Sunday evening
December 23, 2001
Philadelphia, PA

Keesha Ward moved through the crowd on automatic. She accepted condolences from her friends and family with graciousness, never revealing to any of them how numb she felt. Deep inside her heart of hearts, she knew this day would come, but after her father's successful recovery from his initial heart attack in 1998, she had chosen to ignore it. Until her father's final attack on Wednesday morning took his breath away. For all eternity.

One thing was certain. This was one Christmas she'd never forget.

A stray tear rolled down her cheek. She wiped it away with the back of her hand. The living room filled with all the mourners suddenly felt stifling. Spinning on her heels, she turned and walked straight into a solid wall of warmth and understanding.

"Lil Bit," Justus said quietly. "You don't have to stay here."

"Yes, I do," she said, brushing past him to go to the kitchen. This room wasn't as claustrophobic. Only half a dozen dishes donned the countertop and table. No one had ventured this far, yet. The cousins had the place all to themselves. Keesha inhaled a deep breath. She could actually breathe here.

"I'm here." He took her hand and squeezed. "Just take a break."

"What about Mother?" she said, tugging her hand free. "I can't leave her. She needs me!"

"She has a houseful of family here for her." He sighed. "You've been her rock, but sometimes, rocks crumble. I don't want to see that happen to you. Take a moment. Relax. Please, Keesha."

She swallowed hard. Glancing out the window over the kitchen sink, she said, "Where am I supposed to go? There is no place on this earth that will erase what happened this week. Nothing will bring my Daddy back. I may as well just stay here."

"Oh, Lil Bit." Justus closed his arms around her as she broke into sobs. "I wish I knew what to tell you. When my dad died, I was just a kid. Children have a unique view of death. It's when we get older that things change. We can see how fragile life is."

"It's so fragile," she whispered, "and fleeting. I thought I could handle it. I mean, I got through Granny Mae's death okay, but this is different. Oh, Justus, I'm not sure I'm gonna make it."

"You'll make it," he promised. "I know you will."

 

AJ QUARTERMAINE REACHED Philadelphia a lot later than he wanted to. Indecision had been the reason for his delay. He hadn't been sure if his presence would be welcomed or wanted. His Grandfather had told the family about the death. Immediately, AJ's first thought had been of Keesha. Was she okay? Did she have anyone to lean on?

More than a dozen times, he reached for the telephone. He punched in her telephone number and searched his mind for the right words. None came. By the time the phone rang for a second time, he had no choice but to hang up. He just couldn't go through with it.

And then, Sunday came. The day of her father's funeral. Keesha consumed his thoughts all day. Instinctively, he knew he shouldn't have been afraid. Regardless of how things fell apart between them, he couldn't turn his back. Not at a time like this.

AJ parked his rental car several blocks from the Ward brownstone. Cars lined the street and this was the closest he could get. He grabbed the floral bouquet and card and left the car. As he marched down the sidewalk, he silently rehearsed his lines. Knowing what to say instilled within him a bit of confidence. Even if she turned him away, at least he came. He didn't allow fear of failure to deter him from doing what was right. For once.

He trudged up the steps, took a deep breath, and pushed the doorbell. A few endless seconds later, the door opened. To AJ's chagrin, Justus stood on the other side. His cousin looked formidable and immobile. Justus glanced at the flowers and card and shook his head.

"What are you doing here, AJ?"

"You know why I'm here," he said, refusing to back down. "I won't leave until I see her. If she wants me to go, I'll leave. I won't do it because you don't want me here."

"She doesn't need your drama," Justus said. "This isn't about your attempt to right your wrongs. I won't let you use Keesha in your latest game to assuage your guilt about the past."

AJ straightened his back and looked his cousin dead in the eyes. "This isn't about me. Excuse me." He pushed past Justus and went inside.

The room was crowded. Heat from all the bodies made him hot. AJ shrugged out of his overcoat and folded it over his arm. He spotted Keesha's mother on a sofa, surrounded by a group of women he didn't know. After crossing the room to reach her, he knelt down and handed her the flowers and card. "I'm sorry about your loss. If there's anything I can do..."

Gwendolyn Ward shook her head and gave AJ a wan smile. "Thank you. I received the wire from your parents and grandparents. I didn't expect to see you, AJ."

"I couldn't really stay away." He glanced around the room before looking back at her again. "Is Keesha around? I'd like to see her."

"The last time I saw her, she was headed toward the kitchen," the widow answered. "She's trying so hard to be strong. She could use a friend right now."

AJ nodded. "I know. That's why I came."

 

THE AIR WAS brisk. The snow underneath Keesha's feet crunched loudly. Her mind went back to snowball fights between her, Faith, and Justus with her father playing referee and instigator. The year she was seven, her father helped her build a seven-foot tall snowman. People came from miles around to see it. The local paper even showcased their accomplishment on the front page.

The memory brought a smile to her face. Then, it all came back to her. Her Daddy was gone. She crumbled to the ground and cried.

"Keesha!"

A door slam followed the cry. Suddenly, hands held her upright and arms closed around her. Keesha buried her face into the curve of the shoulder and neck that she knew so well. Her arms closed around him, and she cried, "AJ."

"I'm here," he said, raising her to her feet. His hands stroked her back. "Just let it all out. Just let it go, Keesha. It's gonna be okay. I promise it'll get better than this."

 

"THANK YOU," KEESHA said later as AJ sat across from her at the kitchen table. "I didn't expect it to hit me that hard. I didn't want to break down like that in front of my Mother."

He reached out and covered her hand with his. "You don't have to thank me. Now, I wish I had come sooner. I'm sorry I didn't."

She shook her head. "Please, don't start with the 'I'm sorries.'" We could start and never stop. I should have called you or came to see you. Learning that Michael wasn't yours after all you'd been through must have been hard."

AJ shrugged. "It's over now. Carly was caught in her web of deceit and paid the price for it. She and Chris Ramsey will spend a lot of years behind bars because of their blackmailing scheme. Michael will be better off with Bobbie and Stefan. They'll give him a good home."

She took a sip of tea and carefully set the china cup down onto its saucer. Her fingers traced the china's pattern with trembling fingers. "You're taking this well."

"I didn't at first," he said. He paused and watched her. The question wasn't even a hint at in the corners of her beautiful brown eyes. He could just let the subject drop, but that would be dishonest. Keesha was the one person who'd always been straight with him. He wouldn't return the favor by lying to her now. "I fell off the wagon, Keesha. I hit the ground hard and went on a binge that still gives me nightmares."

"Are you still drinking?"

A direct honest question. AJ smiled. He shouldn't have been surprised. "No, I've been sober for four-hundred and seven days and counting. I'm taking each day a step at a time."

They became quiet. The grandfather clock in the living room chimed loudly at the stroke of midnight. AJ didn't want to leave her, but it was getting late. Tiny lines had formed at the corners of her eyes. There was no doubt she was tired. Probably exhausted.

He swallowed the last of his tea and stood. "It's getting late. I should go."

"Do you have to?" she asked, quickly. Her needy tone surprised him. AJ stared at her speechless and Keesha hurriedly added, "I'm sure you're tired. Never mind."

"No," he said, returning to his seat. "I'm not tired. I thought you were. I'm okay. I can stay."

"How long?" she asked, her eyes watery again.

AJ took her hand. "As long as you need me."

 

AJ CANCELED HIS hotel reservation and ended up staying at Keesha's apartment while she remained at her mother's house. He came over every day and Keesha was happy to see him. Justus warned her not to let her guard down. Not to get too close. The Quartermaines were modern-day vampires. They sucked the life out of their victims without half trying. He knew because he had only escaped them just in time. AJ would hurt her. Keesha had better be wary.

She ignored her older cousin's warnings. Justus' relationship with his father's family was complicated. Without realizing it or meaning to, he was projecting his experiences onto her. Oh, yeah, she'd endured her share of pain at the hands of Jason and AJ. But that was in the past now. She was older and stronger now. And her eyes were wide open. AJ's willingness to help was sincere, and she accepted it.

"Where's your mother?" AJ asked, following Keesha to the living room. "The house seems quieter this morning."

"It is," Keesha answered. "Justus' mother came over. They're going shopping."

"Really?" he asked, his brow furrowing with concern.

"Aunty can be rather convincing," she said. "Mother didn't put up a fight. I think the outing will be good for her."

"And what about her daughter?" A bright twinkle lit up his hazel eyes. "Are you ready to go out for a little while?"

Keesha hedged. "I don't know, AJ. What did you have in mind?"

"It's Christmas Eve," he said. "I think a big pine would brighten up the place."

She shook her head. "You mean celebrate Christmas? I'm not sure. It's too much. Maybe it would be better to just forget it this year..."

"We can't forget Christmas," he said, his expression gravely serious. "Our Heavenly Father gave us His Son. We can't forget that. No matter how much you're hurting right now, Christ's birth is cause for celebration."

"It is," she said slowly, "but Christmas is about happiness and peace and love. I feel so hollow. Celebrating would make me a hypocrite."

AJ wrapped his arms around her and held her close. "Keesha Ward, you may be a lot of things, but a hypocrite isn't one of them. Let's just go out and see what's there. I think it will make you feel better."

"Okay, AJ," she murmured. "I'm willing to see."

 

TO AJ'S RELIEF, the Christmas tree was a huge success with Keesha, her mother, and the rest of their family. Justus still eyed him with distrust, but that didn't stop them from decorating the tree together. When Faith entered with a tray of eggnog, AJ realized he felt totally relaxed and completely at home. Despite the sad circumstances, he hadn't felt this tranquil in years.

They drank the thick, milky concoction and exchanged gifts. The next morning, they would have brunch and open their presents. Gwendolyn stressed to AJ that she wanted to see him there. He told her he would be. A short while later, everyone filed out. Keesha's mother went to bed, leaving Keesha and AJ alone.

"I hope I'm not speaking prematurely," AJ said, "but I think your mother likes me."

"She does," Keesha replied, staring at the Christmas tree lights. "You've impressed her. She says you've been a good friend."

He swallowed hard. Surprise that Gwendolyn's opinion could mean so much nearly overwhelmed him. "I'm glad to hear it."

"It's true."

The grandfather clock struck midnight. AJ jumped and then laughed. "That thing is always reminding me that I don't know when to leave."

"No, it's not," she said, smiling. "It's telling you that you haven't stayed long enough."

They shared a smile. A few moments later, a noise sounded on the other side of the front door. AJ looked through the window. Christmas carolers stood on the other side. He beckoned to Keesha.

"Let's go outside. Grab our coats."

AJ pulled on his coat and helped Keesha with hers. Taking her hand, he led her outside to the front porch. A group of at least ten carolers serenaded them. Softly, AJ and Keesha joined in.

"It came upon a midnight clear,

That glorious song of old,

From angels bending near the earth

To touch their harps of gold:

Peace on earth, good will to men,

From heaven's all gracious King!

The world in solemn stillness lay

To hear the angels sing."

The next morning, AJ had Christmas brunch with the Wards. The meal was delicious and the company was even better. Justus' trademark growl of disapproval disappeared and AJ began to form a relationship with his other cousin, Faith. Later, he gave Keesha a 14-carat gold cross pendant and a matching chain. She gave him an aged copy of Mark Twain's 'Huckleberry Finn.' He couldn't believe she remembered how much he loved that story. By far, this had been one of the best Christmases AJ had ever had. He dreaded his return to Port Charles. He didn't want to leave Keesha.

 

KEESHA AND AJ lagged behind as they followed her family inside the cathedral for Christmas mass. One hand closed around AJ's arm while the fingers on her other hand traced the line of the cross he'd given her. The necklace was beautiful. She couldn't have been more surprised when she opened the box and there it was. The small symbol reminded her of their conversation and how he spoke so passionately about the meaning of Christmas. This necklace would insure that she never forgot.

They sat on the row behind her mother and cousins. Her hand locked around his and to her joy, he laced their fingers together. Her heart pounded at the slight contact of palm against palm. She shouldn't allow herself to feel these things again, she silently berated. But one glance at him, the way his shiny brown hair curled around his collar and how his hazel eyes darkened as he listened intently to the priest's words, Keesha was a goner. Her breath caught in her throat. What would she do when he left?

"Let's go for a walk?" AJ asked after the service was over. "It's not too cold, is it?"

"No, I'm fine. I'd like a walk."

Keesha told her family that they'd meet them at the house. She guided him toward her old high school and pointed out the sights to him. They came to the playground and took a break to sit on the swings.

"I didn't know what to expect when I came," AJ began suddenly. "These past few days have been amazing. I don't want to leave."

"This may sound crazy," she said, "but I don't want you to leave either."

He was silent for a moment. His hazel eyes bore into hers. Dots of scarlet colored his cheeks. "It looks like we're in a predicament."

"It looks that way."

"I don't know what to do," he said. "As much as I want to stay and see what could happen between us, I'm terrified that I'll mess things up. I'll hurt you. I don't want to hurt you, Keesha."

"That could go both ways," she said. "I'm scared to. What if this is my answer to dealing with my father's death? Getting involved right now could be the absolute worst thing I could do."

AJ nodded. "Then for now, let's be friends. I mean it. This time, I won't just let you disappear in Philadelphia. I'll go back to Port Charles, but that doesn't mean, I'll be gone from your life. We can let nature take its course. Do you think we can do this?"

"It's the best thing we can do," she said, "at least for right now."

He leaned toward her. Keesha's eyes closed just as his lips closed over hers. His mouth was warm, firm, and so delicious. She savored the moment for as long as it lasted. When the kiss ended, she smiled, content that they had made the right decision and confident that one day everything would work out between them...in its due time.

The End

("It Came upon the Midnight Clear" by Edmund H. Sears and Richard S. Willis)

135