Matthew had always been a strange kid.
While the rest of us started running around our kingdom of yellow monkey bars and green slides, he just sat in a corner, sweat pooling on his upper lip. Once in a while, he wiped it away with the back of his hand, his blue button-down shirt clinging to his small frame.
That was the other weird thing about him.
Day in and day out, he wore the same shirt and jeans, no matter what the weather.
Sometimes, I wondered if his parents were around. It was impossible for me to consider that a mother would ever let her son wear the same clothes for the entire school year.
My mother was kindness personified, always a radiant smile on her face and not a wrinkle on her pretty dress. She would never let something like that happen to me. I was sure of it.
One day, after school, I saw Matthew sitting on the monkey bars, his feet dangling in the air.
I decided that I was going to be that friend. For Mom.
“Hey, Matt.” I walked over to him and waved.
He looked up when he saw me, a deer-caught-in-the-headlights look in his face. “What do you want?”
“Nothing,” I said, raising both my hands like I was in surrender. “I was just wondering what you were doing here.”
“Oh.” The wary look faded from Matthew’s eyes.
I climbed up the monkey bars and sat next to him, my legs dangling in the air just like his. “My Mom makes the best chocolate chip cookies. Wanna come over?”
Matthew looked at me like I just told him I was an alien. “A-are you sure?”
It turned out that being Matthew’s friend wasn’t so hard. The other kids all made of fun me for being friends with a weirdo, but I didn’t care. Mom said I was doing the right thing, and Matthew wasn’t so bad.
He adored my Mom, maybe even more than I did.
He became a regular visitor at our house, taking in everything like it was a palace. His eyes followed Mom everywhere, a puppy-dog look on his face.
I couldn’t blame him. Mom was pretty great.
Sometimes, I wondered what Matthew’s mother looked like. Was she beautiful like Mom? Did she bake chocolate chip cookies that tasted like heaven? Did her hair always smell like lavender shampoo in the morning?
But Matthew never talked about his mother.
One day, he showed up at school with a black eye. When Mom saw him, she wanted to call the police. Matthew kept insisting that he fell down the stairs, that it was nothing. Mom decided to leave it alone. For a while. I saw the determined look in her eyes, and I knew whoever did that to Matthew wasn’t going to get away with it.
The next week, Matthew didn’t show up at school. I asked the teacher for his address, so I could see if he was alright. Maybe he had more than a black eye this time, and I was his only friend. I couldn’t just let something like that happen to him.
I knew something was wrong the second I stepped on Matthew’s porch. The smell of something--maybe some things--rotting lingered in the air, and almost made me gag.
I knocked, maybe more than ten times. “Matt! Matt! Open the door! It’s Cam!”
No one answered.
I reached for the doorknob, but the door opened before I could even turn it. The smell of dead things became even stronger.
I covered my nose with the back of my hand, and stepped inside. I kept on calling out to Matt, but still no one answered. I froze when I reached the living room.
A woman, Matt’s mother, was sprawled on a comfy-looking red armchair. Her glassy eyes stared up at the ceiling. I noticed her eyes first, because wriggling white maggots covered the rest of her face, entering her mouth which was open in a silent scream.
The smell of something rotting rose from her.
I ran out of Matthew’s house as fast as I could.
When I got home, I instantly screamed, “Mom! Mom! Where are you?”
My hands were shaking, and chills refused to leave my spine. I needed Mom. She was going to make everything alright.
But she didn’t answer.
I dashed up the stairs to her room. “Mom! Mom! Please, Mom!”
She wasn’t there. She wasn’t anywhere.
They never found Matthew. Or my mother. Matthew was considered another runaway, and Mom an abandoner.
Sometimes, when I sit by myself on the yellow monkey bars, I see them from the corner of my eye, Matthew in his button-down shirt and Mom in her prettiest red dress.
But, when I turn to look, it’s always too late.