Grandad and the Lockbox

by Andrew Hansen

Grandad was a carpenter. Ollie knew this before he was old enough to pronounce the word, but intuitive enough to appreciate its incantation. Its syllables never galloped off Grandad’s lips; they sang. The work was its own music. Mahogany. Cedar. Poplar. Teak. Ollie could tell the difference between woods before he could read most books, though he would always contend the vocabulary was too tender, too melodious, for the Roman alphabet.

Grandad had adopted the craft and converted his basement into a workshop not long after Grandma passed, the Grandma Ollie never met. More than once, Ollie wanted to ask if Grandma had known of Grandad’s magic, but that was before Ollie learned most carpenters didn’t deal in world-smithing like his did.

Ollie didn’t remember the first time Grandad had shown him the Lockbox. The dim image of Grandad’s taut frame curled over it, stroking the sides with paper, like an ancient artist sinewing King David or some Mediterranean god from marble: this Ollie did remember.

The Lockbox had four legs tucked into its underbelly, and they unfurled to stand table-like. To the untrained, it was a schoolroom desk, one sealed shut, the contents only visible through a roving Looking Glass.

When Ollie peered through the Looking Glass, his seven-year-old mind was not at all disbelieving of the tiny people inhabiting the Lockbox: tiny chariots pulled by tiny horses over tiny fields and valleys that bled gold under a tiny sunrise. Grandad tuned the wooden dials affixed to the Box’s side, magnifying and otherwise adjusting the image, and wonder blossomed in Ollie’s throat like held-back tears. A warmly pleasant, throbbing pressure.

The world of the Lockbox was a small, virgin cosmos. Its tiny people led frontier lives because there was nothing but frontier. They didn’t know about electricity yet. Ollie became a ritualized spectator of this tiny world, and Grandad, in the beginning, was there to help him tune the dials, to locate and spy on the souls he came to know by name. Odd to think they didn’t know his.

His favorite was a tailor who fled the foothills to elope with a rancher’s daughter and try his chances east where the riders were flocking—for gold, Ollie fancied. Ollie called the tailor a cowboy, a real adventure man, and Grandad didn’t have the heart to correct him.

In time Ollie understood the tailor’s world did not inhabit the Box itself, that if he shook the Box like a Christmas gift, its oceans wouldn’t spill nor its continents quake. The Box was merely a prism through which one observed.

This theory had holes.

A year into Ollie’s spectatorship, Grandad trusted him alone with the Lockbox. Ollie was learning the dials, how to find his favorites, to zoom in, to zoom out, to eavesdrop, to watch the tailor skin a cow and weep over its entrails, to watch the tailor teach his young son how to ride a horse, to later watch that son, now grown, bury the tailor in a plot back in the foothills.

During one such private moment without Grandad’s supervision, Ollie pried open the Lockbox’s lid with a carver. Its dark insides ticked and whirred with hidden, wooden machinations. Divine clockwork.

Through the crack, Ollie crammed a pocketful of ants and grasshoppers from his parents’ lawn. In retrospect, he hadn’t a clue why he did this, whether he was bored with the tailor now gone or whether he was desperate to pry back the curtain and glimpse the magic trick’s naked logic.

Ollie beheld with wretched disappointment as giant insects terrorized his beloved frontiersmen and left unmapped swaths of valley barren, stripped. The Box people abandoned fledgling cities, migrated west, invented ships, built walls of lumber and bamboo. Starved Godzilla-sized insects formed mass graveyards of sunbaked corpses, the kind his mother would sweep up from a dusty windowsill.

Grandad stowed the Lockbox away after that.

He never mentioned the insects. Never reprimanded Ollie, not even when, five years later, he fished the Box from a closeted top shelf and unfurled its table legs and fixed the dials so they could take a peek together.

By then the frontier days were gone. The tiny world Ollie had almost lost to the fog of early childhood misremembrance now looked an approximation of his own, minus the digital technoscape that would come with computers, which should only be a matter of time. Per Ollie’s request, Grandad tracked the tailor’s latest descendent: a brutish, unloved woman who ran a silk mill in what Ollie said looked like a Chinese portico from the Kung Fu movies. Already the tiny world had cultural motifs he could not trace. Like losing touch with an old friend, he worried any attempt at catching up would never erase the gap.

Grandad tried making the Lockbox a special treat on Ollie’s birthdays, but interest had waned. School weighed heavy. Puberty was in full swing. His parents were receiving mail from divorce attorneys. The world outside the Box, outside the workshop, sunk its hooks in deep. Ollie feigned excitement for Grandad’s sake, but he rarely asked out of the blue how the tiny world was doing. He didn’t visit the workshop. He ate at a table and sat on a chair and studied at a desk all carved by those same hands that could tune the frequency to another cosmos, but that was the closest he came to manning the Looking Glass for the better half of his youth.

The Box made about as much sense as a dream. A vestige of childhood mysticism. He could almost convince himself that it was. How could NASA struggle to build a rocket to Mars with advanced computing, but Grandad could channel another earth through a trinket of wood and cranks? It didn’t add up.

“God used a wooden vessel to save eight people from a drowned planet,” Grandad said. “Several thousand years later, the Romans used two planks to kill his son. I think a great many things can be made, and done, with wood.”

The power wasn’t in the materials, Ollie wanted to say, but it was his turn not to have the heart to correct Grandad.

By the time Ollie was growing hair in unseen places and applying to universities, he lived with his mother fulltime. After his father moved to Toronto, they met up every now and again for a weekend of hunting. His father let him drink, and when the pheasants didn’t show and the hunts grew dull, they would muse drunkenly over the mysteries of the universe. Between bouts of mischief when the moon was rising and any and all questions felt safe, Ollie wanted to ask about Grandad and the tiny world contained within a wooden box, but he never did. If his father knew of Grandad’s magic, he kept it to himself. This was how, by an unspoken osmosis, Ollie learned to keep Grandad to himself as well.

His mother permitted the birthday visits, the occasional church functions, and the times when Grandad needed an extra set of hands around the house, but Ollie could tell she didn’t like him spending much time with the “obstinately eccentric” old man. When he told her she had nothing to worry about, that he rarely saw Grandad, she said, “Well, you’ll be going off to university soon anyway,” as if she expected he would read enough books there to forget all about what Grandad had taught him.

And that’s exactly what happened.

He remembered the last birthday—his eighteenth—before packing his bags for McGill. He had picked Grandad up for lunch at a tired Greek café with a view of Lake Ontario where Grandad liked to pick mussels and snail shells.

“Sure am gonna miss this view,” Grandad said. They were walking the sand.

“You mean I will,” Ollie said. “Mom and I are driving up to Montreal next week.”

“You’ll visit though. Won’t you?”

Ollie tucked both hands in his pockets and lied. It was getting cold.

“You didn’t bring the Lockbox?” Ollie asked. Its absence was the only thing that could have made him venture the subject first. Maybe that was intentional.

“I didn’t want to worry you.”

“I know you like us to peek together.”

“What I like is to have a nice lunch with my grandson.” Grandad knelt and cupped a zebra mussel in both palms. He let the sand drain between his fingers, then flicked it into the water and watched, as if expecting it to spring to life. “Sometimes this world has enough trouble. Not enough worry to go around for multiple.”

Ollie couldn’t argue with that.


The next time he saw Grandad was two years into his bachelor’s program at McGill. He studied political science with a history minor. To supplement, he became involved with a grad student named Carol, who came without the typical romantic efforts or trappings he knew from the movies. They got coffee weekdays, binged Netflix weekends, and shared mostly superficial things in between. She was projected to fly out to Australia come graduation, and through her he already had an internship in Texas eyed for senior year. The life he had left behind began to feel as small and distant as the one rattling within the handcrafted confines of the Lockbox.

Until a two a.m. call from his father recalled both to life.

Ollie opted not to tell his mother he was back in town and rented a room somewhere close to the hospital where they kept Grandad. He and his father met in the hotel foyer that night, where Ollie expected they might have embraced and cried manly tears over each other’s shoulders, though they never did. His father had been drinking, but neither was in the mood for sharing their usual mysteries.

Ollie had never seen Grandad so thin. “Like he was all skin and pudding,” he told himself later in the hotel, disgusted and sobbing, rehearsing how he might explain if someone—Carol perhaps—were to ask. As with so many things pertaining to Grandad, Ollie preferred not asking. Good answers were in short supply.

His father stopped visiting Grandad. The nurses refused him whenever he came in drunk, and despite the yelling, Ollie sided with them. He put on a smile for him and Grandad, the same he had put on when he was little. It wasn’t genuine, but it was all he had.

Ollie toured the old stomping grounds to fill the absent hours while Grandad rested or underwent treatment. He avoided Grandad’s house at first, the house where the Grandma he had never known had lived and passed, the house where Grandad had taken up carpentry.

The spare key was tucked atop the garage doorframe just where he remembered, and the inside had changed even less. A couple dozen extra birdhouses graced the backyard and more freshly sanded chairs idled than the kitchen table could host, but otherwise all was the same.

The basement door was locked. Ollie had never known Grandad to lock the workshop, though it made too much sense not to do so. He nearly scrounged a pair of industrial plyers from the garage to break in, but he thought to check the kitchen’s closeted top shelf first, and, true to precedent, there the Box waited.

Its table legs unfurled to let the Lockbox stand without the slightest creak or splinter. The motion came second-nature to Ollie, as if McGill University and Carol and adulthood were the dream, and this… this was waking up.

The tiny world shone dimly through the Looking Glass. Its inhabitants didn’t have computers as Ollie had expected, nor spaceships or world peace as he had hoped. Its development had stunted, if one wished to call it that. The brutish, unloved descendent of the tailor was long gone. The tailor’s grave was lost among a haphazardly modernized sprawl. The Chinese portico silk mills had been forgotten Box-decades ago—or however the tiny people measured time.

Ollie was rusty with the dials, but like riding a bike, it all came back. It reminded him of investigative history, an archaeology or anthropology of sorts, trying to decipher the status quo of this little earth he had grown a stranger to—what had happened in his absence, or rather, what had gone wrong.

What looked like scrapyards, upon an adjustment of a dial, turned out to be abandoned factories. What looked like construction sites, upon closer inspection, were slums. Ollie didn’t recognize the bizarre structures that dwarfed the once virgin hills, but they resembled iron pyramids and now defined the entire landscape. The wonder that used to swell at the base of Ollie’s throat returned, but it tasted far worse than he remembered.

He spent three weeks before heading back to McGill. Carol never called to ask why Ollie wasn’t calling, and he was okay with that. His mother never suspected her son was nearby, and he was okay with that, too. Toward the end, when Grandad’s condition had stabilized, Ollie rarely left his hotel room.

He would wake early in the mornings, blitz a cold shower, scarf down his free breakfast, and lock himself away to man the Box and play God. Growing ever more adept with the dials, he had the tiny world’s every lecture, every book, every muttered conversation, every private whisper at his disposal. At first it had all been gibberish, but as the years of his absence melted away, he resumed a childlike comprehension; though not English, he understood the tiny people’s tongue in the way one knows a thought before language has a chance to shape it.

Much of the world’s lost time he could never piece together, and for that he felt guilty, even if he was and always had been a mere spectator. Except he didn’t have to be. He remembered the insects. He could crack open the Box again.

And, in a sense, he did.

He spent many hours with the Looking Glass fixed on the woman he understood to be the dictator who had poisoned his little world. She whittled away her days in the iron pyramid reading philosophy or out on her private ranch tending to horses. Ollie wondered if Hitler or the Caesars had done the same.

When this woman was alone, Ollie considered opening the box and inserting a spider, a needle, or a lighter, but he didn’t know how that would impact the larger world. His meddling needed to be precise and with no lingering strands. Kneeling over the Box, he nearly slipped into prayer more than once, a thing he hadn’t resorted to since he was little; Grandad had taught him. What kept him quiet now was the niggling fear God would disapprove of his tampering, but Ollie couldn’t keep sitting on the sidelines.

He practiced on one of the woman’s horses.

An afternoon of experimentation was all it took. Through the dials, he discovered how to manipulate any soul he desired. He learned to induce muscle spasms, then headaches and heart palpitations. Before three p.m. he knew the exact frequency to stop a horse’s heart.

And before he left the hotel to grab dinner at McDonald’s, through the turn of a couple wooden knobs, he ended the dictator.


Ollie oversaw Grandad’s transfer into assisted living but didn’t stay long. Grandad had good doctors. He would be taken care of. Ollie wasn’t worried about that, but he sweated his weight in waters worrying Grandad might ask about the Box, as though what he had done was written on his forehead, a tattoo designating how he had raped the system.

But Grandad never asked.

When Ollie returned to McGill, he was grateful he and Carol lived in separate dorms. Easier to hide the Lockbox. The fewer questions, the better.

For the majority of the fall semester, Ollie focused on his studies and left the Lockbox alone, and for a while this discipline held out. On the occasional date night, he forgot he had ever left McGill, ever learned about Grandad’s expiration date, ever killed someone.

He couldn’t escape the haunting, however. He learned to keep the Box in his closet. Stowing it under his bed made him too queasy to sleep, and no matter where he kept it, he felt sick with worms whenever alone. He got in the habit of taking long, cold showers. He spent many nights at Carol’s.

He had done the right thing. He had rescued his little world from a Holocaust or a World War II, a page from any history book so cliché it was standard, and he had ripped it out. His little world would be better off.

Still, he was afraid to look and see.

To cope, he plunged deeper into his political science studies. He devoured his textbooks and plowed through his professors’ recommended reading lists. Through Carol’s prompting, he joined the civics club, then later the students’ society. He spent a month campaigning for student body president by the second semester’s end, a campaign he lost, but it cracked open his world—the real world—like an oyster only rotten on the inside. He had always understood the world in glosses, the grimier and unseemly portions scooped aside into the corners while the main stage remained kempt and orderly.

“This country is broken, and water is wet,” Carol said. She and Ollie were eating Chinese takeout at her place one afternoon. Ollie was competing with a thesis on twentieth century Soviet secularism for her attention.

“No, people are broken. Everywhere.”

“You keep saying that. You think you’re the first university kid to discover activism?” Carol stabbed her chicken and rice with her chopsticks.

“Strange to think everything has always been this messed up.”


“Doesn’t have to be, though. Change starts with one person, like the dumb inspirational posters say.”

“Give it a couple years. That urge will fade. Are you gonna finish that?” She pointed with both sticks. Ollie slid his dinner across the coffee table they were kneeling at and watched her pick through his leftovers.

The two of them didn’t play pen pals for long after Carol left for Australia. The way he understood it, she was acting as an enviro-historical consultant for an estranged species rehabilitation project. He had read her full title in an email once but never fully comprehended it. That summed up him and her rather poetically.

In his final year at McGill, he tried for student president again. His civic angst had mutated into less foggy notions of policy and progress. He no longer read political treatises like they were paperbacks, but he attended a handful of campus protests, most regarding unsanitary water supplies in a nearby municipality and one regarding an alleged case of sexual assault by a professor.

When Ollie lost this campaign, the sting cut deeper than before. Maybe because he didn’t have Carol to soften his fall. Maybe because he would never have another chance at tangible change, not unless he ran for office one day, which was a torture he knew better than to subject himself to.

He grew fond of cheap beer. Weak moments with the bottle became common. He saved the heaviest drinking for his dorm, a habit that dredged up nostalgia for weekend hunts with his father, a ritual that now felt ancient and mythic.

During one of these weak moments, Ollie dug out the Lockbox from the closet, unfolded the table legs, and dusted off the Looking Glass. The dials turned lazily between shaky fingers, like joints balled between bones from lack of use.

A generation had passed on the other side of the Glass. The iron pyramids towered over a shanty metropolis. The tiny people hadn’t discovered democracy yet, much to Ollie’s dismay. No new dictator had taken root, but the world had hardly registered its liberation.

Ollie, swimming in a hazy, intoxicated headspace, considered cranking the Box open, running the faucet through the crack, and washing his little world clean. Better to start over. If he could fashion everything from the beginning, he could do better. Take a page from Genesis’s playbook.

There had to be a better way.

During many drunken evenings, he theorized that if he could tune the frequency to stop hearts, maybe he could insert thoughts too. Impose his will and replace free will. Play history like a fiddle.

As before, Ollie practiced on a horse. Getting a beast to run, sit, mate, eat, gallop would be simpler than goading the impulses of a man, much less a man who wielded any measure of power and influence on this tiny earth.

But progress proved evasive, and it wasn’t until twelve horses had died and the ranchers were calling in veterinary experts that Ollie gave up. Again, he teetered dangerously close to prayer, to admitting futility and asking forgiveness. He wasn’t above resorting to further “assassinations” to remove unseemly influencers and position the right ones, but he hoped not to.

This hope didn’t last long.

Manning the Box became as much a part of Ollie’s nightly routine as catching the evening news and sitcom after. At first Ollie eliminated the bureaucrats whom he deemed dangerous, then pruned their industrial honchos and slave runners and sabotaged their power plants pumping untold volumes of toxic fumes into the atmosphere—an atmosphere so small and finite it would fill a single balloon in the real world.

Ollie ignored the mild chaos his eliminations spurred. All revolutions bled a little. A sculptor had to chip away at the marble in order to fashion it into perfection. This was no different.

World-smithing was tedious work. The image of Grandad slaving over the Box, shaping and sanding it, tightening its secret clockwork, came to mind. It had come full circle; Ollie was to restore what Grandad had left to him. That’s what the old man would have wanted.

Except Grandad wasn’t dead. It was almost easier to pretend he was, but he wasn’t. The fact rang true as ever when Ollie returned home to help clear out the old man’s house. His father had finally sold the rundown heap, and Ollie was the only relative left in the country who would bother salvaging Grandad’s belongings.

He first visited Grandad at the assisted living complex. Grandad looked better, though he would never regain his once contagious vigor. When his eyes lit up upon seeing Ollie, they were windows to a soul that clung to this body by mere strings.

“They make you a scholar yet?” Grandad asked.

“I graduate in May.” Then, when that didn’t seem enough, “I have an internship in the States. Texas.”

“That’s wonderful, Ollie.”

Ollie supposed it was.

“Are they treating you well?” Ollie asked. “You’re comfortable and—”

“Ah, I’m fine. Don’t go wasting your worry on me. I’ve enough of my own. Ready to lay it aside.”

Ollie laced and unlaced his hands in his lap at Grandad’s bedside.

“Is there anything you want from the house?” Ollie asked. “Dad’s paying pros to come haul what’s left, but I said I’d save what mattered.”

“He’s really selling the place?”

“Sold, actually.”

“I see.” Grandad studied the ceiling with both hands on his chest. “I can’t think of anything. All things have their end. Things are things, after all. I don’t need to take them with me.”

“There’s nothing you want kept? Not a favorite birdhouse or the grandfather clock?”

Grandad smiled without parting his lips.

“No. Nothing I can think of.”

Ollie squirmed now.

“What about the Lockbox?”

Grandad’s smile drifted from him to the ceiling. He heaved into an upright position and tented his arthritic hands at the base of his belly.

“It’s already yours, Ollie. I trust you’ll know what’s best for it.”

Already his. Indeed it was. Grandad knew. He had always known.

“I’m sorry.” Ollie hadn’t come here to cry.

“What for?”

“I—I don’t want it. I can’t keep it.”

“I don’t see why not.”

“Because I’m not a carpenter. I’m not like you. I can’t keep it from falling apart.”

Grandad reached for Ollie’s hand but stopped just short of it and let Ollie shed whatever he needed to shed. A nurse popped his head into the room to ask if everything was all right, to which Grandad nodded and politely waved him off.

“Ollie.” Grandad leaned forward. He strained with great effort. “I never held it together. Why do you think I stashed that Box years ago? It wasn’t my world to fix, and neither is it yours. You can’t any sooner repair the stars because you built a telescope. There’s only one who can, and that isn’t us. We might meddle, but we can’t fix it, can’t even destroy it, no matter how hard we try. That world will go on with or without us.”

“You’re asking me to do nothing.”

“No, not nothing.” Grandad placed a hand that was more bone than flesh on Ollie’s shoulder. “Just, not everything.”

Ollie fell quiet after that. He let Grandad do the talking, though there wasn’t much talking left to do. He was okay with that. He liked to think Grandad was, too.


Grandad passed two months later—in his sleep, the doctors told Ollie. “His heart is at peace now,” his father said, an attempt at comfort.

Ollie wasn’t the only one to speak at the funeral, but it seemed he was the only soul who had actually known Grandad. With each speaker, each distant relative, Ollie listened from the pews wondering, “Did you know about the magic?” It took more willpower than expected to withhold that question once his turn at the pulpit came, but will was a slippery thing.

They held the reception at the tired Greek café where he and Grandad had shared their last birthday visit. There wasn’t much mingling among the relatives, half of whom didn’t know who Ollie was. His father seemed the only link between most of them, and he wasn’t the best of hosts, especially after the liquor came out.

Ollie slipped away shortly after. The sky blushed an early pink as he walked the shore. Lake Ontario lapped at his feet. His shoes dangled from one hand, the sand suctioning between his toes. The café shrunk into an indifferent speckle of lanterns as night crawled into the dome of the sky.

He didn’t bother going back to say his goodbyes before the family disbanded, probably never to assemble again until the next death. No one would come looking for him. His father would call in a week or two, but otherwise he could fade away unnoticed. Perhaps Ollie would call first, suggest they go hunting, revisit their old mysteries. That would be a start. That would be something.

Not everything, but something.

He planted his butt in the sand and watched the stars wink into view, each a twinkling cosmic eye floating in a sea of nothingness. Beside him lay the Lockbox, safely out of the water’s reach. If he were to wipe off the Looking Glass and peer across unseen spans, he would find the tiny people adapting unknowingly to his meddling, their lives going on without him, oblivious to him. He would find doctors publishing dissertations on sudden heart failures uniquely common to horses and political giants. He would find professors lecturing on ancient insectoids and how they had evolved gargantuan size over unaccounted eons of time until a great extinction left their bodies in mass graves.

With these thought pictures dimming, Ollie took his time gathering twigs and branches strewn across the beach until he had enough to build a small fire. It crackled weakly on the damp sand, but it was enough. He prodded the flame with a stick and quivered as its heat fluttered off in waves.

Once it burned strong enough to reflect an orange halo in the shifting shoreline, Ollie couldn’t justify waiting any longer. He hadn’t gone into the day knowing what he would do at its end, but somewhere between the eulogy and the snail shells tickling his bare heels, it had become inevitable.

The Box settled on top of the burning heap as delicately as an offering upon an altar. There was no resistance. Its wooden frame joined the faint crackling and melted with burning blacks washed in liquid color. The tiny world would continue without him, and after a silent prayer, Ollie trusted he was leaving it in better hands than his. With every sighing crack and splinter, an aching pressure loosened in his throat. The ashes funneled up into the expanse, taking the weight of godhood with them.

Andrew Hansen is a Christian writer, blogger, and genre connoisseur. His work has appeared in Daily Science Fiction and Tales from the Moonlit Path. His novelette The Underside is available now on Amazon. When he’s not wrestling with his keyboard, you can find him hoarding more books than he’ll ever read and overthinking the mysteries of God and the universe. Follow him @andrewhansen22 on Instagram and check out his website for publication updates.

“Grandad and the Lockbox” by Andrew Hansen. Copyright © 2022 by Andrew Hansen.

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