Books·CBC Literary Prizes

"20 Percent Donnas" by S. Kennedy Sobol

S. Kennedy Sobol was shortlisted for the 2016 CBC Short Story Prize for “20 Percent Donnas."
S. Kennedy Sobol was shortlisted for the 2016 CBC Short Story Prize for “20 Percent Donnas." (S. Kennedy Sobol)

Stacey's clients were almost twenty percent Donnas. Five percent Denyse with a y. Then another twenty percent that was an even mix of Lindas, Deborahs, and Cheryls.

It was a fact she didn't notice until all of the Donnas were surely dead. Just two decades separated the Donnas' generation from her own (which was one of Jennifers and Heathers, Staceys and Stephanies), but they wouldn't have made it, she was certain. You could think of it this way: Donnas had their hair set. Fixed in place, like a soft helmet. You could rely on most Donnas to be reticent about leaving house and home very suddenly. A Jennifer's hair, on the other hand, was feathered at the sides, suggesting forward motion, even while at rest. As though she were perpetually running, through some permanent, unperceived wind.

On the last day of August, there was no announcement, no planned evacuation, it was just evident: they had to flee. Stacey's husband Alex grabbed all the sensible things. The bottles of water, the tent, a hatchet, two sweaters. Puppy chow and as much of the pantry as would fit in two blue plastic tubs. Stacey scooped up their dog Crüe, a dirty-white terrier. That was the one thing she did right. Once the dog was in her arms, though, it was like some crucial bit of her brain's wiring became disconnected. She saw objects in her surroundings but didn't know their names, or what they were for. She walked from room to room, calmly, as if trying to hide the truth of the situation from the dog.

Their apartment was on the main street, over the salon. Outside, things had grown quiet for the moment. Red nasturtiums overflowed the concrete planters, like always, and the sun shone brightly on the husk of a yellow Ford Escort overturned in the road. She half-expected to see a tumbleweed roll by but instead there was Florence Henning, running past the yarn store with a small suitcase on wheels trailing behind her, as though she was trying to catch a flight. As though she might possibly make it further than the next county over.

She went downstairs, to the salon with its plant-draped windows and minty light. In one hand she held a floppy bag, the most useless kind, made of netting. In the bag was a small pillow, a few apples, and a paperback (the perfect beach read, according to a sticker on the cover).

Alex was in the alley outside, loading the truck. She looked at the cane chairs in the waiting area, their high round backs against the wall like a row of dusty thrones. Her appointment book sat by the till, and without thinking why she crammed it into the net bag as well.

Alex held Stacey's hand as they pulled out of the back parking lot. Past the ticket machine a fox kit appeared, ambling towards the truck, a puff of orange fur with a broad face and stubby limbs. Alex stopped, scooped it up decisively, and then jogged back towards the alley, where he placed it gently in the shadow of the Stedmans dumpster.

Just the night before he had been five hundred miles away. They had talked on the phone, he in his motel room and Stacey sitting perched at the living room window. He told her that The Elephant Man was on satellite and she pictured the moon over the highway, hanging low in the sky over black cedars.

"I'll leave first thing," he said.

While there was still power, Stacey kept the TV on mute. She could hear voices, small commotions all up and down the street. As she fell asleep, many hours later, there was a faint whump in the distance. In retrospect it must have been the sound of the gas station as it caught fire and exploded. In the morning she awoke to the sound of cars, a steady stream of them, all heading north.

Now, in the truck, the dash rattled and Crüe draped himself across her feet like a bag of warm cement. She was waking up from her stupor, suddenly aware of all the things she could have brought with them, things she should have packed while she waited for Alex, instead of just mooning around the house in the thrall of a dull panic. Warm socks. More food, certainly. And there was a drawer full of Alex's old shirts: she had been saving them, along with an article, clipped from a magazine, about how to make a quilt from worn clothes. T-shirts and dress shirts, flannel pajamas. It was meant to be an heirloom. She had started saving pieces for it before they were married, even before the salon, moving the clothes with them from apartment to apartment. But the quilt never materialized, and eventually the very existence of all the scrap clothing — some wrinkled and some ironed, some already cut into perfect squares — became wrapped up in her own understanding of herself as someone not really equipped to look after another human.

The pines along Highway 5 held patches of deep black shade, but when the car slowed down it was possible to see small clearings among them, where stretches of basalt rock were washed in sunlight.

Alex said: we need to be ready for anything. He said: watch out for other people. Get as far as we can without stopping. And stay calm. Always stay calm. Stacy nodded in agreement, but she knew from past experience that she was not the type to be philosophical when it was called for, even when the stakes were much lower.

She opened her appointment book. The names of all those ladies whose hair she had combed and curled wound through it like time-stamped ribbons. It was true what they said: the older you got the faster time moved. But these lists were a record of every plodding moment, each page a testament to just how dreary and repetitive life could sometimes be, even as it was speeding by.

They didn't understand what was happening at the bridge until they were already in the midst of it.

The town limits were marked by the escarpment, a vast wedge of treed limestone that started at Wolf River in the west, and stretched to the Denby bluffs, at the eastern most tip of Kent County. The woods intersected the road just where the valley opened up into a low, wide river, many stories below. On the other side of the bridge was the border. Two lanes branched abruptly into eight, each threaded through a customs building that spanned the road like a giant comb.

The cars were all stopped when the first shots rang out. They watched as every door swung open, as if the cars were giant insects, preparing to take flight in unison. But there was nowhere to go, so the people ran and soon Alex and Stacey were running too, Stacey with Crüe held close to her chest.

"This way," said Alex. He said it with authority, like he had a plan, but as the words left his mouth he was actually sliding down the bank, with no control whatsoever over his speed or direction. She stood at the edge and watched the water roiling past far below. Her own sneakers looked suddenly alien, like strange paws of dirty white rubber. She set herself tumbling, and when she reached the bottom, there was no Crüe. The book of names was also gone, and all she had left was the mesh bag with its mealy apple. She caught sight of Alex just long enough to see him dive into the river, first looking to see that she had made it. Ahead, in the current, something that looked like a small human skull bobbed brightly along. This was Crüe, his black eyes newly visible amidst his wet and yellowed fur.

Stacey jumped.

They had both been taught all the same things, Alex and Stacey. Look both ways. Stop, drop and roll. Swim diagonally, with the current, until you reach the shore. Only one of them heeded this last piece of advice though, and that was Stacey. Alex followed Crüe, stupid dog that didn't understand English, and Crüe just drifted away.

At least this is what Stacey imagined. She awoke, bleeding and sore, on a muddy incline. It was dusk, and the river was black in the dull light. She knew that she was far from the bridge, because the only sound was a low murmur of voices from a nearby campfire. Eventually she would come to know the people gathered there: a colony of Kaylas, Kaydens and Mackenzies. There was a Brianna, and some slightly older Britneys, plus their counterparts, mostly Zachs and Liams. She observed them, unseen, for a long time, and when eventually she stood and walked towards them she kept her head up and her eyes open, watching, to see if they would welcome her.

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