Someone was shouting and someone was crying and something was hot and itchy and wrapped up all neat and restricty around Ford. He kept his eyes shut, listening. Mrs. Fiddleford's gratey screech-and-sob she did when she was real wound up. Radios squawking. Pa Pines' gruff word or two, clipped off at the ends and given sparingly. Chop-chop-chop of copter blades overhead. Fiddleford's nerve-squeaking whine.
The inside of his head felt funny, like someone let loose a goldfish just learning to swim around the folds of his brain, flopping and wriggling every whichway. No, not just one, a dozen. The sliminess of it set his stomach roiling and he groaned.
Something shifted next to him. He cracked one eye to the sight of Ma Pines hunched uncomfortably close in the back part of a car full of more blinky lights and tubes and wires than he could skip a stone at. Lee lay next to him, eyes shut, mouth hung open.
"Quit sawin' logs, kid. Better open both and face the music, you've got a lotta explainin' to do."
Anxiety sank its claws in his belly. "How'd you find us?" He was shocked by the sound of his voice, raspier than a sandstorm in the Sahara.
"Had a dream," she mumbled, checking the compartments around her.
Ford went still. Ma Pines was only a cheat psychic and everyone knew it. The only kind of dreams she had were along the lines of Marylin Monroe and Dolly Parton getting in a catfight, and she didn't do more than laugh at them. She never talked about her dreams with the somebody-just-died-tone of voice she had now.
She found a water bottle and opened it up, putting the edge to his mouth. "Dreamed you two was just bones in a cave somewhere, gettin' gnawed on by badgers an' squirrels. Bones were layin' on a stretched out skin with a map drawn on it. Map of the country."
Ford swallowed. He had a feeling where this dream was headed.
"I wake up screaming. I go grab the flyer to call the number, make sure my kids got to camp fine." She leveled a hard stare at him. " 'No such number' twenty times in a row does somethin' to a Ma's head, kid. So." She straightened her back. "I go to yer room, and what do I find? Photos of a skinmap like in my dream. All stuck together in the shape of America."
Ford lifted his head, peering out the back of what he realized was an ambulance. An officer was talking with his Dad a few feet off. He could guess what Ma had done.
Lee hadn't moved. He had to check on Lee. He struggled with the binding blankets.
"Don't move." Ma's tone shocked him still. "Good-for-nothing's fine. Prolly dreamin' about his swindle. He talked you into this, didn't he?"
"Did he hurt you? Or that kid? What happened out here? What was that blockhead lookin' fer?"
Ford clutched the blankets, trying to think through the fish flopping. Why were they out in the woods? Something to do with Fiddleford. "Fiddleford…" his eyebrows pulled together as the fish flopped faster and his stomach churned. "Fiddle…"
"Kid's got scars all over. Not big'uns, but bad 'nuff. Was it Stanley? Did your brother have anythin' to do with it?"
"No!" Ford yelped. "Course not, Lee'd never! Look, Ma, we came out here for a camp, I swear!" As the words left his mouth, he blinked. They didn't sound right to him somehow, but at the same time, it was the only thing that made sense. In fact, he and Lee and Fiddle had all spent the night- "Shack! We slept in a shack first night, it was empty. Mebbe it was a scam after all, but we thought it was real, Ma!"
"Cops combed the place five times. Just found tore up sheets, nothin' off you boys 'til they swept the trees and found you knocked out in a cave. No injuries, but yer tellin' me you can't remember anythin'?"
"No, nothin', I swear!"
"Then it mighta been Lee, and you wouldn't'a known."
Ford hesitated. Lee hadn't been so great to be around lately. Things were changing. It was obvious Ford was getting smarter and Lee didn't care to try. Had he tried to pull something?
No. Of course not. Lee was dumb, but he had Ford's back. Always.
"This is serious, Stanford. If it ain't you, well… McGucket's kid pulled this before."
"No!" Ford pushed himself up on both arms, panicked. "They can't send him back!"
"It was me, Ma." Lee rolled over and sat up, keeping his eyes on the blankets. "I told Fiddle not ta tell. But there was this doctor we heard about who could fix him up, so I made 'em come with me. Doc fixed him up an' took all the money, but we got lost on the way back."
Ford blinked, dumbfounded. Lee hadn't burned Fiddle, that much he knew!
Or… the fish were swimming something terrible. He lay back down with a moan, clutching his stomach. Why couldn't he think right? He just wanted to go home. Lee could figure this one out himself for a change.
"I'm sorry, Ma," Lee hung his head. "Knew I done wrong, tried ta fix it."
"Well kid, yer Pa's gonna fix yer hides fer sure. Better rest up." She climbed awkwardly out the back of the ambulance. " 'Cause I got second dibs on yer hides when he's done. Gotta talk to his Ma. Kid's so shaken up he can barely talk. Wouldn't be surprised if the folks packed him up and left. We'll be lucky if they don't press charges."
Lee turned to Ford. His eyes weren't working right and his head was about to throw up a brain any second. It wasn't like Lee to be all quiet when he was in hot water, and he couldn't help feeling the sting.
"Hey. Poindexter. What gives? Whaddaya mean you can't remember?"
"I just can't." The reply was in the same clipped off tone his Dad was shooting off at the cops.
"Well I can't neither, but I don't wanna get skinned by Pa!" He whispered fiercely, "So how's about you help me come up with somethin' more reasonable than throwin' me under the bus."
"You did that all by yerself."
Lee's eyes narrowed. "Yeah, so our friend don't go back to the nuthouse. Ford, what's yer problem? We're in a bind, think us out!"
"Just leave me alone!" Ford rolled over, turning his back on Lee. "Please. Just. Shut up."
Shut up? Shut up? That wasn't joking Ford, or even concentrated Ford. It wasn't like Ford at all. He was really going to let them get hided over this?
Well, fine. That was just fine. It didn't matter. Lee could take it. Heck, and he straightened his shoulders at the thought. He'd convince his parents it was all his fault and all his idea and take all the hiding. Maybe that would make Ford sorry for hanging him out to dry. He'd see. Lee would always have his brother's back, whether he liked it or not.
Deep in a moldy old forgotten cave, down tunnels with freshly disturbed leaves, lay an enormous chamber. An ages old painting had been put there as a warning to all that a terrible demon had been banished on this spot. One that must never be called on.
At the foot of the painting lay a battered Kodachrome camera, kicked aside and nestled in the leaves. Slowly, the back of the camera swung open, exposing the film inside. The dim cavern light distorted the images of a ten headed child. An angry little gnome. And a boy with bright yellow eyes, flashing a grin far too wide for his face.
"Hey Diddle Diddle, the Fords and the Fiddle. The cow jumped over the moon."
A contented whisper slithered along the ceiling and down the walls of the chamber, announcing itself to everyone and no one at once.
"And now, we wait."
Note: The end of my first ever commissioned fanfiction. Thank you to my lovely patron, you know who you are! The request was a story about the Stan Twins and Young Fiddleford as children together, and the rest was left up to me. So I decided, what the heck. Why not set up for the events of "A Tale of Two Stans"? This was a great deal of fun and allowed me to toy with a new style. My thanks to the admin of the Rise and Fall of Nickelodian page for letting me bounce the last chapter off him and brainstorming to improve a few parts.