IV. King of Anything

Oh (oh oh oh)
Oh (oh oh oh)
Oh (oh oh oh)
Oh (oh oh oh)

Keep drinkin' coffee
Stare me down across the table
While I look outside

So many things I'd say if only I were able
But I just keep quiet
And count the cars that pass by

You've got opinions, man
We're all entitled to 'em
But I never asked

So let me thank you for your time
And try to not waste any more of mine
Get out of here fast

I hate to break it to you babe
But I'm not drowning
There's no one here to save

Who cares if you disagree
You are not me
Who made you king of anything
So you dare tell me who to be
Who died
And made you king of anything

Oh (oh oh oh)
Oh (oh oh oh)
Oh (oh oh oh)
Oh (oh oh oh)

You sound so innocent
All full of good intent
You swear you know best

But you expect me to
Jump up on board with you
Ride off into your delusional sunset

I'm not the one who's lost
With no direction oh
But you won't ever see

You're so busy makin' maps
With my name on them in all caps
You got the talkin' down just not the listening

And who cares if you disagree
You are not me
Who made you king of anything
So you dare tell me who to be
Who died
And made you king of anything

All my life
I've tried
To make everybody happy while I
Just hurt
And hide
Waitin' for someone to tell me it's my turn
To decide

Oh (oh oh oh)
Oh (oh oh oh)
Oh (oh oh oh)
Oh (oh oh oh)

Who cares if you disagree
You are not me
Who made you king of anything
So you dare tell me who to be
Who died
And made you king of anything

Who cares if you disagree
You are not me
Who made you king of anything
So you dare tell me who to be
Who died
And made you king of anything

Let me hold your crown, babe

King of Anything is the property of Sara Bareilles.

Sexy and I Know It is the property of LMFAO.

Tubes and compacts containing rouge, lipstick, eyeshadow, powder, and moisturizer spill out onto the burgundy bedspread. They roll to and fro, here, there, everywhere. Naomi delicately bends over the mountain of make-up products, taking inventory with a steady gaze. What if she puts on too much or too little? What if Miriam Miller prefers those "au natural" girls a la Ivy or "barely wearing any" girls a la Annie? She never thought she'd care so much about palette shades, unless they were Armani.

Of course, this is the start of several preparations for the monumental meal at the Millers. She tried to reassure Max on the beach as best she could, but truthfully? She's just as nervous. Being around a few intelligent families while on her father's business trips, she basically knew what some of them were like. They went to the best schools so discussing scientific properties or politics or new art exhibits wasn't alien to them. They quizzed each other for fun and actually still read newspapers, the tangible newspapers you could get on your doorstep, not the online ones. Each child was bound for something great and each parent made it their goal to make sure they obtained it. The Millers seem no different. If anything, Max is the product of his father and mother's biggest expectations. So they will...they definitely will expect a first-rate girlfriend for him.

Naomi goes to her closet, rifles through some choices. The neckline plunges too low. Strapless won't do. The belted waist makes me look pregnant at certain angles, thinks Naomi, sliding a mocha dress to the back. That's one bombshell the Millers won't receive. If she came in pregnant, they'd throw Max in the fireplace, assuming they have a fireplace that works. Things could be worse. Maybe everything will work out for the best. If she's lost about the subject they're discussing, she can turn to Max, and if anything uncomfortable happens, he'll be there right next to her. They've gotten through far more difficult things, including a plagiarism scandal where each of them protected the other. One dinner won't do any harm.

A constant ringing and an arm with several bangles waving at her from the doorway redirects her attention. Silver pops her head inside. Her best friend's hair just gets shorter and shorter.

"I have some Burt's Bees you can borrow," offers Silver.

Meh, thinks Naomi inwardly, though she smiles. That's Silver's permanent preference, that and most things that are PETA-approved. That's not exactly Naomi's style.

"Can you come in and look at my butt in various dresses?" asks Naomi.

"What are best friends for?" says Silver, finding and sitting on an empty space on the bedspread.

Naomi quickly selects two outfits that go with her pink Michael Kors jacket. She read that Melanie's favorite color was pink on her profile, and when she saw Mrs. Miller at the graduation, she was wearing a nice rose-colored skirt. It seemed to be a popular hue in their household. Naomi holds up a terra rose, tea-length dress.

"Same shade as a fire engine," says Silver dismissively.

"Should be," says Naomi. "I bought it for your bachelor auction. Back when I wanted to melt guys into hot messes."

"Never mind the cause for the auction," says Silver, rolling her eyes.

"I cared about the cause," insists Naomi. "I just cared about getting some too."

She displays a raspberry ice number with spaghetti straps. This is pretty promising, especially since Max hasn't seen her in this.

"Makes me want gelato," confesses Silver.

"Some help you are," sighs Naomi.

"I haven't eaten yet," explains Silver. "Film Club kept me late. I hate defending Hitchcock to morons."

"I hope I don't act like a moron tonight," moans Naomi.

Silver rises from the bed, nudging Naomi to her. "Come here."

Groaning softly, Naomi walks to Silver. Silver puts a comforting arm around her shoulder, despite the bangles poking into her wonderfully tanned skin. Yes, she took a well-needed trip to the spa and worked in a wax.

"Great," says Naomi with faux resistance. "Another Erin Silver pep talk."

"Well, I didn't see Teddy today, so it's your lucky day," kids Silver. "Don't let anybody make you feel bad about yourself. You are startlingly beautiful, savvy, kind, and witty...and remarkably horny so spaghetti straps it is."

"Thank you!" cries Naomi, casting off the others. "Sweet for the fam, and sexy for Max."

Once she has the dress, it's simple to find the appropriate make-up for the ensemble. That's how her brain works. But she seriously doubts that will count for much in Micah's mind. He'd be the toughie. Her own dad isn't that sensitive either. In fact, he never emailed her back when she almost lost her trust fund. He sent his lawyer so at least he cared a little bit. That's what she believes anyway. Still, Micah's willing to dine with her so he can't be too cold.

"Time for total beautification," remarks Naomi, ducking into her bathroom.

"Naomi!" shouts a voice from the hallway.

The voice belongs to Annie, who she asked to let her know when Max came by.

"Max is here already?" cries Naomi, coming out. "I thought I had another hour!"

"No," says Annie, entering the room in a cute kelly green dress. "I have an idea to run by you."

Naomi shrugs and returns to the bathroom.

"Talk while I'm getting ready," says Naomi.

"I think we should buy a pig," says Annie happily.

"What?" cries Naomi, nearly dropping her underwear into the sink.

"Did you watch Babe last night?" asks Silver. "Again?"

"Yeaaaaaaah, but that's not why," replies Annie. "We could have like a teacup pig. They are soooo cute. I saw one on Entertainment Tonight and he was so adorable."

A pig? Honestly? Is this what you have to deal with when you have a friend from Kansas? But no, she had a friend from Kansas that detested anything farm-related so this must be an Annie thing.

"Aren't those adorable creatures really expensive?" questions Silver.

"Maybe we could find a discount one," says Annie. "Or if we all chip in..."

"So you basically want me to pay for part of a pig?" realizes Naomi. "The largest part."

"We need a pet," says Annie sweetly. "Come on, guys."

That's some designer pet. But she can't waste minutes mulling over the possibility. She has to be perfect and priceless, so pig debates can wait.

"Let me think about it," promises Naomi.

"Awesome!" cries Annie, joining Silver on the bed.

As she dons her stockings, Naomi hears another set of feet. Now what? She can't accessorize in peace? Naomi stretches her neck to view Ivy, worming her way in between Silver and Annie on the bed. Ivy's in a white tank and a pair of blue pajama shorts only she could pull off.

"Can I crash in here for a few?" says Ivy. "Raj keeps saying how hot Keira Knightley is while watching Bend it Like Beckham scenes. I think he wants me to cut my hair."

"Men are so clueless," says Annie, punching a pillow.

"Hey!" says Naomi. "Stop hitting my silk cushions!"

"Sorry," says Annie, smoothing the cushion out.

"That's a kind of okay pink dress," remarks Ivy. "Isn't your dinner dealio tonight?"

"Yes, and you guys keep coming in with random requests and thoughts," laments Naomi. "I love having Ya-Ya Sisterhood moments like any other girlfriend, but it's seriously weird."

The other girls stare wordlessly at each other for a few seconds.

"Ivy," says Annie finally, squeezing her shoulder. "We're getting a pig."

"Heh," says Ivy. "Righteous."

II.

An extra large Stewie Griffin nearly knocks Liam on the noggin as a troop of teenagers walk on by without so much as a glance. In a sea of gigantic Despicable Me minions, Looney Tunes characters, and Elmo dopplegangers, he wonders how they can stand out despite the persistent cries of his happy-go-lucky co-worker.

"Be the first to quench your thirst...at Offshore tomorrow night!" shouts Adrianna, then presenting a packaged item to two men in fatigues.

They must be on leave. Liam compares his guns to theirs. The army does a body good. He pretends not to care. They stare at the item cluelessly.

"Crab lollipops!" explains Adrianna. "A mix of salt and sweet. Like a chocolate-covered pretzel."

The lollipop is shaped like a crab, but has Offshore printed in black ink where its eyes should be. As it turned out, that stationary store did novelty candy for a relatively cheap sum. They were done by noon and they had at least two boxes.

"I like pretzels," says the broader of the two in a deep voice.

"Enjoy Santa Monica Pier!" shouts Adrianna before they go.

"Thanks, lady," says the other, instantly eating his candy.

Despite the overwhelming success of yesterday, Liam and Adrianna decided that more publicity was in order. They couldn't trust word-of-mouth alone, especially since school exams were on the horizon. What if people actually stayed in...to study? Perish the thought. Santa Monica Pier was the place to be. The locale is rarely empty and you can always catch a tourist family or two. Besides, it's Sunday and the bar will be closed the whole day. Might as well make use of the free day and the good weather.

"Make sure to take one for yourself, Liam," says Adrianna, fetching twelve from the box and handing him one.

"That's okay?" says Liam.

"You paid for them," reminds Adrianna. "I named mine Shelly Long Arms. What about you?"

Liam assesses the lollipop and smiles faintly. "Crabby Pants."

"Perfect," laughs Adrianna. "You are a genius and a half."

"I'm like Mark Smuckerberg," brags Liam. "The guy with the movie that got nominated for Oscars. He sold jelly."

"And sold it on Facebook?" says Adrianna pensively. "Right, right. You're totally like him."

They stand in the area just before the carnival games and rides. Anxious children drag their parents to the Tilt-A-Whirl, the bumper cars, and a rollercoaster whose rattles almost send Liam to the wooden floor. The pier is incredibly loud and busy this time of day, during most of the weekend. He never took Annie here or any other girl. This wouldn't be his ideal date. Drag racing to In-n-Out Burger or making out in a vintage car backseat is much better. He stuffs his personal lollipop into his back pocket and thinks happily about his former car's leg room.

"Hey, there's Dixon!" calls Adrianna.

Sure enough, his best buddy's coming through a stream of pier visitors. He wears a breezy white shirt and designer jeans. He must've come straight from a BET interview but then Liam realizes Dixon's not that famous...yet. Ugh, Dixon promised he'd introduce Liam to Lil' Wayne about five months ago.

"What are you two doing here?" asks Dixon.

"We're handing out crabs," answers Adrianna.

"Ewwww," says Dixon.

"Lollipop crabs," clarifies Liam. "Advertising. Wanna help?"

"No thanks," says Dixon.

"You don't want to give people crabs?" says Adrianna innocently.

"Do you guys listen to yourselves when you speak?" questions Dixon.

"No?" says Liam. "That's your job."

"I can't focus that much sometimes," admits Adrianna.

"I'll pretend I didn't hear that," says Dixon. "Excuse me for a moment."

Stepping to the side, Dixon starts to scroll through texts while Liam and Adrianna stare at him. A seagull lands near Dixon's foot and goes around him in a circle.

"Dixon must be smart to go through all those texts," sighs Liam.

The seagull tries to put his beak into Dixon's shoelaces.

"I like how he's good with animals," says Adrianna.

Their joint awe is interrupted by a very familiar face. Liam smiles speedily, wondering if the person has as many fond memories as he does. It's nice to be remembered.

"Ugh, you," says the boy he gave the flier to yesterday.

He's with his older brother today, who's making out with his goth girlfriend rather than baby-sitting. They smack lips and walk, smack and walk.

"Did you tell your brother about Offshore?" asks Liam.

"I'll tell you to get lost," says the boy.

"Well, we have candy today," offers Adrianna. "Your tongue can be red. It defies the laws of like...nature."

"You're lucky you're pretty or else I would've been gone by now," argues the boy. "Leave me alone."

The boy takes the arms of his brother and the girlfriend, who manage not to pause for air. They start down the pier until Liam feels a tug on his back pocket.

"Gimme that!" says the boy, stealing the lollipop.

"Crabby Pants," mourns Adrianna, hugging Liam from the side.

"Finders keepers," sighs Liam, delivering a steely stare to the pickpocket. "Losers weepers."

"Offshore opens at seven on Monday!" yells Adrianna in the boy's direction.

"He won't come," says Liam, crossing his arms.

But he can't be mad for too long as he spies two hermit crabs poking at each other's shells in a small compartment a small girl carries. They're having a duel. This must be the miniature version of Medieval Times. Liam laughs a little.

"We should come to the pier more often if that puts a smile on your face," notes Adrianna.

"You don't?" says Liam.

Hanging her head, Adrianna shifts her eyes from the lollipop boxes to a Cinnabon station. Either this has to do with her past relationship or she must really miss sweet buns.

"The last time I spent more than an hour here was...with Navid," admits Adrianna. "He was trying to cheer me up."

"Oh," says Liam.

Great. She's probably reliving how Navid cheated on her not too long after, and he's the reason she's doing it. He thought if any of the relationships in their circle of friends would last it would've been him and Annie, and Navid and Adrianna. But a lack of communication quietly killed both of them, with Silver ultimately replacing Adrianna in Navid's heart. Who could've known it would be worse for Adrianna? Certainly not him. Well, what if he cheers her up? This is a decent place to accomplish that.

"We could stop advertising and maybe we could...," starts Liam.

Adrianna stares at him hopefully, until a pair of fingers tap her elbow. Liam raises his eyebrows.

"Hey, Ade," says Dixon. "My recording session was cancelled. Mind if I treat you to some cotton candy or caramel popcorn?"

Dixon delivers his trademark smile. That smile could make that evil Voldemort dude volunteer at a nursing home.

"I'm sure Liam would let you," says Dixon, nodding pointedly at his friend.

Wait, so he wants his permission? Adrianna moves back her hair, glancing at the ground and at Liam. What does that mean? She'd like to go or she isn't sure or...why don't women come with a manual? They are so hard to read.

"One moment," says Liam.

He drags Dixon to the side. They're going to discuss this like men, using words they learned in school and avoiding the real questions. That's how Liam rolls.

"But...but Navid's your best friend, man," says Liam.

"I'm sure he'd be okay with it," says Dixon. "I mean, he did date Silver first so he has no room to talk."

"Still," says Liam, and leaves the sentence hanging.

"Still what?" says Dixon. "You said you weren't interested, and I assume Teddy isn't. I'm not stepping on anybody's toes."

"I'll step on your toes if you don't treat her right," promises Liam.

"Stop being so protective of her," says Dixon. "She's a grown woman. I know how to treat the ladies."

"Buying them FYE gift cards isn't treating the ladies," argues Liam.

"They liked those gift cards, man," says Dixon, popping his collar. "Besides, Ade's been in a dry spell for a ridiculous amount of time. She could use a date and so could I."

"Bogus," mumbles Liam.

"Why are you being a dillweed?" says Dixon.

"I can be a dillweed if I want to be a dillweed," defends Liam. "Fine. Go ahead. Work your Midwestern charm where you get her some chicken strips or whatever."

"Good idea," says Dixon, patting his chest once. "Thanks."

Watching him return to Adrianna, and Adrianna return the suckers to the box, Liam ignores the tiny pangs circling his own chest. Like he swallowed a box's worth of FYE gift cards. They're just piercing every part of him.

"I'll see you later, Liam," says Adrianna, waving.

"Yeah, we'll see you later, Liam," says Dixon, putting an arm around Adrianna.

Without a selling partner, without a girl, without a lollipop. This is not how he anticipated the day ending. What did he mean by dry spell? That doesn't mean he's going to move in for a kiss or more, right? Liam pulls at his shirt until it snaps back hard against his chest. This sucks. You know, he better follow them, just to check that Dixon keeps it classy and that Adrianna doesn't get hit in the head by any balloon animals. A girl with a balloon fox is approaching him as a matter of fact.

"My friend texted me that there was a cute guy handing out lollipops," says the girl, her unamused father staring at Liam.

"Take 'em all," says Liam, giving her the last twelve.

"Thank you!" says the girl.

"Come on, Hayley," says her father. "He seems a bit...desperate."

III.

She meant to say how handsome he looked tonight, more than usual. It isn't the clothes so much, though those are nice, a navy blue suit, crisp white shirt, and blue silk tie. Moreso, it's a calm, practiced or not, accompanying Max with every move he makes. They drive steadily to their destination. No music plays on the stereo. No window is open. No air conditioning or heat flow from the vents. For the first time since he's been home, they're not caught up in each other but caught up in their own thoughts.

"The Country English Inn isn't too swanky," says Max after a prolonged pause.

"Well, with a name like that...," says Naomi, her voice dropping before adding, "I'm glad."

Naomi did a bit of research on her own. She went online, bringing up both Miriam's school's website and the scheduled events at the planetarium. The task was to find little pieces of information she could sprinkle around if the conversation stalled. For instance, Ms. Miller's class is currently studying the rainforest. Well, hello? She is totally pro-rainforest salvation, and she watched Ferngully like four times growing up. Ethan tried to copy the rapping bat and got on her nerves. The planetarium is sponsoring a lecture series on "Why Pluto Should Remain a Planet". Naomi remembers when that was trending. Plus she believes in rooting for the underdog so yay, Pluto. She'll fill in what needs filling in when necessary. For bonus points? She's seen every episode of Project Runway. Melanie's covered. But if they ask her about endangered species or theorums or pattern making...um, little help?

"You look soooo pretty tonight," mentions Max, throwing her a short appreciative glance.

"It only took six hours max, Max," teases Naomi.

"You've been itching to say that since I picked you up, haven't you?" says Max chuckling.

"Timing is everything," replies Naomi. "But I do think this is good timing to meet your folks. Could you imagine if they met me right after graduation?"

"Neither of us would have heads," says Max.

"Yeah, and I like mine," says Naomi. "And I like yours...a lot."

"I like yours, too," laughs Max.

They reach the street where the medium-sized inn sits on the corner. Pulling into the driveway, Max parks next to his father's trusty red Prius. The adjoining restaurant is gorgeous in a simple kind of way. It reminds her of one of those Southern gable houses with the long glass windows, the wooden deck patio, the homey earth tones, and a few golden chandeliers.

"It's almost like we've been transported back in time," says Naomi.

"There might be moments tonight where we wish that was the case," says Max.

Max and Naomi leave the vehicle, Max locking the door. They both brought their cameras and phones, with Naomi baring an additional item. Max stopped at a floral shop so Naomi could pick up a bouquet she ordered. More mature couples brought the parents a gift the first time they met their significant other's parents. That's exactly how she'd like the Millers to see her relationship with her son. She chose some fuschia bougainvillea, flowers from Brazil whose petals resembled stars. Perfect plants for a fan of tropical flowers (Miriam) and a teacher of stars (Micah).

"Are you sure those aren't too extravagant?" asked Max when she walked out with them.

"No," replied Naomi. "They deserve the best bouquet. Besides, they're another great accessory I can brandish for awhile."

The two of them step up to the restaurant porch, Max tenderly taking her free hand.

"Let us come out alive," whispers Max.

"We've got this," asserts Naomi.

They enter the lobby of the restaurant, the main room buzzing with activity. Multiple well-dressed families are seated around tables with white tablecloths, shiny utensils, and plates with pleasant aromas. Certain tables have white lilies or purple orchids in silver vases but they're no match for her arrangement. Naomi holds her flowers closer to her frame.

"Reservations...for Miller," says Max as soon as a hostess greets them.

"Private dining room," says the hostess. "This way, please."

The hostess leads them to a room on the left. Naomi views the rest of the Millers, each of them standing as Max and Naomi enter. Micah wears a double-breasted, grey suit, a black and gold bowtie and hankerchief perfectly arranged in their appropriate spots. Naomi almost releases a sigh when she views Miriam in a conservative but beautiful white pantsuit. Spaghetti straps are far from conservative. Thankfully, Melanie wears a sleeveless, black cocktail dress that reaches her knees. Naomi's similarly exposed in comparison.

"Max," greets Micah, with a stilted smile. "Naomi."

Miriam bypasses pleasantries, doing something unorthodox based on the surprised expression on Max's face. She comes over to hug Naomi gently, Melanie doing the same. Naomi eagerly returns the hugs. She wasn't expecting them either.

"These are for you," says Naomi, presenting the bouquet to Miriam.

"Oh!" cries Miriam. "These are...lovely. They were removed from a sustainable rainforest, correct?"

"Yeaaaaaaah," says Naomi with the most obvious uncertainty in the world.

Max squeezes her waist while Naomi nervously watches Miriam touch the flowers. Why didn't she ask about the stupid whereabouts of those things?

"Is that a Michael Kors jacket?" cries Melanie.

"Melanie," says Micah authoritatively.

"Yes," answers Naomi speedily. "Spring collection."

"Let's have a seat, shall we?" says Micah, gesturing to the table.

Note to self: avoid discussing fashion with Micah, thinks Naomi. She takes a seat next to Max on the right side of the table, with Miriam and Melanie on the other side. Micah sits at the head of the table, clearly comfortable there. He moves his forks until they're in perfect alignment.

"We thank you for being punctual," says Micah, nodding at Naomi. "That's not always the case with Maxwell."

Max immediately stiffens. "I try, Dad."

"I was just jostling you," waves off Micah. "So Naomi, how are classes going?"

"Pretty good," says Naomi. "Um, my favorite class is fashion merchandising."

Melanie opens her mouth to speak, then instantly shuts it when Micah tosses her a pointed look. Ooops, apparently, the note to self didn't stick.

"And...science," adds Naomi. "I love science."

Creasing his brow in confusion, Max puts a bread roll on his plate. Micah leans forward, fingers tapping his chin.

"Which branch of science?" questions Micah.

"All...all the branches," replies Naomi, her left leg shaking under the table. "The whole scientific family tree. No science left behind."

"That's how Max's father and I met," shares Miriam. "He helped me with a science project."

Talk about trippy. That's how she met Max, though she's certain Max has told them the story. Or has he?

"Max and I were lab partners," says Naomi. "The project was on dirt."

"Soil," corrects Micah.

Oh, so Max told them the story.

"Soil is dirt, Dad," says Max, rubbing his forehead.

"Stop getting testy, Maxwell," says Micah, folding his napkin and setting it in his lap. "I'm just getting to know the girl. She brought up the subject."

"Can we eat?" groans Max.

"I told them to wait ten minutes so we could talk," informs Micah.

Max holds his napkin to his mouth. Naomi watches him mouth "why" into the fabric. Ten minutes? What if she messes up again? What if she can't get her stories straight? She already didn't use the right term for the project they did together.

"What did you learn during your experiment?" asks Micah, setting his sight on Naomi.

"Ummm, we ended up doing it on a cute, endangered owl," explains Naomi. "Max and I stayed out late to take a picture of one."

"How enchanting," says Miriam, beaming. "Awareness is so important."

Naomi trades a grin with Max. Well, at least Mom is slightly impressed.

"What country is the owl a native of?" questions Micah.

Uh-oh, she can't recall. South America? Definitely not Africa or Australia. Max mentioned this many times but it must be at the rear of her memory bank. Naomi clears her throat, then straightens one of her straps.

"Why don't you ask me, Dad, since you're so interested?" interjects Max.

"Since you guys were a team, I assumed Naomi would know," says Micah. "Unless she did less than half of the work."

"She did do half the work!" exclaims Max.

"We have a bird," comments Miriam, attempting to relieve some of the tension. "Copernicus."

"He's hardcore gangsta," says Melanie, raising the roof.

This elicits laughter out of the women, whereas Micah and Max have remained in silent glowering mode. Micah takes up his water glass and starts shaking the ice. The barely there sound is met by a waiter instantly coming into the room.

"Appetizers," says Micah.

The waiter disappears as hurriedly as he came. This is going to be a long dinner. However, despite the awkward pre-appetizer conversation, Miriam and Melanie put in the effort to talk to Naomi about more comfortable topics. The chatter ranged from what adventurous three-year olds ate to discussing a picture of Jack on Naomi's Smartphone to what methods they'd employ to lure Max down for the whole week of Spring Break. Max occasionally spoke especially when a lull occured. Meanwhile, Micah spent the entire fifteen minutes...staring at her. Naomi caught him in the corner of her eye, simply waiting, probably waiting for her to screw up.

Taking away the remnants of the delicious avocado with cilantro dressing appetizers, the two waiters begin setting the table for the salads.

"Trust me, Naomi," says Miriam. "You haven't lived until you've had the lemon-baked chicken."

"With the sweet tea," mentions Melanie.

"This is infinitely better than my stock of TV dinners," says Max, unbuttoning his suit jacket.

"Is that the typical diet at Cal Tech or...," says Micah without bothering to complete his contribution.

"No," says Max, adjusting his glasses. "I have a good meal plan."

"Which we read about in the campus packet," recalls Micah. "You remember, Miriam? We only had...what was it, three days to peruse the offerings of the school you picked? You weren't even familar with the gen ed requirements."

"They changed this year," sighs Max.

"Well, it'll be something to discuss with other students when we go to the Delta ceremony," says Micah, sitting straight as the salads arrive.

"Speaking of the ceremony, what should I wear?" says Naomi to Max. "I'm not sure what the attire would be for an academic soiree."

"An academic soiree," repeats Micah to himself.

The tone almost sounds patronizing. Almost. Naomi grips the end of the tablecloth.

"Wear whatever you want," reassures Max.

"There aren't any academic soirees at CU, are there?" asks Micah.

"I...I guess they do," stammers Naomi. "Ummm, they do have the Delta thing and Phi Beta Koopa."

"Kappa," provides Micah. "Would your...grade point average be what they're looking for or..."

"Dad, enough," says Max strongly.

"No, that's alright," says Naomi, smiling softly. "I'd like to try for a 3.0 this year. That was my goal for senior year at West Bev too."

"Three point oh?" says Micah, examining his spoon. "Really?"

"It's a perfectly respectable goal," defends Max.

"You could aspire for a little more, Naomi," says Micah as he stares at her. "Surely, you agree?"

But that's as good as she's done in the past. She'd hate to tell him that, but that is her main goal. Her mom thought it would be a great achievement. Of course the Millers aren't like her mom, not by a long shot.

"Yeah, even if it cuts into my Homecoming activities," replies Naomi.

"Homecoming?" cries Micah. "What an utterly silly invention. I have no idea why girls work themselves into a tizzy over a crown and temporary popularity."

Silly? That's how he sees Homecoming, as silly? Okay, it wouldn't pave the way for her to be a professor or chemist, but it was fun. Naomi does her best to keep her smile from fading. Max isn't smiling, pressing his hands firmly on the table.

"Because it makes her feel good inside," challenges Max. "Maybe she likes the idea of having a fuller college experience. Imagine that."

"It's a waste of time," dismisses Micah.

"This dinner is a waste of my time if you don't stop acting like a jerk!" shouts Max.

"Chicken's coming out," says Melanie shyly, as the waiters quietly come inside.

"I'm just trying to improve the girl's future," says Micah. "God knows if she's thought about it."

"Everything she likes, you belittle!" says Max, his cheeks growing crimson. "Attack who you're really mad at...me!"

"Oh, never mind," says Melanie, nobody else noticing the chicken appearing in front of them.

"You want to talk about your future?" shouts Micah. "You're still dating the girl that caused you to plagiarize her paper and put a black mark on your permanent record, to come back to California, to enroll in a college you hadn't thought about in seventeen years! And I'm supposed to sit here and act like she's the best thing that's ever happened to you?"

Naomi's shoulders shrink. Her eyes tear. She wouldn't have believed she'd heard the words coming out of his mouth if she weren't frozen in her chair so she could hear every last word. They do blame her. She secretly knew, but now it's confirmed. They hate her for the trouble she's caused Max.

"You just let her come so you could yell at her," seethes Max. "That is just like you!"

"Micah, please tell me that's not the truth," says Miriam, throwing a sympathetic glance at Naomi.

Refusing to say anything, Micah stands and walks right past Naomi, out into the cold autumn air, going through a glass door. Max bangs the table and exits the room afterwards. Naomi closes her eyes, opens them to stare at the exotic flowers off by themselves. Her mind might be playing tricks on her but they already appear to be wilting.

IV.

Liam lingers by a game booth, the continuous drumming of feet against boards creating a maddening rhythm. As a set of water pistols shoot water into the mouths of clowns, both the necks of the clowns and Liam go up inch by inch. They stop at the ringing of a bell.

"Winner...number seven!" cries a guy in stripes.

The vendor gifts a ten-year old boy with a stuffed Spider-man. Where are the stuffed Mary Janes? Women get no respect. Dixon better be showing Adrianna respect or he'll do good ol' Dix how Spider-man did the Green Goblin. Does whatever a spider can, indeed. In the cover of nighttime, he can do lots of things.

He stretches his neck with the clowns a second time, taking in Adrianna polish off a swirly vanilla and chocolate cone. At least he's not too cheap to get two flavors. Props for that, he supposes. Dixon leads Adrianna to a milk bottle carnival game. That's just wrong. Dixon hates milk.

"See anything you like?" says Dixon.

Adrianna scans the row of prizes.

"Can I have a milk bottle?" replies Adrianna.

"Nah, nah you can't," answers Dixon. "Let's try another."

They move, and so does Liam, keeping in step with them. He has no clue why he's spying. He could've stayed where he was, hawking his bar, potentially bringing in more money before it got dark. That would've been the smart thing to do. So why is he here? Dixon hasn't tried anything stupid so far. He's downright, annoyingly charming come to think of it. Yet he can't leave his perch. Is the reason...that he more than likes a cheerful co-worker that can sing at the drop of a hat? Nope, no dice, not going there. Then why'd he think of it in the first place? Liam grabs his hair, lets it go. He's going to go home. Go, Liam, go.

Dixon and Adrianna halt at a Test-Your-Strength game. He makes a muscle and kisses it.

"I strong like bull," says Dixon.

Adrianna giggles.

Going, says Liam, advancing to Dixon and Adrianna.

"Hola!" greets Liam.

Adrianna's face brightens.

"Liam, what are you doing here?" cries Adrianna.

"And speaking Spanish," says Dixon, confusion crossing his face.

"The bar was slow...or closed...or something," says Liam. "I got hungry for Dippin' Dots."

"I love Dippin' Dots," praises Adrianna.

"Dippin' Dots is that way," says Dixon, gesturing to the counter. "Now, if you'll excuse us, I'm going to win Ade a prize."

"Awesome," says Ade, clapping her hands.

Win her a prize? That's not his job or whatever. You can't just go around winning stuff to impress girls. Who does he think he is? Robin Hood?

"Come on up and test your strength!" says a vendor with silver whiskers. "Try your luck, lad."

Rubbing his hands together, Dixon works out the kinks in his shoulder and takes the mallet. A small crowd is forming. Mainstream music pounds out of the pier's speakers.

When I walk in the spot, (yea) this is what I see (okaay)
Everybody stops and they staring at me
I got a passion in my pants and I ain't afraid to show it, show it, show it, show it...
I'm sexy and I know it

Adrianna nods her head to the beat, watches with bated breath. I want a bated breath, thinks Liam, then shaking his head free from the thought. Dixon raises the mallet and hits the bell, a smaller bell going to a marker labelled King Kong.

"Good first attempt," says the vendor. "A couple more marks and you win a prize."

"Weak," says Liam, staring directly at Dixon.

"Oooooh," say a few watchful girls.

"Like you could do any better," waves off Dixon.

"Don't make me shut you up, son," challenges Liam.

"Say what?" says Dixon. "Awwww, no. I'm going to break that bell like it's a ribbon. Show me what you got, son."

"You're about to get pulverized," promises Liam.

"Stop the violence," whispers Adrianna, then licking her ice cream.

"We got a match!" says the vendor excitedly.

The exclamation brings forth an increase in the number of crowd members observing his game. Adrianna stands at the front, glancing between them. Dixon is about to bite the dust, vows Liam inwardly. That's for certain.

Yo, when I'm at the mall, security just can't find them all
When I'm at the beach, I'm in a speedo trying to tan my cheeks (whaat?)
This is how I roll, come on ladies it's time to go
We headed to the bar, baby don't be nervous
No shoes, no shirt, and I still get service

"Game on," says Liam, pumping his fist.

Liam throws a dollar in the vendor's direction. He greedily collects it, stepping sideways to let Liam play. Without delay, Liam raises the mallet and the smaller bell almost goes to the top, stopping at the Superhuman Stud level. Adrianna claps with renewed force. Liam goes down a line of girls, grazing their hands and dancing until the vendor stops him.

"Close, but no prize!" reminds the vendor.

"My turn!" says Dixon, encouraging the crowd to cheer for him.

They do, several teenage girls hopping with enthusiasm. Dixon removes his shirt, practically causing a frenzy.

(Ahhh) Girl look at that body

I-I-I work out
(Ahhh) Girl look at that body
I-I-I work out

Dude, was he recording songs with a barbell in the other hand? Liam purses his lips. They did not need to take off their shirts for this. That was all for show.

"You're going down, Court!" says Dixon.

He bangs the bell, reaching the same level as Liam's first attempt. Liam's lips twist into a smile. Ha, he wishes!

"Lemme show you how it's done, Wilson!" says Liam.

For good measure, he removes his shirt, eliciting a new wave of screams. Adrianna holds one hand to her forehead, pretending to faint. Liam notices her and flexes.

"Abslicious!" proclaims Adrianna.

The girls yell their agreement. Dixon glowers at his opponent, then gets to the ground. He's doing...the worm, his old stand-by from their West Bev days.

Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, wiggle yeah
Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, wig-yea, yea
Do the wiggle, man
I do the wiggle, man (yea)

His body wobbles along the wood floor, going up and down, up and down to the beat. Liam's almost hypnotized. He coughs and regains his composure. Adrianna offers him a curious look, but he can tell she kind of likes it. That lame worm always works. What can he do? Hmmmm.

Liam gets into a stance, starts revolving his arm in a repetitive motion, working from side to side.

I'm sexy and I know it...
Ayyy, yeah

"Yeahhhhhhh," says Liam proudly. "Yeahhhhhhhhh."

Nobody can resist the sprinkler. The other girls go silent, giving each other weary looks. They didn't like this? Are they human? He glances at Adrianna. She's trying to imitate the move, ice cream cone held intact.

"Are we forgetting the game?" moans the vendor.

"Oh," says Liam, stopping to retrieve another dollar, his last dollar.

This hit has to make that bell soar. He raises the mallet, putting everything he has into it, every muscle, every ounce of sweat, every ounce of energy he didn't use for his amazing rendition of the sprinkler. Bam! The bell shoots up and clangs the highest point possible.

"Yes!" screams Adrianna.

"I'm king of the bells!" shouts Liam. "And what?"

"What what!" cries Adrianna proudly.

"Aw, man," moans Dixon, retrieving his shirt. "That's not even...that's not even right."

"I assume the lady wants to pick the prize," says the vendor.

Liam does a little bow and allows Adrianna to step up. She picks out a large, purple giraffe. The stuffed animal's bigger than his cash register, and he can't believe he wasted two bucks on it, but Adrianna's smile aimed at him is worth it.

"This will match my room," says Adrianna.

"Enjoy," says the vendor.

The two boys and Adrianna walk along the pier. Liam remains shirtless until they reach the end of the carnival section. He was wondering why he was so cold.

"That was fun," says Adrianna. "Thanks, Liam...and Dixon."

"Whatever," mutters Dixon. "Um, have you eaten dinner, Ade?"

"Not tonight," replies Adrianna.

Ugh, it's starting again. The poking in his stomach. Liam crosses his arms over his newly warm chest. He has to nip this in the bud.

Suddenly, they're surrounded by countless wheels crossing the wooden pier. Several skateboarders whizz by the trio. Liam checks if Raj is among them. No, but they're so close he can smell cigarettes on the last boy's breath. Adrianna releases a loud cry.

"Liam, they almost hit your foot!" says Adrianna.

They did? Wait, what if they did? Liam raises his foot, slightly off-kilter. He groans.

"Owww," moans Liam. "They did get my big toe."

"Oh, no," says Adrianna. "You can't drive your car with an injured toe. I'll take you to the bar."

Dixon releases a long sigh, watching Adrianna wrap an arm around Liam. She leads him forward and away from Dixon. Liam smiles at Dixon behind her back. Dixon throws up his hands. The sprinkler...works every time.

V.

All that preparation and she was worried about some stupid shades. A red-eyed Naomi stares pathetically into a mirror above the private dining room's fireplace, trying to determine what tint the whites of her eyes have turned. They couldn't even make it through the salad, to the chicken. She's that horrible. Naomi rubs her eyes voraciously. Well, they're more red now.

The fire crackles, the shadows of her legs covering the carpet. She spotted Max through the glass door a moment ago. Wisps of cold air came out of his mouth but he didn't talk. At least he was still there. Miriam and Melanie left, moreso because Micah was their ride she liked to think. The dinner was a disaster. It's what Max thought it would be and more. How many wrong things did she say? How many bridges did she burn? She stares out the window. Max is gone. He'll be gone forever when he realizes his father was right. She doesn't belong with him and his life is in shambles because of her. The Delta ceremony will just hammer that in, so she won't go to that. Max should have his day in the sun without her.

Naomi's gaze leaves the fire when she hears a knob turn. Max. Maybe he'll say everything's alright. Maybe he talked with his family and they've already forgiven her. The door parts.

"Mr. Miller," says Naomi, barely choking out his name.

Micah walks slowly to the center of the carpet, the gold in his bowtie shimmering under the chandeliers, the black illuminated by the firelight.

"That was far more complicated than it needed to be," says Micah.

"I agree," says Naomi weakly.

"So why don't you make it easier on yourself and break up with my son," continues Micah.

"What?" whispers Naomi.

"He left, Naomi," says Micah. "He's not returning. Was anything I said tonight not true? Can you deny it?"

"Max and I...always work things out," breathes Naomi. "Mr. Miller, give me another chance to show you I'm good enough."

"I can wait for a comet, and it'd be a shorter wait," sighs Micah.

"I...I really like who I am," sobs Naomi.

"Then, somebody else will too," affirms Micah.

Naomi opens her mouth to reply, Micah holding his hand up in protest. He slowly walks to a chair, removing the bouquet and setting it in her grasp.

"Date a footballer or a track and field star, or a future Homecoming king," says Micah. "You don't belong here. You never have. You're as foreign as these flowers."

"But...they survive," says Naomi, blinking repeatedly at the bouquet.

"Not for long," says Micah.

He rights his bowtie, strolls out with purpose. His purpose was to tear them apart, but not before getting his opinions out. Naomi wipes her tears, parts the glass door, stumbles onto the deck. Another pair of watery eyes meets hers.

"Naomi," says Max, rising as if he has the weight of the world on his shoulders.

Naomi yelps in response, running as fast as her heels can carry her. She can't break his heart when hers is broken. Why did she come? There was so many signs, some from Max, warning her to stay away. She'll stay away from him, for the rest of the night.

"Where are you going?" yells Max after her.

She stops midway on the sidewalk, seeing a taxi speeding towards her. That taxi seems like a miracle right about now. She beckons the taxi to her.

"Wait!" yells Max. "We have to talk!"

"I can't!" yells Naomi. "I can't do this!"

He's nearly there, but she manages to get inside the taxi and slam the door with Max a few yards away.

"This doesn't change anything!" exclaims Max, his voice carrying through the window. "Naomi!"

"Drive," commands Naomi, the driver pulling off without hesitation.

The taxi crawls ahead. Naomi spies Max running, running in the side view mirror, his form growing smaller and smaller. He's so distant. Perhaps that's how it should be, Max only a far away dot with glasses.

"I don't want to make the poor boy sprint!" says the cabbie.

"Just...don't stop," sobs Naomi. "Don't stop."