top of page

The seeds of future events are carried within ourselves. They are implicit in us and unfold, according to the laws of their own nature. —Lawrence Durrell, The Alexandria Quartet. 


        On the day of their son’s funeral, Paul Beecham and his wife Claire stood beneath the arched entrance to the university chapel greeting the long line of visitors. But it was Claire, in a simple black dress, with no jewelry or makeup, who received the full brunt of mourners as they stepped inside out of the bright, humid August morning. She allowed their long embraces, whispered condolences, and tear-stained cheeks pressing against her own. Paul, however, kept his head bowed, avoided making eye contact and looked—dressed as he was in a black suit, black shirt and tie—more like a consoling clergyman than a grieving father. Had Claire not been there as a buffer, the gathering tsunami of sadness would have overwhelmed him. For those persistent few who waited long enough to penetrate his seawall of grief, Paul said only, “Thank you for coming.” 

        When it was time for the service to begin, Paul followed Claire into the chapel’s sunlit terrace room which was filled to standing room only. The sight of so much collective grief set off a tremor from the epicenter of his soul that threatened to bring him to his knees. Since Austin died, he survived each day’s hidden shoals by relying on a natural anesthesia, a temporary numbness incurred

by sleepless nights. Such was the burden of his guilty complicity in Austin’s death that he was not himself, but a stranger unable to cope. 

        Although he had successfully managed all of the other sad details surrounding his son’s death, Paul had forgotten to write a eulogy. Nevertheless, after Claire read the poem she had written, he made his way to the podium, trudging past the gauntlet of floral arrangements, the easels with photographs of Austin at various ages, and the brass urn containing his cremains. Was it only three days ago, while Claire drove them home from the crematory, that he had cradled it on his lap like a newborn? 

       Paul grasped the podium to steady himself and surveyed the audience—nearly a hundred people waiting for him to honor the memory of his son, fallen at the bright age of twenty-eight. “Austin was my greatest teacher,” he began, only to pause to give the promising thought time to unravel itself into something coherent. 

        Friends, faculty, and family members lifted their faces to him, confident that Claire’s brief but elegant poem was only the prelude to the main event, Dr. Paul Beecham’s eulogy. “Austin was my greatest teacher,” Paul repeated. And then his inspiration collapsed, the thread of his idea gone, leaving him no choice but to step into an abyss. He spoke for thirty tortured minutes, his eulogy strung together with disjointed anecdotes, personal regrets, and a convoluted story about Alexander the Great’s brief, yet glorious life. His mounting panic raised the normal timbre of his voice, making him sound strident. Instead of buoying him up, his words streamed behind him like the shreds of a failed parachute. None of his skills as a lecturer could stop his free fall. In the end, the distinguished author and beloved professor, seldom at a loss for words—spoken or written—returned to his seat defeated. 

        The next morning Paul woke early, arriving at his office by eight. But instead of working, he spent the morning staring out the window—not at the panoramic view of the idyllic campus with its ivied halls and splendid library, but beyond it, to a landscape inhabited by memories of his son—and there, he lost his way. Later, he wandered the tree-shaded streets near the university for two hours before returning home, the only place he felt safe. That evening, Claire found him in the bedroom sobbing, a faded photograph of an eight-year-old Austin in his lap. She held him until, at last, he broke through the surface of his grief, gasping like a drowning swimmer. 

        Claire undertook the heartbreaking task of packing Austin's things and closing his apartment. She discovered three concert tickets within the pages of his desk calendar. He had purchased them months earlier, apparently planning to celebrate his birthday by taking his parents to a concert by his favorite band. 

        A few days before Austin’s birthday, they drove to Florida to attend the concert. Paul had anticipated that the long drive, the very act of getting away from home, might make them less wary, more willing to risk talking. A chance for him to confess. But since Austin’s death, some unknown thing, a resident dread that tainted every conversation between them—even about the mundane aspects of daily life like a simple query as to what to have for dinner, for example, was likely to lead to an emotional discussion about the events surrounding their son's death. 

        So it was that when Claire spotted a Starbucks sign near the Florida line and suggested they stop, Paul drove by the exit without a word. He had changed his mind about using the time on the road as an opportunity to unburden himself—to tell Claire his secret, something he should have done weeks ago. If the conversation went badly, and he expected it would, they would be trapped in the car for hours—his confession riding with them the rest of the way like an unwanted hitchhiker. When, at last, they crossed the drawbridge to Brevo Key, it was two in the morning. 

        They immediately went through the routine of settling in, each glad to be busy after the claustrophobic drive. Paul adjusted the air conditioning, turned on the water and swept up a few dead palmetto bugs from the kitchen floor. Claire unpacked the suitcases and made up their bed. Afterwards, they met on the lanai to enjoy the moonlit Gulf of Mexico. Paul opened a bottle of chardonnay and poured each of them a glass. They drank the wine and listened to the surf as they tried to separate their grief for their son from their grief for themselves. A stiffening breeze, damp and salty, forced Claire inside for a sweater. When she returned they finished the bottle and another hour slipped by in silence. At sunrise they went to bed and slept naked between the cool sheets, long washed clean of memories. 

        At noon, Paul awakened to all of the familiar things in his life falling into place; and then, like the lingering phantom pain of a missing limb, he remembered: Austin is dead. Accepting that single undeniable fact daily was like experiencing all over again the bottomless pain of his first knowing weeks ago. 

        When the doorbell rang a few minutes before midnight, he thought it was Austin. They had plans for dinner and a movie, something they often did together whenever Claire was out of town. Instead, Sheriff’s Deputy Donald Franklin and a plainclothes officer, Marcie Adams, greeted him. Together they blocked the doorway, standing shoulder to shoulder to form a barricade as if he might try to bolt before they delivered the sad news that was written across both their faces. Paul must have looked stunned because the big deputy peered through the screened door at him. “Mr. Beecham? Something’s come up, sir. If we could step inside….” 

        Paul led them into the dining room where they sat at the table. The two quietly surveyed the room, taking in the contemporary furniture, Claire’s paintings, and the lake from the large bay window. They studied him as well, sizing him up, as if weighing his ability to take a punch. And then Deputy Franklin telegraphed his partner that it was time. Adams reached across the table and took Paul’s hand as if he were an old friend. “Mr. Beecham, your son, Austin, is dead. He died from a massive drug overdose.” 

        Crestfield Chemical had sent its public relations director, Emily Wu, to meet Paul at the Louis Armstrong New Orleans airport and take him to dinner in the Quarter before he checked into his hotel. Although twenty years his junior, Wu claimed she had read all of his work, including his latest, Catalyst for Global Change: The Rise of the New Economy. She carried the conversation throughout dinner, picking at her food while she listened to Paul’s answers to her non-stop succession of questions. He was most impressed that she quoted a key paragraph of his book, her lovely green eyes fixed on his as she repeated it to him word for word. She charmed him throughout the dinner, and afterwards, as she drove away, she called, “Break a leg tomorrow.” 

        The next day he received an enthusiastic applause for his keynote address, following which, Wu invited him to join her at the hotel's patio bar. When he arrived, he found her with Crestfield’s vice president of operations, Carl Murdoch. Paul guessed Murdoch was a buttoned down Ivy Leaguer. He was young enough to have stepped into the executive slot right out of college. He gave Paul the kind of firm handshake that meant business and sealed deals.

        “I’ll get straight to the point of our meeting, Paul,” he said. By the time the first round of drinks had arrived, Murdoch had offered Paul a job as Crestfield Chemical’s chief strategist for global development, pointing out the vast opportunities awaiting someone with Paul’s expertise. He would travel extensively; enjoy a hefty expense account—nothing but first class all the way. “You’ll work your ass off that’s for sure, we all do,” Murdoch said. “But in return, you’ll be part of one of the most financially sound organizations in the world.” When he was done with his pitch, Murdoch leaned back and put his arm around Wu, giving Paul a conspiratorial wink. “Once you’re onboard, Emily here will be your gal Friday. She’ll show you how we like things done at Crestfield. Otherwise, we’ll leave you alone and give you whatever resources you need.”

Crestfield’s offer would more than triple his academic salary.

“Think about it tonight and let us know your answer first thing in the morning,” Murdoch said. “We’re anxious to get things rolling.” 

        That evening Paul avoided the long queues waiting for tables in the Quarter and explored backstreets until he found a nearly empty courtyard bistro. Most of the patrons looked like locals gathered comfortably around a mahogany bar under a panoply of red lanterns. He ordered vodka and ice and a fiery Cajun dish featuring blackened shrimp. Throughout the meal he weighed the pros and cons of changing careers and moving his family across the country. One moment, accepting Murdoch’s offer seemed the right thing to do, and then, he’d think of good reasons it would be a mistake. He skipped dessert and ordered another vodka. It was nearly midnight when he paid his bill and started back to his hotel. He was in such turmoil that he wandered in deep thought for blocks before realizing he was nowhere near his hotel. Instead, he stood in the middle of a darkened street lined with magnolia trees. The only sign of life was a lighted cottage on the corner. A sign above the door read, “Spiritual Advisor.” 

        Inside, there was a small parlor lit by a stained glass table lamp. A sagging gray sofa faced two ancient Queen Anne chairs done in a royal blue fleur-de-lis pattern. The walls were decorated with pen and ink drawings depicting the Tarot. The aroma of cigarettes and black coffee reminded him of his late grandmother’s stuffy apartment, the curtains forever yellowed by the unfiltered 

Camels she chain-smoked. He tapped a bell on a table. Shortly, a thin, middle-aged woman entered the room, a cigarette in hand. She looked at him warily.

“What do you want?”

“I’m afraid I’m lost,” he said. “I can’t find my way back to my hotel.” 

She left him and returned with a street map and showed him where he was. For more than an hour, he had been walking away from his hotel. “Shall I call a taxi?” He accepted, grateful to be off the dark streets, a taxi on the way. “While you’re waiting, I can give you a reading. Only $25.” 

        The alcohol had left him with a youthful recklessness and regaining his bearings made him feel that all was right with the world. His accidental encounter with a fortune teller at midnight in an exotic city struck him as an unexpected lark, a little adventure. Why not find out what the future had in store for him? Was it a new job with Crestfield? Before he could change his mind, he followed the medium into a back room lit by candles. She asked him to sit across from her at a small table, and then said, “My name is Orsina. Do you have a burning question, or do you wish to hear what the cards say?” 

        “Let’s hear what they have to say,” he said. 

        Orsina bowed her head and closed her eyes. In the vapory light she resembled the praying Madonna icon on the wall behind her. She removed a pack of Tarot cards from a red velvet cloth and handed the deck to Paul, telling him to shuffle them until they were warm with his energy. “When you are ready, place them facedown on the table.” 

        When he was finished doing as she asked, she drew the first card and placed it on the table. One by one she added eight more cards until she had formed a cross. She turned over the card closest to her. “There are things now unfolding that will overshadow everything in your present situation, and perhaps, for the rest of your life.” 

        Her quavering voice, the late hour, the candlelit room with its mystical paraphernalia, all of it combined to give him a thrill. Without asking the question outright, it seemed the cards were going to tell whether or not to take Crestfield’s offer. 

        “To make any forward movement at this time would not be in your favor,” Orsina told him as she turned over another card. “What is strong now, will be broken soon enough. The snake will eat its tail.” 

        Of course, she must mean Crestfield. He was sure she was telling him not to take the job. The cards confirmed his doubts about what kind of a corporate viper’s pit he might be stepping into. It was flattering, but obvious that he’d been courted right from the beginning. He should have known that Emily Wu’s flattery was simply the bait to get him on the hook and ready for Murdoch to add him to the corporate PhD roster. It was clear that for some reason, Murdoch needed to land a prominent academic—another trophy, like the faded blue marlin on the wall behind the bar. 

        Orsina turned over another card, a young man standing precariously on the edge of a precipice: The Fool. “I see a young man,” she said, tapping an arthritic finger on the card, “He will die soon. There is nothing you can do to prevent it.” 

        Paul sat upright in his chair. “What young man? What are you talking about?”

        “I am sorry,” she said, gathering up her cards. “Your cab is waiting.” 

It started to rain as the taxi arrived at the hotel. There was a voice message from Wu. She left her personal cell number and asked him to call her. He didn’t write it down. In the morning before he left for the airport, he called Murdoch to decline the job offer.                 When he returned home, Paul avoided talking about the trip. If he did speak of it, he only raved about the food, the colorful Quarter, or, related an anecdote about his keynote address. He said nothing about Orsina or the reading. 

        And then, one evening, two weeks after his return, the news broke that Crestfield Chemical’s newest drug, Provident CR, a breakthrough anti-depressant, was being recalled after reports that the drug was responsible for a number of heart failures. What’s more, company officials were charged with falsifying clinical trials that had revealed adverse patient reactions. Crestfield would be forced to close its Asian and European offices in the face of unprecedented lawsuits. The snake will eat its tail. The news about the company’s troubles so soon after his midnight encounter with Orsina unsettled him. He began to experience a lingering dread that visited him whenever he was alone, and especially in the middle of the night, when he would awaken from yet another nightmare. He began staying up late to work on his current book. Claire would find him in the morning asleep at his desk, the steady whir of his computer’s hard drive louder than his shallow breathing. She worried that the source of his insomnia was deeper than his publisher’s impending deadline. She began a campaign to get him to reveal what was troubling him, confronting him each morning, telling him that she was losing sleep herself worrying about him. He insisted there was nothing wrong.

        A month later, he decided it was time to tell Austin about the prophecy, but in confidence. They would laugh about it and relegate the impossible story to the short list of male confidences they shared with the understanding that, “Claire doesn’t need to know.” 

        The next day Paul asked his son to meet him at their favorite deli, a hole in the wall hangout close to the university and not far from Austin’s downtown loft apartment. Obsessively punctual, Austin arrived on time. He was dressed like so many of Paul’s male students: baseball cap, oversized T-shirt, baggy shorts and expensive running shoes. Flashing a confident smile the moment he spotted his father, he claimed,“I’m starved.” Austin ordered their usual—corned beef on rye, a deli specialty, and their favorite dessert, New York cheesecake. “It’s on me today, Dad.” 

        Before Paul could begin his carefully rehearsed story about the reading, Austin launched into his plans to expand his small, but successful niche software business. “My client base is growing; I’ve got money in the bank, and, if everything you wrote in your new book is true, my timing couldn’t be better.” Austin was more animated than he’d been for some time. Paul was impressed, and, as always, pleased by his son’s shrewd instincts about business. Still cautious, he watched him for signs that something could be wrong. But he saw nothing. As they were finishing dessert, Austin asked him about his trip to New Orleans giving Paul the perfect opportunity to launch into his story, and warn him that he might be in danger. 

        “The craziest thing happened down there,” he began, trying to recall how he had planned to tell his son that a perfect stranger, a witch in fact, had warned him that Austin was going to die.

        “Believe it or not, I was offered a job,” he said, skidding ever further from the truth as he explained Murdoch’s incredible offer and why he turned it down. “I’m too old to be flying all over hell. Besides, I’ve got it made here—department chairman, tenure. Why would I change?”

        They left Brevo Key, arriving in West Palm Beach with only enough time left before the concert started to eat at a McDonald’s. And it was there, of all the places he could have chosen—in the presence of a jury of brightly colored plastic effigies of Ronald McDonald and friends grinning maliciously down at him, that Paul told Claire about the prophecy. 

        She listened to him without interrupting. When he was finished, she looked at him tenderly, her eyes moist with compassion. “Let's leave now before we miss the concert. Austin would never forgive us.” 

        Claire didn’t believe a word! After all his weeks of worry, she assumed he was delusional, blaming himself unnecessarily. Had he imagined his encounter with Orsina? Was it only a dream induced by too much vodka? He protested that it was all true. 

        “I believe that you believe the story,” Claire said, and added, “Perhaps, it’s time for you to talk with someone, a professional?” 

        They had an excellent view of the stage despite the hundreds of fans surrounding them. The majority were young men and women whose numbers had overflowed the capacity of the outdoor arena to standing room only. The first dazzling chords from the lead guitar sparked the crowd into a contagious frenzy that lasted for nearly three hours, while they drank beer, smoked pot, and rode the rising wave of the band’s textured harmonics like spiritual surfers. 

        It was the first time Paul had really listened to the music. He had tuned out his son’s attempts to play it for him, thinking it was only rock and roll, just one of hundreds of rock bands that would come and go. The truth was, it wasn’t only the music that he had ignored. Paul had been so intent on educating other people’s children, so involved in his own career, that he had been on the outside of his son’s life for years; they had lost too much ground to recover during a single, ultimately, final lunch. During the final set, the swell of fans enveloped him as they rushed the stage. He lost his glasses underfoot, and then, Claire disappeared somewhere within the teeming crowd, which carried him so close to the stage the booming of the towering black speakers reverberated in his chest. Panicked, he broke free and pushed his way to stand under the stage where he called out for Claire. 

        And then, despite his blurred vision, Paul thought he saw Austin. Overcome, he dove back into the sea of bodies only to lose his footing and fall. Within seconds, unseen hands pulled him to his feet, but Austin was gone. Yet, somehow above the din, he heard him call out, “You go. You go, old man." 

        And Paul did go. Trapped in the crush of bodies moving as one, he swayed and waved his arms in accord with the other rejoicing souls, and everywhere, there was only the music to be heard. 



A Problematic Prophecy

Stephen Newton

lumina logo blue.png
bottom of page