Post Fri Apr 10, 2015 2:33 pm

The Beginnings of a Beautiful Friendship

"The Beginnings of a Beautiful Friendship."

Location: Boston, Massachusetts
Time: A long time ago, in which Howell is a teenager
Character(s): a young Howell, along with a menagerie of family and friends, a heavily implied Tschim
Author(s): Saeriva


"Uncle," Howell gasped, eyes and mouth wide in horror, "what did you do?"

Daniel carried on as though he hadn't heard, lathering suds along the long, red wounds cut up both his forearms. His limbs looked like the beginning stages of those on a lab cadaver, with the skinning incisions scored like cabinet doors, deep enough to bleed. His shirt front was blossoming with pink stains and he'd managed to get soap bubbles in his beard. Howell was about to ask again, more desperately this time, but Daniel finally got around to answering.

"Nothing," he pouted, "it's always nothing." Daniel threw his lump of soap into the sink in a tantrum, slapping his hands in a puddle of blood and water. "Cross gets all this stuff to work. It's not fair, you know?"

And Howell really would have responded to the question, with something along the lines of no or who is Cross? but Daniel continued talking.

"Maybe I want death-based super powers too, right? Does he ever think about that? Maybe I want to eat poison dart frogs and wrestle bears sometimes, but nooo... Only Cross gets to do the fun stuff."

"W-what are you--"

"Well, it doesn't matter now. It didn't work." And to finalize the statement, Daniel twisted off the faucet with a sharp jerk. Howell was still mentally struggling to catch up, and by the time he'd given up, Daniel had both arms dry and bandaged and the sink was wiped down. There was still soap in his beard. "Hey, don't tell your dad I got into all his all stuff. He gets peeved about that kinda stuff."

"The supplies for the clinic?" Howell blinked, "Uncle, he's--"

"You're right," Daniel interrupted him, nodding vigorously. "You're right, he'll figure it out sooner or later. Probably sooner, but we can hope for later.”

Howell had been about to say he’s going to kill you, but bit his lip to hold the thought in.

“Well, when he finds out, tell him… Tell him I was injured rescuing an orphan from a speeding motorist! Or, uh… I saved a runaway race horse from being hit by a train. Or that I dueled a fencing grandmaster for the honor of a beautiful lady."

"Or," another voice rolled in from the hallway, like distant thunder, "you could tell him the truth." Dr. Whitman entered the light of the bathroom doorway with his back as straight as a ruler. The fold of his arms crossed his chest as stiff and crisp as the tailored cut of his jacket, the set of his lips and brow a severe line. A single finger tapped a single time against his arm. Howell slank away from his father and the door, Daniel cowed.

"Now, Will, before you go getting any ideas--"

"I have a few, already. Go on."

"It was important!" Daniel insisted, almost pleaded. "It was research."

"Daniel," William began, after a strenuous sigh and a lengthy pinch on the bridge of his nose, "explain to me why there is blood dripping from my cellar walls."

"It's not on the walls. It's in a very neat circle on the floor. I think you're being a little dramatic about all this..."

Before Howell could blink, his father had Daniel's head locked into his elbow and his fingers were twisting Daniel's ear so far it folded over.

"That hurts!"

"Rodger and his students will be here in less than one hour, Daniel!" William's voice was so loud it was close to shouting, at least as close as William ever got. "The cellar looks like some heathen temple!"

"What do you care, even? Since when are you all religious, anyway?"

"I care when Rodger and a dozen of his weakest students are coming to my home for a practice lab!" William threw his brother to the floor, and as Daniel scrambled to right himself, the doctor set to straightening his jacket and tie. "Clean up my cellar, Daniel, or I'll let the students dissect you. Am I clear?"

---

Howell ran outside ahead of his uncle to pry open the cellar doors. Daniel insisted, with typical melodrama, that there'd be no way he could manage between all the buckets and brushes he'd need to scrub the sacrificial blood from the floor. So Howell, dutiful nephew he was, ran outside to leave open the heavy, slanted doors to the cellar.

Which is exactly what he would have done, if he hadn't be accosted almost as soon he left the house by a man; a great, gray, bear of a man with shoulders set near as wide apart as the length of Howell's arm and a beard that skirted the tip of his sternum. The Whitman family groundskeeper, Iosif Isaakovich Babisky, raised one of his tree trunk arms and hailed.

"Gut morgn!"

"Gut morgn," Howell returned and the man gestured widely, mostly by virtue of being so wide, to the house.

"I not hearing dokter yelling so much before. Velkh geshen?"

"Ikh veys nisht." Howell shrugged. "Uncle Daniel made a mess of the cellar. Something about animal blood?"

"Ay-yay-yay… Why would he do this?"

Howell threw up his hands and shrugged. How was he supposed to know? How was he supposed to know why his uncle did any of the strange things he did?

“You not going there until is clean, yes?" Iosif asked in great concern. "Is… how you say English… Tumah? Tumat met. Tumat ohel.

Howell’s eyebrows scrunched. He knew what the words meant and, in an ambiguous kind of way, he knew what Iosif was trying to tell him. Tumah, as he and his wife had explained to Howell, was uncleanliness. Impurity. Tumat met and tumat ohel, very specific impurities dealing with corpses, being in contact with dead things or being under the same roof as a dead thing. Both were constant concerns for Mr. and Mrs. Babisky, considering what his father volunteered the cellar for on the weekends. Iosif was saying the cellar was not fit for human habitation at the threat of their immortal souls.

“I don’t think there are words for that in English, Mr. Babisky.”

“Bah,” and he swiped Howell’s words from the air with his great bear's paw. “No ‘mister’. Is zedye. Zedye Iosif. You call me this, is much better.” Iosif placed his heavy, hardened hand on Howell's head, scrubbing his sandpaper fingers into his hair. "Head is good, so no going there, yes? Later will put salt on door, make clean. Then, maybe, you go.”

"Why?" Howell prickled. "Dr. Goldbloom and his students will be down there, and father, too. What about them?”

"Dem rav’s tochter tor nit vos dem beder’s tochter meg.*" he said, looking extremely stern, then slid his hand off Howell's head to his shoulder. "Dokter is good man, but not knowing so much taharah. I teach you this, boychek, you knowing this important things. So, not to go."

Howell grumbled like a low-boiling pot and Iosif, like a beater to a hanging rug, pat his mallet-palm against Howell's back until the topic was shaken away.

"This is reminding of me! You come to Shabbat? Inna makes much cholent, is very..." Iosif trailed, before gesturing to own stomach and looking puzzled. "Zat?"

Howell chewed his lip a moment as he searched for an accurate translation. "Hearty?"

"'Hearty,' yes, is good word. Very 'hearty.' Maybe, makes you not so skinny?"

---

Howell lay beneath the parlor window, scribbling idly as he often did from his position from the chaise lounge, starting up at the ceiling. At least he was, right up until he heard his uncle slam the kitchen door, bellowing in his deepest voice: “The sordid deed is done!” which was promptly followed by a clattering and a splashing that Howell could only assume to be whatever supplies he’d taken into the cellar to accomplish such a 'sordid deed.'

“About time." The growl was followed by Howell’s father, appearing in the parlor with his fingers busy at his shirt cuffs. “I’m going down there to prepare,” he addressed to his son. “Show Rodger and his students there once they arrive.” Howell nodded, and watched the man disappear down the hall. There was an expected amount of noise, sounding suspiciously like arguing, coming from that direction as his father and uncle crossed paths. The door opened and closed again and it wasn't long after that, when Daniel came stomping into the parlor.

"Oh, my favorite nephew," he cooed, with his arms full of books, to which Howell responded: "I'm your only nephew.”

"That you are. And gosh, look how big you've gotten. I remember when you were just a baby. I could have held you in one hand. You know, if your mother would ever let me. I'm kidding," Daniel quickly clarified, "your mom didn't mind. It was Will and Elain Price that didn't want me holding you. I made one joke about poking the baby in the squishy parts, and they got all defensive. Anyway, here,” and immediately following that, Daniel unloaded no less than ten, leather-bound books onto his only nephew’s stomach. “These didn’t do much for me. Maybe you can get 'em to work.”

By the time Howell had gathered the wind back into his lungs, and managed to finally right himself from under the books, which sent an avalanche of yellow pages and thick bindings off the lounge, Daniel had disappeared up the stairs to the second floor. He would have followed after him, and Howell did make it as far as the stairs, steaming like a kettle all the way, but the doorbell stopped him with his hand on the banister. It being Saturday, neither of the only two houseworkers the family employed were there to answer it, so Howell made do with casting a grimace up the stairs and went to open the door himself.

Instead of storming up the stairs after Daniel, he swept through the decorative door that separated the family's living space from the area the doctor had set aside for his business operations. Beyond that, on the other side of the front door, was a friendly-faced man with reddish-chestnut hair trimmed sort and neat into a Franz-Joseph beard. His eyes squinted when he smiled behind his oval glasses and, behind him, a chorus of first-year medical students disjointedly sounded "Good afternoon."

"Uh, hello, everyone," Howell returned, before turning to address Dr. Goldbloom specifically. "Father's just gone to the cellar, I can take you back there."

"Thank you, Howell. Alright, gentleman," Rodger motioned behind him to the crowd. "This way, please. Mind your heads on the stairs."

---

Though he'd taken exception to being referred to as a 'daughter,' unintentional as it had been, Howell was good to his promise to Iosif regarding the cellar. He lead Dr. Goldbloom and his students to the back of the house, where he held the doors open for them as they descended single file into the earth. And once the last head cleared the entrance, he closed the doors behind the lot of them.

Instead, he returned to the parlor, tilting his head in study of the mountain of books his uncle had dumped on him. They’d felt more like bricks after a drop like that. Howell parsed through the tomes with his foot, reading titles like ‘A New and Complete Illustration of the Occult Sciences,’ or ‘Of Occult Philosophy: Book 1’ and something in Latin that Howell figured he’d need to get his textbooks out to translate, before kneeling to scoop up the scattered books and begin carting them up the stairs.

---

For a boy who hadn't been to mass in the five years since devout Elain and her brother Brynn Price had moved on from the Whitmans’ employment but for the compulsory service he attended during school, Howell had always maintained good marks in Latin. His impressive record for academics was largely why he was still allowed to attend St. John’s at all, in spite of his father’s and the school administration’s mutual dislike of each other. Over the next few months, as Howell spent more time in his room, limping through the pounds of books his uncle Daniel had violently handed down to him using his school texts as a crutch, those marks steadily improved. The further into the Sword of Moses and the Lesser Key of Solomon Howell found himself, the further behind himself he found the weekly vocabulary memorizations the sisters expected of him. They’d have been much less impressed if they’d known what he’d been reading to improve the way he had. Catholics tended to dislike the occult sciences. They generally frowned on summoning demons and spitting in the face of God’s plan to speak with the dead.

Unfortunately for them, that’s exactly what those books Daniel had passed on had been about. To be doubly unfortunate, speaking with the dead was something of a popular trend.

Howell had never really seen the controversy in the idea. He assumed everyone wondered what was beyond that inky curtain, waiting after death. Everyone had to cross it, eventually, and everyone knew someone who already had. Certainly, there were plenty of ideas on the subject; Elain and the chaplain at St. John’s talked of heaven, hell and purgatory. Iosif spoke to him of gehenna and olam haba. He’d read about Nirvana and karma, Valhalla and the Hall of Two Truths from his uncle’s collection of exotic books and his father had said the only thing that happened when a person died was decomposition; that they were simply, completely gone. All different, and none with more proof to it than the last.

And so it seemed, to Howell, that the desire to contact 'the other side' was perfectly reasonable. Theories without experimentation, after all, were only opinions. Some of his friends from school had already tried, but just in those parlor-game ways popular with celebrity mystics or bored middle class women. Like tying chalk tablets together. Milton Bricker and Sidney Leatherman both swore it worked for them and Julius Horn, Dr. Goldbloom’s nephew, said he saw a table levitate at a séance once.

Howell had too much of his father's skepticism to take other people’s word as substance for such a claim, though too little not to find them curious. Most importantly, he was enough of himself to have the want to try.

---

With the cellar doors closed behind him, the space was illuminated by only a single oil lamp and the perfumed incense Howell had set smoldering in a hashed together tripod. Paces away from it, he covered his father’s articulated display skeleton beneath a swath of dark fabric and imprisoned the lot within a chalk-drawn circle of words and geometry. A second one drawn for himself followed next, then a third to bind the two together.

Standing in his smaller and less complex circle beside the makeshift censer, Howell slipped his glasses over his ears. He opened his book, but did not read. He only stared, chewing the inside of his lip, at the shapeless form beneath the shroud. At length, hesitant phrases in Latin began to fall from his tongue.

He spoke them with much less authority in his tenor than the translated words would have justified, but if the way flame inside his lamp began to shudder was any indication, or the cold and sudden draft nipping at his heels that never seemed to diffuse the heady clouds of scented smoke, they seemed to have begun working all the same.

Slowly, as through balancing some weight on his head, Howell knelt to the cold and chalk-dressed stone. He lay the book aside with ginger care, and the pages fluttered in the rising draft as he freed his hands. They were only free a moment before he took up a knife with a black handle and drew a line of blood from his palm. A steady rotation of his wrist spilled droplets to the perfumed stones in the censor, where they sizzled and spit like fat in a hot pan. The censer erupted smoke, vomiting thick tendrils to the ceiling.

The room was nearly full of the stuff, thick enough to chew smelling earthy-sweet and suspiciously like iron, before he'd had a chance to swap the black handled knife for the white. Somewhere at the periphery of his vision, beyond the increasingly erratic lamp light, it seemed sparks of blue and white where popping like embers off fire logs amid the fog. The singular piece of Howell's brain not entirely numb from disbelief was certain such a thing shouldn't be possible.

Using the hand that had been cut, which was awkward because it wasn't his dominate hand, the knife with the white handle directed the tendrils of smoke. They coiled together, thick like eels through the damp air and swirling as through circling a drain. There was no denying them now, as his lamp cut frantic, convulsing light through the smoke; streaks of blue light were crackling through the fog like lightning on the underbelly of storm clouds, illuminating the room with snapping electricity and a yellow frenzy of lamp light until he pointed the knife to the shroud . Both the blue light and the smoke were sucked beneath it.

The flame in the lamp steadied.

At first, Howell wasn't sure anything had happened. But as he removed his glasses to squint through the darkness, it shivered. At least he thought it did. He leaned inward, straining for some second sign and it shivered again. This time he was sure, because he could hear the bones and metal joints beneath the cloth clacking together. Then it did again, and again, until the shroud was shaking like a leaf in a storm, filling the cellar with desperate clacking like train wheels against tracks, or teeth snapping together

The shroud rose, in some semblance of the motion; more to say that it shambled upright, like a figure seated beneath a cloak. Howell's throat began to clench in, and he realized he hadn’t been breathing. He sucked in a gasp.

"I must admit, I was expecting someone taller, after a reel-in like that."

If he hadn't known, empirically, to the contrary, Howell would have sworn the voice to be coming from a phonograph concealed beneath the shroud.

"That's quite an arm on you," the disembodied voice came again, "and you've even managed to stay in one piece, after all that. Feisty little thing, aren't you?"

The voice itself was hard to place, he realized slowly; slowly, that is, by virtue of shock. It wasn’t a readily masculine kind of sound, but he couldn't call it very feminine, either. It held a peculiar nasal quality, hollow and scratching; like someone singing about half a mile away, or talking at the other end of a big hall.

“You are still all there, aren’t you, son?” It asked and Howell, finally realizing that this was all actually happening, dropped his glasses. “Oh, you are, then. That’s good. Sometimes the rite leaves them whole in all but the mind. Only thing to do but wait for the residual energies to dry up and get sent back once the spell dies...”

“What are you?” he rasped.

“Oh my,” it took Howell a moment to recognize the harsh sound it made as a laugh, “what a bold question. I like your initiative, young man, it’s very refreshing,” that nasal, hollow, scratching of a voice went soft with curiosity, maybe with something a little less benign. “I’ll answer, in time, but what are you, then? A mother’s little blessing, I’m sure.”

“I-I don’t understand you. Do you have to talk in riddles?” He was pretty sure he’d read about that somewhere.

“No,” it admitted, and the voice alone suggested a shrug, “but it’s so much more poetic that way, don’t you think? Very fitting for such an elusive art. It’s fine though, you’ve answered well enough. Now then, young man, allow an old creature a final question for the time being,” and Howell would have complied, had it actually asked one, but for several moments the room sat in silence as overbearing as the scent of incense lingering in the air. “What is it you want?”

“What?

“What reason did you bring me here, boy? I suspect you do have a reason, don’t you? Normally, I would guess power. That’s the usual motivation, but you’ve clearly no need for any more, lest you burst at the seams. So, what is it then? Did you care to live forever?”

"Not really," Howell shrugged.

"Perhaps, to raise an army of the walking dead?"

"No."

“No undying soldiers for you then. Alright, then perhaps, you would like to know what happens after you die?” It asked, and Howell couldn’t find his voice to answer. For three or four, five breaths, he didn’t answer. Only, eventually, he up brought his eyes from the chalk lines on the floor, glancing to the silhouette before him. The shape leaned back, settling into its magic chair dawn of chalk runes on the cellar floor. “Well then, fair little cunning man, let’s see what this art can offer you.”