Sometimes he whispered his real name in the dark, in the middle of the night.
"Luke. My name is Luke."
He was sure no one could hear. His roommates were all asleep, and even if they weren't, there was no way the sound of his name could travel even the short distance to the bed above or beside him. He was fairly certain there were no bugs on him or in his room. He'd looked. But even if he'd missed seeing a microphone hidden in a mattress button or carved into the headboard, how could a microphone pick up a whisper he could barely hear himself?
He was safe now. Lying in bed, wide awake while everyone else slept, he reassured himself of that fact constantly. But his heart pounded and his face went clammy with fear every time he rounded his lips for that "u" sound -- instead of the fake smile of the double "e" in Lee, the name he had to force himself to answer to now.
It was better to forget, to never speak his real name again.
But he'd lost everything else. Even just mouthing his name was a comfort. It seemed like his only link now to his past, to his parents, his brothers.
By day, he kept his mouth shut.
He couldn't help it.
That first day, walking up the stairs of the Hendricks School for Boys with Jen's father, Luke had felt his jaw clench tighter and tighter the closer he got to the front door.
"Oh, don't look like that," Mr. Talbot had said, pretending to be jolly. "It's not reform school or anything."
The word stuck in Luke's brain. Reform. Re-form. Yes, they were going to re-form him. They were going to take a Luke and make him a Lee.
It was safe to be Lee. It wasn't safe to be Luke.
Jen's father stood with his hand on the ornate doorknob, waiting for a reply. But Luke couldn't have said a word if his life depended on it.
Jen's father hesitated, then pulled on the heavy door. They walked down a long hallway. The ceiling was so far away, Luke thought he could have stood his entire family on his shoulders -- one on top of the other, Dad and Mother and Matthew and Mark -- and the highest one still would barely touch. The walls were lined, floor to ceiling, with old paintings of people in costumes Luke had never seen outside of books.
Of course, there was very little he'd ever seen outside of books.
He tried not to stare, because if he really were Lee, surely everything would look familiar and ordinary. But that was hard to remember. They passed a classroom where dozens of boys sat in orderly rows, everyone facing away from the door. Luke gawked for so long that he practically began walking backwards. He'd known there were a lot of people in the world, but he'd never been able to imagine so many all in one place at the same time. Were any of them shadow children with fake identities, like Luke?
Jen's father clapped a hand on his shoulder, turning him around.
"Ah, here's the headmaster's office," Mr. Talbot said heartily. "Just what we were looking for."
Luke nodded, still mute, and followed him through a tall doorway.
A woman sitting behind a mammoth wood desk turned their way. She took one look at Luke and asked, "New boy?"
"Lee Grant," Jen's father said. "I spoke with the master about him last night."
"It's the middle of the semester, you know," she said warningly. "Unless he's very well prepared, he shan't catch up, and might have to repeat -- "
"That won't be a problem," Mr. Talbot assured her. Luke was glad he didn't have to speak for himself. He knew he wasn't well prepared. He wasn't prepared for anything.
The woman was already reaching for files and papers.
"His parents faxed in his medical information and his insurance standing and his academic records last night," she said. "But someone needs to sign these -- "
Jen's father took the stack of papers as if he autographed other people's documents all the time.
Probably he did.
Luke watched Mr. Talbot flip through the papers, scrawling his name here, crossing out a word or a phrase or a whole paragraph there. Luke was sure Jen's father was going too fast to actually read any of it.
And that was when the homesickness hit Luke for the first time. He could just picture his own father peering cautiously at important papers, reading them over and over before he even picked up a pen. Luke could see his father's rheumy eyes squinted in concentration, his brow furrowed with anxiety.
He was always so afraid of being tricked.
Maybe Jen's father didn't care.
Luke had to swallow hard then. He made a gulping noise, and the woman looked at him. Luke couldn't read her expression. Curiosity? Contempt? Indifference?
He didn't think it was sympathy.
Jen's father finished then, handing the papers back to the woman with a flourish.
"I'll call a boy to show you your room," the woman said to Luke.
Luke nodded. The woman leaned over a box on her desk and said, "Mr. Dirk, could you send Rolly Sturgeon to the office?"
Luke heard a roar along with the man's reply, "Yes, Ms. Hawkins," as if all the boys in the school were laughing and cheering and hissing at once. Luke felt his legs go weak with fear. When this Rolly Sturgeon showed up, Luke wasn't sure he'd be able to walk.
"Well, I'll be off," Jen's father said. "Duty calls."
He stuck out his hand and after a moment Luke realized he was supposed to shake it. But he'd never shaken hands with anyone before, so he put out the wrong hand first. Jen's father frowned, moving his head violently side to side, and glaring pointedly at the woman behind the desk. Fortunately, she wasn't watching. Luke recovered. He clumsily touched his hand to Jen's father's.
"Good luck," Jen's father said, bringing his other hand up to Luke's, too.
Only when Mr. Talbot had pulled both hands away did Luke realize he'd placed a tiny scrap of paper between Luke's fingers. Luke held it there until the woman turned her back. Then he slid it into his pocket.
Jen's father smiled.
"Keep those grades up," he said. "And no running away this time, you hear?"
Luke gulped again, and nodded. And then Jen's father left without a backward glance.
Copyright © 2001 by Margaret Peterson Haddix