The man who lived next door to Elizabeth Cole kept himself to himself. Mrs. Cole was rather glad about this because, if she was being honest, she found him intimidating and possibly even a little scary. She didn't want her two boys mixing with a man like that.
Mrs. Cole was well accustomed to his odd habits. Sometimes he disappeared for months at a time, leaving the house deserted. He was in and out at all hours of the night, occasionally with dyed hair and different clothing. A few times, men in dark suits appeared and stood watching the house. The man who lived there was always away when this happened. No one else ever went to that house- not the postman or the milkman or the window cleaner or the paperboy.
For a long time Mrs. Cole ignored her neighbour, and he ignored her. Both parties seemed content with this arrangement. Until the day the man brought her bruised, bleeding son home.
The man refused to come inside. He simply made sure her son got home safely, then disappeared into his own house as quickly as possible.
Her boy Peter told her about how he'd been attacked by a gang of older boys – almost men - on the way home from school. They had been beating him up until the man arrived and scared them off. Most of them had scarpered straight away at the sight of another person, but the ringleader had stayed, had challenged the man. The man had knocked him out with one punch. Peter said the look on his face had been terrifying.
Mrs. Cole and Peter went round to thank him the next day, but he didn't answer the door. A few days later the men in the black suits appeared again. But this time they walked straight into the house and emerged with cardboard boxes. When Mrs. Cole asked what was going on they informed her that the man who lived there had been killed in a car accident.
The house remained empty. There wasn't even a 'For Sale' sign, which Mrs. Cole found very odd. Perhaps the house belonged to the man's family now, although none had ever visited. Then, a few months after his death, Mrs. Cole saw a young boy standing outside the house, staring at it with a rather defeated expression. Being the motherly type, she went out to talk to him.
"Are you alright, dear?"
He turned, looking suspicious, but relaxed when he saw she was obviously not a threat. Mrs. Cole thought this was a rather unusual reaction for a teenage boy. As she watched him, she realised he looked a little like her Peter – good-looking, with blonde hair and serious brown eyes.
"Yes, thanks. I was just...I mean...did you know the man who lived here?"
"Not well." she said gently. "He was rather...private. In fact, the first time I spoke to him was just a few days before he was...well..."
The boy looked surprised and interested. "Really? What did he say?"
"Not much, dear. He just brought my son home – he'd found Peter being beaten up in the park, and helped him out."
The surprise on the boy's face increased, and he turned to stare contemplatively at the house.
"Are you alright, dear? Did you...know him well?"
The boy turned back to her with a slight crease between his brows and eyes far sadder than any teenager's should be.
"Not really. I only met him recently, but he was an old friend of my dad's." He sighed. "It would have been nice to hear some stories about my dad."
Mrs. Cole nodded sadly, unsure of what to say – it was obvious the boy's father was no longer around.
The boy stared into nothingness for a moment, then turned to face her.
"I should be going. Sorry for disturbing you."
"No need to apologise, child. But may I ask you a question?"
He nodded, looking mildly suspicious again.
"What was his name? The man who lived there."
The boy stared at her for a moment, judging. Then:
"His name was Yassen Gregorovich."
Six months later and the house was still deserted. Mrs. Cole was unable to sleep one night, and stood staring absent-mindedly out of the window. A movement caught her eye. An eerily familiar figure was making its way cautiously towards the house. But that was impossible...wasn't it?
She ran downstairs and pulled open the front door. At the noise, the figure spun around. For a moment they stood staring at each other, one wary, one disbelieving. Then he spoke.
"Please do not mention this to anyone. For your safety as much as mine. You should go back inside."
Surreal as the situation was, the tone of his voice convinced her. But first she had a message to give.
"I won't say a word. But you should know – a boy came looking for you." For the first time, emotion flicked across the man's face.
"He said you knew his father." she continued. "I think he would have liked to speak to you a little more. If there's any way you can...get in touch with him..." She trailed off, unsure what to say.
Yassen Gregorovich stared at her with the same searching gaze the boy had used. Then nodded.
"Thank you for telling me. Goodbye, Mrs. Cole."
She recognised the dismissal, and turned to walk back inside. She never mentioned that night to anyone, nor did she ever see the man or the boy again. But somehow the sight of the empty house didn't unnerve her as much as it used to.
Mrs. Cole felt her debt to her mysterious neighbour had been repaid.