A life less ordinary
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Three: Waiting to exhale

So here we are, all of us stand around
We're leaning heavy on each other
But still we worry what is it lies behind
Staring eyes of one another

("Granny", Dave Matthews Band)

Gale and Mitch entered their son’s room without knocking, noticing his light was still on. They stopped in their tracks when they saw Jen curled up in Dawson’s arms as they slept. In the same instant Gale was relieved they were still fully dressed and angry that the girl was there. It should be Joey asleep next to Dawson, not Jen. Gale could not help wishing that it was Joey here and that Jen was the one in the hospital. She felt immediately guilty for having such a thought, and quickly crossed to Dawson’s bedside.

"Honey? Dawson? Wake up," Gale murmured gently, shaking his shoulder.

Dawson groaned in protest and half opened one eye, but he fell back to sleep immediately. Gale was insistent, and her jiggling woke Jen too. Dawson blinked against the light in the room and frowned, not fully conscious. He could vaguely see his mother hovering over him and felt a dead weight on his right arm. Squinting, he saw it was Jen lying next to him. The surprise woke him from his slumber before he remembered how she had crawled in through his window, begging to sleep over like Joey did.

"Dawson? Are you awake?" Gale asked again.

"I’m awake, Mom. What is it?" Dawson couldn’t help that his voice sounded a little irritated. Jen rubbed her puffy eyes and looked sheepishly at Mr and Mrs Leery, certain they had come to throw her out of their son’s room.

"Dawson, Jen, I…" Gale hesitated as she tried to think of how she was going to break the news to them. "I have to tell you something."

"Couldn’t it have waited until morning?"


Dawson saw the deep-seated worry in his mother’s eyes and his blood ran cold. Something was wrong. Something was very wrong. His father stood in the background looking just as concerned.

"Mom, what is it?" he whispered, nudging Jen aside and pulling himself into a sitting position.

"Bodie just called… there’s been an accident."

Dawson felt his world collapse as he took the words in. His eyes widened and he heard Jen draw in a sharp breath. He wanted to ask, but his mouth wouldn’t move. He swallowed with difficulty, not once breaking his mother’s intense stare.

"Is it Joey?" Jen asked for him. The calmness of her voice immediately infuriated Dawson.

"It’s Joey and Pacey… they’re both in the hospital. Pacey took her over to Daleman to see her father again, and on the way back they collided with another vehicle. Joey’s okay, they think it’s just a concussion."

Dawson let out a relieved breath when he heard the words. He clamped his eyes shut and thanked whatever God would listen for making her all right. But his mother was still looking at him with such concern in her eyes that he felt his chest tighten again.

"Pacey’s okay, isn’t he?" Dawson asked, not even considering for a moment he wouldn’t be. He glanced up at his dad, wondering if he knew more.

"Pacey’s condition is very serious, Dawson," Mitch explained, choosing his words carefully. "He has some internal injuries and the doctors are still trying to help him…"

"Oh my God," he murmured under his breath. It didn’t seem possible that anything could happen to Pacey. He had always been indestructible. Even as children, Pacey was the one who never got hurt. Joey and Dawson had had broken bones, burns, scratches and bruises, but Pacey always seemed to avoid all that. Dawson couldn’t believe it.

"He’s going to be all right, though… Isn’t he, Mom?"

Gale's heart ached at Dawson’s child-like tone. She wished she could make it all better for her son. "We just don’t know, honey."

"I have to go there… I have to make sure they’re okay," Dawson said abruptly, jumping up from the bed.

"I’ll take you now."

Dawson nodded and was already tugging on his boots. He did not take any notice of Jen as she did the same, did not look at her as she stayed glued to his side as he went downstairs. Neither he nor his parents said anything when she climbed into the back seat of their car behind Dawson, intent on coming to the hospital too. Dawson remained silent as he stared out at the black night, his mind full of images of his friends. He was too stunned to feel anything — he didn’t know what he was supposed to think or say. Dawson was just numb as they drove into the night towards the hospital.

* * *

Bessie was holding Joey’s hand as she tried to get some sleep, but it wasn’t easy in the noisy ER cubicle. They had not admitted her upstairs for observation yet, but the nurse who came in every so often to check on her whispered it wouldn’t be much longer. Bessie watched her little sister for any sign she was in pain or something was wrong — she almost didn’t trust the hospital staff. Bessie wanted to be sure herself that Joey was all right. She certainly didn’t look it with her bruised face and lacerations. The large gauze dressing on her forehead almost covered her right eye, providing a piratesque effect. Lucky Joey was too sedated to be concerned about such things.

When Gale, Dawson and Jen arrived, Bessie was relieved to have someone to talk to. She was a bundle of nervous energy as Gale gave her a sympathetic hug and Dawson rushed to Joey’s bedside. Bessie informed them all that the doctor had assured her that Joey was okay, they just needed to keep her in overnight because of a possible concussion.

Dawson stopped listening as soon as he saw Joey.

"Hey, Jo," he whispered, a faint smile curling his lips.

"Hey," Joey murmured back, her voice croaky. Her eyelids were heavy but she smiled back wanly as he stood over her.

Dawson gingerly took her hand in his and stared intently at her face, trying to ignore the angry bruises that colored her skin. He felt her warm skin and heard her even breathing, and he felt immeasurably better. He was relieved that she was truly all right, and somehow knowing that Joey was okay made it easier to believe that Pacey would be too. During the journey to the hospital he had imagined the most gruesome of injuries they might have suffered, and yet Joey wasn’t too bad, despite some cuts and bruises. Dawson naively thought that Pacey would be as well.

"Have you heard anything about Pacey?" Gale asked Bessie, as they stood a few steps away. She tried not to intrude on Dawson’s moment with Joey, but did not fail to notice the slightly hurt look on Jen’s face as the girl watched them together.

"They’re still working on him, they haven’t told us much," Bessie answered absently. She lowered her voice carefully so as not to alarm Dawson and Jen, but mostly to protect Joey. "Gale, I think it’s pretty serious. I overheard some of the staff talking about flying him up to Boston."

"Are his parents here?"

"I don’t know, I haven’t seen them."

"I’ll go ask someone what his condition is," said Gale with conviction. "They have to tell us something."

"Are you going to find out about Pacey?" Joey chimed in from the bed. Gale turned around and wondered how much she had heard. Joey was eyeing her carefully, and before Gale could answer she continued, "Please come back and tell me. I keep asking the nurses but they just fob me off."

"Of course I will, sweetheart," Gale answered.

Joey didn’t seem to believe her. "Dawson, you go too," she ordered. Joey trusted Dawson above anyone else, even Bessie.

He seemed to be of two minds — he wanted to go and find out about Pacey, but he also didn’t want to leave Joey’s side. She squeezed his hand insistently, making the decision for him. Dawson and Jen followed Gale out of the cubicle as they went in search of Pacey’s doctor. Joey watched them leave, a deep frown creasing her brow. She didn’t hear Bessie talking to her. Joey was too focused on waiting to hear the news about Pacey.

* * *

Dawson spotted Mr and Mrs Witter before his mother did. They were standing outside a closed examination room in consultation with a nurse. Mrs Witter looked up as Gale approached her quickly, giving the woman a meek smile. Despite their sons being best friends, Gale felt she hardly new Pacey’s mother. They had certainly met on many occasions but their relationship had somehow never progressed beyond being acquaintances. She was surprised when Dawson kissed Mrs Witter’s cheek and she linked her arm through his, patting his hand.

"Thank you for coming," she said quietly. "We're still waiting for an update from the doctor."

"Have they told you anything yet?" Dawson asked, addressing both Mr and Mrs Witter.

"Damn doctors won’t tell us a thing," John Witter replied angrily, letting out a frustrated breath. The nurse’s expression didn’t change as she stepped back inside the examination room.

Doug Witter walked up to them from the opposite direction, and Dawson guessed he had been dispatched by his father to get some answers. He gave Pacey’s brother an acknowledging nod, and was surprised to see real worry on Doug’s face. Dawson didn’t doubt he cared about Pacey, despite his behavior to the contrary.

"Well?" snapped Mr Witter.

"They said just to wait. Apparently the specialist is still examining him," Doug responded calmly.

"Damn doctors," was the muttered reply.

Dawson began to feel quite surreal standing there with Pacey’s family. Everyone was taut with emotion, the tension in the air almost tangible. Mrs Witter unconsciously gripped his arm harder, and the fears that been allayed upon seeing Joey began to creep up on him once more. Why was there such a delay? Why hadn't Mr and Mrs Witter heard anything? Dawson swallowed hard and tried not to let his imagination get the better of him. Before too long a dark haired woman in a white coat emerged from the exam room.

"Mr and Mrs Witter? I’m Dr Owens. I apologize for not speaking to you sooner—"

"Is he all right?" snapped John Witter impatiently.

"Perhaps we should speak in private?" Elena said tactfully, her cool gray eyes sweeping over the small crowd assembled in front of her.

"Please, go ahead Doctor," Mrs Witter answered before her husband had a chance to. She found she could not let go of Dawson’s arm… it was the closest comfort she had to hugging her own son.

"Very well," the doctor began gravely. "Pacey’s injuries are very serious but we have managed to stabilize him. He's still unconscious, and we've sedated him as well for the moment. He’ll be moved to the Intensive Care Unit shortly where we can monitor his condition further… But I’m afraid Pacey will be in hospital for some time. He has suffered a spinal injury, the extent of which we can’t determine yet."

"What?" Mr Witter frowned.

"Pacey has severe swelling around his spinal cord from the impact of the collision. Until it subsides we cannot fully assess the damage that’s been done. All we can do is wait at this stage."

"His spinal cord? Are you saying he’s paralyzed?" Doug asked, stunned. He was only saying what he knew the others were thinking too.

"I really can’t say at the moment," Elena replied, stalling her answer. She wasn’t certain she should tell them everything when nothing was known for sure. But the fierce-looking Mr Witter didn’t appear to be a man who liked to be kept in the dark. She decided to come clean. "It might be several days until we have some definitive answers. There doesn’t appear to be any internal injuries, apart from a collapsed lung which we have dealt with and a few cracked ribs. But what I can tell you is that the preliminary x-rays show he has fractured several vertebrae of his spine. Whether or not there’s any damage to the cord is just too difficult to ascertain at the moment."

"And if the cord is damaged?" Dawson said softly.

The doctor turned towards the tall blond boy whose eyes were wide with bewilderment. Her expression softened as she saw the same look echoed on the faces of the others. Elena hated giving out news like this, especially when it concerned someone so young. But she had done it before, and would no doubt do it many more times before her career was over.

"If the spinal cord had been severed or even damaged, then Pacey will suffer some paralysis. Whether or not it's permanent will depend upon the severity of the injury."

"And do you think he will?" Mrs Witter spoke up, almost unable to say the words.

"Like I said, at the moment—"

"Please, Doctor," she cut her off. "This is my son."

Elena paused. "The fractures are severe, and in most cases this leads to some spinal cord damage. But really, Mrs Witter, we won’t know the full story until we can send Pacey for an MRI and operate to repair what damage we can. For now, I’m afraid all we can do is wait. I’m sorry I don’t have a better answer for you."

Mrs Witter didn’t press her any further. When it seemed that no one else had any questions to pose, Elena nodded encouragingly to the boy’s parents and slipped back inside the examination room to oversee Pacey's removal to the ICU.

* * *

Dawson, Gale, and Jen walked back slowly to Joey’s cubicle in the ER, each of them trying to deal with the news about Pacey. Gale wrapped a protective arm around Dawson’s shoulder, needing to feel her son close to her after seeing what Pacey’s mother was having to go through. She counted her blessings that Dawson had not been in the car, and that he was safe beside her.

They did not discuss what they would tell Joey. Dawson knew she would be looking to him for answers, and he wondered how he could possibly tell her what they knew. But what did they really know? he asked himself. The doctor had said she didn’t know for sure… maybe there was no spinal cord damage at all and Pacey would be okay. He didn’t want to worry Joey for nothing, if it all turned out for the best. She was still recovering from her own injuries anyway, Dawson didn’t want to compound her problems by making her fret over Pacey.

As if losing their courage, Gale and Jen stopped at the curtain leading into Joey’s cubicle. Dawson looked back and knew he was on his own. Gale had tears in her eyes and Jen looked miserable, so he was almost glad they weren’t coming in with him. He knew Joey would take one look at them and assume the worst.

Bessie and Joey looked up expectantly when he entered the curtained-off area, so Dawson forced himself to smile. Joey was obviously exhausted, and the drugs she had been given were making it harder for her to stay awake. She didn’t have the energy to grill Dawson about Pacey’s condition.

"Is he okay?" she asked, her voice barely a whisper. Each time she blinked her eyes it was harder to open them again.

Dawson barely paused before answering her, knowing that even in this state she could tell if he wasn’t being completely honest.

"He’s all right, Joey. The doctor said he’ll be in here a while, but she thinks he’ll be fine."


Dawson wished she hadn't asked that. He hated lying to her, it was something he had never had to do in the past. "Really. Now, you need to get some rest."

"Dawson’s right, kiddo. Try and go to sleep," Bessie said gently.

Joey didn’t protest anymore. She was too tired to feel anything, and it was getting difficult to even think straight. At least she knew Pacey was all right. Joey finally allowed herself to surrender to the darkness of sleep, knowing that when she woke up she would be able to see him for herself. She tried to think of what she would say to him, but the thought had barely registered before she lost consciousness.

Dawson held her hand until she fell asleep. Bessie smiled up at him, relieved that the dramas of the evening were seemingly resolved. She had been so shocked and frightened when she received the phone call from the hospital, not knowing if Joey and Pacey were really okay. But now everything was all right. Bessie wondered why Dawson didn’t seem happier that his two best friends would be fine. A chill ran through her body.

"Dawson, is Pacey okay?" Bessie breathed quietly, in case Joey could still hear her.

He glanced away almost as soon as he met her eyes, and Bessie had her answer.


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