Because it’s such a long time until the October 25 release of Leo’s Birds, we’ll be releasing a chapter of the book every week to tide you over until you can get the actual book in your hands. Check back every Wednesday for a new excerpt, or subscribe to our blog to be notified as soon as the latest excerpt is released.
When they died, and later at the double funeral, Leo discovered he felt both sad and happy. Murder-suicide does that, the priest had told him. That he felt dead, though, was no new thing.
At the church, three dozen officers in crisp blues sat uniformly on one side. A smattering of other mourners wrapped in gray found sanctuary in back, their muffled coughs and scrapings of shoes on the stone floor echoing off the high ceiling. The gaunt priest droned over the two closed caskets, telling lies about Leo’s drunk and abusive uncle, giving voice to a saintly tolerance embodied in life by his Aunt Millie. Young Leo thought once again about being on his own.
Two months before, on the very day of his sixteenth birthday, his aunt had driven him to the courthouse and filled out papers so he could get a social security card. He’d wanted to work. After the airplane crash and for ten years—ten terrible years—he’d lived with his aunt and uncle. At sixteen, he wanted to get away just as fast as he could. His Aunt Millie had wanted him gone, too. “For your own good, Leo.” He had no idea then that it would be their death that finally cut him loose.
Leo had wanted to get away and he wanted to take his Aunt Millie with him, take her away from the beatings and yelling and drunken stupor. It was what any sixteen year old would have wanted.
But his Uncle Burt fixed all that. A baseball bat to her head, the medical examiner had put in his report, quick if not painless. For Uncle Burt, it had been a bullet from his own Beretta .40 police-issue sidearm.
Somewhere inside, he’d known it was going to happen eventually. Leo had assumed it would not be a double but a triple funeral. Somehow he had escaped his fate. Again.
Temporarily, he told himself.
The summer before first grade he’d come to live with Aunt Millie and Uncle Burt. Two weeks before that, his mother had been killed coming back from a week-long vacation at Martha’s Vineyard when the airplane spiraled down into a cornfield east of Jefferson City. His father had been killed in that same wreck. And his older brother, George. And his older sister, Shelly. And his older sister, Sharon. Leo remembered the crash, remembered crying in his mother’s arms as the plane stuttered and limped toward the too-distant airport. He did not die in that crash. He’d not even been hurt. That he was not with them now made him feel no less dead himself.
There was no counseling, not in those days. Instead, he’d been shipped off to Kansas City to his nearest relatives who themselves were in the midst of their own headlong downward spiral. Through elementary and middle school, he survived somehow. Young Leo had kept to himself, kept his head down.
In high school, after the double funeral, the second funeral of his short life, his Aunt Fran from California, with tied-back hair and tie-died sundress, had come to live with him at the apartment he’d shared with his aunt and uncle. She would be gone soon, she said, back to the West Coast sun. She would not stay in a place with so much negative energy. Their agreement, bless her odd soul, was that she would continue to live there with him in Kansas City, if only in name. She’d be cool, she said, if he would be. He would continue working, he promised, and finish high school, at least. For her part, she would come to visit every three months or so. He agreed to her plan. There was nothing else in the offering. She flew back to California five days later and then all that remained of his former life was Pete, the Amazon Parrot. Pete, the witness.
It was the bird who would watch Leo grow into the man he would become. Leo had promised Fran he would be cool. It drove him to do the things he did. Leo would learn what it meant to keep his promises, what it took to go it alone. No one would ever catch on that he was living alone. He made sure of it. That his Aunt Fran was always too busy to show up at parent-teacher conferences, that Leo would forge her handwriting on a number of documents, that he’d graduate from Central Catholic High School with no one to cheer and congratulate him would be just part of the arrangement.
Pete had been traumatized by the violence. The large green and yellow bird, majestic-appearing and personable, even affectionate, had known a great many phrases, most of which had been taught to him by young Leo himself—words like, “Have a great day!” and “Pete is hungry.” In the aftermath, Pete would forget them all. For years thereafter, Leo would try to re-vernacularize the bird, but Pete would say only the one phrase. All that would remain of the parrot’s former gregarious nature would be the words that the cops had heard as they banged on the apartment door before they broke it down, a phrase that the bird had repeated as a litany, over and over again, as the officers took photographs and gathered evidence at the gruesome scene. Leo himself had been working at Mack’s Grocery Store that night. It shielded him from certain death a second time. That he could not find the heart to get rid of the bird remained a testament to some sort of underlying disorder.
Of that he was sure.
Leo had few other friends. He couldn’t afford friends who might tell someone about his unique living arrangements. And what friends he did have he’d kept at arm’s length. They would not comprehend keeping Pete after the tragedy. They would not understand that Leo was already dead and that Pete’s words were a relic of his dead past, a past he’d avoided but hadn’t.
Plus, he would have to explain the whole thing. How his uncle liked to swing the bat at a diminutive but defiant Millie. How he had hit home runs at the plate of his own family, dressed in uniform, his badge shining dully in the subdued light of late night television. How, in final analysis, Pete the parrot had learned his words well. The words his uncle yelled night after night, yelled as often—more often—than Leo had repeated the phrase “good morning” to the bird.
For Pete, life had come down to one simple fact. Pete was witness. That the bird only knew how to say, “Fuck you, Millie,” did not surprise Leo. Leo didn’t know if he himself knew how to say more than that, but he was trying.
And trying counted, he thought, if you want to live when you’re already dead.