The warm air was thick with the smell of magnolia blossoms. Cookie shuddered. A single scream, louder than the others, shot like a firecracker into the sky.
Her body unlatched, like a young girl's diary sprung open by a pin. She leaned closer to Melvin, and laid her head against his chest.
He could feel her heart racing beneath her thin nightgown. He couldn't hear anything above the screams. Melvin tried, in vain, to organize his thoughts. Cookie had said that peacocks were making this noise. He believed her, but at the same time he couldn't. This noise - this incredible din - could surely not be made by beaked, feathered birds. The entire town must be awake around them; only the deaf or the extremely drunk could sleep through this cacophony, and if that was the case, how could it be allowed to carry on? Someone needs to shut this down, he thought. Where are the police? The peacock wranglers? Who's in charge here?
Cookie's breath hit Melvin's bare chest in quick, warm puffs. She tilted her head back. She looked like she had something to say.
The cries perforated the air. The ruthless sound fragmented the darkness and splintered Cookie and Melvin's thoughts. They lost coherence, and articulacy. They wished they could escape. They wished they knew what to do. They not only wanted the screams to stop, they wanted to make them stop. A force was pushing against them, and their instinct was to push back.
Melvin looked at Cookie and her radiating eye.
"Please," she said.
He knitted his fingers through her hair and kissed her so hard they both slid a few inches across the floor.
When he pulled away, she tugged him closer.
"You should go back to your room," she said.
Another lock was picked, this time within Melvin, and he pushed her white nightgown up her thighs. His breath was thick in his throat. He inhaled flowers and Cookie's skin and the dirt from a farm he had never laid eyes on. The birds seemed to be screaming at him now. They were taunting him, goading him, trying to pick a fight. Come on, they yelled. Do it! What are you made of?
Melvin's hands swept up and down Cookie's back. He wanted to leave himself and crawl into her. He wanted to block the screams out. He wanted to hurt Cookie with kisses. He felt dizzy, and somehow, somewhere, wounded. He pulled on Cookie, and she pulled back. They scrambled against each other. It seemed conceivable to both of them, in the darkness, that this noise, and this night, might never end.
"My parents," she whispered.
"They won't hear. No one can hear anything."
Cookie's fingertip traced a figure eight against his shoulder. "It is technically our wedding day," she said, as much to herself as anyone.
The skin around her right eye tinted purple, on its way to every color in the rainbow. Melvin tugged her nightgown over her head. She didn't know where to put her hands. The man and the woman, intertwined, shimmied to their feet and fell onto the bed.
"Why won't they just be quiet?" Cookie said, and was surprised by how loud and unattractive her voice sounded.
This had not been her plan, and she was a young woman who lived by plans. If she did this - no, as she did this, because it was happening, his lips were pressing her bruise and she was crying out in a confused medley of pain and pleasure - who would that make her be?
Any evidence of her distress was lost on Melvin. He felt dwarfed, in yet another canopied bed, by the size of his own expectations. There was a grit of shame caught beneath his fingernails as he gripped Cookie's soft, white thigh. He knew he would not sleep again that night; he wouldn't even try. Melvin batted his fiancée around the bed as if she were a firefly he was trying to catch in a bottle, while the birds roared in the distance.
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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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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