Treaty Of Versailles
by zara hemla

Bright is not stupid. He isn't. He isn't. Things just . . . have a way of slipping out of his head. Take history, for example. Columbus discovered America in 1492. In 2002, Bright Abbott rushed one hundred and forty yards in the second-to-last game of the season, adding insult to the other team's injury, and helped bring about a spectacular, fiery win.

Between those two dates, everything gets a little fuzzy. There were some wars, some slaves, some Indians sent packing to the north. Lots and lots of boring treaties and pacts named after boring people. Scandals, presidents, habeas corpus. It all happens in there somewhere. Crazy people even had the balls to ban liquor for awhile: Bright is sure that hadn't gone over well. But when -- when? -- had it happened? Amy could tell you. Not Bright.

Amy can rattle off dates like they were her friends' birthdays -- Teapot Dome, 1924; JFK assassinated, 1964; Colorado gives women the vote in 1893. And dutifully Bright writes this down in his notebook, along with the dry, dusty facts in his history textbook: Louisiana Purchase, 1803; Lincoln hangs John Brown, 1859; League of Nations, 1920.

But somewhere between his hours of study -- he puts in a lot of time, not that anyone cares -- and his short drive to school, they are gone. Not just buried under worries about football and grief for Colin, but gone. Like they never existed, like he had never tried to scrape a place out for them in his head. Like they didn't care about him either.

Same thing with trig, same thing with chemistry. Anything with numbers, really. And now his brain has really failed him and the football team will be practicing this afternoon sans Bright Abbott. The cheerleaders will stop talking to him. Homecoming King will be someone else. Senior year, in essence, will be an exercise in futility. Bright thinks maybe he should run off to Mexico and spend the next year getting high on Mexican weed. He isn't bad at languages, he bets he can pick up Spanish real fast.

Bright stares moodily out the window instead of filling in the answers to his history quiz. In the late sunshine, he can see some of the juniors getting back from phys ed. There go Ephram and Amy, each trying to pretend like the other doesn't exist. There go three of his ex-teammates, laughing and tossing a football. They turn and one of them, a blond named Jason, corkscrews it over to a dark- haired boy who leaps up, laughing, and catches the ball.

Colin. It's Colin. His mobile face is wide with joy and his body is lined in sunshine. Colin had the most graceful leaps, and he could make three-pointers (with a basketball, of course) over and over and over, laughing and cracking jokes about dead babies in the microwave. "Want a turn?" he'd ask Bright, after the twentieth ball went net, but Bright would turn it down so he could watch his best friend try to break a world record without half trying.

It's Colin -- and it's not. Bright suddenly realises that the body is lither, thinner, the dark hair short and neat instead of in unruly curls. The face is like, but rounder. It's actually Laynie. She can catch a football as well as any guy -- when you have a brother like Colin, you learn or die trying -- and her twisting grace is so like his that Bright's stomach starts churning.

He's pathetic, seeing Colin in his sister. He might as well be Amy, staring off into space and smiling at nobody. Sitting in her room and staring at the food network. Acting like she'd lost a toy that she'd spent years putting together instead of her boyfriend. He can hear her sulky voice saying, "All that work! How could it go to waste like that?!"

Colin was his best friend. His. What right did she have to go around glaring at everyone and rolling her eyes when he, who had lost more than her, was doing his best to get on with his life?

Bright feels extremely, unstoppably ill. He raises his hand and his history teacher stops grading papers.

"Yes, Bright?"

"Can I go to the bathroom?" People are staring at him, he's supposed to be quiet, but in a minute this is going to get much more embarrassing.

"Well, can it wait till the quiz is over?"

"No." Desperately he stands up, starts walking toward the door.

"All right," says his teacher indulgently. Maybe thinking, that Bright Abbott, so sad about his lost career. His shitty grades. His best friend, cut open past the skull, blood staining his closed eyes.

Bright barely makes it to the bathroom. He throws up twice into a grimy toilet and then sits there on his knees in a cold sweat. His hands are shaking and his gut is heaving. I thought were were past all this, says a nasty voice in his head. I thought we were getting on with our life.

When he finally gets up enough energy to rinse out his mouth, he thanks God that class is occupying every other student's bladder. No one has seen this. No one will guess. Bright washes his hand and runs wet fingers through his hair.

He ventures out into the hall. A couple of kids scuttle out from under his glare as he heads back in the direction of class. But as he walks he sees the set of glass double doors that lead outside to the courtyard and the trees and the late afternoon sunshine. In an instant Bright consigns his history quiz to Quiz Hell and walks outside into a snappy fall heat. It feels so good on his face that he doesn't regret leaving the school's chilly, shadowed halls.

Under a tree, everything seems better. The spectre of the operating table recedes. Things seem like they can be handled, sometime in the future if not now. And -- even better -- the school day ends. History is done now, and the past doesn't have to be painfully recalled, day by day by day.

The cheerleaders come racing across the lawn, heading for the football field. The one he'd noticed last week -- what was her name? -- looks sad. How can she be sad when she has breasts like that? Looking at her, Bright wants to run up and ask her something stupid, like, do you know when the Treaty of Versailles was signed?

"They aren't real, dimwit." It's Laynie, plopping down beside him. Here, up close, she looks nothing like her dead brother. Her round face is cheerful and witty and her hair looks dyed. She wears a red t-shirt that says "Dante's Inferno Room" on it.

Her smile fades to a semi-worried look when she sees his face. "You look pale. You all right?"

"I -- " and he can't say it, can't tell her that twenty minutes ago he was puking up his guts at the mental sight of Colin's flayed scalp. "Do you know when the Treaty of Versailles was signed?"

She looks bemused. "I guess so. It was after World War One, and that ended in 1918, so 1919? Maybe?"

"Dates," sighs Bright from the bottom of his heart. "I hate dates. I hate history. Why can't the past stay past and quit bugging us to remember it?"

"Bright, this conversation is getting too deep for me, but I guess if you don't learn from history, you're doomed to repeat it."

He turns to squint at her. "I know you didn't make that up. I've heard it before."

"Yeah. Santayana. Spanish philosopher. I'm not taking credit."

"Ha." Bright scowls. "History's crap. I'd rather repeat it without knowing than have to learn about it over and over and over."

"So says Bright Abbott, American philosopher!" Laynie hoots. "Screw Santayana sideways!"

"Now that's a philosophy that'll get me into Harvard," agrees Bright, watching her laugh. "Want a ride home?" It will hurt to see Laynie sitting in her brother's seat in the truck. Laynie always hurts Bright a little, because of who she isn't. But he likes her more for who she is.

"Sure, let me grab my notebooks for trig." She dashes across the courtyard, an echo of Colin's grace. He closes his eyes. Leans back against the tree. Feels the world turn.


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