Tune In

So there was this girl named Hailey who lived in a small town in the middle of America, where the land didn't curve much and where there were more cows than people. You could tell by the smell.

Hailey was going into her senior year of high school. She was incredibly nervous about it, for three reasons. First, she had failed two classes the year before, so if she wanted to graduate this year she had to take a full schedule plus a make-up class in Algebra 2 on the computer after school. That meant two English classes and she had no option but to pass Algebra 2. The state insisted that every student make it through Algebra 2 with at least a D to prove they were fit to function in society. To be honest, this was Hailey's third attempt at Algebra 2 and the teacher had all but given up on her. At this point she knew the book by heart, but she was still afraid she wouldn't be able to remember the rules or get the letters and numbers to line up straight. She could add and subtract, no problem, but switching all the symbols back and forth over the equals sign and up and down over the fraction bar left her with a headache.

The second reason she was nervous was because she had finally figured out what she wanted to do after high school, and she was scared to death she wouldn't be able to make it happen. Hailey had spent most of the summer alone, playing her old guitar and writing songs. She spent hours every day in her room, scratching out and re-writing lyrics, experimenting with chord progressions, practicing her voice and seeing how far it would go. By the end of June, she had discovered an intense passion for creating music. It brought her soul to to life and gave her a way to express thoughts and feelings she couldn't seem to capture in her English writing assignments. With money she earned helping on her uncle's farm during the hours she wasn't in her room, she bought a brand new Gibson acoustic guitar. It was dark black and so shiny she polished it with a soft cloth every time she was done playing to scrub out her fingerprints.

Hailey wanted to go to a music school in the city after she was done with high school. She had found out about a program that took only fifteen students a year, in which you were trained in whatever instrument you chose and given a chance to record in a studio and work with professional musicians. That, plus regular college classes so you could earn a degree and focus on your music at the same time. Hailey poured over the school's website every day that summer, scrolling through pictures of the students

at work, dreaming of being there, living in the city, having a chance to take at least one step toward a future she could hardly imagine coming true. To get in, she had to attend auditions in October and play something she had written. When Hailey thought about the auditions, her stomach clenched into a knot. When she thought about passing her classes so she could actually finish high school and move onto college, her forehead broke out into a cold sweat. And she still had one more reason to be nervous about school starting up again.


Beth had been Hailey's best friend since they were three years old and they met in the nursery at church. Mrs. Dowd had been taking care of the babies that day. She had a habit of pinning the kids in the corner with the big soft blocks, then sitting in the rocking chair facing them and nodding off while they played. Hailey and Beth, for some reason or another, had been the only two babies in the nursery that Sunday. Bethp;s family had just moved to town and Beth hadn't acclimated to the nursery yet. Somehow, Hailey could still remember sitting there in the foam prison, holding her stuffed yellow bunny and staring at this crying girl across from her. Mrs. Dowd was asleep and Beth had gotten so scared at being left in a strange room in a tall, pastel colored cage that she just sat on the ground and let

her tears overwhelm her. But when Beth cried, it was almost completely soundless, just tears and soft, hiccuping sobs. She still cried like that. Hailey couldnp;t remember why, but after a few minutes of watching Beth cry, she walked over and put her bunny into Beth's arms. And from then on, as it usually goes, they were inseparable.

Until this summer. This was the first summer that hadn't been spent hanging out together in town, or at the lake, or working together for Hailey's uncle to make extra money. Instead, Beth had turned into some kind of twisted alternative version of herself, mean and angry and completely unpredictable. Hailey had given up every kind of social media, because Beth was always there making biting comments about her or at her. Youth group was nearly impossible to get through unless Hailey arrived late, left early and sat as far from Beth as was possible. Otherwise, Beth would make whispered comments to the kids around her, just loud enough for Hailey to catch a few stray words, such as "ugly," "stupid," "loser," and every so often a word Hailey couldnp;t believe was coming out of Beth's mouth.

Hailey knew exactly when it all started, but she still couldn't figure out why the thing that happened had turned Beth so completely around.

"I hate him," Beth had said.

She was holding her report card, and Hailey could see the tears ready to well into her eyes.

Beth had failed History. She had studied the entire night before the final test, but couldn't make up for an entire semester of skipped readings and missed assignments. She got a 37 on the test and a very low F in the class.

Which meant...

"I won't graduate," Beth said. "There's no way I'm going to graduate."

"Don't say that," Hailey said. "I failed two classes, you moron, and I'm not giving up. There's no way I'm not going to graduate--we just have to actually try next year."

Beth folded up the report card and shoved it in her pocket before her big, silent tears could soak it. She looked up at Hailey, her eyes filled with more than just tears.

"Want to help me after school?"

Hailey raised an eyebrow. "With what?"

She found out twenty minutes after the school bell rang. Beth met her behind the bleachers with a big black bag in her hands. Hailey peeked inside and saw eighteen rolls of toilet paper.

"Is there something I should know about?" Hailey said. "Have you seen a doctor about this?"

Beth laughed. "I think Mr. Fontaine needs a little surprise when he comes out to his car today. Want to pick out your roll?"

Hailey hesitated. Beth stared at her and Hailey could see that behind the defiant gleam in her eyes, there was a look somewhere between fear and shame. She reached in and grabbed a toilet paper roll off the top of the pile.

"Where's he parked?"

They successfully wrapped ten rolls of toilet paper around the blue sedan before it happened. After ten rolls, you really couldn't see much of the car. Even the tires were expertly wrapped so that they looked like four massive rolls of toilet paper. As Hailey was neatly winding the eleventh roll around the driver's side mirror, Beth ripped the toilet paper off of the front of the car to reveal the windshield.

"Hey, what are you..."

Hailey looked up to see a can of black spray paint in Beth's hand. She was shaking it and making the little ball inside clack-clack-clack in a high, tinny rattle.

"No way," Hailey exclaimed. "Beth, that's too much."

Beth raised the can. "Just a little message. I'm sure he can scrape it off over the summer."

Hailey darted at her, grabbing for the can.

Beth jerked away to the other side of the car.

"Hailey, what are you doing? I thought you were going to help me."

"Not with something that could get us both kicked out of school." Hailey edged over toward the front of the car, ready to spring across and grab the can.

"School's over." Beth sidestepped away from Hailey.

"Yeah, but I'd like to come back next year and finish. Remember, we both do actually want to graduate."

Hailey was faster than Beth. She always had been. She lunged, grabbed, and had the can away from Beth in a second.

Beth gave Hailey a look, one mixed with disgust and something else Hailey didn't want to try to decipher.

They heard voices coming and broke into a run, disappearing behind the bleachers just as Mr. Fontaine came around the corner. When he saw their excellent workmanship, he laughed and shook his head. Just to be sure it was his car, he pressed the unlock button on his keys. The car gave a muffled "Boop Boop" underneath its thick white blanket.

The next day it started. Hailey found a nasty message underneath one of the pictures she'd posted online the week before of Beth and herself. From there, cruel, horrible comments came raining down on her from every direction. In a week, Hailey felt like her entire friendship with Beth--half of her life--had just been some fuzzy fantasy.

The second Saturday after school ended, Hailey couldn't bring herself to leave her bedroom. She stayed in bed till noon, alternating between crying into her pillow and just trying to sleep and forget the world existed. By the time her mom got worried enough to knock on the door and ask if Hailey was ever going to come out, her face was streaked with ugly red patches and her eyes were swollen and puffy. Hailey called to her mom through the closed door that her stomach hurt and she just wanted to sleep all day.

She was left alone.

Sitting by the window, staring at the long, green fields filling up the horizon behind her house, Hailey suddenly had an urge to grab her old guitar in the corner. It was a hand-me-down from a cousin who'd gone to college across the country and given away most of his stuff when he left. It took Hailey an hour to tune it, but she finally figured out she could put an app on her phone to help her get the strings back into harmony. And then...finally, she was able to release the intense emotions tearing apart her heart.

So school started. By the time the first three weeks were over, Hailey was grateful for her full schedule. It kept her busy and focused, which made it easy to ignore Beth. Everything that had been going on over summer kept right on going into the school year.

Senior year was a revelation for Hailey. A summer spent composing lyrics had opened up her writing. The English teacher pulled her aside after the first assignment was turned in and graded.

"Hailey, I need to ask you something. Just be honest with me. Did you write this essay yourself?"

Hailey's face turned ash-white. "Yes," she said, quickly and defensively.

"I'm sorry," Mrs. Hall said. "I knew it sounded like your voice, but it's remarkably more mature and well thought out than anything you've written before. Thank you for working so hard on this assignment."

"Oh...sure," Hailey said.

Algebra 2 was not easy, but apparently for Hailey learning math by herself through a computer course was much easier than learning in a classroom full of other students. Either that or it just took three times through the same problems to get the numbers to line up straight. Fifteen lessons down and she was pulling a solid low B.

And only eight more months to go until she could finally reach out and touch her future.

Every day when school was over and she was done with her computer class, Hailey went straight home and worked on her song for the auditions in October. She had talked to her parents about the school, and even though they were surprised that Hailey suddenly had such a deep interest in music, they supported her. Her mom helped her fill out the application and send it in. By the middle of September, Hailey got a notice in the mail that her application had been received and she had been assigned a spot in the auditions.

"Hailey, how are you doing?"

Pastor Alex sat down next to Hailey before she could jump up and dart out. The other kids milled around them, and Hailey saw Beth give her a disgusted glance.

Hailey gave a classic shrug. "Fine."

Pastor Alex grinned. "Sure you are. You come in and out of here so quick on Wednesday nights sometimes I wonder if I just imagine that you're here."

"At least I come," Hailey said.

"What have you been up to lately? How's school going?"

Hailey grinned now. "What other kinds of questions do the books tell you to ask me?"

"Oh, you know, how are things with your parents? Had any bad thoughts lately? Seen any good movies this week?"

Hailey looked down at her hands in her lap. She picked at one of the callouses that had formed on her fingertips from playing guitar every day. She felt a strange sort of pride in her flat, shiny fingertips. The first month they'd been intensely painful, like sharp needles shoving into her fingertips every time she pressed down on the guitar strings. But then after awhile they turned into tough patches that gave her enough strength to play for hours at a time.

Pastor Alex recognized the sign of a dedicated guitar player.

"I didn't know you played guitar," he said. "How long have you been playing?"

Hailey dropped her hands and folded them together.

"This summer," she said.

"Have you written any songs?"

"Oh..." Hailey said.

"Come on. I'd love to hear you play. It looks like you've been practicing quite a bit."

Hailey looked at Pastor Alex. "I do have this song I'm working on for an audition in October. I...I'm pretty nervous about it, so it might be..."

She broke off, but Pastor Alex guessed what she was trying to say.

"Want me to listen and give you feedback?"

Hailey nodded.

"You can play it for me now, if you want. You can use one of the guitars on stage."

Hailey looked over to the stage at the front of the youth room. The equipment the worship team used to play songs at the beginning of the service were always lined up and ready to go. She glanced over to see if Beth was still in the room. She was just walking out the door. There were only a few other kids still milling about, so Hailey said,


She walked with Pastor Alex to the stage. He picked up a guitar and handed it to Hailey.

"You can sit on that stool if you need to," he said.

She arranged herself on the tall stool and slipped the guitar strap around her back. This guitar was a little bigger than hers, but it felt okay. She strummed loosely a couple of times, checking to be sure the guitar was in tune. She ran

her left hand up and down the frets, feeling the strings under her fingers, then began her song.

Pastor Alex sat on the front row and watched her play. This was Hailey's first performance for another person, so she had no way to know that when she played, she closed her eyes and sang with an expression of deep contentment and peace. Pastor Alex could see also, being a guitar player himself, that she had a natural rhythm and feel for the movement between chords. He smiled and leaned back, letting the music drift over him.

When Hailey was done, she opened her eyes and waited nervously for Pastor Alex's reaction.

"Do you think you could play that for the youth group next week?" he said.

That was not what Hailey had expected to hear.

"I don't think I could do that."

"It's a beautiful song," Pastor Alex said. "I'd love for you to share it with everyone."

"It was okay, then?"

Pastor Alex nodded. "God's given you an amazing talent. And you said that you need to perform it for some auditions in October?"

Hailey shifted on the chair, hugging the guitar closer to herself.

"Yeah. They're for a music school I want to go to next fall."

"Well," Pastor Alex said. "Performing can be pretty terrifying. It might be good practice to play it front of your friends first."

If he only knew.

"So what do you think? Want to bring your guitar along next week and play for us?"

Oddly enough, Hailey did. If she and Beth had still been friends, like they had only six months before, she would have jumped at this opportunity. The thought of Beth as she was now staring at her from the audience gave Hailey another stomachache. But also, hope. Maybe playing the song for her would change her back somehow, like music charming the savage beast.

"Okay," Hailey said.

As Hailey strummed the last chord, the youth group broke into applause, cheers and whistles. She'd practiced for hours that week, nerves twisting her inside constantly at the thought of playing in front of them. But as soon as she started playing, she closed her eyes and the tension melted. And now their appreciation for her song and music made her smile so big she felt like her face would break.

As the applause died down, Pastor Alex came back up to the stage. He gave her a wink and a nod.

"Thanks for sharing that with us, Hailey. So, anyone..."

As Pastor Alex moved things along, Hailey set her guitar in the corner of the stage and walked down the aisle back to her seat. A girl grabbed her hand as she passed.

"Great job, Hailey," she whispered.

"Thanks," Hailey said. She slipped into her seat and completely ignored the rest of the service while her mind floated away with dreams of future performances and songs to play for people.

She stayed after youth group this week, talking with people about playing guitar and about the school she wanted to go next year. A couple of kids asked about the auditions and thought they might be able to come and watch her perform.

When everyone was finally leaving, Hailey went to the stage to pick up her guitar. It wasn't where he had left it after the performance. She looked through the other instruments on the stage, but couldn't find it anywhere.

Pastor Alex was just saying goodbye to some kids.

"Pastor Alex," Hailey said, walking up slowly, trying not to interrupt.

"See you Sunday," Pastor Alex said to the kids as they left. "What's up, Hailey?"

"Have you seen my guitar? I left it right by the stage."

Pastor Alex helped Hailey look all over the youth room for her guitar, but it was nowhere to be found. After an hour, they gave up.

"I'm sorry, Hailey," he said. His face was serious and troubled. The worst case scenario was that one of the other students had taken it. But it was always possible that...

"Hopefully there's just been some kind of mistake. I promise I'm going to figure this out. When did you say your auditions were?"

"In ten days," Hailey said.

"I know that we'll get this figured out before then, but if not you can use my guitar for your auditions. Don't worry, though, okay?"

Hailey nodded, fighting back tears.

But she couldn't stop the tears from streaming down her face when she arrived home fifteen minutes later. Her parents were inside, the TV flickering through the living room window. On the front porch steps, leaning against the railing, was her guitar. In ugly purple spray paint, covering the entire front of her guitar, was seared the word "LOSER."

The third rock hit squarely on Beth's bedroom window. It resounded so loud that Hailey was afraid that she might have cracked it. A second later, the window opened and Beth's head popped out. She looked down and saw Hailey. She seemed like she wanted to jerk her head back inside immediately, but Hailey said fiercely,

"Come down here."

Hailey and Beth stared at one another. Hailey's face was streaked with tears. Beth's face was passive, revealing nothing.

"What can I do?" Hailey said. "What can I do to make you stop hating me?"

"Why does it even matter to you?" Beth said. "We're not even friends."

Hailey's mouth dropped open.

"When did that happen?" she nearly yelled. She dropped her voice. "When did we stop being friends? Because I completely missed that moment."

"Friends help each other," Beth said flatly. "Friends back one another up."

Hailey shook her head. "I never let you down. I just didn't let you do something completely idiotic."

Beth shook her head and sneered at Hailey. "Right."

She turned to walk away, but Hailey grabbed her by the shoulder.

"Beth, stop. Why can't you see that I just didn't want you to get hurt?"

Beth turned around, slowly. Her hard expression began to crack.

"Not get hurt? You completely ignored me for months. After you wouldn't help me get back at Mr. Fontaine. You abandoned me when I needed you the most."

Her eyes began to fill with tears. Hailey's head spun. She had thought Beth abandoned her, saying so many cruel things, but maybe it was her who hadn't been there for Beth. Her head filled with a dull ache as her world flipped upside down.

She took a step toward Beth.

"I didn't think that I..."

Beth sat down on the ground, right on the grass in the dark. Her shoulders shook with her sobs.

"I just had no one, and I still have no one. I have to take a whole other year of school, and you're going to leave me next year and go off to your stupid music school and then I'll be completely alone."

Hailey lowered herself to the ground next to Beth.

"Beth, I think you can finish, too, if you try. It's not too late."

"You don't know how hard it is," said Beth, wiping her eyes. "You've always been smarter and faster and better than me. You might be able to make up your classes, but there's no way that I can do all of that work. And now you're some amazing guitar player and will forget that I even exist."

"No," Hailey said, "I'll never do that. I still want to be your friend. You're still my best friend."

Beth shook her head. "Whatever."

"You are," Hailey said. "I would never want you to feel like I'm hurting you. I can help you with your class. We can still graduate together. I know you can do it."

Beth sighed and looked away. She shook her head.

"Beth," Hailey said. "Look at me."

Beth turned to look at Hailey. Both of them had tear-streaked faces now.

"We can do it."

Beth's eyes were full of fear, but she said, "You really think so?"

Hailey smiled.

"I know we can."

Senior year with a best friend is much more fun than Senior year without a best friend. Over the next week, Hailey realized just how quiet and uncertain life had felt without Beth by her side. They faced school together now. Intimidating teachers grew less scary when they could pass commentary under their breath to other each at the back of class. Gym class was much more fun when you had your partner there to help you spike the volleyball across the net. Beth even came and sat with Hailey while she took her computer class after school.

"You could bring your history work with you," Hailey suggested.

So Beth sat at a table next to Hailey in the computer lab, her textbook and papers spread out in front of her. Hailey stared intently at the computer screen, punching in a few numbers every so often.

"Hailey," Beth whispered.

"Hmm?" Hailey responded absently, concentrating on an X that didn't seem to know if it wanted to be above or below the fraction bar.

"Let's go camping."

"Right now?" Hailey gave Beth a quick glance, smiling.

"No, next weekend. A bunch of the guys want to go out before it gets too cold. It's our last chance to go hang out with everyone."

"It's only October," Hailey said, deciding that the X definitely belonged on top of the fraction.

"Yeah, but by the time it gets nice enough in the spring to do anything everyone will be getting ready for college. Then we'll all go our separate ways and that will be it."

Hailey shook her head. "I can't anyway. I have my audition next Saturday."


Beth fiddled with her history book, flipping the pages.

"I still think you should come. I mean, do you really think you're going to get into that school, anyway? You told me they only take fifteen students a year."

Hailey's heart turned cold as Beth's words sunk in. She paused the lesson and turned to look at Beth.

"You don't think I can make it?"

"That's not what I meant," Beth said. "I just...I don't want to go camping without you and this is our last chance. Are the auditions really that big of a deal? You've only been playing a few months and you said yourself they're a long shot."

Hailey couldn't respond. She honestly had no words for Beth, because she didn't have one clear thought in her head. Her dreams seemed to be drifting away, caught by the current of her own fears that Beth was now voicing so dismissively.

"I have to go," Hailey said. She turned off the computer program, knowing that this would be her first failed assignment of the year.

"Wait," Beth said. "Don't be mad. Just think about what's really important. Your friends or this school that you probably can't get into?"

Hailey grabbed her bag and paused a second.

"Beth, what if you came to the audition? Maybe if you were there with me..."

"I'm going camping," Beth said.

Beth didn't move as Hailey turned and fled the computer lab. After she was gone and the door had softly closed, Beth turned back to her history book and slammed it shut with a furious bang.

Hailey sat on her bed, staring at her guitar in the corner. She'd tried to clean it, but when she scraped at the paint to flake it off she made ugly scratches in the black finish. So her guitar still declared her to be a loser, only now the word was tattered and scratchy and looked even worse.

She stepped off the bed, and walked across the room. She settled down on the floor with the guitar cradled in her arms. She ran her fingers over the strings, plucking gently with her right hand and smoothly forming chords with her left.

Slowly, she started playing the chords in her song, and as the melody took shape, she added her voice. Verse, then chorus, verse, then chorus, reprise, then a long melodic interlude while Hailey moved her fingers over the strings, making music flow gently from the body of the scarred guitar. As the last chord died down, she kept her eyes closed and let the song soak into her heart.

"Well done, Hailey," said Ms. Fields, the head judge at the auditions.

Hailey opened her eyes, nervous again now that the song was finished. But the judges seated in a row at the table below her were all nodding and smiling at one another while they consulted.

"We'll let you know in a week what our decision is," Ms. Fields continued. "Thank you for coming today."

"Thank you for letting me audition," Hailey said.

She stepped off the stage and made her way to the auditorium floor. The other students auditioning were seated with their families all around the room. Hailey's

mother and father were seated on the left side near the back of the room. When Hailey walked near to join them, Hailey's mother stood and wrapped her in a hug.

"Hailey, that was wonderful. I had no idea."

She pulled away from Hailey, then turned and gave a glance to the back of the room.

"I think there's someone else who wants to talk to you.

Hailey followed her mom's glance.

Beth was seated in the last row of the auditorium. She was watching, and as Hailey turned to see her, she gave a small wave and a half smile. In her arms she held a small, yellow bunny, one Hailey had purchased earlier that week. Before heading to the city that morning with her parents, Hailey had her dad drive the car by Beth's house.

The bunny, leaning jauntily against the porch railing, watched with wide, unblinking eyes as Hailey stepped down from Beth's porch, climbed in the car, and drove away to her auditions.