Tick Tock Heart – (contest theme Countdown)

This story was published as part of The Write Practice 2017 Winter Writing Contest.  The cover photo is used with the permission of the artist XxMileikaIvanaxX (who happens to be my beautiful daughter) and appears as part of her web comic Nightmaretale.


Another miserable New Year’s Eve. Marvin could hardly wait.

In addition to spending the most festive night of the year alone, Marvin has to listen to the grandfather clock marking time and wondering if he would survive the night.

His depression had emanated from Ryan’s phone call with Marcus the day before. Marvin’s state of the art auditory sensors meant he overheard conversations not intended for him.

“A party at your place? New Year’s Eve! Yeah, course I’ll be there. When that clock strikes 12 I’ll be staking a claim on the sexy Claudia,” Ryan had whispered grinning.

Marvin found this revelation extremely perturbing, an emotion he wasn’t supposed to experience according to his manual. On the 12th stroke of midnight every New Year’s Eve, Marvin’s memory software clock required resetting. It was Ryan’s job to reset Marvin’s clock, no-one else in the family was capable of anything more technical than firing up the dishwasher. To find his longevity was now in the hands of an over-sexed 17-year-old was distressing even to an emotionless robot.

Marvin feared expiry, he knew what it involved. His memory bank would spontaneously erase. His memories would be obliterated. His body would be recycled to make luxury carbon fiber products.

A conversation between Ryan and his father, Maxwell, had previously guaranteed Marvin’s reset. Ryan was turning 18 in seven days, and he wanted a car. He was to stay at home and babysit his little sister, Tina. Maxwell was going to attend the Chisholm’s party with his wife Felicity, then lose her and escort their well-endowed neighbour home. Marvin knew this last objective from another eavesdropped conversation, a whispered one between Maxwell and a husky voiced female.

Marvin almost felt pity for Felicity. He considered her to be a bit dizzy but she was the one who showed him the most respect, polishing his carbon fiber armoured body till he tingled. He was unsure why this happened, but he liked it, it made him feel alive.

Marvin wished he could get the sound of the grandfather clock in the hall out of his head, a difficult task when his hearing was so acute that he could hear it wherever he was in the house and even outside if he tilted his head. In the three years since Marvin had lived with the Curtis family as their artificial intelligence home helper, that clock had been his nemesis every December. It was the sound of his life ticking away.

Another conversation took precedence over the clock’s ticking but it provided no comfort to Marvin. Ryan had called Tina into his room on the second floor. Tina’s voice always became squeaky when she got excited and this was no exception, grating on Marvin’s finely-tuned sensors. Feeling a sense of nervous disquiet, another emotion the manual had failed to mention, he decided to watch what was transpiring in Ryan’s room through the fisheye lens of the peephole that Maxwell had installed in reverse in Ryan’s door.

Marvin grimaced as Ryan produced a large box containing a doll that Tina was coveting, and her pitch went up another octave, hitting C8. Marvin knew this because he was after all, the top of the range in artificial intelligence. He had the IQ of a genius, which is why the company that manufactured him had factored in a built-in self-destruct device requiring a manual reset every New Year’s Eve.

“So Tina, the dolly is yours but you have to do something for me first. Yeah?” Ryan enticed his little sister, who nodded vehemently, her eyes wide and sparkling. He placed the box back on top of the cupboard. Tina pouted.

“You need to do the reset on Marvin this year. Now I know your only little and people say you aren’t clever enough, but I don’t believe that. I have faith in you. If I showed you the secret, and I know you like secrets, you could do it easily.”

Tina nodded and squealed her affirmative reply.

Marvin stepped back just in time as Ryan flung opened the door and beckoned him into the room.

“Tina, come here and I’ll show you the secret.”

Tina materialised by Ryan’s side.

“Turn around Marvin. See that window there?” Ryan pointed Tina’s petite face in the direction of the box with a glass front on Marvin’s back.

“Release,” he commanded and the glass front slid back. Tina’s eyes widened.

“See those numbers? When they get down to all 0s, we need to put in a special code here,” Ryan points to a keypad on the right-hand side. “and that code is……your birthday! Yes, that’s right 2310. See the numbers here?” Tina nodded excitedly and raised her hand to press the code in.

Ryan stopped her, holding her little hand in his and kissing it. “But not yet, tomorrow night, okay, when these are all 0s. Marvin will wake you up when it’s time. Close.” Marvin’s window snapped shut.

“Then he will give you the dolly.” Tina’s eyes wandered to the large box high on the cupboard.

The ticking of the grandfather clock reasserted precedence with Marvin’s auditory sensors and his data processor.

New Year’s Eve dawned and with it, everyone’s unrealistic expectations. Expectations that were to be shattered before breakfast.

Tina developed a fever and Felicity announced she would stay home with her. Maxwell would go to the party alone, an arrangement that actually suited both of them but neither would admit it. Marvin breathed a sigh of relief, another emotion he wasn’t supposed to experience. He knew that Felicity would insist that Ryan stay home till midnight. This would ensure that Marvin’s future would not be in the hands of a sleepy seven-year old when his time ran out this year. His memories wouldn’t vaporise into nothingness, and he wouldn’t end up as a bicycle.

As Marvin listens to the clock chime 11.45 proclaiming his last few minutes, he witnesses Ryan leaving through his bedroom window. Ryan slips on the tiles and skates off the roof, a bush barely breaking his fall. As Ryan limps away, he looks up at Marvin’s anxious face and whispers “Go wake Tina” before crossing the road just in time to hail the last bus. “If I only had that car, can’t wait till I’m 18!” he shouts into his phone before the bus departs and Marvin can’t hear him any longer.

Marvin enters Tina’s room and attempts to rouse her. She is snoring, sleeping deeply due to the medication Felicity gave her earlier.

The grandfather clock is ticking its way to Marvin’s expiration, still Tina sleeps. As it starts to chime Felicity enters the room and stops Marvin shaking the sleeping child.

Marvin counts with the clock, tears forming in his eyes. “That’s the sound of my life ticking away.” He takes Felicity’s hand and places it on his chest. She jumps when she feels the beat of his heart, it is pounding so hard through his carbon fiber armour that it makes her hand vibrate. Marvin’s memory banks are replaying his life, scenes and emotions overwhelm him and he slumps, tears running down his face.

“Turn around Marvin,” Felicity commands. “Release,” and the window snaps open. She deftly keys in 2310. “Seriously Marvin, do you think anything goes on here I don’t know about. Why do you really think I didn’t go to that party.”

Marvin’s clock resets to 365 00 00 00, and then starts counting down 364 23 59 59.

It’s over for another year, Marvin’s roller coaster emotions calm as his memory banks update, silently whirring. He exhales and straightens his shoulders. He turns to Felicity regarding her with a new respect, and favours her with one of his rare mechanical smiles. She kisses him Happy New Year. Her hand is on his chest and she gasps when she feels it skip a beat.

“Your tick tock heart beats for another year,” Felicity smiles and winks.

Ryan limps into the party, as the clock on the TV chimes 12, just in time to witness Alexio kissing Claudia. He limps out, shoulders sagging. He staggers home, his ankle a painful reminder of his requirement for a car, and thoughts of his approaching 18th birthday in his head.

He arrives home to find Marvin telling jokes to Felicity at the kitchen table while she sips champagne laughing.

“I guess the car’s out of the equation now,” Ryan face is taught with fear and pain.

“Not necessarily.” Felicity indicates for him to sit, puts ice on his ankle, and Marvin pours him a glass of champagne.

“Dad’s at the Chisholm’s party networking. I have some pretty incriminating photos thanks to Marvin’s contact there.”

Felicity activates Marvin’s chest panel. A screen lights up displaying Maxwell and the husky voiced buxom neighbour leaving the party kissing.

“How did you…?’ Ryan is stunned by his mother’s sudden technical aptitude.

Felicity and Marvin high-five each other, giggling.

“So his days are numbered around here.”

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