Anna shuffled through Northtown’s glass entryway and scanned the crowd. Well-dressed twentysomethings littered the foyer in groups, laughing, talking, flirting. She smirked to herself.
Oh, Cerise, of course you would love this.
The room felt like a frat party at eight o’clock, minus the beer; people talking casually, couples pairing, a sense of youthful anticipation in the air. She spotted Michelle and Ben in the crowd, talking to a tall, handsome man, gave them a friendly wave, and approached stiffly.
Her leg was bad today, and she’d popped her usual painkillers before coming, but they had been less effective lately. She ignored the aches, and smiled as she approached Michelle.
“Well, aren’t you all done up and pretty!” Anna exclaimed, indicating Michelle’s curled hair and expertly finished makeup. Michelle blushed.
“Thanks, you too, as always.”
Never mind that I’m the fattest person here, Anna thought wryly to herself. She had gained a significant amount of weight since the accident, but considered herself blessed simply to be alive, so usually the extra pounds were little more than an nuisance. She knew she stood out among this svelte crowd, but chose not to give it any further thought.
Extending her hand, she opened her mouth to introduce herself to the stranger, but he continued his conversation with Ben as though no one had arrived. Nonplussed, Anna withdrew her hand and gave Michelle a sideways glance. She had turned back and appeared enthralled in the men’s conversation. Anna was glad when Cerise approached a moment later.
“Anna! You made it!” she said, giving her a warm hug. “And I see you’ve met Justin.”
The tall man, whom Anna now presumed to be Justin, turned and gave Cerise a brilliantly white smile. “Hey, bandmate, I was just talking about you with your pastor here!”
“Oh, all good, I hope,” Cerise said happily, blocking Anna’s view of Justin with her body. Anna pushed back a surge of annoyance.
Ben laughed. “I only mentioned one or two missed chords.”
Anna could just make out Justin’s grin over Cerise’s head. “She’s did so well in practice, it’s great that she could join us on such short notice.”
“What happened with your regular keyboard player?” Michelle inquired, concern colouring her voice.
Justin’s face gave the tiniest twitch, and with a barely noticeable hesitation, he said, “Family stuff.”
Anna narrowed her eyes, and trying to quell her growing irritation, stepped past Cerise and extended her hand with a winning smile. “We haven’t been introduced,” she spoke confidently, looking into his eyes. “I’m Anna, Cerise’s friend.” She nodded toward Ben and Michelle. “I’m usually friendly to them, too.”
Ben and Michelle chuckled, and Justin took Anna’s hand in a warm, strong grip. “Well, we’re all brothers and sisters under Jesus, aren’t we?” he said, smiling broadly.
Anna fought back the urge to wrinkle her nose in disgust, pull Cerise aside and tell her never to approach this man again. Instead, she released his hand, donned a pleasant mask, and opened her mouth to reply. He cut her off before she could begin.
“Shall we head in, Cerise?” he said warmly over Anna’s head. Cerise gave Anna an excited grin and a wave, then followed him through the crowd.
Concerned, Anna turned to Michelle and Ben. Instead of the bewildered, cautious looks she expected, they both smiled, and Michelle sighed.
“Oh, I just hope it works out for them,” she said happily. “He seems like such a man of God.”
Anna bit her lip. “They met last week,” she said flatly.
“If it’s meant to be, then it’s meant to be,” Michelle replied dreamily.
Maybe I’m wrong, Anna thought to herself. I hope I’m wrong. Pushing back her sense of unease, she joined the crowd as they made their way into the chapel.
“Oh, Anna,” Cerise gushed, her cheeks flushed. “He’s amazing. He showed up with a rose for me! First date, and he already bought me flowers.” She gave a little squeal of excitement.
Anna smiled at her glowing friend, and fiddled with her coffee mug, thinking about her first date with Seth. She’d worn a red dress, her date dress, and he’d been charming and funny and just a little nervous. The memory was bittersweet; their pattern was strained of late, mostly due to the church incident two weeks earlier.
“So, where did he take you?” she asked, forcibly pulling herself out of her thoughts.
“The hardware grill,” Cerise beamed.
“Oooh, Justin! Impressive!”
“Yeah, it was so swanky, and he paid for everything. Anna,” Cerise leaned forward conspiratorially her face shining with excitement, “we talked about what God is doing at Northtown for most of our date. Did you know their young adult ministry went from 120 to 350 in the last year? Pastor Nick is an incredible speaker, people come just to hear him talk.”
“That’s a big jump,” Anna nodded. She was never quite certain why many at Cornerstone seemed to fixate on the number of people in attendance; it made her feel like she was in an accounting meeting.
“You really should come back with me this week, isn’t everyone so friendly?”
It had been a few days since their time at Streams, and Anna was not keen to repeat the experience. Besides her distaste for Justin, everything had felt just a little too polished. She had excused herself as soon as the service concluded, and hadn’t joined them for coffee afterward.
“You know,” she started slowly, “Justin is—”
“What?” Cerise smiled expectantly. “What did you think? He’s great, right?”
“I’ll be honest, Cerise. I don’t get a good vibe from him.”
Cerise’s face fell, stunned. “Okay,” she said slowly. “What didn’t you like about him?”
His teeth are too white, his smile is too big, his skin is too tanned. None of these sounded like adequate reasons, and for a long moment, Anna sat and composed her words very carefully.
“I can’t really explain it,” she said, “but he seems to be very interested in projecting the correct image.”
“Okay,” Cerise said again.
“You just need to be sure that’s really who he is.”
“Oh, but he’s so genuine and honest,” Cerise gushed. “I’m glad you’re so concerned, but I think you might just be seeing that he has such an open heart.”
Anna looked away, searching for the right words. “I just couldn’t shake the feeling that he was trying to sell us something.”
“You know,” Cerise pondered, her voice high and hesitant, fixing her gaze on her fidgeting fingers, “I think that men in the world are very different from men in the church. Maybe you’re just used to men closing themselves off.”
Anger bubbled up from Anna’s stomach. “I’m sorry, but I really don’t think that makes a difference.”
“You tell me that all the time, that your husband won’t discuss everything with you,” Cerise protested defensively.
“And when did you accrue so much experience with men?” Anna snapped. “This has nothing to do with Seth.”
“Anna,” Cerise protested, her eyes wide with hurt.
“I just get a bad feeling from him, that’s all.” Anna tossed her head, and crossed her arms over her chest. How can she be so blind?
“Well that doesn’t mean you’re right,” Cerise said angrily. “Geez, I thought you’d be happier for me. For the first time I’m interested in someone who returns the favour, and you’re stomping all over it!”
“Cerise, I feel what I feel. I would be a bad friend if I didn’t mention it.”
“Well did you think you might be wrong?”
It suddenly occurred to Anna that this must be what her mother felt when she, at sixteen, had brought home her first boyfriend. Although her mom had been correct in her assessment of him as a “total asshole,” as she had so eloquently phrased it, he had been the subject of many a loud argument. Biting her lip, Anna took a deep breath and carefully phrased her next sentence.
“I hope so. But Cerise, if you ever encounter any trouble with him, you know you can call.”
Cerise’s face softened slightly. “I know. I’m covering this with a lot of prayer, Anna.”
Anna nodded. They did not discuss Justin again, but by the time the left the shop, she had the uncomfortable image of a widening crack between her and Cerise.