Peaches sat alone on her front porch. Although the rain splattered against her face and onto her thick, gray-rimmed glasses, she didn’t go inside. She insisted on greeting the child. There had been no phone calls or letters announcing the arrival. Still, she knew, so she waited.
Her oak rocker moved with the storm’s wind.
Soon, the rain fell harder. The thunder wasn’t far behind.
Peaches rose. Her strong bare feet dug into the planks as she sauntered to the steps. Her hands gripped the slippery railing as she moved toward the grass.
She walked until she stood under the lone light in her yard. The wind whipped the loose bulb against the beaten pole. Peaches’ skin, soaked with rain, glittered in the darkened yard. She folded her arms across her waist and waited, peering through the thicket for the first sign of outside life.
There had been no engine whirling in the distance.
No lights had gleamed from the horizon.
There was no physical indication at all that the child was nearby, but Peaches had never been wrong before.
The darkest nights were when they all came—all of her babies. The parents would pull up in the driveway, stalling in their cars, as if to make sure their decision was the right one. And they always agreed that it was. They would kick open their doors, with the engines still running. Rarely did they lift their eyes from the ground below them. The children, even the babies, sensed the shame that plagued their parents’ bodies. The laughing, the crying, whatever it was, stopped when Peaches’ arms held their little bodies. They looked upon the mothers and the fathers who they loved and wondered why they were to be abandoned.
One of the adults would go back to the car to retrieve a treasured stuffed toy. A giraffe. A zebra. A tiger. The type didn’t matter, of course, to the children. They couldn’t know. To the parents, though, these small stuffed creatures were more than a departing gift; they were everything that was—everything that would ever be—of them.
With the animal in hand, the parents’ faces would shift, and for a moment, they would consider their decision once again.
But when the lightning illuminated their faces and they realized the reason for their trip to the top of the secluded hill, they rushed away—back into the dark. The animal either pushed into Peaches’ chest or dropped on the ground in haste.
The parents didn’t ask about the other children. Peaches’ house was small, with barely enough room for one person. No eager faces stood at the glowing windows to see the new additions on the dark nights. The trees were empty of tire swings. No dolls hid under the piles of limbs and leaves. No fire trucks poked through the mud.
Peaches wanted to believe that parents came due to their optimism. Maybe there really was a home for ailing children. Maybe there was a place they could be cared for beyond anyone’s imagination. Because sometimes belief—in stories, in hopes, in dreams—is all there is to cling to.
But she knew better. They came because they were weak and hopeless. They came because they weren’t brave.
An owl hooted above Peaches, and she looked up into the storm.
“Come, Zora” she said. And she did. Her wings extended as she glided onto Peaches’ shoulder. “So, you’ve come to see our new one?” she asked.
The nearby puddles enveloped Peaches’ feet, but she remained firmly planted, awaiting her child. Then, she saw something from beyond the sheets of rain. “Look,” she said to herself and to Zora.
The car slowly came to a stop in front of Peaches. The parents jumped out with the baby already in their arms. “Sahar,” the mother called her. “We are so sorry, Sahar,” she said.
“Please take care of her—with the others,” the father, a young man with heavy shoulders, said softly. He stretched his arms away from his body as he held his daughter.
Her button nose wiggled, and her eyes closed as the rain blew into her face. Her appearance seemed peaceful. Then, coughs, angry and determined, spouted from her small body. Her cheeks flushed.
The father still held her away from his own body.
Zora chirped, but the man paid the high-pitch sound no attention.
Peaches nodded and took the tiny child. She brushed Sahar’s forehead and felt the heat. Her hands confirmed what she knew.
Sahar immediately vomited onto Peaches’ drenched body. Peaches held the young girl and rubbed her back. “It’s okay, my baby. You are loved,” she said softly.
The parents shook their heads and backed away.
The father stumbled back to his car and returned with a fuzzy bear, brown and with long strands of hair. A button rested on the edge of its snout, and knotted, golden fabric served as eyes. He held it to Sahar’s face and roared emptily.
Sahar didn’t face her father any longer; instead, her eyes were upon Peaches.
“Here,” the father said, and he tucked the creature into Peaches’ cradled arm.
The mother and the father ran back to their car. They were free from the storm. Now and forever.
They began to drive away, but, at the edge of the driveway, their brake lights flashed. The redness glared so intensely that it lit up the front of Peaches’ small house.
The menagerie was awake, and they—all of the animals—were on the move.
Zora flew from Peaches’ shoulder and joined her friends.
Peaches rushed with Sahar to the door.
It was almost time.
Inside, Peaches removed Sahar’s wet blanket. The baby cried as she rested naked on the soft cushions under the warm light.
Sahar’s quick breaths came as rattles, and the child’s spit ran down her pale cheeks.
Sahar’s fading eyes followed Peaches as she dampened a warm cloth under the nearby faucet.
Peaches, with a husky voice, began to sing to Sahar. She danced all the way to the dying baby, and when she reached Sahar, she held the child’s small hand.
“You are loved, my baby,” Peaches said in a singsong voice. “You are so, so loved, my beautiful, beautiful friend.”
Sahar kicked her legs, and she smiled.
Peaches took the cloth and softly caressed Sahar’s tiny body.
The end was coming. Sahar’s breaths came quicker. Her body moved slower.
Peaches went to her dresser and removed a white blanket. She unfolded it and smoothed the wrinkles. She took the soft cotton and carefully dressed Sahar. When Sahar was secure, Peaches grabbed the plush bear and placed it beside the ailing baby. “Yours,” Peaches said, and she planted a kiss on Sahar’s nose.
“Rest, my beautiful baby,” Peaches whispered. “You will need your strength.”
Peaches pulled up a chair to Sahar’s side. She took the baby’s hand into her own again and softly hummed.
Zora appeared at the window. “Already?” Peaches asked. The owl softly hooted in reply.
Soon, the other animal’s faces were watching. Their eyes glowing behind the glass, waiting on Sahar to join them. Eager. Ready.
“You are loved. You are so, so loved,” Peaches repeated, while rubbing Sahar’s fragile hands.
The words floated throughout the room, never landing. They swirled and swirled, wrapped in kindness and in love. Nothing was to settle. Not on this night. Instead, something was building; something was growing.
When Peaches was seven, her sister, Zora, was born. Zora had a deformity. Her heart rested outside of her ribcage, and her veins pumped diseased blood.
“Your sister won’t live past her first birthday,” Peaches’ mother said, shoving the baby into Peaches’ arms. “I’ve taken care of you all I care to. You take care of your sister. She won’t be much trouble for you, and, even if she is, it’s only a few months.”
Peaches’ father laughed and grabbed his wife’s hand. He led her back to their bedroom and slammed the door.
Peaches held Zora and looked into her eyes—full and glowing. Baby Zora giggled and smiled, with her pink gums sparkling under the light. Peaches kissed her sister’s soft forehead. “Don’t you worry,” Peaches said. “You are my sister, and I’m going to love you for always and forever.”
Peaches grabbed the stuffed owl that the hospital’s nurses had given Peaches’ parents when Zora left their care, and she opened the door and left.
Her aunt and uncle lived down the road. They would help her, she thought. They could help give Zora a good life.
When Peaches knocked on their door, her aunt quickly appeared. “What is it, baby?” she asked. She wiped flour onto the towel that dangled from her waist. “Is that your mother’s new baby?”
“Yes, Auntie. This is my sister Zora,” Peaches said, pulling the blanket from her head and showing the baby to her aunt.
But her aunt stepped back and moved her hand to cover her mouth. She turned and slammed the door. “That baby ain’t right!” she yelled. “You go on back home now. A child ain’t got no business being out with a sick baby like that.”
Peaches remained on the steps. She shouted through the wooden door, “Mama says she won’t take care of her! Says it’s my baby now!”
Peaches’ aunt cracked the door and peeked her head out slightly. “You respect your mother. Do what she says, girl.”
Then, the door shut again, and Peaches listened as her aunt’s heavy steps faded in the distance.
Peaches’ grandmother was dead long before Peaches ever entered the world, but her house still stood. Peaches had been once to get a few pots and pans with her mother.
“We’re going to sleep in the field tonight, Zora,” she said to her sister, caressing her few strands of curly hair. “Then, we’re going up that hill tomorrow,” she said, pointing off in the distance. “We’re going to our own home.”
Peaches took Zora, and, under the bright moonlight, they rested in the open field.
Peaches held Zora closely by her side and drifted into a dream.
It was her grandmother who came. Peaches knew without knowing, as she often would. Her grandmother’s old hands, wrinkled and soft, reached down to Peaches’ shoulders and then her back. She squeezed. A hug. Peaches hadn’t been embraced in years, but it felt just as real in the dream. “Keep going, and keep loving,” she said. Her grandmother’s dark face came closer. “After you get there, it won’t be long. Your mother was right,” she continued. Peaches shook her head. Tears fell from her eyes. Her only sister would soon die. “But you take that owl you have, and you put it at Zora’s feet when her time comes. You have a gift, baby. You’re leading a revolution, my child. You, my darling, Peaches—you are the one to set this world right.” Peaches nodded, but she remained silent. Her grandmother’s figure began to fade. Dust, leaves, clouds, she was all of those things now. Still her voice came. “Always keep your heart, and use my house to hold the menagerie until they are ready. They’ll tell you. You just listen—and you just love.”
Peaches jumped awake. The tears had been real. Her face was wet and her eyes swollen. The sun still hid under the horizon, but Peaches grabbed Zora, and she charged toward the hill. Sweat ran down Peaches’ face and onto every part of her body. She didn’t stop until she was there.
When she stood in front of the house, her heart jumped. For the first time in her short life, she felt like she was at home.
The days and weeks came quickly. Zora laughed and squirmed for more of the days than she didn’t. It was only her last week that she truly hurt.
The end came on a stormy night. The light flickered and the wind slammed against the loose windowpanes.
Peaches thought back to the dream in which her grandmother had visited her. She grabbed the owl and wedged it into Zora’s tiny feet. She stood over her sister’s body and kissed her soft cheek. Her head snuggled against her face, and she held her small hand. “You are so, so loved,” Peaches said to Zora.
In the morning, the stuffed owl was gone. Zora’s limp human body was where it had been—unmoved and undisturbed.
Peaches walked around her grandmother’s house searching for the owl. She wondered what her grandmother had intended her to do. She searched the floor, and she looked in all of the house’s corners. Perhaps a stray burst of wind had knocked it to the ground.
Peaches was on her knees, peering under a table, when the tap came at the window.
She looked up and began to cry.
“Zora,” she said, and she ran to open the window.
Peaches grabbed the stuffed bear and moved it to Sahar’s feet. She covered the child and bear with a blanket and went outside to tend to her menagerie behind her house. Her lingering love would do the work.
The animals allowed Sahar’s parents’ car to pass. Still, they had given the two humans quite the show.
They roared, and they charged.
They knocked over trees, and they kicked up grass.
They splattered mud in the sky, and they flashed their teeth when the lightning crackled.
When Peaches visited her babies, they were back in their shelter—calm, resting.
She brushed their thick hides with firm brushes, and she washed their backs and legs with warm water.
She brought treats for them. Peanuts for the elephant. Leaves for the giraffe. Exotic grass for the zebra. Meat for the tiger, lion, alligator, and hippo. Fruit for all of the monkeys. Insects for the birds. Rodents for Zora.
Peaches sang to them—the same way she did when they were sick, when they were human.
She laughed, observing how the weakest children became the strongest animals.
As Peaches reclined outside on her bed of straw, with Zora nestled at her side, she wondered about all of the people who’d left their babies.
Would they recognize the eyes they’d abandoned?
Sahar’s roar woke her. It woke all of the animals. They leapt from their beds and looked at the towering bear before them.
Sahar moved quickly along the fence, and she called out again.
She tore at the trees, with her claws ripping away the bark.
Her snout stood up into the sky and she cried.
Peaches approached Sahar. “My baby,” she said softly.
Sahar’s eyes looked down at Peaches.
“My baby,” Peaches continued. “Is it time?”
The other members of the menagerie were behind their mother—waiting, listening.
Peaches spoke again. Her voice loud and strong—roaring like the animals surrounding her.
“Is it time?” she shouted.
The animals, together now, answered in unison.
Their calls filled the morning dawn, and the ground trembled.
Sahar bent down, and Peaches crawled onto the giant bear’s back.
“It is time!” Peaches called.
She held her arm toward the sky, and she roared.
They all did.
They didn’t stop.
Peaches and her menagerie charged down the hill, ready to claim their world.
Bradley Sides is a writer and English instructor. He is a contributing writer at Electric Literature. His recent fiction appears at BULL, Ghost Parachute, Literary Orphans, Occulum, Rose Red Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Florence, Alabama, with his wife, and he is at work on his debut collection of short stories.