I. Territory

Stella was busy today, with lots of things to do and bills and work and people to call. But she liked being busy. She stepped out of the agency to grab a bite to eat from the gyro truck down the street. She walked on with a determined air and big steps in her high heels. Mom always said walking in heels was a trust exercise. Stella put her faith into the tiny blade-like heel of her red shoes, with every wide step as she pierced the leaves beneath her feet with a satisfying crunch. Finally, fall had begun. Stella remembered last fall, how she had held hands with him in the park as they kicked the orange leaves with childlike glee. There was a fleeting moment of sadness, but she shook her head and it went away. Just a chill. She was single again and the cool air she was now breathing in was filling her up with a fresh start. Today was a good day, she thought. No more crying. No more sulking.

Stella licked the salt off her fingers and wrapped up the foil from her sandwich. She stood up from the large, cold steps of the capitol building where she had been eating and brushed off her hands. She had to get back to the agency. She had a few more bands to call for the indie label where she worked as a booking agent. She was on her way to becoming a part-owner in the business she had helped flourish. She headed back down the street and picked up an americano at the Black Bean, her favorite coffee shop. The baristas knew her by name. Marty heard the chime of the door as she walked in and handed her a cup. Her 2pm regular. This was her place. Her territory. This ancient red-bricked, square-radius of downtown Nashville. She knew the shop owners, the boutiques on every corner, the baristas, even Juan, the little Mexican man with the best Italian sub shop in the city. All those little conversations day after day that had made these people her people, these bricks her bricks, these streets her streets. All hers.

Stella reached out with her long fingers to grab the iron handle at front door to the agency. It had once been a small bank, so the door was heavy and giagantic underneath the agency’s sign that read “The Vault.” She mustered her habitual strength and pulled, but was startled when the door pushed back on her, Stella felt a hot splash on her stomach as her coffee spilt back on her grey, striped blouse. The top of a man’s dark-haired head popped out from the other side. He had a close trimmed beard and black-rimmed glasses that framed a pair green eyes. She recognized those eyes. He stumbled awkwardly out of the threshold and met Stella on the sidewalk as she was drying the coffee stain.

“Oh, God! I’m –I’m so sorry!”

“It’s fine,” Stella sighed. “I have a cardigan at the office. I’ll just put that—” But she cut herself off when she looked up again. “Michael?”

“Stella! Wow, hey, um, how are— you know I thought I’d see you here.”

“What are you doing here? I thought you moved back to Texas.”

“Well, I thought I’d give Nashville a second chance and I heard the Vault was hiring. You always talked about how much you loved your job, so I thought I’d try.”

“But you don’t even listen to Indie music? You think it’s weird. You don’t even really listen to anyone other than Keith Urban.”

Micheal looked down, a little embarrassed. Stella quickly looked at her shoes, now about the same shade as her face. Maybe she shouldn’t have said that out loud. But it’s true. The whole time they’d been together she could hardly talk to him about music. A bit about her job and the daily task of working all the time, but he never really got it. He was a lab tech and did some type of biochemistry thing. But he hated it, or at least claimed he did. He never knew what he wanted, whether it was a different career or a new place to eat or what to watch on Netflix or to spend the night as his or her place. He could never decide.

When Stella talked about her job and how much she loved it–the creak of the old oak floors, the lighting from the window of her office, the history of music and Nashville and all the melodies that floated through the Tennessee air–he never understood that. She could see it in his blank eyes, like a puppy wondering why they weren’t being petted, just staring back at her wishing he could understand and love something that much. But she never knew how to help him. And after too many days coming home to him still unemployed on the couch with only a list of ridiculous start-up ideas to show her, but no job applications, she was ready to leave him. But instead he left her. And now Michael was here, standing there acting like they were old friends. But they weren’t friends at all.

“Ha, yeah, well..” His voice drew her out of her thoughts. He was still looking down, shyly grabbing the back of his neck.

“Well, I got the job,” he said with a forced smile, shrugging with both hands held in the air. “I’m just in sales, but I guess I’ll see you on Monday, boss,” he said walking backward away from her down the sidewalk.

He saluted her, as he had all those nights ago, and turned to continue down the street. Stella watched him stroll proudly past The Black Bean and Juan’s Italian, past the geraniums and the capitol steps–her steps. Each step he took on her sacred ground was like a thunderous giant’s, echoing through the clouds in her head, taking everything that was her own and making it his.

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