An Old Breath

I stopped the car at the side of the road. I watched my girlfriend try to hang on until the end of the phone call. Whoever was on the other end mercifully cut it short. She put the phone down and looked at me with wide eyes, shimmering wet.
“My parents are dead.”
I had feared it was something like that but I couldn’t come up with anything to say. She let the tears come and I held her hand.

About a week later we went to check out the house. Cassie’s parents had owned an old farmhouse, sitting alone in the midst of a simple garden, by a street that had been there since before cars were invented. Cassie had spent her entire childhood here. By the time she was born, all the animals and lands around the house had been sold and all farming rooms repurposed into sheds for gardening tools or a guest room for when aunt Lisa came visiting from the city for a weekend.

I could see that knowing it empty removed any homely feeling from this place for Cassie. She held her arms crossed awkwardly and stood in place a lot. It’s like she didn’t want to touch any part of the house. I brought in a stack of boxes while she just stood by the door in the kitchen not moving a single step further in. We had boxes for things she wanted to keep, stuff to sell on flea markets and for stuff to get rid off right away. We actually managed to sort it out fairly fast. The house was big and had collected many things, but there wasn’t much that Cassie was overly attached to that she hadn’t already taken with her when she moved out, or things we didn’t already have our own of, like knives and forks.

The attic was another thing though. Back when this was a farm, hay had been collected here. Now there were just stacks of boxes like the ones we filled downstairs. Going through these would take some more time.

At the top of the box pile we found seasonal home decorations, christmas lights and the like, stuff they’d pull out each year, so that’s why it was the most accessible. Beneath that were a collection of old cowboy novels, apparently her dad had collected those at some point. One box just had a stack of blank papers. Someone had probably made a poor decision with where to store these and forgot about it. There was one box with old empty picture frames that haven’t aged well. The rest of the attic was equally mundane. Eventually we were down to three boxes at the far end and decided to have a drink. The air up here was rather dusty and our throats have gotten sore. For a moment we let it be quiet in the attic. I could see Cassie felt more comfortable in her old home after spending some time in it. Seeing the place stripped down had its own sense of sorrow, but she forced a smile.

We heard a cracking sound. My first association was a bird. I thought one might’ve found a hole in the roof and thought this to be a good dry place to make a home. We stood still, waiting for it to be heard again. The second time I heard it I could tell it wasn’t an animal sound. It was a mechanical one, but also human. Like an old phonograph playing a recording. A recording of someone moaning. It was hard to say, it sounded neither distressed, pained or anything. A human voice making no sound in particular.
“You hear that too, right?” Cassie whispered.
I got up and approached the three boxes we hadn’t checked yet. I eventually found the perp. An old babyphone among other old baby stuff. It made me feel at ease at first but then I remembered that babyphones don’t just play random recordings. They played whatever noise was on the other end. I couldn’t find the counterpiece in the box or in the two other boxes.

I looked back at Cassie, thinking of how to break the news but she already figured out what I discovered.

“If I remember right, those old things only had a short range.”
I had nothing to say, allowing for the choppy relay to play undisturbed. It was like a baby babbling but it wasn’t the voice of a baby. Nor an adult really. A young teen maybe.
I’ve been standing still, as if to hide from something that could only see movement. It was hard to break out of the paralysis and it felt like a big mistake to do it, but I managed to walk over to Cassie.
“This is only one way, right? It can’t hear us on it’s end?” I whispered.
Cassie shook her head. “You weren’t supposed to talk back to the baby. These aren’t walkie-talkies.”
She tried to act cool but I could tell she’s been glued to the floor as well ever since hearing it. I pulled her up to break her stasis.
“What should we do?” she asked.
“We’ve been here all day and found nothing unusual. It’s probably not aware of us. I think we could get down, into the car and call the police. If it comes out, we’ll drive right off. Whatever this is, it can’t be faster than a car.”
“Sounds good.” I could tell Cassie dreaded leaving the attic. It was mostly empty now with nowhere to hide. Whatever this thing was, it wasn’t here. The attic felt safe.
“I’ll go first.” I said.
The attic was accessed with a fold-up ladder and the crappy thing about that is that you had to face the ladder when climbing down. The piece of wood that would neatly hide the ladder on the ceiling when folded up blocked the view, so you only got a look around the room once you’ve reached the bottom. I was shaking as I climbed into the hole in the floor, which threw off my balance. I had planned to rush down as fast as possible but my legs felt stiff. Once I reached the ground I looked around with my back to the nearest wall. No one around. The voice still babbled on. I gave a silent thumbs up and Cassie followed me. We rushed down the stairs and outside, I fumbled out my car keys while we ran and was glad I got a car that could unlock its doors by the press of a button. I hopped into the driver’s seat while Cassie didn’t take the time to go around the car and jumped onto the back seats. As soon as the doors were closed, I locked them, pressed the button twice more, hearing that reassuring click on all four doors.

Our eyes stuck on the house, we waited for something to come out running at us, something horrible and ungodly. Nothing happened. I took out my phone, but hesitated to call. After all, we’ve seen nothing, maybe we were just overreacting, making fools of ourselves. The babyphone had fallen silent. We must’ve gotten out of reach.

We sat in the car for a good while, trying to make sense of this. The silence of the babyphone reassured us that if whatever we heard was real, it wasn’t close. The more time passed, the sillier we felt. Eventually we decided to leave the car. I kept the babyphone on me, just to be sure, but it never picked anything up again. We left the remaining three boxes in the attic be and just loaded up the two boxes of stuff Cassie wanted to keep into the car. We locked the door behind us and decided to deal with the rest another day. It was already beginning to get dark and even though we agreed that we just freaked out over nothing, we didn’t want to stay here until night.

We lived half an hour away and Cassie fell asleep along the way. I left the boxes in the car and instead carried her inside. I placed her on our bed. She must’ve been real exhausted to not wake up during all that. With her asleep, I decided to call it a day as well. I just dumped my jacket on a chair in our bedroom and crawled into bed with her.

I woke up at around 3:00 AM. I was half asleep, until I could finally recognize the sound that woke me up. It came from the pocket of my jacket. I was breathing heavy. And I could hear me faintly through the babyphone.