The tender whispers of the wind followed me, lingering only a few moments before fading into nothingness, embraced by a deafening silence. For a long while I stood and listened, hearing only my heartbeat and seeing nothing at all, for a while anyway. When my eyes got accustomed to the almost non-existing light, I saw that I was standing by the bottom of a staircase. To my right there was a doorway; leading, surely, to the room I had been looking into moments earlier. I dared scarcely breathe. The smell of old wood and stuffy air filled my nostrils as I took a cautious step forward, the floorboards creaking slightly as I did so. "Hello?" I said, my voice barely more than a whisper, but seeming loud enough at the time. It felt only appropriate to call out, in case there was someone in there - but of course there was no reply. All was silent, yet somehow I thought I could feel within the darkness, a presence of something quite indescribable which I could neither see nor touch. As if the house itself had a soul, a spirit that had long been waiting for the company of another and now welcomed me happily. I looked around, unsure for a while whether I should leave or proceed, but in my mind curiosity was already taking over. I could never have turned back.
The staircase was narrow but quite intact, as with everything else I had seen so far it appeared not tumble-down, only outdated and neglected - although this was difficult to judge properly in the absence of daylight. I do not recall what went through my mind as I climbed it exactly, uncertain whether I was excited or terrified out of my mind. Part of me still expected someone to soon come running, chasing me out and slamming the door in my face while threatening to report me to the police for my wrongdoing; possibly holding a weapon against my throat. I did also feel very strongly that this was wrong, and yet it seemed in a way I cannot explain like the most natural thing in the world. Ever since I was a little girl I had dreamt of this; of entering a house and seeing with my own two eyes how people lived. Although this was fairly different from what my younger self had so naively imagined, some of that exhilaration resurfaced now like an old friend, like a dream of a dream unexpectedly realised so many years later. It was the childlike wonder and inquisitiveness that kept me walking forward, that reawakened inside me an urge to explore.
The second floor seemed more spacious than the first, consistingprimarily of a sitting room with a fireplace of the quite robust kind that one often finds in very old buildings. There was no furniture there either - no signs, in fact, of anyone ever having lived there. The windows had curtains, but these were incredibly dusty and old-fashioned. The wallpaper, however, had a dark flowery pattern that I presumed to be quite modern, although at the time I certainly could not have known very much about this. Searching with my wandering gaze the corners for any signs of life, and finding none, I slowly proceeded to the third and final floor. There, things seemed different. Above the stairs was a small corridor, one room on each side. Peering into one I was rather surprised to find a bed stood in the far corner; from what I could tell there was even a mattress in it, but nothing else. Intrigued, I walked inside to investigate the matter, letting my fingers softly touch the bed frame. It was made out of dark, solid wood.
The other room appeared completely empty, filled with nothing but tall shadows; watching me silently from where they stood on the walls and seeming not menacing, but protective. It was then that I caught a glimpse of something moving, and I let out a shrill scream as it occurred to me that it was a person, standing motionless in the darkness and watching me silently. Quickly retreating to the dark corridor, I very nearly tripped over the threshold; staying on my feet only by desperately grabbing the banister as my heart pounded with fear. A hundred thoughts ran through my mind in the space of those seconds, during which I honestly believed that I had been caught. Then, as I pondered what exactly it was that I had seen, I was struck by a relieving yet rather humiliating realisation; or at least I would have found it so had anyone else been there to witness it. Standing in the doorway once more, I now saw very clearly that it was only a mirror - and the dreadful skeleton-like creature I had seen inside of it was, in fact, my own reflection. Fascinated, I walked up to it, still frightened but considerably less so. It was a full-body mirror, surpassing me in height by a great deal; its frame delicately carved and painted in gold. For a few moments I stared at it in awe, for I had never in my life seen something so beautiful. How could anyone have left this behind? I asked myself, wiping away some of the dust with my sleeve. Surely it had once been cherished; surely it had once been admired in the same way as I did now? Yet it must have been thought by others to be ordinary, when to me it appeared fit for a castle.
Then, my focus shifted to that which it was reflecting. It had been a long while since I had properly seen myself, and it was not surprising that it had startled me so. Staring back at me was a young woman that might, perhaps, have been pretty, had her eyes not been so sunken in and hollow; had her skin not had such a sickly pallor to it where it lay tense over her prominent cheekbones. She was skin and bone and not much else, but in her brown eyes there was light still. At this sight she smiled sadly, entranced and shocked by her own reflection all at once. It is an image I will never forget for as long as I live, because in that moment I understood why I was being stared at more than before. My body resembled a corpse, and that was the sad truth. Had it not been for that something still present within the hues of my expressive eyes, that something for which I have no word, I might as well already have been dead. Never before had I looked so desperately unwell as I did now, scarcely more than a walking skeleton. Horrible images flashed through my mind of emaciated bodieslying on the street, empty shells that had once been living human beings just like any other. Soon I would meet the same fate. Soon, my limbs and organs would also decay and turn into earth, while my soul roamed elsewhere.
As I opened my mouth, my gaze immediately fell upon the two gaps in my upper jaw where I had teeth missing. This had happened quite recently, for reasons unknown to me at the time (although I have realised in hindsight that it must have been due to the condition known as scurvy). I did not particularly mind; it was rather a common thing after all –however, sometimes it was a definite disadvantage to not be able to chew certain things. I felt my gums, which were quite sore; and was then rather relieved to find that none of my remaining teeth seemed loose. Two less was hardly any loss, but any more and I might struggle.
Stepping away from the mirror I stood by the window for a while, looking at the dark street below. This part of the city did not appear quite as busy as the rest; during that time I only saw a handfulof people walking past number twelve and onwards to their homes, presumably from work. Here, I could almost imagine the nights being still. I could almost imagine these streets being safe; safe to wander all alone without risking a bullet to your head or some stranger's hands wandering all over your body while his chums stood and watched. I could almost imagine the stars appearing through heavy clouds, just like the moon had done. It was odd, how everything seemed different here, and yet not at the same time. I could not quite put my finger on what made it so.
As I busied myself with these ponderings, I also had to reach another conclusion. The house was empty, and had been for a long time. How and why the key had found its way to me, I might never know; but presumably no one would return to this place this evening at least. That meant that it would be safe to spend the night there. I could do so without anybody noticing. Even if the idea made me feel slightly uncomfortable, I also knew for a fact that I would not be able to walk all the way back to the East End without collapsing halfway. My sleep-deprivation was so severe that I was now struggling to keep my eyes open once again; completely and utterly exhausted. If I hesitated much longer I would end up falling asleep in there anyhow, so what was the point in hesitating? I had found shelter. For the first time in my life I was protected from all harm, protected within the walls of this haven in which I had somehow ended up. No one had seen me enter it, and no one knew I was there. Surely it would be safe?
I made up my mind. As soon as I had locked the front door, I went back into the bedroom. As I carefully sat down on the mattress I could hear the distant sound of voices from next door; a reminder that I needed to stay as quiet as I possibly could. I laid myself down, spending a few minutes trying to decide whether or not I liked the unfamiliar feeling of the softness upon which my body rested. It was a very odd sensation; almost as if I was floating in the air, far above the ground. Staring at the ceiling for a while I was not sure that I'd actually be able to sleep, the surrounding shadows growing taller still. Every creaking noise made me flinch, and more than once I thought I could see somebody standing in the doorway. Although I knew that nothing could happen I was unable to let go of my fear, having spent so many nights not knowing whether I would still be alive come daybreak. I lay awake for what felt like hours but may only have been a few minutes, tossing and turning until the exhaustion finally came over me like one gargantuan wave of anaesthesia; and I fell asleep at last, fully dressed and sprawled out across the dusty old bed.