Winter Short Story Award 1st Place: “Advanced Reader” by Donovan Swift

October 16, 2023

“Advanced Reader” isn’t just for the advanced reader. This story—this glimpse—into the awkward and lonely world of separation and the dating-app world has no wrong words. Driving this story is its sparse language, but it is that exact minimalism that affords this story so much emotion. The story certainly draws its power from what’s there on the page, but it equally draws power from what’s left out. “Advanced Reader” exemplifies the short story genre, yes, but that is not what makes it shine: The characters are fully rendered and their emotions are so eloquently captured and evinced, word by word, to the very end. — Guest Judge Morgan Talty


If I squint, I can almost see the outline of Clara’s spleen against her skin. She’s so thin, so young, that it’s hard to think she has a kid who can walk and talk, a child with a red smudge of tomato sauce on his chin, perpetually in need of wiping. A little human all her own. She seems too small to be anyone’s mother, too young. I’m here because my fiancée Amy left a few months ago. Well, I left, but she was the one who asked me to leave. So I’m at the beach, sharing a towel with a person who says her name is Clara for my first date in five years.

“So, what’s your son’s name?” I ask her.

Clara glares at me, or maybe she’s just squinting from the bright beach sun.

“That’s a weird thing to ask right out the gate.” Clara runs a hand through her plastic Walmart bag. From the shorts she removed when we hit the sand, she pulls a blunt and lighter. “It’s Brian,” she says. “But let’s maybe not?”

Clara takes two hits, then holds the blunt toward me. A diamond stud sparkles above her lip as she exhales. Clara’s skin’s almost yellow, like a sallow stain that used to be tan. Praying hands are tattooed on her ribs, a blurry rose on her upper thigh. I want to reach over and poke her stomach, that tiny space from which a whole boy emerged.

Clara and I “met” on a dating app. Which means I don’t actually know this person. It was one of the less reputable apps. The kind you use if you don’t want other people to know you use a dating app. In my profile, I only used pictures revealing my nose and chin. I gave a fake name. I said my hobbies include going on adventures, though I’m not sure I know what that means. Clara posted selfies with her middle finger aimed at the camera, as if she didn’t want to have her picture taken at all. As if the camera just needed a picture of her.

“Want it?” she says, nudging my arm with her wrist.

Hundreds of backs glisten in Florida sun, like car windshields in a parking lot. Our thighs are inches apart.

I don’t usually smoke weed, don’t even like it. But, today, I’m not myself. I am KyleP314=).

I take a hit, but I’m not ready for the weight of the smoke, the added bite. I hold a cough in the back of my throat and pass the blunt back to Clara.

“Good?” she says, but if I talk the cough will come pouring out.

She takes a few more hits, then clips the blunt. Which is a relief. If I were to have any more than two hits, I would be left paranoid and hungry, craving a soft bed and a bag of chips, wondering if this woman were drugging me.

“Let’s go in,” she says. She smiles like she’s trying to convince herself that she’s having a good time. Her two front teeth are big and one hugs the other, crowding it like a needy sibling.

She grabs my wrist and we head to the water, sand skittering across the towel. We leave our bags. Mine with sunblock, a plastic container of melon from Publix, a book. Hers with who-knows-what. If her bag is searched, I decide, I will pretend not to know her. I will step cartoonishly out of frame, towel in tow.

As usual, the Gulf is warm and flat, like old bath water. We wade in until the water reaches our waists. A few feet over, a woman twerks, her ass smacking the oncoming tide. A man records this with his phone.

Clara asks me what I do for a living, and I say that I work in a bank, which is vague and boring enough to avoid follow-up. I don’t work in a bank. Does anyone still work in a bank?

“And you’re a nurse?” I ask. I remember this from her profile but even if I didn’t, nurse would be a good guess. Nurses are to Florida what actors are to Hollywood.

She says she is, then skims her palm across the water, looks toward the sky. “At an assisted-living facility.”

Her sunglasses are pushed into her hair, which is thick with gel.

I try to picture her in turquoise scrubs, her tattoos covered and maybe even her piercing removed. I look at her hands, her long bony fingers, and picture her searching for an old man’s vein, pinching his crepey skin.

“That sounds tough,” I say. “I don’t think I could handle seeing that every day.”

“Seeing what every day?”

“Just, you know.” I dip my hand in the water, like I’m checking the temperature. “Sick old people.”

I say sick, though what I mean is dying. One reason Amy had on her break-up list—which was a physical list, by the way, a piece of looseleaf paper—was my inability to “see the bright side” of things. You’re just depressing, she had said. She sat upright in what was until that point our bed. I stood, thumbing the end of our mattress. This was where it happened. I need someone happier with themselves, she added. Someone happy. We met young, in college, and had grown apart, she said. Grown into different people, though I very much felt like the same person.

Clara shrugs. She takes a step farther into the water.

“They’re still pretty all right sometimes,” she says. “The residents. Not all of them really need to be there.”

Later, I will Google the facility and see that it’s nice, upscale. Grand oaks curl over a sidewalk that snakes around a small lake. The building is tall, regal, white marble steps with gold banisters that twinkle in afternoon sun. A Fresh Market across the street.

Clara steps into a wave, and the water pushes her into me. Her hip is sharp, a knuckle against my skin.

“My bad,” she says, putting a hand on my back. She leaves her hand on me, presses her body to mine.

I don’t know what to do with my hands, so I keep them in the water. I look at our feet in the Gulf. They look broken in the refracted light, as if our ankles are trying to escape while the rest of us stays put.

Something about being in the water must have brightened her mood, because Clara’s body is still next to mine. She steps closer, so that my leg is between both of hers. I don’t know why, but I have the strong urge to sink the moment and ask her something else inappropriate, about her relationship with her family, her last bed-wetting incident, where the kid’s dad is. We stand there like that, her arm across my back, like dancers waiting for a song.

* * *

Back at Clara’s apartment, we sit at the dining room table and drink watery sangria. She gets the pitcher from the fridge. Wine-soaked orange slices bob at the surface. We drink out of clear plastic cups ringed with cartoon tulips. Her apartment is spacey, trendily decorated. A tapestry with red and orange monkeys covers the living room wall. Her coffee table looks like it’s made of weathered oak and has curled, wrought-iron legs.

“Where is he, now?” I say, pointing at the built-in bookshelves next to the table. Framed pictures of her son sit between geometry workbooks and beginner’s guides to self-actualization. In one of the pictures, he’s dressed as Buzz Lightyear. Her little spaceman.

“Mom’s,” Clara says. “She takes him Sundays.” Then she adds, “Sometimes.”

Her hair is still damp from the Gulf, but it falls onto her shoulders now. Without the gel, it looks lighter, more blonde. Her face is crisp, a reddish brown that will soon turn tan. We changed out of our suits at the beach, so she has on a peach sundress, while I wear shorts and a T-shirt.

“So, what do you do again?” she says, and again I say that I work at a bank.

“I know, but what do you do?” She stabs the last word with her finger. “At this bank.”

I didn’t think this far ahead.

“Just numbers,” I say, waving a hand, as if this explains anything.

She squints at me.

“I don’t think I could handle seeing that every day,” she says.

She takes a sip from her sangria. Under the table, her knee knocks against mine.

I rub my toes together and feel sand scrape at my skin. I look at my bare feet on the white tile, hope that I’m not tracking dirt. Clara takes another sip, then fishes around in her bag. She pulls the blunt and lighter out again, takes a hit.

She holds the weed toward me, but I hesitate. Eventually, I reach for her hand.

“You don’t have to if you don’t want to,” she says as she exhales, blowing the smoke away from me.

Again, I hesitate, but this time I let my hand fall back to the table.

“I’ll stick to this,” I say, picking up my plastic cup.

Clara takes another hit, then taps the blunt in a lumpy ashtray. FOR MOMME! is painted on the ashtray’s side.

* * *

It was hard leaving the apartment Amy and I shared for four years. Not to mention finding a new apartment. A place that would have to be home. I don’t know how to make a new place feel homey. The one-bedroom I have now is mostly vacant: white walls, fold-out chairs, and an ugly beachscape that haunts the wall.

Amy and I used to wander Home Goods. We filled our imaginary home. We touched the upholstery of a sectional, and nodded. We ran our fingers over the wood grain of dining room tables. We talked about colors for the bedroom. Mauve was mentioned, then shot down. Too bold, we agreed. We were more of a Cinnamon couple, a Sandstone.

But when I showed her listings online, actual homes with porches and grass, an extra bedroom for a child, Amy said we didn’t have the money. She was an event coordinator at a non-profit, and I worked for State Farm. We could squeeze it, I said, and I talked about things I didn’t understand: mortgages and subprime loans, refinanced cars. You’re not thinking this through, Amy said, or, worse, We’re not even thirty. I sent her links at work: ADORABLE 2/2! CHARMING BUNGALOW w/ PORCH SWING!! But I don’t think she clicked them. I wonder if the list existed then, if she weighed the pros and cons of me at her lunch break, during conference calls, if she even struggled with the decision.

* * *

On the way to Clara’s bedroom, we pass her son’s, the door left open. I expect the walls to be blue, but then remember that this is an apartment, that certain luxuries of decorating are limited to those who own homes. So the walls are off-white, almost beige, like the rest of the apartment.

I pause at his doorway, so Clara stops, too. For some reason, I assumed that the kid, Brian, must share a room with Clara. Maybe even a bed. At what age do kids get their own room? Or start walking and talking? Kids between ages three and ten have always looked the same to me. So I never know what to say to them, never know how much they can understand. So you’re in school? I usually decide on, thinking it a safe bet.

“What?” Clara says, maybe a little insecure. She grabs the knob to pull the door shut, but I see inside before she does.

Brian has a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle bedspread.There’s a desk wedged in the corner. A huge pack of crayons sits next to a stack of construction paper. Brian’s name is spelled out on the wall, paper block letters taped in a gentle arc. Each letter gets its own color. A stack of picture books sit on a small nightstand. A reading light is clipped to the topmost book, curling toward the cover of The Giving Tree. Still, this gives me no hint at his age. Could he be seven? Eight? How old would that make Clara, then? Maybe she reads to him?

Clara lets go of the knob and takes my hand, leads me toward her room.

“How old is he again?” I ask. “The books,” I add. “I can never tell.”

“Six,” she says. “But he’s an advanced reader for his age.”

She doesn’t say this with the pride most parents do, a braggy glow lighting their faces. She says it matter-of-factly, the same way she says his age. As if she had no hand in it.

* * *

Amy and I were in bed one night. The cat slept sprawled between us. Amy had these orange lights strung by the windows, like little glowing baseballs. Oak branches scraped the window, and Elephant Ear leaves cast cartoony shadows. I poked her ear. That night was our five year anniversary, or thereabouts. We didn’t have an exact date. We ballparked it. We didn’t get each other gifts, but Amy got me a card with the plastic still wrapped. Congratulations! the card said. Inside: a monkey in a party hat. We ate cheeseburgers at Back Porch and walked home, fingers loosely locked.

“Derek is moving to Tallahassee,” I started. “Might be an opening.”

She pretended to be asleep, mouth open.

“I know you’re awake.” I put a finger in her nose.

“Can we not tonight?” she said, turning over.
“Everyone says now is the time to buy,” I said. “Buy low, sell high.

“I don’t want to buy.”

The cat pawed at my thigh, eyelids pulled back with sleep.

“Lowest prices in a decade.”

“Go to sleep,” she said.

“The market’s hot.”

She was half-asleep, I told myself after she said the next part, kidding. She didn’t mean it, I hoped, though she did, of course, eventually.

“We don’t need more space,” she said, “though you leaving mine would be a start.”

She pushed my chest away, playful, then turned and curled into sleep.

* * *

Clara’s bed smells nice, Mountain Fresh. On the detergent bottle, there’s probably a clothesline with T-shirts billowed in a suggested breeze. We are naked, now, and Clara has the covers up despite the heat pulsing at the window.

I forgot how awkward first sex is. She puts a tentative hand on my hip. I run a finger along her thigh, where she has a birthmark shaped like Rhode Island. We laugh at things that aren’t funny.

Clara was shy when getting undressed. She turned around, away from me, and stepped out of her dress, letting it turn liquid at her feet. When she faced me, she covered her breasts with her forearms, hands wedged into her armpits. She didn’t take her panties off until we were under the covers.

Her hand trembles as she drags a finger along my waist.

“I’m not really looking for anything serious,” I say, though I don’t know if I mean it. I tap her hip bone with my finger. “I just went through a rough break-up.”

Clara’s hand recoils. Her head retreats on her neck, like a turtle entering its shell.

“And who says I am?” she says.

I shrug. I place my hand on the bed between us. I graze her thigh with my pinky. The central air clicks on, breathes into the quiet.

“I don’t care that you don’t work at a bank,” she says. “I don’t care what you do.”

I don’t know what to say to that, so we start again. The sheets rustle in the quiet, and the bedsprings moan with our weight. When I’m on top, Clara keeps her palm flat on my stomach, controlling the pace. She also looks down occasionally—her chin dipping into her chest—to make sure everything goes where it’s meant to.

She also closes her eyes, and I can’t help but think she is imagining someone other than me. Amy almost definitely did this for the last year of our relationship. I did sometimes, too, in fact. But it wasn’t about imagining someone better, someone with more toned glutes or a flatter stomach. Just someone different. But now that it’s happening, now that I’m here, it’s feels strange to have sex with someone other than my fiancée. The use of a fake name and pictures that only revealed nose and chin felt like an act of preservation. I was wading back into the water, while keeping one foot ashore.

After sex, we slip on our underwear and lay under the covers. There’s no spooning, no cuddling. After a few minutes of silence, we stand and put our clothes back on, facing opposite directions. I can’t shake the feeling that Clara’s son is going to walk through the door at any moment. I imagine him standing at the foot of the bed, wide-eyed, a stuffed monkey slipping from his little hand.

So you’re in school? I would ask the boy, now standing next to his mother rather than looming above her. How violent sex would look to the young, advanced reader or not. If he saw, what would he think that night in bed, as his mother slept one door down? What kind of nightmares would haunt his sleep?

We walk back into the dining room, where the pitcher of sangria still sits.

“I’m an insurance claims specialist,” I say, for some reason. “At State Farm. Which is basically data entry. I type in a client’s personal information and membership number to create a profile for each claim.” Like me, I don’t say. I’m boring, but this is me.

Clara smirks, finishes the last of one of our sangrias. Her face twists from the warm wine.

“Don’t say it,” I say. “I don’t think I can handle it every day either.”

She puts her hands up like, You said it, not me.

Neither of us sits at the table, so I assume this means she wants me to leave.

“Well,” I say.

I pause, give her a chance to say, Stay. I linger, try to will the word from her lips.

Her hand is curled on the back of a chair. She squints at the living room window. The room has gone dark. But some last light forks through the plastic blinds.

“All right.” She purses her lips. “Hit me up sometime.”

We exchange a stiff hug, but as I turn to leave, I hear gravel pop under tires, the grumble of a car engine.

Clara moves to the window. Her bare feet clap on the tile. She pinches back the blinds.

“Shit,” she says.

Car doors slam shut. Clara runs a hand up her neck, through her hair. She lifts her dress to her nose, sniffs it. She smells her fingers.

I step behind her. We watch Brian come up the steps. He takes two at a time, like he’s trying to beat an invisible monster to the top. His backpack pendulums between his little shoulders. A woman follows behind him, leaning on the metal rail. She pauses as she takes each step, as if she needs to build up the strength for the next. Grey hair spreads from her roots, like an encroaching shoreline.

“Fuck.” Clara looks down at her wrist, but there’s no watch. “What time is it?”

I pull my phone from my pocket. Click the button on the side.

“Six-thirty,” I say, and the door swings open.

The kid bounds through the door. But rather than fling his backpack onto the tile, he carefully places it on the hook by the window. He smooths a wrinkle in the backpack’s side. A sticker on the bag says, I can read! When he turns, the boy sees Clara first, sees Mom, then me.

Clara moves away from me. Moves to Brian. She swallows the kid with a hug and kisses his cheek. The boy giggles. He wipes the kiss from his cheek with a face that says, Ew.

“Did you just wipe away my kiss?” Clara says in a voice I haven’t heard.

Brian shakes his head, No, but his smirk says, Yes.

“You did! You wiped away my kiss!”

Brian shakes his head, No No No No No.

But Clara devours the kid’s neck. She makes loud lapping noises, like it’s the first meal she’s had in years. She blows raspberries onto the boy’s skin, and Brian shrieks with delight, like a tea kettle long forgotten on the stove.

“No wiping away Mommy’s kisses,” Clara says, standing.

The other woman appears in the doorway, makes a flash of eye contact with me, then looks to Clara. The woman has rhinestone jeans, and her shirt is dotted with little holes. Her hair is straw blonde where it’s not grey.

“Sorry,” the woman says. “I didn’t realize you had company.” She says company as if I were a drug dealer, as if a glass pipe still hung from my lips.

The woman holds a McDonald’s bag out to Clara. The bottom of the bag is dotted with grease.

Mom.” Clara grabs the bag, then looks inside. Closes it. “I told you no fast food. Did he eat his carrots?” Then to Brian, hands on hips in mock outrage: “Did you eat your carrots, mister?”

Brian hooks onto his mother’s leg, digs his face into her thigh.

“No carrots!” he says, voice muffled by Clara’s dress.

“I told you eight o’clock,” Clara says to her mother, voice now a whisper. She waves a hand at me. “I ask for one night.”

Clara’s mother looks at me again, squints.

“I guess I lost track of time,” she says.

“I was just leaving.” I shake my keys, but don’t move.

“Did he do his homework?” Clara says, but her mother doesn’t seem to understand the question. Her mother shakes her head and brings her shoulders near her ears. She swipes at an eyelash on her cheek.

Clara clenches her jaw, as if chewing on the words she wants to say.

“Mom, who’s that!” Brian shouts, pointing at me.

“No one,” Clara says. Without looking at me. I wait for her to add more, but that’s it, that’s me. I’m no one.

When Clara does look at me, she purses her lips. She raises her eyebrows, widens her eyes. I get the hint.

“I was hoping to stay for dinner,” I say, pointing to the McDonalds bag. But no one laughs.

Clara’s mother wheezes, then hacks something into her fist.

“All right, well.” I move toward the door. When I walk past Brian and Clara, I say to the boy, “I hear you’re quite the scholar.”

I hold my hand out to the kid, and he looks at my palm like it’s something from Saturn. Clara takes it instead. She shakes like we just ended a job interview, pumping up and down and up and down.

“Goodnight,” Clara says. She puts a hand on my back and leads me away. I pass her mother, who smells like she took a bath in a bottle of gin, and head down the steps.

“Text me sometime,” Clara says, sticking her head out the door. Before the door clicks shut, I see a glimpse of Brian standing between his mother’s legs, a fistful of her dress in his hand.

* * *

I do text her. About a week later. From my white-walled apartment, with its folding chairs and bad painting. I’ve survived another week at my job, I write. What about you? But Clara never answers. When I check the dating app, I also notice that her profile has been deleted. There’s only a grey, vaguely woman-shaped avatar where her picture used to be.

Let’s hit the beach, I type in the apps message bar and hit send, knowing she’ll never see it but hoping she might.

At home, I look at the beachscape on my wall. A single crane stalks the shoreline. Frothy waves threaten to break over jagged rock. The sky is all pinks and oranges, as if the beach is about to be incinerated. Dark blue smudges dot the shoreline in the background. Suggesting people. Suggesting beachgoers. Couples, probably, wandering the dusk. Their love preserved in that blazing moment.

On the drive home, I wondered what Brian and Clara did once I left. Once I stepped past her mother and down the steps, once I drove away from them and toward home. What does a family do?

After her mother left, Clara probably made Brian dinner. Something with grilled chicken and little mounds of broccoli. She probably placed the McDonald’s bag squarely in the trash. Or maybe, as a Sunday treat, they ate ice cream. Maybe they ate dessert and worked on Brian’s homework. Worked on measuring the lines of a square with a little ruler. Brian probably slurped the ice cream once it turned liquid in his bowl. Probably gave himself an ice cream mustache, and said, Mom, look! as it dripped down his chin.

Or maybe the two went to his room. Maybe they sat on the linoleum with construction paper and drew spaceships. Maybe they drew lizards with tails for heads and named them Derek. Maybe they drew dogs and, defying nature, made them say, Meow. Maybe Clara sat behind Brian and tickled under his arms. Maybe she held a palm to his chest and felt it vibrate. Felt his little heart pump. Or maybe Clara just watched, a fullness in her chest like after a big meal, just watched as her son fit within a single square of white tile and brought crayon to page. Or maybe he’s too old for these things. I can never tell.

Donovan Swift lives outside of Philadelphia with his family, which includes an elderly Chihuahua and toy poodle. He works in the city as an editor. 


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