Meet us in the kitchen area NOW.
Shoma was enjoying some perfectly good Swedish meatballs in the IKEA Restaurant when his phone beeped and Javi’s text came through.
On one hand: half of his meatballs were uneaten. On the other hand: the text was uncharacteristically urgent for Javi. Usually Yuzu used all caps, for things from PLEASE COME KILL THIS SPIDER FOR ME PLEASE OH PLEASE to WE NEED TO HAVE A SERIOUS TALK.
Shoma wondered if Yuzu and Javi had found a dining room table in this madness and that’s why Javi was so urgent. Either way, he shoveled the remaining meatballs into his mouth before leaving his seat and putting his tray back.
I’m coming , he texted.
When he finished chewing and swallowing his meatballs, took a deep breath and went up the escalator. The air was saturated with the smell of MDF wood before he even got to the second floor. Then a dreadful wall of decorative pillows. Shoma had no idea why this wall of pillows made him so anxious, except it was pillows and so many in so many colors that it all made him dizzy, like the rest of the store.
He wandered, trying to remember where he was relative to Javi and Yuzu, wishing he’d picked up one of those maps at the entrance.
First the living room, stuffed with couches and coffee tables, the displays so pristine it made Shoma want to go home and dust and vacuum. The sofa-beds, though equally pristine, comforted Shoma a little because that was normal. The section on wall units and media storage, however, just made him feel damp, as if he’d been stuck out in a cold rain. The TVs were much, much bigger than the one they had at home, and better mounted, of course. Their TV almost listed on its wire mounts. He peered behind one TV, eyeballing that mounting, momentarily forgetting he was supposed to be catching up with his partners.
Workspaces further depressed him. Their one, small desk, crammed in a corner, was piled so high with paperwork -- invoices, bills, papers scribbled with notes and math about what each of them was supposed to be paid per hour of coaching, sticky notes for one another that had piled up. Shoma was not nearly as neat as Yuzu or Javi, but even he had to admit that the desk was a mess. And all three of them avoided it as a result. IKEA, with its clear, uncluttered desks and drawers that worked, seemed to be mocking them.
Finally Shoma turned a corner and there was Javi and Yuzu. Javi with his hands wrapped protectively over Alejandro, who was sleeping in a wine red baby wrap on his chest. Yuzu was flapping his arms in clear panic.
“We’ll find her,” Javi said, and it sounded like it wasn’t the first time he had.
Shoma scanned just under knee height on Yuzu and felt a jolt of shock himself.
“Where’s Milagros?” he asked in Spanish. They spoke it outside of the house, when they went on trips into the city.
“I don’t know,” Yuzu said, clearly upset. “I lost her. I turned away for one second and she was gone.”
“Did someone take her?” Shoma said, realizing that was probably a stupid thing to say, because it would just make things worse.
Yuzu held his head in his hands. “I am a terrible Uncle.”
“None of that, either of you,” Javi snapped. It wasn’t like him to be terse, but they needed a kick in the ass. “She probably just wandered off. So we’ve got to find her.”
Shoma nodded. Where would one even find a two and a half year old in a store like this? Which wound and wound and wound around, was stuffed with beautiful things, and had so many good hiding places?
Shoma suddenly regretted everything about that morning. Wrestling with Yuzu until they ran into the kitchen table, splintering it in half, well beyond the repair of wood glue. Javi had looked at both of them like they were children.
“Well, we need a table,” he said finally. “Let’s go to the second-hand shop before Laura drops off Alejandro and Milagros.”
“Let’s got to IKEA!” Yuzu said.
Javi had made a face.
“Because I’ve never been,” Yuzu said.
“Me either,” Shoma had added. He was curious.
Javi had sighed. “Neither have I, but that doesn’t mean we have to go there.”
“Please, Javi,” Yuzu had pleaded. “We can take Alejandro and Milagros with us. We’ll be in and out fast, I promise. Then we’ll have a table and can play with the kids.”
And he’d smiled one of those smiles, a trademark sweet and charming Yuzu smile that Shoma knew Javi could never say “no” to.
“Fine,” Javi had said.
Shoma regretted it, regretted not siding with Javi, because now they were stuck in this vast store with a missing niece. And while Javi was easy-going for the most part, Laura would skin them all alive for losing her daughter.
“Milagros!” Yuzu said and they began their search.
They looked under and behind furniture, exhausting options quickly.
“One of us should go ahead, to see if she went there. Then another of us should go back, to see if she went that way. And then one of us should stay here to see if she is still here,” Javi said.
“I’ll go back,” Yuzu said, still looking incredibly guilty.
“I’ll go ahead,” Shoma said.
“I guess I’ll stay,” Javi said.
Shoma felt like it was his fault, just a little. Milagros was most attached to him. She was quiet, so quiet, she spoke in whispers, and savored silence and solitude. She liked to talk to him and he would just listen, even if he didn’t understand half of it. Yuzu always wanted to play with her and she would shy away. It was only Shoma she really talked to, really played with (usually ponies). And he’d left her with Yuzu for the sake of meatballs. Yuzu was good with children, of course, but he did not understand Milagros like Shoma did.
And because he knew her, he knew she would have gone ahead, rather than back. He didn’t know how, per se, he just did.
So he went forward, calling her name, daring to climb onto the perfect displays looking for her. He made it through the dining area, stainless steel shining in his eyes as he went to the bedroom area. He had a headache. How were they even supposed to find her? Milagros was a master of discovering hiding places.
Shoma stopped calling for her, name cut off midway by a realization. He should perhaps try thinking like her. Put himself in her tiny yellow buckle shoes that she liked Shoma to help her with.
Think, Shoma. Think.
If he were two and a half, and so introverted, he would obviously hide. But it couldn’t be a place with bright and whiteness, or where he could see or hear all these people coming to and fro. So it would have to be a dark space, a safe space. A place where the noise would be muffled enough to make it bearable.
He eyeballed a display, and the bed, the violet purple curtain of the bedskirt. Not caring that people were staring, he got on his hands and knees and wriggled under the bed. He wasn’t as skinny as he used to be, and his broad shoulders scraped the wooden belly of the bed. But he made it under.
As his eyes adjusted to the dim light, he saw the shape of a child, tucked against the bottom of the headboard, clutching her hitched knees. Even in this light, her yellow shoes faintly glowed.
“Milagros,” Shoma said softly.
Milagros made a noise, a scared noise.
Shoma crawled to her. He was encouraged when she didn’t bolt.
“What’s wrong chiquita?” He asked, still on his belly.
“Scary,” she whispered.
“The store.” And then she mumbled something that sounded like “much”.
When she didn’t say anything else, he said: “It’s a little frightening to me too.”
“I in trouble?” she asked.
“No. We were just afraid you were hurt.”
“Not hurt,” she shook her head.
He waited for her to say anything else.
“If I hold your hand, do you think you can come out with me?”
She was silent, and he could tell she was thinking.
“We would go to Uncle Javi and then go home, okay?”
“Promise two things?”
“First, you hold my hand.”
“Second, you can’t run away.”
“Good. Are you ready to go?”
He took her small, soft hand in his and they crawled out from under the bed.
It really was calming under that bed. The noise was softened, it was dim and soothing. It was easier to forget they were in the middle of a giant store. When they came out, the bright lights were scalding, and people were ogling, but to hell with them.
“Let me text Uncles Javi and Yuzu so they know you are okay,” Shoma said, clutching her hand.
Milagros squirmed, but muttered “Okay.”
I found her, Shoma texted their group chat.
THANK GOD! Yuzu texted.
Good. Let’s all meet where I am, Javi texted.
I promised Milagros we would leave after this, Shoma texted.
He made a face at Milagros and she giggled.
That’s fine with me, Javi texted.
Me too, Yuzu added.
Shoma put his phone away.
“Okay,” he said. “Let’s go.”
They moved slowly, at Milagros’ small, quiet pace. Eventually they turned the corner and Shoma was so relieved to see Javi he nearly threw himself in his arms. Except he was holding onto Milagros, and there was Alejandro in his baby wrap on Javi’s chest. Clearly the baby was fussing now, as Javi was cooing and trying to make pacifying noises.
Yuzu came up soon after and he was visibly relieved.
“Home now?” Milagros said in her tiny voice that only Shoma heard.
“She asked if he could go home now,” Shoma said.
“Of course we can,” Javi said to her.
“Thank fuck,” Yuzu said.
“Yuzu,” Javi said. “Not around the children.”
“What is ‘fuck’?” Milagros asked Shoma.
“Ask me when you’re older.”
“When you are tall as me.”
They made their way out, the same way as they had come, jostling against the flow of incoming shoppers, past that daunting wall of pillows, down the escalator, which was tricky but they were determined, past the bright, bouncing balls of the ballpit in Småland, past the Restaurant where Shoma had had his meatballs, through the doors and out into the bright Madrid sun.
Milagros smiled up at Shoma and Shoma smiled down at her.
“We’ll just get a table at a second-hand store tomorrow,” Javi said as they made their way across the parking lot, towards the road and the nearest bus stop.
Alejandro was starting to make little wails now, and Javi let him suck on his finger to quiet him.
“I like second-hand tables,” Yuzu said.
“Me too,” Shoma said.