January 18, 1984
He hated it when Doc used the house on Los Lagos. Not just because it was way the hell out near the town limits, and on nights like this his hands would freeze against the steely bumpers of cars. It was the house itself, an ugly, crooked contraption on a patchy hill that just gave Marty the creeps. Doc had inherited it from a great uncle or something, and he'd obviously felt a little guilty about putting it on the market last month. Marty, for one, would not be sad to see it go.
"Y'know, Doc, los lagos means lakes, right?" he'd ribbed, trying to make his friend feel better. "Lakes Road. And I don't see any lakes around here, do you? I mean, you barely even have crabgrass."
Doc had just thrown him that look he got sometimes, sort of like Marty was from outer space and Doc didn't speak alien. Well, whatever. Marty didn't see what the big deal was. After all, they still had the garage over on JFK, which was much closer to civilization and which also had the distinct advantage of being located next door to a Burger King. A guy could get used to that kind of convenience.
His breath thick in the night air, Marty popped his skateboard and tucked it securely under his arm as he climbed the broken concrete staircase to Doc's front porch. He found the key under the doormat, thinking for the millionth time how it really wasn't the best idea to keep it there, and let himself in.
"Yo, Doc!" he called, plunking down his board, coat, and backpack in the hallway before moving toward the sparsely lit kitchen. He glanced at his watch, frowned. That didn't look right. "Hey, Doc, you got the time?"
There was no answer forthcoming. He'd pretty much meant it as a joke, anyhow: of course Doc had the time. The guy had to have the world's biggest collection of clocks, from those tall, old fashioned grandfather clocks to some far-out futuristic jobs, with everything imaginable in between. They were in every room of the house, and Marty never got tired of looking at them. Even the incessant ticking didn't faze him anymore. Much. He wondered suddenly how Doc was going to fit them all in that garage.
"Doc, you anywhere? Hey, Leo, c'mere, boy! C'mere, buddy!" No response from Leo, either, and no automatic scolding from Doc that the dog's name was Galileo, Marty, and he was named after an extremely influential figure in the history of science, whose refusal to renounce his belief in the Copernican system was snore. Marty had informed him that the name was too long--dogs should have simple, rough-and-tumble names like Rex or Buddy or Spike.
"Well, in the immediate absence of any influential historical scientific figure named Spike," Doc had replied, favoring him with that look again.
"Work with me here, Doc," Marty had pleaded. "Leo's a good compromise, right?"
"At least pronounce it correctly!"
Well, no, he couldn't do that either, because Lay-oh sounded kind of girly, and it was bad enough the poor mutt had had his own nuts whacked off without any say in the matter. So Leo it was, at least as far as Marty was concerned--and he'd certainly caught Doc using the nickname enough times, too, for all his lecturing about it. Not that it made a difference anyway, since Leo himself would respond to "Hey, Shitbutt!" as long as you had a biscuit in your hand. He was a great dog.
He was also a missing dog at the moment, and one with a missing master at that. "Perfect," Marty muttered, backtracking into the hallway. He shrugged into his coat again and headed back outside, taking a minute to let his eyes readjust to the darkness before hopping off the corner of the porch.
It was as he was making his way around the side of the house that Marty first heard the distant banging. The sound grew louder as he approached the backyard, huffing to himself as he went.
"Christ, Doc, it's gotta be like forty degrees out here. You can't work inside, in the house, where there's heat? No, you gotta work out back, in the shed, where we'll freeze our asses off. And when I say 'we,' of course I mean 'me,' 'cause Leo's got all that fur and you were apparently born with some kind of weather-proof--shit!"
Jesus, the ground was hard. After a stunned couple of seconds, Marty pushed off with his palms into a kneeling position, shaking his head to clear it. His knees felt a little scraped, his pride bruised, but nothing seemed out of place otherwise. Still, whatever he'd tripped over felt big.
He clambered to his feet and found himself standing before the lone tree on the property, a California sycamore that seemed to have no concept of its bearing the only live foliage within a ten-mile radius. Had he tripped over a root? Marty turned to look behind him.
"What the hell...?"
It turned out not to be that big, actually, whatever it was that lay in the dirt several feet from the tree trunk, bundled up in a crinkled white sheet. Just...lumpy. And...no, that wasn't a sheet after all, Marty realized as he edged guardedly closer. It was one of Doc's lab coats.
Marty's eyes narrowed. Something definitely wasn't right here. He craned his neck over his shoulder to glance toward the shed, where fits of banging continued to erupt at irregular intervals. Should he check this out with the Doc? Could it be part of some experiment he was working on? Marty looked back at the mysterious white lump, which hadn't moved or talked or anything, thank God.
Okay, this was getting stupid--for Christ sake, he was practically acting like his old man. Ignoring the warning lurch in his stomach, Marty walked purposefully to the offending object and crouched down beside it, only to hesitate again when his hand made contact with the rough grain of the lab coat. There was a funny smell. And wasn't it just a little too cold for bugs?
Marty took a breath and unwrapped the coat as fast as he could.
"Fuck!" he gasped out, and jerked his head away, gagging hard. "Oh--God, no--"
He couldn't believe it, but he had to look again. Leo's normally soft, glossy brown fur seemed coarse and dull, a deep chill radiating from his limp frame in waves. There was no blood that Marty could see, but the dog's neck was twisted at a terrible, impossible angle. His eyes were hidden in the shadow of Doc's lab coat.
"Oh, my God, Leo. Oh, no, oh, shit...." Marty squeezed his eyes shut, fighting the sick heat that hatched in his middle and swept its way up through his chest, his throat, his mouth. His head swam dangerously and his thoughts chased each other down: When had--? Was it--? Did Doc--? But then what--?
It wasn't until the bugs were prickling at his cheeks that Marty opened his eyes again. "Get away from him, you bastards," he mumbled, swatting at the small cloud of insects. Never too cold for flies, he thought idiotically, and then covered the dog back up again without touching him. He realized abruptly that the banging had stopped.
Marty stumbled to his feet. He had an intense desire to run away, to just not deal with this, to go home and go to sleep in his clothes and pretend it had never happened. It was a full two minutes before he talked his wobbly legs into taking him where he didn't want to go, toward the now-quiet shed across the darkened yard.
He always saw Doc's white hair before he saw the rest of him. At the moment it was kind of wilting to the side, eclipsing most of Doc's face as he bent over something with a screwdriver. Marty propped himself soundlessly in the shed's entrance, just out of reach of the lantern light, once again struggling with the urge to bolt. Was this like the whole "fight or flight" thing they'd talked about in Biology? Because it was really, really starting to be a pain in his ass.
Doc shifted a little then, still bent over; Marty sucked in a breath, suddenly finding himself with an open view of just what it was his friend was working on.
"Doc?" he said, softly.
There was a ridiculously loud clatter as the screwdriver hit the floor, and the Doc himself jumped about a mile. He turned wide, wilder-than-usual eyes to Marty, who just stood where he was and looked back at him, swallowing hard.
Doc uttered a semi-intelligible curse followed by a brief sigh, then leaned down to pick up his screwdriver and tuck it into his toolbelt.
"Doc," Marty said again, and he hated how his voice sounded, but he couldn't do anything about it. He clenched his teeth as Doc curled both hands around the edge of the workbench, arms extended, head down. Marty's feet stirred.
They stood that way for a while in complete silence. It was just when Marty was remembering a TV show he'd seen on spontaneous human combustion that Doc finally spoke, his head still bowed.
"He was hanged."
Marty blinked, not sure he'd heard right. "What?"
"From the low branch of the sycamore," Doc went on, one shoulder quirking slightly. "I had to cut him down."
"Jesus Christ." Marty rubbed his face violently, trying to erase the horrible kaleidoscope of images that formed in his mind. "I mean, Jesus Christ, Doc, when--?"
"I discovered him about an hour ago, but he had expired a significant amount of time before that, by what I could ascertain from his condition. I was working upstairs late this morning and I'd--I'd left him--" Doc stopped abruptly and turned his head away from Marty, then drew a sharp breath and expelled it in a series of quick, harsh coughs.
Shit, shit, shit. Marty stepped forward tentatively, but the other man thwarted him, hurriedly righting himself.
"Ah, so I left him in the back to play, as I normally do if his assistance isn't required and the weather permits. I must have become absorbed in my schematics, because the next thing I knew it was nearly dark out. I opened the window to call him for supper, and...." Doc paused again, but this time it was simply to reach into his toolbelt and retrieve the screwdriver. "I could see him from there," he finished almost offhandedly, even punctuating the statement with another half-shrug. Then Doc appeared to revert his attention to his project, which Marty could see presently involved screwing on one side of a fat steel hinge.
Okay--okay, but wait a minute. Wait just a goddamn minute, here.
"Uh, Doc," he said pointedly, and was none too satisfied with the "huh" he was offered in response. "Doc, you did call the police, right?"
Ostensibly to get a better look at what he was doing, Doc tucked his chin so low that his answer was muffled by the oversized collar of his turtleneck. "Any particular reason why I should?"
"Any particular re--Doc, come on! We know who did this! We know who these guys are, you gotta--"
"Marty." Doc straightened again partway, briefly leveling his stare with Marty's own. "We've been through this."
"Yeah, well, we're gonna damn well go through it again!" Marty welcomed the sudden bolt of anger that shot through him. It made him feel instantly sturdier, more grounded, and inwardly he double-dog-dared Doc to challenge it. "For Christ sake, this isn’t like they knocked over your mailbox!”
“Nope,” agreed Doc, his voice becoming muffled again, "that was last week.”
Seemingly of its own accord, Marty's fist came down to slam against the front end of Doc's workbench--which, as it turned out, hurt. Doc snapped up to his full height, looking considerably less calm than he had only seconds ago. About fucking time.
"What is the matter with you?" Marty demanded, now that he had his friend's full attention. "You've put up with this crap for as long as I've known you! You act like it's nothing, you tell me it's none of my business, and I say fine. But you know what? Now it is my goddamn business. They didn't ring your doorbell and run away, Doc! They didn't even paint your fucking windows black. They killed Leo." He heard his own voice crack, pretended he hadn't. "And you're what, making jokes? Christ, you're out here building a--a--"
"It's a coffin," Doc said shortly. "A crude one, perhaps--"
"I know what the fuck it is!" There was a burning behind his eyes. Bad sign. "Doc, come on. You can't just let it go this time. You have to do something!"
Now that he'd gotten it all out, Marty could feel himself shaking. He watched Doc look down, watched him wet his lips. He watched him place the screwdriver carefully on the workbench. The expression on his face when he looked back at Marty this time was abnormally passive, but the tone of his words was not.
"And what precisely is it you would have me do?" he said, advancing on Marty ominously; Marty gulped and took a step backward. Had the Doc always been that tall? "Call the police? That's a fine idea, given the amount of gravity with which they've treated my concerns in the past. I imagine they'll tell me that an officer will be out here to investigate just as soon as one becomes available, although Hill Valley being the hotbed of criminal activity that it is, that might not be for a few days, possibly weeks. In the meantime, I'm always free to come down and file an official complaint, and while I'm there, perhaps I could provide them with a detailed account of the most recent UFO sightings in the locality, or demonstrate for them how my latest invention will revolutionize the manure-hauling industry!"
Doc had him flat against the wall of the shed, and was so in his face that Marty could make out little bubbles of sweat at his hairline. But he suddenly didn't feel so intimidated. There was just this awful weight in his chest. "Doc...it's just, the punks that pulled this, you know...."
"Oh, yes, the punks that pulled this," Doc echoed, his eyes flashing. "Do you think they're always the same? Marty, when this all started, you weren't even born yet. Hell, you weren't even an embryo. You weren't even a spermatazoa."
"Okay, okay, I get it!" Marty interrupted, throwing his arms up defensively. "Jeez."
"The punks come and go. And some days you think you got 'em nailed down, but--" He laughed shallowly. "It could be anybody. It is anybody. Maybe it's Marcello and his crowd, or maybe it's Needles, or Tannen's kids, or even that asshole Tannen himself. It is whoever, on any given day, might possess sufficient resources and inclination to make my life hell, because God knows there is no tradition in this town more revered than to fuck. With the crackpot. Inventor!"
And then, without breaking eye contact, Doc snaked one hand out toward Marty's left shoulder; Marty just managed not to flinch, keeping his own gaze steady as Doc reached behind him and snatched up a round-point garden shovel from where it rested on the shed wall.
"You wanna 'do something,' kid?" And Doc thrust the shovel into Marty's hands, his face now anything but passive.
They seemed frozen there for a time: Marty, his palms kneading the long handle of the shovel, its wood knotted and firm; Doc, his mouth set hard and his eyes dark, clearly angry, but also intense and even challenging in a way Marty wasn't so sure he understood.
Finally, deliberately, he reached past Doc and gently returned the shovel to its place against the shed wall. But there was no deliberation at all involved in what Marty did next: he launched himself at Doc, hugging as much of the man as he could without standing on his tip-toes. That would've been just a little too humiliating.
Doc stiffened immediately, and Marty could practically hear his friend's eyes bulging out of his head. Which was normally pretty funny, but at the moment only added to Marty's turmoil. There were two obvious ways this could go. Doc could hug him back, or Doc could deck him. Okay, the latter didn't seem that likely, but you never could tell with another guy.
He was about to let go and cut his losses when he detected a subtle change in Doc's posture. The other man's arms came up around him slowly, his hands resting uncertainly at Marty's back--and before he could control it, the weight in Marty's chest melted and a muted sob escaped. When Doc's hold on him tightened Marty nearly lost it completely, but he closed his eyes and bit down on his lip until he felt like he had it together. God, he hated everyone right now. Well, almost everyone.
They parted gingerly. Doc pivoted around to do his coughing thing, while Marty swiped at the fog in his eyes until he was able to make out the tops of his Nikes. He had absolutely no clue what to do or say next.
Fortunately Doc filled in the blank for him. "Marty, I'm sorry," he began, a bit hoarsely.
Marty shook his head quickly, relieved. "Nah, I shouldn't've--"
"You were fine. I don't know what the hell got into me!" Doc combed his fingers distractedly through his hair, disheveled as always. "And I'm truly sorry you had to find Leo out there. I'd meant to have all this--" he gestured feebly toward the workbench, "--completed before you arrived."
Marty hesitated, rubbing the back of his neck, as something decidedly unpleasant occurred to him. "It's okay, Doc. But, ah, well, it kinda looked to me like the bugs were starting to get to him, and I know you don't usually get bears or wolves or anything out here, but...."
"Oh, damn," Doc exclaimed, shutting his eyes and smacking his forehead with the heel of his palm. Marty winced guiltily. "Of course you're right, Marty! For sanitary reasons I thought it imprudent to bring him indoors, but it should have at least occurred to me to find something that would've afforded him greater protection than--than a ratty old coat!"
"It's okay," Marty echoed, firmly. He reached for the shovel again, easily hoisting it up and setting it comfortably on his right shoulder. He was determined to make this better, somehow. "We won't let him stay out there much longer. Uh, so was there somewhere specific you wanted...?"
Doc's eyes flew open, and the expression on his face was enough to make Marty wince again. Man, now what had he said? "Great Scott, Marty, you don't have to do that! I wasn't behaving rationally, I didn't mean--"
Oh. "Yeah, yeah, I already know all that," he said quickly, before the Doc could start smacking himself around again. "Look, this is my call. I just--I want to. Is it okay?"
Marty waited patiently while Doc performed a series of Doc-type rituals: squinting up at the ceiling; dragging his wrist across his brow; inhaling quietly through his mouth; exhaling heavily through his nose.. "If...you're sure you really want to," he conceded at last, slowly. "You may find it tough going, though. Particularly at this temperature."
"I can handle it," Marty insisted. "I don't mind. And there's parent–teacher stuff tomorrow, so I don't have to be--I mean, I can stay. You know? 'Til whenever. I don't mind, Doc," he repeated, emphatically.
His friend's whole face seemed to blink. And Marty suddenly had the weirdest sensation, kind of like the last dying aftershocks of a quake, the short stretch of ground between them stirring and then settling again. He looked back over at Doc, swore he caught him shifting his weight.
"Well," Doc said at last, "well, good." His voice had gone soft and so had his eyes, that strange intense thing in them finally faded away to nothing. Instinctively Marty knew that was important.
"Right," he said, except it came out more like a croak, so he had to clear his throat a few times. "Right, Doc, we should probably--"
"I'd like to lay him to rest somewhere near the sycamore," Doc said, moving back around to his workbench and leaving Marty momentarily dazed. "His life may have come to an abrupt end there, but it was definitely his favorite spot. He liked to take naps in the shade, chase the leaves sometimes. I imagine he would have chased the squirrels, too, if we'd had any." He snorted unexpectedly. "You know, you were right about this place, Marty. It is a dump."
"Uh," Marty said, still trying to catch up. "I think I said 'shithole,' actually, but--"
"Yeah, well, that, too." Doc hunched down and appeared to squint at something on the small wooden surface of the coffin, some miniscule imperfection of design that only he could see. Marty glanced away with a grim smile. What Doc considered "crude" would no doubt be a veritable masterwork of construction by the time he was done, probably sanded smooth and velvet-lined to boot.
"So you want me to just...pick a place? Around there?" Already turning toward the darkness outside, he felt rather than saw Doc's nod.
"Yes, I trust your judgment. And I'll try not to be too much longer in here--just holler if you need me in the meantime."
"Right." But Marty had paused in the doorway and couldn't seem to unglue himself. There was one other thing he wanted to say, though he probably shouldn't--
"You at least need to think about getting a gun." He spoke quietly, kept his back to Doc.
There was a long silence from behind him, and he listened to it carefully. Then: "What makes you think I don't already have one?"
Exclamation marks of varying sizes lit up all over Marty's brain. But in a voice that had apparently been borrowed from a much braver person, he replied, "Then you at least need to think about using it."
The silence, this time, was his only answer.
"Heavy," Marty breathed, and shifted the shovel on his shoulder a little as he moved out of the light.