The Boy Sets Out
“I don’t want to hear it, Marty.”
“I can’t believe you did that!”
“It wasn’t my fault!”
George McFly rounded on his youngest son, disbelief and anger shining bright in his eyes. “Not your fault?” he repeated. “Marty, you shoved the local sexton down the church tower stairs!”
“I didn’t know it was him!” Marty protested.
“Didn’t know – how could you not know he was the sexton?!” George demanded, folding his arms.
“Because I never got a good look at his face! And he never told me he was the sexton! If he’d said something, I would have left him alone!”
George blinked a few times, confused. “Said something?” He sighed and let his arms drop. “All right, Marty, what happened up there?”
“He told me to wait up there and ring the bell once the clock chimed,” Marty explained. “So while I’m waiting, I see this figure all in white by the stairwell, just – standing there. I couldn’t make out the face, so I called over and asked who it was. He doesn’t say anything. I try to talk to him – nothing. Finally I’m thinking, maybe this guy’s up to no good, and I tell him if he doesn’t say what the hell he’s doing here, I’m shoving him down the stairs. He doesn’t, so I do. I didn’t realize it was the sexton until he screamed.” Marty sighed and ran his fingers through his hair. “I ran for the doctor right afterward! And apologized three times!”
Understanding dawned on George’s face. He groaned and sat down on a nearby stump. “Oh dear. . . .”
“What is it, Dad?”
George looked up, shaking his head slightly. “Marty, I believe he was trying to trick you into thinking he was a ghost.”
Marty frowned a little. “What? Why would he do that?”
“Don’t you remember what he said when he offered you the job? That he would make it so you would know fear?”
“Yeah. . . .” Marty arched an eyebrow. “He thought I’d be scared of some white figure just standing there? Not saying a word?”
George nodded. “It seems to spook most people.”
“But – I saw lots of ghosts in that old castle from before! None of them just stood around and stared at me! They made noises and stuff! Dragged around chains.” Marty shook his head. “That duke should have paid me extra just for the noise. I couldn’t get a hour’s sleep in that place.”
George sighed deeply. “Yes, I know. The sexton really should have remembered that.” He frowned up at his son again. “But pushing him down the stairs?”
“I thought he might be a prowler! Like I said, I didn’t know it was him!”
George shook his head. “All right, all right. Come on, let’s go home. You’re fortunate the sexton was willing to simply have us pay to have his leg set. If he’d pressed charges, you could have been put in jail for assault.”
“. . .He hired me to protect the stupid bell. It’s his own damn fault he got a broken leg.”
“Marty, he was trying to help you,” George said severely. “You’re the one who was complaining that he would like to know how to shudder.”
“Well, I don’t get why people shudder at ghosts! It’s not like they’re any worse to deal with than regular people!”
“You don’t get why people shudder at anything!”
Marty stared at his father for a moment. “Sheesh, no need to shout,” he said after a moment, scowling and looking down at his feet. “Not like everybody in the village doesn’t know about it already.”
George sighed again, the anger going out of him. “I’m sorry, Marty,” he said, patting his son’s shoulder. “It’s just – your mother’s going to be so upset by this. And the sexton. . . .”
“I didn’t mean to hurt the guy, Dad,” Marty said, looking back up. “I told him I was sorry. Three times.”
“I know you did. I was present one of the times you did it.” George looked down at him. “He didn’t frighten you? Not even a little?”
“No! At least, I don’t think so! I didn’t run away screaming, if that’s what you mean! Or shit myself, like I’ve heard some people do.”
“Marty, that’s not something I needed to hear.” George gazed out at the horizon for a moment, then took Marty’s shoulder and steered him toward the edge of town. “Come on, let’s get you home.”
Marty followed his father with a sigh, staring at the ground. Great. Another chance to learn what the hell this “fear” thing is, and I completely blow it. Though I still don’t get why he tried to scare me by pretending to be a ghost. What’s so scary about ghosts? They’re just dead people you can stick your hand through. You talk with ‘em, do something for ‘em, they leave you alone. Why do people scream and run when they see them? ‘Course, like Dad said, I don’t know why anyone screams and runs at anything. . . .
His mother Lorraine was on the porch when they returned home, churning some butter to go with the bread at supper. She looked up curiously as the pair approached. “Marty, what are you doing home so early? I thought the sexton had you ringing the bell.”
“I’m pretty sure I’m fired, Mom,” Marty said, shrugging.
“He shoved the sexton down the tower steps after the sexton tried to frighten him by dressing up as a ghost.”
Annoyance and relief warred for dominance on Lorraine’s face. “He – Marty, did you do that because he scared you?”
“No, I did it because he’s a moron who didn’t say ‘Hey, I’m the sexton’ when I warned him I’d shove him down the stairs if he didn’t speak up.”
Annoyance won out. “Marty--”
“I know, I know,” Marty cut her off. “I apologized.”
“And they let us off with just paying for his leg to be set,” George added. “Though I don’t think we’re going to be well thought of in the church for a while now.”
Lorraine shook her head. “Marty, did you really have to shove him down the stairs? He could have been killed!”
“I thought he was – I dunno, a prowler or something! Somebody up to no good! He told me to run off anybody like that, and he gets mad when I do?”
“You weren’t supposed to do it to him!”
“I didn’t know it was him!”
“We’ve already discussed this, Lorraine,” George said, stopping his wife from saying anything more. “It’s just another failed attempt at this whole ‘learning to shudder’ thing.”
Lorraine nodded, shoulders slumping. “Still, pushing the sexton down the belfry stairs. . . .”
“What’s he done now?”
Marty’s older brother Dave appeared in the doorway, looking upset. “What’s this about the sexton and the stairs?”
“Ugh – I pushed the guy down the tower stairs because I didn’t know it was him because he’d dressed up like a ghost to try and teach me to shudder,” Marty said, putting a hand to his head. “It didn’t work.”
Dave snorted. “I could have told him that. Doesn’t he think we’ve tried everything to fix what’s wrong with your brain?”
“There’s nothing wrong with your brother,” Lorraine said firmly, going back to her churning. “He just has – different sort of thoughts.”
“Yeah, right.” Dave rolled his eyes. “It’s really annoying having a brother who can’t figure out how to be afraid of stuff. People talk, you know.”
“You weren’t complaining when I brought home five sacks full of gold from that duke’s castle,” Marty retorted, eyes narrowing a bit.
“Boys, don’t fight,” Lorraine warned, frowning at them both.
“Hey, that was different. That was you being useful for a change, instead of convincing everybody you’re the village idiot. Like with the bear.”
Marty felt his hands balling into fists. “I’m not stupid, I just don’t get why everybody ran from that bear! I took his head off in one stroke with my sword!”
“He was rabid! If he’d bitten you, we would have had to put you down!”
“But he didn’t! I knew I could take him!”
“And if you hadn’t?”
“That’s what we have doctors for.”
“No, that’s what we have shotguns for.”
“David Calvin McFly, stop speaking about your brother like he’s the family pet,” Lorraine demanded, putting her hands on her hips.
“He might as well be, for as much sense as he has,” another female voice said. Marty’s older sister Linda popped her head around the house. “Even dogs know to run from rabid bears.”
“I took care of it! What’s the problem? Everybody was happy that I killed the thing!”
“You could have at least pretended to be normal!” Linda snapped, coming around the house fully. “Craig was there, and he said you didn’t even blink when it came around the bend! Just stood there looking at it like it was an interesting rock! He asked me if there was something wrong with you. Which there is.”
“What? Even you complain sometimes that he ought to be more careful! Remember the snake? You yelled at him to get away, but he just picked it up and broke its neck.”
“Wasn’t poisonous! Just some stupid snake!”
“Yeah, but even Mom and Dad thought you were being a complete idiot, just picking it up like that! You really don’t know anything, do you?”
Marty threw up his hands. “I don’t have to take this. I’m out of here.”
“Oh, running away for once in your life. Too little, too late, bro!”
Marty just made a rude gesture and stomped off, ignoring his mother’s protests. He made his way over to the little pond edging his family’s property and flopped down with a sigh. “Assholes,” he grumbled. “I really wish I’d been an only child.”
He stared at the water for a moment, watching some frogs croaking on the lily pads. He didn’t know why Dave and Linda always gave him such a hard time for being different. Didn’t they understand that it bothered Marty just as much as it bothered them? He didn’t like everyone giving him pitying looks in the street, or whispering that he’d been born without a proper brain. He especially didn’t like everyone considering him some sort of moron. He was plenty smart! He just – didn’t get what was so special about this one emotion.
He’d never known what fear was, that was the worst part. Maybe if he’d known it as a child, had some memory of it, he’d be okay. He could at least fake the reactions convincingly. But from the moment he’d been born, he’d had no concept of what it was that made people avoid certain things. One of his earliest memories was of seeing his sister Linda shriek at the sight of a spider, and asking her what she was doing. She’d replied that it was gooey and disgusting and it scared her. He’d asked what “scared” was next, and gotten a blank look in response. Finally he’d just squished the spider so she’s stop yelling. But from then on, she and the rest of the family had looked at him differently. Like he’d been put here from another dimension. (Actually, Marty had heard a couple of whispered rumors that he was really a changeling, and that the real Martin Seamus McFly was being held in the faery realms. Marty didn’t know if that was true or not, nor did he really care. If he was a changeling, well, he was a changeling. It didn’t change the fact he’d been raised by humans. If the fae didn’t want him, their loss.) It wasn’t long before the rest of the small village of Hill Valley started doing the same. After all, it was rather hard not to notice a little boy who seemed relentlessly upbeat, even in the face of things that scared his peers – large barking dogs, dark hollows in the trees, the day-school teacher. Marty kind of missed those early years, the ones where the only real emotion he’d known was happiness. Life had been a lot simpler then.
Unfortunately, nothing could stop him from growing up. And as he’d gotten older, while he hadn’t learned fear, he had learned anger. Marty would be the first to admit he had something of a temper. But who wouldn’t, after years of teasing and pity? After a while, it really started to get under your skin. He’d gotten into fights with just about all the boys in the town at one point, heedless of how much bigger or stronger they might be. Even though he’d been beaten into a pulp a couple of times as a result, he’d also managed to make it work in his favor. The other boys realized that another boy who would go after you no matter what was trouble, and they soon left him alone. Marty had asked them to explain fear to him once they were on better terms, but nothing they said made sense to him. Life was simple, in his view – if something was threatening you, you stopped it, either gently or by force. If it wasn’t, you left it alone. Other people complicated it too much with this “fear” business.
Still, as he’d well learned, people thought you were weird if you didn’t fear anything. So he’d kept asking people, asking them to describe what they thought fear was, what they did when they were afraid. And while he’d understood what they said, roughly, the meaning behind it all was still a mystery. Some people had tried to teach him what fear was, like the sexton, but all had failed. Though at least the others didn’t make it so I’d push them down a flight of stairs when they failed, he thought with a wince.
There was only one time in his life that he could remember where his lack of fear had been treated as a good thing. Duke Zemeckis, the nominal ruler of the land Hill Valley occupied, had discovered that an old castle nearby had a great treasure buried in its basement. Unfortunately, the castle was overrun with ghosts and monsters. Eager to get at the gold and jewels hidden within, the duke had proclaimed that anyone brave enough to spend three nights in the castle and drive out the spooks would receive his fair share of the bounty. Many people had tried to meet the challenge, but no one had lasted more than one night. Finally, hoping to learn what had made everyone run out of the castle shrieking if nothing else, Marty had volunteered his services.
Three nights later, he was a wealthy young man. And while he still hadn’t known what fear was, he’d at least been cheered and welcomed home as a hero. That had been nice. And the money he’d brought home meant the McFlys would live in comfort for a couple of generations at least. His father had even been able to spend more time writing the stories he so loved, instead of slaving away at the local mill. For a while, life had been good.
The adoration hadn’t lasted, though. Soon people were whispering about him again, and Marty had redoubled his efforts to learn what fear was. That was when the sexton had offered him the job ringing the bells, promising him that he’d learn how to shudder. And we see how well that turned out, Marty thought with a sigh. Two weeks later, and I still don’t know a thing about shuddering. I’m seventeen – I should have figured it out by now! I’ve been trying since I was three! He leaned heavily on his hand. Maybe there is something wrong with me.
He glanced around at the grass and trees stretching out around him. He’d lived his entire life on this little plot of land, in this town. The only time he’d ever left it was to stay in the duke’s castle. He remembered the people he’d met on the journey – much like the ones living in Hill Valley, and yet – different. He supposed they were like that all over the kingdom. A whole kingdom full of all sorts of people.
And every one of them knew how to shudder except him.
Marty sat up straight with a thoughtful frown. All sorts of people. People he’d never met, never would meet – unless. . . .
Maybe the answer to his troubles wasn’t in Hill Valley at all.
Marty nodded, feeling instantly better as he made his decision. There was only one thing for it. If fear wouldn’t come to him –
He’d just have to seek it out.
Marty nodded, halfway through a bite of his bread. The rest of the family stared at him. “But – why?” Lorraine demanded, the piece of bread in her hand forgotten. “The sexton can’t be that mad at you, Marty. There’s no need to leave town over that.”
“Ahm--” Marty held up a finger, paused a moment, and finally swallowed. “I’m not, Mom. I’m leaving because I realized something last night. I’m never going to figure out what fear is here. So I’m going out into the world to see if I can find someone else who can tell me.”
“But – but there’s monsters out there!” Linda said with a squeak, eyes wide. “Everybody says so! Ogres and giants and werewolves and vampires! Things that eat raw bones and intestines and stuff like that!”
“I’m going to take my sword,” Marty replied calmly, finishing off his bread. “They can’t be any worse than the creatures infesting the duke’s castle.”
“You don’t know that for sure.”
“Yeah, well, if they’re not, maybe I’ll finally learn fear facing one down.”
“You also might end up dead,” Dave pointed out.
“Maybe,” Marty allowed. “But I really want to learn what this thing is! If that means risking having my head torn off and the rest of me used for a brisket, so be it.”
“Marty,” George said, setting down his cup of milk, “have you really thought this through?”
“Yeah, I have. Look, everybody in this town has probably written me off as some sort of lost cause when it comes to teaching me how to find the shudders. But the rest of the world doesn’t know that. Maybe all I need is a change of scenery, and I’ll be fine.”
“But – what will you do, for money and food and clothes?” Lorraine said, wringing her apron in her hands.
“I’ll take some of the gold with me, and a couple of changes of clothes. As for food – you mind sparing the rest of this loaf of bread? It’s really good.”
“Well – of course not, but you can’t live on just bread.”
“I can buy more food! I really should have enough money. And the apples are coming in, so I can pick some of those along the way.”
Dave shook his head. “I think you’re making a mistake, bro. They’re probably going to find you dead at a crossroads, and I don’t want to have to bury my little brother.”
“I’m not going to end up dead,” Marty said firmly. “This is something I have to do, all right? You people are the first to complain that I’m weird, and now you’re complaining when I decide to do something about it?”
“We didn’t think doing something about it involved going through monster territory,” Linda said.
“Well, it does, and I can’t do anything about that. Can’t you guys at least pretend to be happy I’m trying to fix whatever’s wrong with me?”
“Marty, there’s nothing wrong with you,” George said. “You’re just a little different. That doesn’t mean you have to go gallivanting all over the countryside looking for the shudders!”
“There is something wrong with me, Dad! People think I’m – I’m lacking because I don’t feel fear! And after word about what happened with the sexton gets out, nobody’s going to want to hire me, or apprentice me, or anything! I might as well go while the going’s good!”
“But we’re going to worry so much about you!” Lorraine protested, still wringing her apron.
“Worry? Why? I can handle anything that gets in my way. I’ve done it before. Hell, didn’t we have this same conversation when I went off to the duke’s castle? I came home from that okay.”
“This is different,” George said firmly. “That time, we knew roughly when you were coming home, and that you’d most likely come home in the first place. Here – you’re talking about wandering the entire kingdom! You could be gone for years! Decades! And that’s assuming you don’t get eaten by something!” He shook his head. “I won’t allow it. You’ve got your entire life ahead of you. I’m not letting you waste it by looking for the shudders.”
“No. Tomorrow, we’ll look into getting you a regular job – one where nobody cares whether you feel fear or not. Might be a bit of a chore, I admit, but we’ll find something. And you can put this notion of wandering around the kingdom and getting yourself killed by something out of your head.”
There was silence at the dinner table for a moment. Then, suddenly, Marty rose. “I’m not very hungry anymore,” he said simply, leaving the remains of his dinner on the table and turning around.
“Martin Seamus McFly, you get back here,” Lorraine said, forming her hands into fists on her lap.
“No,” Marty replied simply. “I don’t want to hear it.” He walked off, leaving the others staring after him.
He went straight to his room and sat on his bed for a moment, staring at his own clenched fists and getting his thoughts back in order. Then he got up and raided the wardrobe, selecting a few sturdy shirts and pants and setting them on the bed. He also retrieved some socks and his favorite jacket. He looked at the pile of clothes, added another shirt, then nodded with satisfaction. He then went to the far corner of the room, where he kept his two favorite possessions – the sword he’d gotten as part of the treasure he’d brought back, and his guitar. He picked up the instrument lovingly and ran his hand along the side. He’d always loved music, and had entertained thoughts of being a bard when he came of age. “Couldn’t leave you behind,” he said to it, before laying it carefully on the bed with his other things.
There was a knock at his door. “Marty? Can I come in?” George’s voice called from the other side.
“Yeah, I guess,” Marty said, not turning around.
George came in. He frowned briefly at the piles of clothes on Marty’s bed, then sighed. “You’re really serious about this, aren’t you?”
“What gave it away?”
“Marty, there’s no need for sarcasm.” George moved a bit closer. “I just wanted to talk to you. About this trip you’re so insistent on making.”
Marty glanced over at him. “So? What do you want to talk about?” he said, half-turning.
“About the fact that I think you’re making a big mistake. Let’s leave behind the fact that you could easily get yourself killed for the moment. There’s bandits out there – what if they steal your money and your food? Or what if someone plays a con on you? Or--”
“I’ve got my sword, and I’m not going to fall for any cons,” Marty interrupted, scowling. “You guys know I can defend myself.” Then, feeling an irrational spike of annoyance, he added, “If for some reason you don’t want me to let on to anyone that I’m yours, I can do that. I know some people fear reputations, whatever the hell that means.”
There was silence. Marty looked over and saw his father staring at him, looking like he had been struck. He instantly felt bad about what he’d said. “Sorry,” he said, genuinely. “I’m pretty keyed up.”
“Marty, I’d never disown you,” George said, stepping forward and putting a hand on his son’s shoulder. “I’m not one that fears people talking about us. Everyone thought I was strange as a lad too, honestly. Any damage has already been done. Your mother and I – we just worry about you. So do your brother and sister, even if they have a very poor way of showing it.”
“Why? I mean – I don’t get it, Dad. You’ve seen what I do, you’ve seen – what’s the point in this ‘oh he’s out there in the big bad world let me sit and fret about it?’ I just – I--” Marty hung his head for a moment, trying to gather his thoughts. “I may not get this ‘fear’ thing, Dad,” he finally said, looking back up. “But I do know what ‘miserable’ is. And frankly, that’s sort of how I feel a lot of the time now. And I don’t think I’m gonna stop feeling miserable until I figure out what fear is, and how to feel it.”
George looked sympathetically down at him. “You’re really upset, aren’t you?” A nod. “And you’re not going to back down about going out on this journey?”
Marty shook his head. “I have to know, Dad. Okay, yeah, maybe I’ll end up dead – but I have to know.”
George looked him in the eyes, then sighed again and patted his shoulder. “Well then, let us give you a proper send-off, at least. Your mother will make you some food, I’ll get some of your money set up, and we’ll visit the smith and get your sword properly sharpened.”
“Thanks, Dad.” Marty turned and gave him a hug. “I’ll be okay, you’ll see. And when I come home, I’ll finally be a normal person.”
George chuckled and ruffled his hair. “Don’t turn too normal on us, Marty. It’ll give us all heart attacks.” He hugged his son back, then stepped away. “Now come on and finish your dinner.”
Three days later, Marty was ready to go. He belted on his sword and scabbard, slipped his guitar over one shoulder, and slung the sack containing his clothes, food, and a pouch full of gold over his other shoulder. Lorraine fussed over him as they stood on the road leading out of town. “Oh, Marty, you’re sure you don’t want to stay?”
“I can’t, Mom. We packed everything up already.” Lorraine didn’t laugh, just wrung her hands. “I’ll be fine. I’ll come home in one piece, and I’ll tell you all this funny story about what scared me and why, and everything will be peachy.”
“I sure hope so, son,” George nodded. He held out a hand to his son. “Good trip, Marty.”
“Thanks, Dad.” Marty reached over and shook it, then went ahead and gave his father a quick hug. “Good luck with your stories.”
Lorraine kissed Marty on the cheek, sniffling a little. “Hurry home, honey,” she said, unabashedly hugging him tight. “And don’t let anyone hurt you.”
“I won’t, Mom,” Marty said, squirming a little in her tight grip. “I’ll be home as soon as I can.”
“You’d better be.” Lorraine laid another kiss on his forehead, then released him and stepped back. “Goodbye.”
“Goodbye.” Marty got a better grip on his sack, then turned and walked out of the gates of the town and up the hill. Once he reached the top, he turned around and waved to his parents.
They waved back. “We love you!” Lorraine called in a slightly-strangled voice.
“I love you too! See you later!” With that, Marty turned around again and set off, humming to himself. He didn’t know where this adventure would take him, but he was eager to find out. “The power of love/is a curious thing/Make one man weep/Make another man sing. . . .”