(written for Yuletide 2012)
It Can Be Cruel Sometimes
It's a December morning just shy of noon, and he's lying on his back upon his bed with Walkman headphones clamped tight over ears immersing him in the music of Huey Lewis and the News. His bedroom ceiling stares placidly at him: peeling plaster in the corners smoothed perfect in this world. Beyond his audio bubble exists the rest of the McFly family, voices and footsteps sounding through the halls and the sun-kissed rooms of their Lyon Estates home. He doesn't want to hear them, not today, for it's one of those times when he's overcome by the nightmare of knowing what he wiped out so long ago: his real home and family, killed by history's sword, overwritten with this strange perfection that jars in almost-familiarity. And sometimes Marty is just one nervous breakdown away from crying out in the painful, homesick despair of the abandoned time traveller stranded forever in a foreign home in a familiar land.
He doesn't know anyone here, not truly. He has no genuine relationships, and he's just playing the part, returning smiles and waves to people who only know the person they think he is - that stranger with his name and face and body, who grew up in this world with this family, whom he only caught a brief glimpse of that night at Lone Pine Mall, screaming in anguish as bullets rained on Doc, hurtling off wildly into the past in a flash of blue light and streaking fire trails.
Sometimes Marty wonders what became of that other boy. Perhaps if they'd only had time to talk, to stall time for a moment, just a moment, to let him know what could have been and to find out what he could have been... but that other boy is no more than a blurred memory from a car park, and in Marty's growing sensation that he's slowly but surely turning into him. It's the small things at first: things in the house initially not where he remembered, and then suddenly seeming that they have always been there; the recall of details and memories that contradict his fading originals, sometimes sharper, almost more real; the way he suddenly tenses up on reflex when anyone calls him a chicken; the way that Jennifer stops looking different and more like the girlfriend he has always had, the girlfriend that other boy, that other Marty, has always had, only now they're becoming one and the same, and Marty's mind cries out in the futile battle to retain its own identity.
But some things are the same or close enough to be taken for the same. Like the music. The same bands, the same hits, the same tapes in his collection, and as Huey Lewis and the News sing about the power of love, Marty can imagine for a while that everything is all right. Voices shout lyrics and electric guitars cry and mute his existentialist fear at being the only person who has ever experienced and can understand what is happening to him. Jennifer knows some, but not enough. She saw the future. She never felt the past change, she never had to experience the struggle against temporal forces forcing two identities into one, mentally co-existing with a person who is both you and not you, and never really knowing who has more right to be there.
Then there's Doc, a century out of reach. He experienced changes too. But not on the same scale. Nothing on the same scale.
The song ends and another starts. Marty shuts his eyes, fingers closing over a loose bit of bedsheet, needing the feel of something tangible within his grasp. Solid. Real. Present. He takes in and lets out a breath.
I'm still me, he thinks, and feels the impersonal force of space-time mocking his claim. No, it says, there is no you. There's just a set of experiences associated with a body, and both can be changed so easily. You could even give that duality a name - like Marty (such a nice name) - and a soul that claims uniqueness, but people are such fragile, changeable things so much at the mercy of forces beyond their control. Change an event and you change a memory; change a memory and you change a person, and the person that was no longer is. You're dead, Marty, he imagines the space-time continuum telling him. You died the moment you first went back in time, and a butterfly flapped its wings that otherwise would not have. You're nothing more than a ghost with lingering memories of a non-existent world, haunting the teenage boy whose home this really is. You don't belong here. Your time is up, and that time is something that no machine can do a thing about.
But the ghost clings stubbornly to life, to existence, to being, to the bedsheet on the bed of Martin Seamus McFly and the slipping memory of how his own was a different colour, back in that 1985 that no longer exists, bedding tossed in a careless pile by a mother who had vodka calling for her attention, her eyes rolling at the braying laugh of the insecure dork she married. But Marty is scared and he wants her, now, his heart pining in the dejected fondness rushed by absence, gripped by the dread of knowing that he could cry out forever for his mom and only ever get another boy's. And she would be kind, and loving, and convinced that he's her son, but in the hugs and kisses of maternal love he would always know that they were not truly meant for him; their intended recipient is forever gone. At least, until such time when he turns into him, and is no longer himself. One day it will be the opposite: one day this world would be home again, because he would once more be the person who lives here. And that person would look on those memories of that other world as though they were the memories of a stranger. Or perhaps they would have faded by then, overwritten by the unstoppable pen of time.
Marty opens his eyes and pulls the headphones off his head. He turns over onto his stomach, rooting in the shelves behind his bed for an empty notebook - failing that, grabbing a blank piece of paper. And he gets a pen, and takes pen and paper to his desk, and then he pours out his life. Memories of another world. He can't forget. He mustn't forget, because to forget is to die.
He brushes aside tears as he writes, handwriting jerky with the desperation. Everything he can remember. The details flow together in his stream of consciousness. Snippets. Linda calling him names. Dave dumping soggy Burger King fries on him for supper. Dreams of driving the Toyota van which right now resides in the garage but which somehow seemed far sweeter when merely a dream of some day, Jennifer, some day. Biff ragging on his dad, and the helpless pity tinged with contempt he would feel as he witnessed the bullying, along with that fear that he would grow up to be the same, and the way he pushed himself because of it. His mom complaining about Jennifer and how she didn't trust her, not the sunny smiles of approval she now visits upon the couple. The piano a poky little brown thing instead of stately white. Falling asleep each night in the frustration of teenage angst, not the suffused contentment of having grown up in a good home where everyone loved each other and were not afraid to say so, and among whom he still feels like an intruder pretending to be the younger McFly son.
Would they all still love him if they knew? Or would they be afraid; would they despair at the loss of the child they raised, and hold him responsible for his death, even as he was responsible for his life...
Marty dares not find out. But they'll get their son back, when history catches up with him. Only he'd be gone by then, forever, nothing more than the memories he's writing down and trying to keep alive.
He's covered almost both sides of the paper when he's called away to help with chores. He thinks he'll be back soon, and so doesn't bother hiding the paper. But then Dave drags him out for lunch, and they leave right away, and when he gets back to his room much later, he doesn't notice that the paper has moved a little from the position he left it in.
He keeps it away.
He doesn't notice the thoughtful way his dad looks at him over the dinner table that night, or see that spark of what-if shining in his eyes in that way peculiar to science-fiction writers.
That night, as he's tucked in bed on the verge of sleep, his dad comes in to wish him good night as usual.
"Good night, Marty."
"I love you." A pause. "All... versions of you."
Then the door closes shut again, leaving Marty suddenly wide awake and staring into the darkness; his heart racing, wanting to run out and yet not daring to, but feeling, with a sudden swell of warmth in his heart, that maybe this, too, is home.