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The Ashes Left Behind

Chapter Text

Prologue

The fire blazed. Pacey held tightly to Joey's arms, forcibly restraining her from running back into the building.

“Come on, come on,” he muttered. His eyes were glued to the open, smoke-filled doorway, a doorway which remained stubbornly empty no matter how much Pacey willed his father and his friend to appear.

A loud, unearthly crack made them both jump and was followed by the entire Ice House roof collapsing in a barrage of smoke and dust and flame.

“No!” Joey screamed and leapt toward the wreckage.

Pacey's strong grip pulled her back. “Jo, Jo, you can't go in there.” She looked ready to shove him off and take her chances. Luckily, at that moment, they heard the first sirens. “They're on their way, Jo. They'll be here soon.”

“But what if...what if...” Her beautiful face was distorted by panic and grief.

“We can't think like that.” He pulled her suddenly passive body into a tight embrace. Her arms remained locked between them, but her fingers curled into his shirt. “We have to keep hoping.”

“Hope?” Joey said the word like it was a foreign concept.

The first fire truck arrived. While two of the men hooked up the hose, the third approached the group of teenagers outside the devastation. “I'm gonna need you kids to back up now.”

“My dad's still in there,” Pacey said, without moving or letting go of Joey.

“Mine, too. And my...our friend, Dawson.”

“We'll get them out, but I need you to move away.”

Jack led a dazed Jen back all the way to the pier railing. Pacey followed behind, pulling Joey by the hand as she continued to look back at the inferno.

More fire trucks arrived, ambulances, police cars, including Dougie's. After speaking to some of the first responders, he walked over to the tense and silent foursome by the water.

“They haven't pulled anyone out yet,” Joey said accusingly before Doug could say a word.

“They haven't found a way in yet. They're working on it, Joey. Trust me, we'll tell you when we know anything.” Deputy Doug's professional detachment stretched thin tonight. Pacey could see his brother was worried. “In the meantime, I need to know how the fire started. All of you were inside at the time?”

“I wasn't. Pop and I were out front when I saw the fire. Pop called it in, and we went to help. Everyone was in the back. Flames everywhere. Mr. Potter was trapped in the office.” Once Pacey started speaking, the words tumbled out of their own volition. “Jack pulled Jen outside. I grabbed Joey. Dawson stayed to help Mr. Potter. So did Pop. I should have come back. I should have—”

Doug rested a heavy hand on his shoulder. “Hey, Pacey, this is not your fault. You did the right thing, getting yourself and your friend to safety. If you had gone back, you'd be one more person for the firefighters to rescue.” With one last squeeze, the pressure of Doug's hand was gone, along with another burden Pacey hadn't realized he was carrying. “What about the rest of you? Did you see anything?”

Joey shook her head, and Jen looked too numb to process the question, but Jack spoke up. “We were studying in the front, but we heard glass shattering—maybe a window?—and smelled the smoke right away. Maybe it's my imagination, but I thought, I thought I heard a car speeding away, too.” He glanced apologetically at Joey.

She barely heard most of Jack's statement. She was craning her neck, standing on tiptoes, trying to see over the crowd to a disturbance at the front of the restaurant. Her fingers gripped Pacey's sleeve. “Have they got them? I think they've got them.”

Doug glanced over his shoulder at the hubbub. “Keep her here. I'll check what's going on.”

They watched Doug's progress through the crowd, felt hope flare briefly as a stretcher was pulled from one of the ambulances. But Pacey saw hands reach out to block Doug's path. With a sensation like plummeting off a mountain, feeling his stomach bottom out and still falling, he knew. Joey broke away from his weakened hold and ran forward. Pacey, in a daze, not thinking, not feeling, just reacting, took one slow step then another after her.

He passed Doug, who was retching behind a fire truck. He stopped to let two paramedics pull the stretcher past him. On it was a barely recognizable, charbroiled Mike Potter. They had hooked him up to an oxygen mask, so the thing he'd become was still breathing.

Joey followed the stretcher, wailing, sobbing, “He's my dad, please, please, he's my dad.”

Pacey reached toward her, then dropped his useless hands and turned toward the center of the chaos, the two bodies for whom there was no hurry about the stretchers. He only knew one blackened set of remains was his father by the tarnished shine of his sheriff's badge. Dawson, on the other hand, had been spared burning across most of his upper body. The clear imprint of a rafter beam could be seen across his smashed-in skull.

For the first time he could remember, Pacey followed his older brother's example. He threw up.

Chapter One

Pacey avoided looking at his face's reflection as he checked the knot on his black tie in the bathroom mirror. He chose not to see the black eye which was his father's final legacy to him.

He tightened the tie, though he'd rather have loosened it. He hated suits. They reminded him of Pop's re-election years when he was forced to attend boring, endless campaign events, impeccably attired, impersonating a perfect family for his father's adoring constituents.

Pacey inevitably did something wrong by the end of the night. The time he was two he didn't remember, but he had been told the story over and over again his whole life. He'd tried to take off his tie; when Ma stopped him, he threw himself on the floor and had a leg-kicking, fist-pounding, screaming fit—right in the middle of Pop's big speech. When he was six, he sneaked away during the speeches and helped himself to massive quantities of cake, without aid of knife, fork, or plate. Four years later, when a city councilman's wife asked him if he had any hobbies, he demonstrated his ability to burp the alphabet.

But the worst, by far, was the last one. After an evening spent choking from his godawful tie and from listening to the piles of glorious crap people spewed about his father, Pacey had interrupted Judge Hardy's panegyric toast to say, “That's Pop, all right. He'd be a saint, if he wasn't such a dick.”

Pacey had been black and blue for a month after that stunt, but it had been worth it for Pop's glowering promise to never have him present at another event. Turned out to be one of the few promises Pop kept. Pacey never would go to another campaign party. There would never be one.

But he was in another black suit with another constricting tie, trying to convince himself he had to leave this bathroom and spend the rest of the day playing the role one last time. Pop's perfect, loving family.

He owed it to his mother, if nothing else. Ma, who had shown up at the morgue in the middle of the night and demanded to see her husband's body, who, when Dougie told her there was nothing recognizable to see, had collapsed on the cold, tile floor and sobbed in front of complete strangers. Pacey's Ma, to whom “put on a happy face” was the guiding principle of life, whom Pacey had only seen cry twice before and only in the privacy of her own room, had wept rivers, snotty, humiliating, rib-cracking tears. At a loss for what else to do, Pacey sat beside her and patted her back. He hadn't been prepared for the way she flung herself at him, how she'd buried her face in his sooty shirt and continued to unravel. To be honest, it had fucking terrified him.

Maybe that was why he hadn't cried with her.

An impatient, insistent rap sounded against the door. “Come on, Pacey. It's almost time to go, and I need to fix my hair.”

Because it was Gretchen, his favorite sister, Pacey obediently opened the door. But he yanked on a strand of her wet tresses and said, “Yeah, there's no fixing that.”

“That's what the doctors said about your face when you were born,” Gretch returned in kind, as she breezed past him in a haze of fruity perfume. She looked beautiful and sadly formal in her black sheath dress.

“How you holding up?” he asked, leaning against the doorframe while she plugged in her curling iron and started pulling makeup out of the bag in her hands.

She gave him a sympathetic look. “Better today, thanks.”

Gretchen had arrived home two days ago, while the rest of the family was at the funeral home, picking out Pop's coffin and arranging his service. Well, Doug and Ma were. Kerry was repeatedly telling her kids not to touch anything. And Pacey was doing the same thing he'd been doing for the last fourteen hours—moving in a daze, trying to wake up from the nightmare.

When they got home, Gretchen was waiting for them on the porch steps. Pacey jumped out of the jeep before it stopped and ran across the grass to hug her. Weirdly, he hadn't been thinking about Pop, about why Gretch was there. He was just happy to see her. Which was why, for the second time in a day, he was the shocked recipient of a Witter woman's tears. She wrapped her arms around him, buried her face in his neck, and cried.

For some reason, she kept apologizing as she did. “I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, I'm sorry.”

Pacey didn't know what she could possibly blame herself for, but he stroked her hair and told her, “Not your fault. It's not your fault,” until she quieted.

Maybe his confusion was why he hadn't cried then, either.

“I caught up on all the messages on the machine,” Gretchen told him, as she worked on the makeup which would mask her face from the curious, impertinent townspeople. Pacey almost envied her the camouflage. “Mostly condolence calls, but there was one for you. Girl named Andie? She said she missed you and left a number. I wrote it down and put the Post-It on your door.”

“Thanks.” Pacey's stomach turned over at the thought of Andie. Three days ago, all he wanted in the world was for her to call him; now, he was almost relieved to have missed it. What could he say to her? How could he possibly tell her what happened, when she was struggling to recover from her own experiences with loss?

“That's all I get? 'Thanks?' No explanation? Is she a girlfriend, ex, one-night stand? Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction? I know I've been gone awhile, but I'm still entitled to know things about my baby brother's life.”

“Missed your window. A week ago, I wouldn't have shut up about her. It's...different now.”

Gretchen tested the curler and winced, whether from the heat or the thoughts Pacey's rough comment sparked. “Yeah. Most things are. Doug's got doughnuts and coffee downstairs. You really should eat something.”

“Not hungry.” But Pacey took his sister's words as the dismissal they were and headed downstairs. He narrowly avoided breaking his leg tripping over one of his nephew's baseballs on the stairs. He wished he had; it would have given him an excuse not to be there today.

He followed the voices to the kitchen where Kerry and her kids were eating breakfast and Doug was talking on the phone. He was inundated with a chorus of, “Morning, Uncle Pacey,” to which he tried to respond with his usual good humor. He knew he failed. Kerry ignored him, and he returned the favor.

“You have to come! You flew all this way, and now you're just going to—” Doug was cut off mid-sentence by the person on the other end of the line. “Don't you owe him something after everything—But—I can't believe—If that's how you—Fine. Don't come. You checked out of this family a long time ago.” He hung up the phone so hard it rattled.

“Let me guess,” Pacey said, “our prodigal sister has elected to remain MIA.” Pacey hadn't seen his middle sister since her high school graduation five years before. The rest of the family acted like Maddie was some great traitor for leaving town and never looking back. Pacey thought she was damn smart and had planned to do the same ever since. He supposed it didn't matter now.

“She got within twenty miles of Capeside and turned around. I don't know what I'm going to tell Ma.” Only someone who knew Doug like family would be able to see the toll the last three days had taken on him. His dress uniform was freshly pressed, hair crisply parted, shave perfect. Even the whites of his eyes were fresh and clear, while Pacey's were red-streaked from sleep deprivation and tears shed and unshed. But Doug's hands wouldn't still, and the practiced, professional calm had deserted him for a flash of Witter temper.

In the space of one night, Doug had become head of the family. The brunt of the responsibility for all the decisions which had to be made had fallen upon him, from calling the girls, to planning the funeral, to keeping Ma sober enough to function. He had left them only once, to check in at the station and process his bereavement leave, right after Gretchen arrived.

Ma sent Pacey out at the same time to pick up takeout for dinner. Pacey was the last person who should have been chosen for the errand. Unless the smell of charred flesh was wiped from his memory, he didn't think he'd ever be able to eat again. Nevertheless, he returned with the requested chicken bucket and sides.

It was a silent, unhappy meal. Pacey didn't eat a bite; his mother and sisters only pretended. Kerry's kids put it away, though.

Doug returned with more bad news. “Mike Potter died this morning. Before he did, he confessed to aiding in the distribution of cocaine and implicated a rival dealer in the arson.” He looked gravely at Pacey as he added, “Bessie and Joey were with him at the end.”

“Those poor girls,” Gretchen said.

“Good riddance,” said Kerry.

“What!” Pacey jumped to his feet, glaring at his oldest sister. “What did you say?”

Kerry glared right back, though she stayed in her chair. “I said what we're all thinking. Our dad and your friend are both dead because of that lowlife. Why shouldn't I be happy he's dead?”

“Because right now his daughters are experiencing the exact same loss we are.”

“Yes, we all know how much you love the Potter trash. You spent more time in that house growing up than you did in ours. And let's not forget, if you hadn't been there drinking or lighting up or whatever it is you do with that bitch, Pop wouldn't have been there, either, and he'd still be alive. So, really, it's all your fault, Pacey.”

“Enough, both of you,” said Ma.

“That's inaccurate, Kerry,” said Doug.

“Pacey, it's not true,” said Gretchen.

Pacey didn't say anything. He walked out of the dining room and out of the house.

He and Kerry hadn't spoken to each other since.

<><><>

The last time he'd been in this church had been for Abby Morgan's funeral. His primary emotion then had been worry for Andie; he hadn't given a damn about Abby. He remembered Jen's poisonous speech, the horror running through the crowd in its aftermath. Pacey had been one of the few people impressed by Jen's blunt honesty, but he had the discretion to keep it to himself.

He wished now he had a tenth of her courage. His job at the funeral was to sit in the front row, look suitably sad, wrap a comforting arm around crying relations, and keep his mouth shut. He wondered what they would do if he walked up into the pulpit and told the entire town about the kind of man John Witter really was. About beatings and drunken tirades, the list of nicknames his father had for his children, the daughter he'd terrorized so much she wouldn't return home even for his funeral. What if he told them where his black eye really came from?

Pacey wouldn't, of course. Even his family hadn't heard that story. None of them had asked. The charitable interpretation was they assumed he got it in the fire, but the Witter household had a long-established Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy when it came to personal injuries.

The one person who had asked, the one person he'd told was Joey.

After Kerry's nasty comments sent Pacey storming out of the house, he needed to be anywhere but there. Forgoing the Wagoneer in favor of the release of exercise, he grabbed his bike and sped off into the growing dusk. He was almost to Dawson's house before he realized that was where he was going. He slowed, but didn't change direction. The draw of the Leery home was too embedded in his psyche by now to change it. He wouldn't intrude on Mitch and Gail's grief, he decided; he would just sit on the dock by the creek and try not to think for a while.

Light poured out of Dawson's room. Pacey nearly tumbled off his bike. Then he noticed the curtains ruffling in the breeze of the open window. Oh. Of course. He leaned his bike against the fence and rounded the porch to the ever-present ladder. Pacey almost never used this form of entry to Dawson's room; he preferred the door, like a normal person. But he had no desire to disturb the Leerys tonight.

Joey sat at the foot of Dawson's perfectly made bed, in the middle of his spotless room. She wasn't crying, just staring, sightless, at the TV. It wasn't turned on. Her fingers played absently with Dawson's comforter. She was still wearing yesterday's clothes. Pacey would be, too, if Doug hadn't made him shower and change before the trip to the funeral home. From Joey's puffy eyes and dazed expression, he guessed she hadn't got any more sleep in the last twenty-four hours than he had, which was to say, none.

Pacey paused outside the window, hesitant to breach what suddenly felt like holy ground. He squatted outside on the porch roof. He should go. He should stay. He should say something. He made an undecided half-step towards standing, and his tired body betrayed him. He fell on his ass, but luckily not off the roof.

Joey stuck her head out the window. Her expression was panicked, but calmed and then saddened when she saw Pacey. “Oh. It's you.”

“Sorry. I'll, I'll go.”

“No, Pace, I'm sorry. You have as much right to be here as I do. Why don't you come in?” Without waiting for his response, she turned back into the room.

Pacey maneuvered his body through a window made for a much shorter person. Joey sat at the head of Dawson's bed now, headboard at her back, pillow pulled into her arms, for comfort or protection. He stared at the empty half of the bed beside her. Dawson's spot. He swallowed an uncomfortable lump in his throat. His eyes itched.

Joey gasped as Pacey took a step further into the light of the room. “What happened to your face?” She was on her feet, pillow thrown down, as her hands reached out to his tender, swollen eye.

Pacey winced and pulled away from her questing fingers. “Nothing. Just a little going away present from Pop.”

The look Joey gave him was one he remembered from years ago. But not on her face.

“Your mom used to look at me like that,” he said without thinking. “When I'd come over, bruised and battered, she'd give me that look, ruffle my hair, and offer me cookies. Got any cookies, Potter?”

Joey's face had clouded at the first mention of her mother, but his flippant ending made her roll her eyes. “As I recall, you took advantage of my mother's generosity, and half those battle scars were from stupid stunts you pulled with Dawson.” As though saying his name had been the trigger, Joey's eyes filled with tears. Her hands shook; her whole body trembled.

“Did you see him, Pacey?” she asked in a choked whisper. “Did you see his face?”

Pacey had, of course, but he would have died before mentioning it. He should have kept a better hold on her. Joey never should have seen that. “Try not to think about it,” said Pacey, who couldn't stop thinking about it. “Try, try to think, to remember him...”

He couldn't do it. Whatever trite, clichéd words of wisdom he would have offered died on his lips. He pulled her into his arms instead, clung to Joey as the tears which had been mysteriously absent all day poured out of him in a messy, overwhelming flood.

Joey's arms wrapped around his waist, her tears soaking into his shirt as Pacey's fell unchecked into her hair. He had no idea how long they stood like that, crying, holding onto each other for dear life. Time, whether from grief or exhaustion, had become indecipherable today. Hours disappeared without him noticing; minutes dragged by like years.

At some point, the tears slowed to a trickle and then dried. Pacey's throat ached, his eyes burned, his head felt foggy and overstuffed. He didn't let go of Joey.

“It's my fault,” he barely heard her confess. Her head rested on his shoulder, face turned away from him. “If not for me, he wouldn't have been there. If not for my father, your dad would—”

“Hey.” Pacey nudged Joey off his shoulder. He tipped her chin up gently between his thumb and forefinger. “Hey. None of this is your fault. You are not responsible for the choices your father made, or Pop, or even Dawson.” A spasm gripped Pacey's throat. He felt the need to confess, to unburden himself of the knowledge he'd carried inside him ever since the fire, but he couldn't do that to Joey. She had enough weight on her shoulders; she didn't need his as well.

Joey's hazel eyes were so dark they were almost black. The pressure of Pacey's fingers ensured she had to meet his gaze as she made one final confession. “Everyone I love dies.”

Pacey's aching, broken heart shattered along the fissure lines this day had made. He had nothing to say in response, no words to deny the truth of her statement. First, her mother; now, father and soulmate in one night. Pacey hadn't been able to help Andie in her grief, and he couldn't help Joey with hers. He was useless. His fingers lost their hold on her skin. His arm fell back to his side.

Dawson would know what to say, what to do. Dawson was the one who should be here; if he was, Joey's grief would be halved. Unable to hold the words back any longer, Pacey's truth tumbled out. “It should have been me.”

Joey's brow knit in confusion. “What?”

“It should have been me in there, not Dawson. I should have told him to get you out. I should have been the one who stayed.”

“Pacey, it's not—”

Pacey barreled through her attempt at comfort. “Kerry told me tonight it was my fault Pop's dead, and the reason I got so angry is because she got the wrong person. I couldn't have saved Pop. He was doing his job. He may have been a crap father, but he was a good cop. But Dawson...I could have done something about that, could have saved you—and Mitch and Gail—all this pain. I'm sorry, Jo. I should have saved him.” With the final words spoken, the final burden expressed, Pacey felt the full weight of exhaustion settled upon him. He could fall asleep on his feet, could sleep for days, maybe forever.

Joey's eyes swam with tears again. He didn't know where she summoned them from; he was dry as dust. She opened her mouth to say something, then closed it again. Pacey was glad she didn't offer him false comfort. They both knew she would trade his life for Dawson's in a heartbeat. He would bless her right to do so.

Instead of lying words, she offered an honest embrace. Her arms wrapped around his shoulders, and she slowly, hesitantly, nestled her body back against his. After a moment, Pacey's hands reached up to splay across her back and pull her tightly to himself. Joey was built so differently to Andie and Gretchen, taller and with far less of their gentle curves. All her bony angles and the gawkiness he used to tease her for should have made the hug uncomfortable, but it wasn't. For the first time today, he felt...safe.

Joey must have felt something similar. Her body grew heavier in his arms. He softly jostled her. “Potter, hey, Potter, you're falling asleep.”

“Hmm?” was the sleepy reply.

Pacey half-walked, half-carried a stumbling Joey the few steps to Dawson's bed. He laid her down, pulled off her shoes, then pulled the other half of the comforter over her. Joey's body relaxed into sleep, but the stress and sadness stayed etched on her face. The puffiness from crying didn't help. He pushed an errant strand of her glossy, dark hair off her face. How he wished he could do something to help her. But he'd already done her the worst wrong imaginable. He had lived, when Dawson had died.

Pacey walked to the doorway to flick off the light. Gentle moonlight filtered in through the open window. He should go home, leave Joey to her own grief, be with his family in theirs. He pulled out Dawson's director's chair and watched the shadows play across Joey's haunted face.

“They have some nerve, showing up here.” Kerry's hissed whisper broke Pacey out of his reverie. He followed his sister's poisonous glare to the back of the church, where Joey, Bessie, and Bodie, holding the baby, had slipped unobtrusively into the last pew. “I have half a mind to—”

“Do not make a scene at your father's funeral,” Ma scolded. “Other people's bad manners aren't your problem.” Their mother refrained from giving the Potters a single glance, but her face was like ice as she stared straight ahead at Pop's closed coffin.

“Or maybe they're just here to show their sympathy,” Pacey muttered, but they both ignored him. He wished he had the option to sit with Joey and her family, instead of his own. He would do his best to intercept them after, keep them safe from Kerry's anger and his mother's coldness. For now, he contented himself with a small wave at Joey, a silent acknowledgment of her presence. She gave him a tight half smile in return.

Because he was turned toward the back, Pacey was the first to see the Leerys enter the church. A ripple of gossipy, hushed conversation followed their path up the aisle. All of Capeside pitied the parents of the other life tragically lost in the fire—as far as Capeside was concerned, there were only two victims when the Ice House burned down, their beloved sheriff and golden boy Dawson; that Potter trash had gotten what he deserved.

Pacey hadn't seen Mrs. Leery since the fire. She had her makeup on, hair done, the same armor Gretchen and Ma had donned for facing the world, but she clung to her husband's arm and stumbled over her own feet as though unaware where she was going.

Mitch helped her into one of the few empty seats left in the church. He looked even worse than when Pacey had last seen him yesterday morning.

Pacey awakened to a rough shake of his shoulder. “Pacey, Pacey, wake up.”

He stretched out, utterly disoriented, as he took in Dawson's room and Dawson's red-eyed father looking down at the chair where he sat. Pacey's gaze landed on the sleeping Joey-lump in the bed, and the events of the last two days settled on him again with crushing weight. “Hey, Mr. Leery. God, I'm sorry about this. It's not Jo's fault. It's—”

“Don't worry about it.” Mitch waved his apology away, bleak gaze on Joey, who started moving beneath the covers. “I understand why you two would want to be here.” The hand which had shaken Pacey pressed down heavily upon his shoulder. Mitch probably wasn't even aware he was doing it. “You're his best friends.” Mitch's voice cracked, and he cleared his throat. “Were. Were his best friends.”

As Mitch wandered around the room, randomly touching Dawson's things—his signed Spielberg portrait, assorted movie props, a stray sweater lying on the dresser—Pacey thought he'd never seen anyone so destroyed. Mr. Leery was vacant, empty, aimless without his son.

My fault, Pacey knew. He added this moment to the mental list of images by which he'd flagellate himself for years, right alongside Dawson's smashed skull and Joey sitting alone at the foot of his bed.

Joey pushed off the covers, rubbing sleep from her eyes. Pacey recognized the moment it all came rushing back to her. She sat up, bunching the comforter in her fists, and her eyes lighted on Dawson's dad. “Mr. Leery, I—”

She was on her feet and in Mitch's arms in moments. They both started to cry. Pacey decided the kindest thing he could do for them was leave. He shuffled toward the door.

“Pacey, wait.” Mr. Leery's urgent call stopped him.

“Yes, sir?” Pacey hoped Mitch wasn't going to hug him, too. He was pretty sure that would result in him sobbing like a baby, and Pacey didn't want to humiliate himself in front of one of the few adults who didn't think he was worthless.

“I woke you so I could ask...Dawson's funeral is the day after tomorrow. Would you, he'd want—would you be one of his pallbearers?”

If Pacey had managed to eat anything in the last day, the way his stomach clenched would have sent it all to the floor. “Uh, I, yeah, I'd be...” He was going to lose it if he didn't get out of here this instant. “Yes, sir.”

Pacey fled the room, took the stairs three at a time, was out the door, on his bike, and a block down the street when the tears caught up to him.

The six sheriff's deputies, all in dress uniform, carried out John Witter's coffin. Doug led them, face stoic, brave, solemn, everything a son should be at such a moment. He had asked if Pacey wanted one of the deputies to step aside for him, but Pacey had no desire to feel Pop's literal weight on his shoulders. The figurative burdens were heavy enough.

So Pacey's duty was to escort out his mother in the coffin's wake. She didn't lean upon his arm; she barely remembered to take it. All her attention was for her husband's body directly ahead.

Why do you love him? Pacey had always wanted to ask her. Now, it was too late. His mother's love for his asshole father, much like the reason for their disdain of all their children, save one, would forever remain a mystery to him.

They would be following the coffin to a small graveside service, for family and a few invited guests. Then they would join most of the town in a wake at Pop's favorite bar. Pacey didn't want to go. He remembered the last time he'd been there, missing the dart on purpose, his father unconscious on the beach outside. The only time he had the nerve to tell Pop how he really felt. Pop hadn't heard him then; he never would.

Pacey was glad the intermittent buzz in his brain, his rambling memory, and time's funny tricks had kept him from absorbing his father's eulogies. At no point in the service had he been tempted to burst into tears or to jump up and scream, “Lies, lies!” to all and sundry. Between the Leerys' entrance and the coffin's exit, everything was a blur.

Pacey wished that kind oblivion had lasted through the graveside ceremony, as well. The pastor droned on about death and resurrection and other things which would make Lindley see red, but to which Pacey was largely indifferent. But then he started on Sheriff Witter's legacy, praying for the beloved, grieving family left behind. He mentioned them all, adding a special benediction in each name, as if he knew anything at all about them.

“And for Pacey, Lord,” the minister prayed fervently, “I ask for him an extra measure of Your strength, as he faces these final years of adolescence, without a father's loving hand to guide him or wise words to instruct him. That he would grow to manhood keeping his father's sterling example before him, and that he would find in his Father in Heaven all he has lost in John Witter on earth.”

Pacey stopped bowing his head long before the pastor moved on to Kerry's children. He glared daggers at the blowhard hypocrite's head. His father's loving hand? Was that the hand which gave him this bruise on his eye, the scar on his cheek? The broken arm when he was seven, the cracked rib at fourteen? As for wise words, the only advice he remembered Pop ever offering him was not to be such a screw-up, a loser, an idiot. And, for God's sake, don't embarrass the family.

This was his sterling example of what a man should be. A raging alcoholic who patronized his wife, ridiculed his daughters, beat his son.

The coffin was lowered into the ground. One by one, the family were supposed to take a handful of dirt and scatter it into the grave. Pacey watched, unmoved, as his mother and each of his siblings cried during their private goodbyes.

When it was Pacey's turn, he bypassed the handful in favor of the shovel stuck in the dirt pile for the workmen. “I reject him,” he told the horrified pastor, while shoveling heaping piles of dirt into the grave. “I reject his anger and his bitterness. The way he looked at the world. The way he treated women.” There was something immensely satisfying about every pile of dirt landing on that shiny, pristine coffin. “The way he treated me.”

Pacey shoveled more, starting to sweat under the restrictive suit. “I reject you, you bastard,” he yelled down into his father's final resting place. Then he pointed the shovel at the minister's face and added, “And you. And if your god is anything like my father, I might as well reject him, too.” He threw the shovel onto the diminished mound and turned away.

Pacey saw the iciness in his mother's eyes, the disapproval hovering on Doug's lips, the pity radiating from Gretchen, and the bitterness swallowing Kerry alive. “I'm done here,” he said as he walked past them without stopping. They could stay by the grave as long as they liked. Pacey was never coming back.