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A new friend inspires Alani to face her stage fright

When I wake up on the morning of the performance, I’m fine. For about three seconds. Then I remember what day it is, and my stomach plunges up and down at the same time, going weightless. “Oh no,” I mumble to myself. “It’s Sunday.”

“Heck yeah it is!” I look up to see my older sister, Kaulana, marching into my room, grinning at me. She tosses her long black hair over one shoulder and meets my gaze. “Time to own the stage, Alani!” My fingertips tingle, and I can feel my face going pale; her enthusiasm only makes me more stressed.

Kaulana’s grin drops. She recognizes the symptoms of my nerves just as well as I do. She opens and closes her mouth, then stops trying to reassure me with a frown. She has never had enough patience to comfort someone as hyped up as I am. “There’s bacon in the kitchen,” she finally mumbles. She walks towards the door, hesitates, then turns back. “You’re going to shine today, haku. I know it.”

I stare at her as though she is speaking a foreign language. Before I can express my complete and total doubt in myself, however, she’s gone and I have to get ready before Dad eats all of my breakfast.

I run a hand through my short, curly black hair, press the other over my dark gray eyes, and groan softly. My stomach dissolves into butterflies.

“You can do this,” I lie to myself, standing up and walking into the bathroom.

*          *          *

An hour later, I’m cramped into the backseat of our Jeep with my guitar slung over my lap. My eyes are squeezed shut. I run my fingertips over the six strings, comforted by the hum of each one, like the laugh of an old friend. I mentally go through the song I will play in my mind: G, then Am7, then B, back to G. The fingerpicking is like plucking…

I quietly hum the first verse, but in the background of my mind is a steady chant of I’m going to throw up just like last time.

I pluck out the fingerpicking pattern on the guitar strings, trying to drown out that voice.

“You’ll do great, honey,” Mom promises me on my way out of the car. She wraps me in a hug that smells like plumeria. I breathe in deeply, reluctant to let go.

“You are an amazing musician, and the only thing in your way . . . is you. What have I told you about obstacles?”

Finally, I step away.

“Make us proud, haku!” Kaulana yells after me.

I stumble shakily into the building. My balance always seems to be thrown off beforeaperformance. But this isn’t just any performance; it will be the performance that puts me out into the world, the one that will determine my future.

That thought doesn’t help with my queasiness. I push everything out of my head but the song, and clench my guitar case harder as I march to meet my fate.

The Atacama Desert is supposed to be the driest place in the world, but I think it might be rivaled by my mouth, even though I’m on the coast of humid, ocean-y Kaui 6,842 miles away. My knees quake, and I literally look down at the ground to check if it isn’t an earthquake that is causing the floor to move.

“Get it together, Alani,” I mutter to myself, adjusting my guitar strap. I strum a D. It sounds good, and perfectly in tune.

Then they call my name and I forget to breathe as I peel myself off of the wall and walk out onto the stage.


I stare into a sea of faces turned towards me, locked onto my shaking teenage body like missiles. One wrong step and they will all launch straight at me. I take an involuntary step back, clinging to my guitar. I forget what chord I have to play.

The announcer speaks, probably asking me to start. I gulp. My voice will crack, my fingers will falter. Too many eyes.

I arrange my fingers into a G, not even caring if that is the right chord. “Blackbirds singing in the dead of night,” I croak.

Then my stomach drops as a warning, and I run off the stage in a panic, straight for the bathroom.

*          *          *

“You did fine.”

I shake my head, clutching my stomach as the nausea slowly subsides. “I threw up and botched the whole thing,” I say miserably.

Kaulana sets a hand on my shoulder and offers me a cup of my favorite dessert ever, mango shaved ice. I don’t even look at it. I’m too dejected for sweets.

“Alani,” Dad tries. “Look at me.”

When I don’t, he tips my chin up and stares me in the eyes. Dad was the one who taught me guitar in the first place and bought me my first capo. We have a special connection over that. If Mom and Kaulana can’t get through my funk, he’s the only one who can.

He waits until he’s sure he has my attention, then says firmly, “You are an amazing musician, and the only thing in your way . . . is you. What have I told you about obstacles?”

“In the middle of every difficulty lies an opportunity,” I say automatically. It doesn’t matter that Dad technically stole that quote from Albert Einstein—it’s become our mantra.

Dad smiles. “Exactly. So the question is, what are you going to do?”

Try again, like I always have. His smile widens; he sees the answer in my eyes. I smile back, tentatively. I’ll work harder and practice more. I’ll fight my insecurities and silence the voice in my mind. I’ll learn every groove in the strings, every chip in the wood. The pick will become an extension of my hand. I can play my guitar well, but I’ll play it better. Be better.

I take a deep, steadying breath and turn to Mom. “When’s the next opening when I can play?” I ask. Her smile in return is radiant.

Then I glance sideways at Kaulana. She smirks when she sees that I’m eyeing the shaved ice in her hands. “Want some?” she asks, knowing full well that I do.

I grin in return and take a bite. The flavoring blossoms across my tongue, ice cold and just how I like it. It tastes like trying again. It tastes like courage. It tastes like hope.

*          *          *

Twang. I wince as I slip on a chord. I’ve been practicing nonstop for hours, and by now the song “Breathin” by Arianna Grande is glued to my brain forever. I sigh, and my fingers dance over the neck of the guitar, sliding across frets as the song comes together for the millionth time.

“‘Lani?” Kaulana pokes her head through my doorway. Her eyes land on the guitar in my arms and she sighs. “Still practicing?”

“I’ll have to play this in front of a bunch of people in only a week,” I shoot back. “There’s no such thing as being too prepared.”

“But there is such a thing as getting yourself stressed out over nothing. C’mon, haku. Come with us to the market,” Kaulana pleads. “It’ll help you to get some fresh air.”

I scowl but gently set my guitar down. “Fine. But it’ll be in and out,” I order. Kaulana winks and pulls me out the door.

As usual, the market is bustling and beautiful. A warm sea breeze rustles through my hair. I look around with a faint smile as we pass my favorite stalls, ogling at the wooden carvings, honeyed macadamia nuts, and displays of guitar picks that are gorgeous.

Dad lets me stop at the guitar pick stand because I’m giving him my best puppy dog eyes. I beam and rush forward as Mom and Kaulana leave to get some groceries. I could sit here and stare at the wooden carved ones, the thin, swirly ones, and one that is shaped like a phoenix. I gaze at it adoringly. Will Dad let me get it? Maybe if I tell him it’ll help me play next week . . .

I’m so lost in thought that I don’t notice that someone is standing next to me until I hear a female voice: “Pretty, huh?”

I jump, startled, then see a short girl with warm black eyes and a ponytail. “Y-you play guitar?” I blurt out.

“Oh. Uh, no,” she admits with a blush. “I just like the way they look. Do you?”

“Yes, but I can’t play in front of other people.” I try not to hunch my shoulders. “Stage fright.”

“Ah.” She smiles a little and sticks out her hand. “I’m Akamai.” “Alani.”

We shake. She has a surprisingly strong grip. She grins at me, and adds, “Call me Aka if you want.” Before I can respond to the gesture of goodwill, she continues, “I’d love to hear you play. Guitar, I mean.”

That has me instantly shaking my head. “No no no no no. That would not be a good idea. I hate performing in front of even my family.”

“Aw, come on. Please?” She blinks at me with puppy eyes. “You owe me a favor.” “What?” Of all the things I thought she’d say, that is on the bottom of the list. “I barely know you!”

She looks vaguely hurt. “We went to elementary school together.” Really? I wonder, feeling embarrassed that I didn’t remember her at all. But that doesn’t mean that I’m playing for her. Going to school together isn’t the same as really knowing each other. “You were sorta shy, but there was this one time—”

“Hold on. You’re calling in a favor from elementary school?” I laugh at the absurdity of it all. “I think it’s an unspoken rule that favors like that expire if they were over ten years ago.”

She gives me a grin that’s a challenge. “Oh, really?” I roll my eyes. “Well, I’m not doing it.”



“Pleeeeeeease?” “No.”


I sigh and shake my head.

“I’ll buy you a shaved ice if you do a verse for me.” “All that for a verse?” I say in disbelief.


There’s something about her face that makes me blurt out “Fine.” “Really?” Aka beams.

I nod, surprising myself. And the deal is done.

*          *          *

Aka is true to her word. After a little coordination, we meet up at a shaved ice place. I carry my guitar. She carries two shaved ices. We find a secret spot where no one will hear me, tucked behind a bush. I place shaking fingers on the strings.

“Ready?” I ask, stalling.

Aka gives a steadying look. “Amaze me,” she responds.

I clear my throat a little and strum the intro. I’m looking anywhere but at her as I start the verse, and my voice is weak as I stumble through two lines.

Then I dare to look at her, and her wide, trusting eyes draw me in. My voice strengthens.

“That was . . . the best thing I’ve ever heard.”

By the time I realize I’ve done more than a verse, I’m almost done with the whole song, so I finish anyway. When I’m done, the final notes hover in the air.

She breaks the silence. “That was . . . the best thing I’ve ever heard.” “What?” Really?

“Hands down. Where did you learn to play like that?”

Before I know it, she draws me into a comfortable conversation while we finish off our shaved ices. I feel like we’ve been best friends for years when she stands up and offers to put away my bowl. I even forget to feel weird about the fact that I’ve just played a song in front of a near stranger, because she doesn’t feel like a stranger. Aka has this energy that draws me in. That makes friends.

She comes back and smiles at me. “So it sounds like you’ve been practicing,” she says, picking up the conversation again.

“Yeah. I have this important performance in a few days,” I tell her. “I screwed up the first one, and this is sorta my last chance.”

Her eyes widen. “Wow. Can I come and see you?” I blink. “You want to?”

“Of course!”

I hesitate, then say, “It’s on Friday. At five o’clock, in the park.” Her face splits into a wide, wide smile. “I’ll be there.”

We both smile. Then Aka tells me that she has to go, and I wave her off, grinning stupidly. It’s only after she’s gone that I realize: I played for her. And I felt great.

*          *          *

The days leading up to the performance are full of guitar, guitar, guitar. Aka and I text occasionally, but most of my time is spent with my fingers pressing chords into the strings. Then the day is here. And I feel like I’m not ready at all.

I button myself into some performance-worthy clothes and wobble on my way to the car. I sit down in the Jeep, struck by déjà vu. This was exactly what happened on the way to my last performance. The one that I failed.

I start to shake, but then I think of Aka’s expression of wonder when she heard me play, and I remember to take deep breaths. Mom, Dad, and Kaulana shower me with encouragement, smiles, and praise as I step out of the car and heft my guitar.

“Love you guys,” I say, and wave as I head off.

I wait by the stage, watching the others perform while gulping in air as though it’s water and I haven’t had a drink for days. I feel more balanced than usual, less sick, but I can feel the familiar claws of my personal monster in my throat. My insecurities whisper to me. I try not to listen.

Gummy Bear Cave

But then the storm inside turns into a rainbow when I hear Aka’s voice: “Hey!” I spin around. “You came!”

“Of course!” she laughs, hugging me. “You look awesome.” I smile back. “Thanks so much for being here,” I say shyly.

She waves off my gratitude. “What else could I have done? Hold on, I brought you something . . .” she adds.

Confused and curious, I peek over her shoulder as she digs around in her bag.

Finally, she emerges with something small. When I get a good look at it, I gasp.

It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. Different shades of purple are set into a sleek guitar pick, which is the perfect size. I can feel myself almost tearing up at the meaningful gesture.

“It’s not as pretty as that phoenix one, but . . .” Aka begins.

“Thank you!” I throw my arms around her and we both bang into the guitar. I yelp, then laugh. She laughs too.

The moment is broken when a voice shouts, “And now for Alani Song, teenage guitarist, who will be playing ‘Breathin’ by Ariana Grande!”

I freeze, my breathing quickening. Aka smiles gently when she sees my face. “Go get ’em,” she whispers, then pushes me onstage.

I walk slowly to the center of the stage, then turn to face the crowd. They all look at me expectantly.

I’m breathing fast. Too fast. And my stomach has started to roll over and over. My eyes skim over all the eyes, all the people staring who will see if I mess up. But then my eyes lock onto a face that stands out from the rest. A face with warm, black eyes and a swinging ponytail. Aka gives me a wide smile. You can do this! her eyes shout. For the first time, I start to believe it.

Just keeping breathin’, I tell myself.

Then I raise my hand, bring it down over the strings, and lose myself in the music.