Claire Pike never thought herself one for nostalgia, but she couldn’t help the heavy feeling that settled in her chest as she gazed at the room she had once shared with her sister, Margo. Little about it had changed since their childhood: the walls were still covered with posters and messily-drawn artwork; the beds were still neatly made, with outrageously-colored comforters; twin bureaus and desks and mirrors still sat against opposite walls, each piece framed with old, dark oak. Margo’s side was still neater than Claire’s, but that wasn’t hard to believe these days.
Margo, just like the rest of her older brothers and sisters, had moved out long ago.
And now, it was Claire’s turn.
It was fast becoming another Pike family tradition, just like picnic lunches at Carle Playground, or listening to classical music on Thanksgiving. One by one, her siblings had trickled out of the house, off to chase new adventures – at college, in New York, across the ocean. Mallory had led the charge almost thirteen years ago, first moving to boarding school at Riverbend, then even further into the countryside for college. The triplets were next, scattering in different directions around the country. Dreamy Vanessa, practical Nicky, and dramatic Margo had all left as well, following their disparate dreams wherever they led.
Each time, Claire had been bundled into one of the station wagons with the rest of her family, squeezed between suitcases and boxes and Margo’s disgusting Barf Bucket. They had driven to each town, each campus, each military post – all of the remaining kids and their parents, to solemnly see off each fresh high school graduate. At first, it had been a fun game for her, like an extra-short vacation tacked onto the end of summer. Each trip got progressively harder, however, as the number of cars – and passengers – dwindled. It had been especially hard for her to say goodbye to Margo, whom she had long considered her best friend in the world. It had felt so strange to return to the bedroom they’d shared for sixteen years, knowing her sister wouldn’t be there anymore; it had taken weeks for her to learn how to fall asleep in an empty room.
Now, the room would truly be empty – in a few minutes, she, too, would be leaving it behind.
The corners of Claire’s lips turned up in a smile as her eyes landed on a colorfully-framed picture resting on the corner of her bureau. Three girls grinned as they clutched each other’s shoulders – one tall and willowy, with thick, wavy blonde hair and a peach-colored dress; another girl who was slightly shorter, darker, twin brown ponytails trailing over her shoulders and obscuring the label on her shirt; the third girl, shorter still, a thatch of wild red hair sticking up and streaked multicolored, wearing tie-dye and suspenders. There was a happy, conspiratorial look in the girls’ eyes as they smiled for the camera, and the picture never failed to make Claire smile.
She tugged at a long, red ringlet of hair, glancing down to examine the end, dyed bright blue. Her hair had been every color of the rainbow at some point; it was her way of cheerfully rebelling, a remnant of her childhood silly-billy-goo-goo phase. The friends in the picture – blonde Suzi Barrett, brunette Patsy Kuhn – were far more conventionally pretty, so they certainly made for a strange-looking trio. To anyone who knew the girls, though, there was nothing strange about it – Claire, Suzi, and Patsy had been thick as thieves since the age of five, bonding in protest over being left off the Krashers championship softball team.
She picked up the picture of her friends and tucked it into her shoulder bag.
As sad as Claire was about the thought of leaving home, she was equally excited about her destination. She, Suzi, and Patsy were all going to the University of Connecticut, and had even managed to be placed together in the same freshman suite. She couldn’t think of a better way to start college than with her best friends. It almost made up for the fact that it would only be her and her parents driving up to the campus; her brothers and sisters had long since scattered back to their own lives after an all-too-brief summer visit. All of them had some little piece of advice or word of wisdom to pass along to Claire – what to pack, what sorts of classes to avoid, where all the best bars were in Storrs. The suggestions were great, but she would’ve traded it all for a chance to have her whole family there when she embarked on the next chapter of her life.
“Claire!” her mother’s voice called, drifting up the stairs. “How are you coming along up there?”
“I’m coming,” she responded absently, chewing on her lower lip. Just as soon as I find it…
Somewhere in this room was the perfect reminder of her family, of her parents. Sure, she could take pictures of them (and she had plenty socked away in one of her suitcases), but she wanted something more tangible than that – something that would instantly remind her of this room, this house, her childhood memories of her brothers and sisters and parents. She began pulling open the drawers of her bureau, her search growing more frantic as she heard the heavy tread of her father’s footsteps on the stairs.
He knocked on her bedroom door. “Claire, honey,” he said gently, “it’s time to go.”
She whirled around, looking at him with wide eyes. “Okay, Daddy,” she replied. “There’s just one more thing I wanted to get.”
Her father’s eyes crinkled in the corners as he smiled. “It’s not like you’ll never be back,” he teased her gently. “Do you have to have it right this moment?”
She nodded solemnly. “Just a few more minutes?”
He considered her thoughtfully. “Okay,” he assented, leaning against the doorframe. “Can I give you a hand?”
“No,” came the reply, from the depths in her closet. Claire stooped on her knees, pushing aside old shoes and discarded book bags. When she spotted a particularly large box with the word TOYS hastily scribbled across its side, she reached for it, pushing open its lid. When she gazed inside, she knew instantly that her quest was over. There, lying on top of the pile of old blocks and puzzles and plastic horses, was her perfect memento.
Reverently, she picked up the Skipper doll, the one her father had bought for her after he’d found a job following months of unemployment. Skipper’s hair was thin from excessive brushing, the paint of her lipstick chipped away, but she was dressed in the very same outfit she’d come in. Claire smiled at the memory this doll conjured – of being roused from bed first thing in the morning, of being pressed against the car window as her father pulled into the parking lot at the toy store, of the sheer, absolute delight she had when she picked the pearly pink box off the shelf.
As she emerged from her closet, holding the Skipper doll tightly in one hand, Claire looked at her father and grinned. He stood tall in her doorway, blinking rapidly as recognition settled over his features. He pressed his glasses up the slope of his nose as she flitted over to him, wrapping her arms around his waist.
“I’m ready now, Daddy,” she whispered.
Her father’s arm settled across her shoulders, holding her close. “You have everything you need?” he murmured gruffly, brushing a hand through her hair.
She smiled up at him as she pulled away, hugging Skipper close. “I do now,” she replied happily.