Iberia’s mom’s name is the prettiest name. Like don’t even try, don’t even pretend you could find a better name out there. Because you wouldn’t. You wouldn’t even come close.
It’s a good name to say when you’re going to bed and you’ve said good night and you’ve called your mom Mom, but then she’s gone and in the darkness you need a sound to keep you safe. To keep you protected. You need a special sound.
Serafina, Serafina, Serafina.
It’s also a good name to say if you’re stuck in Freemont without your mom and left in charge of your two younger siblings.
Dad told them to stay seated on the bench because he had to help set up the protest, they had to see if the signs were high enough, if people would notice them, and you could, you could totally see them with the signs nailed to long pieces of plywood, the photos of the dead babies, these awful smudges of pink and red against black, like the flags of the worst country in the world. They had no babysitter, Dad couldn’t afford a babysitter, but he couldn’t afford not to be here, and they weren’t supposed to move. But then they moved. Daniel took off and she had to go chase him and Maria Lucia didn’t want to be left behind. And so now they were like so lost.
Daniel’s five and two months. Maria Lucia’s six and no months and one week. Iberia’s seven but practically eight. Like a month and two weeks and a day from eight. So eight.
Daniel’s holding her stuffed Domokun, which her dad won for her at a fair last year, which is not ideal but she needs both her hands to hold their hands. They’re not supposed to let go of each other, not supposed to stray. And they know Dad’s cell phone number, Daniel not so much, but she and Maria Lucia for sure. So she could find a safe grownup and ask them to call. So she should do that. Because—officially?—she supposes that they are now very much lost.
In the YouTube clips Domokun is never lost. He is always home, and home for Domokun is underground, a burrow beneath a tree, with thick roots for a roof, watching TV or playing electric guitar. She’s not sure if she’s allowed to watch these or not. Domokun’s always farting. So it is very likely she has watched Inappropriate Content, but it’s from Japan, where they do things differently, maybe? And now of course he’s everywhere. The big brown face, the round eyes, the big toothy mouth. You see him on notebooks and erasers and T-shirts and backpacks. You see him at Target and Walmart and 7-Eleven. You even see him in Freemont, right now, for sale, dangling out of stores, his big mouth grinning. He is everywhere, but her own special Domokun is just out of reach, and Daniel looks like he could drop the doll at any moment because he’s a big scared baby who only just now realized that they don’t quite know where they are.
Landmarks? She had like this map of landmarks in her head from the stuff she looked up on Google. From when her dad said he was taking them to Freemont. Because she wanted to know, had never been, knew it was a Bad Place. Because that is all Dad talked about last month, Freemont as Ground Zero for sin, and so an opportunity. A place to testify. But now that they are walking it doesn’t seem so bad, though she knows they should circle back, retrace their steps, find their way back to the grownups with the angry signs and the photos of dead children. Their spiritual brothers and sisters. Like the people Dad says they’re trying to save. When you are in a labyrinth and you don’t know where to turn, you just take a right on every fork. She read that. But she’s circled back already, circled too many times, and all the casinos look the same. Lots of light, lots of noise. Below the city of Las Vegas run vast tunnels through which storm water churns and pumps elsewhere. She read that too. Sometimes homeless people die, get swept away, because they make their homes in the tunnels and the water gets them. The tunnels are like a labyrinth, a real one. In medieval cathedrals they set up labyrinths on the floor and you walked them and contemplated your salvation.
“Mom’s not here, you know,” Maria Lucia says. She jerks her hand, but Iberia jerks it harder. Doesn’t let go. “Stop saying her name. Jeez.”
Daniel says, “Jeez.”
They should most definitely find a grownup. Somehow they crossed a crosswalk, which they were definitely definitely not supposed to do, and all around them is the press of legs in shorts and sneakers, and the noise is weird. It’s all echoes and stumbles.
Daniel stumbles, falls on the sidewalk, Domokun on the cement. Which Iberia doesn’t need her mom to tell her it’s super dirty. Like, Ich. He’s crying like he cries at home, with no sound, just the red face and the tears and the snot falling. Her poor baby brother. It’s her fault, and she’s in so much trouble, and she feels like it’s taking her forever to get to him, to try to pick him up, to let him know that it’s okay. Still running her mom’s name in her head. Serafina. But also remembering the dream. The weird balloons streaming out of her mom. Domokun saying, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. She wants to cry too, but Daniel’s stopping, Daniel’s smiling, so she can’t. Because she’s in charge, she’s the one getting them where they need to go: to Dad, to the grownups. All the legs around them sweaty and heavy and moving fast. Even the motorized scooters zip by.
Domokun hovers in front of her. Floats. Wiggles a bit.
She’s about to go Full Freak in public when she sees the arm holding her Domokun. Also the torn T-shirt, the scabs, the beard, the dirty face. A face dirtier than the sidewalk. Oh her mom would make her disinfect Domokun. Make her possibly give the monster up. The man says, “Yours?”
She nods. Now it’s back in her hands, Domokun and all his new germ friends. All the millions of germs and bacteria. She holds a stuffed animal plus a new metropolis of microbes. Which, fine. But her mom, in her head, she’s the one having a Full Freak now, the Serafina she’s been imagining for comfort is now freaking out, freaking out for reals. Like, I didn’t raise you to pick stuff up the street. Like, I didn’t raise you to talk to people who live on the street.
Daniel’s hiding behind her. So is Maria Lucia.
When you are lost you find a safe stranger and you have them help you find your parents. This is not a safe stranger. Far from it. You can tell he drinks. He smells suspicious. He wears too many clothes even though it is too hot, even though it is late on a day in the middle of summer. Of the worst of summer.
But the man’s not sweating, and the man’s not coming closer, and he’s not doing the weird crouch-and-lean grownups do when they want to be all friendly. He’s actually walking away. Like, actually leaving three children in the middle of Ground Zero for sin. And she—is she?—she is like saying “Excuse me?” like her mom says “Excuse me?” Which is to say not asking to be excused at all, at all. And so they’re walking behind him, Iberia in front and her siblings behind, the man not turning, but not walking fast either. She says, “Excuse me?” The man acts like he doesn’t hear her, like his suspicious smell shields him from sound.
She grabs his T-shirt. Also a metropolis for germs and microbes, she’s sure. She grabs it and the man like tries to, thinks of trying to, pull away. When he turns what she sees in his eyes is awful. The man is afraid of her. The man is looking at her like she could beat him up, or like she could tear him to pieces. Like she’s one of those tiny wolves going after a polar bear on Planet Earth. He’s shaking. His hands jerk up, palms facing her. Tears in his eyes, his eyes red.
“Excuse me?” she says. “We’re lost? Our dad’s by the Hotel Alicia? It is catttycorner to El Cortez. It is two-point-five blocks from Glitter Gulch.”
The man stares at her like he knows her. “I have to go.”
“Excuse me?” she says. “You’re a grownup. You have to help.”
He nods but he also says, “I’m not supposed to be here.”
Maria Lucia says, “Please help us find our daddy.” And Daniel cries. And Iberia stands there thinking, my mom’s the best mom, and if he even thinks of not helping us he’ll be so sorry. She’ll go on full-on “Excuse me?” on him. She’ll chase him down Freemont. She’ll hound him. She sets her eyes on him, goes tough, imagines herself a full-size Domokun. A wolf.
He says, “Let me see your palms.” They show them to him. She has to wedge Domokun under her pit, but he’s suffered worse today. The man nods. Like, okay. “Golden Nugget. El Cortez. Okay.”
The four of them huddle, all holding hands, Iberia holding the suspicious stranger’s hand, though her mom wouldn’t like it, and though Iberia doesn’t like it, and though the stranger himself isn’t such a big fan of the idea either. They walk slow. She thinks, Maybe the man could pick up Daniel, but she doesn’t suggest it. Already it is a great kindness, this man who doesn’t know them, doesn’t want to take them where they need go. Why push it? They walk slow, but there’s no rush. The days run long. They are probably closer than they think.
The man says, “Nutters out there.”
The signs. The blood and the babies and the words and the scriptures, all high up. This is just a practice run, Dad said. Just so we know how many people we can fit in. Just so we know if we can make an impact. The legs and the signs cluster on the eastern side of the street. The bench where they were supposed to stay put is empty still. A crowd that has nothing to do with any of them is hard at work watching someone spray-paint the Vegas skyline on a ceramic plate. The person dots stars and constellations over the Stratosphere. The crowd applauds. The heat is awful. She wants water.
She doesn’t say, That’s my dad. That’s my dad you’re calling a nutter. But she doesn’t say thank you either. She says, “That’s our bench! That’s where we’re supposed to wait, mister.”
Somewhere in the crowd of nutters her dad waves a sign, shouts a command, tries to get people to listen. They are not nutters. They are trying to do something good. They are trying to get people to think about what they do. The man has let go of her hand. The man very much wants to leave this place. He looks like he’s saying, Are we done now? Like when you’re dragged to a grownup party and it takes forever and then Dad says, We’re leaving, but they don’t. They linger by the door and talk talk talk for like another hour. She wants to say, What’s wrong? But she knows she can’t. She knows that too much is wrong. Life is hard if you are this person. She’s hugging him before she knows she’s hugging him, before he has any time to think or say anything, so all he’s doing is hugging her back. He’s asking her to be super careful, to watch herself and her siblings. That this is not a good place.
She thinks, I dream of Domokun, of Mom and Dad, places I’ve never been. Strange places. She doesn’t know if she’s ever dreamed of strangers. Maybe she has and she’s forgotten.
Just then the crowd shifts its attention from the spray-painter to dancers. The crowd roars and claps. The dancers spin on cardboard like tops, like planets, like they will never stop spinning. The man’s gone. Dad’s in the crowd but he’ll be coming back, he’ll never know they strayed, walked Freemont, had an adventure. They sit and watch the dancers and Daniel stops crying. She watches her dad’s signs, the dead babies swaying against the lights and the giant television screen. No one else seems to be watching them. The dancers are still spinning. Her mom is still at work. Everything’s fine. She sits, her siblings with her, feeling very safe and very uneasy. She clutches Domokun and does not cry.