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Chapter 1 of Episode One, "Territory"

“If we knew what we were doing,
it would not be called research, would it?”
-Albert Einstein, 1953

With the delicious flowering of endorphins, Cherry began counting strokes again, legs burning as she rowed the last few yards toward her marina. Wooden blades rippled through mounds of water. She sat still for a moment, watching the green hedges and steep stone walls of Belvedere Island recede. How had her Mom put it? “Self-control has three levels, Cherry. Neutrality, detachment, and separation.”

Shipping the left oar, she gave the right one a tug to swing into the calm corridor shielded by rows of sailboats, and glided smoothly toward her blue-hulled ketch. As she wiped her forehead with the back of her glove, Cherry recalled the fight with Diamon last week. In the twenty-plus years of their marriage, she had never wanted to be apart. But he had never put a woman between them. How was she supposed to react?

Since their fight, she had been sleeping in her converted warehouse in the San Rafael Canal District. Waking alone, she worked meditatively, cutting and welding, shaping found materials into sculpted figures. On foggy mornings she spent hours drinking coffee and doing environmental research on the Internet. Every day of that long week she had come to row, and set into the oars like never before. She had worked through most of the rage, but the hurt wasn’t going away.

Standing on the dock and pulling off her gloves, she saw the calluses in her palms were cracking. She secured the rope on the rowboat, leaving a little blood behind.

Diamon said she was obsessed with her art, but he used to say she was focused. He used to love her intense preoccupation. Now, even when he is at home, he's in his cave surrounded by his own work.
She gave the bow of her sailboat a gentle shove and stood back, testing the action on the spring lines, wondering when things had changed.

Straightening her sleeve under the cuff of her windbreaker and looking at her watch, Cherry walked up the ramp toward her car. She had just enough time for a quick shower and lunch at her studio before driving out to Glenella’s house.

* * *

Cherry drove along the frontage road, where signs announcing “For Lease” stood like small managed forests. She glanced at each building, mentally logging its age and architecture. It was a game she had played with her father, when she was too young to know that he owned most of the buildings. He had gotten out long before the economy crashed, keeping only the motley collection of warehouses and artist lofts around the bay that he bought in the 1960s. He hadn't seen these buildings in over ten years, and had not once come to see what Cherry had done with the Canal District property. 

At the top of the hill she stopped behind a water truck with a giant hose curled across it. She sat up straight, realizing it was time to stop watering the plants at home so they could start drying. Worry woke and began its march through her head. She ticked off the remaining phases. Two days at most to finish? Then harvest, then curing.

Cherry closed her eyes for a second and told herself to stop worrying. It's a perfect crop for mom’s medicine. And with Diamon’s help, the harvest will go quickly. She slapped her hand on the steering wheel. Diamon. She had forgotten to call him back last night.

Turning, she entered the stretch of homes that fortune smiles upon: San Anselmo. As she drove past small, elegant houses and onto streets with much bigger lots, she tried to shake her legs out a bit to recover the neat crease in her pants. Glancing in the mirror, she pulled stray curls back behind her ears and dabbed at the line of dampness that had just appeared along her hairline.

The Resources group was finally meeting. She’d presented successfully to rooms full of PhD's, but this was different. She chewed her lower lip, pondering if being unemployed made her less of a scientist. The down time gave her a chance to develop her own theories on environmental issues, but will laypeople understand her language? To dispel the butterflies in her stomach, she focused on the groomed jungles around each mini-estate.

As she steered up the tight curves of Greenhill Road, she took a long slow breath, let it out and breathed in again. Breathing out, she sang a slow do-re-mi-fa, let her shoulders fall and relaxed with the familiar rhythm and sound. She turned onto Cascade Ridge and up the stone driveway which seemed whiter than rock could possibly be. Bushy ropes of deep pink flowers descended from the upstairs balcony to the ground.

Feeling a lift of gratitude toward Glenella Price, her friend and benefactor who offered her home for their first meeting, she smiled as she shut off the ignition. It’s finally happening. A chance to work with people, not just theorems and formulas.

Cherry found Glenella and Jess talking in the brightly lit kitchen. “Glenella,” Cherry said, reaching to hug her. “Thank you so much for offering your home. This is so generous of you.”

Glenella looked up at Cherry, then at Jess. “You’re welcome. I -- I hope it turns out, I didn’t have a chance to tell you --” her voice trailed off as she turned to the stove where the tea kettle was whistling full-tilt. “We don’t really have time to meet before everyone shows up,” she said without facing Cherry, “I forgot. I sent out the wrong time.”

A ripple of nervousness ran through Cherry’s chest. She looked at Jess, who was busy adjusting her striped skirt. She walked into the dining room and stood at the table for a moment, looking out the French doors at the spectacular green yard sloping steeply away from the house down to an unseen canyon. Beyond, tree-circled meadows leaped up the flanks of Mt. Tamalpais. The mountainside was nearly cloaked in shadow.

Jess watched Cherry’s face, holding her eyes when she looked up. “You look a little worried. Is your mom okay?”

Cherry sighed and smiled at Jess, who had been so helpful when the time came to move Mom to the new apartment. “Sure, I think so, Jess, I’ll go see her when we get done here. I guess I’m a little anxious about the meeting.”

Jess reached up and patted Cherry’s shoulder. “Well, just relax. This is going to be so cool. It’s a brilliant idea. You’ll see.”

As guests arrived, Jess and Glenella made introductions and led everyone down the steps into the sunken living room. The meeting grew lively, opinions flying and arguments bouldering down while evening fell across the mountain. Cherry was surprised and happy to hear a range of environmental solutions emerge. As she expected, there was little to no consensus in the room. She decided to wait until the next meeting to present her own research, and gave the group an assignment.

"You all know my science background. Let's get this started on the right foot, and everyone bring some scientific papers backing up their ideas. If we want to have any influence over decisions made on these issues, we have to build a foundation in the science." She looked around the group to see everyone nodding their agreement. "Thanks, everyone. I'll be in touch soon with the next meeting date."

They disbanded to the dining room for wine and cheese, then soon headed out, with Glenella waving from the front door. Cherry took a big breath, smiled and nodded at Jess across the dining room table.

Jess stepped back to face Cherry with her hands on her hips. “Great first meeting, Cherry. You really got people engaged and talking. Didn’t I tell you? Let’s go to the wine bar now. My treat.”

Cherry smiled and finished a chocolate-covered strawberry. “It did get a little wild there when they were arguing about the meaning of organic. I love how you stepped in as the meeting secretary and got things calmed down. I could not have done this without you, you know that, right? And I’d love to go to the wine bar, but I have to go see Mom now and finish a bunch of, um, things at home.”

“Rain check, then, but we are going to celebrate. Do you still want me to come at 2:00 tomorrow? We should jump on this while it’s fresh and get the next meeting scheduled and everything.”

“Yes. I’ll be at my studio, and Jess, thanks again.”

Jess waved from her open car door as Cherry climbed in and headed down the hill.

* * *

Driving to see her mom was always a mix of dread and hopeful anticipation. Her “dementia,” a term that described nothing to Cherry, seemed to be worsening. Jess had mentioned bringing one of her healing dogs to visit Clarice, since she is so responsive to dogs. She chewed her thumbnail, then jerked it away, rubbing it into her palm.

She pulled into the parking lot, shut off the engine and sat for a moment rubbing her forehead. If there was anyone to pray to, she would pray now. Please let Mom be calm and present. It's not selfish to want to talk to her about Diamon. She opened her eyes and looked through the windshield at the gray stone turret and the small windowpanes with dark wood trim.

This place is just like a little castle, which is what her mom should have. She was the queen of her world for decades. It’s like a tribute. Cherry shook her head. It's really just a beautiful place for the very rich to live their last days in comfort.

She threw the car door open, pulling her bag from the seat next to her. She slammed the door a bit too hard as she strode toward the side entrance. A ramp and a sliding glass door. This castle is no longer for hearty kings and handsome princes.

Cherry walked quickly through the bright sterile halls on her way out to the small apartments. She hated the hospital feel, yet it provided the medical safety that allowed her mother to believe she’s still independent for a few more years or months or days, even in her compromised mental state.

The rear doors opened automatically, and Cherry slowed to enjoy the older section of the campus, where a stone island ran along the front of the individual units, with perfect rosebushes and bright green ferns. Cherry flashed on a memory of the exquisite courtyard behind Westminster Abbey. Softly lit by metal lanterns that looked old but were actually solar lights, at night it was a twinkling storybook of shapes. Maybe the kingdom was intact after all.

Cherry found her mother sitting in her favorite leather high-back chair, feet on the ottoman. She put her hands on her mother’s knees and peered into her face. Clarice’s head wobbled to the left toward Cherry, eyes staring.

“Mom? Hey, what’s wrong?” Cherry tapped her legs. Clarice sat forward, reaching a bony hand to Cherry’s waist, and patted back mechanically.

Cherry kneeled to put her hand on her shoulder. “Mom. Can you look at me?” Clarice stared at Cherry and smacked her lips.

There was no lonelier feeling than being with Clarice in this dark mental space. Cherry felt the great love they had, and the great wisdom her mom lovingly shared, go tumbling straight down a steep bank into nothing.

She grabbed the hotline phone. When the nurse answered, Cherry ordered her to get a doctor to the room. She bought water for her mom from the kitchen, and Clarice reached toward the glass with her lips, moving them as if she was talking. Water flooded her mouth and she began to cough.

Cherry, crying, held her mom’s thin body forward, patting her back as she coughed. Bad as it was, at least she was moving. Cherry felt coldness moving through her core.

An hour later, Cherry sat next to her mom who was fast asleep in the white-sheeted hospital bed. Cherry stared at the newspaper in her hand, where she had drawn a red line under the Estate Sales section. She moved the chair closer to the bedside. “Mom,” she said, “you get some rest. I’ll be back soon, and we can talk about the islands again. Okay? Maybe we’ll go sailing on my boat, won’t that be fun?”

Cherry pulled the blanket up and rubbed Clarice’s shoulder as the doctor came into the room. He pushed his glasses up his nose and stood with his eyebrows raised. "I'm Cherry McClay," she said, wondering if she should shake his hand. "What happened here?"

The doctor looked at Clarice. "It looks like she was administered an antibiotic that she had a reaction to,” he said, looking at his digital tablet, then up at Cherry. "I'm Dr. Peterson."

“Antibiotic? For what? She wasn’t sick two days ago.” Cherry squeezed her temples with her index fingers, trying to be more alert.

“No,” the young doctor said as he scanned the reports, “she was supposed to get a B vitamin.” He glanced up at Cherry. They locked eyes. Cherry turned away from him, looking down at her mom, slumbering, so white, so thin, and felt her stomach flip from shaky terror to a hot ball of fury.

“This is supposed to be the best care. The very best. I just don’t see how something like this could happen.” She stuffed the newspaper into her bag, looked at Clarice and the doctor who was checking the monitoring devices. "I'm going to have more questions," she said to his back. She looked around him at her mother again, then walked out of the room.

* * *

Cherry buckled her seat belt and sat for a moment with her eyebrows raised, waiting for the wave of tiredness to subside, then headed onto the road with the window rolled down. She decided to make one stop before going to work on her notes from the meeting.

She pulled into the small lot between the liquor store and the Seahorse Restaurant, hoping her favorite Merlot was still on sale. The clerk rang up her purchase with a comforting indifference. Settling the two bottles of wine on the passenger’s seat, she looked up to see a car pulling in next to her. All four doors flew open as two sharp-looking couples got out and headed into the Seahorse, laughing and jostling with each other. She felt a stab of pain, wishing she and Diamon could be that way again.

Cherry tapped her fingers on the steering wheel, wondering if Will was bartending tonight. The thought of relaxing for just a little while with her old friend bolted her right out of the car with a whole new energy. She trotted into the restaurant, pulling her coat on against the damp evening chill.

Chapter 2

“Never laugh at live dragons.”
 The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien, 1937

Finding Will hard at work, she smiled, hiked one hip up onto the bar seat and hung her purse on the back. The long-armed bartender shot bubbling soda into a row of short glasses at the other end of the bar.

Read Territory, Episode One of Cherry Tales Fiction