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The Connellys of County Down

Chapter One

When the unit intercom buzzed and the cell door rattled open on its old metal track that morning, Tara breathed a heavy sigh of relief and swore it was the last time she’d ever hear that racket in her life. For 525 consecutive mornings that noise had signaled the start to a day that looked just like the one before, another day when she was told exactly what to do and exactly when to do it.

She’d been restless most of the night, wired with anxiety. Until she walked out the door of that place, something could still go wrong. That wasn’t likely. She had yet to see one woman’s release date changed this late in the game. But that’s how it was when she let herself want something so damn much. The closer she got to getting it, the more she doubted it.

Jeannie had snored like a trucker as usual, but Tara hadn’t bothered nudging the upper bunk with her foot to get her cellmate to turn over and quiet down. It wouldn’t have helped. When the alarm went off at 6:30 a.m., Tara was sitting on her bunk, back against the cinder block wall, knees pulled up to her chest. While she waited she listened, peeled apart the sounds that fused together to create the early-morning white noise of prison life: the ring of a telephone and the guards’ distant conversation, echoes of a cough here and a clearing of a throat there, bodies turning over in their bunks—seeking, for the last few moments of rest, a comfortable position on a metal frame covered by a two-inch mat.

Less than an hour to go. They’d told her to be ready to leave her cell by seven thirty, before morning roll call. The discharge process would be fairly quick, then her sister, Geraldine, would be waiting outside in the parking lot. Tara had hoped her brother would pick her up; Geraldine had a way of shredding Tara’s nerves in short order. On their last phone call three days ago Tara subtly asked about it—I know how busy you are, Ger. Maybe Eddie could make the trip. But Geraldine shot that down, saying Eddie shouldn’t lose a day’s wages and rock the boat at work by asking for time off, never mind so he could pick his sister up from prison, she had added, whispering the last two words, no doubt in case anyone around her overheard.

Jeannie started moving around above her, but Tara didn’t get up right away. There was nothing for her to do at the moment. The running around had been done yesterday: returning library books, tendering all prison-issued clothing and linens except for what she was wearing, stopping by medical to get cleared. She wasn’t prescribed any pills to take with her. Unlike the majority of the women at the Taconic Correctional Facility she’d managed to sidestep any dependence on drugs—prescribed meds or contraband narcotics. Though she’d started smoking cigarettes again, a habit she’d quit almost ten years ago.

Her packing was done, and she’d said most of her goodbyes the night before. It was more emotional than she thought it would be, saying goodbye to some of the girls. Prison made for unexpected friendships. There were women from all walks of life serving time at Taconic. Medium security was a catchall for everything between white collar and the most serious felonies. If someone committed fraud or laundered money, they generally went to minimum security, aka prison camp. If the crime was serious, the sentence long, and the person had priors, they usually did their time in maximum. Tara had hoped for minimum; transporting stolen opioids was not a violent crime. But because it was across state lines and she had a previous assault charge on her record, the Bureau of Prisons points system dictated she do her time in medium.

It worked out okay. She’d always known how to take care of herself. It came from growing up in a home with little parental supervision, in one of the poorer neighborhoods of Port Chester, one of the poorer towns in Westchester County. But Eddie always had her back when they were kids, when her tendency to buck the rules would land her in the hot seat. He would either help her get out of trouble or suffer alongside her. In Taconic, she was utterly alone.

Her show-no-fear strategy had gotten her into a little trouble initially. When she didn’t follow all the guards’ rules she was restricted to her cell until she figured it out. When she didn’t follow all the inmates’ rules she paid a physical toll, though that was just the one time. For the most part she stayed on the fringe and observed until she learned how it all worked. In the end, prison was a lot like high school. There was a hierarchy, with the most significant offenders at the top. They had committed major crimes and would be there the longest, though most of those women weren’t very scary. A lot of domestic abuse victims who’d finally struck back or addicts who had committed enough drug crimes to earn a long mandatory sentence. Everyone else resided within a tentative clique of some kind, sometimes determined by race or language or religion, sometimes by education or employment background. Repeat offenders tended to hang together, as did the lowest and most hated on the totem pole: the child abusers.

Like in her years at Port Chester High School, Tara was able to avoid making any real enemies at Taconic. She kept friendships pretty loose, other than Jeannie, but got along with most of the women there. Most of the guards too, except for a few menacing assholes—including a couple of female guards—and she made damn sure never to get caught alone with them. That was one thing she wouldn’t miss. Being so vigilant all the time was exhausting.

Jeannie’s bare lower legs appeared over the side of the top bunk as she finally sat up. “When you leave,” she said around a yawn, “I’m taking that bunk. Tired of climbing up and down.”

Tara stood and stretched, headed over to the sink to brush her teeth. She glanced at the sheet of polished metal that was supposed to pass for a mirror. All she saw was a distorted pale face framed by blurry copper waves. “You should switch the mattresses,” she told Jeannie. “Mine’s thin as paper.”

Jeannie nodded, her black corkscrew curls bouncing on both sides of her round face. She half slid, half hopped down from her bunk, kissed her fingertips, and pressed them to the eight-by-ten school portrait of her eight-year-old daughter, Chloe, which hung on the wall opposite their bunks. Then she started changing into the forest-green top and pants every inmate at Taconic wore. She had four months to go on a ten-month stint for repeatedly writing bad checks. Her dickhead boyfriend put her up to it and walked away scot-free when she got busted. Funny how many of them had a similar story, doing time for some man.

While Jeannie dressed, Tara turned to the small desk they’d shared since becoming cellmates six months ago. She opened the midsize cardboard box that held the belongings she was taking: her many sketch pads and pencils, some drawings and family photos that had been taped above her bunk, a large stack of homemade cards from her ten-year-old nephew, Conor. The letter from her father was in there, though she wasn’t sure why. She’d read it once and never responded.

She pulled out the handful of cigarettes she had slid in the box the night before and studied them. She should just leave them behind, quit cold turkey as she exited this place. Jeannie didn’t smoke, but she could trade them for something. Someone was always hunting for cigarettes. Tara folded her hand around the Marlboros that had been smuggled in by a guard or somebody’s family member or friend during a visit. She never knew who or where the cigs originated from, just traded for them when she got the chance, usually food, sometimes one of her sketches. If Geraldine saw them, Tara would never hear the end of it. But just the thought of her sister made her want to light one up, so she slid them back in the box.

Next Tara pulled out a folder, laid it on the desk, and touched her fingertips to it. “This is for Chloe,” she said, glancing at the school portrait. “It’s the last four installments. You can give them all to her next weekend or dole them out over the next month.” Jeannie’s mother was taking care of Chloe while Jeannie served her time, and every weekend, without fail, they made the four-hour round-trip from Albany to visit her.

Tara hadn’t had a visitor in over four months. Her family lived thirty miles away.

Jeannie shook her head and pressed a fist to a hip. “I can’t believe you did all this, T.”

“I wanted to finish the story.” It was more like a comic book. Chloe had cerebral palsy and walked with two canes. Not long after Jeannie moved into her cell, Tara caught her crying one night because she had nothing to send her daughter for her birthday. A couple days later Tara offered her a comic strip that depicted Chloe using her special power—canes that became ultramagnets at her command—to save a dog from an evil dogcatcher. Chloe loved it so much Tara expanded it to a series over the past few months, giving the heroine a nemesis, Dr. Doom, who was trying to take over Chloe’s hometown.

“Does she finally get rid of that Dr. Doom?” Jeannie asked.

“She turns her canes up to their highest magnetic strength and uses them to crush him.” Tara smacked her palms together. “She lets him live, but he’s harmless after that.”

Jeannie laughed. “She’s gonna love that.” Her head tilted. “You know, these comics have meant so much to her.”

Tara shrugged a shoulder. “I’m just glad she liked them.”

“I bet Conor loved his too.”

“He said in his letters he hung them all up in his room.”

Jeannie’s brows pinched together in concern. “You sure you gonna be okay, going back to live with that brother and sister of yours?” She was twenty-six, four years younger than Tara, but Jeannie had a natural mother hen thing going on. And she made no bones about how little she thought of Eddie and Geraldine. What kind of brother and sister don’t visit more when they live right down the road? That ain’t right.

Tara had given up making excuses for them. “I’ll be fine,” she said.

“Connelly.” The raspy voice belonged to Linda Morelli, a short, compact guard with a gray flattop. “You ready to check out of this place?” she asked, crossing her arms.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Well, let’s go.” Morelli tossed her head down the cellblock. “I have the privilege of escorting you through processing.”

“I guess this is it,” Jeannie said. “Damn. Who’s gonna listen to all my stories about Chloe and nag me to exercise? God knows who I’m gonna get up in here next.”

Tara folded down the flaps on her box. “Hope it’s someone who can sleep through your snoring.”

But Jeannie didn’t smile. “I mean it, T. I don’t know how I would have survived without you in the beginning.”

Copyright © 2023 by Tracey Lange

The Connellys of County Down
by by Tracey Lange

  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Celadon Books
  • ISBN-10: 1250865387
  • ISBN-13: 9781250865380