The beginning came on slow, happening in starts and stops over the course of several weeks. It was so gradual that Molly didn’t notice the change as a whole at first, just that there was a different feeling to the lobby, a lighter quality that hadn’t existed in the time she'd lived in the building. It was there when she bid a good morning to Ben and his smile, still tired, lasted a second longer than it usually did. And it was in the way Wallace held himself as he came home each evening, his posture, normally rigid from the stress of work, now not quite so stiff.
They were little details, not individually noticeable, but they led to such a state of calm in the apartment that Molly found it hard to leave each day, always wishing to spend one more minute in the tranquility of the lobby. Rarely did she have time for such a luxury, though, and today was no exception. Her bed had somehow been twice as comfortable as usual on waking up, and despite her best efforts, she still found herself leaving for work ten minutes later than she normally did. Kip had just started brewing a pot of coffee when she left, and all she could think about on her way down the stairs was the aroma of it, inviting her to stay another minute in the comfort of their home.
In fact, as she descended the stairs she found that the smell did not seem to disappear. It weakened, but there was still a lingering trace of it in the air, and it was as she was puzzling over that that she finally heard the familiar voices. Ben’s was the one she recognized first, speaking right as she came within earshot. She was still on the stairwell and out of view of most of the lobby, but she could pick up bits of the conversation happening around the corner.
“You’ll take care of yourself today, right? Don’t throw yourself into any situation you don’t know how to handle.” His voice was quiet and a little hard to understand, but she heard within it a sweetness that was wholly unfamiliar to her. She’d always known Ben to be a kind man, but there was something more to it now, revealing a depth of feeling that she neither had heard before nor could hope to explain. “I know you’re more comfortable here than when you started, but you just never know, anything could happen. So, try not to be too reckless. And make sure to stop for lunch at some point, it’s not healthy to be running around all day on an empty stomach.”
“I know, Ben,” Wallace said, chipper as ever despite the lecture. The joy in his voice almost seemed to welcome Ben’s extra caution, and Molly wondered how many times they’d had a conversation similar or even identical to this one. “Kip needs a couple days off anyway, so I figured I would check in with the folks I’ve already talked to, make sure they’ve been doing alright. I’m going to see Maggie first, and then work my way out from there. Should be an easy day."
"Your boss isn't going to have any problems if you don't make progress with new clients, though, right? The way you've described him, he doesn't seem like the type to wait patiently for his employees to get their jobs done."
"I mean, I've probably exaggerated a little bit," Wallace said. "Mr. Crimmins is scary when he's angry, for sure, but he's really not a bad guy, just… passionate." He paused. "No, efficient might be the better word. He gets his job done fast, and he expects everyone else to do the same. And you know, that's really important for a boss, especially in this line of work, where there are people depending on us. I don't think he'd be in charge of this program if his heart wasn't in the right place." He coughed. "And anyway, it doesn't even matter. For all the progress I've made with Kip, I still get weird looks just by walking down the street. I don't think I'm at the point yet where anyone will let me into their home alone."
"Hmm." For a moment, Molly thought that had stumped him, but then Ben said, "I could go with you. Not for the whole day, but just for the morning, I could try to help. I'm not as well-known as Kip, but I'm sure there are a few people on your list I can introduce you to."
"Oh, Ben." She heard movement on the other side of the wall, the sound of feet shuffling and clothes brushing. "That's really sweet of you. But you've got your own work to focus on, and I can't ask you to ignore that for my sake. Besides, it's just a couple days, I'm sure Mr. Crimmins won't mind."
“Well, okay. You’ll call me if you run into any problems?”
“I will. Promise.”
There was a pause in the conversation, and Molly could only imagine what was going on just out of sight. It struck her that she could easily walk around the corner and see for herself, but there was something about the scene, a tenderness, that made her hesitate to interrupt it. The feeling was similar to that which had pervaded the lobby the past few weeks, and it was as she considered that fact that the pieces finally came together and understanding dawned on her. Her heart skipped a beat, as though in its surprise it had forgotten the one task it was assigned. A moment later, she felt herself fill with a warm, happy glow, and she touched her heart as it threatened to overflow with joy for her two dear friends.
“Make sure not to overwork yourself,” Ben went on, whatever had caused the silence apparently over. “You don’t need another night catching up on reports. You'll fall asleep on the couch again, and you know it’s bad for your back.”
“Don’t have to tell me,” Wallace said, “I was sore all over after the last time it happened.” There were several small pops as he stretched himself out, and from the sound Molly could only wonder how he had managed to get out of bed that morning. “But hey, if I finish everything in time, maybe I could come by tonight? I was thinking we could grab dinner, or— Oh, hey Molly!”
Molly had crept from hiding, having come to the combined realization that she was still late for work and this technically counted as eavesdropping. Now she had to acknowledge how delusional it was to have thought she could make it out without Wallace noticing her. She faced the two, ready for awkwardness.
“Hi guys.” Both smiled at her, and in an instant she realized how silly her worry had been. They stepped aside, inviting her closer, and she followed them, glad to feel welcome. For a moment, she wondered if she’d misconstrued the nature of the exchange, but she pushed the thought aside. She knew what she’d heard: two people talking like they’d forgotten about all the rest of the world, their entire beings focused on each other and nothing else. It wasn’t the way a landlord and a tenant talked to one another, that was for sure.
Plus, the pink tint of Ben’s cheeks seemed to confirm her suspicions.
“You’re both looking well,” she said.
It was brief, but she saw it: a glance shared between the two of them, soundless and conveying more than words ever could.
“Is that so?” Ben said, turning back to her. “Yeah, I guess we’ve both been pretty alright.”
“Mhmm,” Wallace hummed in agreement. He’d directed it at Molly, but his eyes were still focused on Ben, squinted slightly by the smile he didn’t seem to know he was wearing.
“I’m so glad to hear that,” Molly said, every word sincere. “I’ve got to get to work, but we should catch up some time. Ben, maybe tea later?”
“Right, forgot, I should be heading out, too,” he said, “Maggie’s expecting me.” He held up a paper coffee cup, the first time Molly had noticed he was holding it. That explained the smell, at least. “Thanks for breakfast, Ben, don’t know what I’d do without you. We’ll talk when I get back?”
“Sure, feel free to pop in when you’ve got the time,” Ben said. “I’ll be around.”
“Okay, sounds great. See you later, then. Bye Molly!” He waved at her, then to Ben. His eyes lingered for a moment before he turned and left, pushing his way through the front doors and out onto the sidewalk. Molly watched him go, familiar satchel bouncing against his hip, and found herself once more in awe of the positive feeling Wallace left behind wherever he went. Just being around him left her in better spirits and, for the moment, caused her to forget why she’d been in such a rush moments before. She wondered if Ben got the same feeling around the man, but when she considered the state of calm that had come over the lobby lately, she felt comfortable assuming that yes, he had.
“So, tea later?” Ben asked, pulling her back to the present.
“Yeah, we should,” she said. “It’s been way too long, I’ve missed talking to you. Although,” she grinned at Ben, “we might have to plan for some time later in the week. Sounds like you’ve got plans tonight.”
“Right. Well, we’ll see,” he said, crossing his arms. For the most part, his stance seemed calm and collected, but the return of pink to his cheeks gave away his excitement. “It just depends whether he actually sticks to his word and goes easy on himself today. He always says he’s going to, and then he ends up staying out for hours talking to folks and helping them out, or he’ll be up all night trying to finish his reports and fall asleep in the middle of them.” He trailed off, and for a moment it seemed he was done talking, but then he jumped back in, “Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud of him for working towards his values and helping to improve people’s lives. I just worry that he’s going to get burned out from it all.”
“Sounds like Wallace,” Molly said. She wondered if there was more to Ben’s internal conflict than he was letting on, particularly given his experience with people who worked hard to help others, but she knew it wasn’t her place to pry. If he wanted to talk about it, he would. She could put her faith in that. “But at least he’s got you looking out for him, right? That way, if he ever does push himself too far, he’s got someone who’ll be there to help get him back on his feet and keep him safe until he’s ready to go again.” She swallowed. “I’m… I’m glad you have each other.”
It wasn’t worded like a question, nor was it explicit in its meaning, but Molly saw Ben’s eyes light up with understanding. He looked away for a moment, hand reaching up to play with a few of his curls, but he was still smiling, relaxed despite his shyness.
“Me too,” he said, voice almost a whisper. “Don’t know how I got so lucky.” He looked back to Molly. “We’re taking things slow for now. It’s good for both of us, I think; he seems like he doesn’t have a lot of experience with this sort of thing, and I… well, you know.” For a moment, it looked like his mood might take a fall right at that, but he pulled himself out of it and went on, “We’ve talked about it a little bit, here and there. He’s been very understanding, hasn’t pushed me to do or talk about anything I’m not ready for. Although, he did bring up the smoking, handed me a bunch of pamphlets for programs to help you quit.” He chuckled. “He’s good, though. He wants to help however he can, but it’s not like he’s trying to ‘fix’ me, I’m not some project for him to work on. I appreciate that about him.”
Molly was smiling. It had struck her that she’d never seen Ben this genuinely happy before, at least not in the brief time they’d known each other, and she felt her appreciation for Wallace bubble up once more.
“I’m so happy for you. Both of you,” she said. “I really do think you’ll be good for each other.”
Ben tilted his head, and Molly could see her own joy being mirrored back at her. Or, maybe, it was the other way around. Whichever it was, it made her heart soar, held aloft with a feeling that things were finally going to be okay.
“I hope so. I’d like to be someone who can make him happy.” He quietly chuckled and shook his head, breaking the effect. Molly wasn’t sure what was funny, but before she could ask what was on his mind he looked down at his watch. “Sorry, I’m keeping you from work, aren’t I?”
“Oh, I forgot!” She would have loved to stay and keep talking to Ben all day, but her chance to be on time had come and gone, and now she could only hope to minimize her lateness as much as possible. “Tea tomorrow?”
“Yeah, let’s do that,” Ben said. “I’m looking forward to it.”
“Same here,” Molly said, already walking. “Bye, Ben!”
“Take care, Molly.”
The day was bright when she got outside, morning sun pouring down between buildings and adding a touch of liveliness to the new day. She walked down the familiar street, past buildings she saw every day, and on the way she realized she was surrounded by signs of spring. Birds were singing from the rooftops, and the buds of leaves were just starting to open. One of her neighbors had put a flowerpot in their window, and she could just start to see butter-yellow daffodils poking through the soil. After a long winter, the world was coming back to life, and with it a host of new beginnings and possibilities.
She hummed to herself as she walked, making a silent promise to get up on time the next day. Mornings like this deserved to be appreciated.