A Good Hard Look
The peacocks tilted their heads back and bellowed and hollered their desires into the night. They snapped their shimmering tails open and shut like fans. Behind each male's pointy head, a green-bronze arch unfurled, covered with a halo of gazing suns. The females brayed and shook their less-attractive tails in return.
The birds didn't care that it was the middle of the night, and they didn't care who they were disturbing. They didn't care that there was a wedding tomorrow, or that the groom, who had just arrived from New York City, was lying beneath a lace canopy at his in-laws' house, paralyzed with fear. They didn't care that his fiancé startled awake in the next room and toppled out of her high bed, and they certainly didn't care that her face hit a stool on the way down. They didn't care that the rest of the small Georgia town was also awake, twitching in their beds like beached fish.
The peacocks were not out to make friends. They were out to do what they liked, when they liked. They chose this particular time on this particular night for the same reason they chose to eat the flowers in the side garden the moment they bloomed. They preferred roses and hyacinths, but deigned to eat tulips as well. They had claimed every inch of the farm, which meant the wide expanse of lawn in front of the farmhouse shimmered under a layer of white refuse.
The peacocks chased the peahens across the crunchy grass, short legs thrusting, three-pronged feet grabbing at the dirt. The females stole glances over their shoulders. Fans were unfolded and then gathered back close. White, yellow and green eyes stared out from the feathers, ogling the darkness.
The males covered the ground with improbable speed. They trampled grass and hay and hopped onto the white fence that lined the property. The wooden beams objected, leaning beneath the sudden weight. The birds puffed out their chests. They opened their beaks and screamed. They sustained the noise until a lone flower fell from the magnolia tree. The petals drifted, reluctant and aromatic, to the ground.
In the center of town, Melvin and Cookie huddled together on the floor of her room. They spoke in rushed whispers designed to fit between the bouts of noise.
"I hit my eye," she said. "I hit it hard."
Cookie's window was open. Enough moonlight coated the scene for Melvin to see that her right eye had already puffed up; it looked like a knuckled fist ready to throw a punch. A dark pink stain spread across the skin.
"How bad is it?" she asked.
"It's fine. It's nothing."
"I can feel it throbbing. Oh my God, I'll look terrible tomorrow."
"You'll look beautiful. You always do," Melvin said. He meant this. He had met her on a park bench in the city several months earlier, and since that moment had never seen her look anything less than perfect. He almost didn't believe that the bruise existed, even as he watched it grow and deepen.
Cookie didn't hear him. Something occurred to her, and she gazed at him with fresh panic. "Is it after midnight?"
Melvin looked down at his bare wrist. His watch was back in the guest room, lying on the night table. "I think so. It must be."
"You're not supposed to see me until the altar. This is bad luck!"
He wanted to reply, but the noise was unrelenting. It plowed through the walls. It crowded the room.
Cookie sobbed and cupped a hand over her eye. She reached out for Melvin with the other. She was glad she wasn't alone in this dark room, which had become, after an absence of almost three years, strangely unfamiliar. She hoped that returning home had been the right decision. She hoped that asking Melvin to move here had been the right decision. Cookie had never fallen out of bed in her life. Her eye pulsed against her palm. She thought about her wedding dress and she thought about tomorrow, which was also, apparently, today.
Excerpted from A Good Hard Look by Ann Napolitano. Copyright © 2011 by Ann Napolitano. Excerpted by permission of Penguin Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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