Santiago was seven when he first heard the name El Cucuy. It was back when his boyish wonder led him to places he shouldn’t be. He’d usually spend his time playing with his toys and cars in the living room. Santiago’s explosions rattled the glasses in the kitchen cabinets. His car engines growled and coughed loud enough to make the dog start barking. However, that was normal in Santiago’s house. These noises slowly became as a sign of restfulness in the house. Santiago’s mother would be able to sleep through the clamor and wake to the silence in the house. That’s when she knew Santiago is up to no good.
She’d check the closets for Santiago. Then she’d check under the bed, in the closets, up in the attic, down in the cellar, outside, in the laundry room, outside again, and under the kitchen table before finding him in the shed out back where he stuck marshmallows on the endpoints of the rake to cook over the fire he was also working on.
“Santiago!” his mom screamed. She waddled to the shed in her pink slippers over the mud. Santiago threw the marshmallow bag into the shed and erased the makeshift fire pit with his foot.
“I was just playing,” Santiago said.
“What are you doing? You’re going to burn the house down,” his mom said. She grabbed him by his skinny arm and dragged him back to the porch where she left her slippers out to not dirty the carpet inside. “You’re not supposed to go over there, mijo.”
“Why not?” Santiago asked.
“Because it’s for grown ups.” His mother responded.
“Because you don’t belong there.”
“Because El Cucuy will get you.”
Santiago shut his mouth. He was scared to ask why. “Who is El Cucuy?” His mother realized she struck gold.
“Oh he grabs kids that go where they don’t belong. He waits in those places until someone like you wanders off from their mama’s eyes and he takes them.
“Someone like me?” Santiago asked.
“Just like you, mijo.” How did she not think of El Cucuy sooner? “Don’t go where you don’t belong.”
From then on, it seemed that Santiago made it his mission to make as much noise with his toys as possible. His explosions and engines ate the silence in the house. His mother never slept any better.
Several years later, Santiago went off to college. He was the first of his family to further their education, let alone try. There wasn’t anything else Santiago could do. He couldn’t fix cars like Uncle Pedro, not could he weld like Cousin Rujilio. He couldn’t build houses like his brother Leonel or cook like Aunt Maria. What Santiago could do was learn. School was something his family didn’t excel in. Most of his relatives didn’t finish high school. Those that did still ended up working for the family roofing business. That was what Santiago was pushed to do after high school. His father was getting up there in age and injury, so someone needed to take over. However, Santiago graduated at the top of his class. With such honors came scholarships that really were the only reason he could attend college in the first place. It was practically free.
Against his family’s wishes, Santiago moved into the freshmen dorms the August after graduation. He hauled all his belongings over to college where he moved in with thirty five other strangers on his floor. His roommate’s name was Randall, a psychology major.
“What are you studying?” Randall asked on night.
“Undecided,” Santiago replied.
Randall liked to smoke marijuana with Pete and Arturo from down the hall. They would bug Santiago about going with them everyday until he cracked. The four smoked six bowls in Pete’s ‘94 Pontiac. The four sat in the four-door and passed around the pipe. The smoke curled around the headrests and hula dancer on the dashboard. It was thick and heavy like chowder. So heavy, in fact, that it pushed Santiago deeper into his seat. He felt like a stone in a river. The events around him charged by; leaving Santiago the subject of anyone or anything that might come his way.
Santiago had never been high before. His mother wouldn’t let him. She says it’s the Devil’s way to breaching into one’s life. “Te agarra El Cucuy,” she’d say.
The four parted ways. Randall went to spend the night over at his girlfriends while the other two went to grab a bite to eat. That left Santiago to sleep alone in his dorm room. However, he had to get their first. The walk back from the car was longer than he remembered it. The lot seemed to stretch out like taffy. The stairs to get up to his floor elongated like an accordian. It must have taken him an hour to get back to his bed where his stone body sank once more.
Santiago didn’t even realize he fell asleep until he woke up in the middle of the night. He turned onto his side where bumped into a large figure. The moonlight coming from the window shades created a barcode-like collage of the being lying next to him ; a sour-faced, round cockroach lying next to him.
“Que pasa?” the cockroach whispered.
Santiago flailed spineless like an eel. He fell off of his bed and scrambled to turn on the lights. The overhead lights partially blinded Santiago. Through the squints in his eyes, he saw the cockroach sit up in his bed. Santiago tried to open the door, but it wouldn’t budge. The cockroach crawled to Santiago on all his legs. When the cockroach reached Santiago, he stood up and met eye to eye with him. Santiago closed his eyes and wet his pants.
“Did you just piss your pants?’ the cockroach asked. Santiago whimpered.
“I didn’t mean to,” Santiago said.
“No one ever means to piss their pants. Well, maybe loonies. You’re not a loony are you?”
“Please leave me alone.”
“You’re the one that came here.”
“I didn’t come anywhere.”
Santiago opened one of his eyes. The face in front of his was of a cockroach. There isn’t much else a cockroach can look like other than a cockroach. This fact made him all the more eerie. However, something inside Santiago told him he saw the cockroach before. He stood there thinking and smelling his mustard breath. Santiago realized he saw this being before. He saw the cockroach when he was younger. Once under the porch. Another time in the shed, in the bathroom late at night, in the chemical cabinet, by the wasp nest, in his parent’s bedroom at seven on Tuesdays, and countless other places he shouldn’t have been.
“El Cucuy?” Santiago asked. He opened both eyes and let down his guard.
“That’ll be me.”
“What are you doing here?”
“I could ask you the same thing.” El Cucuy’s mouth moved like a puppet’s. It was like watching Spanish soap operas with English dubbing.
“Cucuy, I don’t know,” Santiago said, “Why is anyone anywhere?”
El Cucuy’s antennas twitched. “Did you mean to find yourself here?”
“I don’t know where else I’d be,” Santiago said. Randall knocked on the door. He forgot his toothbrush. It as 10:30.. The toothbrush was found. El Cucuy was gone.
Two weekends later Santiago went out his Randall and Pete. As it would turn out, Arturo dropped out to work the oil fields with his dad. Regardless, there was a party the three were invited to off campus. The three filled their backpacks with cheap beer and sweaters. They made the six block pilgrimage.
Once the three reached the party, Randall and Pete separated from Santiago, leaving him to stand at the doorway. He didn’t know anyone. No one was even a paisano. Santiago was tall enough to see over the crowds of people. He got the height from his other Uncle Pedro (also a roofer). He scanned the entire sea of people for anyone he might know. It was then when he saw two antenna twitching back and forth above everyone else. He turned around to leave the party, but El Cucuy had appeared before him.
“Jesus Christ, don’t let that be a regular thing you do,” Santiago said.
“What?” El Cucuy asked.
“Just appearing like that?”
“How else do you meet people?” asked El Cucuy.
“Not your crowd. I agree.” El Cucuy put one of his legs around Santiago’s shoulder. When he did, it sounded like cracking knuckles. Santiago tried to act like it didn’t bother him even though all he wanted to do was squirm.
“Do they all know you?”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because they all seem okay with you being here.”
“What? Why not?” Santiago asked.
“Because they belong here.”
“And I don’t?”
“You seem to be the only one that’s out of place.”
“Why do you say that?”
“You’re talking to a cockroach.”
“No, I’m talking to El Cucuy.”
“How does that make you any less weird?” El Cucuy led Santiago out to the empty front porch with his one leg still wrapped around his shoulder. “You don’t belong here, Santiago.”
“I’m starting to get that feeling, Cucuy.”
“Can’t work for my family. I’m no good at it, Cucuy. I’m good at school. If I fail here, I’ll fail everywhere.”
“I’ll take you now,” El Cucuy said. He extended his second cockroach leg out to Santiago. “I’ll take you where you need to go.” The two walked off of the front porch and into the darkness of the streets. Santiago was led back to campus and back to bed.
Santiago was led to three meals a day. He was led to teaching as a profession. El Cucuy took him to class and walked him back to his dorm for four years until graduation. Santiago was led to a place he could feel he was supposed to be.
Santiago spoke for his class during graduation. He thanked many before thanking El Cucuy. “Lastly, I’d like to thank El Cucuy for keeping me from going places I shouldn’t be.”
Santiago moved into his classroom a year later. He was teaching eighth graders that year. On the first day of school, Santiago searched the entire school for El Cucuy. It’s not like him to miss out on new things like this. He checked the closets, the teachers lounge, everywhere. He searched until his classes started at seven in the morning. He looked over his shoulder and towards the back of the classroom often for the first few months of teaching. Slowly, Santiago learned to stop looking.
A third of the way into the school year, Santiago had problems with a little boy by the name of Manuel. He liked to steal crayons and wander the halls on bathroom breaks. Manuel developed the need to search through Santiago’s desk while he was away.
Santiago thought he was going insane for a while. It wasn’t until his lunch was stolen one day when he figured out Manuel had been stealing from him. He had just put his lunch in his desk drawer. However, it was gone by lunchtime. Santiago figures someone must have taken it when he went to the restroom during second hour.
There were two troublemakers in his second hour. In lue of the fact that one of them was blind, only Manuel could have taken his lunch. During lunch the next day, Santiago called Manuel in and explained to him that stealing is wrong and that he should never be seen snooping around places he doesn’t belong.
“Why?” Manuel asked.
“Because te agarra El Cucuy.”
The next day, Manuel searched Santiago’s desk as he went to get copies for class. Manuel looked through every drawer for something his sticky, dirty fingers could latch onto. He reached into the bottom drawer and scanned the inside with his hands. He felt something in the corner. It was round and smooth. He went to pinch it, but it moved and scurried over Manuel’s hand before flying out of the drawer to reveal itself as a black cockroach. Manuel shrieked and Santiago came running in short after. The cockroach flew around as Santiago cupped it in his hands. Santiago motioned Manuel to open the window where the cockroach was soon released. The cockroach flew away and landed in the grass a few feet away.
Santiago turned to Manuel and said,
“I’ve seen worse.”