What a relief it would be were there some way by which I might open my skull and forcibly remove Ratzlaff Street from my consciousness, memories, dreams. To be released from its loud, endless spectral grip would allow me to salvage some scrap of myself. Ratzlaff evicted by a drill or hacksaw spell. A gaping hole in my skull would be a small price to pay, honestly. I’ve learned to look away from certain signs on the highway. When it’s mentioned in passing in company that doesn’t know any better…I’ve excused myself, stood sweating in a bathroom stall more than once. It’s less a street and more a long, worried roller coaster of vanishing pea gravel and hungry ditches in the middle of nowhere. What happened on it didn’t do me or anyone else any good. Someone in a bar told me it’s a German name but I know it’s just rats laughing and I can’t imagine a worse sound than that.
I hadn’t been down Ratzlaff for a long time—like I said I’d avoided it like a plague. But one night I found myself driving it in a blizzard, going slow with my forehead just about touching the windshield because visibility was almost nothing but also because here and there I would bang my forehead not too gently on it.
Linda and her sister Tammy still live there, right off Ratzlaff Street in a farmhouse hidden by a high rock wall their father built. Not long after finishing the wall, he fell from it and died. Linda told me the story of his fall when she brought me around the first time, the story of the fall itself and its aftermath. It happened when she and Tammy were little girls. She said Tammy found him all bent-up at the foot of the wall, his eyes open and his broken false teeth sticking halfway out of his mouth. He mumbled that he’d been pushed and died right there. She ran inside screaming and that set off a desperate chain of events.
Linda told me she recalled her mother a few weeks later, standing in the kitchen dressed for church, saying that there were still debts to incur and comforts to purchase, dead husband or not. She said in that moment something akin to a predatory bird and things between them went sour forever. Then plenty of men came around to see what they could do about the new widow who had Linda and Tammy to care for all by herself—two wiry, backtalking daughters that spent more time sneaking around the surrounding woods hunting something they were sure hunted them in return. One of the callers was a goat farmer with a full head of black hair and a bag of money and that was who became Linda’s step-grandfather, Merle Richland. He was dead, too, by the time I met Linda. The mother was still around in a kind of fog. She called me Tom-Tom in a voice like a creaking door. She was two years gone from a heart attack by the time what happened to Tammy and me on Ratzlaff Street made everything awful.
To that farmhouse I went slowly and with regret and when the high rock wall came into view, taller and more oppressive than I remembered. I thought of Linda and Tammy’s father laying at its base, staring into a sky that had rejected him from its lower territories. I thought to go back. But I turned off Ratzlaff and eased my way past the wall and drove the 300 yards or so toward the house, my engine panting and whining against the slick, deep snow. I pulled up in front.
Like her step-dad Merle, Linda raised goats on the acreage and when I stepped out of my truck I expected to hear them bleating in the barn out back like they did when they heard someone come up the drive. But it was quiet, everything white and silent. Just the wind whooshing over three feet of snow. I pulled my collar in and shivered. What was I going to say after all this time? When ten years and that hideous accident stood between us? I almost got back in the truck and left but how would that make me look? Her text was not desperate but she definitely sounded concerned. Above all, I knew she’d hate to ask me for anything but her power had been out almost 24 hours and no one in could come anytime soon.
I texted her, “Here.”
The house had been painted mustard yellow. Her front door opened partway, half-obstructed by a big drift. She squeezed outside in a long, salmon-colored coat.
I called, “Hey, Linda.”
I hadn’t seen her more than once or twice since the accident, and even then it was just crossing paths at the post office, a quick conversation about nothing: a stranger’s gas line exploding in the newspaper or something, someone we knew had a baby or someone we knew had a baby that was gravely ill, I couldn’t remember. She stepped off the porch and we both looked at our boots buried in the snow and tried to sound friendly.
“Got the generator here.” I pointed at the back of my pickup.
She came over, lifting her knees high and holding her arms out like a tightrope walker as she stepped through the drifts, stopping a good three yards away then backing up a little, like she was trying to determine how close to me she was willing to be. Fine, I thought. I get it. Her nose was red and running, her eyes ablaze. I could see she was mad at herself for asking favors, especially from me.
She’d cut her sandy hair so it ended in sharp points at her chin. She looked younger, harder. Like an artist or a yoga instructor. I couldn’t imagine how I looked to her. Heavy and stupid probably, wearing the same oil-stained jacket that had embarrasses her when we were together. Over her head, just beyond the peak of the farmhouse roof, I thought I saw someone up in a tree, a figure gripping tight to the slim fir trunk about thirty feet in the air, white like the snow that covered everything.
Linda said, “Thanks, Tom, this storm caught me by surprise. You’d think I’d have learned by now.”
“Caught about everybody by surprise, “ I said.
When I looked back to the tree, the figure was gone. A flashlight peered out of an upstairs window. I searched for anything glad in Linda’s eyes but all I found was the wreckage of Tammy’s car and a hospital bed crisscrossed with tubes and wires.
“Goats sure are quiet,” I said.
When she didn’t seem to understand, I pointed to the sign over the barn, Richland Pygmy Goats. She told me in a curious, breaking voice they died last summer. Every last one of them.
I looked down and said, “I’m really sorry.”
It took me about half an hour to get the generator hooked up and running and in that time more snow arrived, big wet flakes falling in slow motion like a Christmas movie. Her porch light came on, its insect hum joining the roar of the generator to blast across the snow. She came out of the house and came shivering over, closer this time, her arms wrapped tight around her body.
“I really appreciate it. We were getting sort of worried over here. We have the fireplace but it’s so boring to just sit in there with nothing to watch and it only heats the front room. And Tammy’s heart monitor is on a backup battery that only has so much charge left.”
She held out a wad of bills.
I shook my head, waved the money away and said, “You call me any time. I wonder about you two, how it’s going over here.” My truck was frosted over again and I made to go scrape it off and leave. No sense in prolonging this.
I turned around.
Stilts is my Irish wolfhound, tall and wiry, the color of soot. I told her he’s getting old and white but he’s spry as ever. Still never caught a squirrel. She hadn’t been over since Stilts was a spindly teenager zooming around a bonfire at impossible speeds while we drank rum and cokes in my backyard, laughing at his antics. She nodded and pursed her lips, almost smiling. The wind blew her hood back.
I said, “How’s Tammy?”
I hadn’t planned on asking about her, it just sort of came out. I cringed and looked at Linda with my mouth hanging open. I mean, how the hell did I think Tammy was? Running marathons? Opening a boutique?
Looking up into the steady-falling snow, she hesitated then closed her eyes like she already regretted what she was about to say. “Come in and see. We’ll have coffee or something.”
I shook my boots off on the doormat and felt the heat from her fireplace rush past me out the door. She motioned me in, pointed over to the couch. I couldn’t have predicted an invitation inside, it had been a long time. The place had been remodeled since I’d been there. More modern. The front room was painted stark white and the runners blood red. There were guardrails on the walls in the hallway, a black iron candelabra over the couch. Still, look harder and it’s the same well-worn farmhouse, just decorated different, the paint twenty layers thick in some areas. I pictured their mother sitting addled in the striped corner chair, spouting at me, “Tom-Tom, you screwed her yet?” It occurred to me I never questioned which daughter she was referring to. The central heat was blasting and the fireplace still roaring but somehow I still felt frozen to my bones.
Linda said she’d bring Tammy out after making some coffee. I turned and watched more snow pile up outside. I couldn’t help but scan the trees for whatever I thought I saw earlier.
“You still working in town,” she called from the kitchen.
“Yeah, be fifteen years in May.”
She came back with two cups and handed me mine, meeting my eyes with a kind of confused glare, like she was remembering a dream in which something awful happened but she couldn’t quite remember what it was.
Funny. I took a long sip, relieved that it wasn’t coffee.
Tammy rolled into the room in a big, motorized wheelchair decorated with all sorts of little trinkets. Her hair was still long and curly. Her forehead had a diagonal indentation where she hit the steering wheel, a little valley, not deep enough to entirely displace the hazardous beauty I remembered. Her jaw protruded in a weird way that made her look disappointed. Her eyes seemed smaller and their pupils had a red tinge to them.
I said, “Hi Tammy, it’s been a few years.”
Her mouth moved just a little. You could barely notice it. There weren’t any words, just a louder kind of breathing. Her hands and face were waxy and she was bulky, covered in thick blankets. Linda helped position her chair so she could see me better. The lips moved again. She remembered me. Her eyes, the ones that refused to ignore the desires of youth.
Linda said, “She had three strokes last year.”
I nodded carefully.
I heard a loud crack and something drop on the roof with a sharp clunk. I thought I saw Tammy’s mouth turn up almost imperceptibly at the corners. Linda went to the window, looking out and up.
I tried to be cheerful. “You’ve got quite a mode of transport there. You look great.”
I took a sip of the not-coffee and felt my ears turn red. It was her eyes. I could see she was something beyond lucid, more otherworldly. I had to look away.
“You really spruced this old place up,” I said to Linda.
She sat down across from me and stared. I felt both of their eyes on me.
“How’s your roof? Snow’s making those oak limbs extra heavy.”
No reply, just a look, like she was shocked I still existed.
Tammy moved her hand a little. I wondered what was going through her mind, if she ever thought of the night at Ernie’s Lounge that started all this. I guessed it was impossible for her to forget, too. Her date that night was some loudmouth she met at church who was dragged out of the bar by Ernie himself and two butch bartenders with crew cuts. Then Tammy coming over to sit with me, knowing full well I was drinking to forget Linda, who I knew was on a date somewhere else with some other loudmouth. We had shot after shot of Patron. Her tongue down my throat and my hands down her pants in her Honda Civic. The giving in neither of us thought would happen but for which we’d longed for years. I thought of their mother again.
“Have you screwed her yet?”
Outside, the wind picked up considerably and something hit the roof again. A thin metal gate began banging somewhere with the wind. Shot after shot of Patron. Now this. Strangers in a blizzard, all clearly crippled in some way. When it happened, I never got to ask Linda how bad Tammy’s brain damage was or what the future might hold for her. She just shut me out. We were freshly broken up, at the point where certain words had certain disparate meanings depending on who said them.
So I’d gone about my business managing a lumber yard and after a while people stopped asking me how Linda’s sister was because I didn’t really know. And they stopped asking how Linda was, too, because I didn’t have an answer for that either.
We were upstairs in her bed, me and Linda. She was warm, curved against me with her cheek resting on my arm. Downstairs, a television was blaring in the front room. Tammy was down there in her wheelchair watching Family Feud. I ran my hand down Linda’s back and felt the long-lost topography of her body, the scar where she had surgery as a kid, the raised birthmark I used to tease her about because it reminded me of an eagle.
She felt good, the same. I felt like I was in a dream with twenty layers.
The bed faced a big window and she had the curtains pulled back so we could watch the snowstorm rage. We heard more branches brush the house like spiny, searching fingers and more than a few broke off and fell on the house or past the window, chased by their disintegrating cloaks of snow.
“Something you find in a hospital room,” the host of Family Feud drawled. “Something you find. In. A. Hospital room,” he repeated. The audience murmured.
I reached for my cigarettes on the night stand but Linda swatted them away across the floor. In a southern drawl. “A stayth-uh-scope?” There was polite applause and a loud buzzer.
“What happened to the goats,” I asked, admiring her face in a stripe of moonlight. She whispered something I couldn’t quite hear, something about Tammy?
“Something you find in a hospital room,” the host repeated.
“Bal-ewns?” There was laughter. The host said, “Do we have balloons?!” The buzzer sounded and there was more laughter. It seemed to go on a long time. The family didn’t win a single point that round. The laughter just kept going.
Linda had fallen asleep and the laughter got louder and louder to the point where I couldn’t hear the host, the theme song, the sound effects or the wind or the metal gate banging away, just this laughing getting…closer to me? It was becoming deafening but somehow it was only one person’s laughter made enormous, a single voice become a crowd. A full-throated, raucous laughter. A laughter of hatred and sex.
I sat up in bed, alarmed. It was Tammy.
I went to the door and opened it a crack peering down the staircase. She was covered in snow, laughing shrill and sharp, her mouth open wide, her tongue swinging side to side. She was pulling herself up the carpeted stairs step-by-step, waxy hands bending and scratching and gripping like some predatory animal climbing the face of a mountain. She left a trail of melting ice behind her.
I closed the door and leaned back against it, shuddering. Linda rolled over and said something in her sleep, something about some kind of illness. I didn’t understand it.
Tammy reached the door and her fingers slid beneath it, hunting, clawing, brushing against my bare feet. “Hahahahahahahahahahaha. Hahahahahahahahahahaha. Hahahahaha-hahahahahaha.”
I kept thinking, “Ratzlaff.”
Oh, I thought.
Rats came out of the walls—hundreds of them, squeezing out of electrical sockets, falling from cracks in the ceiling, emerging from split floorboards, eyes strobing white and red—and I thought I’d need to jump through the window before the sound of them killed my brain. That sound, scratching inside my skull like thousands of little claws scraping on a chalkboard. A steam whistle grafted to my ears. My head submerged in a deep fryer. Cicadas birthing their broods in the center of my brain. An iron maiden fabricated from the blood-soaked wreckage of a Toyota Civic. I looked around the room through my fingers and felt Linda roll away from me. And as Tammy got the door open and scuttled in on all fours like a huge white crab, all the rats stood up on their hind legs and made it crystal clear that my predicament was by a long shot the funniest thing they’d ever seen.
Marc Tweed’s short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in the 2022 and 2023 editions of NOON Annual and he has also published fiction in New World Writing, Juked, The Normal School, Cleaver, X-RAY, and many other literary journals. His story “Mean World” was longlisted for the Wigleaf Top 50 of 2022. He lives in Seattle, where he works as a technology writer.