Authors: Tristan Bancks
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For Amber Melody, Hux, and Luca. And for my grandmother Joan Bancks, who made everything better.
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 badâpride, envy, jealousy, greed. The other wolf is goodâkindness, hope, love, truth. The child asks, “Which wolf will win?” The grandfather answers simply, “The one you feed.”
“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 paper 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 tire, a skateboard deck, school books, a jumbo-size bag of chips, and plates from long-forgotten afternoon snacks. Ben's favorite 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 crazy.
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, midstride, frozen.
Another heavy knock on the front door of the house. It 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 living room to the front window and peered carefully from behind the dusty gray 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 at the curb 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 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, white-blond, seven years old, one of the smartest kids Ben knew. She had already read
by herself. For three weeks afterward 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 six-inch 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 with 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 four-thirty.”
The officer flipped open a small notebook with a leather cover. “Ray Silver Car Wreckers, 137 Hope Street?”
The female officer returned. “No one around 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 two rusted, doorless cars that sat in the long grass of the Silvers' front yard. Golden, a three-legged, sandy-colored kelpie mix, 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 closed the door and stood there, not knowing what to do.
“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 dialed the number for the wreckers. The phone rang. And rang.
He was about to try his mum's cell phone when he heard tires skidding on the gravel out in front.
“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 hood 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 and his camera. He scurried up the hall, jammed his feet into a pair of sneakers, and pulled the front door closed behind him. 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 shut and fastened her seat 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.
Ben slid into the backseat. “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.
“Vacation,” Mum said.
They had never been on a vacation before. Ben got up on his knees and looked through the dirty back window. Golden was still tied to the rusted, doorless car on the front lawn.
“What about Gâ”
“Nan's coming to get her,” Mum said. “Put your seat 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, gray stuffed rabbit.
Car yards flicked by.
“Where are we going on vacation?” Ben asked.
Dad adjusted his side and rearview mirrors, weaving between cars, vans, and semitrailers.
She did not respond. Everything felt odd. Maybe it was because Ben had never been on a vacation before. Maybe because the police had just knocked on their door. He slumped down on the backseat, thinking.
“Why are we in such a damn hurry?” he asked.
“Watch your language!” Mum said.
“Did you hear me say that the
just came to our house?” Ben continued. “And why didn't you tell me this morning that we were going away?”
Dad hit himself on the forehead four times with a fist. “That kid asks too many questions!”
“Sorry,” Ben said.
“Don't apologize all the time,” Dad snapped. “It's weak.”
“Sorry,” he said again.
“The vacation was a surprise,” Mum told him. “You're always asking about a trip. This is it. Our first family vacation.”
It felt weird to hear Mum saying “family vacation.” They weren't really one of those family-movie-night, camp-in-the-backyard, let's-discuss-this-and-get-everyone'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.