eorge was bent over a horse’s hoof, trying to dig out whatever was making the animal limp, when Jamie McAdams collapsed into the mud right in front of him.
He might have heard Jamie stagger into the barn if it weren’t for the general din of the racetrack all around him. But instead his focus had narrowed to a few square inches of equine flesh and bone, the way he needed to keep things these days. He thought of his life as a smooth plain with a series of boxes on it. In the first most important box was Beth, in another box their room at the Barstow, in another his extended family, in another the track and the horses under his care. He stayed calm by dealing with the contents of only one box at a time.
There was a large, torn, dirty, messy, crammed-full box that was Taryn, but that one he’d sealed up with extra-strong tape and put into storage.
If Jamie McAdams fit in any of the boxes, it was deep in one shadowy corner of the Taryn box. Not somewhere George wanted to go.
“God, man, what’s going on?” George said, feeling not all that alarmed, moving not all that quickly.
Jamie was drunk, was his first guess. High, second. Generally messed up, next.
It wasn’t until he bent over Jamie, touched his skin, looked in his eyes, saw the condition of his clothes — in particular, his jeans — that he grew alarmed.
“Jamie,” he said, shaking the man, the doctor in him taking over from the devastated husband, the helping-sick-people box taking precedence over the hating-guys-who-fucked-my-wife box. “Jamie, what happened to you?”
Jamie seemed to rouse. “Annie,” he croaked. He brought one filthy trembling hand slowly to his thigh. “Eating my ball.”
His jeans were ripped there, no torn, no eaten away, it looked like. Suddenly George understood. There’d been some kind of accident involving anhydrous ammonia — Annie, some of the meth makers called it — and it had seared through Jamie’s clothes and was undoubtedly burning into the skin beneath.
“All right,” George said, trying not to panic. The treatment, short of a hospital burn unit, was water, lots of water, but it was supposed to be administered immediately after contact with the highly caustic chemical, one drop of which could melt a man’s testicles, turn his eye to jelly, render him unable to speak. George ran and got the hose, big enough to put out a fire in the barn or to spray down a couple dozen horses. He didn’t want to drown Jamie, just wash away what he could of the poison before he even attempted to do anything else. Then George turned on the water, hard enough to wash off the powerful ammonia, gentle enough not to flush away Jamie’s genitals with it.
Jamie sputtered and gasped in the spray. When the ground around him was drenched, George moved him onto some clean towels and began cutting away the fabric of his jeans. The skin, predictably, was melted, the muscle exposed, though the wound had stopped short of the bone.
“Is my ball gone?” Jamie said. He struggled up onto his elbows, attempted to look down.
George quickly pressed gauze over the wound.
“Your ball’s fine, from what I can tell,” George said, taping the gauze. He cut away the rest of the wet jeans, then Jamie’s green bikini underwear. Two healthy, whole testicles. Two balls and a cock that Taryn had seen, touched, maybe taken in her mouth….
Stop, George commanded himself. He imagined himself opening the frayed, overstuffed, evil-smelling Taryn box, stuffing all his angry and jealous thoughts about Jamie inside, slapping the box shut and double-taping it this time.
“Both of them,” he said, making himself smile. “You only need one anyway.”
“Oh, man,” Jamie said, sinking back onto the floor of the barn.
“I’m going to take you home,” George said, not adding that it was going to be by way of the hospital.
“Home,” Jamie groaned. “Is my sister there?”
“Yes, she is.”
“You’ve seen her? Is she mad at me?”
Typical, George thought. On the surface, Jamie was worried about Cora, but really, he was worried about himself. How could Taryn have been with anyone so weak?
Weak, strong, what did it matter? When it came to men, she didn’t discriminate. Or maybe she was so high she didn’t know the difference.
Taryn box, Taryn box. Oh, God, that was so stupid. There were no boxes, there was no putting anything away, the whole mess of his life was out there rolling around all the time, no matter how much he wished it were different. All it took was one feckless screwed-up guy crumbling into the mud to show him that. It was all out there, the good and the bad, and he was just going to have to learn to live with that.
“She’ll be glad to know you’re all right,” George said to Jamie, easily scooping him into his arms, surprised at how light the other man was, how compliant. Carrying Jamie to the car, it was almost like carrying Taryn in his arms, or Beth. Hate, love, they could be in the same box. They could both be inside him, at the same time, every day.