Cochise by Matthew Guerruckey

The throng of tourists and locals, cops and pimps, saints and murderers moved through Times Square as an interconnected force, rushing past the frail old man sweating in his giant winter coat. The man’s name was Edgar, but that hadn’t mattered for decades. The taut skin on his sunburned face shone like scales. He held one trembling hand toward the mob, and in it a coffee cup half-filled with coins—a paltry haul for a full day of panhandling.

“Spare change,” he said to no one.

A little girl passed Edgar and tugged on her mother’s sleeve. She pleaded with her parents to allow her to give a dollar to the sweet old man. Her mother beamed with pride and gave her a five, then turned to her anxious husband to assure him that this was all part of the “real New York experience.” The girl ran in shuffling steps toward Edgar and held the bill up to him. Edgar smiled at her, his tanned cheeks pulling wide to reveal his broken-toothed jack o’ lantern smile.

“Why, thank you sweetheart,” he said. “Do you wanna see something special?”

The girl nodded in excitement as her father rushed to her side, keeping his eyes focused on Edgar’s hands.

Edgar reached into the interior lining of the bulky coat and pulled out the cradled, limp form of a street rat. It had mottled brown fur flecked with streaks of gray, and a long pink tail curled tightly against its white underbelly. The animal’s whiskers twitched in constant motion as it took in all the new smells outside its downy cage.

“This here’s Cochise,” Edgar said. “He’s my little buddy, aren’t you, Cochise? Go on, give him a pet. He’s real soft, and he likes people.”

The girl reached her hand toward the rodent, but was interrupted by the horrified scream of her mother. The rat, startled by the noise, ran up Edgar’s arm and burrowed into his armpit for protection.

“Rat!” the mother screamed, smacking her husband on the back of the head and pulling her daughter away, down the block.

“Goodbye, Cochise,” the little girl yelled, waving at Edgar.

The woman’s shriek had drawn the attention of passing tourists, who all gasped and laughed and pointed at Edgar and his pet. Edgar bowed his head and placed the rat back into his pocket.

“Come on, Cochise,” he said, “let’s go home.”

Edgar ducked into the nearest subway station. He hadn’t made much that day, but he was glad to have enough to pay fare. He wasn’t averse to jumping the gates, but he worried that any cops who might stop him would take Cochise away.

He walked down to the platform, feeling Cochise tense in his pocket as the trains roared past. Edgar patted his coat gently to comfort his friend. The platform was filled with the dead eyes of rush-hour commuters and bored transit cops, which was exactly what Edgar had been hoping for. He had found, in almost twenty years on the streets, that the best way to become invisible was in the midst of a crowd. As the next train arrived and passengers jockeyed for position in the cars, he walked to the end of the platform and jumped down between the tracks.

He walked along the tracks until he found an opening in the right-hand side of the tunnel, where a section of the wall had been left open to allow quick access for work crews. The passageway led to a wide clearing between the two sets of tracks, which had become an underground expressway for the homeless who lived in the deepest recesses of the abandoned rail lines, allowing them to commute to the busiest sections of the city for more fruitful begging. Long-hidden stations, closets, and passageways of this sort stretched for miles below the surface of the metropolis, and Edgar had called many of them his homes over the years.

He had settled into his current spot, at one time some sort of storage room, after the flood waters from the hurricane had been pumped away. For the first few weeks the constant presence of city crews made it a precarious place to camp, but after they had finished, the only people around for miles were the rest of the nameless specters that haunted the underground.

He opened the door and flicked the light switch, which lit up overhead fluorescents in the corner. Whatever had been stored in the room had been cleared out long ago, but empty built-in shelves remained, which had rotted in the flood. The water plastered the newspapers—most dating from the late 70s—to the floor, covering it with blurred newsprint filled with contorted faces.

Edgar sat down on a blanket piled in the far corner of the room, just underneath the lights, and emptied his change into a large glass water jug. He took Cochise out of his coat and placed him on the floor. Once the rat realized they were underground, he began to twitch his nose and gnaw on Edgar’s fingertips.

“I know, I know,” the old man said, and reached into his side pocket to pull out a discarded fast food bag that he had dug out of the trash earlier that day. He unfolded the bag with great ceremony, and said, “Let’s see what’s for dinner today.”

He’d hit the jackpot—inside the bag was an almost complete cheeseburger and a few french fries.

“We’re eating good tonight, my friend,” he said, and peeled the bun off the half-eaten burger to give to the animal. Cochise tried to run off with the bun, but it was too large. Edgar chuckled at his friend’s exuberance. He picked up the bun, to protesting squeals, and tore it into smaller parts. He tossed one of the sections away from him, and watched in amusement as Cochise chased after it and devoured it, stuffing the piece into his cheeks and chomping the chewy bread in large bites. More like a human than an animal, Edgar thought.

Edgar took the meat from the burger for himself, savoring the morsels of cheese and ketchup still pasted to the graying patty. After he had finished the burger and fries he turned the bag over to make sure he had cleaned everything out. A cheese ball fell into his lap. He picked it up and showed it to Cochise. “What say we split it?” he asked the rodent, who crawled up his shoulder and sniffed at the salty, golden sphere.

“Fine, it’s all yours, pal,” Edgar said, and tossed it into the corner of the room. Cochise chased after it, but stopped short. He turned back toward Edgar with an anxious twitch of his nose. Edgar stood and walked toward the cheese ball.

“Now, what’s got you so worried?” he asked. As he bent over to pick it up, he heard the creaking of weak floorboards. He had assumed the entire floor to be made of cement, but the layer of newspaper and trash made it difficult to tell. Too soon for Edgar to avoid it, the rotted wood gave way and he fell through space, landing five feet down on hard brick with a crack that reverberated off the walls of the tunnel he had fallen into.

Edgar screamed in pain and reached for his leg—it was broken, a high fracture, above his knee. He shuddered, unable to breathe from the pulsating waves of pain running up and down his thigh.

He stretched flat on his back. The brick floor was slick with a thin layer of human waste—the wet, fetid odor overwhelmed his nostrils. A light from above shone off the cylindrical walls of a tunnel—an old sewer main, long since forgotten by the city above. The underground had been built up and torn down so many times that there were secret pockets like this all over the city. He’d heard that there were at least three levels to the city’s sewers, some dating back to the 1700s, but this brick didn’t look that old, and there were work crew signs, indicating that someone had been down there in the past few decades. At the far end of the tunnel Edgar saw a jackhammer and work gloves. The place had been abandoned.

There was a squeak from above. Edgar looked up at the hole he had fallen through and saw the curious, twitching nose of Cochise sniffing the sewer.

“Stay up there, little buddy,” Edgar managed to warn him between gulping breaths, but Cochise jumped down onto Edgar’s chest—unleashing a fresh, radiating blast of pain in his upper thigh. The rat sniffed his friend’s face, tickling Edgar’s cheek with his sharp whiskers. Cochise turned to inspect the pool of dark blood on Edgar’s pant leg, then stood straight up on his hind legs and stared into the dark reaches of the tunnel ahead.

“Whoa, pal,” Edgar said in a wavering voice, “you’re freaking me out here.”

The far end of the tunnel was pitch black. Edgar couldn’t see anything, but he could hear the wet, scuttling footfalls of approaching creatures sloshing through the filth. Then came shadows, the outlines of hunched-over animals dragging heavy tails behind them. The light illuminated a set of red, beady eyes, and he heard a loud hiss. Sewer rats—big as dogs, quick as cats, and fierce at protecting their territory. Cochise, still standing at attention, returned a hiss toward the largest of the group.

The attack came from all sides. The leader leapt at Cochise, sending them both tumbling into the shallow puddle of muck behind Edgar’s head. The others came at Edgar—they were on him too quickly for him to figure their numbers. There were rats everywhere. His coat yielded to their sharp teeth, and they dug into the fleshy portion of his midsection. His limbs were weighed down with the thick creatures, each biting and slashing into his flesh. In his numb shock he could manage no scream—only a pathetic trembling of his lower lip and a release of every ounce of urine in his bladder. One of the rats climbed Edgar’s torso and sat on his chest, focusing his wild, red eyes directly into Edgar’s and bit into the side of his throat. Edgar realized that this would be his final moment, and he thrashed in inelegant rage. He would never get off the streets. He would never change his life. He would die in the sewer, slaughtered by murderous rodents.

Then the rat was gone. Edgar drew a deep breath and rolled over onto his side—there in the puddle next to him lay the still, hulking form of the rat that had jumped Cochise. Edgar looked down at his legs. Cochise was biting and clawing with tremendous fury at the much larger animals—and he was winning. He sank his front teeth, which had always gnawed so playfully at Edgar’s fingers when it was feeding time, into the jugular of one of the beasts, ripping its throat apart in one clean bite. The other rats shrank back as Cochise hissed at them, a confident, angry spitting, different than anything that Edgar had ever heard from his companion.

More rats approached from the recesses of the tunnel. Cochise leapt from Edgar’s body and charged at them, attacking them with incisive, instinctual rhythm. They pulled back from his vicious assault, leaving the smaller rat breathing heavy in a puddle of blood and feces.

Cochise turned to face Edgar with a look so wild that, for a moment, Edgar feared he would become the next focus of his friend’s uncovered rage, but instead Cochise just stared at him. His eyes had lost their gentle spirit. Here at last was the wild creature trapped inside for so long, stifled by Edgar’s cautious embrace.

Another rat approached. Cochise jerked his head to face it, and the rat backed away immediately and lay on its belly. Another rat lay down next to it in that fashion, and another, and another, until Cochise was ringed with supplicating rats. Cochise stood on his hind legs and hissed—a loud, jagged noise that echoed down the long brick corridors. The rats scattered into the black, and Cochise turned to follow.

Halfway down the tunnel, he stopped, turned, and looked at Edgar. For just a moment he twitched his whiskers and sniffed the air, became Edgar’s beloved pet again, and then Cochise continued down the tunnel and disappeared forever.

Edgar spent three days at the bottom of the sewer. He was discovered by another resident of the tunnels, who had hoped to find shelter in the secret passage and instead found a dehydrated, delirious Edgar calling for help with the last of his voice. The leg never fully healed, and Edgar never returned to the underground. He slept on park benches or in alleyways. He became used to the company of people again, and learned to love the night sky of New York, which glowed with brilliant blue light until dawn.

A month after he left the underground, he woke to find food by his side—at first only small pieces of half-chewed pastry, but then full bricks of cheese and choice cuts of steak, with only a few bites taken from them. It didn’t matter what part of the city he camped in—the gifts followed him everywhere he went. He began each morning with a fresh surprise and a beautiful sunrise.

Edgar began to feel as if the entire city was pushing him along to greater things. He had reason to hope again, and he was grateful to have his life, the city, and such important friends.

Matthew Guerruckey is the founding editor of the online literary magazine Drunk Monkeys and a fiction writer. His short fiction has previously appeared in The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, Connotation Press, Bartleby Snopes, and The Weekenders Magazine. Matthew lives in North Hollywood with his wife, poet SC Stuckey, and their cats Harrison and Lennon. He is working on his first novel.

Lead image“MM00A-1602 SANPIE STR BAR D3200” (via Flickr user Marsel Minga)