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This is America

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Paige's mom always made a big deal about how they weren't going to be latchkey kids. The truth was that Paige wouldn't mind coming home to an empty house, not one little bit. It would be so much easier than dealing with her mother's judging eyes and the uneasy silences that filled the house ever since Dad moved out. Paige could hardly imagine a fate worse than spending her after-school hours with her mother. Until the day she returned home from school to find Mrs Beeman taping a note to the front door.

“Paige, your mom called to say that she and your dad are both dealing with a work emergency. She asked if you and Henry could spend the evening at our house, just until one of them can get home.”

“What kind of emergency could they possibly have at a travel agency?” Paige's tone was flat and she immediately regretted her sarcasm when she saw the smile on Mrs. Beeman's face falter.

“Well, honey, I don’t know. I’m sure she just doesn’t want you and your brother home alone in a cold, dark house. The world isn’t as safe as when she and I were kids, you know. Henry is already with us.” Mrs. Beeman's tone was breezy and conciliatory and Paige knew that she'd follow her across the street without a fuss because it wasn’t the neighbor's fault that her parents couldn’t get their acts together and stop acting so impossibly weird and unreliable.

“Okay.” Paige shrugged, defeated, and stepped back to let Mrs. Beeman lead the way, even though being practically babysat by Matthew Beeman's mother was beyond humiliating.

The Beeman's house smelled like freshly baked cookies and lemon cleanser. Paige joined Matthew at the table, ducking her head to avoid looking at Matthew. She pulled her books out of her backpack and dropped them on the table with a sigh.

“Yeah, I'm getting killed by the sheer weight of homework too. You'd think teachers would have something better to do with their time,” said Matthew.

“I guess you’d think wrong,” replied Paige, flipping open her history book.

Mrs. Beeman deposited a plate of chocolate chip cookies on the table. “I’ll leave you kids to it then.”

“Thank you,” said Paige automatically. Her mother would be pleased with her manners. Which was little comfort when she was dying of embarrassment at sounding so uncool in front of Matthew, who managed only to mumble something at his mother's retreating back.

Paige picked up a cookie, feeling its comforting warmth in her hand before she took a bite.

“Wow, these are good. You’re lucky your mom makes these for you.”

Matthew's chuckle was small and bitter. “She bakes when she's nervous.”

“She's nervous?” Paige was so curious that she was talking with her mouth full.

Matthew ducked his head, his voice dropping slightly. “Yeah, I think so. Dad didn’t come home last night. Work stuff, probably. But who knows.”

“Yeah, who knows,” echoed Paige, hating how dumb she sounded.

“I don’t get it. We moved halfway across the country so he could have a desk job at FBI headquarters, but he's only home a little more than when he was undercover.”

“What was that like, having him working undercover?”

Matthew shrugged a shoulder, shook his hair out of his eyes, and exhaled slowly. “In one way, it sucked, because we never knew what was happening with him. But in another way, it was easier. We lived near my mom's family and we were hardly ever alone. I have a ton of cousins there. It's easier too when you know you can't rely on someone. Then they can't let you down.”

“Yeah,” agreed Paige, thinking of all the ways her mother had let her down recently. “I know what you mean.”

Matthew slipped his math homework into his Trapper Keeper. “Do you think your parents are going to get divorced?”

Paige rolled her eyes. “They could be meeting with a divorce lawyer right now for all I know.”

Her words hung in the air like fat acrid smoke rings. Maybe that was the “emergency.” Paige tried to push the thought away, but Matthew fired off another question.

“If they did get divorced, who would you want to live with?”

“Do you really think anyone would ask me what I want? Like it even matters what I think?” asked Paige, bitterness creeping into her tone.

“Someone would care. This is America, not Russia. No one is going to drag you off to a gulag against your will. You’d get to go to court and tell a judge what you think.”

“Well, no one asked me when Dad moved out. I’m just stuck with her.”

“Your mom seems nice enough to me.”

“Yeah,, cover, you know what I mean?” said Paige, poking the cover of her nearest book to prove her point.

“Now that's just unfair, what did Modern Biology ever do to you?”

“It made me dissect a fetal pig last month. Which was disgusting. You ask me, that book deserves more than a little stab,” said Paige with a smile.

Matthew dropped his voice conspiratorially. “We could give it worse.”

“Wouldn’t that require a trial, seeing as how we're in America and all?”

“I suppose it would.” Matthew slumped back in his seat. “Hardly seems worth the effort. Just do yourself a favor and don’t take Advanced Bio. They make you dissect a cat in that one.”

“That sounds horrible. Thanks for the tip.” Paige looked up and caught Matthew looking at her. His smile was open and warm. Paige realized that he was just being nice to her because he felt sorry for her. She looked back down at her homework and mumbled something about having to get her work done.

Inside, she burned with the fire of resentment and promised herself that if her parents got divorced and anyone asked her, she'd unload a laundry list of reasons for why she wanted to live with her father. She had to believe that Matthew was right. In America, her wishes would matter.