Joan placed her hand on the back of a chair. “So, can I sit or what?” she asked.
“Oh!” he said, pulling his feet from the chair and sitting up straight. “Sorry.”
She sat and looked around at the small space again. “Why don’t you spend lunch in the cafeteria?”
“I don’t really know anybody in there,” Tim said.
This was Tim’s first year at Winstead, but that was all Joan knew, so she began asking him all kinds of questions. Where was he from? How was it there? Did he like it? Even though his answers were clipped, Tim didn’t mind. He told her about Chilton: the city, the school, the crowds. The image of a big city school didn’t fit together with what she knew about Tim. She couldn’t picture him there.
“But you like things quiet,” Joan said. “How could you like a big crazy school?”
“It was just so crowded and a lot going on,” he replied. “There were so many students working hard to draw attention to themselves that it was easy not getting noticed. Nobody bothered me.”
It dawned on Joan that maybe Tim wrote so much because he was lonely here. They had been back to school for about a month, and he had not made any friends yet. Joan felt a twinge of guilt. She considered Tim a friend; after all, he shared his stories with her. How could she not know anything about him?
“Did you write stories then?” she asked to test her theory.
“Yeah,” he answered. “I’m always writing something.”
So that wasn’t it; he didn’t write because he was lonely. Maybe he just liked his solitary life. Maybe he was lonely because he wrote so much. Joan really wanted to figure it out.
“Why do you write all the time?”
“I just like to,” Tim responded with a shrug.
Joan wanted to know more than he was telling. “That’s not an answer,” she insisted.
Tim hesitated. He wished Joan had accepted his first reply.
“I…” he began. He could tell he was not going to get off easy, that he was going to have to explain something he wasn’t quite sure he understood. “When I write… It’s…”
Tim squirmed a little. Joan knew he was uncomfortable, but she waited for him to continue. He exhaled heavily.
“When I write, things make sense,” he finally said. “The world is just so crazy; people do stupid things I don’t understand. You see stuff happen in the news that normal people shouldn’t be doing. I look around at all the other students, and I couldn’t tell you why they do what they do. But I understand what happens in my stories. Things happen for reasons. They make sense.”
The bell to switch lunches rang, but it was not as loud in the back room, so neither of them noticed.
“I figure things out when I write,” he continued. “Sometimes there is so much stuff running around inside me, and I can put it on paper into some kind of order. Something might be bothering me and I won’t even know what it is until I start writing. I might feel all jumpy and confused; writing just seems to smooth everything out.”
Tim was vaguely aware he was saying things he had never told anyone. No one had ever been interested before. He was usually so much more guarded, but speaking like this was an unexpected relief. There was a pressure inside him he didn’t know he had, and it was forcing the words out. These thoughts were forming and making sense all of a sudden. He couldn’t stop it even if he wanted to.
Joan could not believe Tim was speaking to her like this. The quiet boy who never said anything was suddenly exploding with words.
“When I write I have control,” he continued. “So much crap happens to you that you’ve got no choice in. We spend our entire day doing things because someone is telling us to do it. What kind of life is that? When I write, I have power. I make decisions. I can say where I live, or what I do, or who I hang out with or where I go. I can make a world I fit into.”
He paused for a moment to let out a long shaky breath. “When I write,” he began more quietly, “I have a place. I know where I am. When I write, I can belong somewhere.”
He stopped talking and looked down at the notebook on his lap. Joan suddenly wanted to see his face, not just the shadowy features visible beneath his hood. Tim had given her a glimpse into his heart, and Joan realized she didn’t even have a clear picture of him. Leaning forward, she pulled his hoody back out of the way and looked at Tim as if for the first time. His hair hung in short dark dreads, a match for his dark eyes.
“Tim, you belong here,” Joan said, but she wasn’t quite sure it was true.
“No, I don’t.”
“You just have to meet people. Come in to lunch.” Joan used her best persuasive tone. “I’m usually sitting with my friends at one of the middle tables.”
“I don’t really know anyone in there.”
“You know me.”
They noticed the late bell when it rang.
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