open spaces, the creek and orchard, the chickens and horses.
But Harry's daily commute to the city meant he was never around while they were awake. His starts got earlier and finishes, later. There were overnight stays during the week. She'd wondered at the aftershave and how he'd found time to buy new clothes. Someone saw his profile on Tinder. Harry proved a disaster.
The boys of course didn't understand. They still needed to be fed, clothed, washed, amused, have band-aids applied, be taken to playgroup and doctors, have their tantrums endured and conflicts resolved. The list went on and on, all day every day.
Sleep deprivation became normal. When one of the twins woke, the other would follow suit. In the diary the police took, it was written that she'd wanted to tape their mouths shut to stop the noise. She visualised their full throttle, tonsil rattling screams. Next day they would both run around like it never happened.
'Controlled crying. Worked perfectly with my Little Johnny,' said one of the other parents, adding, 'persistence is the key.' Everyone else had heartily agreed. Meegan hadn't brought the subject up again, thinking it must be her bad parenting. If only she'd been better.
She closed her eyes and checked her thoughts, took a deep breath and brought the pen to the paper.
Another long night, I was exhausted. One of the twins had tried to get milk from the fridge and sent the egg rack crashing to the floor, which they both decided to slide in. I yelled and put them outside to pick oranges from the orchard while I cleaned it up. This was not long after their third birthday and I'd had enough of cleaning.
I squeezed them both a fresh glass of juice and made sandwiches for lunch, which they both scoffed. I prepared a baked dinner and put it in the oven while I watched them play outside. They came in about three for milk and cookies, then went down for a nap around four. They'd sleep an hour I thought.
There were no potatoes and I needed to go to town. It's only fifteen minutes there so I decided not to wake them. I checked the chook in the oven and turned it down and locked up. I'd be back before five, meaning dinner would be five-thirty as usual.
On the way I got a flat tyre. A total stranger, a young man in a ute with a hi-vis shirt, stopped and changed the tyre and didn't want anything for his help. I continued to the store and bought potatoes, then to the bottle shop, which didn't take long. I guess I was back by five-thirty.
I walked through the front door and smelt gas. I ran to their room. They looked so peaceful,
Exactly how I'd left them. I went back to the kitchen and turned the oven off. I returned and
shook both twins, but they wouldn't wake up. I just sat there.
Then I remembered to call 000. The call was replayed during the trial. The prosecutor told the jury my crying was an act and that I blew out the flame before I left.
Keys jangled as the screw approached. Meegan swiped a tear away with the sleeve of her prison greens and closed the journal.