To Follow in Darkness by Ken McDonald

An Excerpt from the Novel


Adam McKenzie’s heart felt like a fist, pounding on a door. The boy squeezed his eyes shut real fast. Please, you have to let me. Then he leaned forward in the backseat of his parent’s station wagon. They were whispering about the government program announced that morning in church. A behavioral study. Science. He’d be helping people. He didn’t want to alarm anyone that another dream was coming true, but this could be the way to the future he’d foreseen. Maybe they were just afraid. He stuck his head between the front seats and said, “God wants me to.”

Adam’s mother shot a worried look across the front seat. On his father’s side of the family there’d been a famous psychic, centuries ago, but his mother’s faith discouraged meddling in such things.

Adam’s father looked in the rearview mirror. “I told you we’d think about it.”

After lunch Adam sat in the living room at the foot of his father’s recliner and they watched football on TV. A commercial began and Adam said, “You know, I think I’m just what they need. I like learning things in school and I have a good memory. I even memorized the phone number they said to call.”

His father said, “Change the channel back to the other game.”

Adam changed channels and sat on the couch. His father leaned forward, staring at the game. Adam cleared his throat and said, “I’ll be helping people. Helping people is a good thing– isn’t it?”

His father answered, “Yes.”

Adam bolted off the couch. “Then I can do it!”

Third and goal with less than a minute to play, the Cowboys needed a touchdown. “I’ll take care of it, first thing tomorrow.”

The dream Adam had had all summer was of a peaceful world unlike the reality in which he lived. In Augusta, Georgia, that year, the integration of public schools had begun. The racial boycotts and name-calling confused him worse than the televised conflict in Vietnam. Even people carrying peace signs were being attacked. Then that night he saw himself in a dream–a grown man, sad and alone.

He awoke, sitting up in bed, breathing hard. He’d been running in his dream and he knew it was to escape what he’d been shown, but he didn’t want to be afraid of something he might not be able to change. This dream felt like the others that’d come true. He wasn’t just a witness.

He went over and shook his little brother and told him, “A lot of bad things are happening right now, but the world’s gonna change. I’ve seen it. Just like the other things I’ve dreamed about that all came true. Not now, but someday. We’re all different, but there’s this part of everybody that’s connected. I can’t explain it, yet, but maybe it’s why I see things that are gonna happen. And there’s something else, but you have to promise…”

His brother pushed him away. “Mom said you’re not supposed to talk about that anymore. Stop, or I’m gonna tell.”

Adam went back to his bed. He’d wanted to tell his brother about this newest dream. But telling people his dreams had never changed anything. His mother had told him that only prophets in the Bible were allowed to see the future, and that the dreams of his that’d come true were probably just coincidences. The boy was sure that God didn’t make mistakes. He lay back in bed. It didn’t matter, anyway. No one would believe him. He was just a boy. Then he remembered more of the dream he’d just been shown and he pulled the covers up against a cold that seemed to come from inside his body. The place in which he’d be housed someday would be crowded with men and some of them were bad. His heartbeat raced, as he tried to imagine how he’d end up that way, in such a place. Then he slowed his breathing and thought about the world at peace. When he closed his eyes, he could see it. It’ll be worth whatever I have to go through to get there.

That Monday morning he waited in bed. Today’s the day.

His father opened the bedroom door. “Rise and shine!”

Adam sat up and threw off the covers. “Have you called them yet?”

“I’m not calling anybody at this hour. You boys get up, right now. Your mother has breakfast on the table.”

Adam jumped out of bed. “You said first thing.”

His father switched on the light. “I said I’d take care of it.”

That evening as the McKenzie’s finished supper Adam sat at the end of the table, staring at his plate. He rocked back on the rear legs of his chair and looked left, down the hall. Come on, come on.

At the other end, his father popped the top of the table. “If I’ve got to tell you one more time not to sit like that, you won’t be able to sit down at all.”

Adam let his chair down. His father had said it would probably be later in the week before anyone paid them a visit. But that wasn’t what he’d seen. Adam squinted at the front door, until the doorbell rang.

Two men entered wearing black suits and black ties. They removed their hats and Adam shuddered. Neither of the men wore glasses. Mrs. McKenzie cleared the table and Adam’s little brother was dismissed to their room upstairs.

The men shook hands and the younger agent sat on Adam’s left, with the older agent on Adam’s right. Mrs. McKenzie brought everyone a glass of iced tea and sat beside her husband, at the head of the table. The young agent opened a briefcase and removed a pair of eyeglasses and put them on.

Adam smiled. Just like I dreamed.

The young agent took out a sheet of paper and tapped it with a pen. “We just need to confirm the information we took over the phone, on Adam. Interestingly, your son, here, is our very first volunteer. Let’s see, he was born in Belborne, Texas, on January 5, 1962.” He glanced across the table at the older agent and then went down the list. “Brown hair, blue eyes, eighty four pounds and about average height for his age.” He glanced up. “Any distinguishing birthmarks?”

Mrs. McKenzie said, “Why, yes, a very unusual one. On the back of his right thigh.”

The agents looked at each other and Adam suddenly remembered something. In the dream, his parents had sat in the living room.

The boy frowned, recalling a scene from a movie that reminded him of the crowded place where he’d live someday. It was a prison. He crossed his arms. That wasn’t good. But his parents trusted the government. He’d heard them say so. He rubbed his forehead. His father was talking now about serving in the military overseas, in Korea and Viet Nam. The agents asked about his father’s Purple Heart. Adam leaned forward. He wanted to be a hero, too.

The older agent said that because of their participation in the Monarch program the family would enjoy a better standard of living. He winked at Adam’s father. “Might be a nice promotion soon, for a dedicated man like yourself. To get started, we just have a standard form for you both to sign.”

Adam’s parents signed the family’s commitment of nondisclosure, as the older agent explained: “Religious conviction is exactly the kind of power we need to tap into. But Monarch’s behavioral study has to be kept out of the public eye. Not everyone believes like you do. To guarantee valid data for our researchers, we’ll start working with you folks tonight, with a little light hypnosis, to help keep this confidential.”

“Hypnosis?” Adam’s father shook his head. “Look, sir, our family can be trusted. Our kids do as they’re told, same as we were brought up. I’ve heard some things about being hypnotized…”

The young agent said, “Good point, Mr. McKenzie. Allow me to alleviate your concerns. The main thing to know about hypnosis is that you’ll never do anything that you wouldn’t ordinarily do. We’re just going to help everyone stay focused. Keep in mind, Monarch’s long-range study will be a well rewarded service to your country. There’s a lot at stake, but it could change everything.” He nodded. “We expect some other agencies will be jumping on the bandwagon.”

That sounded like fun. “What’s a bandwagon?” Adam asked.

“Don’t interrupt,” said his father.

The young agent said, “That’s alright, Mr. McKenzie. We need Adam to listen closely and ask questions, so he understands what we need to accomplish.”

Adam rested his elbows on the table. The older agent was explaining the science of Monarch Mind Development. “Test subjects across the nation will be closely monitored, Mr. and Mrs. McKenzie. Rest assured, nothing will be left to chance. First, we need to establish psychological profiles and gather some baseline data on the Monarch volunteers, like young Adam here.”

The adults all looked at Adam and he dropped his hands into his lap and sat up straight. As the older agent continued his explanation, the boy’s jaw slowly dropped open. Reactions to developmental stimuli. A spectrum of behavioral tendencies. The transactional dynamics of decision-making, collated with other evolving data. The boy had never heard so many big words, all at once. His father sat forward with his elbows on the table. The
junior agent was talking about financial compensation. A million dollars for sticking with the program. Adam had overheard his parents the other night, worrying about bills. This was it. He was going to help find a cure.

Then a chair scooted back and the sound nearly stopped Adam’s heart.

Mrs. McKenzie laid a hand on her husband’s forearm. She looked at the agents and shook her head. “Gentlemen, this is all going just a little too fast for us.” She glanced at Mr. McKenzie, who frowned. She smiled at the agents. “What I mean is… well, we might have some concerns. In church yesterday, the man from Washington, I guess your boss, said there’d be hundreds of volunteers from across the nation, with plenty of safeguards in place, but what kind of guarantees are there for our son’s safety?”

The older agent smiled. “Yes ma’am, of course. This will be an extremely unobtrusive study, with no interference, whatsoever. No one should even know that anything is happening, which is precisely how it must be. We just need to monitor the volunteers, mainly while they’re at school, to map their learning curves and gauge their reactions to real world situations. Nothing out of the ordinary. We simply need to understand the behavioral patterns of kids who turn out good. To spare you the scientific mumbo-jumbo, we should end up with a blueprint for preventing addiction.”

Mr. McKenzie cleared his throat. “Sweetheart, I asked my C.O. about this Monarch program and he made a few phone calls. It’s all on the up-and-up. Just a routine government study. There’s nothing to worry about.”

Everyone watched as Mrs. McKenzie fidgeted with a napkin. Finally, she set it on the table and glanced at Adam. “Well, of course, we’re confident that Adam will make the right choices. But the money, we get it the day he turns eighteen, as long as he’s still in the program? And we can use it for college, for both our boys?”

The older agent said, “Yes ma’am. The money will be available at that time and it can be used for whatever is deemed appropriate.”

While his parents signed more paperwork, Adam looked over at his reflected image, small and distorted, in the dark television screen. In the future, men would call him McKenzie.

The older agent went with his parents into the living room and the younger agent pulled his chair around so his knees were close to Adam’s. The boy scooted his chair away.

The agent held up a hand. “No need to be afraid, young man. You’re doing a very brave thing.”

In the living room his parents were sitting on the couch.

Just like in my dream. Adam said, “I’m not afraid.”

The agent discussed the importance of completing the character development tasks that Adam would be assigned and he emphasized the need for secrecy. “From this day forward, no matter what is ever heard or said or done,” he said, “the integrity of the program must never be compromised. To protect all of you, and what the program is doing, you won’t remember this for a very long time.”

Adam grinned. He wasn’t worried about remembering anything.

The agent leaned forward and told the boy, “A lot of sick people need some serious help.” He touched Adam’s shoulder. “You’ll be helping humanity, Mr. McKenzie.”

Adam let out a little gasp and his shoulders drew back. He wanted a witness that he’d just been called mister. But his parents were on the couch with their chins on their chests, like they were praying.

The agent laid a small flashlight with a cord on the table. “Especially in this country, a lot of people have lost their way.”

Helping people who lost their way. That’s what Adam had heard in church that reminded him of his dream. It’s why he volunteered. Helping people could change the world.

Yesterday in church, a tall government agent from Washington, D.C. had talked about the nationwide drug epidemic they hoped to end with the power of prayer and science. From the pulpit, the agent’s voice boomed with authority and many of the men in attendance nodded when he was done. Then the preacher got up and read several Old Testament scriptures.

As Adam was able, he read too. About Abraham sacrificing his only son Isaac to God’s will and how Isaac had then been spared at the altar; and the lost tribes of Israel and their hoped-for return. The preacher said that as a test of faith individual sacrifices were sometimes required by God, so the
greater good could be served. He prayed that a cure for addiction would be found and for the children of the behavioral study to be kept safe. If any of them lost their way in the world – like a lost tribe-the preacher asked God that they also be led back someday.

During the next hymn while the congregation stood to sing, Adam sat in the pew with his Bible open, mesmerized by the names of two ancient Hebrew tribes, the Kenites and the Kennezites. The coincidence amazed the boy. The lost tribes shared the root of his family name, ken – which he knew meant understanding. Just then a ray of light shone through a corner of stained glass and lit up the Bible passage. Adam nodded to himself. God didn’t just speak in dreams.

Someone would have to lead back the Monarch kids who got lost. Adam read the passage, over and over, until it fit with what he knew from home. His father was always telling him, “You were born to be a leader.”

The young agent had Adam look at the little flashlight. When it came on the light flickered, faster and faster, into a blur that made the boy dizzy. Adam shook his head and the agent said, “It’s okay. You’re doing great. Now, close your eyes, and follow my voice.”

Adam yawned and looked at his parents, slumped together on the couch. This could make him famous.

“Everything is going to be alright, Adam. We’ve been waiting for you, for a very long time. Now, imagine a beautiful valley with trees filled with birds, and a very tall waterfall. That’s good. Okay now, breathe deep. And exhale.”

Adam closed his eyes. Everything will be alright. Just stick with the program.

“Good. Breathe deeper and relax, Adam. Listen to the water falling on the rocks. Hear it? Nice. Now you’re lying on your back in the grass with the blue, blue sky floating overhead. Just drift with it.” The agent’s voice felt like NyQuil.

Adam was in the valley, now, a leaf on the water, drifting with the clouds. He smiled. This has to be God’s will–it feels just like a dream.

Chapter One

Inmate McKenzie paused at the glass door to the prison library. He’d dreamt last night of a killing. Then he whispered to himself, “Everything will be alright,” and opened the door.

When he stepped inside, it was calm and quiet. No worries. Just to be safe, he’d make it quick.

A black man on his way out paused with an armful of legal folders and said, “I wouldn’t go in there if I were you.”

McKenzie didn’t want any trouble – after three and a half years in Arizona this final day at Angelstone would be his longest. He just needed a book to help him pass the final hours.

When he came down the three steps onto the main floor of the library several inmates glanced at him. Quick looks, maybe too quick. The place had never been so crowded. Or quiet. Men were grouped together in a gravity of stillness, except for the black holes of their eyes. Their pupils flared with the focus of expectation and a darting readiness.

He stopped and got a drink at the water fountain. The body he’d dreamt of was facedown down in the sand. And there was open sky. I’m fine. This ain’t the place. He started walking.

Then he noticed a man sitting at a table who was holding a magazine upside down. The man was watching him. At first he had thought so many men were gathered here because the monsoon rains had closed the exercise yard. Now he took smaller steps, slower, and the hairs on his arms bristled. There was never more than one guard stationed in the library. The inmates were here to settle a problem.

Just walked in. I can’t leave yet. If something jumps off right after I leave… Fuck! Eyes forward, he walked faster.

By not looking at anyone, he noticed everything. The men’s movements were limited, guarded. As if a misstep by any of them would predicate a collapse of their precarious arrangement. McKenzie didn’t need a dream to show him the friction restrained in these men could be deadly. A man at a
crank-handle sharpener was grinding a shirt pocket full of pencils to needle points.

When the guard’s radio squawked and he answered it, McKenzie realized that all the inmates were Hispanic. Some had their blue chambray shirts buttoned up to the collar – Chicanos, from Arizona. The others were Mexican Nationals, Pisas–who wore their collars open. It’d been brewing on the yard all summer. Perfect timing. He looked straight ahead. Walked right
into a border war.

The guard hurried out of the library and a whisper swept amongst the tables. McKenzie turned a corner and glanced over his shoulder. Wherever the guard was going was a diversion. A youngster ran to the main window and looked down the classroom hallway. McKenzie took bigger steps. It’s none of my business. Don’t get involved.

He turned into the vacant literary aisle and let out a long breath. Everything will be alright, he whispered. Then he selected a small book filled with darkness and stood there with his attention absorbed by a tiny spider, suspended in midair. When he exhaled the spider swayed, then it hurried up its tether.

McKenzie looked both directions. At one end of the aisle a thin young Pisa held up his fist, and in the other end a hefty Chicano blocked the way.

Fucking brilliant. Cameras don’t have a view here.

The two men moved closer, speaking fast in Spanish. McKenzie heard the word, mota. They were going to settle a beef over drugs. In any language theirs was the tone of contention.

The middle-aged Chicano pushed both palms out and stepped forward. “Calmatte,” he said.

McKenzie whispered, “Shit.” Above a line of books, anxious eyes watched from the next aisle – and in the other. He was surrounded. If he ran, the other inmates might assault him out of instinct. He tucked Cormac McCarthy’s book Child of God in the back waist band of his jeans and wiped his palms dry on his shirt.

The Pisa stepped forward and called the bigger man a liar, “Mentiroso!”

It was on. The two men barreled at each other and McKenzie backed up. With an overhand right the Chicano knocked the Pisa to his knees and McKenzie pressed himself against a bookshelf. The bookshelf rocked on its base and McKenzie half-crouched. The violence he’d avoided had found

McKenzie steadied the bookshelf as the Pisa came up slashing with a toothbrush that had a razorblade wedged in place of bristles. The Pisa lunged and swept his blade and the Chicano’s arms flew out when he jumped back sucking in his belly.

McKenzie let go of the bookshelf and held his left hand out and cocked back his right fist. The library was going to erupt. He thought he saw a way out and edged around the two men as they circled each other, but in that end of the aisle two other Hispanics started grappling and kicking at each other.

Trapped. In his dream the bleeding man had been kicked while down and had pleaded for a long-haired attacker to stop.

From the back of the library came a high-pitched scream, “Stop, stop!”

No one was stopping. The Chicano’s shirt had been sliced open. Between the line of his ribs a deep curve of flesh opened like a maniacal grin and broke loose in a wide ruby flow.

The smell of blood hit McKenzie and the library shrank. He should’ve stayed in the tent yard.

In the far end of the aisle men squeezed past the obese librarian, who squealed into his radio, “I need back up!” Someone ran into McKenzie from behind and McKenzie spun around with an elbow that busted the nose of a man who’d been stabbed in the neck with a pencil, just below the ear. The man grabbed at his neck and blood spurted between his fingers.

A shadow caught McKenzie’s eye–the Pisa flailed at him with his improvised blade. With a forearm McKenzie blocked the attack and kicked the Pisa square in the chest. The Pisa flew back and bowled over two older men who were standing there flat-footed, punching each other in the face.

Blood poured down McKenzie’s right arm and he started swinging. A looping left hook connected to cheekbone and a fat man he’d never seen before collapsed as if all the air had been let out of him.

The wet thwack of bone on flesh merged into a seamless fury.

Twenty men were fighting in that aisle and McKenzie was the only white boy.

Someone clobbered him behind the ear with something heavy and he went down on one knee. The floor trembled and he shook his head. When his eyes focused it was on a drop of blood welling on his fingertip. The drop of blood fell to the tile floor with a bright crimson burst and the pit of his throat rumbled. He’d already lost everything. Through the warring legs of men he saw a man curled up on the floor, crying. These fuckers ain’t gonna kill me.

The Pisa threw a punch at someone but missed and lost his balance. McKenzie jumped up and hooked his hands behind the Pisa’s head and said, “Got your ass.” Jerking the Pisa’s neck down, McKenzie crashed a knee up into his face and then sidekicked him in the ribs.

His heartbeat was a drum roll. But he just stood there. Since the third grade he’d lived with the fear of killing someone in a fight. If I kill someone, now, I’ll never get out.

A man collided with him and another fell on the back of his knee. To keep from going down, he grabbed a shelf. A longhaired youngster kidney-punched him but the McCarthy book he’d tucked there saved him. McKenzie snatched the youngster’s pony-tail and slung him around into a tall guy–who threw a combination lock at McKenzie that just missed.

McKenzie scooped up the tall guy and body-slammed him to the floor. He started to kick him in the head, but someone beat him to it. McKenzie backpedaled to one of the bookshelves to see what was coming next. A Columbian he’d played chess with swung a sock full of batteries at one of the Chicano leaders and missed. The crude weapon clanged against the metal shelf beside McKenzie’s face and he realized that the guards would
wait and take back the library as a group.

McKenzie dealt up a prayer–Get me out of this and I’ll do whatever you want.

A pair of men trying to trip each other careened into him and he staggered a few steps. A fat kid charged and McKenzie caught him by the throat and just threw him. Someone hurled a boot that he dodged. He couldn’t protect his back and still fight. And if he was knocked off his feet he’d be trampled. The man in the dream had lain in a pool of blood. The alleyway of books
rocked and swayed. Everything around him blurred at the speed of fear.

Fists flew at him from the left and right and he leaned and ducked. Nothing from his dreams could help him now. He looked up to escape but something made him turn. On hardback wings a thick book flew by his face and he dropped into a squat.

Two men fell over him as he crouched. He blew out a hard breath. I gotta get out of here.

Then he spotted the big Chicano who started this mess. McKenzie sprang up with a glancing right hook that he instantly regretted. Shaking off the blow the Chicano spat and said, “Puto.”

The Chicano suddenly seemed larger. Balling up a fist, he motioned with his other hand for McKenzie to come on. The Chicano’s hands flew up to deflect a book someone threw and McKenzie lunged in and grabbed the man’s wrists and headbutted him in the face. The Chicano staggered back and blood gushed out of his nose. McKenzie yanked him off balance by his
shirt and angled a knee up hard into his belly. “That what you want?”

McKenzie let him go and moved away as the Chicano vomited a brown stream of stench. Another man slipped in the puddle and went down and the Chicano hopped over him and took a wild swing.

McKenzie ducked and hip-tossed him into a bookshelf.

The shelf faltered–and so did the Chicano. McKenzie grabbed the Chicano by the ears and slung him against the other bookshelf. The Chicano’s head was down. He could have kicked him in the face. And he wished that he had.

The Chicano stood and smiled with battered lips and bloody teeth. “I kill you now,” he said.

McKenzie leapt forward with a flying straight right that caught the Chicano under the left eye. He felt cheekbone flatten. That’s it.

The Chicano braced a hand on one knee and thrust the other arm forward and gulped air, as if he wanted a moment to continue. McKenzie slammed him into a bookshelf. The Chicano rebounded and McKenzie kicked him just below the sternum and the man folded like an old wallet. Then he kicked him again and the bookshelf leaned hard.

As the bookshelf fell, McKenzie jumped onto it and climbed. At the top he glanced back. A screwdriver whizzed by his face and stuck in a ceiling tile. Fuck this. He crouched with his arms out, like a surfer, and looked down into the next aisle where men shouted up at him and fell over each other in a ridiculous pile. The bookshelf impacted with the next one and McKenzie jumped across to ride down the arc of its momentum.

A chair smashed through a plate glass window and over the chorus of battle cries two fire alarms screeched a duet of mayhem. The sprinkler system hissed, spraying water, as men from the classrooms poured into the library to join the fight. Adam McKenzie leapt high above the rioters along the row of booming bookshelves as they toppled like dominoes.

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