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the subway rats

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“the subway rats - any donation helps” was written on a wooden sign in colorful loopy letters in front of a group of kids. Blaine didn’t think too much of it, just another bunch of homeless or disadvantaged kids needing some extra cash. He felt bad for them.

The oldest, probably the same age as Blaine, used buckets, baskets, a snare and bass drum, and a rusty cymbal as a drum set, a bandana tied around his forehead like a rockstar and held worn drumsticks that pounded out a complicated and compelling beat.

Another kid played an acoustic guitar that looked like it was worth no more than $50, and beside him a girl played a complex tune on a higher-end toy piano.

The youngest played something on a ukulele that complemented the guitar, and together the four of them made decent music.

Blaine dropped five dollars into the box next to their sign, and looked up to see the drummer string at him with hopeless, passionate eyes. Blaine held the drummer’s gaze for a moment too long, and gave the drummer an awkward but kind smile as he made his way away from the subway.

 

*

 

“I think that’s it for today guys, come on. Let’s go home,” the drummer said, putting buckets inside each other and gathering up their equipment.

The guitarist, Mikey, counted up the money in the box as he helped clean up. “Dude!” he said, “143 dollars!”

“Not bad at all,” the drummer said. “Everyone set?”

The kids replied affirmingly, instruments and money in hand.

“Let’s move out, rats.”

The hideout was less than four blocks from the subway, but the walk seemed to take hours as the group gripped their instruments with their whole bodies and made their way across New York City.

They returned their things to their places and each took a seat on their sleeping bags. The drummer tossed a single serve Kraft Mac & Cheese to each of them and started a fire. He placed a pot over the fire and boiled water for dinner.

The kids ate quickly, hungry from a long days work.

“Can we get McDonalds for breakfast?” the piano player, Frankie, asked.

“Yeah, maybe,” the drummer replied.

“We made a lot of money today,” Frankie said, her tone of voice like puppy dog eyes.

“It’s not about the money,” the drummer said, putting out the fire. “I don’t want you guys eating like crap every day. Tomorrow we’ll go to the pharmacy and get some bread and veggies and then play a set, okay?”

“Okay,” the kids said in unison.

The drummer looked around the hideout, the third floor of an abandoned parking lot that claimed to be under construction. But, a few months ago when he found the place, it looked exactly the same.

The youngest, Mouse, lay down on his sleeping bag, strumming a simple chord progression on his uke. “You gonna get some new stuff tonight?” he asked the drummer.

“Probably tomorrow. Wanna go play with them?” he replied, gesturing to Mikey and Frankie doing cartwheels around the hideout.

“Nah,” Mouse said. “I’m good.”

The drummer was 23 years old, and lived on the streets ever since he ran away from his dad. His mom died when he was thirteen, and after that his dad started to turn to hard drugs and alcohol, so eventually he ran away. Never made contact or seen him since.

He had picked up the other kids over the years. First Mouse, who was only six at the time (now 12). Mouse was kicked out of his apartment by his promiscuous mother and her boyfriend at the time, for reasons the drummer would come to know. They slept on benches and in alleys for nine months together until they found Frankie and Mikey, who were best friends living in an orphanage together and until they escaped. Literally, like in some low-budget animated movie.

They were both now 15.

The drummer hit buckets for money before he found any of them, and when Mikey showed up with a guitar he stole from the orphanage, the amazing idea to make a (literal) band of misfits struck his mind like lightning.

The four of them all loved music; they loved playing it, being around it, innovating it. They saved up to buy Frankie a keyboard from a toy store, which wasn’t even that cheap, and a uke for Mouse. Frankie had taken lessons when she was still living with her parents in Brooklyn, and Mouse picked up the uke in a few months.

They found you could get good at something if it’s the only thing you do all day.

The Subway Rats were born. Not always welcomed by pedestrians and police officers, they made their living playing music by the subway entrance nearest to the hideout.

They were only living in the hideout for the past five months, as the police kicked them out of their previous spot, which was home to many other families and homeless people. They were lucky to find the hideout, especially since it was so close to a subway station.

The drummer lay down and chuckled thinking about the guy who gave them a Lincoln right before they packed up for the day. He was just the same age as the drummer, maybe even younger. And he was probably on his way from some expensive school going back to his apartment with a phone and television and fridge full of food, while the drummer was… lying on a sleeping bag in a parking lot.

“Goodnight, Kurt,” Mouse said.

“Night,” the drummer replied.

 

*

 

Coffee at his favorite café was a must for Blaine every morning. As a Sophomore at NYU, his days were always busy, as he was a member of many clubs and took more classes than he may be needed to in order to complete his requirements as soon as he could.

He’d ride the subway from his apartment in Greenpoint to the Eighth Street stop right by NYU. It wasn’t a dreadfully long ride, which he appreciated, and his roommates made the rent bearable.

He worked part-time at Café Grumpy which was walking distance from his apartment. He had it all figured out.

Blaine wasn’t not-used to seeing homeless people on the street. He never really knew how to react, and always tried to tip performers because he loved the music that lived on in people’s hearts even when the rest of their lives weren’t amazing.

He got home that night earlier than usual so he decided to make dinner for his roommates, Rachel and Sam.

“Hello!” Rachel sing-songed as she opened the door.

Blaine and Sam were playing a video game that they paused and walked over to meet Rachel at the dining table.

“How was everyone’s day?” Rachel asked, scooping salad onto her plate.

“Pretty uneventful,” Sam said.

Blaine hid a smile as he made his plate. “Well, there’s this guy…”

“Dude!” Sam exclaimed.

“It’s nothing yet,” Blaine said, his face and expression showing the mix of excitement and embarrassment. “But he’s in my music theory class, and he’s super cute.”

“Is he gay?” Sam asked.

“You can’t just ask people,” Rachel said.

“It doesn’t matter, we’re friends, and I might ask him out if I find out he’s, well, not straight.”

“That’s awesome, dude,” Sam said.

Blaine accepted Sam’s rather aggressive pat on the back and allowed himself to be proud of himself for sharing his crush. He was a huge romantic, and really hoped this thing with this guy would work out.

Blaine went to sleep that night with the face of the drumming boy from the subway band in his head. He tried to shake it from his mind but it was one of those things that keeps someone awake. He wasn’t sure why.

 

*

 

“Hey, Oscar, I was just wondering if you wanted to grab some drinks or something after class?” Blaine asked, mostly asking the floor rather than the boy.

“Yeah! Yeah. I’d love that,” Oscar replied, beaming at Blaine.

Blaine felt his stomach do a flip and rocked on his heels. “Awesome, I’ll, this is my last class of the day, so do you want to just go from here?”

“Sure,” Oscar said.

Of course Blaine couldn’t really focus on the professor for the last ten minutes of class. He prayed his hair looked alright and he wasn’t sweating as much as he felt he was.

They walked to a coffee shop talking about school and music and sat down with their drinks.

“You’re a Sophomore, right?” Blaine asked.

“Yeah, and you are, too?”

Blaine nodded and smiled at his coffee.

“So, I’ve never really been on a date with a guy before,” Oscar said. “Not that this is a date, but it’s just really cool that I’m here with you.”

“Oh, are you not, gay?” Blaine asked, fearing the worst.

“I’m bi.” Oscar replied. “I’ve just never worked up the guts to go out with a guy before. “I’m glad you asked to hang out. This is nice.”

“Yes, this is nice,” Blaine said.

They finished their coffee while talking about New York and their lives and their friends, bonding over so much more than they could’ve hoped for.

“Would you want to come have dinner at my place?” Blaine asked. “Just to keep talking, I feel like you’re my long lost brother or something.”

“Hopefully not a brother,” Oscar said, causing Blaine to bite his lip and laugh a little. “And of course I’d love to come over.”

On the subway, Blaine felt Oscar’s hand slowly creep over to his, and without looking at Oscar or their hands, Blaine let their fingers intertwine. They walked off the subway holding hands, and the faint sound of music coming from outside the station made Blaine almost stop in his tracks.

The Subway Rats pumped out a tune similar to the one Blaine heard the other day.

“I love these guys!” Oscar said. “They used to play outside my subway station, I’ve been wondering where their new venue was. Wanna stay and listen a bit?”

Terrified to say no, Blaine said, “yeah, sure.”

Their hands still laced together, they watched the group of teenagers play.

“Aren’t they good?” Oscar asked. “Blaine?”

Blaine shook himself out of the trance of the drummer, and wanted to dart across the street when he realized he had been staring at the boy for over a minute.

“Totally. Amazing.”

Oscar stepped forward and put a dollar bill in their box. Blaine noticed the disappointed look of the ukulele player at the small donation, and Blaine opened his wallet and placed ten dollars into their bucket, giving the ukulele kid a smile. They smiled back.

“That’s very kind of you,” Oscar said.

“Like you said, it’s good music,” Blaine responded.

The song ended and Blaine broke away from Oscar’s hand to clap for the band.

“Ready to go?” Oscar asked. Blaine nodded in reply. “You guys are amazing,” Oscar said to the kids.

“Have a good night,” Blaine said to the band, but mostly to the drummer.

The drummer raised his eyebrows and gave a subtle head nod to Blaine in return.

Blaine slung his arm around Oscar as they walked to his apartment. Blaine quickly texted his roommates that Oscar would be joining them for dinner, to order pizza, and to not make a big deal out of it.

“You live in Greenpoint, how very hipster of you,” Oscar joked.

“I try,” Blaine replied with a laugh.

 

*

 

“Ready to call it a night?” Kurt asked the band.

“One more song!” Mikey said.

“Okay fine,” Kurt said. “But I’m tired as hell so make it a quick one.”

Mikey and Frankie exchanged looks and proposed their favorite song. Kurt agreed by hitting his drumsticks together four times, and the Subway Rats performed their encore.

Kurt got sheet music from the public computers in the library and copied it into his notebook, then taught the music to the kids over the course of a few nights. They now had a catalogue of about 40 or so songs that they rotated, and Kurt always let the kids choose which songs they were to play each day.

When they were finished, Mikey counted up the money, holding up the ten dollar bill from the college kid they got earlier. “Score! Can we get some candy or something?”

Kurt laughed and snatched the $10 from Mikey in a playful way. “No, we’re saving up for a new piano for Frankie. She needs more than three octaves if we’re going to play any good new stuff.”

“Fine, whatever,” Mikey said, putting his guitar in the giant suitcase they used for a case.

“You guys wanna get Subway for dinner?” Kurt asked in an attempt to cheer them up.

“Uh, yeah!” Mouse said, along with other hoots of affirmation form the group.

“Let’s get this crap home and I’ll take orders and pick it up,” Kurt said, slinging a stool under his arm.

They made their way back to the hideout and Kurt tore out a page in his notebook and passed it around to get what everybody wanted.

“Just stay here while I’m out,” he said.

“We’re not children,” Frankie said, “or dogs. We can stay put without you telling us to and bribing us with treats.”

“I know,” Kurt said, smiling, “just wanna keep you guys safe.”

“See ya Kurt!” Mouse said, using their chalk to draw on a concrete post.

Kurt walked along the streets of New York, passing the quaint townhouses and shops and stores, wishing he could casually walk in and buy whatever like the people he saw doing so. He got the sandwiches, which cost just under $20 dollars. He winced at the price.

They only ate out once every week or so, and even that meant going to whatever fast food place was healthy enough for Kurt’s standards but also cheap enough for their budget.

With the few extra dollars he had left over he went to a 7-11 and bought some bread, peanut butter, and fruit snacks for the next few days.

“You people better enjoy what cost a quarter of today’s cash,” Kurt said, handing out the sandwiches when he got back.

The band dug into the fresh meal and Kurt lit a fire. The autumn nights were starting to get chilly.

“This lighter’s almost dead,” Kurt said to himself.

“We can get a new one tomorrow,” Mouse said calmly.

Mouse was hardly where Kurt wasn’t. He looked up to Kurt like a father, or more like a caregiving older brother, and in return, Kurt tried to give Mouse special attention when he needed it. Mouse had been through a lot.

Kurt used the wrapping on the sandwich as fuel for the fire, and picked from a pile of thick branches they collected to keep it alive. Kurt hugged his knees to his chest, and Mouse crawled over to Kurt’s sleeping bag, resting his head on Kurt’s shoulder.

“Kurt!” Frankie yelled.

“Yeah?”

“I need more tampons.”

“Like now?” Kurt said, their financial situation not being able to leave him alone for longer than a minute.

“Like in the next few days,” Frankie yelled back.

She and Mikey were eating their sandwiches and drawing with chalk where Mouse was before Kurt left to pick up dinner.

“Am I going to need those?” Mouse asked Kurt.

Kurt dreaded to reply. “Finish your dinner,” he told Mouse. “We can chat in the morning.”

Disappointed, Mouse crawled back to his food and finished the sub. He couldn’t tell why Kurt wouldn’t answer. Mouse hated how Kurt stressed about money all the time.

But he hated even more how Kurt tried to protect Mouse from things that were undeniable.