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When Mario came to, he was quite calm.
"How long have I been out?" he asked, still lying on the ground.
Kordell shrugged. He had been sitting in the dirt, waiting patiently like a nun caring for the sick. "Can you move? Or talk?"
"I think so." Mario propped himself up by the elbows and rubbed his eyes.
"What just happened?" asked Kordell.
"You and I both just stepped into a vat of deep shit," said Kordell.
"You do?" Kordell asked, just to make sure.
"That kid Fredito thinks I molested him. Or his grandmother does." Mario tried to sit up but felt a twinge in his back and grimaced.
Kordell reached out to help steady Mario and eased him back into a horizontal position. "I don't even know if you should be moved right now."
"It didn't hit me," Mario said of the train. "I heard it coming. I was just a little ... confused at the time." He started to pass out again, his skull heading toward a softball-sized rock on the ground. Kordell grabbed the back of Mario's head for support.
"Are you strong enough to move over there?" Kordell indicated a fallen tree trunk farther away from the tracks. Mario nodded and Kordell helped him up.
"So how did you leave things with Fredito's nana and uncle?" Mario asked once they were both sitting on the tree trunk.
"I didn't," said Kordell. "How do you know Fredito's name and that those are his relatives?"
"He told me his name when I woke up this morning on the air hockey table and saw him playing Monkey Warriors. I heard the relatives when all the confusion started. I speak Spanish."
"Then why didn't you stay and speak your way out of this-I mean-explain what-why did you just run off? Shit, Mario, I don't ... you and I ... what the fuck?"
"You want the truth?" asked Mario.
Kordell let out a shaky, nervous breath. "Nothing but."
Mario looked toward the ground. "Something's happening to me. Since last night, maybe longer."
"Are you saying you have no idea-"
"I don't know what I'm saying." Mario ran a hand over his face.
"Mario, I gotta ask you this and" -another unsteady breath from Kordell- "please tell me the truth. I won't judge you. I promise I'll help. In every single way I can, I swear on my life."
"You're asking me if I molested Fredito." Mario held his head in his hands.
Kordell paused, not sure if he was ready for this.
"Not judge me?" Mario stood up abruptly. "Nobody can help me. I can't help ... you can't escape. There's no escape!"
"Escape from what?" Kordell stood up.
Mario swung around with anger in his eyes. "Why? What's your agenda?" His eyes rolled toward the back of his head. He had to steady himself to keep from falling.
"To get to the bottom of this," said Kordell. "And sort out this mess, this misunderstanding, if that's what it is."
"And if it isn't?" asked Mario.
Kordell paused. "I wanna help you."
"Help me?" Mario scoffed, as if the notion were entirely ridiculous. "Every little ... this world ... every single one of us ... ." His anger turned to confusion. He let out a muffled cry. "Every little ... homo ... ."
He trailed off, his fury spent, replaced by devastation. He sat back down on the log, deflated.
"Mario, I promise I'll help," said Kordell.
"Why? Because you think I'm innocent?"
There was so much Kordell could have said at that moment, like: it's possible I did this to you. But he didn't want to add to the confusion and uncertainty. At least that was the spin he could live with for now.
"Because I remember a kid named Super Mario," he said aloud, "a kid who was intelligent, bright, fun and athletic. I want to know what happened to him."
"If I promise to tell you the truth-my truth-do you promise to believe me?"
"Yes," said Kordell. "And I'll help you no matter what."
"Why? We aren't even friends, haven't seen each other in years."
"Do you have to question that right now?" asked Kordell. "Frankly, do you have a choice?"
Mario looked toward the morning sky and Kordell took the moment to sit on the log. Then Mario spoke:
"I don't know."
The phrase hung in the air while Kordell eyed Mario, unsure what to make of it.
"I don't know what I was doing when you and the grandmother walked in," Mario said. "I'm fucked up in the head and I don't know why. But I do know I would never, ever do anything to a kid, any kid."
"Mario, the circumstantial-"
"My shorts? They were still down from last night." Mario saw the confusion in Kordell's face and went on: "Last night ... when I was beating you at air hockey."
Kordell shook his head.
"Remember, dude? I took off my belt and starting cracking it like a whip."
Kordell's mind conjured up a vague scene of Mario, big black belt in hand, joking about how he was whipping Kordell's ass in all the games they were playing. But was this merely the power of suggestion?
"These are way too baggy, homie." Mario grabbed at the waistband of his shorts. "Last night, they fell down and you wrestled the belt away and threw it behind the pinball machines, making fun of me 'cause I had to hold my pants up."
Kordell pictured himself hurling a snake-like object over the bank of old-fashioned pinball machines. Sounded like something he would do, but Mario was wearing the belt now.
"I got it back in all the confusion," Mario said in response to Kordell's narrow gaze. "Before I ran. Dammit!" Mario made a fist and was about to pound it into the fallen tree trunk until he realized he'd end up with a bloody fist. "I know I'd never abuse a kid. You believe me?"
"I can believe you till my dying day, but what about how Fredito and his family are gonna see it? Especially after you ran. After I ran. His mother Sal has been my best friend for years. She wanted me to father Fredito."
"Then let's go back," said Mario. "To explain things before it gets more outta hand. I'll speak to the grandmother in Spanish and tell her that, even though I'm a little f'ed up in the head right now, I would never hurt her Fredito. I guess I'll leave out the f'ed up part, but I'll convince her I didn't harm him. Fredito can vouch for me. Dammit, they gotta believe me. And believe you. You said you'll stick by me, right?"
That wasn't exactly what I said, Kordell thought, but he knew there was no other choice.
Kordell was filled with both trepidation and a strange sense of relief as they headed back to Batter Up. He had no idea what awaited them, but the prospect seemed better than Mario's dismembered body scattered along several miles of train tracks. To avoid another run-in with a locomotive, they took a different route back, walking along a side street filled with bed-and-breakfast joints. On the way, not one word was spoken between them. What do you say before hoping to exonerate yourself from child molestation?
As Batter Up came into view, the first thing they saw was a parked police car, its muted siren lights swirling. The car was empty and another empty police car sat behind it. And all around Batter Up, there were another half dozen black-and-whites. Ten or twelve policemen milled about, taking notes, dusting doors for fingerprints, speaking on radio units-all in the name of looking for two alleged sex offenders, one of whom owned the place, a kids' establishment at that.
Wordlessly, Kordell and Mario came to a stop on the corner of the side street. Instinctively, they slowly retreated, just enough to avoid being seen while still being able to scope out the scene. The law was everywhere. And the law didn't listen to explanations like, I'm a little messed up in the head right now, but I'm sure I didn't try to sex up the eight-year-old boy I had my arms around.
"Let's get out of here."
Kordell wasn't sure who'd said it first, Mario or him. It didn't matter. They both had thought it, said it and now, decided to do it.