Gideon’s foot smashed through one of the boxes, and his ankle caught. He tried to yank it free but instead tumbled forward and fell flat on his face. Tasting blood on his tongue, he cursed and raised his head.
“I know I didn’t just hear what I think I did, Gideon,” his mother called from her room.
He grumbled under his breath. The walls were thinner here than the last place. Another curse, this one in his head. Then he felt guilty about disobeying his mother, so he turned it into “darn.” That made him sound like a sissy. Maybe if he kept everything in his head, she wouldn’t know. Then again, his mother had a way of reading his mind.
Another grunt, and he started digging through the boxes littering his room. Where was it? He knew he had packed the hoodie. His mother couldn’t have found it and thrown it out like she threatened fifty million times.
No, please. Not that.
He ripped into the box marked “Gideon’s Best Stuff—Don’t Touch!!!!” The marker had run out on the last exclamation point. His mother had said it was because he was being too dramatic with the box labeling, and she wasn’t going to buy more. He hadn’t cared because he didn’t have any more boxes to label.
Clothes everywhere, he finally found the hoodie, and ripped off the one she bought last week to replace with his favorite. So what, there was a hole in both pockets, and the ends of the sleeves were ratty. He raised an arm to his nose and sniffed hard. Didn’t stink either…not much.
Gideon tried zipping the jacket before he remembered a few teeth had fallen out of the zipper.
“Darn,” he called loudly.
His mother laughed next door. “That’s more like it.”
He shook his head.
“Are you almost finished, Gideon? We can order some Chinese or whatever when we can see the light of day in all this stuff. I think I’m getting there. What about you?”
“Almost.” He scanned his room. Well, three boxes were empty. Gideon shoved the messy pile of their contents aside and slid another box closer. He tore off the tape on the top and rummaged inside. The other most important thing he owned met his searching fingers, and he pulled it out. His mother didn’t know he had found the article in her closet three years ago. She had probably forgotten, but this was the clue he had been looking for.
Gideon made space on the floor and smoothed the article out. The paper was worn around the edges, but he had been careful not to touch the middle parts too much. He knew the words by heart, but just in case, he traced them with his finger just above the paper.
There it was—Marquette’s. That was the restaurant his dad owned with his two brothers, and it was here in their new city, New Orleans. Gideon took his time folding the article, but instead of slipping it back in the box, he folded it carefully and hid it inside his backpack.
A ringing started up in his mother’s room, and Gideon tiptoed to the door. His mother was speaking to someone. Maybe he could sneak out now. He crept a little farther along the hall and froze to listen.
“Why are you calling?” she said. “I told you, it’s over. I don’t want to talk to you anymore.”
Gideon frowned. That must his mother’s ex-boyfriend. They had lived with him forever. His mom thought he didn’t know, but Gideon knew. He used to hurt her, and Gideon promised himself when he was bigger, he’d stand up to that man and beat him up. His mother had finally left before that happened, and Gideon was glad.
“No,” his mother was saying, and Gideon thought he heard tears in her voice. “I don’t want that. I don’t want—”
Even from where he stood in the hallway, Gideon picked up the shouting coming over the line. He gritted his teeth and raised the buds hanging around his neck to his ears. He hit the button on his cell phone, and music blocked out the world. Gideon hurried back to his room, pulled the backpack onto his shoulder, and crawled on hands and knees past his mother’s bedroom door. Then he headed out.
Once Gideon was outside, he glanced up and down the street. Which way? Back in New York, all he had to do was go outside their apartment, and there were so many cars flying up and down the street. Getting a taxi was easy. Even if he found one here, would they pick up an eleven-year-old kid? He’d never tried on his own.
When he spotted cars passing at the end of the street, Gideon started that way. “Lucky,” he whispered and pulled his ear buds out of his ears when he saw a taxi coming as soon as he reached the end. He waved for it, and breathed in relief when it actually stopped.
The driver rolled down the window and frowned doubtfully at Gideon. Then he glanced past him as if he expected Gideon’s mother to appear. “Where are you going, kid?”
“Marquette’s Restaurant,” he said, trying to sound confident, but he heard a quiver in his voice on the end.
The man looked behind him again. “Where’s your mom?”
“Never mind.” Gideon tried to look taller and older. “I’m going. Will you take me, or not?”
An eyebrow rose, and the man made a rude noise. He pointed down the road with his chin. “Ten blocks that way. You don’t need a taxi.” The car peeled away from the curb.
“Ten blocks?” Gideon groaned. Well, if he wanted to see his dad, he guessed he better get moving, and who knew when his mother would find him missing and call his cell phone. Then he’d be in big trouble, and she might force him to come home. That couldn’t happen. He had to see his dad just once at least.
Gideon started walking in the direction the taxi driver had pointed. Actually, he wanted to see his dad more than once. All Gideon’s life, his mother had been telling him his dad was nice, that he was a good man. Gideon had tried to get her to say who he was, but she never would say. Then three years ago, he learned the truth. After that, he just knew if he could talk to his dad, they could be together, just the three of them, like a real family. Nobody would hurt his mother anymore because his dad would protect her.
“Maybe it’ll happen today.” He smiled thinking about it and walked faster. Yeah, today, his dad might move in with them, or they could move into his place. A warm feeling came over Gideon, and he pushed his earbuds in his ears, this time not to shut out the world but to dream. He couldn’t wait.
* * * *
The walk felt like it took forever, but at last Gideon stood across the street from the restaurant. He removed his ear buds and tucked them into his pocket. As he stared at the giant green letters that spelled out Marquette’s Restaurant, his heart pounded so hard, he thought he would throw up. He tried to cross the street, but his feet wouldn’t move. Cars rolled by, people laughed their way into the restaurant, and came out. Still he stood there, his eyes aching, his fingers clenching and unclenching at his sides.
He swallowed. Maybe this wasn’t a good idea. Maybe he should go home. What if he was wrong and that picture of Damen Marquette that he’d caught his mom crying over didn’t mean Damen was his dad at all. That hurt, and he felt moisture gathering in his eyes. He sucked in a breath and blew it out.
No! He is my dad. Damen Marquette is my dad, and I’m going to prove it to myself and everybody once and for all.
Finally, Gideon found the courage to cross the street and he walked up to the restaurant doors. With the sun still mostly up, he couldn’t see through the glass without pressing his nose to it, so he took a chance and opened the door. Some people in fancy clothes walked ahead of him.
One man patted Gideon’s fluffy curls. “Thanks, young man.”
Gideon, feeling shy, just nodded, but he didn’t intend to hold the door for them. Well, it worked out in his favor anyway. He dropped low and followed the couple through the entrance, and when a woman in a black skirt and white shirt asked the people for their names, Gideon slipped by and hid behind a screen.
Crouching on one knee with his heart in his throat, Gideon glanced up at the screen. Old-fashioned scenes covered it, women in long dresses, men with tall hats, and horse-drawn carriages.
While he waited to calm down, he slowly became aware of the scent of food, and his empty stomach growled. Glasses clinked, and forks and knives scraped plates. People laughed all around him. He dropped to all fours and crept to the edge of the screen to peer around it. All over a huge room, there were tables with white tablecloths thrown over them, and it looked like every one of them was taken up with more people in fancy clothes.
Waiters and waitresses scurried about holding trays of food. From his level, Gideon couldn’t see what kind of food it was, but he smelled it, and his mouth watered. He groaned. No, he had to focus. Where was his dad?
Shakily, he got to his feet and peered around. He stretched to his toes and craned his neck. There were a lot of men here, but most of them were in black. Why did they all have to wear the same colors? Wait a minute. His dad was an owner. He wouldn’t serve the customers like some waiter, but where would he be? In the back, in an office or something?
Gideon’s heart sank. If his dad was in an office somewhere, Gideon would have to either give up or ask for him. Coming here was hard enough, but he couldn’t give up. He squared his shoulders and took a step forward.
“Where do you think you’re going, ragamuffin?”
Gideon froze and looked up into the frowning face of a woman with blond hair and blue eyes. She might have been pretty if she didn’t look so mean. Her hands on her hips, she blocked his view and his progress.
“I…” The words stuck in his throat. “I came…”
“I know what you came for,” she snapped. Her gaze scraped over him from head to foot. “And you can go around back like all the rest.”
The rest? He wondered who the rest were. There couldn’t be more of his dad’s kids. No, that was stupid. She couldn’t know why he came. He wasn’t the smartest kid, but he wasn’t that stupid.
“I’m here to—”
“Around back!” She waved a hand to shoo him toward the door. Something told Gideon if he left now, he wouldn’t find the courage to come again. He couldn’t leave, not this close.
“Tiffany!” A man’s voice cut across the grumpy one of the woman’s, the man’s voice deep but nicer. “We don’t treat customers like that.”
Gideon’s heart raced as he waited for the man to come into view, and then the man stood beside the woman. He was tall and muscular, wearing the same clothes as the waiters, but he stood out with laughing green eyes and a nice smile. He looked a lot like the picture of the man in Gideon’s pocket.
“But Stefan, look at him,” the woman complained. “He’s a scruffy—”
“Enough, Tiff. Go back to your duties, please.” The voice was still gentle but firm. Tiff glowered at Gideon once more, and then spun on her heel to stomp away. Gideon blew out a breath. He looked at the man again. So big, surely he couldn’t be as nice as Gideon thought.
“Hey, buddy, you here alone?”
Gideon blinked. “Me?”
Gideon frowned. He remembered how the taxi driver treated him, looking past him, waiting for his mother to appear. “I’ve got money. I’m not a raga-something. Whatever she said.” He dug into his pocket and dragged out his allowance, what he had intended to use for the ride over there.
The man nodded. “Very good, Mr…?”
Gideon drew himself up. “Gideon Burk.”
“Mr. Burk, I’m Stefan Marquette, and I’ll be happy to show you to your table.”
Gideon’s mouth fell open. His eyes widened, and he didn’t move from the spot. He stared, taking in the man in more detail. This was his uncle, his real live uncle! He had never had an uncle before. There was only his mom and his grandfather, and that old man didn’t like him very much. The feeling was mutual. Uncle Stefan. He tested the words in his head a few times. He liked it.
“Mr. Burk, are you ready?”
Uncle Stefan led him to a table, and Gideon dropped into a chair and then dumped his backpack on the one next to it. His uncle gave him a menu. He opened it up, and his eyes bugged. No way could he afford anything. His heart sank, but his uncle hadn’t left the table. He waited for Gideon to order something.
“I…I guess I’ll have the chocolate layer cake and a cola,” he mumbled. His stomach rumbled again, but with the music playing and people talking all around, his uncle wouldn’t hear. Gideon had a huge appetite, even if he was still pretty skinny.
“Are you allergic to anything?” Uncle Stefan asked.
Gideon didn’t really know what allergies had to do with anything, but he didn’t have any, so he just shook his head. Uncle Stefan took the menu and disappeared. Gideon sighed and looked around. He still hadn’t spotted his dad yet, which worried him. Too much time had passed. He pulled his cell phone from his pocket and checked the screen. No texts yet.
After a short while, Uncle Stefan showed up again with a tray. He set a plate on the table in front of Gideon. “Cheeseburger with the works, French fries, and a cola.”
Gideon started in fear. “I didn’t order this.”
“Eat up,” Uncle Stefan insisted. “It’s on the house. I’ll bring your cake a little later.”
“On the house?”
“Free,” his uncle emphasized.
“Are you sure?”
Uncle Stefan smiled and winked. “Positive. Go on. Give it a try. Our chefs are the best in New Orleans.”
Gideon couldn’t help it. He stuffed the burger into his mouth and took a huge bite. Flavors he couldn’t figure out danced on his tongue, but it didn’t matter. All he knew was it was better than fast food and any of the restaurants his mother had taken him to in the past. He bit and chewed as fast as he could. Between bites, he stuffed French fries into his mouth and sipped his soda.
“I’m guessing it’s good,” Uncle Stefan teased.
“Yeah, thanks a lot.”
Then Gideon forgot the food entirely. One of the double doors with circle windows in it opened, and his dad appeared. Gideon followed him with his gaze as he stopped at various tables, talking with the customers, laughing with them. He shook the hands of the men and said something that made the women’s faces turn red, but they all looked happier after talking to his dad.
Out of the corner of his eye, Gideon saw his uncle leave the table. Uncle Stefan signaled to his dad, and the two stood together with their backs turned away from Gideon. Then the both of them looked around at him. Gideon slipped to the side, teetering on the edge of his seat. Why were they looking at him? Had they found him out? Had his mother called? No, that was impossible. She didn’t know where he was.
Both men started toward him. He jumped to his feet, a little dizzy. The thought to run washed over him, but just like outside when he first got there, he couldn’t move. What if… What if…
His dad stood before him, towering over him and smiling. He laid a heavy but gentle hand on top of Gideon’s curls. “Hey, there, bud.”
Bud? No one had ever called him bud. The word was weird, but it was okay, he guessed. Since it was his dad.
“Why don’t you have a seat and finish your food?”
Gideon swallowed and sank into his chair. To his surprise, his dad sat down too. Gideon ducked his head and fiddled with a fry, but then he peeked up at his dad. He looked exactly like his picture, maybe a little older. His hair was neater than in the picture, dark, and his glasses were smaller. He couldn’t believe his dad wore glasses. Maybe he should believe it. Gideon was supposed to, but he kept breaking or losing them. His vision wasn’t so bad now, but his mother said if he wasn’t careful, it would get worse. Gideon had always felt he looked like a nerd, but his dad didn’t look bad at all. Those women seemed to like him.
“What’s your name?” his dad asked. “I’m Damen.”
“D-Damen,” he said softly. His mother would kill him if he called her by her name. “My name’s Gideon.”
“Wow, cool name. I like it.”
“T-thanks.” Gideon ducked his head again, and to his disgust and shame tears fell down his cheeks. He scrubbed an arm across his eyes. What a wuss. Why the heck was he crying at a time like this? His dad would think he was an idiot.
The deep voice settled him down somehow, and Gideon sniffed.
His dad squeezed his shoulder. “If you’re in trouble, we can help find you somewhere warm and dry.”
Gideon laughed. He had been mad when the woman near the door insulted him, but he didn’t blame his dad for thinking he was a bum. The jacket was pretty bad. “I’m not homeless. I’ve got a mom, and she’s nice most of the time, except when I do something stupid. Then she lectures me until I think my ears will bleed.”
His dad chuckled and crossed his eyes. “Moms are like that.”
A burst of joy rose in Gideon. He leaned forward. “What about dads? Do they lecture?”
His dad bent closer to him and looked around as if he was about to share something top secret. He put a hand next to his mouth to keep others from hearing. “Dads help start the stuff that make the moms lecture.”
Gideon’s eyes bugged. “You, too?”
“Me? Of course.”
“I knew it!” Gideon’s voice came out kind of hoarse, but he didn’t worry about it. He felt bolder, as if he could tell his dad the truth now that he’d met him. The two of them could get into all sorts of stuff just for fun, but most of all, his dad looked muscular enough to protect his mom. Maybe he was even as nice as his eyes looked so he would never hit her. That was the most important. Okay, he’d made his decision. He’d tell him right now. Gideon breathed deep a few times.
“I’m the best dad ever. Just ask my daughter. Right, Nita?”
Gideon hadn’t noticed the little girl walking over. She stood next to his dad, and his dad touched her back with one hand as she leaned dramatically over the table. Long, dark hair splayed on the table, and she groaned.
“Daddy, I’m hungry.”
Gideon blinked. Daddy? The article never mentioned he had a daughter. She looked younger than Gideon and neither black nor white. His dad was white, and his mom black, so he looked like a mix of the two, but this girl didn’t. Maybe she wasn’t his real daughter.
The girl raised her head and studied him. Gideon tried not to notice she had the same nose as him and his dad and the same lips. “Who’s this dirty boy, Daddy?”
“Who’s dirty?” Gideon snapped, balling his fists at his sides.
“Easy, you two,” his dad said. “Nita, don’t be rude. Gideon, I’m sorry. She gets a little cranky when she’s hungry. Nita, I’ll get Shada to make you something.”
“No,” the girl whined, “I want pizza.”
“I’m on duty, sweetheart, and I told you we would get pizza tomorrow night.”
“Pizza, now, Daddy! Why can’t we have pizza now?”
Gideon blinked over and over at her. He kept waiting for his dad to tell her to stop being a big baby. If he’d acted like that, all his mother would have to do was look at him with one eyebrow raised, and he’d pull himself together. No way would he test her the way this girl was doing.
Gideon didn’t like the girl, but as he watched, his dad bent over and kissed the top of Nita’s head while he rubbed her back. “Okay, you win. I’ll get one of the waiters to run out and get a pizza. You can eat it in the office so the customers don’t think we serve it here.”
“Yay!” Nita bounced up and down, grinning.
His dad drew her into his arms and hugged her tight. Gideon didn’t know why, but he felt like the world was crumbling around him. All of sudden, it seemed as if everyone laughing in the restaurant were laughing at him. A glass wall slammed down between him and his dad, keeping him on one side and his dad with Nita on the other. Gideon’s chest hurt.
His dad was saying something, but it was hard to hear. Gideon thought it might be “enjoy your meal” or whatever. His dad stood up, but he didn’t touch Gideon again. He just smiled, took Nita’s hand, and led her away from the table. Gideon watched them get farther and farther away. The restaurant grew bigger with each step. He dug into his pocket and threw all the money he had on the table and walked out of the restaurant.
Gideon pushed the ear buds into his ears and blasted his music. Before he put his phone away, he checked the texts. Just as he thought, his mom wanted to know where he was. He sniffed a few times and texted back.
Another message came in, but he didn’t look at it. He dropped the phone into his pocket and started a slow pace toward home. The music flowed over him, and he let it sink in from his head to his body, and especially to that place deep down inside that was tight right now.
I won’t cry. I already did that. I’m not a sissy.
At least he had gotten to see his dad once. That would have to be enough. So they wouldn’t be a family. Big deal. His dad already had a kid, a little daughter, who even though Gideon hated her, was pretty. His dad had everything he needed, brothers, a kid, a business, and money. He didn’t need Gideon too or his mom.
A sob escaped Gideon, but he suppressed it. He tried to zip the jacket, but the two sides came apart from the bottom as soon as he reached the top. Maybe he should throw this thing away. He clutched it in his fists and ducked his head until his chin touched his chest. All he could do was watch his feet and keep walking.
His dad had talked to him. He had smiled and touched the top of Gideon’s head. That’s enough.