By Santiago Eastman Herrera
El Sombrerón waits for you to see him.
It was a month before Halloween when I did—the first time. I had stepped out of a bar on the far side of town, needing a breather from the loud music and the crowded hall. At first, I thought it was just a stranger on the opposite side of the empty road, so I didn’t pay much attention. The ground swam in front of me, the alcohol floating freely through my system. The man clad in all black seemed to duplicate in the corner of my eye as he kept staring.
I tried to look away, to not pay attention, but I could feel his eyes dig holes into me, like two tiny pinpricks that grew larger and snuck deeper into my skin, making me more and more uncomfortable until I couldn’t take it anymore. Just as I decided to look directly at him—
“Hey, there you are!” one of my friends called from the doorway. I glanced back, but when I turned to look where the stranger was, no one was there. I didn’t think much of it and promptly forgot about the whole encounter by the time morning came. Until I saw the news article.
The first disappearance tied to El Sombrerón was a traveling farm hand, his likeness pasted in black and white on every local newspaper in the city. No one really knew him, just that he had come in search of work from outside the country. A hip flask with his name was found in a forest ditch near the outskirts, the only evidence of his disappearance beyond witnesses hearing a scream where it was found. After two weeks, the police called him missing and moved on, but the old Colombian legend was on everyone’s mind.
El Sombrerón. I didn’t put two and two together until the week before Halloween. I was visiting my family when the news broke out. Julio Guadalupe, the son of the minister of my family’s church, had gone missing. He left a party early in the morning and then never turned up at home.
Julio had only recently turned 18, but he was already known for his wild partying. We weren’t in the same year, but I had attended some of his parties before, and my family had visited his father’s church for ages. We attended the vigil his father had made for him, but the entire time, I could only think of the man in black staring at me, waiting.
When he was alive, many at the church didn’t like his constant partying. They seemed to have forgotten about Julio’s penchant for throwing massive Halloween events, but I hadn’t. My mother prayed for his lost soul, silencing anyone who tried to say anything negative about Julio. I, however, could only remember keg stands and beer pong. For the rest of the week, I stayed home, locking myself in my room. But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get him out of my mind.
Every time I watched TV, he was there in the background. Every time the screen went dark, I thought I could see a face looking back at me—and then I’d blink and watch my own pale reflection. By the time night crept through my closed windows, I thought I could hear labored breathing from the corners of my apartment. I could feel the heavy panting of dogs coming closer and closer until it was all I could do not to scream.
The day of Halloween came. My friends had invited me to a party, and I jumped at the chance. I couldn’t take staying alone with my thoughts for so long. I dressed up as a vampire, with spiky teeth and all, and practically flew out of the house, my hands unsteady as I walked to my friend’s house down the street. My mother warned me against it, but I didn’t—couldn’t—stay home any longer. She had never approved of Halloween, calling it the day of the Devil and a time for Pagan rituals, but for me, it had always been about free food and drink.
My friend met me outside his house, congratulating me on the costume. He thought my paleness was cosmetic. I didn’t know how to tell him I had nearly screamed when I saw a man dressed as El Zorro. I was too frazzled to realize the street was too full of people, too full of witnesses, for the moment at least.
There were more people out in the streets this year than usual. Ghosts in white sheets, Disney princesses—and people handing out pamphlets denouncing the whole Halloween tradition. Don’t Give in to the Devil’s Temptations! and other similar phrases were at the top of every sheet.
The Devil Corrupts! Lucifer Doesn’t Play With Sin! Satan is Watching.
Many of the houses we passed had all their lights off, with their doors and windows shut tight.
“They’re all terrified of El Sombrerón,” my friend said. “The old people always find reasons to stop us from having fun.”
We passed by one house with a large wooden cross staked in the front lawn and prayer candles burning all along the porch. I couldn’t help but think of Julio Guadalupe and how his father must be feeling. Was it a time to celebrate? Shouldn’t we be in mourning?
Was it safe to be outside? I expressed my concerns to my friend.
“Nah man, you’ve got it all wrong,” he said. “Look”—he pointed to our destination: a house already full of people dressed up in all kinds of costumes. A few people I vaguely recognized, but the vast majority were complete strangers.
“These people all came because this is the one time of year when we’re free to be anything. White, black, gay, straight, left, right—tonight, it doesn’t matter. No one can judge you if no one knows who you are. And what better way to celebrate Julio than by doing what he loved most?”
“Partying until you puke?” I said, smirking.
“No, you fool. Helping people. Making people happy. Don’t forget how much he always helped his dad during food banks and charity events.” He shrugged. “A person is more than the sum of their parts—and Halloween doesn’t have to be anti-religion. It wasn’t for Julio.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. My friend shrugged and went to go find a beer. It was then that I remembered how Julio’s father would sometimes host family-friendly Halloween events of his own at the church. Cheesy ones, to be sure, but he was never directly in contrast with people enjoying themselves as long as they were safe.
I wandered around the party for a while, sipping from a red solo cup that was all but forced into my hands until I felt my eyes drooping. It was well past midnight, but my friend didn’t want to leave yet, so I decided to walk the few blocks back alone.
The night was dark, with a brisk wind cutting through my costume. I shivered and warmed my hands under my armpits, doing my best not to stagger. I was so concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other that I didn’t hear the sound of rattling chains and panting dogs at first. That’s when I remembered. Both men were alone when they went missing.
El Sombrerón. It was him. And this time, no one was around to see him but me.