The train horn blares as the doors slide shut and it slowly trundles off, wheels rumbling on the tracks. The whole station seems to shake as it speeds up into a blur and shoots away, leaving everything in its dust.
The boy waits until its noise is reduced to a mere echo at the end of the tunnel, then bends down to readjust the bag of coins on the ground and gives his guitar a few test strums.
There's already a group of people hanging around nearby, watching him from a distance. An engaged couple so captivated by his previous song they don't mind missing their train. An old lady with a cane, thinking of how similar he is to her deceased grandson. And a single mother with two toddlers hanging on to her hands, watching with wide, curious eyes.
The boy clears his throat and begins, hands dancing over the strings, blue eyes lost in imagination. After a few seconds, he breaks out into verse, voice gentle but clear.
The song's about his mother. About how she worked double shifts to pay for his school fees. About how she cried when he told her he wanted to be a street singer, and not a famous star. About how she loved him anyway, but wondered why he wasn't aiming for fame, for a good life. About how he decided that he would travel the world, be his own man, earn enough for a living, but not have to be famous to do so. And then about himself, sitting by her bed, as she gave her last breath.
The young woman wipes a tear from her cheek and rests her head on her fiancé's shoulder. The grandma smiles approvingly, wrinkles hardly visible in the subway's dim light. And, near the end of the song, the mother allows her son to bounce up to the singer and drop a five-dollar bill into the bag on the floor.
"What's your name?" The toddler whispers to the boy. "I swear, you're gonna be famous one day."
The boy shakes his head. "It's Alec. You won't be seeing me on any posters anytime soon."
And then the train comes, blasting its loud horn into the fragile atmosphere. People pour down the exits and crowd the platform, and, within seconds, the boy's audience is swept up with them.
In a few minutes, the boy's all packed up – guitar back in the case, bag of money in the pocket of his coat – and he hurries up the stairs before being thrust into the traffic of the city once more.
The sky overhead is a wash of indigo and pink sprinkled with stars, lying behind a horizon of bright buildings and skyscrapers. The harbour is lit by the lights and hubbub of the city, not to mention dotted with endless amounts of boats and ships. The breeze coming in from the shore plays with the lapels of the boy's coat and ruffles his hair as he leaves the subway station and walks headfirst into the evening crowd.
The boy manoeuvres through the sea of people, trying to avoid stepping on a businessman's shoe or tripping over a child, and makes his way to the promenade. A girl around his age with a slender greyhound padding along at her heels brushes past him as he crosses the road to the waterfront. He hears the leash go stiff and feels wet slobber dribble down his hand as the dog pulls back and turns to greet him.
"Astro!" The girl struggles with the leash, trying to pull away, and smiles awkwardly at the boy as she says, "Sorry about that."
The boy shakes his head, wiping the back of his hand on his pant leg, and runs his fingers through the dog's smooth fur. "S'okay. I used to have one like that as well."
The girl nods, murmurs a quick goodbye, and drags the hound away. Astro sends a forlorn glance at the boy before giving him a last lick and follows the girl away, whining.
The boy gazes at the greyhound as it trots after the girl, blending into the crowd of people heading towards the station. A fleeting thought escapes from his brain, bringing back memories of his mother, of his childhood – undoing everything he'd done to try to forget them, to try to bury them in the deepest parts of his mind. He looks just like Ace.
A sort of numbing dizziness hits the boy like a wave, causing him to buckle over and clutch the railing for balance.
"Isn't he cute? Told ya turning ten would be special."
"He's perfect. I'm gonna name him Ace."
For a moment, a hopeful sensation washes over him. Then it's shattered with sorrow, pure sorrow.
"No! What happened? What are the doctors doing to him?"
"Calm down, sweetie. Calm down. This is the only way to end his suffering."
The boy shakes his head and clears the voices, the pictures, everything. Forget. Forget. Forget the pain.
Then he catches one more glimpse of Astro before he disappears into the subway.
I would've gotten another if I hadn't had taken on this life.
He sets his guitar case down and unpacks, once again placing his bag on the ground and pulling the strap of his instrument over his head. Music would soothe, clean his mind, and block up everything he was running away from.
And his next song begins. Begins with a soft, peaceful strum, weaving its way into the city noise and catching the attention of a few passersby. And then his voice, soulful and unique:
Mozart, well he had a lot of names
And mine, none of them are the same
But I, don't need a lot of fame
This time, you can call me Shane
The song continues, so dark and lonely that at first, no one seems to take notice of it. But then the lyrics curl into the traffic, waft into ears, catch people's attention – and by the end of the song, there's another small crowd surrounding him, mesmerised.
"Sorry, what was your name again?" A woman asks as he finishes the song.
The boy looks up. "Shane."
And after a few more songs, the clocktower a few streets away strikes midnight. The crowd disperses, and the boy packs up, off to his next destination:
He catches the last bus, so exhausted he doesn't realise he's dozed off, face against the glass, until the bus driver wakes him up at his stop. He thanks the driver and walks home, arriving at his apartment at about 1:00 AM. He then takes the only functional elevator up to the twelfth floor – the highest it can go, climbs eight flights of stairs before arriving at the sixteenth floor, and unlocks his door.
His flat is a tiny, 200-square-foot studio with a tiny fogged-up window, a small bathroom, a desk and chair shoved against the wall, and an unmade bed sitting next to it. There isn't very much personal evidence around the place that suggests the presence of a human except for a photograph of the boy's mother lying next to his laptop and a lone succulent plant on the edge of the desk.
After counting the day's income and pouring it into a jar on his desk, the boy washes up and is in bed by 1:30 AM. He flips open his laptop and goes onto the Internet, typing in "Alec street singer", then "Shane street singer". The results are endless, consisting of many positive comments and compliments.
"Who is this boy? Why isn't he famous?"
"I've seen him a few times already. He never fails to surprise me!"
"After years of singing on the street and having so much success, how has he not been offered a chance to sign a record deal?"
The boy smiles for the first time that day, thinking of the kid at the subway. I swear, you're gonna be famous one day.
Not if I can help it, he replies in his head. I'm used to changing identities. Names. Being different versions of myself. That way, I stay invisible.
He shuts his laptop and switches off the light, engulfed in darkness once more. Then he reaches over to turn his phone off.
"Goodnight, Siri," he mumbles before turning on his side and pulling the covers up to his chin.