An old man tells his grandson one evening that there is a battle raging inside him, inside all of us. A terrible battle between two wolves.
One wolf is bad - pride, envey, jealousy, greed, guilt, self-pity. The other wolf is good - kidness, hope, love, service, truth, humility.
The child asks, 'Who will win?'
The grandfather answers simply, 'The one you feed.'
Chapter One: Cops
‘You keep runnin’, you’ll only go to jail tired,’ Ben Silver muttered.
He hit the photo button on his battered video camera and took another picture. He reached across his forest set and moved the legs on two small clay figures. Ben was eye-level with the action, peering between trees made from cellophane and toilet rolls and other found things.
He often mumbled his characters’ lines as he shot a movie. Later, after he’d filmed everything, he would record the voices and add them to the pictures. He jotted the line in his brown leather notebook:
‘You keep runnin’, you’ll only go to jail tired.’
Ben took a bite from a microwaved jam doughnut. The jam was lava on his tongue and he dropped the
doughnut onto the plate. The floor around him was littered with clothes, shoes, a game console, two controllers, a bike wheel with no tyre, a skateboard deck, schoolbooks, soccer boots, a jumbo-size packet of chips and plates from long-forgotten afternoon snacks. Ben’s favourite place. It was dark with the curtains closed, the only light coming from two lamps trained on the stop-motion set on his desk. Outside, his dog Golden barked like mad.
Within the Woods was Ben’s seventh stop-motion movie. In this scene a zombie thief named Dario Savini was running down a forest track with Detective Ben Silver, Sydney’s toughest cop, in pursuit. The detective was famous in Ben’s movies for vanquishing werewolves, delinquent kids and zombies.
There was a heavy knock.
Ben froze. He looked at his clay cop, but clay Ben just stood there on one foot, mid-stride, frozen.
Another heavy knock on the front door. It definitely didn’t sound like Olive. She was in the backyard, playing pirates on the trampoline like she did every day after school.
Ben stood, walked quietly out of his bedroom and tiptoed up the hall, heart keeping time with his footsteps. He moved through the lounge room to the front window and peered carefully from behind the dusty grey curtain.
It was raining and two police officers were huddled under the front awning. One fat. One skinny. Skinny was a lady. A couple of police cars were parked on the kerb with two more cops standing under dark blue umbrellas next to one of the cars. Ben’s body surged with excitement and fear. His dream was to become a detective once he had finished high school.
Ben’s little sister came in through the broken sliding back door, soaking wet. ‘Who is it?’ Olive asked.
‘Shhh,’ he whispered, raising a hand to tell her to stop, but Olive kept coming. She was small, whiteblonde, seven years old, one of the smartest kids Ben knew. She had already read The Hobbit by herself. For three weeks afterwards she refused to speak unless people called her Gandalf.
The knock again. The lady officer walked past the window. Ben tucked himself in behind the curtain. The officer disappeared around the side of the house.
Olive shuffled in front of Ben. ‘Police!’ she said in a too-loud voice. He placed his hand over her mouth. She peeled it off. ‘They’re coming to get you for what you did.’
Ben swallowed hard and moved slowly toward the door, wondering if Olive was right. Earlier, he had tied her to a chair in the bathroom and dangled a cockroach in front of her face, then dipped her toothbrush in the toilet. But it seemed like overkill for four police officers to be assigned to the case, even if it was a slow Tuesday at the station.
Ben opened the door just enough to peek out.
‘Good afternoon,’ the policeman said.
‘Hello,’ Ben said, squeezing his bottom lip.
The officer’s hand rested on the butt of a gun nestled in the holster on his right hip. ‘Are your parents in?’
Ben shook his head, still looking at the officer through a thirty-centimetre gap between door and frame. Ben was pleased to see that being slightly overweight didn’t stop you from getting into the force. Ben was slightly overweight himself. His nan said it was from the rotten dinners his parents fed him from the burger chain on the corner.
‘Can you please tell me where they are?’
The murmur of the highway nearby and the low hum of the tall electrical tower in the empty block across the street filled the space between them.
‘You sure about that? We just need to have a quick word to them,’ the officer said, looking past Ben into the house.
‘Have you seen them this afternoon at all?’
Ben shook his head. ‘They’re at work till 4.30.’
The officer flipped open a small notebook with a leather cover. ‘Ray Silver Motor Wreckers, 137 Hope Street?’
The female officer returned. ‘No one round there,’ she said, posting a tight-lipped smile to Ben.
‘Thank you for your help,’ said the man and they turned to go.
‘Do you want me to give them a message?’ Ben asked.
‘No, we’ll catch up with them,’ said the lady officer.
They walked quickly into the rain and up the cracked concrete path, past the three rusted, doorless cars that sat in the long grass of the Silvers’ front yard. Golden, a three-legged, sandy-coloured kelpie cross, was tied up to one of the decaying cars. She barked excitedly at the officers as they climbed into their vehicles. The hum of the electrical tower was swallowed by the roar of the police cars as they sped off up Cooper Street.
Ben Silver closed the door and stood there, not knowing what to do. Sweat trickled down both sides of his forehead.
‘Are they going to put you in jail?’ Olive asked.
He went to the coffee table and picked up the phone, thoughts whirling. He put the phone down. He squeezed his bottom lip.
‘What did they want?’ Olive asked. ‘Did they say that dipping your sister’s toothbrush in the toilet was a very bad thing to do?’
Ben picked the phone up again and dialled the number for the wreckers. The phone rang. And rang. He heard tyres skidding on gravel out the front.
Chapter Two: The Holiday
‘Cop!’ Ben’s dad called from the car. That was his nickname for Ben, because he asked so many questions.
Ben raced to the door and looked out. The Green Machine, his father’s 1967 Valiant 770, was parked half on the road, half on the footpath. Painted flames licked the side and bonnet of the car.
‘Let’s go!’ Dad shouted. Mum walked quickly toward the house, high heels clattering on the wet path. Olive squeezed past Ben and ran out into the rain to meet her.
‘Grab a few things to do in the car,’ Mum said. ‘We’ve got a surprise for you.’
‘What is it? What is it?’ Olive asked.
‘If I told you it wouldn’t be a surprise. Quick as you can.’
Ben thought for a second and headed to his room. He grabbed his schoolbag, threw in his notebook and pencil, his camera, some batteries. He scurried up the hall, pulled the front door closed and jammed his feet into a pair of sneakers. He held his backpack over his head as an umbrella and ran up the path. The back door of the car hung open and Olive was inside. Mum slammed the front passenger door and strapped her belt.
‘See you in seven minutes,’ Dad said into his phone. He threw it into Mum’s lap. ‘Turn that off for me. Get in, Ben!’ he said, revving the engine. The car jerked forward.
Ben slid into the back seat. ‘The police just came to our house!’ he said, breathless.
He heaved the door closed as Dad spun the car around, laying rubber on the road. ‘What are you doing? Where are we going?’
No one said anything.
‘Holidays,’ Mum said.
They had never been on a holiday before. Ben got up on his knees and looked through the dirty back window. Golden, the tripod dog, was still tied up to the rusted, doorless car on the front lawn.
‘What about G–’
‘Nan’s coming to get her,’ Mum said. ‘Put your belt on.’
Ben heard a siren as the car swung around the corner onto the old highway.
‘Red light!’ Mum shouted.
Dad kept driving.
No one said anything for a few minutes. Olive sat there, looking out the window, sucking her thumb and clutching Bonzo, her dirty, grey stuffed rabbit.
Car yards flicked by.
‘Where are we going on holidays?’ Ben asked.
Dad adjusted his side and rear-view mirrors, weaving between utes, vans and semitrailers.
She did not respond. Everything felt odd. Maybe it was because Ben had never been on holidays before. Maybe because the police had just knocked on their door. He slumped down on the back seat, thinking.
‘Why are we in such a damn hurry?’ he asked.
‘Watch your language!’ Mum said.
‘Did you hear me say that the police just came to our house?’ Ben continued. ‘And why didn’t you tell me this morning that we were going on holidays?’
Dad hit himself on the forehead four times with a balled fist. ‘That kid asks so many questions!’
‘Sorry,’ Ben said.
‘Don’t apologise all the time,’ Dad snapped. ‘It’s weak.’
‘Sorry,’ he said again.
‘The holiday was a surprise,’ Mum told him. ‘You’re always asking about a holiday. This is it. Our first family holiday.’
It felt weird to hear Mum saying ‘family holiday’. They weren’t really one of those family-movie-night, camp-in-the-backyard, let’s-discuss-this-and-geteveryone’s-opinion kind of families. They were more of a dinner-in-front-of-the-TV, key’s-under-the-mat, if-you-want-breakfast-make-it-yourself kind of family.
‘Can I bring a friend?’ Ben asked.
‘No,’ his parents both said at once.
‘But James took Gus when he went on holidays.’
No one said anything.
‘Where are we going?’
Rain drummed on the car roof as they charged past a petrol station, a funeral home, a chicken shop.
‘Just up the coast,’ Mum said, looking at Dad, whose eyes darted from road to rear-vision mirror and back again.
‘Where to? Gosford?’
‘Kings Bay? We’re going to the beach at Kings Bay!’ Ben said excitedly. He had wanted to go to Kings Bay ever since Nan had sent him a postcard from there when he was little.
Mum’s phone pinged. She picked it up and started typing.
‘Turn it off!’ Dad said.
Dad gave her a fierce look.
Mum switched off the phone.
Ben and Olive glanced sideways at one another. They had never seen their mother switch her phone off before.
‘We’re not going to the cabin, are we?’ Ben asked.
Mum turned and looked through the gap between headrest and seat. ‘Yes, we’re going to the cabin.’
‘Yessss!’ Olive said, raising both arms in the air, then plugging her thumb back into her mouth.
‘Boooooo!’ Ben said. ‘I don’t want to. I want to go home. I’m in the middle of my movie.’
He had been hearing about his grandfather’s cabin in the hills behind Kings Bay all his life. When Dad was a kid Pop went up there, fishing and hunting rabbits, a couple of times a year. Dad said he was hardly ever allowed to go, even though he’d really wanted to.
Nature wasn’t Ben’s favourite thing – freaky insects, animals, dirt. He preferred being in his room playing games, watching TV, eating. This had never been a problem because the Silvers had not left the suburbs in the thirteen years since Ben was born.
‘Get out of the way!’ Dad yelled at someone through his open window.
Dad was skinny and serious. An ex-mechanic, salesman, now motor wrecker. He wore an armful of tattoos, black wraparound sunglasses and a dirty cap with a petrol company logo on it. In the rear-view mirror Ben could see Dad’s chipped front tooth. He looked rat-like.
Ben sometimes wondered how Dad had ended up with Mum. April Silver: ten years younger than Dad, tall, brown hair. People said she could have been a model years ago, but then Ben was born and that changed everything. So now she worked at the wreckers instead. Dad thought he ran the business but Mum did. Ben knew.
Ben sat back and looked out the window at the signs going by. AAA Lighting. Craig’s Concreting. The Golden Wok Chinese. He thought about police and squeezed his bottom lip. He closed his eyes and saw his stop-motion movie playing on the cinema screen at the back of his eyelids. He saw what he had already shot – the crime, the car chase, then the run through the forest. Maybe heading toward a creepy cabin. It wasn’t in the script yet but maybe they would go to a cabin, the zombie thief’s hideout – abandoned, trees hanging low over the roof.
The car jerked and revved hard as Dad flung it back a gear. Ben’s eyes snapped open, ending his imaginary cinema show.
They hurried along the old highway, wipers scraping the windscreen. Ben didn’t mind his characters going to a creepy cabin but he did not want to go to one himself. He wanted to be back in his room, happy, comfortable. He tried to think of anything that might stall them.
‘What about clothes and stuff? I’m still in school uniform.’
‘It’s all right,’ Mum said. ‘We’ll get new ones.’
‘Yep. That’s what you do on holidays.’
Ben thought about this for a second. He had never heard of it before.
‘I thought you guys hated holidays,’ he said.
Dad laughed, which Ben liked. Usually Dad only laughed when he was with his mates.
‘What about school?’ Ben said. ‘Didn’t we just have school holidays?’
‘Now you’ve got more,’ Mum said.
‘Can you please tell Maugrim to slow down,’ Olive said quietly, then stuck her thumb back into her mouth.
‘You tell him,’ Ben said.
Olive shook her head. She had not spoken to Dad in over a week. One night at dinner, during the ads, she had called him Maugrim, the evil wolf from The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Dad was so angry when he found out who Maugrim was, he sent her to her room with no dessert and put Bonzo away for a week. Since then she had only spoken to Dad when necessary and only through an interpreter. Olive did that kind of thing sometimes. She was a tough little kid. Ben would never dare stand up to Dad like that.
Dad checked his rear-view and side mirrors and took a sharp right in front of oncoming traffic. Ben was thrown sideways toward Olive, who shoved him away. ‘Get off me. You stink like poo,’ she said.
Ben sat up. Dad swung a fast left, then gunned it up a street lined with brown brick houses. They were a bit nicer than Ben’s house. Most had basketball hoops and toys and bikes strewn around the yard. Two kids in yellow raincoats ran off the road as Dad powered toward them. A hundred metres further up, he pulled into a driveway where a man stood next to an empty garage. He wore a white, pinstriped business shirt and black pants. He was tall and skinny with ginger-coloured hair, thinning on top. Uncle Chris. Even though he lived so close, they had not seen Dad’s brother in over a year. Dad drove into the garage, switched off the engine and got out.
‘Does Dad still think Uncle Chris is an idiot?’ Olive asked.
‘Shhh,’ Mum said. ‘He’s organised a new car for us to drive for the holiday.’ She gathered her things.
‘What?’ Ben asked.
Mum ignored him. ‘Everyone out.’
Ben looked through the back window to where Dad was shaking his brother’s hand. Uncle Chris gave Dad a grey nylon sports bag with black handles and looked over at Ben. Then they walked up the driveway to an old station wagon parked in the street.