Dinner was served almost right after church. Not only were Alexander, Clarence, and Marla present, but several other guests were, as well. An elderly lady - "Auntie Lala," as she called herself - boarded at Clarence and Marla's home, so naturally, she was present for the noon meal. And Clarence and Marla's daughter, Katrina, came as well, along with her husband, James, and their two-year-old son, Elijah.
The meal passed without much incident; Alexander found himself able to laugh and smile and really get along well with all who were present. Clarence was jolly and grandfatherly, Marla was quiet and gentle, Auntie Lala was rambunctious and a bit crazy, Katrina was amicable and gracious, and James was honest and unintimidating.
But it was little Elijah that really caught Alexander's attention. The child was as charming as charming could be, and he took an instant liking to Alexander.
Interacting with Elijah made Alexander's heart constrict. A long time ago, he'd assumed he'd follow his father's doctoring practice, get married, and have children. But now, that was hardly an option. And the way Katrina and James got along with not only Elijah but also with each other...
It was a reminder of everything Alexander had given up when Eve had corrupted him. No, he couldn't cast all the blame at Eve's feet - she hadn't corrupted him; he'd allowed himself to follow in her ways.
After the meal, everyone retired into the sitting room, where the conversation had a turn that honestly, Alexander found to be a bit discomfiting. All the adults began talking about the sermon, and frankly, Alexander wanted no part in it.
But, as fate - or rather, God - would have it, James turned to Alexander and asked, "What did you think of the sermon today?"
No other question in the world had ever made Alexander want to turn and run in the opposite direction as much as this most recent question from James had. "Well, honestly, I didn't know quite what to think. As I mentioned before, it's been a number of years since I last attended a church gathering."
"The Bible verse that the message was centered around is one I've committed to memory," Katrina said, saving Alexander from the center of attention. He smiled gratefully at her.
"It's a good one, and true," said Marla, who had just returned from washing dishes with Auntie Lala. "It's one of God's most beautiful promises."
Alexander hesitated, then allowed himself to ask a question. "Do you think...well, that is to say..." He laughed bleakly, wishing he hadn't begun to voice his thoughts. Ah, well, he'd already begun. "Does that mean that Christians are required to live a blameless life, or else God will condemn them?"
Auntie Lala gave a laugh and shook her head. "Oh, heavens, no! If that were true, nobody on this earth could be saved, 'sides Jesus Himself, and He did the saving." She laughed again. "We all fall, young man. It's the Grace of God that lifts us back up again."
Alexander had heard of the term "Grace of God," but it had been so long since he'd heard it that he couldn't quite remember what it meant. However, he felt foolish to ask another question, so he remained silent.
Soon enough, Alexander remembered that he'd told Amara he would visit her that afternoon. He glanced at the clock, and when he read the time, he was startled. Three o'clock? Why, he'd promised Amara he would be at her place at one o'clock!
Rising rather abruptly, and quite thankful he could leave such an uncomfortable conversation, Alexander explained his need to leave and thanked his hosts for a "most refreshing time." Everyone bid him goodbye, but Auntie Lala insisted on walking Alexander out the door.
Standing in the doorway, Auntie Lala put her hands on her hips. Despite the fact that she was nearly ninety years of age - a rarity most unheard of - she was still as sharp-minded as the rest of them, if not a bit zany. Raising her eyebrows, she said, "Just because I'm an old woman doesn't mean I'm not perceptive, young man. Am I correct when I assume you don't know God?"
Alexander chuckled nervously and glanced out at the road, at a loss for words. "Yes, Ma'am."
"Didn't I tell you to call me Auntie Lala?"
"Why do you care about my spiritual state?" Alexander asked, though not unkindly.
"Do you know why I care? I care because God cares. When you walked into the room at noon, do you know what God said to me? He said, 'Laleena, you must pray for that boy. He doesn't know Me.' So I intend to pray for you every chance I get, Mister. Don't think that I won't."
Alexander smiled. "I appreciate it, Ma'am - er, Auntie Lala."
Auntie Lala patted Alexander's shoulder and nodded. "Stop by again," she said, then gave a good-natured sigh. "Well, shoo! You're awfully late to your visit! Go off, now!"
Alexander laughed and nodded. "I'm going, I'm going," he said, smiling again.
His smile was erased the moment he stepped into Amara's home.