Matthew Anderson, a bottle of beer in his hand, looked at the photographs on the wall in the living room of the Summer home with interest. The wall was well covered with framed photos of the family, going all the way back to when Rhianna's mother and father got married.
It was an interesting look into his wife's past. He saw pictures of her as a little girl, all pigtails and buck teeth, with few hints as to the beautiful woman she was to become. Her older sisters showed the progression that was to be hers though, and her mother showed the end result.
Matthew stared long and hard at one picture of Rhianna's mother. It showed her at about Rhianna's current age, her hair long and full, her figure quite familiar in its build.
In the picture, she was with a man that obviously was Geoff Senior, powerfully built, and obviously enamored of his beautiful wife. Matthew wondered if he ever looked at Rhianna like that, so obviously in love, then figured that it didn't matter if he did. After all, he didn't have anything to hide anymore. He loved his wife and was proud of it!
Matthew was about to turn away when his eye was caught by another picture. This one was of three women. One of them was Rhianna's mother, and the others obviously were sisters.
Matthew frowned. The sisters were not identical, but there was plenty of family resemblance, especially between two of them. Yet it was the third sister that had caught Matthew's eye; he had a feeling the face was familiar.
"Looking at our wall of horrors?" said a voice next to him.
Matthew looked over, and then up. It was Albert Summer, the middle brother, but only in age. Albert was the tallest by a good four inches, and yet also the skinniest. He was also a redhead, one of only two in the family. It wasn't hard to lose him in a crowd.
Matthew had met Albert, as well as the rest of the Summer clan that evening. All Rhianna's brothers and sisters had come over, bringing along their various spouses and broods to meet the mysterious man that had managed to trap their wayward sister in marriage.
Matthew had endured some good natured ribbing at what a hell cat he had gotten a hold of, and several were not stingy when it came to telling embarrassing childhood stories, especially Albert.
Matthew liked all the family members he had met and spoken to, except Albert. Albert came on too strong, was a little too loud, and simply didn't have the tact to be pleasant instead of insulting, or the self-awareness that he was doing anything wrong. He was like a man too drunk to properly censor himself, even though he hadn't yet had a drink.
Matthew noticed that Rhianna had a fond greeting for everyone except Albert, yet still smiled and endured a kiss on the cheek from the man.
Now, as the party continued at full volume behind them, Albert showed up once more with a drink in his hand and whiskey on his breath. Matthew was not impressed.
"Nice pictures," Matthew said, not looking at him.
Albert nodded. "Yep, got the whole family up here; mom loved having a camera around. So does my wife; I think she kinda took over after mom died."
"I can't remember how she passed away," said Matthew.
"Car crash, got hit by some idiot who didn't know when to stop drinking," Albert replied, knocking back some more of his own brew.
Matthew raised an eyebrow, but said nothing.
"I still miss her, you know," Albert said in a soft voice, surprising Matthew. Maybe the man was human after all!
"Is that her?" Matthew asked, breaking the silent pause by gesturing at the picture he had been looking at.
"Yep, that's her all right. Rhianna really took after her, didn't she? Janet looks a lot like her too." Janet was the eldest daughter, and was at that time ensconced on the couch with Rhianna and their other sister, Sara. The three women sat huddled together, and Matthew was doing his best to ignore them as they all three kept looking up at him and giggling.
"Who are the other two ladies?" Matthew asked.
Albert peered at the old photo. "Her sisters. Gee, I haven't thought of them in a while."
"Do they live around here?" asked Matthew, curious about the odd sister.
"Oh no, they left...gee, it must have been nearly thirty years ago. I think one married some young lawyer from some place fancy, and lives the high life. Amanda, I think her name is. The other one, I think her name was Roseline, gee, I don't know; I just know she's gone."
"Which one is which?"
Albert pointed them out; Amanda was the sister that caught his eye. Albert began to stare at him. "How come you're so interested in them?"
Matthew shrugged. "Just curious, I never know when Rhianna is likely to give me a pop quiz on the family, and I like to appear as though I've been listening." In actual fact, he was trying to remember why the face was so familiar, yet the name didn't do anything to help.
Albert chuckled. "You're an okay guy, Matt; I like you."
Matthew nodded, smiled, and turned to face the room. He saw with interest that someone had placed a baby in Rhianna's arms, the latest member of the clan. Rhianna was cradling the child and smiling, a look of warmth and compassion in her face. She looked up just at that moment and her eyes met his. It was at that moment that a chill went down Matthew's spine. He knew that look; it was the same look his wife had been using lately when she tutored some of the younger Compound children, or when she very recently started volunteering to baby-sit. Matthew had the sneaking suspicion that Rhianna's maternal instincts were kicking in.
He had nothing to fear really; Rhianna couldn't get pregnant, as her tubes had been tied several years ago. Yet there is something about that look that makes a lot of men shiver to their toes.
Matthew smiled back; and hoped his concern over her present wants was not visible on his face.
He pushed the thought to the back of his mind and turned to talk to Albert again, surely the better of two evils.
Rhianna watched her husband turn away, and almost laughed. It was obvious to her that he suspected what was going on with her, something she had been subtly shoving in front of his face every chance she got. It was also obvious that Matthew was not yet ready for her to broach the subject verbally.
The thing is that Rhianna WAS ready...finally!
A year ago she would not have dreamed of wanting to have children, yet over time she had felt the need grow without knowing what it was until recently.
The thing was, she really was in no position to get pregnant, unless something could be done about the surgery that had been forced upon her. Was it even possible?
Rhianna shifted baby Alex on her lap, enjoying the feel of a baby in her arms, and turned her attention back to her sisters. Alex was Janet's youngest, and Rhianna's oldest sister was full of questions as to where Rhianna was living now.
Rhianna had to guard her answers very carefully, not so much because the Compound was a secret, but because she had to make sure that what she said was acceptable by her family.
There was no way in hell that Rhianna was going to tell them that she lived in a place where nudity was not a taboo, and where bondage was considered a common recreation as well as a means of discipline. Her sisters would have been horrified to find out that Rhianna freely walked around in the warmer months wearing nothing but a loincloth.
Talk about scandal!
Instead, Rhianna spoke of a closed community with few modern resources and a close connection to their religious beliefs.
"Sounds like a cult to me," said Janet, smiling. Sara nodded in agreement. Sara, the middle sister was a follower, not a leader, and she rarely spoke when a nod would do.
"It's not a cult," Rhianna argued.
"You sure? You're not all waiting for alien spacecraft to come take you away before the end of the world happens, are you?"
"Of course not!" said Rhianna, defending her new home.
Janet started to laugh, but stopped. She was sitting so she could see the door, and her expression suddenly grew a little more concerned.
Conversation in the room dimmed a little bit as everyone became aware of who was coming in. It was Geoff Senior. He stood in the door and glared at everyone. "I wasn't aware my presence was such a conversation stopper."
Looking a little guilty, people started talking again, and the older man walked slowly into the room.
Fred Summer, the youngest brother, got up from his father's chair. He attempted to help his dad sit down, but was waved away. Instead, several of the kids in the room swarmed about their grandfather, and he accepted their good-natured help.
Rhianna watched for a while as her father played with the kids or talked briefly with the adults in the room, but she was constantly distracted by people wanting to talk to her as well.
"Those are...interesting," Janet said at one point, holding Rhianna's wrists and examining the leather bands wrapped around them. Baby Alex was now doing the family tour, and Rhianna watched as Matthew maneuvered to avoid being handed the child.
"You like?" Rhianna said, pulling her attention away from her husband.
"I like the designs; dragons?"
"Can I see?" asked Sara softly. Rhianna obliged by giving her one of her hands. "Oh...these are nice."
"Identical, too," said Janet.
"How do you get them off?" Sara asked.
"Er...you don't. They're sewn shut. I never take them off," confessed Rhianna.
"Why?" Janet asked. "I couldn't help noticing that your handsome husband has a pair on his wrists too. Do his come off?"
"Well, it's a little hard to explain. Matthew's bands are sewn on like mine, and the reason for that is because these are our versions of our wedding rings."
"Uh huh," said Janet skeptically. She had noticed no ring on Rhianna's hand, and had been wondering if Matthew was just a stand-in to make her dad feel better. Yet there was no disguising the looks the couple shared, they were certainly in love with each other, and if what May told her about their late night aerobics was true, that love was passionate indeed!
"No, it's true. It's just how things are done up there."
Albert took that moment to come over. "Come on, Rhi," he said, "we haven't had a chance to visit yet. I do like that husband of yours!"
Rhianna gave her brother a smile and took the opportunity to get up and stretch. As she did so, she noticed her father talking to Fred, and Fred didn't look too happy. She couldn't hear them, but it looked like her father was insisting on something that Fred didn't want to do. In the end, Fred finally nodded and left the room.
This was more like the father she knew.
"Excuse me, Al," Rhianna said, "but I need to talk to dad for a bit; we can talk later."
"Sure thing, Rhi, take your time!" Albert watched his shapely sister move away, and for a brief moment wondered why his own wife had ballooned out instead of remaining slim like Rhianna. He sighed and went to find her.
Rhianna crouched next to her father; this close she could hear his labored breathing. "You okay, dad?"
Geoff Senior nodded, but he didn't look okay, his face was pale.
"Dad, maybe we could go outside; you look like you could use some air," said Rhianna.
Surprisingly her father nodded again, and started to get up. This time he accepted some help, holding on to Rhianna's arm as he stood. But as soon as he was on his feet, he let go and made for the door by himself.
Others in the room watched them go with varying levels of concern on their faces. Most concerned was Geoff Junior, watching from the corner as he talked to Janet and Sara's husbands.
Matthew caught Rhianna's eye and inclined his head as if asking if he should come along. Rhianna shook her head. She wanted the time alone with her father; it was time to confront him about his health.
The couple grabbed coats in the hallway, and then went out onto the porch. The air was crisp, but tolerable. There was no wind for a change, which made things a lot easier.
As Geoff Senior shuffled toward a chair, he pulled a pack of cigarettes from a pocket and took one out.
"Dad!" said Rhianna, horrified at what she was seeing.
"Well, they won't let me smoke in my own house anymore," said her father.
"Should you be smoking at all?" Rhianna asked him.
"What concern of it is yours, girl?" her father asked, settling slowly into a wicker chair.
"I...er...It just isn't healthy for you."
Geoff Senior actually chuckled, and laughter from this man made Rhianna blink. She couldn't remember the last time she heard him laugh when he wasn't with one of his sailor buddies.
"Let me tell you, girl, you have nothing to worry about on that score." He finished lighting his cigarette and sat back in the darkness, watching her.
"Why not?" Rhianna asked him, nervously probing the opening he was giving her. The opening was wider than she thought.
"You don't fool me, Rhianna. I know why you're really here," he said. "I was pretty sure that son of mine would blab to you about my...condition. The two of you always were close. I figured that not long after he found out, you would come running, and I was right, wasn't I?"
"Dad, I'm only concerned about your well being. Yes, Geoff told me about your illness, and he also told me that you're refusing any treatment..."
Her father began coughing again, and he bent low in an effort to catch his breath. Cigarette in hand, he labored to breath for a moment before settling back in his chair. Rhianna was by his side instantly.
"Dad, you can't live like this," she said with concern, holding her father.
"In case you didn't know it, I'm not living much longer anyway," said her father, his voice horse from the coughing.
"Go sit down, girl."
Rhianna didn't move; she held on to him tightly, tears in her eyes.
"I said, SIT!" growled the old man.
After a moment, she let go and did as she was asked.
They sat in silence for a moment, her father taking small drafts from his cigarette.
"I'm glad you came," he said finally. "I was hoping that Geoff would call you. I'm...happy that you cared enough to come. I know we haven't exactly seen things eye to eye the past few years."
"Oh, Dad..." Rhianna began, but her father waved her down.
"Look, there's no secret in how I felt about your job. You and I have never agreed about that. I felt it was too risky, too dangerous, and you can't ignore the fact that a few times I was right. Some of the...some of the things, that were done to you...I don't know all the details, and I don't want to. But tell me, girl, was it really worth it?"
Rhianna wondered about that herself. "Yes, it was...in the beginning. Towards the end, I don't know. I helped a lot of people, Dad; it helps to make up for a lot of things you'd rather have not done."
Her father nodded. "Your mother would have said the same thing. When I convinced her to quit her job as a policewoman, I thought I was rescuing her. I couldn't bear to see her in that kind of danger, even if all she did was talk on the radio to other cops. But there were times I could barely look at her as you kids were growing up, because I could see in her face the longing for the life that could have been. Yet, she loved me enough not to complain, and I loved her enough not to give her more cause than I already had."
"I know she loved you, dad," Rhianna said softly.
Geoff Senior nodded slowly. "Then after she is gone, what do I find but a younger version of her, itching to break the family boundaries and make a name for herself in the big wide world. In your eyes, I saw the same longing I saw in hers, and I knew I had to either acknowledge it or keep you as caged up as I did her.
"You don't know this, but shortly after you signed up for the Coast Guard, before you left for basic, I bumped into your recruiter in town. He asked me about you, background stuff and all. It was then I saw an opportunity to sink your attempt to leave before it really got started. A few choice words and they would have rejected your application. I've seen it before; I knew what to say. But I remembered your face, and hers, and knew I couldn't do it. You and I have argued long and hard about your career choices, but I want you to know that even though I had the opportunity to stop you, or at least slow you down, I didn't.
"I guess a part of me wanted to see you succeed, for yourself and for your mother. I figured that if you could face me down to get what you want, then no one else could stop you either." He looked up at her, his cigarette almost gone. "Did you find what you were looking for?"
Rhianna glanced through the window next to her. Through it she could see her family talking and laughing, and in the middle her husband, Matthew.
"You know I did, Dad," she said.
"Oh yes, the husband. I have to admit, girl, you surprised me there; I was not expecting him at all. If it hadn't had been for the way you two woke me up last night, I might have thought you had brought him along just to smoke screen me."
Rhianna blushed in the darkness.
"I still wonder, though; you say you are married but I see no wedding ring on you."
Rhianna explained about the leather wristbands.
Her father nodded at the explanation, accepting it easily, Rhianna thought.
"You know," he said after a moment of silence. "I don't remember when the last time the entire family was together."
"I can't either," Rhianna said.
"It's good," said Geoff Senior who began to cough once more.
"Dad," said Rhianna once he began to settle down, "why won't you let the doctors do anything?"
"Damn doctors," swore the old fisherman. "When they figured out what was wrong with me, they gave me two choices. Either I could go through some painful and embarrassing treatments in order to live maybe another six months at the most, or they could make me comfortable with drugs that would also leave me a blithering idiot, or at least make me feel that way.
"I said no to both choices, because one thing I have always been is myself. I've lived my life the way I wanted to live it, married a beautiful woman willing to live with who I am, raised six children, and built a business I was proud to pass on to my family. My whole life I spent the way I thought it should be. No way am I going to let those doctors, or anyone else, decide who I am when it ends. It ends on MY terms!"
"But maybe they will find something..."
"Don't be stupid, girl. My time is up."
A car pulled up to the curb in front of the house, and Fred Summer climbed out, leaving the engine running in the cold air. "Dad," he called out, "You ready?"
Geoff Senior waved a hand and began to stand up.
"Where are you going?" Rhianna asked him.
Her father struggled to his feet. "Go see your husband, you belong by his side. I hope you stay as happy with him in the coming years as you are right now," he said as he pushed past her.
He stepped to the front of the porch and signaled to his youngest son that he was going inside for a second, then walked into the house.
Fred joined his sister on the porch.
"Hey, sis. We haven't talked much yet, have we?" said Fred.
"Where are you taking him?" Rhianna asked.
"I'm not taking him anywhere but the dock. The old fool wants to take his boat out into the bay. I've just gone and started it up so the engine will be warmed up for him."
"Out on his boat? At this time?"
"Oh, he's gone out before at all hours; it's nothing new. Usually he takes a drinking buddy with him, but he's gone out alone as well."
Rhianna thought it odd. She walked back to the window and looked inside. She saw her father standing in the doorway of the room, watching his family. He wasn't talking to anyone, just watching. Then he turned and moved out of view.
A moment later he stepped back out on the porch. "Ready?" he asked his son.
"Sure, let's go."
"It's a bit cold to go out to sea, isn't it Dad?" Rhianna asked.
"You've been away too long, this weather is nothing. Besides, the water is as flat as a plate right now."
"But in your condition, shouldn't you..."
"My health has nothing to do with it. I'm quite capable of piloting my own boat. Now go inside and see if your man wants anything."
"Fred," Rhianna said, sensing something wrong, yet not knowing what it was, "you go with him, just to make sure that he's okay."
"Er..." said Fred, looking from Rhianna to their father and back again.
"I don't need the boy along, I'll be fine. Now come on, let's go."
"If you don't take Fred with you on the boat, then I'll come instead!"
"Rhianna, go inside, right now!"
"No Dad. I'm coming with you, or you're not going!"
Fred was amazed that anyone would speak to the old man like that, but then he knew his sister had never held back when it came to arguing with their father.
Geoff Senior just stared at her for a moment, then shrugged as if it didn't matter. "Fine, girl, if you have to. But you're just going to be bored as hell. Fred, go in and tell her husband where we are going, she can drive me down since she insists on coming along."
"Sure, Dad. See you later." Fred left to go in out of the cold, convinced that his father was crazy wanting to go out in these temperatures.
Rhianna and her father got in the car, and she drove him in the direction of the moorings in town.
The Summer fishing fleet was in its off season. Of the five-boat fleet, two were being leased, along with their crews, by another company still working the North Atlantic waters. Two were in separate dry docks further down the coast getting their hulls repaired and cleaned, and the fifth was getting an engine overhaul.
The boat Fred had gone to prepare was a twenty-year-old cabin cruiser her father had bought new for family recreation purposes. Rhianna remembered some fun yet crowded trips on that small boat.
It still looked much like it did back then, a few improvements in its navigation electronics, but that was all. Its diesel engine was ticking over quietly, and after helping her father aboard, Rhianna cast them off.
"Where too?" she asked him, handling the helm.
"Just head east out into the bay," her father replied, noting with pride that his youngest had not lost her touch at handling a boat. It sometimes irked him that out of all his children, Rhianna had been the only one to truly inherit his own sailing skill, yet she was the only one not in some way involved with the family business.
There had been times he could have used a pilot of her natural talent.
Rhianna felt her father standing just behind her, and enjoyed his closeness. Being together in the small pilot's cabin brought back memories of when she had first learned to drive a powered boat. She remembered being a lot shorter back then, her father's hand on her shoulder as she peered over the helm. On the water was the only place the two of them really connected.
"I have to go sit down," her father said presently. "Just keep it on this course for another half hour or so, then shut it down and set the sea anchors; I want to feel the sea alone for a while."
"You don't want me to sit with you?" Rhianna asked.
"Not right now, I just want to sit alone for a bit." He paused and placed a hand on her shoulder.
Rhianna was startled by the familiar gesture, but more because she had just been thinking of it than anything else. She tilted her head to one side, brushing her smooth cheek against the rough back of his hand before he squeezed her shoulder and pulled away. "I'll be on the stern," he said.
"Okay." Rhianna turned to watch him leave, and saw him close the door to the small cabin and go on deck. She watched him disappear for a moment out of view, then she saw his legs stretch out closer to the deck. He had found a chair outside to sit in.
Relieved, and not sure why, she turned her attention back to piloting, and held the small boat steady. Once the half hour was up, she idled the engine and swung the boat about, locking the wheel and shutting off the engine before going forward to set the anchors.
It was a clear, cold night, and the stars showed all their glory. There were even northern lights, great big bands of light that shimmered and changed shape. It was a beautiful night sky and Rhianna wished Matthew was here to see it with her. She made a mental note to bring him out here before they went back to the Compound.
She walked to the stern to ask her father if he wanted some coffee, the boat had a small galley. He shook his head and just asked to be left alone for a while.
Rhianna was a little disappointed that he didn't want her to stay with him, but understood his need to be out here alone.
Her father had been at sea half his life it seemed, running a fishing company that he in turn inherited from HIS father. It was no wonder that he felt more at peace out here on the open water; in his condition, he was probably looking for every bit of peace he could find.
It was odd that he chose to come out here when the entire family was gathered together for the first time in years, but then Rhianna thought that it wasn't really out of character for the old man after all.
She gave her father one more smile. "If you need me, I'll be in the cabin," she told him.
"Rhianna?" he said. "I...um...I just want to say that, despite our differences, what you did in going out and making a name for yourself really made me proud. You grew to be a strong woman, stronger than any of your sisters, as strong as your mother even. I wouldn't be much of a father if I didn't say how happy that made me."
Tears in her eyes, Rhianna bent over and gave her father a hug. He took it stiffly, then melted a little, and hugged her back. "Now go on," he said, "I want to think for a while."
"Let me know when you want to go back," Rhianna said, trying not to cry.
Geoff Senior nodded, and Rhianna left him alone.
She closed the cabin door and found a bunk.
She lay back and thought about all the happy things she and her father
had done together. All the sailing lessons, the games when she was
a child, even the times he had come to her high school to watch her play
basketball for the girls team. The memories made her smile and, soothed
by the rocking of the boat, Rhianna soon fell asleep.
End of Part 8