While waiting on Mason and Red to return, I stretched out on the couch to catch my wind. It had been a long day and I had a lot of things to think over. For one, I wasn’t so sure how long I could keep the ruse going that I was dead.

Footsteps on the stairs got my attention and I peered lazily through my eyelids. I watched as Red jumped off the last step, and swiveled my head as he walked right past me and headed toward the foyer. What was he up to?

As if reading my mind, he swung around, marched back to me and tapped me on the shoulder. “Hey, Eric, you up, man?”

The decaying scent of a landfill dove through my nose, sending red-alert signals to my brain. I jumped up on the couch. “Hell, yeah, I’m up. Get outta my face, man,” I coughed out.

“Whew! Good, you had me worried for a minute,” Carcass Breath replied. “Mason wants you to take some meat out. We gon’ barbeque.” His face lit up, possibly at the thought of food.

“I’d really rather rest,” I stated. “But since Mason asked and I am a little famished, I’ll get on it.”

Red grinned widely. “Well, I’m gonna go guard the front of the house like Mason told me to. I’m like your bodyguard, Eric. Can you dig that?”

“Yeah, yeah, you go ‘head and do that.” I waited for him to leave before heading into the kitchen.

As I pushed and pulled to dislodge the frozen meats, I couldn’t help wondering how long ago Mason had placed them in the freezer. We could be waiting forever just for them to thaw. I finally heaved out what looked like steaks and placed them in the sink under running water.

“I think they saw me!” Red said, startling me as he rushed into the kitchen. “I mean, I saw them, so they must’ve saw me, right?”

I looked around him toward the hall. “Who are you talking about?”

Just then, the doorbell rang.

“Starlet and Alex.” Red looked at me with something between a smile and uncertainty.

Mason suddenly stepped from behind Red. He’d placed fresh gauze on his face. “Starlet and Alex are at my fuckin’ door?” He looked at me. “Stay here, Eric, I’ll get rid of them. C’mon, Red.”

I tiptoed into the hallway and stood just outside the foyer. I could hear Mason talking to them, but couldn’t truly make out what was being said. I’d decided to get a little closer, when the conversation became clear due to Starlet’s rising tone.

“You have to have seen Eric. He called Yanni—he’s the one who told her about someone blowing up his house.”

“Look, I don’t have no idea where he is and, frankly, I don’t give a fuck. My suggestion is that you head back to Rikers Island, where you’ll be safe,” Mason said.

“If Eric’s not here, then why did Red run when he saw us?” Starlet asked.

“I didn’t run,” Red insisted. “I just went to tell Eric, I mean, Mason that you were here.”

“Oh, don’t try to change it up—you said exactly what you meant. Where is Eric and why are ya’ll trying to hide him?” By now, Starlet had begun to shout.

“Maybe they’re telling the truth,” Alex said, in what he probably thought was a comforting voice. Didn’t he know that comforting a hysterical woman was damn near impossible?

“I’m not leaving here until Mason lets me search the house,” she insisted.

“I’ll be damned if you or anybody else is gonna search my house. You got five good minutes to get the fuck outta my yard.”

“Starlet, I think we’re done here—let’s go,” Alex added. “Don’t worry, we’ll find Eric—at least we know he didn’t get blown up.”

“They’re hiding something, Alex . . . I just know it.” Starlet sounded like she was close to tears. Crying over me? I didn’t know I still had that kind of effect on her.

I was about to step out of hiding, to let her know I was alive and that maybe we could pick up where we left off, when their voices became muffled and I realized they’d stepped outside and Mason had shut the door.

I stood there alone, a symphony of memories replaying themselves and reminding me of how Alex was continually there for her in ways I could have been. When it came to Starlet, I was always the skeptic. I hung my head in embarrassment and treaded softly over to the window to get a better view of the happenings.

Alex and Mason were discussing something. Starlet was still looking at the house, her mind seemingly miles away from the conversation. It was like she knew I was inside. Red stood still, his back to me, more than likely waiting for instructions.

I can’t do this to her, I thought. I spun on my heels and was about to head for the front door when I noticed a vehicle creeping up the street toward the house. The dark windows made it impossible to see who was inside, and no one in the yard seemed to notice it.

A panic swept through me. As I sprinted to the door, the word Barnes was already forming in my throat.