Awful Grace: Part I

Awful Grace: A Journey</b>

Part One: AJ

"In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God." --Aeschylus

June 2002

He had expected exhilaration, mania, that crazed high that he used to crave. He had been braced for that. When you'd been locked up, living your life in a small white room for months, finally facing freedom was a high he had only been able to imagine, until now. He had even anticipated terror, despair -- the opposite of those heights. Mind-numbing fear -- when he had lay in his small bed, waiting for this day, he had known that. And, he had been ready, too, for that today. The thing he hadn't anticipated at all, the one thing he wasn't prepared at all for was -- indifference. Calm. Operating in neutral.

AJ stood up, the butter-cream early morning light dancing softly across his face, and felt -- not much of anything. He padded over to the window, pulling the shade aside. He gazed out the window, across the grounds, looking at the heavily but invisibly guarded gates he would cross for the first time in year, and tried to anticipate that feeling. Tried to make himself feel something more than this numbness. It wouldn't come. Maybe it was just that it didn't seem real; AJ couldn't make himself believe that at the end of the day, he wouldn't be returning to this room, this bed, this life instead of going out there and trying to put together the pieces of the one he'd wrecked two years ago.

He closed his eyes, resting his head against the cool pane of glass; there were times that night seemed like a million years ago, and there were times it was as close as yesterday. Today, today it was both. AJ saw it, the way he did almost every night in his dreams, he saw Carly's face, the terror in her eyes as she stepped away from him back into nothing. And, he saw the same look on Hannah's face as he lost control of the car that night, slamming it into the barrier. He winced, hearing her scream. He would always hear that scream; AJ had pretty much accepted that now. It was the last thing he remembered from that night.

AJ had woken up, two days later, in a hideously expensive, intensely private facility upstate, a facility that did it's damdest to mask itself as a kind of resort. It was, in fact, what it was called -- "The Resort", nothing else. Of course, he didn't know that when he opened his eyes; all he knew was the expression in his grandfather's eyes as he stared down at him.

Grandfather had frowned down at him, his anger masking a desperate fear. "They say God looks out for saints and fools and..." His voice had trailed off, and he looked down, dropping his eyes instead of finishing the quote. And, AJ had known, right then, truth cutting baldly through black despair, that Carly's baby had died. That night had been the first time he'd walked out of the 'Resort'.

After the third time, they'd washed their hands of him, and so had his family. And, when Hannah had died, without the shield of his family's name and money, only the fact that she had, inexplicably, been driving had saved him from being sent away for a long, long time. He had no idea, to this day, how she'd ended up behind the wheel of his car, but he did know one thing -- it had saved his life. In more ways than one. AJ knew he would have died inside a year in prison; there was no way he could have handled that kind of life. AJ had no illusions about himself anymore. He knew, too, that had he been driving, it would have been him who would have absorbed the impact of the head-on collision. AJ would live with that guilt, too, for the rest of his life. He'd live with the guilt for a lot of things for the rest of his life.

So, he'd ended up here. In a state-run facility that was -- not as bad as some and better than most. AJ had been here for two years, and now, now he was about to walk out, walk free for the first time in those two years. And, for whatever reason, he couldn't make that seem to matter.

"Penny for your thoughts?" AJ looked up at the rich voice close behind him, and grinned wryly into the dark, wise eyes of Malia Johnston, doctor, healer, friend, and the largest part of the reason he was the closest to healthy, sane and sober he'd been in a very, very long while.

"I'd be overcharging you, 'Lia," AJ stood up, meeting her eyes calmly, fully. "So what do you think, Dr. Johnston? Is it safe to release me out into the unsuspecting world?"

"Safe for the world? Yeah, sure. It's a big world, AJ; you're not gonna dent it up." She tilted her head on one side. "Safe for you?" Dr. Johnston considered a long moment. "Yeah," she said slowly, "I think so. You're ready, or as close to ready as you're gonna be. And here's something else, kiddo. You've got to get out of here why you still can. Some people stay behind these walls for too long," she gestured at the room, "they start to like it. Start to get to where freedom's just a word that doesn't mean anything havin' to do with their lives. Don't get too comfortable, AJ." She fixed him with a long, level stare, then broke the intensity with a shrug. "But, basically, all that's crap. 'Cause here's the thing that matters, AJ: how do you feel about heading out into the wide world?"

"The truth?" AJ shrugged, almost apologetically. "Numb. I can't seem to make myself feel much of anything. It doesn't feel real, Malia. I mean, I get it; I get I'm going to be walking out of here a free man in little under an hour. I just can't seem to make myself feel like it matters." He sighed, running a hand through his hair. "Tempted to lock me back up and throw away the key?"

Malia grinned suddenly, her grin as quick and as bright as wildfire. "Yeah. But, only because you're fun when you're mad. C'mon, AJ, do the rich boy whine for me, just once more," she teased, lightly. AJ shook his head, grinning despite himself. Malia grinned back, walking over to him, and chucking him lightly on the chin. "Numb's okay, AJ; that'll pass. When you start getting the shakes in the middle of the night, you'll remember numb with great fondness, believe me." She paused. "You can do this, kid."

AJ nodded, then pulled his mentor into a quick, hard hug. "Any last words of wisdom for the road?" he asked her, his voice a rough whisper.

"Yeah," Malia returned his hug briefly, strongly, then pulled away. "Don't screw up." She tweaked his nose lightly, then jerked her head towards the door to the room. "Go. You've got someone waiting to pick you up."

"Someone waiting?" AJ's brow furrowed, and he could feel the numbness starting to break. Who from his past life could be waiting for him now? Who was left who still gave a damn? He shook his head. "Who? I didn't tell anyone I was getting out today."

Malia shrugged. "It's public record, AJ. I don't know who she is, but she definitely asked for you. For the record, she's a knockout." She patted him lightly on the cheek. "Time to rejoin the living, AJ Quartermaine. Let's go, my friend."

AJ held her eyes a long moment, then slung his bag over his shoulder, took a deep breath, turned on his heel, and walked out the door, his heart suddenly lurching back into life. His mind was spinning as he walked down the hall towards the lobby; in all his calculations, all his preparations for this day, none of them had included someone waiting for him at the end of the journey. He didn't know what to do with that, how to make it fit. Of course, if he knew who the woman was, it would make this whole thing a hell of a lot easier. He took another breath as he pushed open the double doors, half expecting to see Emily or his mother standing there waiting for him.

So this is what a heart attack feels like was AJ's first whole thought, seeing her face, seeing her standing there waiting for him. He had no defenses for this, had not been anywhere near ready, didn't know how to deal with Carly Benson standing across the room, the sun backlighting her body, so that he couldn't see her eyes. He uttered a quick, silent, fervent prayer to whomever or whatever was listening that he couldn't see her eyes. "Carly," he whispered, soundlessly, his lips forming her name but no sound coming out.

She stepped away from the window and out of the light, and he could see her fully for the first time. AJ noticed the most inane things -- her hair was longer. There was a simple wedding band, no engagement ring, on her left hand. She was wearing a simple, sleeveless sheath in pale green. Slowly, he lifted his eyes to hers, meeting them, almost trembling as he did so. Carly's eyes -- they had always held so much for him. As he finally met them, the trembling slowed, his breathing eased. Her eyes were -- older. Sadder. Stronger. Wiser. Better. More.

"Don't worry AJ," Carly drawled, finally, her own breath coming fast, now that finally, finally they were coming face to face. "I'm not packin' heat."

"Good to know," he managed to banter back, feeling like half of him was talking to her, joking with her, while the other half of him was just -- floating. Watching what was going down. AJ took a step towards her, then froze. "Why are you here, Carly?" he asked.

Carly twirled the keys in her hand and looked at him with a lifted eyebrow. She shrugged. "Thought you might like a ride home," she said, finally.

AJ had no response to that; he said, finally, the first thing that came to mind. "You don't drive, Carly."

She let out a sharp bark of laughter. "A lot of things have changed in two years, AJ."

"Yeah," AJ said, dropping his eyes again to her left hand. "I hope," he paused, a roaring suddenly in his ears that it was difficult to speak through, "I hope you and Sonny are happy, Carly. I mean that."

She tilted her head on it's side, narrowing her eyes. "I'm -- close to happy as I can be, AJ. As for Sonny," Carly straightened, crossing her arms, "you'd have to ask him."

"You're not--"

"Save your questions for the ride, AJ," Carly interrupted him, her eyes suddenly shuttered. "It's gonna be a long one."

"Carly--" AJ broke off, then took a deep breath. In, out. Just breathe -- that was what Malia was always saying, right? "Why are you here? Why are you doing this? What do you want?"

Carly's head lifted, and she met his eyes full-on. AJ caught his breath at the -- intensity of that stare and at the things looking at him in it. She spoke a single word. "Redemption."

Part II