Early that morning Ribaldi showed up on Cassandra’s front porch wearing the cable guy’s skin suit. Slumping over the weight of his host-body’s paunch, he knocked three times on the front door. With each knock his massive lunchbox-sized hand created a resounding thud.
Cassandra knew the cable guy. He’d been over to her house a few times over the years. His name was Fred. He loved Pearl Jam and Godzilla. This wasn’t Fred the cable guy, though. Not really.
This was the monster Ribaldi.
Cassandra stood on her tiptoes and peered through the door’s eyehole. Yes, she thought, it’s surely Ribaldi. She knew by the snide smirk tugging at one side of his mouth.
That caustic smile always gave Ribaldi away. He could wear any man’s skin as a suit, and other than that smile was indistinguishable from them. Still, he could never resist the urge to flash that enraging smirk. After twenty years of trying to get to Cassandra, he had to know that this was the way she figured him out. Still, he simply couldn’t stop himself.
Cassandra’s lips pursed tight and her eyes narrowed with hot loathing for the monster outside her door. She was twenty five years old. Her chubby face made her look even younger (though she could no longer claim that extra weight was baby fat). The rage in her expression, however, made her appear much older than her years. Almost ancient.
“Go away, Ribaldi,” she yelled through the door.
Fred’s face scrunched up in confusion. “Ribaldi? This is Fred. With the cable company. We talked on the phone last week about interruptions with your service.”
Cassandra hesitated. It was true she’d sent that message because her internet started blinking out. She’d forgotten about that.
Still, Ribaldi had a way of using truth against her.
“Stop trying, Ribaldi.” She spit out his name with disgust. “You’re not getting in.”
Then the smirk appeared on fake-Fred’s face. Very faint, but unmistakably there. Oftentimes friends and family had told her she was imagining that smile, but they’d also tried to convince her that Ribaldi didn’t exist at all.
They were fools. All of them.
Still smirking, Fred walked back to his truck. Inside the vehicle he talked for a minute on his phone before driving off.
Cassandra wondered who he’d been talking to. She’d long suspected Ribaldi to be tied in with some larger network, but she had no idea what that network could be.
She double-checked the front door’s three deadbolts and went back into the living room to continue nailing the windows to their frames. She had a lot of work to do. Over the past three weeks Ribaldi had become more aggressive. He used to pop into her life once every few months, but lately it had been almost daily.
She finished the living room windows and had just completed nailing a two-by-four over the backdoor when a knock came again at the front. It startled her so that she dropped the hammer clattering over the floor.
Now seeing the tool as a weapon, she picked the hammer up and moved to the front door. She peered through the eyehole. Her heart jumped a bit at the sight of Jamie on the other side.
Sweet Jamie. Tall and thin in his faded Ramone’s tee shirt and tousled hair. Boyishly cute as ever.
Her girlfriends, back when she still had girlfriends, were always yapping about wanting “real men.” Well, a real man had beaten Cassandra throughout her childhood. Another real man had raped her. So, far as Cassandra was concerned, the world could keep its real men. She was happy with her boy.
As if sensing her on the other side of the door, Jamie said, “Cass, please open up.”
Cassandra unlocked all three deadbolts and the main lock and opened the door. For the first time in weeks her fear evaporated.
Jamie. Her love.
He stepped inside and Cassandra closed the door behind him. The two stood for a moment in awkward silence.
Remembering Ribaldi, Cassandra hastily locked all four locks on the door again. After she turned back, smiling wide, she saw Jamie’s gaze lingering on the door.
“That’s a lot of locks,” he said.
“Better safe than sorry, right?”
It seemed to take effort for him to move his gaze from the locks back to her.
“Cass, listen,” he said. “I’ve played this over in my mind a million times and still am not sure how to go about it. But, even though things didn’t work out between us, I still care about you. A lot. I’ll regret it forever if I don’t help you get the help you need.”
Cass faked a laugh that sounded too wild even to her. Still, she did the laugh again. Anything to hide her quickly breaking heart.
She’d expected Jamie to step in declaring his undying love, begging for her forgiveness and asking her to come back into his life. Things weren’t going as she’d hoped.
“Help with what?” She pretended not to know.
“I heard you quit your job,” Jamie said.
It was true. Ribaldi had been showing up there, both as her manager and as one of the prep cooks.
“I’ll find a new job.”
“You’re making that pretty tough, aren’t you? At this point you’ve burned just about all your bridges.”
“So you’re not here to get back together?”
The second the words escaped her lips she couldn’t believe she’d said them. Humiliation.
Jamie shook his head, slowly, deep sadness on his usually gleeful face. He reached out and pulled her close.
“God, Cass, I want you to get help.”
She hated the pity in his voice but still melted into the embrace. Throughout their relationship Jamie had been a loving man, but he’d never before held her with such fierce tenderness.
She rested her head on his shoulder. For a moment she felt clarity. Maybe he was right, just like her family and friends.
The whole Ribaldi thing did seem insane, after all. It’d started when she was a kid and first saw, or imagined she saw him, hiding inside her father’s skin the day he gave her the worst beating she’d ever gotten in her life.
He’d been popping up sporadically ever since, always more frequently when she was going through a rough time.
It’s all in your head. She’d thought this thought a few times, but now it hit it with her perfect clarity. Jamie was right. She needed help. She needed it badly.
Cassandra was ready to say all this to Jamie when she looked up and nearly screamed. Mirrors hung from two facing walls so that at that moment she could see Jamie’s face, just as she could see that damned Ribaldi smirk spread broadly across it.
She steadied herself and resisted the urge to scream. The fact that Ribaldi would take over her precious Jamie filled her with rage even more than fear.
She kissed Ribaldi’s cheek and pulled away.
“Thanks, Jamie,” she said. “I know I need help, but, before we go, I want to give you a present. Wait here. I have it in the kitchen.”
Jamie smiled. No Ribaldi smirk. It was her love’s boyish smile. She hated Ribaldi for hiding behind such a beautiful thing.
Ribaldi kept talking as she went into the adjoining kitchen around the corner and pulled a chef’s knife from its sheath beside the sink. He rambled on and on about love and mental health and forgiveness.
“Close your eyes,” she called back to him. “I want this to be a surprise.”
She stepped into the living room. Ribaldi stood in the middle of it.
Cassandra walked up to the skin suit of her true love and pulled back the knife to stab it into its neck.
Jamie’s eyes opened.
The terror that filled his face choked Cassandra. It nearly made her vomit.
She suddenly knew beyond all doubt that this wasn’t Ribaldi. This was her Jamie.
The knife began to shake wildly in her hand.
“Oh my god,” she said.
She dropped the knife and clutched both sides of her head as though to keep her mind stuffed inside it.
“Cass, what were you about to do?”
She couldn’t answer. Her gaze remained glued to the floor in shock at what she’d almost done.
Jamie picked up the knife. He touched Cass’s chin gently with thumb and forefinger.
“Cass, it’s okay. Look at me.”
“I can’t. I can’t believe what I just almost did.”
“It’s okay, Cass. Look at me.”
Cassandra shook her head. Shame and terror of herself kept her eyes pinned to the floor.
“Look at me, honey.”
The soft compassion in Jamie’s voice got through to her. She looked up.
Staring back at her was Ribaldi’s baleful smile spread across Jamie’s face.
“You played a good game, Cass, but Ribaldi always wins in the end.”
Just before Ribaldi plunged the knife into her belly, Casandra screamed.