ARMCHAIR LIBERALS

Sometimes "auld acquaintance" should be forgot.

"More mock-n-cheese, honey?"

Haley Miller watched as Mrs. Armstrong plopped a mound of macaroni and tofu concoction onto her husband's plate. Dinner had ended for everyone else, but Doug Armstrong clearly couldn't get enough of this gelatinous stuff. And apparently, neither could Annie Armstrong's boyfriend, Dave Metzger.

"I'll take some more too, please, Mrs. Armstrong," Dave said, holding out his plate. "There's nothing like a big helping of mock-n-cheese. Mock cheese tastes better than real cheese any day, I think."

"I totally agree," Mr. Armstrong said. Dave beamed at him. And Annie smiled at the two of them, obviously pleased to see them getting along so well.
Haley shifted uncomfortably in her seat. It was weird to see just how alike Annie's father and her boyfriend were. They both had wiry, frizzy hair and bad skin. Even their names--Doug and Dave--were quite similar. The thought that Annie might like Dave because he was so much like her dad made Haley suddenly queasy--though the rumbling in her tumbling could have been the mock-n-cheese. It was probably both.

"It's almost time for the ball to drop," Haley said. Any excuse to get away from the faux gras. "Shouldn't we move into the living room and turn on the TV?"
"The city of New York wastes so much energy lighting up that silly ball," Haley's mother, Joan Miller, said. "I don't know whether to feel guilty for watching it and therefore supporting it, or guilty for depriving my kids of the communal experience."

"I know what you mean, Joan," Blythe Armstrong said. "But if they're going to use the energy, we might as well enjoy it."
The entire group stood up and waddled, full of vegetables and tofu, into the living room. It was New Year's Eve, and the Miller family--Haley, her seven-year-old brother, Mitchell, and their parents, Joan and Perry--were celebrating quietly with Annie Armstrong's family and a few friends. Annie's mother, Blythe, was an environmental lawyer at Armstrong & White, the firm where Joan worked, so the conversation was never lacking on the granola front.

Blythe Armstrong poured champagne for Haley's parents and sparkling apple cider for the minors while Annie turned on the TV. It wasn't the most exciting New Year's Eve Haley could imagine--far from it--but she tried to make the best of it. At least she had some friends with her, even if they were mostly of the brainiac variety: Annie, Dave, their classmate Hannah Moss and star debater and politico Alex Martin, who cochaired the debate team with Annie. Alex stood out, even in this supersmart and superambitious crowd, but it was mostly for his conservative political views. He worked as an intern for New Jersey's Republican governor-elect, Eleanor Eton, known in the Miller household as Public Enemy Number One.

Haley didn't agree with Alex's politics, but she found him the most interesting person at the party to talk to. And, in his bookish way, he was also the cutest.
"Maybe they should light the ball with nuclear power," Doug Armstrong said. "That would save a lot of energy, uh-heh, uh-heh." That odd pseudo-laugh he tacked onto the end of his sentence struck Haley as strangely familiar. She didn't have to wait long to figure out why.
"Sure--and possibly blow the city to smithereens," Dave said. "That'd be cool, uh-heh, uh-heh."
"Nuclear power? Not that again," Perry said. "I did a doc on no-nukes fifteen years ago. I thought we'd settled the whole nuclear thing, and if Washington hadn't been too mired in lobbyist politics to push forward on greener technology, it would have stayed settled."
Haley's father, Perry, was a documentary filmmaker who taught at Columbia and shared a liberal activist bent with his wife. Haley was all for liberal activism too; she just didn't find it scintillating party chat. She slid a silver elastic off her wrist and pulled her shoulder-length auburn hair into a loose ponytail. Why even bother looking glam for this crowd? Might as well get comfortable, since it looked as if she was in for a long night of discussing the pros and cons of clean energy sources.
"Nuclear power is a lot safer than it used to be," Alex protested. "And it's way cleaner than oil."
"Nuclear power will never be safe enough for me," Perry said. "What do we do with the waste?"
"What do you suggest we use instead, Perry?" Blythe said. "So-called clean coal?"
"I think clean coal's not a bad way to go, actually," Doug chimed in.
"There's no such thing," Joan said. "It's an oxymoron, like healthy cigarettes. Al Gore is right about that, at least."
"You should see what coal mining does to the Appalachians, too," Perry said. "It's like an open wound on the land, and the people who live there deal with all kinds of contamination. . . ."
"Well, we've got to use something to fuel our economy," Doug said. "I don't suppose anybody here is in favor of offshore drilling for more oil."
"No!" Perry, Joan and Blythe shouted at once.
"Uh, it's New Year's Eve," Haley said. "Do you think we could talk about something a little more . . . festive?"
"Like what?" Annie said.
"How about Mrs. Eton's upcoming inauguration?" Alex suggested.
Joan Miller looked horrified. "Look, Alex, you're a nice boy--a little misguided, maybe, but nice. What are you trying to do here, start a fistfight?"
"There's no issue more compelling to me right now than the environment," Blythe said. "I'd say this is our World War Three."
"I'll settle this," Haley said. "The obvious compromise is a blend of traditional and alternative-energy sources. End of discussion. See how easy that was?"
"My practical daughter," Joan said. "We forgot about solar."
Doug scoffed. "Please. Next you'll be telling me to convert my diesel car to vegetable oil."
"That really works, you know, Dad," Annie said.
"Haley will be getting her driver's license soon," Perry said. "Only a month and a half from now. I have to admit that thought scares me a little."
Haley was offended. "I'll be a good driver, Dad."
"I'm sure you will," Perry said. "It just gives us another thing to worry about: car accidents."
"Will you be getting a car for your birthday, Haley?" Alex asked.
"I don't know," Haley replied, nodding toward her parents. "Ask them."
"She might be," Joan said with a knowing smirk.
"There may be a little surprise in the driveway come February fourteenth," Perry added, a little too confidently.
"Really?" Haley smiled. A lot of her friends had gotten cars for their seventeenth birthdays, but she hadn't expected her own parents to buy one for her. As far as Joan and Perry were concerned, mass transit was always the best way to travel, and Haley could take the bus. Or so she thought anyway. The idea that they might be softening in their old age and that she might actually get a car of her very own was the most exciting news she'd heard all night. In fact, it almost made up for the mock-n-cheese.
"We'll see," Joan added, noticing the look of glee on Haley's face and tempering her enthusiasm. "Let's not get our hopes up."
"My electric car is very reliable, Mr. and Mrs. Miller," Annie said, dropping a not-so-subtle hint.
"Sure--as long as you plug it in every two hours," Doug countered. "And where do you think the electricity comes from--Santa Claus?"
"Speaking of, did you see the Santa they had at the mall this year?" Dave interjected. "He had a really great . . . lap."
"Excuse me?" Haley turned to gape at him. Dave had been off his game lately--that is to say, even weirder than usual--but this was an odd comment even for the Metzger.
Dave had been raised by a single mom--Nora--but the previous fall he had tracked down and contacted his long-lost biological father, hoping for a reunion. Instead, his father refused to see him. The whole experience had been, well, rough on Dave, and he was clearly not over it. Not that Dave was ever what you'd call normal, but now, in addition to being neurotic, he was positively erratic at times. And to make matters worse, Dave's mother had-recently gotten much more serious with her boyfriend, Rick Von, director of the art program at Hillsdale High--in other words, one of Dave's teachers. Let's just say Dave wasn't taking it all in stride.
"The Santa at the mall?" Haley said. "You actually sat? On his lap?"
"Didn't you? He had a quality, don't you think?" Dave replied. "I think I'll try to book him on the podcast. He's got just the kind of lap that makes you want to tell him all your secrets. Or something. Uh-heh, uh-heh."
Dave had always been obsessed with his Internet video broadcast, "Inside Hillsdale," but now he'd begun planning a special variety-show holiday edition called "Our Spectacular, Spectacular Hillsdale." For it, he'd lined up a juggler, a barbershop quartet and a contortionist, but he was always on the lookout for new talent--if you could call it that.
"Can I be on the show?" Haley's little brother, Mitchell, asked. "I could be your sidekick, like Ed McMahon."
Mitchell was a bit of an obsessive oddball himself, his latest craze being vintage TV talk shows. Tonight, for instance, he was dressed for the party in a bright red blazer and a gaudy patterned tie, just like a pocket-sized Lawrence Welk. It had become his signature of late. If he was going to a casual event--say, like school--he ditched the blazer and went with more of a golf-pro-style pastel polo shirt and khakis, but otherwise, the synthetic tie-jacket combo was in full effect. It was certainly a strange look for a second grader, but then, Haley had sort of gotten used to it, and at least Mitchell was no longer communicating in his stiff robotic voice. Now, that was a phase Haley was glad her brother had outgrown.
"Interesting," Dave said, considering Mitchell's proposition. "What sort of experience do you have?"
"Oh, I host my own variety show," Mitchell said matter-of-factly. "In our living room. I'm really good, aren't I, Haley?"
"His light comedy puts your barbershop quartet to shame," Haley noted.
"Hmm." Dave stroked his pimply chin while across the room, Haley couldn't help but notice, Doug Armstrong rubbed the stubble on his chin in almost the exact same fashion. The symmetry of their movements made Haley shiver. "A dwarf cohost could be kind of entertaining. . . ."
"I'm not a dwarf," Mitchell countered.
"Right, right," Dave said. "Let me think about it, Mitchie. I'll get back to you. Or better yet, have your people call mine."
"But I don't have any people." Mitchell frowned. "Mom, where can I get some people?"
"Maybe you could have RoBro! host the show," Annie suggested.
"RoBro!'s not even close to being ready yet," Hannah said.
Alex looked confused, and then he asked the question Haley was afraid he was about to utter. "What's RoBro!?"
Oh no, Haley thought, here we go.
"RoBro! is a robot brother," Dave said. "Or sister. I'm sure he could be adjusted to be a girl, if that was what you wanted."
"He's perfect for the only child," Hannah said. "Like me, or Dave. Or Annie, come to think of it."
"It's my creation. The idea was born out of loneliness," Dave said.
"I never wanted a sibling," Annie said, flashing her parents a look of gratitude.
"I had a RoBro! of my own until a few months ago," Haley said, giving Mitchell an affectionate pinch.
"I don't know about RoBro!s, but just plain old brothers are pretty great," Alex said. He had two of them himself, both younger.
"We're planning to unveil RoBro! next fall," Dave said. "At our MIT interviews."
"RoBro! will ro-blow their minds," Hannah said. "We're shoo-ins."
"I don't think anyone is a shoo-in at MIT these days, my dear," Doug Armstrong said, clearly pleased with himself and his alma mater. "Unless, of course, you're a legacy." He eyed Annie.

What a buzzkill, Haley thought. Boy, was he in for a surprise. Annie wasn't even intending to apply to MIT and had set her sights on Yale.
Haley, Dave, Annie and Hannah were only-juniors, but at least three of them were already totally obsessed with getting into the right university next year. Alex, meanwhile, was currently a senior. His applications had been completed and submitted weeks ago. Haley had gathered that his first choice was Georgetown, where he hoped to major in political science. With his wholesome good looks, preppy-attire and formidable IQ, Haley figured he'd fit right in.
Hannah and Dave, on the other hand, were so socially awkward, they were both probably a long shot for their first choice, MIT, unless someone gave them some immediate charm lessons.

"Why do I get the feeling RoBro! will be obsolete before he's had a chance to launch his first spitball?" Haley whispered to Alex.
"I always thought of RoBro! as more of a paper airplane kind of guy," he whispered back.
Even though Haley and Alex were the political equivalent of oil and water, she couldn't help but feel drawn to him. Then again, Haley felt drawn to a lot of people, including her hot neighbor, Reese Highland, and the cute and almost painfully withdrawn photographer in her class, Devon McKnight. In the back of her mind, Haley had been hoping to spend a little New Year's quality time with Reese, but she hadn't heard from him in weeks and was left wondering whether he even remembered her phone number. Not that he needed to--he lived right next door, after all. So where on earth had he been hiding?
Alex wasn't at all like Reese, that was for sure. And okay, he could be infuriating sometimes, like whenever he tried to explain trickle-down economics. But she had the feeling that if she said the word, Alex would be there for her. Could the same be said for Reese? She was almost positive the answer would be an emphatic no when it came to Devon's reliability.

"You guys want to come over and see the 'Bro!?" Dave said. "He's in my garage--well, Mr. Von's garage." He swallowed painfully but mustered the courage to go on. "We've got a lot of kinks to work out, but you can get a feel for how wonderful the android family of the future will be."
Haley hesitated. She'd had more than enough of the Armstrongs' nutritionally and environmentally correct hospitality--it felt a little too much like home at times--but ending the evening with the robot family of the future was not exactly a glamorous alternative. She was about to nudge her parents and plead for an early night when her cell phone buzzed. "Incoming," she said, opening it up to read the text. Suddenly she had three messages waiting for her. Maybe the night would be saved after all.
Haley tucked into a corner of the couch for privacy and saw that the texts were coming so fast and furiously, she couldn't even tell who they were from. Not that it mattered--it was the attached pictures that delivered the punch to her stomach.
"Chk the boyz in nevis!" the message blared, accompanied by a photo of a handsome sun-kissed guy clearly enjoying himself on a Caribbean beach with a bikini-clad babe on his lap.