Author: Kelley Powell (website | twitter)
Publisher: Dundurn Press
Publication date: May 2, 2015
Eighteen-year-old Cam Scott is angry. He’s angry about his absent dad, he’s angry about being angry, and he’s angry that he has had to give up his Ottawa basketball team to follow his mom to her new job in Vientiane, Laos. However, Cam’s anger begins to melt under the Southeast Asian sun as he finds friendship with his neighbour, Somchai, and gradually falls in love with Nok, who teaches him about building merit, or karma, by doing good deeds, such as purchasing caged “merit birds.”
Tragedy strikes and Cam finds himself falsely accused of a crime. His freedom depends on a person he’s never met. A person who knows that the only way to restore his merit is to confess. “The Merit Birds” blends action and suspense and humour in a far-off land where things seem so different, yet deep down are so much the same.
About the Author:
On June 2 and 3, 2015, I’m having a virtual launch party and you’re invited! Everyone who buys my book on Amazon on June 2 and 3 will be able to access over $100 in free bonus gifts. Here’s a sneak peek at what you can get:
· Experience a unique selection of quality (and sometimes hilarious) song downloads. Some of the songs are linked to parts of my book, such as “BBQ Dog” by Im, and “Boh Penyang” by ULUVUS.
· Experience the same meditation that my main character learned in prison when you download your free audio meditation guide.
· Drunken Noodles or Papaya Salad, anyone? Make the unique and flavourful meals the characters refer to when you download your free e-copy of The Recipes of The Merit Birds.
· Access breakthrough fiction for free, some of which has never been available to the public before! Upon purchase of The Merit Birds, you’ll get a copy of my controversial short story, The Pool, which was longlisted for the CBC short story prize. You’ll also get NetGalley access to upcoming fiction from Dundurn Press before it’s even released!
TheMeritBirds.com will have all the details on how to enter take part in the launch and claim your gifts.
~ Excerpt ~
Beauty and Death
Eighteen years old and I don’t know how to take a crap. The frog mocked me. I knew it. His eyes gleamed in the moonlight as I stood before the toilet, trying to figure out what to do. There was nothing but a hole in the ground with foot grips on either side. The frog croaked out a chuckle when he saw me scan the closet-like bathroom for toilet paper. Only a hose with a sprayer hung from the wall. What the hell was that for?
“Idiot,” the frog seemed to croak.
“You okay in there, Cameron?” asked Julia, a.k.a. my mom. I hated her at that moment. It had been her idea to give up everything for a year — her job, our house in Ottawa, my last year of high school, the basketball team — to come here, to Laos. Who the hell goes to Laos? I didn’t even know how to say it right. Was it Louse, like lice that feed off little kids’ blood? Or Lay-os, like some weird basketball move? The guy next door — I think his name is Somchai — said, “Welcome to Lao.” At least he could speak English, and he looked my age, although it was hard to tell. In this country even grandpas look young. I stomped my foot at the frog and he leapt off to go tell his friends about the freaky foreigner who didn’t know how to shit.
This was supposed to be my year. I’d be the best player on the school team for sure. I planned to check out universities, apply for basketball scholarships, go to some good parties, meet girls. Instead my mother had her mid-life crisis and applied for an overseas placement. She left her cushy international development job with the feds in Ottawa for a posting in the sun-scorched capital city of Laos, called Vientiane, where red dust clung to my nose hairs and the stink of fermenting fish filled the air.
We’d arrived just after New Year’s. First it was happy new millennium — then it was welcome to the Dark Ages. On the Lao Airlines flight from Bangkok to Vientiane the rickety plane spewed thick smoke into the cabin. Some other foreigners on board freaked out until we realized it was just the air-conditioning malfunctioning. Still, I think the plane must have been a leftover from the Vietnam war.
Stepping off the plane, I immediately realized how bored I was going to be in this country. Everything seemed to be in slow motion. No one hurried to do anything — not even the guys shuffling their flip-flops along the tarmac as they removed our luggage from the bowels of the old plane. Everyone seemed to be either really relaxed, super sleepy, or so high they couldn’t move. I couldn’t tell which. It didn’t take me long to figure out that the heat had something to do with it. I felt like I was in a sauna. The sun seared my eyeballs as we waited for a wobbly three-wheeled taxi called a tuk-tuk to take us to the house Julia’s department had rented for us.
“Don’t complain about the heat yet,” Julia said. “It’s still the cool season.”
During the drive I saw that Vientiane wasn’t even a city. It was just a bunch of grubby villages that grew into one another. Oversized jeeps and vans with the logos of international development organizations muscled past us. Guys my age drove past on rusted bicycles with big, girly banana seats. Red dust stuck to the sweat marks on my white T-shirt. I had to find a way to get back home.
“Isn’t this exciting?” Julia squeezed my hand. It was the first time she had touched me in a long while. Maybe something good would come of this. Maybe she wouldn’t be so busy here. I was embarrassed by my babyish thoughts.
“Yeah, great,” I said. My response sounded sarcastic, though I didn’t mean it to be.
From the glassless windows of our bright blue-and-red tuk-tuk I saw bald monks in carrot-coloured robes carrying black, oversized umbrellas to protect them from the vicious sun. A family of four balanced on one motorbike drove past us. We wobbled past skinny palm trees, farmers with triangular hats bent over green rice paddies, and stagnant ponds suffocating with massive lily pads and pink lotus flowers. The smell of diesel made me want to cough and I could feel dust, gritty and coarse, in my mouth. My head was foggy from jet lag and my stomach knotted with resentment.
From my peripheral vision I noticed a woman on the side of the road, crouched over a tree stump. The tuk-tuk stopped at a crowded intersection and I saw that with one hand she was holding down a squawking chicken, its scrawny neck bared along the smooth top of the stump. In the other hand she held a knife high in the air, the ferocious sunlight glinted off its blade. She looked dressed up, in a sexy tight top with a high Chinese collar and a long, thin skirt hugging her hips. She looked so graceful in the thick sea of grubby children and rundown wooden shops that lined the roadside. Suddenly, she powerfully brought down the knife. I caught my breath as brilliant red blood sprayed from the chicken’s neck and bubbled onto the dusty ground. The chicken’s headless body jerked and flapped as it fought death. A band of little kids walked by and barely even looked. I guess fatality was nothing new to them. They seemed more interested in the packages of cakes and cookies that dangled from strings hanging along a shop’s entrance. The beautiful woman wiped her shiny brow with the back of the hand that still clutched the long blade. The traffic light turned green and our tuk-tuk began to trundle on. I turned around to watch her disappear in the distance, shocked at how beauty and death could get so mixed up together.
We pulled up in front of a faded orange fence and Julia laughed as she tried to figure out how many bills worth of kip to pay the tuk-tuk driver. I gazed around this strange place where my mother expected me to live.
“This is it, Cam,” she said. “Home.”
“You think I’m staying here?”
I didn’t want to play the part of the typical grumpy teenager. I knew how excited she was. But come on. This was too much to ask. I eyed the red dirt road that snaked through the village. Along it, sat a muddled-up mess of houses: wooden shacks sitting on stilts so the breeze could flow underneath, pretentious mansions with wrought iron fences nearly as tall as the houses they were meant to protect, and smaller, cement houses with peeling paint. Our rented house was like one of these: simple and concrete with white paint, burgundy wooden shutters, and a corrugated-steel roof. The kitchen and bathroom were in small, separate buildings behind it; a high fence enclosed the small compound, and bushy trees and plants ran along its outside edges. Inside, there was no grass, only lifeless concrete.
“It’s to keep the malarial mosquitoes away,” Julia explained.
The property looked like a comatose, concrete island desperately trying to keep the dirty, teeming, chicken-clucking, rooster-crowing life of the neighbourhood out. There were even brown, green, and clear pieces of sharp, broken glass cemented to the top of the fence.
“They say it’s a really safe neighbourhood,” Julia said when she saw me eyeing the shards.
That evening our rumbling stomachs gave us the courage we needed to venture out of our heavy, wooden front door and into the neighbourhood. A crowd had gathered on the road in front of our house. Men riding home from work on tarnished bicycles stopped to peer through our front gate at the strange newcomers. They waved over schoolchildren, who wore uniforms of crisp white button-up shirts and pleated navy blue shorts or skirts. The little girls clapped hands over their mouths and giggled into their palms. Julia waved awkwardly. I nodded and looked down at the ground as I followed my mother to the neighbourhood pho shop. Thankfully it wasn’t far from our house.
The children followed us to the pho soup and laughed as we pointed to what we wanted — big steaming bowls of rice noodles swimming in clear broth with green stuff and hunks of meat floating in it. I kept my head down and slurped the noodles as quickly as I could. I was so hungry I was able ignore the unidentifiable, gelatinous beige balls of goop bobbing at the surface. Twenty-one hours on planes and three days of stopovers and sitting in airports had made me too exhausted to care. We had flown from Ottawa to Toronto, Toronto to Los Angeles, Los Angeles to Seoul, Seoul to Bangkok, Bangkok to Vientiane. Julia said the indirect route would save her department a ton of cash.
“Money first,” I had scoffed.
From the corner of my eye I could see a small schoolgirl timidly waving her hand to catch my attention. I was too tired to make eye contact and fake that I was nice. I couldn’t think of anyone but myself right now. It was dinnertime here in Laos, but back home Jon and the guys would just be waking up.
The next day Julia convinced me to walk with her to the Morning Market. The intense sun penetrated my body like an X-ray in search of something broken. We followed a dirt path along the side of a road. Barefoot vendors pushed large, ramshackle wooden carts filled with green vegetables and tropical fruits I had never tasted before: creepy red, hairy balls called rambutans and spiky green jackfruit. The vendors’ straw, cone-shaped hats protected them from the unforgiving rays of the sun. I was glad when we finally stepped inside the shade of the market.
I had to follow Julia with my head lowered like a slave so I didn’t brush up against the filthy tarps that acted as a makeshift roof for part of the market. The cement floor was slick with liquid; I didn’t want to know what it was. Women with babies tied to their backs and hands busy with plastic bags filled with dried rice pressed past us. The stench of raw meat was disgusting. I covered my nose with my hand.
“You look silly,” Julia said. I didn’t answer. “Come on, I have to buy material for Mrs. Mee — you know that lady who lives next door?”
“I think meh means mother. Mother Mee. Anyway, she said she’d make me some sins. I’ll need them when I start my job.”
Sins the long skirts were called. She was already trying to dress native. She could be so embarrassing. All of the women wore them, only Julia was going to look ridiculous in hers. I knew it. A white woman trying to be someone she wasn’t.
“You’ve got enough sins,” I said.
She knew what I was talking about. The story of my childhood: me, alone, while she chased everything else — success, men, money. I hadn’t called her Mom for years — she never felt like one. I remembered my first day of kindergarten: the bus driver wouldn’t let me off because no one was there to meet me after school. We sat on the side of the suburban road, bus door slammed shut, while the bus driver, unable to conceal his irritation, sighed and called the school, barking at the secretary to find out what the hell he should do with me.
Then, as now, Julia ignored me. She grinned stiffly at the Morning Market vendors watching her finger the cotton laid out on tables. She prodded me to greet them in the Lao way, with hands in prayer position and head slightly bowed.
“Say sabaidee,” she urged. “It means hello.”
Wanting to please her, sins and all, I mumbled “Sabaidee” and a market woman looked at me like I had three heads. Back home I’d been one of the most popular guys at school.
When we got back from the market, Somchai was in front of his house dribbling a basketball. He looked up and threw the ball to me. He pronounced the a in my name short, so it sounded like Cahm. It means gold, he told me. That made me laugh. I thought of all the temper tantrums, all of the fights, all of the counsellors. No one else would call me gold.
I returned his throw, only harder. He grinned and threw it back, just as hard. We spent the next sweat-drenched hour shooting hoops, using a basket tied to a coconut tree. We didn’t stop until his mom, Meh Mee, brought us tall, perspiring glasses of sugary lime juice.
“You’re good,” Somchai said.
“You’re not bad, either.”
He shrugged. “That’s nothing compared to katoh.”
I was confused about what Somchai meant, but he went behind his house and returned holding a wicker ball in his long fingers, I realized he was talking about a different kind of game. The rest of the afternoon we volleyed the ball back and forth with our feet. Kind of like hacky sack, only nastier. I left Somchai’s house with bruises and scrapes on my shins. I was going to like this guy. Too bad I had to like him and stay in his country at the same time.
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