Charles Kelltopper sighed as he entered the back room at the community center. The mix of individuals always changed the ambience of each group he directed. Extroverts. Introverts. Butchers, bakers, and candle-stick makers could show up.
But this course promised something unpredictable. Charles felt it in the electricity of the couple's interactions, palpable like the pressure in the air before a storm.
Ten curious couples had arrived for the introductory session. Seven fit into the typical twenties-to-thirties set. Two had just hit forty. Kelltopper figured the gray-haired man and woman had to be octogenarians. At least. They said that they had met at the senior center on bingo night.
Alice had let Charles know his fly was open before she introduced herself at the first session, while Warren went from person to person and read aloud name tags. Neither appeared reticent.
Six couples stayed until the last Thursday evening. Including the eighty-plus-year-old twosome.
Kelltopper didn't advertise his eight-Thursday course as magical. The flyers read: Learn to read your mate's body language so well you can approach his or her inner thoughts. A natural form of mind reading. Approach -- he didn't say invade. Kelltopper claimed to be a man of science. "I point out incongruities, not psychic nonsense." He admitted the course title was meant to entice; it was strictly metaphorical.
During the day Kelltopper taught courses at Central Tech College. A bored teacher instructing bored students who needed an elective.
As Charles began the last Mind-Reading class Lila, an intense yet quiet young woman, pulled out a notebook and then rummaged through her purse. Charles pulled a pen from his shirt pocket and handed it to her with an extra twist of his wrist as if the flourish were part of a show.
"See. I noticed she needed a writing instrument."
Her significant other raised one eyebrow and groaned.
Charles ignored him. "Watch for subtle clues. Observe. Spend more time listening than speaking. You are doing this for yourself, to create a better relationship, not for a grade."
Kelltopper presented his course as a public service. For the entire course he charged four dollars. Seniors paid nothing, facility courtesy. What did people expect for such a pittance? A degree in psychology?
"If you are going for super powers, look up gullible at dictionary.com. And yes, I do have degrees. Several. However, I am not the focus in this course. My purpose is to stand as guide. Not to interact. Or interfere."
He watched each member of the class, known only by a first name. He withheld reaction as they spoke -- sometimes that was like stifling projectile vomiting.
Seller, a young man so tall and thin he reminded Charles of a stick-drawing, remained in a semi-sprawled position as Charles entered the room. Seller had an eye-roll for everything anyone said. His girlfriend, Marla, had the over-eager look of a child trying to woo candy from a clueless parent. Divorce in six weeks, Charles predicted, if that long.
"Is everyone ready for our last session?" Charles asked. He forced a hint of enthusiasm into his voice. "Who wants to go first?"
"Come on!" Marla said to Seller. "Didn't you say I read like an audio book?"
Charles stifled a grimace.
"Go for it," the old man said. His companion looked at him and smiled.
Seller shrugged and stood even if his posture could hardly be called upright. "Okay." He faced her and put his hands on her shoulders. She did the same, her face beaming as if the fact that he took a cooperative position meant cooperation. She fluttered her eyes with girlish flirtation.
Charles nodded. "You know what to do." Maybe.
"You're thinking about the strength of my manhood."
"That's part of it," Marla said giggling.
"Give me a hint. Just a little one."
She took one of his hands and shifted it to her belly.
"No! Jeez! You're not saying you're having a ..."
"No, Seller, I'm saying we're having a ..."
Pale as a cheap restaurant's paper napkin, he pulled back. He whispered, but his voice carried just the same. "You're sure it's mine ..?"
"What?" she screamed.
"I mean, uh, not sure we should do it -- maybe you'd better deliver. I'd have to have a caesarean." His chuckle sounded as sincere as a weekly store-final-closing ad. He looked sideways toward the quiet group. Too quiet. No stifled snickers.
"Perhaps you two can continue this discussion later," Charles said feeling heat rise from his face. It had to be as red as an inflamed wound. He was accustomed to letting groups see only the body movements of a hopeless phlegmatic. The class members should read one another's body language, with compassion and love, but Charles needed to remain distant. He was certain his own memories and reactions were leaking out. He tried to ignore his sweaty palms.
"Let's try this exercise instead. Take the usual face-to-face position. Just enough distance that you can see one another head to toe. I will mention a food, movie, game, even an off-the-wall situation. You will surmise your partner's response by watching body language. Then, check your responses with one another and count how many times you are correct."
The suggestion broke the silence. But Charles suspected he had underestimated his concern about the negative electrical charges in the air among the class participants. The electricity seemed to be aimed toward him.
After a few minutes Marla and Seller left the room. Charles knew the group noticed, but no one said a word. After the class, participants gave him courteous thanks, but the group acted eager to leave. And Charles was okay with that.
He decided to skip the final session survey this time!
The couple in their eighties remained in the room.
The gentleman closed the door and came back to Charles. "We don't want anyone to accidentally witness our little talk. They couldn't understand."
"You give this class as a public service. Yes. But that isn't the only reason," the woman said.
"What are you talking about?" Charles asked.
"Acting as leader distracts you from your relationship failures," Alice answered. "After what happened with your wife."
"Who are you?" Charles demanded stepping backward toward the door.
"Alice and Warren Lark. Marge's parents,"
"You can't be. My wife's parents died. Years ago."
"That is correct," Alice said. "I'm sure the couples in this session would have been amazed to know they had spirits in their group."
"Right," Charles said. "Well, this day has been trying enough without this nonsense. Excuse me while I move on to saner discussions. Elsewhere." He turned toward the door.
"You can accomplish more," Alice added. "With all your degrees. Your success is on paper and that's about it. After you found out Marge's baby wasn't yours, you realized on a subconscious level that you shouldn't have left, but ..."
"How do you know about Marge's baby?"
"We hadn't died yet then. True, you had never met us. We lived in Delaware. Hundreds of miles away. But Marge called regularly. You knew that."
"You two are not funny!" Charles yelled. "Okay, who is setting this up? Cameras hidden somewhere?"
Alice and Warren put their arms around one another and then passed them through one another's bodies.
"A picture is worth a thousand words," Alice answered.
"The baby wasn't mine!" Charles answered. "She admitted it. Why are you torturing me?" He figured he had to be dreaming, but if he was, this was the most vivid dream he had ever experienced. And the most frightening. Besides, he didn't recall going to bed. Only a long, harried day.
"Yet you never remarried and never got a divorce," Warren answered.
Alice pulled a newspaper clipping from her pocket and showed it to Charles. It was a death notice. Marge's death. He had moved out of state. He hadn't known.
"So who has the kid?" Charles stared at the couple and wondered how he could have a nightmare in the middle of the day.
"You aren't dreaming," Warren said. "And I have a picture to show you, too." He pulled out a photo of a three-year-old boy with blond hair and a serious expression.
The child had none of Charles' features. Yet, the serious look intrigued Charles. It reminded him of himself as a child. As a student. The child's expression mimicked the look he saw in the mirror when he shaved in the morning, as he thought too hard about too-much.
"Well, what are you going to do?" Alice asked.
"You didn't answer my question?" Charles asked. "Who has the boy?"
"He is staying with Marge's brother." Alice sighed.
"The one who can't keep a job for a week?" Charles asked. "Or a bottle of whiskey for longer than a day."
"Marge doesn't have any other brother," the two spirits answered together.
"What's the boy's name?" Charles asked.
"Chuck," Warren answered. "Marge kept hoping you would forgive her. And return. On your own."
"And you don't need to be a mind-reader to know that's short for Charles," Alice said.
"I wouldn't worry," Warren added. "Marge's brother won't give you any trouble. He'll give Chuck back to his legal guardian. No problem. He has more affection for a bottle of booze than he does for anything else."
"Yes, problem." The sweat in Kelltopper's palms had spread to the top of his head and the bottom of his feet. "Chuck doesn't have a clue about who I am. And I don't know who he is, either.
"Good grief! What am I saying? None of this could be real. Am I having hallucinations? A stroke? What?"
"Well, while you are deciding what to do, Warren and I need to get back and keep an eye on little Chuck. I mean, under the circumstances he needs help from the other side. Heaven knows we have tried to convince our son to give up drink. But he needs to hit bottom first. And we really don't want that to happen with our grandson at such a young and tender age." Alice glanced at the clock hung high on the wall. "Ready to go, dear?"
Warren nodded and they both faded into particles as small as dust mites, and then disappeared.
Charles jumped back and smacked his leg on an upholstered chair. The death notice and the picture had fallen to the old rug. He reached for them cautiously, as if they could burn him.
The door opened and Warren's voice sounded. "By the way, Marge was alone when the crash happened. She forgives you. Now you need to forgive you."
Mind Reading 101. He needed to practice it on his own mind, sort out the bizarre from the slightly weird from the yeah-maybe-I-could-start-over.
Sure, he would check out the facts. Any scientist would -- unless of course he suddenly woke up -- and he doubted that would happen.
I'd better get out of here before something else that makes no sense happens.
He didn't get as far as the door when he heard Marla sobbing. Oh no, maybe I can sneak out the back. But it was too late.
"Oh professor," she whimpered. "I lied. In your class. Can you forgive me?"
Charles considered logic but reality died less than an hour ago.
"I'm not pregnant. I just said that to be absolutely sure about Seller."
Charles wondered if he had stepped onto another planet. "Different approach. Painful for you. But different."
"You can say that again. Well, sorry. Anyway, I'm going home somehow. To West Parkville Corner. You probably never heard of it. About two hours north. Tiny town. Out of state. That's where my folks live. Just got to find some way to get there. Seller crashed my car last week."
"Wow!" Charles' jaw dropped. "Serendipity. I have an emergency. In West Parkville Corner. You are welcome to ride with me."
"You're not messing with me, are you?" she asked cocking her head to one side.
"Not at all. Death in the family," he said. He watched her unflinching, honest steadiness, and caught the clarity in her eyes and voice. They comforted him. She could become a friend. A real friend.
For the first time in years Charles smiled. A friend. A real friend. And an ally during an impossible situation. Is it possible?