Chapter 42: And then there’s Claude
After a short while, most of the area was empty and silence had fallen over the camp. I noticed a young man approach the three of us. He was of average height and fair build, seeming lankier than anything else. As he entered the light of the central fire, I noticed that his fair build was no indication of weakness but simple athleticism. He wore a simple plaid shirt, which had been left unbuttoned to reveal a well toned chest. His jeans were tattered and disintegrated into little more than hems and stray fibers below the knees. A pair of heavily worn cowboy boots, rattlesnake scales flaking off the tanned hide, adorned his feet and created a resounding clacking as he walked.
From the neck down he was a typical and attractive enough young man. His head was unmistakably that of a coyote. His eyes glowed golden in the flickering firelight and his mouth was open in a cocky grin. His ears were perked up and alert, pointed directly at the three of us. He crossed the camp with deliberate purpose.
I glanced to my companions for support and affirmation as the figure approached, but received no such thing. Instead, I noticed Bobbi had started to doze and Rick seemed indifferent and detached from his surroundings. The night had been too full of shocks and worries for them, I supposed.
When he was close enough, I gave him a simple nod of greeting but said nothing at first. This elicited a broad and toothy grin from the man, which proved unsettling to see on the muzzle of a coyote. He waved with a nod and a grin. “Greetings, milady!”
“Uhm, hello.” I tried to force a smile, but found it difficult. “Who are you?”
The man laughed. “Name’s Claude, milady. Our mutual friend and host sent me to treat with you.”
I lifted an eye brow, glancing to my companions. Bobbi had rolled a bit closer to me, but otherwise continued to sleep undisturbed. Rick watched Claude closely, but showed no other sign of reaction. I turned back to Claude and nodded at him in greeting again. “Kadmon, you mean?” “Who else?” He chuckled lightly. “The president?”
I couldn’t help but smile at the absurdity of the idea, which I can only guess was his purpose. “I suppose not…”
“I’ve been sent to talk with you, answer any questions you might have… not to mention a more… personal motivation for conversing.” He grinned and pointed at the ground before me. “May I?”
“I suppose so.” I shrugged. I kept my voice low and detached, still suspicious.
Claude bowed low with a smile and a flourish. “Thank you, my dear.” He slowly squatted down and allowed himself to tumble backwards into a sitting position, blinking heavily as he made contact with the ground. “I always forget just how hard the ground around here is.”
I smiled politely, acknowledging his joke, but not laughing aloud. “So, what was it that Kadmon wanted you to tell me?”
“Hm? Oh, I thought you knew. Or, rather knew what you didn’t know.” He grinned broadly again, amused at his own antics. “See, he was talking about Touched and Untouched and all that fun stuff, but you seemed completely lost. He wants you to understand what’s really going on, before you join everybody at the Nexus tomorrow.” He pointed at himself. “I’m here…” Then, he pointed at me. “To help you.” He shrugged heavily. “I need to know what you don’t know before I can help you know what you don’t know. Help me to help you.”
While I tried to untangle the jumble of words that was his statement. He merely grinned, happy with himself at creating such a convoluted string of nonsensical sense. Once I finally figured out that he was asking me what I wanted to know first, he was practically falling over from suppressed laughter. I shot him a dark look and rolled my eyes, annoyed with his antics. Nonetheless, I didn’t know if this chance would every present itself again, so I needed to take it. “Fine. What the hell does “touched” even mean?”
“Ahh, Touched, of course we would start with the basics. See, the Event, which changed everything about and around us, left its mark upon the land and its people.” He swept his arms wide to indicate everything around him. “There are four types of people that were hit by the event. The Lost were those who simply disappeared or died, through means both mundane and mysterious. Some simply disappeared and some were crushed by boulders tumbling out from the sky, y’know stuff like that.” He shrugged. “They’re the unfortunates.”
He pointed at himself. “The second category is what you asked about. See, I’m what Kadmon would call a Touched. Doesn’t mean I’m touched in the head. I’ll leave that to you to decide.” He grinned and chuckled to himself, swirling his eyes to reinforce his point. “See. I’m not human anymore. I survived, but the Event changed me. It “Touched” me, get it?” He grinned and pantomimed a doll. “Show me on the doll where the Event touched you… Heh.” When no one broke out into uproarious laughter, he shot us an exasperated and melodramatic grimace, sighed, and continued.
“Anywho… When Big Daddy Kadmon says, Touched, he means anyone who was left changed in the wake of the Event. Some folks grew horns or animal heads and became like me, all beastie and wild. Others lost their physical bodies to become spirits. Others grew an extra limb or picked up a strange love drinking human blood. Each Touched is different, though no one knows exactly why. Not that it matters much.”
I nodded. “Fair enough. I think I get the idea. Most of the weird shit we’ve seen along the way was probably human at one point or another, so it doesn’t seem so weird.”
He grinned. “Excellent. I don’t like talking about myself so much, so let’s just move on, shall we?” He pointed at me, directly at the center of my chest for an awkwardly silent moment before saying a word. “See, you’re what they call the Untouched. You were left wholly human after the Event. Completely normal, and something more.” He pointed at himself. “See, I was so sure of the world around me, that nothing could hurt me, that even when I got hit by lightning and dropped into the earth I survived. Of course, I also wound up with a fuller head of hair.” He chuckled and ran a hand through the fur on his head.
“You, though, you’re are different. You’re normal, sure, but it’s more than that.” He pointed at himself. “I became a Spirit Being. I got powers to direct the flow of nature around me, just by thinking about it.” He looked straight up and shot a sharp breath straight up in the air. The clouds above us swirled and parted for a brief moment, startling Rick from his bored stupor with the sudden brightness of the sunbeam. Then, just as quickly as it appeared, the gap faded away. “Helps us to keep sane if the sun isn’t always there, so we all work together to keep nature from wigging us out.”
He shrugged again. “See, we have power. Most Touched do, of some sort, but we don’t truly control it. We’ve lost ourselves to our new lives. I used to be a bit of a clown, sure, but now I can’t be serious if I try.” He chuckled softly, almost sadly. “It just isn’t in my nature to not make a joke anymore.”
A moment of silence stretched between us, broken only when I sadly said, “I’m sorry.”
“Why? Not your fault, kiddo. Unless you caused the Event…” He eyed me with mock suspicion, before breaking out in a grin again. “Just means we’re like our ancient ancestors. Kinda like some kinds of shaman from the olden times. We serve the land and its people, with little ability or even desire to do things for ourselves. That’s where you and the other Untouched come in. See, you folks are lucky. You’re still you. Unchanged. Unaltered. Untouched. You’re still your own person, able to do whatever you want, whenever you want. Best of all, you get all the power that we Touched get.” He paused for dramatic effect. “See, you change the world simply by walking through it. Know it or not, you change the world every time you blink. You define the world, just like we do, but you can do it on your own terms. I’m a slave to my nature; able to do a lot of things, but confined by who or what we are.”
“Wait a second.” I interrupted him with incredulity. “Now you’re just talking crazy. You’re saying that I’m basically some sort of crazy wizard?”
“In a manner of speaking, I suppose.” He nodded concedingly.
“Bullshit…” I was annoyed at his antics and it shown in my tone of voice. “If that were the case, why wasn’t I able to teleport home or some shit? Why wasn’t I able to wiggle my fingers and save my friends all the countless times we’ve run into trouble?” I leaned back a daring expression on my face.
“Did you try?” Was the simply reply Claude gave me.
“What? Why would I even try something like that? It’s insane!”
“And that is why you couldn’t.” He chuckled and rolled his eyes. “If you don’t open yourself up to the possibilities, you are only restraining yourself. If you don’t believe, then it won’t happen.”
“Fine, I’ll play along. Why did all the bad things happen to us, then? If I didn’t expect it, it shouldn’t have happened, right?”
“Not quite, milady.” He chuckled. “See, no one lives in a vacuum. Neither do you. There are many fewer people left in this world since the Event, but you are far from alone. There are other Untouched changing things as you do. There are Touched out there defining reality too, even if they are doing so through some impersonal imperative.” He paused, to let that sink in. “That’s not to mention the definitions of other things. What happened to you when you were around no others? Did anything nasty or unexpected happen in those times?”
“Not really. Pretty normal stuff.” I was looking at him sideways, trying to see where he was going with this.
“Simple, enough. When no others were present to define things with or against you, what you wanted to happen, happened.”
I sat silent for a moment, thinking on how each time I had been alone I had sought a purpose, and how each time I had achieved it, in some form or another. I could not help but wonder if my thoughts had as much impact on outcomes as Claude seemed to think.
Then, a thought occurred. “Okay. Let’s assume I agree with all this, which I’m not sure I do. If I had the ability to reshape everything, wouldn’t there have been some indication? You know something obvious?”
“Probably. Think back. Hard. Try to think of anything and everything strange that has happened to you since the Event.” Claude had taken this opportunity to jokingly place fingers on the side of his forehead, as if trying to psychically force my memories to cooperate. “Think hard and try to rule out everything that may have been the desire of others. There you will find your answer.”
I thought back to when the plane had first transformed and took note of every person on the plane, telling myself that it may have been the fault of one of those others that had caused the change. I thought back to our landing and my attempts to patch people up and my thoughts that long recovery wasn’t an option. I thought back to that tiny village and its impossibilities, how I could not seem to miss when I truly felt it necessary. I remembered how the hospital doors into the morgue had only opened when we all truly believed it possible. I remembered how the wounds that both Rick and I had suffered in Paradise were already fading. Even Bobbi, with her impossible trauma had recovered relatively quickly, at least from the physical signs. I realized that I had influenced events, especially when I felt it necessary or it fell within the realm of my medical needs and expectations.
As those thoughts coursed through my mind, another thought occurred. “Fine. Right. But, what about Bobbi and Rick?” I pointed to my companions. “Kadmon said that I was the only Untouched. What about them?”
“Yeah, and what the hell was that crap that big bastard made about me being claimed?” Rick had finally joined the conversation. Bobbi was groggily sitting up, but she seemed equally curious, though she wasn’t alert enough to do much beyond grumble a bit.
Claude held up a finger and waggled it slightly at Rick. “Ah, see, there’s the rub. I said there’re others out there. A fourth category, which I mentioned, but did not yet explain.” He smiled. “But first, to your candied friend” He glanced at Bobbi and smiled with a wink. “Not all Touched were altered in the Event. There are those, who were left Untouched by the waves of chaos on that day, who came to be Touched later. Now, they remain marked, not by nature, but by men. One of the Touched, if powerful enough, could define away the freedom of the Untouched, but only if their nature compelled them to do so. Not to mention the Untouched’s ability to do the same. All it takes is a moment of weakness and a malicious opponent for the transformation to occur.” He shrugged. “For some reason, this second generation of Touched carries a very human definition, and so they don’t usually end up looking weird or anything. Their shackles are less obvious.”
I glanced at Bobbi, a deep sympathy on my face. She met my expression with a strangely mixed one of her own. She seemed happy to see my look of caring, but there was something else, something deep that still burned within her. I knew the shackles were there, and I had every intention of finding a way to remove them someday. From the way that Claude made it sound, I had to learn enough to overpower what Alexander had done to her. Maybe that could work, but maybe it would only be trading one pair of shackles for another. I wasn’t ready to rule out the possibility though…
“Fine. But what about me? The big guy seemed kinda freaked out by me. Any idea why?” Rick looked up from Bobbi, where he had been staring at her with sad realization, and refocused on Claude.
“Simple really. You’ve been Marked, for lack of a better term. You’re not exactly Touched, but you’re definitely not Untouched, either. You’re something altogether different.” Claude glanced around the camp, noting that we were truly alone now. Even the stragglers had departed, either to get some rest or to simply avoid bothering us. “See, Kadmon defines a fourth kind, a fourth category of those affected by the Event.” He paused before leaning forward and melodramatically emphasizing his words with wiggling fingers. “Gods.”