Chris Lynch Kill Switch

ISBN 13: 9781416927020

Kill Switch

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9781416927020: Kill Switch
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Some things are best left forgotten. A gripping account of espionage and loyalty from National Book Award Finalist Chris Lynch.

All Daniel wants to do is spend one last summer with his grandfather before he moves away for college and his grandfather’s dementia pulls them apart. But when his dear old Da starts to let things slip about the job he used to hold—people he’s killed, countries he’s overthrown—old work “friends” show up to make sure he stays quiet. Was his grandfather really involved in a world of assassinations and coups, or are the stories just delusions of a crumbling mind? On the run from the police (and possibly something worse) before he has time to find out, Daniel may have to sacrifice everything to protect his grandfather from those who would do him harm.

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About the Author:

Chris Lynch is the Printz Honor Award–winning author of several highly acclaimed young adult novels, including Printz Honor Book Freewill, Iceman, Gypsy Davy, and Shadow Boxer—all ALA Best Books for Young Adults—as well as Killing Time in Crystal City, Little Blue Lies, Pieces, Kill Switch, Angry Young Man, and Inexcusable, which was a National Book Award finalist and the recipient of six starred reviews. He holds an MA from the writing program at Emerson College. He teaches in the Creative Writing MFA program at Lesley University. He lives in Boston and in Scotland.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Kill Switch


I love my Da to bits.

Which will probably come in handy, as bits is what he’s in.

Da is my grandfather. He wears a MedicAlert bracelet, copper, that reads, MEMORY LOSS. He asks what it is a couple of times a day. I tell him. He’s cool with it.

Because he is a cool grandfather, always was. Retired early from some government job that was something like systems analyst for the Department of Agriculture. Never, ever talked about his work. Might have been because who in his right mind would ever have bothered to ask about a job as boring as that? Might have been.

Retired early, because he had worked his whole adult life after the army, had worked hard and faithful and what he got for that hard work was his brain started retiring before he did. Nothing serious. Medium-level comedy stuff like walking home at the end of a workday. Forgetting he took his car to work, and he needed to take it home again. Arriving, carless, at home about three hours late. That kind of stuff.

Apparently, though, systems analysts for the Department of Agriculture need full faculties. Can’t have Idaho spuds suddenly coming up looking like giant strawberries because of a couple of wobbly keystrokes.

So here he is, around and available every day. Cool as cactus juice, like always, but just more available. He lives with us now. That is as it should be. I like it.

We have been pals forever, me and Da. As a young father he was too busy, career building or agriculture networking or whatever, to do a lot of things like teaching his son, my dad, to swim and ride a bike. My gran did all that, and you could tell from the way they were with each other. My dad cried for about two months after peritonitis crept in and squeezed his mother to death.

I never saw my dad and his dad hug.

I hug my dad’s dad all the time. Hug my own here and there too, so we’re cool. Not the same, though. Not the same at all.

Da taught me to ride: bike, horse, motorcycle, and car. Oh, and glider plane, we did that once. Taught me to cook a little. We’ve tossed footballs and baseballs back and forth since I was little, but more now that he’s retired.

Taught me how to talk, even.

“Keep it lean, Young Man,” he always said when I would start running my mouth. “Use exactly the words you need, and no more than that.”

“Okay, Old Boy,” I said.

Not sure if you would call it jealousy. My dad never got in the way of my closeness to Da, but he was never allover thrilled with it either.

“You know why he does it, don’t you, Daniel?” Dad said, chilling the blood right out of me because he was saying it as the two of us stood in front of his mother’s open casket.

I couldn’t speak. He didn’t need me to.

“He does it because of all he didn’t do for me. Because of all that she did do.”

He would know better than me. And there was certainly a lot of sense in what he said. And I still lacked the power of speech. And I wouldn’t have spoken up if I could. But there was nothing to stop me thinking what I was thinking, either.

And because he loves me, Dad, I was thinking.

But truth is, Dad and everyone else could be forgiven for thinking I was the only one to ever see any emotion in the old man. Like he saved it up all just for me, and other than that there was nothing inside the Old Boy at all.

“You’re doing it again,” I say. We are having breakfast together, like we always do now.

“No, I’m not,” he says. He goes back to doing it.

“You know what I’m talking about?”

“Do you know what you’re talking about?”

“Yes, Da.”

“Good, then you know what to stop talking about.”

What we are and are not talking about is sausages. He used to slice bananas over his cereal all the time. The cereal would vary, the bananas, never. Now he slices sausages, in exactly the same way, as if nothing is any different.

“You know what the doctor said about you and the sausages, Da.”

“You know what I say about the doctor and the sausages, Daniel.”

“Could you not remind me of that over breakfast?”

“Détente” is what he likes to call this. One side says or does something objectionable, the other side counters with something objectionable, then everyone agrees to just shut up.

“God, is he doing the sausage thing again?” my sister, Lucy, says, walking into the kitchen. Lucy likes to talk as if Da were not here. Da likes to talk as if Lucy were a mentally deficient prostitute. It’s kind of a thing in my life, where all the people I really love tend to treat each other abysmally. I choose to see it as a battle royale for my affection.

“In the army I knew a girl named Loose Lucy. She had webbed hands that made a squeaking sound when she would—”

“Da!” I snap. I have heard this one before.

“What?” he pleads. “That story comes with its own limerick and everything.”

“Another time, maybe.”

“Why do you hate me, Da?” Lucy asks.

“I don’t.”

He possibly does. Probably not. He says he’s nice to her for my sake, because I seem to have some kind of unfathomable warm spot in my heart for the girl. He says it’s not his fault that the niceness in question always happens when I’m out.

“Prove it, then,” she says, open palm extended.

You might think this does nothing but reinforce my grandfather’s venal view of my sister and probably of humankind. But what it really does is please the Old Boy with the notion that his lessons, his hard-won, firmly held life beliefs, have been acknowledged by the youngers. It’s their one really good party trick together.

“Love is not money . . . ,” Da says, forking over a bill, then another, while parroting his own oft-stated wisdom.

“But money is love,” Lucy says, delivering nicely.

“Didn’t Ben Franklin say that?” I ask.

Lucy waves her money victoriously in the air. Then she slaps me in the forehead before she passes out the back door, distant as she pleases, aloof, certain, and I ask myself yet again, how could anyone not love Lucy?

“Successful,” Da says, turning in her direction, watching her vapor trail as if she has left cunning floating in her wake, “at whatever she does. That girl is going to be just great.”

“Maybe you should tell her that every once in a while.”

“And undo all my hard work there? Not a chance.”

He takes a big spoonful of original Cap’n Crunch, with a sausage disk perched on top. He picks up the newspaper—which is sitting there from yesterday—and starts reading. The paper has clearly been read and reread, crumpled and disordered. Today’s is still rolled up on the front porch, if it hasn’t been stolen.

Here is what I like about The Condition. It shows how true Da’s opinions are, that he is not reacting to mood or weather or a bad night’s sleep when he thumps on about the government or sports or idiot businessmen. On the many occasions when he has read to me the highlights of a world that is already twenty-four hours behind us, his words are all but identical to the words he used the first time around. The same venom here, the same disgust there, the same contempt and mockery. These are the moments when Da is stamped indelibly into Da in the way time itself slips into the layers of geology in a mountainside.

Here’s what I don’t like about The Condition. Every time he repeats verbatim who he was yesterday, he’s reminding me how much closer he is to no longer being Da at all.

No unnecessary words, Young Man.

No needless repetition, Old Boy.

“I know, Da, I know,” I say, pulling away from the table. “Season’s over already. Last team to win the Super Bowl with a backup quarterback was the seventy-two Dolphins. Can’t be done.”

“Exactly” he says as I actually run down the hall, “and who’d want to be those jerks?”

Just like yesterday. Right down to the jerks.

I practically crash through the front door, so anxious to get my hands on today and bring it back for my grandfather to read. I rip the door open, and find the paper’s not lying where it’s supposed to be.

And it’s not stolen either. Not exactly.

“Daniel,” Mr. Largs says awkwardly. “Jeez, you startled me.”

Da’s old workmate, carpooler, whatever, is standing there with our newspaper. He stops in once every few weeks to have a look at the Old Boy. I never could figure out if I liked Mr. Largs or not. Some days yes, some days no.

I don’t like surprises at breakfast, though.

“Why are you here?” I ask him.

“I’m not,” he says, walking past me when Da barks for him.

It’ll be a no-like day, then.

I get Mr. Largs a cup of coffee and a bran muffin. Then sit at the table with the men. Hard to tell why Largs has come by just now, as he doesn’t seem to have much to talk about. Mostly he’s eating and listening.

Maybe that’s because Da is in a talking mood.

“Beer, Largs?” Da asks.

“Cam?” Largs says, startled. Cam was Da’s work nickname. “It’s only nine thirty, pal?”

“Yes,” Da says, all crafty-coot, “but it’s afternoon in Europe. Remember the real-beer tour, Largs? Huh? Jeez, we had some fine beers on that trip. All the best local stuff, Daniel. We had Guinness in Dublin, Dinkelacker in Berlin, oh my, and everything in Brussels . . .”

You know how you can just tell when someone is looking at you even if you cannot see them? I turn to see Largs snap away from staring at me.

“That wasn’t me, Cam,” he says coolly.

“Of course it was. We drank Brains in Cardiff! Remember how much we laughed at that? Drinking Brains in Cardiff?” Long, thin smile slashes Da’s face.

Sounds like something my grandfather would laugh at.

Largs laughs. “Ah, you mad old hatter. I never went on such a trip.”

Da’s smile melts, as Largs reaches across the table. He takes hold of Da’s wrist, causes him to see the brass bracelet with MEMORY LOSS engraved across it for all the world to see. “We’re all getting a little forgetful these days, Cam. I mean, you had the best memory of anyone I ever worked with . . . ever. So what chance do I have, huh?” He laughs, alone. “I’m heading to retirement myself in a year or two. Already forgetting left and right.”

Da is now staring at the MedicAlert bracelet.

“We drank Maccabee in Tel Aviv,” Da says weakly.

“We drank Bud in St. Louis,” Largs says, chipper as hell. “We were purely domestic, Cam, you know that.”

I hate this. I hate this. The memory loss, of course. The low-level unpleasantness that is with us now, because of the conflict of stories? I hate this.

Largs knows better. Why does he have to win? Why can’t he just fudge and fade his way through a simple stupid exchange, the way people do every day anyway? Why do we need what we’re getting here?

Mostly, what is so awful is Da’s realization. His unrealization. He knows something is wrong, but he cannot be sure what it is. Like he’s fighting somebody in the dark.

Mostly more, even, is that I cannot stand to see him back on his heels. That’s it. That’s what it is for me. My Da always has the upper hand. Always had it. To see him so clearly not in charge is excruciating. And it wouldn’t even matter who had the facts straight, because either way, Largs is manhandling him.

It hurts.

“Sorry to rush you,” I say to Mr. Largs.

“Huh?” he says.

“We kind of had plans for this morning,” I say, standing up to see him out. This is not normally my way. I have been taught respect. I have been taught deference and politeness, often giving these things to people I knew didn’t deserve them. I have been taught to treat people the right way because, whatever you might be thinking about the person right in front of you, your manners are really offered to the people who taught them to you.

But I was never prepared for having to look out for my almighty Da. I was never prepared for the thought of needing to.

I have not even given Mr. Largs a chance to respond to my words before I am leading him away from my table and toward the exit.

“Okay, then, Cam,” says a befuddled Largs, backing out of the kitchen. “I’ll stop by again soon.”

Da is still examining his bracelet, silent and consumed and possibly unaware he has had a visitor.

“Call first,” I say to Largs, on the threshold of impolite, but not over it yet. I hold the door open for him.

Da is looking up at me when I re-enter the kitchen. He has his hand open, palm up, gesturing toward the mysterious piece of jewelry on his wrist.

“It’s because of your memory, Da,” I say. And because I always relished the challenge of making him laugh, and the thrill when I succeeded, I add, “Your memory, Old Boy, remember your memory?”

For a flickering few, he looks even more perplexed than before. Then he crinkles me a smile.

“I remember, Young Man,” he says, and I can see that for now, he does.

It is a funny thing, one that I wrestle with every day now, the notion that he is required to remember that he forgets. A big cosmic joke, that one.

“Did you say we had plans?” Da asks me.

“I did,” I say.

“What plans were those, Young Man?”

He has always called me Young Man. Just not this frequently. He never forgets Young Man.

“The races of course, Old Boy.”

“The races.”

“The horses.”

Da loves the horses. I love the horses with him.

“The horses. Today?”

“First race goes off at twelve fifteen, Da. We need to get cracking if we are going to do this the right way. Right? The racing form, the grandstand . . .”

“And the first of the day,” he says, beaming, finishing our standard statement of purpose.

“The Triple Crown of earthly pleasure on a sunny day,” I say, pointing at the author of the phrase, him.

A horse, a beer, my grandfather, and a full race card. That to me is an embarrassment of riches. The fact that since I’m not strictly old enough and Da has to smuggle me the beer only adds to the fun. So much so that when my folks offered to throw a party for my high school graduation a month ago, I thanked them politely and opted instead to spend the evening after the ceremony at the track with the Old Boy.

I promised myself, anyway. With this being my last summer home before college in September. With this summer being different, in every way, practically every day, regarding Da. I promised myself we were going to be together just as much as I could manage it.

We are going together. This summer, the last summer. Everywhere, together.

He loves stuff. He’s never been a big drinker, but he loves a beer. He loves the sweaty musculature of a racehorse. He loves the awful smell of the race-day crowd that can make even the horses wince. He loves experience, and to be with him when he’s at it is to be splashed with all the overspill of his spirit.

He is a human great-day-out, my Da.

In a few minutes he is back from his room and all zipped up in his racing colors. Though they are not all that colorful. His pea-green tweed flattop cap, almost-matching baggy pants, button-down white shirt, gray jacket with lots of pockets—like a fishing vest with arms.

Still, he manages to look dapper as hell.

We are off to the races.

The sun is brilliant, and we are settled into the bleachers with a beer between us and a likewise shared racing form.

How it usually works, especially in fine weather, is that one of us does the reading while ...

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