Mirren pushes an armchair across the floor. “I never liked the way my mother kept this place,” she explains.
I help Gat and Johnny move the furniture around until Mirren is happy. We take down Bess’s landscape watercolors and roll up her rugs. We pillage the littles’ bedrooms for fun objects. When we are done, the great room is decorated with piggy banks and patchwork quilts, stacks of children’s books, a lamp shaped like an owl. Thick sparkling ribbons from the gift-wrap box crisscross the ceiling.
“Won’t Bess be mad you’re redecorating?” I ask.
“I promise you she’s not setting foot in Cuddledown for the rest of the summer. She’s been trying to get out of this place for years.”
“What do you mean?”
“Oh,” says Mirren lightly, “you know. Natter natter, least favorite daughter, natter natter, the kitchen is such crap. Why won’t Granddad remodel it? Et cetera.”
“Did she ask him?”
Johnny stares at me oddly. “You don’t remember?”
“Her memory is messed up, Johnny!” yells Mirren. “She doesn’t remember like half our summer fifteen.”
“She doesn’t?” Johnny says. “I thought—”
“No, no, shut up right now,” Mirren barks. “Did you not listen to what I told you?”
“When?” He looks perplexed.
“The other night,” says Mirren. “I told you what Aunt Penny said.”
“Chill,” says Johnny, throwing a pillow at her.
“This is important! How can you not pay attention to this stuff?” Mirren looks like she might cry.
“I’m sorry, all right?” Johnny says. “Gat, did you know about Cadence not remembering, like, most of the summer fifteen?”
“I knew,” he says.
“See?” says Mirren. “Gat was listening.”
My face is hot. I am looking at the floor. No one speaks for a minute. “It’s normal to lose some memory when you hit your head really hard,” I say finally. “Did my mother explain?”
Johnny laughs nervously.
“I’m surprised Mummy told you,” I go on. “She hates talking about it.”
“She said you’re supposed to take it easy and remember things in your own time. All the aunties know,” says Mirren. “Granddad knows. The littles. The staff. Every single person on the island knows but Johnny, apparently.”
“I knew,” says Johnny. “I just didn’t know the whole picture.”
“Don’t be feeble,” says Mirren. “Now is really not the time.”
“It’s okay,” I say to Johnny. “You’re not feeble. You merely had a suboptimal moment. I’m sure you’ll be optimal from now on.”
“I’m always optimal,” says Johnny. “Just not the kind of optimal Mirren wants me to be.”
Gat smiles when I say the word suboptimal and pats my shoulder.
We have started over.
WE PLAY TENNIS. Johnny and I win, but not because I’m any good anymore. He’s an excellent athlete, and Mirren is more inclined to hit the ball and then do happy dances, without caring whether it’s returning. Gat keeps laughing at her, which makes him miss.
“How was Europe?” asks Gat as we walk back to Cuddledown.
“My father ate squid ink.”
“What else?” We reach the yard and toss the racquets on the porch. Stretch ourselves out on the grass.
“Honestly, I can’t tell you that much,” I say. “Know what I did while my dad went to the Colosseum?”
“I lay with my face pressed into the tile of the hotel bathroom. Stared at the base of the blue Italian toilet.”
“The toilet was blue?” Johnny asks, sitting up.
“Only you would get more excited over a blue toilet than the sights of Rome,” moans Gat.
“Cadence,” says Mirren.
“You say don’t feel sorry for you, but then you tell a story about the base of the toilet,” she blurts. “It’s seriously pitiful. What are we supposed to say?”
“Also, going to Rome makes us jealous,” says Gat. “None of us has been to Rome.”
“I want to go to Rome!” says Johnny, lying back down. “I want to see the blue Italian toilets so bad!”
“I want to see the Baths of Caracalla,” says Gat. “And eat every flavor of gelato they make.”
“So go,” I say.
“It’s hardly that simple.”
“Okay, but you will go,” I say. “In college or after college.”
Gat sighs. “I’m just saying, you went to Rome.”
“I wish you could have been there,” I tell him.
“WERE YOU ON the tennis court?” Mummy asks me. “I heard balls.”
“Just messing around.”
“You haven’t played in so long. That’s wonderful.”
“My serve is off.”
“I’m so happy you’re taking it up again. If you want to hit with me tomorrow, say the word.”
She is delusional. I am not taking up tennis again just because I played one single afternoon, and in no capacity do I ever want to hit with Mummy. She will wear a tennis skirt and praise me and caution me and hover over me until I’m unkind to her. “We’ll see,” I say. “I probably strained my shoulder.”
Supper is outside in the Japanese garden. We watch the eight o’clock sunset, in groups around the small tables. Taft and Will grab pork chops off the platter and eat them with their hands.
“You two are animals,” says Liberty, wrinkling her nose.
“And your point is?” says Taft.
“There’s a thing called a fork,” says Liberty.
“There’s a thing called your face,” says Taft.
Johnny, Gat, and Mirren get to eat at Cuddledown because they aren’t invalids. And their mothers aren’t controlling. Mummy doesn’t even let me sit with the adults. She makes me sit at a separate table with my cousins.
They’re all laughing and sniping at each other, talking with their mouths full. I stop listening to what they are saying. Instead, I look across to Mummy, Carrie, and Bess, clustered around Granddad.
THERE’S A NIGHT I remember now. It must have been about two weeks before my accident. Early July. We were all sitting at the long table on the Clairmont lawn. Citronella candles burned on the porch. The littles had finished their burgers and were doing cartwheels on the grass. The rest of us were eating grilled swordfish with basil sauce. There was a salad of yellow tomatoes and a casserole of zucchini with a crust of Parmesan cheese. Gat pressed his leg against mine under the table. I felt light-headed with happiness.