by Billie Harper Buie

Peter trudged up Lexington on a windy November day in 1949. The street was busy, shoppers and businessmen leaning into the chill as they pulled fur and wool coats tighter around their necks. Some paused and greeted Peter, some even reached to shake his hand, but he drew tight inside himself, moving through town the way he’d learned to do when he was young, imagining himself frozen in ice, unable to hear or see the disappointment, the embarrassment of what he was.

He entered Bon Marche at 12:15 p.m., as Maht had instructed, and headed for the hat department. He relaxed a bit into the old-world elegance of the department store named after the famous store in Paris when Asheville considered itself the Paris of the South. He couldn’t help running his fingers through cashmere and silk scarves lining the front counters, then the buttery softness, the muted shades, of leather gloves beside them, all ready for the Christmas rush that would descend the first week in December, when he’d be back in the safety of New York.

As soon as he saw Esti, he knew right away she was the girl Maht had described, a new girl from down east instead of the mountains, an unusual sight in Asheville. Her fine, firm face, chestnut hair, shapely figure, and immaculate maroon wool dress with covered black buttons at the neck all fit Maht’s description, but this wasn’t the eager girl he’d come to expect from Maht’s many suggestions. This one was older, not as old as Peter’s forty-five years, but at least early thirties. The look on her face, as she watched a stout woman pass with her arms draped casually over two children, was murderous.

Peter considered leaving. He hated unpleasant encounters, but Maht had insisted, with a peculiar intensity she rarely showed, on this time, this girl. He approached her, lapsing briefly into the stutter of his childhood. “MmMaht, my mother, said to ask only you for help.” Her face transformed so abruptly he doubted the rage he’d seen before.

“Maht sent you? Of course I can help,” Esti said, after he’d explained his mission. “Such refinement, but she’s a mind of her own, I’m sure you know. She mentions you often, her successful son in New York.” Esti tilted her head, regarding him with unsettling curiosity. She glanced at his cashmere overcoat, his silk scarf and English fedora. “You’ll have opinions about this birthday gift,” she said. “Let me pull a few things for you.” She strode across to the women’s section as if she owned the store.

Esti was head of alterations at Bon Marche and the best seamstress in the United States, Maht claimed. She was the only one on the floor at noon, when her friend in the hat department rushed home to nurse her baby. How Maht knew all these details about a store clerk was a mystery, but Peter had long ago given up understanding his affectionate, superstitious, Russian-born mother.

“Here we are.” Esti laid three suits on a counter and disappeared again, returning a moment later with scarves and matching pumps. The rich colors, the fabrics, were exactly what Maht would like and more expensive than she’d pay. Peter didn’t know why his father had been so insistent on getting an extravagant birthday present for Maht this year. He so seldom acknowledged that Peter, his only child, could do a job better than he could. Peter was anxious to prove him right. He’d thought about telling Maht he wanted to buy something for a girl in New York, to keep the birthday present a surprise, but Maht saved him that humiliation by anticipating their plans and telling him exactly what he needed to do, just like she’d always done.

“Petie, you’re back in town to buy a suit?” Buck O’Connell leaned across the counter with his familiar smirk, unchanged since childhood. “Those look a tad small for you.” Peter froze, not wanting to risk another stutter. Buck clapped him on the back, hard enough to sting. “Just kidding. Hey there, Esti. Just saw you through the front window. I didn’t know you worked sales too.” He warmed his smile for her.

Buck started to say more, but Esti spoke over him, stepping forward with surprising aggression, bordering on rudeness, especially for a shop girl. “Excuse us. My customer and I have some decisions to make, and he doesn’t have much time.” Buck stepped back, holding his hands up in mock surrender. “Menswear is all the way back on the left. Someone there will help you,” she added, staring at him until he walked away.

Maht, unlike Peter, was drawn to women like this, women with an unexpected edge, but at this moment, he was more grateful than repelled. When Buck was out of sight Esti left again, returning with a bottle of perfume. She wrapped it in a silk scarf and nestled it in one of the suits. “This completes it nicely, don’t you think?”

Peter took a breath, fighting to find himself again. He was a sad case, letting a childhood bully unnerve him. He gazed at the three outfits. “Thank you.” He couldn’t keep the stiffness and formality from his voice, but he managed a tight smile. He wanted her to know that he was grateful, that her brashness didn’t offend him. “These are lovely, just right for her. I wish I could buy them all, but I’ll take this one, with the royal blue pumps.”

“That’s the best choice,” she said, looking at him with new appreciation. “You have an eye, don’t you?” She gift-wrapped the suit herself, tying a gorgeous crimson bow on top.

Peter grew agitated when Buck passed back by, meandering closer and closer to Esti. Maht said he’d cheated on his wife so many times no one bothered counting anymore. Esti turned her back on Buck when he approached. She gripped Peter’s arm, pretending to show him watches in the case below. He flinched like he always did when women touched him, nervous about her intent.

“Listen.” She lowered her voice. “You and I could help each other a lot in this world.” He leaned away from her, startled and alarmed by her intensity, but she didn’t let go of his sleeve. “My husband is dead, I’ll never marry again, but I could use a friend like you, an escort of sorts, to keep the Buckos away. I think you could use a friend like me too. We’d be a couple, but not the couple people think we are.”

If she’d crashed into a frozen pond and yanked him out, he wouldn’t have been more shocked. “What did you say?” He gripped the counter, slightly dizzy. He was a dutiful son, but Maht had gone too far, connecting him with this rash woman. Esti couldn’t possibly need his help. Besides, he’d constructed a careful life, a well-managed life, that kept his true nature well hidden.

“Most men would swell up to a blind rage if I talked to them this plainly.” Esti released his arm. She smoothed his sleeve where she’d crunched the fabric, keeping her voice low. “I think you see a wider world than that.” She slid the beautiful package into a bag and handed it to him. “Think about it.”

Maht’s birthday, two days before Thanksgiving this year, was a success. After her friends left, Peter and his parents sat on the sunporch, Maht’s favorite room, in a haze of afternoon light, eating lemon curd cake and teasing Maht about her rapture over the suit and perfume until Peter’s father cleared his throat, signaling an end to the party. His world revolved around his hardware store and the constant work he devoted to it. Time away, family or not, was always measured.

“I have news,” he said. “I wanted some cheer beforehand because this is nothing we can’t handle.” Maht took his hand. Later, Peter decided she’d already known in her uncanny way. “I have cancer in my, well, it’s cancer,” Peter’s father said, his Victorian sensibilities keeping him in check. “It’s a slow one, in the early stages.”

Peter felt gut-punched, unable to breathe for a few seconds. It was automatic, this fear that whatever illness struck nearby might leap into his own body. He stood, thoroughly ashamed, as another, far darker fear rose. Did this illness creep into his father from Peter’s own damaged body? Peter’s habitual torment, not knowing whether his attraction to men was his true self or some disease, had until now felt manageable, an aberration he could keep separate from his love for his parents. Besides, his father was a genial man, affectionate with Maht, successful in business, mildly to severely disappointed in Peter, but always invincible, maintaining a steady, respectable life that felt imperturbable, even by disease.

“So. Nothing to worry about right now,” his father said, looking to Maht for confirmation, then to Peter with a frown. “We’ll need to make some decisions about when you’re coming home to run the business when I’m not able. It’s past time for you to settle down with a wife and children.” Peter nodded, leaning against the windowsill for support as he fought to calm his racing heart. He hadn’t failed them, not yet.

Maht sat up, setting her presents aside with the cheeriness they all depended on. “We won’t make an elephant out of a fly, will we? A cure might be just around the corner. This birthday has been grand, just grand.”

Peter saw Esti again just before Christmas. He’d bought gifts in New York, but Maht sent him on a last-minute errand downtown that he couldn’t avoid. The day was sunny, light catching in Esti’s hair with flashes that matched her rapid pace up the sidewalk. Peter wondered at the tight line of her lips, until he saw Buck trotting to catch up with her.

“Esti,” Buck called, keeping his voice low. “Esti, wait up.”

Esti pretended to not hear, but her whole face tensed with a fear Peter recognized, the alarm of being prey. Something in him cracked. He felt it in his chest as he called out to her. “Esti, let’s go, Maht is waiting for you.” She veered toward him without raising her head, crossed the street, dodging a honking car and taking his arm in one fluid movement that left Buck on the curb.

“We’re lunching at Mabel’s Diner,” Peter said loudly, remembering from some conversation with Maht that women often met there. Surely Buck wouldn’t risk running into his wife.

They slid into a back booth at Mabel’s, both out of breath, Peter flustered, and Esti still shaken. “You did think about it,” she said, as if it had been minutes instead of weeks since they’d stood at the Bon Marche counter. Peter pressed his chest where the pain first cracked through inexplicably loosening his tongue. This might be the beginning of a heart attack. He hadn’t felt pain like this before.

Esti leaned against the table, clenching her hands tight as she pressed them under her throat, almost a prayer, but Peter recognized the folding inward, shielding against panic.

Pain crackled through his chest again. He pressed his fingers over his heart, breathing deeply until it subsided. “I don’t know how to avoid Buck either,” he said. “He likes to damage certain people.”

Esti lowered her hands to the table, where they slowly unclenched. She pulled a pack of cigarettes from her purse and offered him one. “You’re a man,” she said, “even if you don’t love women. He can damage me in ways that can’t touch you.”

“Please don’t smoke.” He grimaced. “They lodge in your chest, you know, those tobacco particles, doing who knows what harm.”

Esti narrowed her eyes, glaring with discomfiting irritation. “Are you one of those, what do they call them? Hypochondriacs? People smoke all the time. I don’t see them dropping dead, do you?”

Peter sat up straighter, his face flushing with indignation. “I believe it’s called common sense, or good judgement. It’s why you’re safe inside right now instead of enduring an extremely uncomfortable situation.” Peter sat back, pressing his lips tight, appalled that he’d answered her rudeness with rudeness of his own. He took great pride in being as calm and reasonable as his father, even when it cost him a headache or indigestion.

She stared at her cigarette pack and put it carefully back in her purse. “This partnership isn’t starting off the way I’d imagined.” A smile ghosted her lips. “We’re already bickering like some old couple.”

Esti spent Christmas Eve with Peter and his parents, attending the music program at church with Holden relatives whose curiosity seemed to delight instead of bother her. She charmed Peter’s father, who took her arm after the service with uncharacteristic familiarity. Maht insisted she come back for Christmas Day, where she exclaimed over the needlepoint seat cushion Maht had started, some Nordic type design that they both seemed entranced over. The following Christmas, 1950, Esti gave Maht two pillows with an oak tree centered on each one, the same Nordic patterns edging each pillow. Peter glanced out the window at their giant oak, the one his child-self had climbed when he felt utterly outcast, throwing his arms around flaky silver bark until his misery eased. Esti, an artist with anything sewn, had captured the beauty and breadth of that most beloved tree. “How grand,” Maht exclaimed, swiping her eyes. “How grand!”

A year after that, Peter’s father helped Esti buy the small house across the street from them. By then his father was struggling to keep his usual hours at the hardware store, but he was predictably and happily fond of Esti, pleased when she took Peter’s arm in public. Another year, and Peter left his marketing job in the garment district. The New York of his youth, the irresistible pull of it, had faded, but he found, in rare moments of self-reflection, that Esti and the peculiar partnership they’d built was the true reason he could return.

“Should I buy you a ring?” Peter and Esti sat on her side porch one evening, where she fiddled with an unlit cigarette, something he hadn’t seen since he’d been back. “My father would be so pleased. We don’t have to actually marry, of course.”

Peter had been home six months and was beginning to feel oddly normal when he took Esti to movies or sat beside her at church. The sensation of respectability was still new, but he found that he craved it more than he ever had before. He’d noticed Esti’s occasional moods, a darkness that descended on her, but he’d learned to avoid the worst of them, even though he wondered what brought them. Esti didn’t talk much about her childhood down east, and never about her marriage, even when Peter thawed enough to share some of his childhood torments.

When Esti didn’t answer, Peter glanced at her darkening face, realizing too late that he’d bumbled into one of her moody descents. He glanced at the door, unsure how to politely exit the uncomfortable silence between them. Esti lit her cigarette and inhaled, closing her eyes before she blew a perfect circle of fetid smoke into the air between them. “Go home, Pete,” she said. “Before I throttle you.”

The next weekend, Esti wasn’t available, even for a movie or lunch downtown. “Go to her. You should go now,” Maht said, clearly exasperated by his frequent peering out the front window. “She’ll snap, but she won’t bite.”

He stepped inside when Esti didn’t answer the door. The house, usually fresh and spartan, reeked of cigarettes. Peter coughed, holding a hand to his throat. There were definitely warnings now about smoke damaging a body in terrible ways. He turned to leave, but Maht stood by the front door across the street, waving him back inside.

Esti sat in her small, back sewing room, several shoe boxes of letters beside her. She chewed furiously on a pen, her face streaked with tears, as she stared at a blank sheet of paper in front of her. A sewing machine, a gift from Peter’s father, sat next to the racks of quality thread Peter always brought back from New York. The fine fabric he’d brought her was carefully folded on shelves. She was planning to start her own sewing business and leave her cramped space at Bon Marche, but despite her occasional brashness, Esti was cautious with any big decision.

When she saw Peter in the doorway, her eyes narrowed to the murderous slits he’d only seen once before, when he first spied her at Bon Marche, but instead of a stout woman, they were fixed on him.

“Get out. You’re trespassing.”

He coughed, feeling cold smoke curl around his lungs, squeezing his chest, but he shook his head. “What’s so terrible that you can’t share with me?”

She rose and rushed toward him, her face blazing and wet, swollen from weeping. He stepped back, into the narrow hallway, closing his eyes and chanting to himself that Maht was always right, always right. His entire body trembled, so unused was he to confrontation. Esti slammed the door in his face, missing his nose by inches.

Stunned, he sank to the floor, taking deep breaths with his sleeve over his nose. “I’m not leaving. Even for supper.” He fell asleep right there, after hours of waiting and hearing only a few guttural noises from the sewing room, animal noises that barely registered as human.

A flood of light from the opened door woke him the next morning. Esti regarded him, her face still puffy and so grief-stricken his chest cracked again, the way it did only with her.

“You idiot.” She stepped over him, far steadier than he’d expected. “I’ll fix coffee,” she added, heading for the kitchen.

She fiddled with a cigarette while they sat at the small Formica table in her kitchen, but she didn’t light it.

“I have children,” she said, her jaw clenching with effort. “Three children I haven’t seen since I moved here.” She dropped the cigarette and clasped her hands under her chin, the way she always did when she was troubled.

She’d married young, she told him, when she was seventeen, to a boy in their town, an oldest son who was set to inherit a large farm. Her sister Gert warned against it, but in 1931 a productive peanut farm and good husband felt like she’d finally bested bossy Gert, who’d married well the year before.

Peter nodded, but his mind reeled with confusion. He’d imagined a husband who died young, respected Esti’s abiding grief for him, keeping her from being able to talk about it. Peter had formed, over the years, this hazy notion of Esti’s life, but children had no place in it.

Esti lifted her head and stared out one of the windows Peter had opened to air the house. “When my third child, my only girl, was one year old, an awful thing happened. The details are tedious, but my husband died, and I was accused of poisoning him. Convicted I should say, with helpful lies from my husband’s brother, who’d wanted that farm his entire life. I hope it isn’t as easy these days to convict an unsuspecting young woman.” She unclasped her hands and tapped the cigarette on the table. “Twenty-three years old and three babies,” she continued, “but Gert stood by me through it all. She’d often taken my boys for a day or two when I struggled, especially with managing a third baby. She wanted children and never was able to carry a pregnancy. Gert was a godsend, caring for mine while I was in prison.”

He must have made some stuttering noise, Esti turned her eyes to his, taking in his gaping mouth. “This is why I’m here, at the other end of the state, where no one knows, no one needs to know, such a sad and damaging story.” She tapped the cigarette again. “I understand if you don’t want to stay close after learning all this. I can keep my distance from you, too.” She leaned forward, her old intensity flaring. “Only this. You can’t tell anyone, not even Maht. I have a new life here, and I won’t lose it, not for anything.”

He put his hand over hers, strangely calmed. He’d partnered with her in a skewed way, longing for the safety and normalcy of his father’s world, knowing all the while that even Esti’s strength and acceptance couldn’t cure him. He’d never suspected that Esti needed his acceptance, too, of the damaged life she’d hidden as fiercely as he had hidden his.

“Tell me everything,” he said. “I didn’t sleep on that hard floor for nothing.”

Esti’s sister Gert found out about a new, reform-minded prison only a few hours from their town. The Industrial Farm Colony for Women it was called, but really it was a correctional facility for young white women, wayward women, to keep them from prostitution. “We called it the Farm Colony,” she said. “I didn’t hate it.”

“It was prison, but it was a kind prison, if you can imagine it. I was so lucky and so grateful to Gert, but it took a few years to know that. The first year all I felt was pain. I couldn’t think for the agony of being separated from my babies. If I’d lost my arms and legs, it wouldn’t have ached more.” She paused, turning her head back to the window. “There was another thing. I’d accepted that my husband would beat me and kick me against walls when he drank, but what I learned in that prison from those kind matrons was how to not think of myself as despicable. Another reason I did so well in prison was that I loved how safe I felt in my small room, where no one could get in to hurt me. Others might scream and pound the walls some nights, desperate to escape, but the bed and tiny chest of drawers, the bare uncomplicated space, was always a comfort. As I said, I was very lucky.

“Gert visited once or twice a year, but I told her to never bring my children. I’d learned by then to live with the pain, but I didn’t want my wounds ripped open again, and I have to say it, I couldn’t bear for them to see me in a prison uniform, falsely branded as the murderer of their father. I was there from 1937 to 1946, but the war years flew by. There was a sewing school, a factory really, and you can imagine how hard we worked.

“Gert brought me home in 1946, but the day I faced my children, across Gert’s big kitchen in her big house where they each had a beautiful room, I saw that I was a stranger to them, thin and nervous, and terrified I’d damage the comfortable life she’d given them. They couldn’t meet my eyes, couldn’t run to me the way I’d imagined they would. I’d never thought once, in all those years of dreaming about their sweetness and love, that they would become her children instead of mine.

“I said awful things to Gert when they left for school, truly awful, and fled that very day. I didn’t stop until I reached Asheville. I had sewing skills and letters of recommendation from the matrons, but I didn’t know the price I’d pay. I just didn’t know.”

They sat in silence a while. Esti rose and poured them a second cup of coffee, such a habitual, mundane act. He’d seen her do it a dozen times, but her face, swollen and blotchy as it was, shone with a quiet, luminous constancy that he could hardly bear. “What are those letters?” he asked. “In the shoe boxes?”

“Letters to my children,” she said. “I started in prison and never could stop. I write them each a letter on their birthdays, about my year and my hopes for them. I can’t send them of course, but I can’t throw them away either. The boys are easiest. I had them long enough to know their personalities and guess their struggles, but my girl I have to imagine. I end up writing hopes that her life is uncomplicated by unforgiving mistakes, but who am I to hope such a rare thing for her? She’s graduating from high school this year. Can you believe it? And she’s going to college.”

Peter raised his eyebrows, questioning. “You know what they’re doing?”

“I wrote Gert a few months after I settled here. She should know where I was, I told her, in case they ever needed me. She sends me updates, not much, but I know they’re all doing very well, especially the boys, better than they could have with me and my meager income. Still, I’ve never stopped wanting to protect them.”

Peter tilted his chair back and stared at the ceiling, clean and white above them. He felt lucid in a way he seldom felt with Esti. “They’re grown now,” he said. “You should send the letters, let them know you never abandoned them.”

It took a year to convince her, but finally Esti said they might send a few letters to Esti’s daughter. She knew the college. Gert had mentioned that it was the only college for her, safe, all girls, and Baptist. Esti didn’t have actual addresses for her children, and refused to ask Gert, certain she’d react badly. “If I’d mailed letters on birthdays, I think Gert would have destroyed them, certain she was doing right. Gert’s always certain.”

Peter packed the letters in a neat box and mailed it to the daughter’s college, before Esti could change her mind. He packed every letter, to every child. It seemed important to not miss a single year. Afterward, his heart broke when there was no reply, but Esti was calmer, with fewer dark spells than before.

Peter’s father died three years later, after a long and torturous decline that left them all exhausted. By then, Peter had hired a store manager so he could take trips to New York, reigniting, even if it was sporadic, a few flings there. Esti told him, in the oblique way she was so good at, that a similar lifestyle could be found in Asheville, but he knew he’d never risk it.

Maht had nursed his father with a tenderness Peter could hardly fathom. He grieved at the death, but he’d been grieving for so long, for his own failings as well as his father’s illness, that the funeral was a welcome closure. Maht roamed the house like a sleepwalker after the funeral, barely eating and never going out, even with her closest friends. By then, Esti had set up her own seamstress business, turning her spare bedroom into a fitting room for her old Bon Marche clients and all Maht’s friends. Esti told him once, in a rare, reflective moment, that his family had saved her. Peter argued that it was the opposite, that Esti held them together, and besides, she was the most self-sufficient soul he’d ever known.

He started across the yard a few weeks after the funeral to ask Esti what to do about Maht, how to bring her back to them, but an unfamiliar pale blue Ford sat in her driveway. Peter returned to his porch and waited. Esti was good at staying on schedule, keeping appointments short. Thirty minutes later a young woman hurried out, visibly upset, and got in the passenger side of the car. A young man Peter hadn’t noticed pulled slowly out of the drive.

Peter knocked softly on Esti’s door and stepped inside. She sat in her small front room, still as death. A box sat at her feet, the same box he’d mailed three years before.

“My daughter was here. Caroline.” Something was wrong with Esti’s voice. It was raspy, as if someone had taken a file to the soft tissue inside. “Her life wasn’t the life I imagined. Caroline said she waited her entire childhood for me to rescue her. Gert loved the boys. Not my girl so much.” Esti gripped her hands at her neck, slowly rocking back and forth.

Peter wasn’t a hasty person. Esti often teased him when he was slow to catch a punch line in some joke she or Maht howled over. But this day he felt like he’d suddenly borrowed another man’s body, or maybe he leaped out of his skin as some people might say. He grabbed the box—much lighter than when he’d mailed it—and ran to his car. He hurtled down their narrow street, turning onto the only main route out of Asheville. He scanned every filling station, speeding and weaving around cars like a madman. He was prepared to drive all the way to Caroline’s college in Raleigh, but mercifully, there the blue Ford sat at Mack’s Texaco Station on Tunnel Road. Caroline walked out of the ladies restroom, nodding as her boyfriend, maybe her husband, walked inside to pay for gas.

“Caroline!” Peter lurched toward her, hugging the box in his arms. “You’ve made a terrible mistake.” Fifteen minutes later Mack had to step outside and vouch for Peter’s harmlessness when the boyfriend threatened to hit him.

“Honey,” the boyfriend pleaded. “See that dumpster over there?” He pointed across Mack’s small parking area at the rusted hulk of a trash bin. “I can chuck that box right now, and we’ll be done. You never have to come back here.”

Caroline kept staring, wide-eyed, at Peter, her face wrenchingly similar to Esti’s face the first time he’d seen her in Bon Marche. He told Caroline what Esti couldn’t: how leaving ripped her apart, but her love for her children helped her endure prison; how she thought of Caroline every waking moment of her life, maybe dreaming, too; how Gert knew, always knew, where Esti was, in case her children needed her. He said more, much more, about Esti, without knowing when tears streamed down his face.

At some point, Caroline’s face shifted, the wariness lifting. Peter fell silent, mopping his face with the starched handkerchief he always carried. Caroline took the box from him. “I couldn’t read them,” she said. “My brothers took theirs and never mentioned them again, but I was too furious to even touch mine.”

She wouldn’t follow him back to Esti’s house. She said she couldn’t. When she’d flung the unopened letters at her mother, she didn’t expect Esti to kneel and pick them up as if they were treasures, placing them carefully back in the box. “I still may never read them,” Caroline said. “I may burn them.”

Maht never fully returned to her life, even when she recovered from the exhaustion of caring for Peter’s father. Her mind loosened as she aged, drifting back to her girlhood in Russia, to the family who’d disappeared. Her memories couldn’t have all been true. How much could happen to one person in this world? Peter questioned her, trying to pin down relatives who might still be found, but Esti was usually there, shaking her head at him. Esti sat with them on the sunporch most afternoons, entertaining them with stories about her varied clients whenever Maht wanted a tether to the present. She listened intently when Maht reminisced about Russia. “We’re refugees,” she told Maht, “Lucky refugees.”

One morning, when Peter carried Esti’s newspaper to her front porch, he saw a photo on a bookshelf inside, a gold framed photo of a smiling baby held in Caroline’s arms. This, in a house without any photos. Esti took a few trips by herself in the years that followed. She was vague about where she was going, but she carried hangers of children’s clothes, with smocking and embroidery that Maht marveled over, especially the small acorns sewn in the margins. Esti always returned exhausted, dragging herself into her house and not emerging for days.

Peter sold the hardware store in 1980, taking a painful loss to the malls springing up outside downtown. Bon Marche had closed several years before, but Esti’s business was steady, even if she sewed more curtains and pillow covers than dresses. She changed the name of her business to Estelle’s Alterations, not Esti’s, and began introducing herself as Estelle in her new, raspy voice, as if the damaged part of her was finally free to roam.

Shortly before Maht died, they sat on the sunporch, basking in the late afternoon light. Maht often dozed while Esti and Peter read the evening paper, but this day, she sat up and pointed to the street, her face aglow with excitement. “Look Peter, your son is home. He’s brought a girl. She’s a pretty thing, isn’t she? Your father will be so pleased.” She turned to Esti. “Look, oh look, Lifsha, you were right. We’re all here together, in this new world.” Esti smiled and nodded, taking Maht’s frail hand and kissing it. She was never bothered when Maht mistook her for her beloved Russian sister.

Two youngsters, probably from the college, leaned against a stone wall, unaware they were being watched. The boy was handsome, with curly russet hair and a careless stance that Peter would have yearned for in years past. They kissed, and Maht sighed happily, patting Peter’s knee. Even now, her hopes cut him deeply. Peter started to correct her, to bring her back to his flawed self, but something in the golden, peaceful light twined him into Maht’s dream, holding him in a quiet thrall. If he had a son, he’d want this exuberant, untroubled boy lounging on the stone wall. “Yes, Maht, I see him,” he answered, stroking her other hand until she fell asleep.

“Full of himself, isn’t he,” Esti hissed, glancing at Maht to make sure she was still sleeping.
“Don’t go all soft on that boy just because he’s handsome. I’ve seen them meandering up the street before, making themselves at home on your stone wall, climbing Maht’s Oak like it’s their private treehouse. He knows that girl is crazy about him. I hope for her sake she’s got some sense about her.” The rasp of Esti’s voice still surprised him.

“Oh, Peter.” Maht woke and squeezed his hand. “This is so grand. There will be children here soon. I can feel it in my bones. How grand.”

Billie Harper Buie is a long-time participant in the Great Smokies Writing Program. She has published poetry and short stories in journals including Calyx, The Great Smokies Review, and Thomas Wolfe Review. She was the 2007 recipient of the Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize for her short story, “Shining Rock Wilderness.” “Refugees” is part of an ongoing short story collection based on a fictional mountainside neighborhood in Asheville.