Her car races down the quiet streets of the small town, violently scattering a small plume of autumn colored leaves across the jet-black asphalt as she passes.
Fifteen minutes late.
Seventeen minutes late, she realizes as she checks her watch again. She'd lost track of time at the record store, adding this to the reasons why she should finally break down and just buy a damn watch.
She presses her foot down on the accelerator just enough to race cleanly through a light that turns yellow, then she kisses the tips of her fingers and presses them to the roof of the car paying homage to the superstitious trend that she picked up from her mother long ago.
Another quick glance at her watch, nineteen minutes late.
The light in front of her turns yellow, she has time to stop but decides against it and instead accelerates. Just then a glint of something, a speeding blur of silver, catches her eye.
Her first reaction is to slam on the brakes. Hard. She grips the steering wheel with white knuckles and the piercing metallic shriek of her brakes cuts through the still, calm air of the afternoon.
She doesn't open her eyes until she feels the car finally stop and hears a blaring car horn streaks past the front of her fender. Her eyes fly open just in time to see the silver sedan fly past, her fender within inches of the speeding car's side.
The realization of what could have happened dawns on her immediately. Her hands start to tremble as she throws the car into park even though her front end looms awkwardly in the thick, painted stripes of the crosswalk. She can feel her heartbeat in her face, in her ears, in her temples. The feeling becomes so overwhelming that she leans out of her open car door and gets sick all over the road, the acid angrily burning the back of her throat.
She's crying a little, almost dying can do that to a person. Eventually she swings the heavy door shut and wipes the mascara trails from her face, throws the car into drive and pulls away. Her hands continue to tremble just slightly against the steering wheel.
When she pulls into the parking lot of the elementary school and a little girl with a head full of curls comes bounding towards the car, Anne Sawyer can't help but cry at the thought that she almost didn't make it here.
'your art matters, it's what got me here'
His words echo in her head for the rest of the game, on the drive home, as she climbs the creaky, wooden stairs up to her bedroom. She can hear his voice as clear as if he was standing behind her, haunting her thoughts.
She doesn't know why he has this kind of effect on her, she shouldn't care what he says, but she finds herself standing in front of the mirror in the bathroom and examining the cheerleading uniform still adorning her petite frame.
She thinks of his words again, and the outfit begins to feel more like a costume, a disguise that allows her to blend in and become like everyone else while she sketches what she really feels in private, far from the ridicule and judgment from the people she thinks are friends.
The uniform begins to feel suffocating and she tears it from her frame throwing it into an angry heap on the middle of her floor. She upends her metal wastebasket, spilling its contents and tosses in the black and blue fabric. She roots around in her desk drawers until she finds what she's looking for. A book of matches she'd picked up from Karen's Café while waiting for a cup of coffee.
She strikes the first match and holds it threateningly over the wastebasket, but she can't drop it, instead lets it burn all the way down the stick until it sizzles out on her fingertips leaving an angry black smudge. She goes through three matches before she finally works up the nerve to drop a fourth into the can.
The fabric takes a few minutes to catch, but soon the flames are inches above the rim of the wastebasket. She can feel the heat on her face, and the acrid smell of burning fabric in her nose as she watches the reminder of who she never was burn away before her.
She's surprised at how free she feels while the uniform reduces to ashes, so she digs into her bag and throws her pom-poms into the fire for good measure. Eventually all that's left of her cheerleading past is a pile of dark gray ash at the bottom of her trashcan.
Her cell phone begins to vibrate as she shoves the can back under her desk, she glances quickly at the caller i.d., it's Brooke. She hits the ignore button without thinking, heads to her closet, and begins rifling through her record catalog until her fingers come across the spine of a dusty Sex Pistols album. 'God Save the Queen' plays loudly behind her as she settles at her desk, web cam on, and flips open her sketchbook with a sense of renewed determination.
They stumble into an empty bedroom, their lips refuse to part while she locks the door behind them and starts to peel pieces of clothing from his muscular frame. She shivers when his fingertips run up her sides, playing over her ribs like piano keys. His touch makes her hunger for more, and she presses her body tight enough into his that she can feel the heat radiate from his skin.
His mouth burn a trail down her neck and she can feel his lips mumble something unintelligible as he drags them across the bare skin of her collarbone. She feels dizzy and sober all at once and she never wants the feeling to go away.
He whispers that he's wanted this for so long with his lips close to her ear, his breath hot against her already warm face. She acknowledges him without really hearing what he says.
"I want this." He says while he pulls back slightly, and places his hand over her rapidly beating heart. "I want to be here. I want to have everything with you. I want it all. I want us, Peyton."
Her brain feels as if it's working overtime as she struggles to find words, any words. She looks away from his pleading eyes while her chest heaves wildly as she struggles to catch her breath. She's scared of what she feels for him. It feels dangerous, like it could all blow up in their faces and leave a trail of destruction and broken hearts in its wake. Everything in her body is telling her to run the other way, except for her heart, which is still beating rapidly underneath his palm. She looks up into his eyes and decides that it's worth the broken hearts and destruction, even if it only lasts a fleeting moment.
She covers his hand with hers and tells him that she wants it too.
She can hear him holler after her as she pushes past the crowd of teenagers still packed into Nathan's tiny apartment. She just wants to get out of there, avoid the stares and whispers, dull the shooting pain in her temples and in her ribs. And she really, really doesn't want to cry over what's happened, but she can't stop the tears once they prick angrily at the backs of her eyes.
She runs the rest of the way to her car and slams the door shut. Her forehead rests on the warm leather of the steering wheel and she takes a few steadying breaths before she slips the key into the ignition. She doesn't notice that Lucas has found her until he opens the passenger side door and slips in.
She doesn't tell him to get out, she doesn't even acknowledge that he's in the car. She just wants him to go away so she can forget everything that happened between them, just like he did when he slept with Nikki.
"Peyton, I'm sorry."
When she laughs at his apology she tastes blood on the tip of her tongue. She glances into the rear view mirror and sees a small cut on her lower lip. She examines the cut with her fingertips while Lucas digs around in her glove box and produces a small box of tissues. He tries to help her clean up the gash but she pulls away angrily.
"Get the fuck out of my car Lucas."
"I'll go, but I just want you to know how sorry I am for everything I've put you through. I'm sorry for Nikki, and for Brooke, and for treating what we had like it didn't mean anything to me, because it did. If you don't believe anything else I say tonight just believe in that, what we had was over too soon but it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I miss you every day. And I'm sorry for becoming who I did, someone who doesn't deserve you." She can feel that his eyes are no longer locked on her so she glances over at him and sees that he's staring sadly out of the passenger side window. He sits up slowly and opens the door. "I just wanted you to know that."
It's what she's wanted to hear from him since their abrupt breakup and his sudden personality change, an apology. She grabs his hand just as he's sliding out of the car. "When you get things figured out for yourself, when you find the person you used to be buried in all that crap you carry with you, come find me."
He looks back at her, a sudden burst of hope flashing in his eyes. He gives her hand a gentle squeeze, an unspoken promise, and heads back out into the cool night air.
They walk into school the same way they have for five months, hands entwined, her books tucked under his arm even though she hates the old-fashioned ideal.
It's a typical day.
Lucas makes a joke as they round the corner towards her first hour. She laughs into his shoulder, pulling her body close into his. When she looks up she sees a boy standing in the hallway with a gun.
A single gunshot.
She's rooted to the floor as her frantic peers run and scream around her, a girl in front of her trips over a discarded backpack and the action snaps Peyton from her trance. She notices the blood first. It covers her left arm in sticky, red drops. She doesn't have to turn around to know that a single gunshot is going to devastate her life.
She drops to her knees next to him as she struggles to breathe in anything other than empty gasps. A crimson red stain begins to bloom across the front of his shirt and she presses her hands down onto his chest trying in vain to stop the bleeding. She screams at him to hold on while his blood stains her hands and the cuffs of her sleeves.
The color drains slowly from his face as he struggles to keep his eyes open and fixed on her. She wants to lean in and tell him that she loves him, but she's too afraid that if she takes her hands from his chest it'll all be over. He goes anyway. Three last gasps for breath and then nothing.
Minutes pass before she finally pulls her hands from his chest. His blood is caked into the creases of her palms and underneath her fingernails, and she'll never really be able to wash it away.
She wants to scream and curse a God she stopped believing in long ago, for taking him so violently, she wants to sob into his bloodstained t-shirt, she wants to scrub his blood from her hands. She can only manage to pull his head into her lap and cradle his motionless body in her arms, her silent tears fall softly onto his cheeks.