Tom picked up the wooden box so fast it tumbled out of his hands. It made a racket as it bounced across the floorboards. Everyone in the room watched in horror, expecting it to fall to pieces.
He swooped down to retrieve it at once. Not that he wanted the old thing, but because he was embarrassed and wanted to leave the room. He had trouble understanding why his grandpa had given him a worthless piece of wood, while his cousin inherited the valuable stamp collection. Kevin could sell them and collect a fortune. Who in their right mind would even look at a cracked box?
‘It’s as useless as an ice cube in Greenland,’ muttered Tom, as he left the room in a huff.
He was going to open the box, but needed to be alone. Kevin wasn’t going to hang over his shoulder and gloat. Close to tears, he slammed his bedroom door shut and slumped down on the bed. If not for the secret compartments, he would have chucked the box in the bin before even thinking about to look inside.
Tom thought back to the day about one year earlier. It was the day before his birthday. His grandpa had shown him the ancient-looking keepsake, which nobody knew much about. He had gone on to tell about his travels in the Far East where he had come across the box at a village market stall in Mongolia. The small case was worn, decorated with carvings of animals and scrolls and was no bigger than six half-kilo butter packets, put three on top of another three. His grandpa told him he had found it fascinating and had haggled long and hard with the stall keeper for the best price. After he had told Tom his story, he went on to show the hidden compartments and its contents.
‘Always remember this Mongolian box Tom and this wooden tablet with Chinese engravings. Look at the wording! “By the strength of the eternal Heaven”. It goes on to mention Marco Polo. If this box was alive, it might tell a story or two, I think.’
His grandpa picked up a fifty-dollar note from under the wooden tablet. ‘Here, take this for your birthday!’
The next day when Tom mentioned the box, his grandpa didn’t seem to recall the night before. He just continued his pottering around the garden as if he had forgotten all about it. Tom had kind of expected this. His grandpa was some times confused, usually grumpy and had not held a job since his youth. Instead he spent most of his time in the garden and used to say he needed to get his hands dirty by weeding, digging and raking, or he would go crazy. That is why he had also taken up stamp collecting and doing magic tricks. He often entertained at an old people’s home.
Tom sat with the Mongolian box on his lap and traced the scrolls with his finger. What should he do with the stupid thing? Should he keep it in the back of the closet, or throw it in the bin? He could not help thinking it ought to be the other way round. Kevin should have had the box and he could do so much better with the stamp collection, since he already owned many stamps. Kevin had none, even if his parents would be able to buy him the most expensive ones. When Tom had suggested they swap, Kevin had been adamant. He wanted to keep the stamps since there must be a reason why their grandpa had chosen him to have them.
His snobby aunt had turned around to glare at Tom. ‘Kevin doesn’t have to share. The stamps are his. That’s what your grandpa wanted. I’m sure you understand.’
That’s when he had stumbled away to be alone. He turned the box over and over in his hands. He remembered so well how to open it. First the panel underneath had to be moved to locate the hidden place where the tiny iron key was supposed to go. His heart thumped faster as he slid the piece open.
Wow! The key was there! Then he coaxed away another panel, the smallest one, to find the concealed keyhole. The key fitted perfectly in the lock. He turned it and it opened like a well-oiled machine.
He was surprised to find an envelope inside. Underneath it, was the wooden tablet with the Chinese letters. When he discovered a fifty-dollar bill under the wooden tablet, a delighted cry slipped out. His grandpa had left him money. Even so, Tom couldn’t understand why he had been so unfair. Kevin received something, which could be priceless and he almost got nothing. The fifty dollars would be gone in a flash.
He opened the envelope and started to read.
My Dearest Tom
You are good! I knew you could open it. Remember, it’s all yours now. I chose you, and only you, to look after it. I know you’re kind and will help those in need. You can do the same magic as I’ve done over the years. However, only use it for good things. Saying that, if you believe that you deserve a new bike, or something else, you’ll have my blessing.
Whatever you do, don’t let anybody in on the secret, as it could have disastrous effects. If somebody finds out, the whole shebang might be lost forever. Remember, the value is so great that people on this earth will want to lay their hands on it. Keep it safe and guard it with your life!
Your loving grandpa
Thoughts whirred around in Tom’s head. Of what magic was his grandpa talking? Guard it with your life? How many did he think fifty dollars would help?
‘Grandpa, it’s just an old scrappy-looking thing, totally worthless!’ He felt let down, but grabbed the money. A new CD or DVD wouldn’t be so bad, but what he really needed was a new bike. He knew that wasn’t going to happen.
Fiddling around with the box, he remembered another secret slot. He pulled at it and yelled out when it slid open. Inside was a piece of paper with a list. It had headings such as, names, addresses, amount and reason. Who were those people? He didn’t understand, but put the fifty-dollar bill in his pocket. The wooden tablet, the letter and the list went back inside the box for safekeeping. After locking, he put the key and panels back in place. Then he left the room to join his family.
There were voices from the garden.
‘You know how much he loved his roses,” said his mum.
‘Well, he would, wouldn’t he?” said Tom’s aunt. ‘They were like his friends. He didn’t seem to have any others. Well, maybe the old people from the home. Anyway, hard to believe we were the only ones in church.’
Tom decided not to join them and went to the kitchen.
‘Oh, there you are,” said the mum, as she entered. ‘You got the box, Tom. That was nice of grandpa. He didn’t have much else, so you’ll have to be happy even if it doesn’t have any real value. You know how he treasured that box.’
‘But, it isn’t fair that Kevin got the stamps. I should’ve had them. I’m the oldest.’
‘Well, he gave you the box,” said his mum. ‘It must be a reason. Maybe you’re the best one to look after it. It’s old and it needs to be cared for. He bought it in the Far East, you know. I think you should be happy.’
‘I am … not,’ said Tom and went back to his room without talking to Kevin. He grabbed the box from the top shelf in the wardrobe and went through the rigmarole of opening it again. He wanted to look at the list with the names. Before he got to that part, he found a fifty-dollar note. Didn’t he just take out the fifty earlier? His hand went into his pocket. Right! There was the fifty-dollar bill.
He snatched the new one out of the box. Then he searched inside the compartment, first with his fingers and then he put the box close up to his eyes, while turning it around. He scratched inside with a pen, but there was nothing. For a moment, he had thought about a hidden stash of money somewhere, but no such luck. He closed it again.
Restless, he turned on some music and then sat staring into space for some time before he opened the box again. When he found one more fifty-dollar bill, he was dumbfounded. Had he not just searched through it?
He locked the box. Then he re-opened it. Another fifty! He looked at the serial numbers. Each note had a different number. They were not in a series. He closed the box and re-opened. One more!
Every time he went through the procedure, he found another fifty. He was confused and had no inkling how it could happen, but didn’t stop until he had a small pile of notes. He counted them. He closed and opened one more time to make it an even one thousand dollars.
Then it dawned on him. His grandpa had said something about magic. Was this some kind of magic box, which could make money out of nothing? If it was, the box must be the most valuable thing in the world. Moreover, his grandpa had given it to him. He could get rich, even richer than a billionaire.
The next few weeks, he went into a system to make money. When he had his first ten thousand dollars, he didn’t know what to do with them. There was nobody he could tell because his grandpa had said in the letter that the magic might break if he did. But if his parents found the stash of money in his room, they would think it stolen. He felt he had to use the money somehow. He wanted a new bike, but there was no way he could go out and buy one.
The same day when he was at the shops, he overheard a woman complaining to another shopper about the high prices. She said it wasn’t easy to bring up a family of seven when they had no wage coming in. Her husband was unable to work because of an injury. Tom followed her on his bike when she walked the few streets to her home with the smallest shopping bag. Back at his house, he picked up wads of fifty-dollar notes and put them in a shoebox.
He returned to the woman’s home and sneaked up to the front door to leave the box outside. How he would have liked to see when they found the money and the note with the words: “By the strength of the eternal Heaven – from Marco Polo.”
In a couple of weeks, he had four different addresses where he left money. When making a list on his computer to help him remember who was going to be on the receiving end and how much, he realised that the list from his grandpa was just that; people receiving money. His grandpa had chosen him to look after their needs, the same as he had done.
Before long, Tom had a full-scale production. When he wasn’t busy doing homework, or going to soccer training, he opened and closed the box umpteenth times. He had the time of his life. If he figured he needed more, he would make at least a thousand before going to bed. He gave away incredible amounts, but the wads still piled up inside his new hiding spot, inside the manhole, up in the roof.
That is where his dad found 23,000 dollars one day. He was going to put mice bait in the roof space when he found the old shoe box.
‘You won’t believe this, Jenny!’ he called down. ‘Come here and look what I found up in the roof!’
Tom’s mum was stunned. ‘Where does it come from? The people who lived here before must own it. John … I’m worried. It might be illegal money.’
Tom wanted to scream that it was perfectly safe. It was magic money and he could make thousands. But, if he did say it, the magic could disappear forever. Therefore, he kept his mouth shut and made more.
The next day they took the money from the attic to the police station. The officer stated if there were no other claims, they would be the owners after the required time.
As soon as they were home again, Tom went straight to his room. Nothing was going to stop him now. He became the busiest entrepreneur. When he was not at school or sports, he sat inside his wardrobe and made cash. The notes were piling up catastrophically high. He worried about what would happen if his mum wanted to look through his clothes or hang up some shirts. He knew he had to do something and the sooner the better.
After school the next day, he went to a second hand charity store. He found an old suitcase for nine dollars. It was shabby and perfect.
Tom stuffed the suitcase full of money bundles. He made a quick calculation and was satisfied. Then he went to the fridge and found a hamburger patty from the night before.
The same evening, he asked his parents if he could get a dog.
‘I don’t know if we can afford one,’ said his dad.
‘You pay a lot of money for a pedigree,” said his mum. ‘But, if you want one from the pound, it should be okay. Or, what do you think, John?’
‘Are you going to look after it? You’ll be the one and I mean, the only one. We’re both working all day. You’ll have to feed it and take it for walks after school. Is that a promise?’
‘Yeah, yeah, it’s a promise!’
‘Well, okay then. It’s Saturday tomorrow. Let’s go to the pound in the morning and see what we can find!’
They came home with a scruffy looking mutt, but it was the one Tom had wanted. It reminded him of a dog from a movie.
‘No, we can’t call him Porterhouse,” said the dad. ‘It sounds like a steak.’
‘Oh, yes, we can. I like it.’
They let Porterhouse off the leash in the garden. He ran around, put his mark on every tree and then disappeared under the house.
‘What’s he doing in there?’ said mum.
‘You know how dogs are,’ said dad. ‘He’s probably found a place to dig, or an old bone.’
Porterhouse started to bark.
‘Can you see what’s going on?’ said dad.
Tom went closer and dropped to his knees. ‘There’s something in there! Looks like a suitcase. I’ll get it.’
‘No, don’t!’ said his mum. ‘There might be spiders.’
‘It’s okay.’ Tom crawled in a few meters and was back out with the case.
His dad opened it at once. ‘I can’t believe it! Where did all this money come from? What’s it doing here?’
‘What did I tell you?’ said his mum. ‘Of course, it’s illegal money. Maybe a gangster used to live here. We’ll have to take it to the police station.’
‘Oh, yes, they should be able to find out more about where it’s from. There could be fingerprints both on the case and the money,’ said the dad.
Tom went white. He had not thought about that at all. They might even check his DNA. ‘Do we have to take it to the cops?’
‘Oh, yes, we do,’ said the dad. ‘It wouldn’t be right if we didn’t.’
Tom lifted a few wads. He tried to do it absentmindedly, while his mum and dad almost argued about the money. ‘What’s this? Looks like an envelope.’
His dad grabbed it, opened it and started to read with his mum hanging over the shoulder.
My Dearest Tom
You are good! I knew you could open it. Remember, it’s all yours now. I chose you, and only you, to look after it. I know you’re kind and will help those in need. You can do the same magic as I’ve done over the years. However, only use it for good. Saying that, if you believe that you deserve a new bike, or something else, you’ll have my blessing. Whatever you do, don’t let anybody in on the secret as it could have disastrous effects. If somebody finds out, the whole shebang might be lost forever. Remember, the value is so great that people on this earth will want to lay their hands on it. Keep it safe and guard it with your life!
Your loving grandpa
‘Oh, my god, I don’t believe this. How could he have made so much money doing magic tricks for some oldies?’ said his mum.
‘But, Jenny, it doesn’t look like that much. It says here … the value is so great that every person will want to lay their hands on it … guard it with your life? He’s embellishing it quite a bit, isn’t he?’
Tom smiled. He already had the new bike in his mind, the blackest with green stripes and everything possible to go with it. He would buy one for Kevin too, but in blue. He looked up towards the sky.
‘Grandpa, if you can hear this I want to tell you something. I love you! Thanks for everything! And if you see Marco Polo, thank him too.’
The mother stared at Tom. ‘Who’s … Marco Polo?’
‘Sounds like the old merchant traveller … you know, on the Silk Road … to China … from hundreds and hundreds of years ago. What’s he got to do with it?’
Tom shrugged. ‘Not much. Can you look after my money? I’m so busy, got to run.’
© Copyright by Lena Nilsson. You may print or save the story for your own private use.