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Suchita Senthil Kumar



Suchita Senthil Kumar


The Ticking

The Ticking

12 mins 36 12 mins 36

John placed the final parcel on his bed and couldn't help but notice the shiny purple wrapping as it reflected the white light coming from the long tube light in his room and hit his eyes. It was an uneasy feeling, but it oddly satisfied him. He hadn't counted the number of gifts he had received, partly because someone, mostly his mother, had told him that it was bad. He scanned his bed and all the presents lying on top of them, neatly arranged for him and his older brother to open. This birthday, his sixteenth birthday, was a special one for the entire family. They had moved into a new neighbourhood, both he and his brother, James, were now in a new school and it was all things new. John secretly dreaded being teased in school for celebrating his 'sweet sixteen'. He wouldn't have been in this situation if Aunt Wilson hadn't chosen to be kind enough to point out to everyone attending his birthday party that it was "Little Johnny's sweet sixteen, isn't it?", followed by her annoying laughter. At that moment in the party however, John couldn't focus on how annoying Aunt Wilson's cackling was because from the corner of his eyes he saw Ryan and Brandon snigger, rather unpleasantly. They were both the classic bullies you'd find in every school, all over the world.

His heart felt heavy and he tried to get that feeling to go away but looks like he was a lot unlucky today. He sat down by the end of the bed where he had made enough space for both him and James to fit in. This was almost a ritual. Every year on their birthdays, the brothers would stack up their gifts on the bed and then unwrap them together, no matter whose birthday it was. This year, John was left alone to do the tedious work of stacking the presents because James had 'a call to attend'. John sighed as he watched James pace around in the balcony, phone clutched tightly in his hand. He looked worried and very angry. Not even a single word of the conversation he was having travelled across the transparent door to the balcony through which John was carefully looking at James. He watched as James' tensed face gave a resigned sort of an expression. He then spoke, very fast, the way he did whenever he was angry or unhappy and then nodded his head a few times and then slid the phone into his pocket – and here, John looked away, down at the presents pretending to be reading the name tags.

"More than usual, eh?" said James as he sat down. "You've arranged them all neatly by yourself."

"Yeah," said John unsure if he should say what he planned on saying, but he said it nevertheless. "What's with that call? All okay? You spoke for an awfully long time."

"Oh, yes, yes," James said trying to hide being flustered. "From my classmate."

"Who's getting big old Jamesie flustered?" John said teasingly.

"Oh, shut up," said James with a lack of any emotion in his tone.

"Can we start then?" asked John, still a little worried. He didn't know if he was more worried by the fact that James wasn't too happy or by the fact that he was hiding something. He pushed aside the uneasy thoughts he was having and tried to seem happier and more eager in opening the presents in front of him.

"Always a ten-year-old when it comes to birthday presents!" James shouted and it seemed like having the real James with him again. "I'm opening the purple ones; you do the others."

"You hate purple," John pointed out, reaching out for a gold colour wrapped present.

"I don't have to like purple to open purple wrapped presents, come on!" he said laughing.

The knot in John's stomach, the sinking feeling of his heart, the uneasiness in his mind all vanished as they began unwrapping the presents. He almost forgot about whatever was bothering James.

"Look at this, Johnny," James said laughing loudly. "Some Olivia has gifted you a handmade card and a bamboo box."

"What's so funny?" John said reaching out to James, pushing a few wrapped presents of the bed as he did so. "Give it! Hey!"

James had jumped off the bed and was starting to read the card now. He scanned through it, placing it high above John's reach, his tallness aiding him perfectly. He wasn't courteous enough to keep the laughing quiet and almost seemed to overdo it.

"Johnny, it says," he said laughing trying to fake a shrill voice, tears formed in his eyes as he clutched his stomach. "Dearest Johnny, it makes my heart so happy to just even know someone like you. You're the most kindest, sweetest, cleverest, person I've ever met. I wish —"

"Shut up!" John said loudly, laughing but at the same time determined to snatch the card off his elder brother's long hands.

James barked loudly, still clutching his stomach and then lowered his hands allowing John to take the card away.

"I don't want to read any of your love letters ,'Johnny'," James said as he sat back down.

John looked into the card, read it quickly and was glad when he saw the words 'cleverest person I've ever met' written neatly on his card. He looked down at the pile of unwrapped presents that were lying on the floor to see the small, square bamboo box safely placed. He smiled to himself. A treasure he would treasure. He looked down at James who was now looking at the last of the purple wrapped presents. The one in his hand was a nice square shaped one.

"Hey," John said determined to get James tell him whatever was bothering him. "Listen, is everything—"

"John, quick," James said. "Go get a band-aid. I think I cut my finger."

John lifted himself off the bed and ran downstairs to the first-aid box. He noticed mom, dad and the neighbours still in a heated conversation. He quickly picked a band-aid and some cotton and ran back upstairs. He pushed open the door to his room that had somehow closed itself. James was not in.

"James?" he called out, freaking out at his brother's behaviour. "James?"

"Here!" called out James' familiar voice from outside. John turned around and saw James walking out from his room and then into John's. "You were taking long, so I did it myself."

"There is no band-aid around your finger," John said pointing out. "Let me see."

"It's nothing, it was not a cut," said James dismissively. "I thought it was. It was just tearing skin. I need more water."

John stood still. He wasn't satisfied with the stories James was making. First being upset and then not telling him, and now this. He didn't know how to get James to trust him more. For now, he was tired. He was tired of worrying about Ryan and Brandon, tired of trying to be the best younger brother, tired of the long day he had, just tired.

"I think I'm going to bed," John announced, still clutching the cotton and band-aid. "I'm tired."

"Oh," said James and looked immensely pleased for a split second and then brought his face back to the nonchalance that he always wore. "Great! We can open the rest tomorrow."

"Yeah," John said lightly as placed the cotton and Band-Aid on the bedside table. He pushed off the presents from his bed, placing the heavier ones carefully down onto the floor and plopped himself onto the bed.

"Goodnight, John," James said, smiling softly, a smile he rarely smiled. "Happy birthday again."

John nodded trying to show James how annoyed he was but James took no notice of it and even if he did, he succeeded in pretending not to take notice of it as he went out of the room whistling to himself, seeming calmer than ever. John put the lights off and took a look at the digital clock by his bedside. It was 11:48. His heart skipped a beat and he tried not to think about it and he closed his eyes tighter.

"Don't think, don't think," he chanted. "Don't think, don't think."

John turned around in bed an uneasy feeling at the back of his head. He kept his eyes shut tight and strained his ear. It was James talking. Though he was in his room, he could hear him although very lightly. There was no sound in his room, something he was rather thankful for. He strained his ears to listen more, catch a word or two. And then he heard it.

"Square, yes," James said. "I have it. It's safe with me. Yeah, it is."

Square what?

"Are you sure? It's not yet ringing or whatever. I haven't opened it."


"Right. I'll just chuck it out sometime tomorrow."

Was it this 'thing' he was so worried about all this while? But he looked calm when he left the room. Was he faking even that?

"Stupid thing. Why would she ever want to do that?"


"Wretched thing. I didn't know you could set a timing."

John was still clueless.

"I'm just going to stuff it into my wardrobe. I'll just close my room door, just in case. I'm tired now. I should thank you, if it weren't for you, we wouldn't have ever found out about the square thing. Things would've been messed up."

Square again.

"It's about time now then, 12:12 is it? It's around 12:10 now. I better hurry. Yeah man, it's been too harsh on—"

And the rest of the conversation was cut out by the room door shutting. He strained his ears to hear something but couldn't manage to hear even a small sound.

John sat up on his bed. His brother was up to something and it didn't sound great. He couldn't recall the entire conversation he just heard except the words 'square' and 'ringing' and '12:12'. He couldn't get his mind to analyse and think or even try to figure out what that hushed conversation could've meant. He sighed, annoyed more than ever before and sunk low into his bed. He closed his eyes and tried falling asleep again.

There was a sudden rambunctious blaring coming out from the pile of gifts lying on the floor. The jarring sound was that of a, a –

John bolted upright and looked at the pile of gifts again. The loud blaring turned into a singing of 'happy birthday to you' in many voices he couldn't care to try and decipher. The song went on for two lines before it died out. He sat there, his heart beating so fast, it almost seemed like it would burst out of his ribcage. He looked at the pile of gifts in the dark and couldn't pluck up the courage to switch the lights on. Hoping that it wasn't what he thought it was, he slid back under his bedsheets. He closed his eyes and before his mind could wander off to where he didn't want it to, he began chanting loudly.

"Don't think, don't think," he chanted. "Don't think, don't think."

He chanted so for a while and then stopped. He breathed heavily and turned over to rest his entire body on his left arm. That's when he heard it.

Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick.

He felt his entire body tense. The top of his eyebrows felt heavy and his heart seemed to be adjusting its beating to the ticking he could hear. He breathed heavily, this time because he felt like he couldn't breathe. He swallowed in and tried again. He tried forcing all the air he could into his lungs and tried to push it out and it came out through his nose and mouth, stopping and then flowing out, stopping and then flowing out again. He could feel his entire body heat up and the sound seemed to be becoming louder.

Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick.

Breathing became a hard task now. The end of the upper palate of his mouth had a tingling sensation and it reached until the end of his ears. There was an itching sensation near his elbows. He tried to move his right hand to get rid of the itching sensation but it wouldn't move. It didn't move. He felt his cheeks begin to itch a little bit, overwhelmingly so, followed by the back of his neck. There was sweat at his forehead and he wanted to wipe it off but his hands wouldn't move. The ticking was becoming louder.

Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick.

His eyes burned. It felt dry as ever before and the heaviness in his eyebrows turned into pain and travelled into his left eye where it seemed to be cutting out into his eyeball. There was a steeling pain in his head that had begun from the initial back of his head, but it had now spread out all across. The side of his jawbone began to itch now and every attempt at moving his hand felt like a thousand needles pricking them. The ticking was becoming louder.

Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick.

He tried to scream. What left his throat however, was a soft croak that he himself had to strain to hear. He tried to lift his hands up. He closed his eyes, tried to ignore the invisible needles pricking his skin and, he had done it. His right hand was free and he used it to hoist himself up. The ticking was coming from the pile of gifts on the floor. He wanted to call out. James. Somehow, something stopped him. He placed his feet on the wooden floor and held onto the bed as he walked toward the pile of gifts. His legs shivered and there was a sudden buckling in his knees. The back of his neck pained, it hurt so much.

Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick.

With every step he took, the ticking sound seemed to surround him and he felt the sound wave entering his ear. He knew he should be screaming, shouting for help but here he was, walking towards it. He reached the pile of gifts and tried to push away the screaming in his head. He searched for the sound and it was coming from, from the bamboo box. It all made sense now. This was it. Square, ringing and probably set to a time. James was worried about this. It was obvious now. John looked around for the purple square box under the dim light of the uplighter and it was not anywhere near. James had made a mistake.

Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick.

John placed his hand over the lid of the bamboo box and his hand seemed to vibrate with each ticking. He slid the lid open and inside was what he dreaded most. He pushed the bamboo box away from him and pushed himself a few feet away from it. The noise was getting overwhelmingly louder with each ticking and seemed to be clouding his brain. The ticking of the clock diffused through every inch of his skin and burned the skin and the bones beneath. He was closer to the clock like never before. Most of all, the ticking seemed to be entering into his eyes and that blinded him. Everything around him turned into colours he couldn't now recognise. 

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