Elizabeth Hammond was a pleasant lady, nearing her 60s, in the area where I grew up. Almost everyone knew her on Ramsel Road by the name Aunt Eli, where she happily lived in a nice two-storey house opposite us. Aunt Eli had a son, Michael, who was the oldest kid in the neighborhood. He was the type of boy every parent loved and adored, and often asked to watch over us for extra pocket money. Even though Michael never admitted it, I still think he enjoyed playing and hanging out with us, even after he met his new friends from the other high school in town.
Of the two schools, West High School has always been the more popular, where rich and gifted kids went, while South Park High had a reputation for the opposite. In the tales of the locals, South Park was said to be similar to a correctional institution rather than an average school. Barely a handful of students graduated each year, never mind continuing their studies.
Somehow Micheal got to know three guys from South Park High, and suddenly he was no longer the same. Don’t get me wrong, he was still that nice and respectful boy in front of the parents, but there was a visible shift in his demeanour, only noticeable to those who truly knew him and saw him roaming around town after school.
His mother never realized this, or at least I believe she did not know anything at the time. She was happy that her son had finally found friends after being somewhat of an outcast for years. Even though we were good friends together with a bunch of other kids from the street, he never seemed to fit in with us. It seemed as though he was keeping his distance whenever we had company. At first it unsettled me, but when I started high school, I slowly understood what he might have felt, so I never called him out for this.
When I was a freshman in West High School, Michael was already a senior and because of his successes, he was rumored to have great opportunities regarding his future. Everyone believed that he would become a lawyer or a well-known businessman. That was until the day after his graduation, when Michael seemed to have been wiped off of the Earth’s surface. Police investigations started and everyone was interviewed: the students, the teachers, the people in the grocery store and the neighbours.
Aunt Eli was heartbroken and for months, she could not sleep or go out of their house. She could not bring herself to meet the locals with fake sympathy in their eyes. Soon, all types of rumors started about the mystery of the Hammond boy: people made up unbelievable tales about dead bodies found in various places in the suburban area of town, along with conspiratory theories about people being kidnapped and forced into hard labor. It was insufferable for everyone who had known Michael before the case.
A couple months later, Michael Hammond’s case was closed due to lack of evidence, and in a year or so, people did not remember him anymore. Only we, his friends and family, were still grieving his loss after all those years. During this time, Aunt Eli and I became inseparable. She used to say that I was like the daughter she never had, almost like a supplement after the disappearance of her beloved son; and that is exactly what I was trying to do: to help her in any way possible and make her hurting heart heal a little faster. I did her grocery shopping, helped with the cleaning and spent as much time with her as possible. We even sorted through Michael’s stuff together. Even after moving to the nearby city, I went home regularly, not only to visit my parents but to see her.
Unfortunately, during the cold winter months, she came down with a cold, and after a year of being ill, she passed away exactly twenty years after the disappearance of her son. I was devastated and never expected her not to recover from the cold. I think that she was so heartbroken that she did not want to get better anymore; she wanted to end her nightmares. The hurt and guilt were eating me alive, because…
She never got to know that her son was still alive and was taking care of her from afar. She never got to hear the story that I have been keeping a secret for so long, guarding it from everyone, especially from the people in my hometown. She never got to know that exactly two days later, the now thirty-eight-year-old Michael would have come back to fly her to his new home, where he had been hiding for the past twenty years. Aunt Eli never found out that her son left her because he was forced to do so, because it was the only way for him to keep her safe.
Shortly after a month of going missing, Michael contacted me through an unknown number, and told me the story of how he had got into this situation. He owed money to those three kids from South Park for a robbery that he had cut short. It turned out that the other students were involved in underground activities, and Michael prevented them from paying their boss, whose new target was Michael. He was given an ultimatum: either to not pay and get reported to the police, risking his mother’s and his own life, or to pay. He could not do either, so he moved and started working in a factory. After so many years of hard work, he had finally earned enough to pay back his debt and come back without fearing his or his mother’s death.
Unfortunately, he was late and could not tell this to his mother. He could never say his goodbye or tell her one last time how much he loved her. He regretted his decision, we both did, since I watched the woman, my second mother, pass without finding out the truth. But we both made our own decisions and there was no going back, no alternative to the past.
We could only hope that she saw us somewhere from above, living our happiest lives, even if it meant keeping something so important from her. I am so sorry for not telling you any of this, Aunt Eli, but I was scared to lose both you and your son.
Did we make the right decision? Unfortunately, we will never find out. You are gone, and there is no more room for what ifs.