An hour-old baby, abandoned on a street corner without even a blanket, was found with a scrap of paper reading, "Call her Hollis Woods." Hollis is eleven now and has been in foster homes all her life; she does not stay at any of them for very long. All of these places run together in her mind except the last one, the Regans' summer home in Branches, in upstate New York. It is October now, and she rides to a new placement with her social worker, a lady she calls "the mustard woman" because of a stain on her sweatsuit. Hollis is a gifted artist, and she thinks about the pictures she has created, especially a representation of a family she had done for a school assignment when she was only six. The assignment had been to find a picture of something beginning with the letter W, and Hollis's teacher had said she did it wrong because family starts with F. She had not stayed to hear Hollis explain that the picture did stand for something starting with W: it showed her dearest wish.
Hollis is placed Josie Cahill, a retired art teacher who is "movie-star beautiful," albeit a little eccentric. Josie carves tree branch figures and promises to make one of Hollis, if she decides to stay. Josie sometimes forgets that Hollis should be in school, which is fine with Hollis, who spends her time in the classroom sitting unnoticed in the back anyway, drawing. Josie takes Hollis on adventures to the ocean and to the movies in town, where they pay for their admission by selling popcorn. Josie's "best lifetime friend," Beatrice Gilcrest, works the theater ticket counter, and on Monday nights she comes to visit at Josie's house and brings Chinese food for dinner. Beatrice is amazed when Hollis allows her to see her drawings, observing, "I never saw anyone who was able to do this . . . and I was an art teacher for forty years." Someone else had told Hollis a something similar once: Steven Regan and his parents, Izzy and the Old Man, had recognized her talent as "a gift, pure and simple." Hollis had been happy with them, and they had loved her unconditionally, but then something happened and she had to go away.
Josie senses that Hollis is going to stay with her for a while, so she begins carving her likeness in wood. The mustard woman comes by the house to check up on Hollis and is dismayed to find her down by the pier with Josie when she should be in school. Josie is slowly sinking into dementia, and Hollis knows that if the mustard woman discovers the truth she will not be allowed to stay. In early December, Beatrice relocates to New Mexico and tells Hollis to take care of Josie, and leaving her phone number "just in case." One morning, Hollis misses school again, opting to go to the pier instead. When she returns, the mustard woman is there talking to Josie, and Hollis perceives that Josie does not know who she is. The mustard woman tells Hollis that she has found a new family for her. She will be coming by on Saturday to take Hollis to them.
Knowing that Josie cannot stay alone, Hollis is frantic. She tries to call Beatrice, but Beatrice cannot be reached. All Hollis can think of is the summer house in Branches where she lived with the Regans; images of her last weekend there come flooding back, inspired by the drawings she keeps. Steven, Izzy, and the Old Man had wanted to adopt her, but the Old Man and Steven had always seemed to be arguing, and Hollis had been sure it must have been because of her. Then, after what had happened on that last fateful weekend, she had known beyond a doubt that she could not stay. Now, though, the summer house at Branches should be empty; Josie can still drive, and there is a map in the glove compartment of the old Silver Bullet in the garage. With Hollis gently guiding, Josie takes them the long miles to their destination. The Old Man's mountain stands tall in the background, there are "a million stars" overhead, and the house is beautiful in the snow....
(The entire section is 1604 words.)