(a 2nd Emerald Hills novel by Judith Post. The first is FABRIC OF LIFE, available online)
When Lily's phone rang, her dad put down the paper he was grading to glance at the caller ID. "It's your mom. Better pick up."
Lily removed her thimble and put Elizabeth Bennett's doll dress aside. "How's it going?"
Mom rushed into speech. "Hey, kid, bad news. Grandma's had another mini-stroke. I can't leave her right now."
"Is she going to be okay?" Grams wasn't that old. Or at least, she didn't seem old to Lily. So it came as a shock when one of her neighbors in Arizona had called to tell them an ambulance had taken her to the hospital. Grandma had flown home to spend Thanksgiving with Lily and her mom only a month ago, and she'd been her usual naughty self, winking and slipping wine into the turkey gravy when Lily's mom wasn't looking. How could things change so fast?
"She's doing better now, but I'm afraid we have some tough choices ahead of us. Can you stay with your dad a little longer? I'll try to wrap things up as fast as I can."
A little longer? She'd miss school. And she'd miss Woodrow. Not that he'd miss her.
"I'm not sure Grandma can stay on her own any more. When they release her from the hospital, I’ll have to drive her to therapy," Lily's mother went on.
What did her mom mean by anymore? A week? A month? When Grandma sold her house in Emerald Hills, she’d moved west to become a "sun worshipper" in a retirement community. If she couldn’t care for herself there, where would she stay? The entire bottom floor of their house was their doll shop, and they lived above it. Only two bedrooms and one bath. If Grandma came to stay with them, where would they put her?
Lily leaned back in the wicker chair on her dad's screened porch. It was the last week of December, but Florida's weather was perfect. Shame nagged at her. She was being selfish. Grandma needed help, and she was worrying about her room. But….where else would Grandma stay? Lily pictured herself sleeping on the couch and wasn't thrilled. She'd have no place to call her own, no door to close for privacy, no window to peek through into Woodrow's room across from hers.
"Honey, are you there? Did I lose you?" Her mom's voice brought her back to the present. "It should only be for a week or two. I've already talked to your dad, and he's fine with it. He liked the idea of having you stay."
"Christmas break is almost over." Lily fought to keep her voice calm. "I have to go back to school."
"It's not like they won't let you graduate if you miss a week or two."
That wasn't the point. Her mom never understood. Parents just didn't get the big picture. Her grades would drop. She'd get so far behind, she'd never catch up. And she'd be away from Woodrow for two more weeks, maybe more
"You're making almost straight A's," her mother said. "It's no big deal."
No big deal! Having an artist for a mother had its down side. Isabelle was loving and charming, but she didn't live in the real world. Just like Grandma. Lily sighed and shut her eyes, resting them after so many small stitches. Detailed work took concentration. So did her mother. "Mom, I already have my airplane ticket. Woodrow's meeting me at the airport to drive me home." She'd be alone with him for almost two hours. He'd have to pay a little attention to her. "I'll be fine in the house by myself. I am eighteen, you know—of legal age. I think I can manage."
Worry crept into her mother's voice. "What if it takes longer to get things settled here than I thought? What if you're on your own for weeks?"
She'd miss her mom, but…. "It's bound to happen some time, isn't it? Besides, it's not like I don't have anyone to call for help. Woodrow and Jackson live right next door."
"That's what worries me."
Okay, her mom noticed more than she thought. "If I wanted to get in trouble, I'd hit the beach down here at spring break. I could drink and party like the rest of the kids, and some guy might even notice me."
"You're too young to get involved with a boy."
Too young. Right. She was eighteen and behind most of her friends when it came to after school activities. "Then you should be glad I'm going home. Woodrow would have to trip over me to notice I'm alive." He'd graduated from high school two years ahead of her and when he started going to the nearby university, Lily knew her mom was hoping she'd get interested in someone else, but even though he treated her like a little kid and dated more girls than she could count, it only made him more intriguing. Woodrow was slow to smile with an intense, brooding quality. He wasn't exactly handsome, but he sure was appealing.
"You're safer in Florida. You have your dad." Isabelle obviously didn't like the idea of her daughter rambling around in Emerald Hills on her own. "College professors aren't known for their spontaneity, especially math profs. Nothing will happen there."
"He's spontaneous enough with you." Her mom had some nerve, lecturing her. Isabelle had been hell on wheels when she was young. At least, that's how Grandma always put it. How her parents ended up together was a mystery to Lily. How they stayed together all these years was a miracle. They lived together once, a long time ago, before she could remember, but her father hated the Midwest weather, and her mother wouldn't leave it. So now, they reunited for two weeks at every equinox to "renew their passion," as her mom explained it, and they talked on the phone to one another every day.
"We're still madly in love," Isabelle told her. "But we're both fiercely independent." So Dad lived in Florida, teaching math at the university, and Mom lived in Indiana, running her doll maker's shop in Emerald Hills.
Dolls were her mother's life. Hers too, actually. She'd started helping with them as soon as she could thread a needle or stuff cotton into the copper wire frames Isabelle sculpted for character dolls.
"Mom, I want to go home. I want to go to school with my friends. I want to be back in Emerald Hills with people like us." She saw her father flinch at her words, but she couldn't help it. Most of the artisans who lived in Emerald Hills had special talents, talents above and beyond the ordinary. Thea Patek wove bookmarks of peoples' life paths, the ups and downs of their destinies. Jackson Merrick, Woodrow's buddy and roommate, carved and painted colorful garden gnomes who shooed rabbits and moles away from flower beds when no one was watching. He carved gargoyles, too, that protected the houses of their owners. And Woodrow—he carved intricate, wooden boxes that depicted the lives of loved ones who'd passed away. When a person stored cherished pictures and memories inside the box, a chunk of grief eased with each object added to the others.
"Is this just a scam?" her mom demanded on the other end of the line, interrupting her thoughts. "Are you really homesick?"
"How often do you leave Emerald Hills, and how long do you stay away?"
"Damn it, Lily, that's not fair."
There was a long silence. "Mom?"
"Sorry, my mind wandered."
Lily could picture her mother's eyes staring into the distance, unfocused. It could happen at any time. Isabelle's mind had a habit of drifting away. "Don't worry about me, Mom. I'll go home and get some work done, and I'll do my best to resist Woodrow's charms while you're with Grandma."
"Don't be like your father and me," Isabelle warned.
So that's where her mother's thoughts had wandered. "You two didn't turn out so bad."
"We have no self control."
"Please! I try not to think about it." But she knew for sure that whatever they had between them worked. And she wanted to be as happy as they were.
"Well, I guess there's nothing for it." Isabelle's tone was brusque. "Fly home and be the good, sensible child you usually are. How I got you for a daughter still amazes me."
"It's the pendulum, mom. It swings one way, then another. Someone had to be the nanny at our house."
"It's my fault. We reversed roles." Her mother's voice became strained. It sounded as though tears threatened. "You never got to be a little girl. You were always taking care of me."
"And we're both happy with that. I know I am. So do your thing to take care of Grandma and quit fussing. It's not your strong point. I'll see you as soon as you get home."
"If you need me…."
"I'll call. And I'll send you a postcard if Woodrow and I elope."
"Lily!" Her mother laughed. "He's probably too busy whittling one of those boxes he makes. That boy's even more serious than you are. Go figure!" Isabelle paused, and Lily knew there was something else, something she wasn't telling her.
"Spit it out. What else is bothering you?"
"There is one more thing. I got an order for a doll just before you left home at Christmas break. The client sent a picture of a beautiful girl who's a friend of his. He said that she's sick, and having a doll replica of herself would be a perfect gift. I meant to send it…"
"I'll start it as soon as I get back."
Her mother hesitated. "I started working on it, but it gave me the oddest feeling. I could only concentrate for short spurts. It made me too sad. Too nervous."
"Sad?" Her mom might not be organized or even dependable—she'd lose herself in her studio and forget appointments and meals—but she was super intuitive. When Lily and her mother made a doll in the likeness of a picture, the results were more than painted, cold-putty heads and cotton bodies. The doll became the essence of that person. While painting and stuffing, they also saw that person's soul mate. A clear image came to mind, and they made a small, rag doll replica of it. Sometimes, they gave both dolls to their clients. Sometimes, not. Had this girl married wrong, married bad? Was that the sadness her mother felt?
"Does the doll remind you of someone, someone you lost?" Lily asked.
"I think we need to hurry to finish it," her mother said. "I don't think that girl has long to live."
Lily bit back her surprise. She tried to remember what Isabelle had told her—that a friend ordered the doll because the girl was sick. "Is that what made you nervous? You said you felt sad and nervous."
There was a long pause. "There's something odd about the doll, a wild energy that's almost frightening."
"Because the girl's dying?" Maybe she was afraid. Or angry. Her mother had enough stress right now with Grandma. She didn't need more worries. "I'll finish the doll and send it as soon as I can."
"No! Don't touch it! Leave it alone until I get back, and we can work on it together."
Her mother was afraid to touch the doll? Lily had never known her mother to back down from anything. She might be flighty, but she was fearless. What was there about this doll that bothered her?
Lily didn't argue. Her mother could be stubborn. But that didn't mean she had to listen to her. If she could spare her mother this headache, why not? She'd have the doll finished and out of the house before her mother came home.