Granddad’s voice boomed across the yard. “This is the United States of America,” he said. “You don’t seem to understand that, Penny, so let me explain. In America, here is how we operate: We work for what we want, and we get ahead. We never take no for answer, and we deserve the rewards of our perseverance. Will, Taft, are you listening?”
The little boys nodded, chins quivering. Granddad continued: “We Sinclairs are a grand, old family. That is something to be proud of. Our traditions and values form the bedrock on which future generations stand. This island is our home, as it was my father’s and my grandfather’s before him. And yet the three of you women, with these divorces, broken homes, this disrespect for tradition, this lack of a work ethic, you have done nothing but disappoint an old man who thought he raised you right.”
“Dad, please,” said Bess.
“Be quiet!” thundered Granddad. “You cannot expect me to accept your disregard for the values of this family and reward you and your children with financial security. You cannot, any of you, expect this. And yet, day after day, I see that you do. I will no longer tolerate it.”
Bess crumpled in tears.
Carrie grabbed Will by the elbow and walked toward the dock.
Mummy threw her wineglass against the side of Clairmont house.
“WHAT HAPPENED THEN?” I ask Johnny. We are still lying on the floor of Cuddledown, early in the morning. Summer seventeen.
“You don’t remember?” he says.
“People started leaving the island. Carrie took Will to a hotel in Edgartown and asked me and Gat to follow her as soon as we’d packed everything. The staff departed at eight. Your mother went to see that friend of hers on the Vineyard—”
“Yes, Alice came and got her, but you wouldn’t leave, and finally she had to go without you. Granddad took off for the mainland. And then we decided about the fire.”
“We planned it out,” I say.
“We did. We convinced Bess to take the big boat and all the littles to see a movie on the Vineyard.”
As Johnny talks, the memories form. I fill in details he hasn’t spoken aloud.
“When they left we drank the wine they’d left corked in the fridge,” says Johnny. “Four open bottles. And Gat was so angry—”
“He was right,” I say.
Johnny turns his face and speaks into the floor again. “Because he wasn’t coming back. If my mom married Ed, they’d be cut off. And if my mom left Ed, Gat wouldn’t be connected to our family anymore.”
“Clairmont was like the symbol of everything that was wrong.” It is Mirren’s voice. She came in so quietly I didn’t hear. She is now lying on the floor next to Johnny, holding his other hand.
“The seat of the patriarchy,” says Gat. I didn’t hear him come in, either. He lies down next to me.
“You’re such an ass, Gat,” says Johnny kindly. “You always say patriarchy.”
“It’s what I mean.”
“You sneak it in whenever you can. Patriarchy on toast. Patriarchy in my pants. Patriarchy with a squeeze of lemon.”
“Clairmont seemed like the seat of the patriarchy,” repeats Gat. “And yes, we were stupid drunk, and yes, we thought they’d rip the family apart and I would never come here again. We figured if the house was gone, and the paperwork and data inside it gone, and all the objects they fought about gone, the power would be gone.”
“We could be a family,” says Mirren.
“It was like a purification,” says Gat.
“She remembers we set a fire is all,” says Johnny, his voice suddenly loud.
“And some other things,” I add, sitting up and looking at the Liars in the morning light. “Things are coming back as you’re filling me in.”
“We are telling you all the stuff that happened before we set the fire,” says Johnny, still loud.
“Yes,” says Mirren.
“We set a fire,” I say, in wonder. “We didn’t sob and bleed; we did something instead. Made a change.”
“Kind of,” says Mirren.
“Are you kidding? We burned that fucking palace to the ground.”
AFTER THE AUNTIES and Granddad quarreled, I was crying.
Gat was crying, too.
He was going to leave the island and I’d never see him again. He would never see me.
Gat, my Gat.
I had never cried with anyone before. At the same time.
He cried like a man, not like a boy. Not like he was frustrated or hadn’t gotten his way, but like life was bitter. Like his wounds couldn’t be healed.
I wanted to heal them for him.
We ran down to the tiny beach alone. I clung to him and we sat together in the sand, and for once he had nothing to say. No analysis, no questions.
Finally I said something about
we took it into our own hands?
And Gat said,
And I said something about
they could stop fighting?
We have something to save.
And Gat said,
Yes. You and me and Mirren and Johnny, yes, we do.
But of course we can always see each other, the four of us.
Next year we can drive.
There is always the phone.
But here, I said. This.
Yes, here, he said. This.
You and me.
I said something about
we could somehow stop being
the Beautiful Sinclair Family and just be a family?
What if we could stop being
different colors, different backgrounds, and just be in love?
What if we could force everyone to change?
You want to play God, Gat said.
I want to take action, I said. There is always the phone, he said.
But what about here? I said. This.
Yes, here, he said. This.
Gat was my love, my first and only. How could I let him go?
He was a person who couldn’t fake a smile but smiled often. He wrapped my wrists in white gauze and believed wounds needed attention. He wrote on his hands and asked me my thoughts. His mind was restless, relentless. He didn’t believe in God anymore and yet he still wished that God would help him.
And now he was mine and I said we should not let our love be threatened.
We should not let the family fall apart.
We should not accept an evil we can change.
We would stand up against it, would we not?
Yes. We should.
We would be heroes, even.
GAT AND I talked to Mirren and Johnny.