Among The Barons
by Margaret Peterson Haddix
'Hey, L! Mr. Hendricks wants to see you!” Such a summons would have terrified Luke Garner only a few months earlier. When he’d first come to Hendricks School for Boys, the thought of having to talk to any grown-up, let alone the headmaster, would have turned him into a stammering, quaking fool desperately longing for a place to hide.
But that was back in April, and this was August. A lot had happened between April and August.
Now Luke just waved off the rising tide of “ooh’s” from his friends in math class.
“What’d you do, L? Have you been sneaking out to the woods again?” his friend John taunted him.
“Settle down, class,” the teacher, Mr. Rees, said mildly. “You may be excused, Mr., uh, Mr….”
Luke didn’t wait for Mr. Rees to try to remember his name. Names were slippery things at Hendricks School anyway. Luke, like all his friends, was registered under a different name from what he had grown up with. So it was always hard to know what to call people.
Luke edged his way past his classmates’ desks and slipped out the door. His friend They, who had delivered the message from Mr. Hendricks, was waiting for him.
“What’s this about?” Luke asked as the two fell into step together, walking down the hall.
“I don’t know. I just do what he tells me,” They said with a dispirited shrug.
Sometimes Luke wanted to take They by the shoulders, shake him, and yell, “Think for yourself! Open your eyes! Live a little!” Twelve years of hiding in a tiny room had turned They into a human turtle, always ready to pull back into his shell at the slightest hint of danger.
But Mr. Hendricks had taken a liking to They and was working with him privately. That was why They was running errands for him today.
They looked furtively over at Luke. His dark hair hung down into his eyes. “Do you suppose it’s — you know — time?”
Luke didn’t have to ask what They meant. Sometimes it seemed like everyone at Hendricks School was just holding his breath, waiting. Waiting for a day when none of the boys would be illegal anymore, when they could all reclaim their rightful names, when they could go back to their rightful families without fear that the Population Police would catch them. But both Luke and They knew that that day wouldn’t come easily And Luke, at least, had promised to do everything he could to bring it about.
His stomach churned. The fear he thought he’d outgrown reached him at last.
“Did he say. did Mr. Hendricks say…,“ he stammered. What if Mr. Hendricks had a plan for Luke to help with? What if that plan required more courage than Luke had?
They went back to looking down at the polished tile floor.
“Mr. Hendricks didn’t say anything except, ‘Go get your buddy L out of math class and tell him to come see me,’~~ They said.
“Oh,” Luke said.
They reached the end of the hall, and Luke pushed open the heavy wood door to the outside. Trey winced, as he always did anytime he was exposed to sunshine, fresh air, or anything else outdoors. But Luke breathed in gratefully. Luke had spent his first twelve years on his family’s farm; some of his fondest memories involved the feeling of warm dirt on his bare feet, sunshine on the back of his neck, a hoe in his hand — and his parents and brothers around him.
But it didn’t do to think much about his parents and brothers anymore. When he’d accepted his fake identity, he’d had to leave them and the farm behind. And even when he’d been with them, he’d had to live like a shadow or a ghost, something no one else outside the family knew about.
Once when his middle brother, Mark, was in first grade, he’d accidentally slipped and mentioned Luke’s name at school.
“I had to tell the teacher that Mark just had an imaginary friend named Luke,” Luke’s mother had told him. “But I worried about that for months afterward. I was so scared the teacher would report you, and the Population Police would come and take you away. I’m just glad that a lot of little kids do have imaginary friends.”
She’d bitten her lip telling Luke that story. Luke could still see the strained expression on her face. She hadn’t even told him about that episode until the day before he left the farm and his family for good. By then she’d meant the story as assurance, he knew — assurance that he was doing the right thing by leaving.
At the time, Luke hadn’t known what to make of that story It just added to the jumble of confused thoughts and fears in his head. But now — now that story made him angry. It wasn’t fair that he’d had to be invisible. It wasn’t fair that his brother couldn’t talk about him. It wasn’t fair that the Government had made him illegal simply because he was a third child and the Government thought families should have no more than two.
Luke stepped out into the sunshine feeling strangely happy to be so angry. It felt good to be so sure about what he thought, so totally convinced that he was right and the Government was wrong. And if Mr. Hendricks really did have a plan for Luke, it’d be good to hang on to this righteous anger.
The two boys climbed down an imposing number of marble steps. Luke noticed that They glanced back longingly at the school more than once. Not Luke. Hendricks had no windows — to accommodate the fears of kids like They — and Luke always felt slightly caged anytime he was inside.
They walked on down the lane to a house half hidden in bushes. Mr. Hendricks was waiting for them at the door.
“Come on in,” he said heartily to Luke. “They, you can go on back to school and see about learning something for once.” That was a joke — They had done nothing but read while he’d been in hiding, so he knew as much about some subjects as the teachers did.
Luke opened the door, and Mr. Hendricks rolled back in his wheelchair to give Luke room to pass. When he’d first met Mr. Hendricks, Luke had been awkward around him, particularly because of the wheelchair. But now Luke practically forgot that Mr. Hendricks’s lower legs were missing. Going into the living room, Luke automatically stepped out of the way of Mr. Hendricks’s wheels.
“The other boys will find this out soon enough,” Mr. Hendricks said. “But I wanted to tell you first, to give you time to adjust.”
“Adjust to what?” Luke asked, sitting down on a couch.
“Having your brother here at school with you.”
“My brother?” Luke repeated. “You mean Matthew or Mark. “ He tried to picture either of his rough, wild older brothers in their faded jeans and flannel shirts walking up the marble stairs at Hendricks. If he felt caged at the windowless school, his brothers would feel handcuffed, pinned down, thoroughly imprisoned. And how could Mother and Dad possibly afford to send them here? Why would they want to?
Mr. Hendricks was peering straight at Luke, waiting for Luke to catch on.
“I said your brother,” Mr. Hendricks repeated. “Smithfield William Grant.
Mr. Hendricks handed Luke a picture, but Luke was too shocked to look at it yet.