Marty sat on the ancient tweed couch in the den, listening to Biff Tannen drunkenly browbeat his father into submission. Biff likely hadn't noticed him at all, but George McFly glanced toward him from behind black plastic frames, silently begging him to go to his room and grant his father some measure of dignity.
But Marty ignored him. He picked balls of lint off one of the dozens of afghans his grandmother had made them over the years, crocheted from discount acrylic yarn and mailed up from Florida with bags of peanut M&Ms and miniature candy bars tucked into the corners. And he felt his jaw tighten by a fraction as Biff cracked open another Bud Light, complained about even as he lifted it from the McFly refrigerator.
"This shit's like drinking piss," Biff muttered. He wiped a dribble of it from the corner of his mouth with one polyester sleeve. "You got a pretty crummy idea of hospitality, McFly."
George pushed his glasses up his nose, his other hand fidgeting with something in his pocket. At times like this, his anxiety could be measured by how difficult it was for him to stay still, as if the awkward, spasmodic movement of his limbs was all that kept him from running out of the room. "Well, Biff, you know, we did have that case of Budweiser in the garage for you," he said, his tone apologetic. "We just haven't had time to replace it since last weekend..."
Biff took another swig from his can. "Yeah, about that. One case of beer? Really? How am I suppose to throw a party with one fucking case of beer? It's like you're trying to make me look bad."
George ran a hand back over his pomade-slicked hair. "Well, maybe if you could let me know when you'll need-"
Biff rolled his eyes. "Come on, McFly. Think. I'm a supervisor. Do I have time to worry about that kind of shit?"
"Of course not, Biff, I just-"
"Do I look like a secretary to you? You want me to run around in a miniskirt and heels or something?" As he spoke, he gestured broadly with the can, sloshing drops of beer onto the carpet. "Christ, McFly. It's like you're fucking retarded."
Marty's hands clenched on scratchy fistfuls of afghan. He stared at Biff's terrible alligator shoes, singed in places by cigarette ash. He knew that if he looked at Biff's face, he wouldn't be able to keep himself from leaping up off the couch and punching the other man in the jaw. The thought of his knuckles connecting with one of those absurd yellow sideburns -- of crushing Biff's fat, pink cheek against his teeth and watching him fall to the floor -- played out in glorious detail in Marty's imagination. His pulse roared with frustrated bloodlust in his ears.
George straightened the pens in his shirt pocket, his eyes on the pile of half-finished reports that sat on the kitchen table. Reports that Marty knew had to be finished that night, and that would be typed up tomorrow on Biff Tannen letterhead, all credit for George's efforts obliterated along with his dignity. "Biff, was there something you wanted me to help you with?" he asked quietly. "Not that I mind having you drop by, of course, but I know you're busy..."
"Oh yeah." Biff set aside the lid to the crystal candy dish and dug out a handful of stale M&M's. "I need your car."
George blinked at him through coke-bottle lenses, surprised into meeting Biff's gaze directly. "My car? For what?"
Biff snorted and tossed the candy into his mouth. "Whaddayou think, butthead?" he said through a mouthful of chocolate. "To drive. Mine's in the shop."
"Couldn't you..." Marty watched as George's body contorted, his spine kinked with tension. "Well, I don't know, maybe you could borrow the company car?"
"What, the station wagon? Do I look like a fucking housewife? Your car's a piece of shit, but at least I won't get laughed outta Hill Valley."
George adjusted his tie, knots of muscle standing out from his arms. "Now, Biff, you know I don't want to inconvenience you, but..." He glanced furtively at his son, motionless on the sofa, then dropped his gaze back to the floor. "Well, I promised Marty that-"
Biff snatched the tie from George's hands and jerked him forward, their noses suddenly an inch apart. "Hey, McFly, here's a question," he snarled. "Is Marty your supervisor?"
"No, Biff," George whispered, almost too quiet for Marty to hear. "Of course not."
"Do I give a shit what some snot-nosed teenager wants?"
"No, Biff, I guess you probably don't."
Biff released him, then, and George stumbled backwards a few steps as he found his balance again. "Are these the keys?" Biff asked, snatching them from a hook by the door.
George rubbed his neck, loosening his collar again. "Yes."
Biff tossed his empty beer can into the kitchen sink, picked his coat up from where he'd thrown it over a chair and jerked open the front door. "There better be gas in the tank," he grumbled, then slammed the door behind him.
A moment later, Marty heard an engine start in the driveway, followed by the sound of squealing tires. George stood in the hall with his hands in his pockets, still and silent.
Marty got to his feet, his muscles aching with the effort of restraint. "What the hell was that?" he murmured, low and furious.
George sighed, his shoulders falling as he exhaled. "Marty..."
"You promised me. You promised I could have the car this weekend."
"You're right, son. And I'm sorry." George made a vague, helpless gesture. "I know it's hard to understand right now, but sometimes part of being an adult is doing things you don't want to."
"You can't just let him walk all over you like that!"
His dad flinched. "Marty, you know I don't like confrontations," he said, in that same apologetic tone Marty had grown to loathe. "And besides, he's right. He's my supervisor, I can't afford to let him down. What if I lost my job? What if they fired me?" He pressed his fingers to his temple, shaking his head. "I just can't take that kind of risk."
"Dad, you hate your job."
"I'm not a teenager, Marty, I can't just quit when things get difficult. Besides, I'm lucky to even have this job at all. If Biff hadn't recommended me-"
"He recommended you because he knew he could get you to do his fucking work!"
"Now, Marty, you know your mother doesn't want you to use that kind of language."
The fact that his father cared more about swearing than about being directly insulted only fed the hot, frustrated anger that churned in Marty's stomach. But what could he say? Things had always been this way. Biff had been drinking their beer and "borrowing" their shit and throwing grenades of chaos into their lives since before Marty could remember. He had sat in his room as a boy and desperately hoped that his dad would tell Biff off; that this latest humiliation would be the last; that George McFly would finally do what he wanted, instead of what other people bullied him into.
But Marty was almost grown up, now -- seventeen and old enough to see things as they were. He knew that it would always be this way; that even if Biff left, someone else would come to fill the void. His father had lived too many years in the shadow of selfish men; for all Marty knew, he'd forgotten any dreams he might once have had.
Marty watched his father rinse out the discarded can, crush it under his shoe and throw it into the trash. "Look, I'll let Biff know that we need the car this weekend," he said quietly. "All right? I'm sure he can work something out before then."
Marty rubbed his eyes, exhausted by the effort of staying calm. "All right."
George leaned against the sink, his head bowed. "I didn't think it would be like this when I was your age," he said. "But sometimes things don't work out the way we think they will. You just have to make the best of what you have."
"Sure, Dad," said Marty.
Down the hall, the door to his parents' bedroom opened, and the floor creaked as his mom teetered around the corner. She held an empty glass in her hand.
"George, was that Biff I just heard?" she asked as she rummaged through the cabinets. Marty's sister, Linda, had hidden the last bottle of vodka behind the olive oil, but his mom had it in hand when she wandered back out into the living room. She glanced out the small, staggered windows in the front door as she passed by. "Where's the car?"
For the first couple of weeks, the strangeness of it all was overwhelming.
Before the DeLorean had entered his life, Marty had been the shining star of promise in his family. David had never gone to college, and his aspirations had begun and ended with being promoted to manager at the fast food restaurant he'd worked in since high school. Linda had been inching her way toward an associate's degree at the Hill Valley Community College, earning enough to pay for tuition and clothes working part time at the Strawberry's in the mall. But Marty, despite his poor attendance and lack of real motivation, had been smart enough to get good grades since starting his freshman year. He'd applied to a few mid-range schools, and planned to major in business so he could get a well-paying day job that would let him work on his music over the weekends. He'd had ambition, unlike everyone else in the family. He'd been determined to get out of Hill Valley and make something of himself.
Now, suddenly, he found himself in a house full of near-strangers in suits and designer blouses, rushing off to work in boutiques and banks and to take lunch meetings with Hollywood producers. Like a stone in a river, he'd remained almost entirely unchanged as everything shifted around him, and for days after his return to the present it was all he could do stay calm while he took it all in.
His room was just as he'd left it, down to the empty soda cans and trashy magazines, and he found himself waking up early each morning just so he could have an hour or so of easy, uncomplicated familiarity before breakfast. Once he left the sanctity of his own, private space, it was all he could do to keep up. He spent days desperately memorizing the details of his transformed family -- the name of David's company, the number of years his dad had spent writing his first book, the charities where his mother volunteered, the underground zine for which his sister was a regular columnist. He spluttered and mumbled his way through dinner. More than once, his mom asked if he wanted to see a doctor.
By Christmas, the worst of the panicked confusion had passed, and he could go whole days without anyone looking at him like he was crazy. But a different sort of unease took its place, deeper and much harder to shake.
He'd spent weeks flitting through time -- had seen versions of himself and his loved ones as they could have been, his own history destroyed and remade. But the DeLorean was in pieces on the railroad tracks, and the mirror universe of yuppy contentment he'd found himself in wasn't just a transient bit of strangeness. This was his life, now. These people were his family. The siblings and parents he'd know since childhood had vanished, erased by decisions he hadn't even realized he'd been making. The George and Loraine McFly that had raised him existed only in his mind -- the ghosts of people that hadn't died, so much as evaporated.
Marty wasn't an introspective person by nature. He'd read up on things like existentialism in school, and found the whole enterprise to be a total waste of time. But it occurred to him one morning, while he was rummaging through his drawers for something to wear to school, that it wasn't just his family that had changed.
More than once, he'd watched another Marty McFly move through the life he'd already lived -- running from terrorists in a parking lot, or playing guitar in a 1950s gymnasium. But in a fundamental way, that Marty wasn't him. That Marty had been raised by George McFly, author of seventeen published science fiction short stories and one brand new novel. That Marty had attended his brother's graduation from UC Berkley and teased his sister about her countless boyfriends. That Marty had never found his mother passed out on the couch. That Marty had never watched Biff Tannen saunter around the kitchen like he owned the place, or stood by in silent agony as his father was humiliated.
Once this occurred to him, Marty found himself completely obsessed with this alternate version of himself -- the boy whose life he'd accidentally stolen. He'd kept a haphazard sort of journal since he was a kid, scribbling short entries into a composition book every few months when things got to be too much for him to deal with. The other Marty had kept it in the same place -- under his mattress, sandwiched between Playboys he'd stolen from the drug store -- and one evening he locked his bedroom door, fished it out and sat cross-legged on his bed to read.
He'd only meant to skim a few pages, but once he'd started he couldn't look away. Just like his room and the broad details of his personal life, the tone of his journal was basically the same as he remembered. Other Marty complained about being misunderstood; he bemoaned his lack of a girlfriend for years, and then obsessed over every detail once he'd found one; he bitched about his overbearing mother, grumbled about how his siblings kept crowding him, and wondered what the hell was wrong with his father.
Once he'd finished, Marty set the journal down on his bedspread. For a good long while, he stared at it as he tried to process what he'd read. And then, as it began to sink in, he felt a strange sort of indignance rising in his chest. As crazy as it sounded, even to himself, he was furious.
What the fuck was other Marty's problem? How could he have grown up with this version of his family -- this version of his father -- and had the gall to be such a little bitch about it? How could he not appreciate how good he had it? How amazing it was to have a dad who actually cared about life -- who encourage him to do what he wanted, to make something of himself, to fight to realize his dreams? How could any incarnation of himself be such an ungrateful idiot?
For some time after that, Marty had to fight the tendency to seethe at the injustice of it. He couldn't help but envy other Marty and the life he'd lead, wondering what it must have been like to grow up in the home he now lived in. Eventually he threw the journal into a drawer, buried underneath moth-eaten sweaters, and bought another notebook to replace it.
One night, after they'd finished dinner and gone off to pursue their individual activities for the evening, Marty went to sit next to his father on the pink, linen sofa in the den.
"Hey, Dad," he said, feeling incongruously awkward. "You have a sec?"
George set aside the sheaf of typed pages he'd been proofreading, turning his whole body to face his son, as if making a point of giving Marty his full attention. "Sure. What's up?"
Marty rubbed the back of his neck. "This, ah...this might sound crazy. But I was just wondering...do you remember how you got started? With writing, I mean."
George smiled lopsidedly. "That's sweet, Marty, but I know you must be sick of hearing the story by now."
"No!" Marty said, a little too quickly. He took a breath, then, "No, I don't mind. I like hearing it." He tried not to sound overeager, but he could feel his heart pounding.
George leaned back against the cushions, more at ease than Marty had ever seen his other father be. "Well, I started writing back when I was in high school, actually. I always loved science fiction, and eventually I started making up my own stories. They were really just for me, at first. I know it's hard to imagine, but I was pretty shy back then -- seriously, I would've died before I showed anyone my writing." He laughed, hearty and good-natured. "But then, sometime during my junior year, I met this strange kid...you remember, the one who kept hounding me to ask your mother to that dance..."
Marty listened to his father talk for hours that night, and again the night after that. Soon enough, the two of them had settled into a sort of routine after dinner, sometimes sitting on the couch and sometimes wandering out to the back porch, lounging on the beautiful cane furniture that had magically appeared there. Marty asked him about his writing; his wedding; his day job, at a marketing firm; the trips to Europe the family had taken when Marty was a boy; George's feelings about poor Biff, who'd peaked in high school and never amounted to much of anything. Despite his sister's teasing and his brother's raised eyebrows, Marty had dragged out family albums and made his father tell him about every single photo, piecing together the details of the life his other self had lived.
And every night, once he'd holed up in his room and gotten into bed, Marty fished out his notebook and wrote down everything he could remember. After years of indifference to education, he had become a scholar of his own, alternate history.
He looked up from cleaning out the glove box of his truck -- his glorious, gigantic, life-altering truck which Jennifer was crazy about -- in time to see Biff jog across the driveway, an envelope in hand.
"You got a letter from UCLA!" said Biff, puffing a little as he held it out. "Big envelope this time!"
"Thanks," said Marty faintly as he took the envelope and slit it open with his finger. Right there, on the watermarked letter at the top, was the word "accepted" in stark, black ink. Marty stared at it for several seconds.
"Wow," he murmured.
"Congratulations!" said Biff with his usual, desperate cheerfulness. "Really! I mean, I guess it's just a state school and all, but you should be-"
Biff and Marty both turned to see George McFly saunter over to the garage, his tennis racket slung over one shoulder in its case. He grinned at his son, wide and confident. "Is that what I think it is?"
"Yeah..." said Marty, offering the letter to his father.
"I was just telling him he should feel proud of himself," said Biff, transparently eager to please. "I mean, his brother went to a state school, right? Lots of people-"
George cut him off with tight smile. "You know, Biff, it's getting pretty late. How about you head back over to the auto shop."
Biff took a hasty step back, holding up his hands as if to fend off George's ire. "Of course, Mr. McFly. I was just thinking that! You know I don't-"
"Good night, Biff," said George, quiet and sharp.
Once Biff pulled out of the driveway, George wrapped an arm around Marty's shoulders, squeezing them affectionately. "Don't listen to him, Marty," he said. "He doesn't know what the hell he's talking about. UCLA has an excellent undergraduate program, and they'd be lucky to have you."
"Yeah," said Marty, a little faint.
"You know," George went on. "I keep giving him work because I feel a little bad for the guy. But if he ever makes you uncomfortable, you tell me, all right? And I'll fire his ass in a heartbeat."
George's smile widened, and he looked down at the letter again, his eyes flickering over the words. "I'm so proud of you," he said. "It's like I keep saying...if you put your mind to it-"
"You can accomplish anything," Marty finished, his voice very soft.
George chuckled. "Exactly."