"This readout tells you where you're going, this one tells you where you are, this one tells you where you were."
PART I: Where You're Going
Friday, October 25, 1985
"Dad! You need to cut the green wire!"
"No, the white one, Doc!"
Emmett Brown sweated over the small ticking mechanism, a pair of pliers shaking in his hand over the jumble of multi-colored wiring in the little metal casing. His daughter and Marty pressed themselves over either one of his shoulders, further scattering his nerves with their frantic yelling.
He was not able to determine which wire would stop the time bomb from exploding if he cut it, and time was running out. Fast.
"Dad, hurry!" Emma wailed, digging her hands into his lab coat.
"Twelve seconds, Doc!"
The blue one? The white one? The yellow?
"I don't know which one!" he shouted in frustration. "There're too many!"
"Just cut one!" Emma said. "It's our only chance!"
"I can't do that!" Doc shouted incredulously. "You two better run for it!"
"There's no time!" Marty said. "Just cut one of the damn wires!"
Emma's heart pounded faster with every tick of the bomb, her eyes widening as the counter changed over to two seconds.
"It's gonna blow!"
Doc and Marty looked at the timer change to the number one. Emma squeezed her eyes shut and felt her father pull her and Marty into himself, all three of their heads pushed tightly into Doc's chest.
The bomb beeped three times and then exploded.
Emma shot up with a gasp, hesitantly taking in her bedroom as she panted heavily. She immediately shut her eyes again and lowered her forehead to her knees, wincing as the pain in her ears travelled down her neck. She let out one great sigh, slowly lying back down. Her head rang painfully.
Emma put a hand to her head, furrowing her brow. While her father's unsuccessful attempt to dismantle a time bomb had led to quite the imaginary explosion, she wasn't entirely certain that it hadn't been some other unsuccessful attempt of his ending in a very real explosion.
It wouldn't be the first or last time it happened.
She slid out of bed, still disoriented from the pounding in her head. She wandered out of her room, through the small sitting room, and out into the hall of the lab. Running her hand along the wall to keep her balance, Emma's face fell when she rounded the corner – a mass of falling papers, billowing smoke, and a god-awful smell filled the garage. She started to choke on the stench of singed wires, pulling her shirt collar up over her nose as she shuffled up to the huge amplifier. Finished only a few weeks prior by her father, the giant square speaker sparked, fizzled, and popped, causing her to jump.
Something rustled behind her. Emma looked over her shoulder, hardly surprised when Marty emerged from under a fallen shelf with his guitar and removed his bent sunglasses. They exchanged equally stunned expressions as the last of the falling papers settled around them, Marty's eyebrows rising up into his hair. He looked from the broken amp back to her.
"Rock and roll," he said, blinking at the onset of his own headache.
Well, didn't this look familiar.
"What are you doing?" she growled, letting her collar drop before rubbing her face with a cough.
"Band auditions," Marty said as he staggered through the debris, laying his guitar on top of the nearby armchair. "Tryouts are today after school. I wanted to get some last-minute practice in."
Oh, yes. The band auditions for the dance next month. The whole reason this infernal amplifier had come into existence.
And now that it had served its purpose, it had permanently been decommissioned.
The spot on her head that had received a goose egg weeks ago was finally avenged.
When Marty reached her side, Emma looked at him levelly through the haze of electrical smoke. The heavy drowsiness on her face made her look quite disgruntled. He rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly.
"You're coming, right?"
"I have tutoring until four."
"It's Friday. No one goes to tutoring on Fridays."
Emma shrugged, speaking through a yawn. "Some kids are forced to. But I'll try to get out a few minutes early. Besides, my eardrums want to know what the big deal is for you to be practicing so loudly."
"It was a little loud. For eight in the morning."
The fire alarm suddenly rang on a nearby wooden column. Had Emma not grown used to this sound as an incoming telephone call, she would have assumed the explosion of the amplifier had set off the alarm. She scrambled over the rubbish strewn through the lab, finally regaining her balance against the post as she picked up the phone.
"Emma, it's me."
"Morning, Dad," she said, glancing at Marty on the other side of the post. He watched on curiously, having not heard from the scientist himself in over a week.
"Good morning, dear. I just called to tell you I'll be home later tonight. I've had a breakthrough with my work. It's the big one. I'm going to the mall tonight to perform an experiment after I get some equipment from home, and I'd like you to come."
"Get ahold of Marty. Tell him to meet us there at 1:15."
Without missing a beat, Emma grabbed Marty by the jacket and looked over at him.
"Meet us at Twin Pines tonight at 1:15. Dad's had a breakthrough."
"He's there now?" Doc asked.
She let go of Marty, and he slipped around to her side of the post.
"Van Halen decided to wake me up with some 'last-minute practice' before the band auditions today."
"You haven't been using that amplifier too much, have you?" Doc asked Marty. "The chance of overload is becoming increasingly substantial. I swear I had it working perfectly, but something keeps going wrong with that damn volume dial."
Marty felt Emma staring at him expectantly, making him feel two inches tall. He chewed on his bottom lip as she smiled, holding the phone away from her ear and nodding to it. Knowing he now had a date to clean up this garage at some point before Doc returned that evening, he murmured that he would "keep it in mind" before Emma brought the phone back to her ear, biting back a laugh.
"Good," Doc said. "I'll see you both tonight. Don't forget now: Twin Pines Mall, 1:15 AM. Emma, I'll be home after 9:00."
Suddenly, the many clocks that lined the eastern wall of the garage struck eight o'clock in perfect unison, their many bells, chimes, and cuckoos clashing horrifically and echoing off the cinderblocks behind them. They clapped their hands over their ears and groaned, Marty staring at the shifting eyes of his mother's old black cat clock he had contributed. He didn't even remember what the whole clock-wall thing was about, but after blowing his eardrums out with the amplifier, all that chiming hurt. Plain and simple.
"Are those my clocks I hear?" Doc asked excitedly.
"Yeah!" Marty yelled into the phone, Emma having handed it to him as she took a few steps back. "It's eight o'clock!"
"They're late! My experiment worked!" Doc said happily. "They're all exactly twenty-five minutes slow!"
The two teenagers slowly looked at one another, hoping they had misheard him, but a sickening realization gripped Marty. He suddenly remembered what the wall-clock thing was about now.
"Wait a minute," Marty said. "Wait a minute, Doc! Are you telling me that it's 8:25?"
Emma's mouth dropped open, and she bounded for her room to change and grab her things.
"What? What happened?"
Marty half-laughed. "We're late for school!"
He could hear Doc on the other end telling them to hurry as he hung up the phone, probably none-too-happy to learn that Emma was going to be just as late – if not, later – than he was. He dug his book bag out of the mess of papers and placed his guitar on Doc's workbench. By that time, Emma's bedroom door flew open, and she rushed out, tucking some hair behind her ear.
"I blame you," she said, leading him out the door with a light scorn.
"How is it my fault? I set my own alarm clock."
"And yet you're still gonna be late."
"For which I blame you."
Despite all of their efforts to avoid him, Strickland and his pad of tardy slips still found them in the hall before they could make it to their first classes. Emma lowered hers to her side as their principle bestowed Marty's fourth, detention-securing slip unto him and laid on a few harsh insults for good measure. Emma nearly slammed the door to her English class; that man shouldn't be allowed to talk to her – or anyone - that way. Just because her father had dated his sister eons ago…
It was only the start of an unpleasant day.
Her Calculus test left a bad taste in her mouth. The due date on her Baroque Period essay was moved up a whole week so Mrs. Henderson could grade and return them before she went on maternity leave. They were out of iced tea in the cafeteria, she did the wrong study guide for Spanish, and the substitute in Woodshop made them read at their benches instead of working on their projects so that no accidents happened on his watch.
And, of course, the only kid who did show up for tutoring was one of those grounded-until-the-grades-get-better students who didn't know Ne from Na, so she was stuck explaining how to balance stoichiometry equations to the Chemistry-challenged freshman until 4:12. Her face fell as she packed up and bid the librarian a good weekend; Marty's audition was probably over by now.
She tried to salvage her day with some normalcy, but it seemed that no matter the effort she put forth, it was a day destined to unravel into entropy.
She took up her bench in the town square, pulling her feet up and laying her Music History book open on her folded legs. She took out a notebook, hoping to finish skimming the section on fugues before the sun went down when Marty's laughter caught her attention from across the way. She looked up quickly, lowering her pencil until her wrist rested on her knee.
Expecting to see him celebrating with his fellow band mates, Emma bent her brow at the girl taking his books from him, laying a blue sheet of paper on them, and scribbling something down. The girl gave him a coy smile that sent flames surging up Emma's spine. She felt them fan across her face.
Who the heck was she?
The doe-eyed girl nodded to Marty, exchanging a few words and a bright smile with him. Emma's breath caught, seeing him smile like that. Not because he smiled, but because of the way he smiled. At her.
She blinked down at her notes and realized how rigid she had become.
With a resigned sigh, the day had gone to hell.
"I can't believe this…" she muttered.
Emma looked back up as Marty's smile followed the girl to the back of the square where she rejoined her friends. They disappeared behind the clock tower, and Emma tried to quell the rush of emotions that had suddenly sought to drown her. Her smoldering gaze drifted back to where Marty had been, eyes widening to find that he was already on his way over to her with that huge grin. She tried to swallow the golf ball lodged in her throat.
"I will never understand how you are comfortable doing homework on a park bench."
He picked up her book bag and pushed it under the bench before sitting down beside her. Emma casually busied herself with her note-taking again, unable to look at him.
"I see you have groupies now. Did the audition go that well?"
"Well, no," Marty said flatly. His disappointment was chased down with frustration. "First off, everyone was running late. We didn't go on until about ten minutes ago. And when we finally got up there, we didn't play thirty seconds before they cut us off. I'm never going to get anywhere if I can't play in front of a real crowd. And I have detention next week!"
Emma cast his sneakers a sympathetic look. "My day sucked, too."
"But your smile radiated like sunshine when you skipped into History. I'm surprised you weren't showering us with flowers." He received a glare similar to that he had that morning, but they eventually both broke down into a short bout of laughter.
"I guess the day wasn't a total loss," Marty mused after a moment. "Jennifer Parker just gave me her phone number."
Emma looked over, Marty flashing her the soft handwriting in the corner of the "Save the Clock Tower" handout. The petit loops and graceful slant of her phone number and 'Call me!' were disgusting. Emma was frequently told to become a doctor as illegible as her writing could be. She went back to copying lines from her textbook, now trying to discretely feminize her script.
"She asked me to think about taking her to the dance since we didn't make the band roster."
Emma paused. "Are you?"
"Yeah. Probably. I'm not going to get to play, so I might as well," he shrugged. "I'm supposed to call her this weekend to let her know."
The flames on her face were becoming an inferno. Still, part of her was adamant on keeping up a convincing indifference in the face of her crumbling composure. She glared over at the blue sheet when Marty wasn't looking. She flipped her notebook over.
"You're getting phone numbers and contributing to the Preservation Society?"
Marty rolled his eyes. "I gave them a quarter. Be glad you're sitting far enough away that they've left you alone."
"I dare someone to shake a coffee can in my face right now."
Marty glanced sideways at the venom in her voice. "Somebody needs their peanut butter."
"Somebody needs to clean up the lab."
"Damn it." He'd forgotten all about that. "Let's go, then."
Marty bent over, pulling her book bag out from under the bench and heaving it up between them. Emma put away her things as he stood, tucking his skateboard under his arm and the offending flyer in his pocket.
"Milkshakes?" he asked when they started up the street.
"That question only has one answer, right?"
She was happy for him. Honestly, she was. She could only imagine the rut he would have been in if Jennifer Parker hadn't asked him out after his "nightmare" of a failed audition; not that Emma hadn't thought to do the same if he was not otherwise occupied on stage the night of the dance.
She would have mentioned that she would still go if he did, and they'd have a good time between his episodes of jealous sulking as the bands rotated throughout the evening. Something funny or stupid would define the night when they reminisced about it in the future – that dance where someone put bubble soap in the toilets or one of the straps on her dress broke. Maybe he'd ask her to dance, and she'd make some snarky comment to ease the tension before happily being lost in the whirlwind of low lights, balloons, and slow music. And then they'd go to Burger King for milkshakes.
But if he was taking a girl that had made it clear from the get-go that she was interested in him, her hope of something gradually manifesting itself between them on the dance floor would be snuffed out before there was even a chance for it to spark.
Still, she was glad that something had taken his mind off his band's rejection, if only for a short time. She knew that she probably wasn't helping much on that front by having him help her clean up from the amplifier's explosion. Furthermore, Marty probably had enough pent-up frustration that he would have taken a ball bat to the thing if he hadn't blown it out that morning.
Maybe she should have bought him a milkshake.
They had broken down a mass of boxes and pushed the fallen shelf back up, Marty collecting all of the papers, books, and binders for Emma to return to their rightful places. As it grew darker outside, they neared the end of their endeavor. Marty handed her one last book he had scraped up from the cement floor. She sighed at the undying presence that was Mathematical Foundations of Quantum Mechanics.
"Oh, John von Neumann," she said, turning the dented and tattered hardcover over in her hands. "You are so old."
Marty straightened a stack of blank graphing paper on the edge of the workbench and fastened it with a thick binder clip, tossing the papers onto a low shelf with a heavy thud. He looked over her shoulder as she leafed through the careworn pages.
Colorful variants of handwriting were crammed into virtually every white space. Portions of text were highlighted, circled, or blacked out, and the upper corners of the last fifty pages or so were wrinkled from water damage. The cardboard was showing on the rounded nubs of the book's once-sharp corners, too. All in all, it was miracle the binding was still holding up.
"What does he use this thing for again?" Marty asked. He'd never seen a book so used.
Emma snapped it shut, sliding it between two other books on the shelf similar in height.
"Everything. That book has looked like that since I can remember," she said, sitting on the arm of the armchair in front of the shelf. "We used it for the final physics project on radiation theory our sophomore year, remember?"
Marty made a face, took his milkshake from the workbench, and loudly slurped the last of it from the bottom of the cup.
He pitched the empty cup into the trash and looked back over at the shelf, satisfied with their hour and half's worth of work. If anything, the lab looked better than it did before Doc disappeared the week before, but with his mentor's mental state in a constant flurry, Marty wouldn't expect him to notice.
Now, the amp – he might notice the amp.
Marty tossed his head towards his handiwork. "Do you know where the curtain for that thing is?"
"I'm sure it's nearby," Emma chuckled. "Hopefully this breakthrough of his will buy you some time before he sees what you did to it. Besides," – she stood up from the arm of the chair, heading for the refrigerator – "I don't think he was actually going to use it for anything apart from letting you practice with it."
Marty picked up his skateboard from next to the door. "Speaking of this 'breakthrough,' you wouldn't happen to know anything about it, would you?"
Emma shrugged, sticking a spoon upright into a jar of peanut butter and putting a glass of iced tea in the crook of her elbow. "I've barely seen him at all this week. He's been gone a lot since he took the padlock off the storage room. I don't know what he's working on right now."
"Now where I have heard that before?"
Marty smiled. "Just like you didn't know about the amplifier?"
Okay, so she would admit to telling her dad how excited Marty had been about the band tryouts and how that might have influenced him to build the stupid thing, but she wasn't going to admit it out loud, and certainly not to Marty.
Not that she needed to. He knew it. She knew he knew it. And he kept on about the fact, more interested to get out of her why she had even brought it up to her dad in the first place. Never mind he had been their closest friend for years now. His name was regularly going to come up in their conversations around the dinner table.
But it was still fun to give her a hard time about it.
"I didn't know about the amplifier," she repeated for the umpteenth time that month. "I may have mentioned the auditions, but he took it from there." She ate a small swipe of peanut butter from the end of her finger. "He doesn't let me behind the big curtains as much as you think he does."
"I'll see you later, Em," he laughed, watching her head for the next room. "And stop eating so much damn peanut butter."
Emma stopped, turned around, and pulled the spoon out of the jar, pointing it at his grin threatening.
"Leave me and my peanut butter alone," she warned. "We're going to go bond over Andy Griffith, and you're not invited."
"Sor-ry," he said, holding his hands up as he dropped his skateboard to the pavement. "I'll leave you to your peanut butter and reruns."
His smirk was contagious.
"See ya, Em."
The door closed. Emma's face immediately erupted into a full-blown ear-to-ear smile as she headed for the couch, popping a creamy spoonful of Peter Pan into her mouth.
Eat your heart out, Jennifer Parker.
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