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Margaret Peterson Haddix

Among the Hidden

The first book in the Shadow Children series, 1998

CHAPTER ONE

He saw the first tree shudder and fall, far off in the distance. Then he heard his mother call out the kitchen window: 'Luke! Inside. Now.'

He had never disobeyed the order to hide. Even as a toddler, barely able to walk in the backyard's tall grass, he had somehow understood the fear in his mother's voice. But on this day, the day they began taking the woods away, he hesitated. He took one extra breath of the fresh air, scented with clover and honeysuckle and-coming from far away-pine smoke. He laid his hoe down gently, and savored one last moment of feeling warm soil beneath his bare feet. He reminded himself, 'I will never be allowed outside again. Maybe never again as long as I live.'

He turned and walked into the house, as silently as a shadow.

'Why?' he asked at the supper table that night. It wasn't a common question in the Garner house. There were plenty of 'how's'-How much rain'd the backfield get? How's the planting going? Even 'what's'-What'd Matthew do with the five-sixteenth wrench? What's Dad going to do about that busted tire? But 'why' wasn't considered much worth asking. Luke asked again. 'Why'd you have to sell the woods?'

Luke's dad harrumphed, and paused in the midst of shoveling forkfuls of boiled potatoes into his mouth.

'Told you before. We didn't have a choice. Government wanted it. You can't tell the Government no.'

Mother came over and gave Luke's shoulder a reassuring squeeze before turning back to the stove. They had defied the Government once, with Luke. That had taken all the defiance they had in them. Maybe more.

'We wouldn't have sold the woods if we hadn't had to,' she said, ladling out thick tomatoey soup. 'The Government didn't ask us if we wanted houses there.'

She pursed her lips as she slid the bowls of soup onto the table.

'But the Government's not going to live in the houses,' Luke protested. At twelve, he knew better, but sometimes still pictured the Government as a very big, mean, fat person, two or three times as tall as an ordinary man, who went around yelling at people, 'Not allowed!' and 'Stop that!' It was because of the way his parents and older brothers talked: 'Government won't let us plant corn there again.' 'Government's keeping the prices down.' 'Government's not going to like this crop.'

'Probably some of the people who live in those houses will be Government workers,' Mother said. 'It'll all be city people.'

If he'd been allowed, Luke would have gone over to the kitchen window and peered out at the woods, trying for the umpteenth time to picture rows and rows of houses where the firs and maples and oaks now stood. Or had stood-Luke knew from a sneaked peek right before supper that half the trees were now toppled. Some already lay on the ground. Some hung at weird angles from their former lofty positions in the sky. Their absence made everything look different, like a fresh haircut exposing a band of untanned skin on a forehead. Even from deep inside the kitchen, Luke could tell the trees were missing because everything was brighter, more open. Scarier.

'And then, when those people move in, I have to stay away from the windows?' Luke asked, though he knew the answer.

The question made Dad explode. He slammed his hand down on the table.

'Then? You gotta stay away now! Everybody and his brother's going to be tramping around back there, to see what's going on. They see you-' He waved his fork violently. Luke wasn't sure what the gesture meant, but he knew it wasn't good.

No one had ever told him exactly what would happen if anyone saw him. Death? Death was what happened to the runt pigs who got stepped on by their stronger brothers and sisters. Death was a fly that stopped buzzing when the swatter hit it. He had a hard time thinking about himself in connection with the smashed fly or the dead pig, gone stiff in the sun. It made his stomach feel funny even trying.

'I don't think it's fair we've got to do Luke's chores now,' Luke's other brother, Mark, grumbled. 'Can't he go outside some? Maybe at night?'

Luke waited hopefully for the answer. But Dad just said, 'No,' without looking up.

'It's not fair,' Mark said again. Mark was the second son-the lucky second, Luke thought when he was feeling sorry for himself. Mark was two years older than Luke and barely a year younger than Matthew, the oldest Matthew and Mark were easily recognizable as brothers, with their dark hair and chiseled faces. Luke was fairer, smaller- boned, softer-looking. He often wondered if he'd ever look tougher, like them. Somehow he didn't think so.

'Luke don't do nothing nohow,' Matthew jeered. 'We won't miss his work at all.'

'It's not my fault!' Luke protested. 'I'd help more if-'

Mother laid her hands on his shoulders again. 'Hush, all of you,' she said. 'Luke will do what he can. He always has.'

The sound of tires on their gravel driveway came through the open window.

'Now, who-' Dad started. Luke knew the rest of the sentence. Who could that be? Why were they bothering him now, his first chance all day to sit down? It was a question Luke always heard the end of from the other side of a door. Today, skittish because of the woods coming down, he scrambled up faster than usual, dashing for the door to the back stairs. He knew without watching that Mother would take his plate from the table and hide it in a cupboard, would slide his chair back into the corner so it looked like an unneeded spare. In three seconds she would hide all evidence that Luke existed, just in time to step to the door and offer a weary smile to the fertilizer salesman or the Government inspector or whomever else had come to interrupt their supper.

CHAPTER TWO

There was a law against Luke. Not him personally-everyone like him, kids who were born after their parents had already had two babies.

Actually, Luke didn't know if there was anyone else like him. He wasn't supposed to exist. Maybe he was the only one. They did things to women after they had their second baby, so they wouldn't have any more. And if there was a mistake, and a woman got pregnant anyway, she was supposed to get rid of it.

That was how Mother had explained it, years ago, the first and only time Luke had asked why he had to hide.

He had been six years old.

Before that, he had thought only very little kids had to stay out of sight. He had thought, as soon as he was as old as Matthew and Mark, he would get to go around like they did, riding to the backfield and even into town with Dad, hanging their heads and arms out the pickup window. He had thought, as soon as he got as old as Matthew and Mark, he could play in the front yard and kick the ball out into the road if he wanted. He had thought, as soon as he got as old as Matthew and Mark, he could go to school. They complained about it, whining, 'Jeez, we gotta do homework!' and, 'Who cares about spelling?' But they also talked about games at recess, and friends who shared candy at lunchtime or loaned them pocketknives to carve with.

Somehow, Luke never got as old as Matthew and Mark.

The day of his sixth birthday, Mother baked a cake, a special one with raspberry jam dripping down the sides. At supper that night she put six candles on the top and placed it in front of Luke and said, 'Make a wish.'

Staring into the ring of candles-proud that the number of his years finally made a ring, all around the cake-Luke

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