Bracing her wiry biceps, Scarlett Kane hoisted her three-year-old son into his booster seat at the kitchen table. The young woman’s husband, Michael, slammed the front door as he stormed out of their rented yellow house. Her face twisted in dismay, realizing that once again she had failed as a wife and her husband had staged a fight to leave. Little Troy looked up at her with wide blue eyes. Upset with her husband, she was rough putting him into his seat. He squirmed.
“Hurting me, mommy.” The child sucked on his fist and whimpered.
“Sorry, Troy. Your daddy’s gone. He left us alone again.”
Scarlett sighed. “If you’re not careful, you’ll grow up that way, too. All men do. Eventually.”
“Daddy hurt you, Mommy?” His cornflower blue eyes searched hers. He picked up a spoon. The floor beneath the table shone. A tricycle was parked in one corner where their cat played with a ball that belonged to Troy.
She waggled a finger at her son. “Don’t say that, dear.”
“I want to hurt Daddy,” Troy asserted, sticking out his small chest. “He hurt you, mom.”
“When you grow up, you will look after the house,” Scarlett suggested, changing the subject.
The boy frowned. “I don’t want to grow up, Mommy. Can I be a baby again?”
“No, dear. It doesn’t work that way.”
“I don’t want to grow up.”
* * *
One Friday on June 11, 1971, Michael Joseph Kane used all his savings to buy a gorgeous demo motorcycle. One of the best days of his life – he was on top of the world. Drops of water glinted on chrome and steel as the orange Honda CB-750 Four K1 bike came to a guttural stop in front of his house.
Michael first took the baffles out for a meatier sound, but otherwise he didn’t open the engine. He pushed the choke lever and stomped on the kick starter, and here came this motorcycle floating down the street as he hit the gears. The light was green for him and the Honda screamed through the intersection.
His wife, Scarlett Kane, pushed a lock of her rusty brown hair from her forehead and cradled Troy’s curly head in one hand as she pulled shut the bay window. Rocker Patch, their marmalade cat, thumped to the floor.
Rocker had always been Michael’s cat. Michael had named him after a motorcycle accessory. Scarlett was fond of Rocker Patch but the cat avoided her in favor of Michael and Troy. Max, her blue-feathered parakeet, twittered from his cage in the living room, and Angus, Scarlett’s grey Scottie mix terrier, woofed.
Scarlett flung open the Harvest Gold refrigerator door and placed a dish of mac and cheese in the big old microwave oven someone had given them, which loomed like a giant alien on the counter next to the sink. In two minutes, the timer dinged and she took out the lunch, placed it in front of Troy with a plastic spoon and a glass of milk. She adjusted his blue bib.
“Eat,” she commanded.
Obedient, the child spooned pasta into his mouth. His blue eyes sought her bright azure gaze. Macaroni and cheese formed a messy glob around his dish as he ate, some of it landing on the sparkling tile floor under the table. Some ran down the wall beside him. Scarlett groaned.
“Can’t you be more careful?” She mopped at the mess.
“Finished?” she asked. He nodded.
“All gone.” He made circles with his spoon on the wet surface of the table.
Scarlett whipped the bib off his neck and lifted him from the booster seat. “Stop that.”
“Your father’s coming back soon,” she continued, but she knew it was a lie. Michael would not return for hours. Rain pelted against the window. Her parakeet Max trilled in his cage in the next room. She usually left the television on for the bird because he liked the sound. She strode into the mahogany paneled living room and turned off the set. Max squawked.
“Time for your nap,” she said to the small child.
“Not sleepy. Don’t want a nap. I’m a big boy.”
Scarlett put him down and led him to his bedroom, where red curtains and a red cotton spread contrasted with the black and white modern wallpaper behind his bed. On the opposite wall, a mural of a clown had been painted. A red wooden toybox and white dresser stood against the other wall between two low windows. Toys and coloring books littered the carpeted floor.
He stumbled to his bed in his jeans and short tee-shirt. The cat followed.
“True,” she murmured. “You’re probably too old for a nap. Just rest, Troy. Close your eyes for a few minutes and leave me alone.”
“Sleep with me, mom?”
Scarlett placed her lips on his damp forehead. “You’ve been playing too hard this morning, dear. You’re sweating, and your hands are sticky from lunch.” She wiped his hands with her apron and sighed again.
“Can I have a glass of water, puh-leeze, mom?”
“Okay.” Scarlett tiptoed into the hallway, wet a washcloth from the bathroom faucet then let the water run until it was cold. She reached up and took down a paper cup from the dispenser on the wall. She filled the cup and slipped back into the child’s room. He was watching her with wide blue eyes. His curly blond hair fanned out over the brightly patterned pillowcase as he pulled the sheet up over his chest.
He drank thirstily. She washed his hands and face. He pushed her hands away and grinned at her. “I love you, mom.”
“I love you, too, Troy.”
“Do we love daddy, mom?”
Scarlett flushed. “Yes, of course, dear.”
“I love Angus, too. He’s a good dog.” She looked around but decided Angus must be in the yard outside. Max sang. Little Troy rubbed his eyes and yawned.
“You’re sleepy,” she whispered. “Rest now.”
Later that evening, after lunch, after dinner, after bedtime for Troy, his mother sipped on a cup of Red Rose tea in her kitchen with Nancy Clarke, her next-door neighbor. The women had become close friends as well as neighbors and depended on one another rather than their fickle husbands. Amazingly, Nancy’s trucker husband, Jack, was home tonight and minded their son Scott in his own unique fashion, a bottle of beer in one hand and the sports page in the other.
They hugged to say goodnight. Nancy slipped out the back door to her grey stucco house across the street.
Scarlett knew she could trust Nancy with not only her life but her child’s life.
On April 4, 1968, years before fathers were allowed to attend the delivery of their own child, Scarlett Kane remembered the pain first and the nurses around her, then the doctor standing at her feet guiding the birth. She regretted that her handsome blond husband, Michael, was not present in the room. The baby gushed out of her womb, releasing the pressure. The baby cried.
The doctor smiled and held him up. “It’s a boy!”
The mother’s azure eyes danced. Her husband would be overjoyed. Michael wanted a boy so much. She had to have a boy. She had validated herself and him by giving birth to a son. Her chest swelled and she took large, deep, savoring breaths. A nurse allowed Scarlett to hold her son before the doctor whisked him off to see Michael in the waiting room.
They called the baby Troy Michael Kane. Michael agreed to calling their child after the old tales of the Trojan war, and the alleged discovery of Troy by the German adventurer and archeologist Heinrich Schliemann. “Let’s not call him Heinrich Schliemann,” Michael laughed. “Kane is too Irish for that and Schliemann too shady. Troy Michael it is. He’ll be a hero.”
His wife murmured from her hospital bed, “The name also means ‘foot soldier’ in Irish Gaelic.”
“Fitting,” Michael commented and flexed his biceps. “My son the warrior.”
Scarlett’s mother had been a fan of Gone with the Wind and Scarlett loved being named after the strong female character in the book and epic movie. She hoped her son would also love his historic nomenclature.
At birth the boy weighed eight pounds fifteen ounces and was twenty-one inches long. His mother kept a shock of his pale hair in a blue baby book, which was a gift; later recorded his height, weight, first adventures, and vaccinations at various times of his childhood.
Troy had eczema shortly after birth, on the left side of his face, unsightly at first, and their close friends said, “Aww, so cute,” when they first saw him, then stopped when he turned his little face to the other side and they were shocked at the red mottle. Scarlett’s stomach fell at their reaction but she and Michael were so proud and delighted with their new baby boy.
She applied ointments, wheeled him in his baby carriage to expose him to filtered sunlight and fresh air every morning, down the long tree-lined streets of their neighborhood, past the gossiping neighbors on their front stoops, and the eczema eventually healed.
Michael washed the baby’s clothes in a laundromat because they lived in a cheap rented house with no laundry facilities. The husband used a lot of bleach on the baby’s clothes and washed out all the vibrant colors. Scarlett thought the bleach contributed to the eczema.
Her husband used lots of very hot water and bleach because he was a clean freak, which helped when his wife needed assistance with chores. He vacuumed all the carpets weekly and tidied their belongings in drawers and closets, which were always neat and well organized thanks to him. Michael was very active and useful.
His son remembered him forever although Troy was barely three when Michael Joseph Kane died in a horrific fiery motorcycle crash over the side of a bridge and shattered his helmet on a light standard below. His son remembered fondly and with some puzzlement the circus and the swimming pools that his father took him to when he was small, before his father didn’t ever come back again into his life. Barely three years old at the time, he remembered his mother crying when she left him with Scott’s mother one morning and his father did not come back as he usually eventually did.
After death. What is that? Troy didn’t understand, such a little boy he was, and waited at the window many days for his father to come home again.
Scarlett really didn’t understand, either, and the guilt overwhelmed her. Her last memory of Michael was the senseless fight, the door slamming, and the sound of the Honda bike as it roared away, down the street and to eternity.
The nebulous voice on the other end of the phone could have been a woman’s or it could have been a man’s – in 1971, there was no call display. The number and the voice’s identity remained a mystery. “Is Michael Kane there?”
“We buried him today.” Scarlett Kane’s tone was flat as she spoke into the receiver.
“Oh, really?” The disguised voice gloated.
“Hang up,” urged her sister, and Scarlett settled the instrument onto its cradle.
Often thereafter when the clunky green wall phone rang, there was no one on the other end, or an amorphous voice asked for Michael Kane; for the first time the day of his funeral when she and the motley funeral entourage returned to the yellow rented house they had shared. It happened again, more often in the evening. Only once in the middle of the night.
Someone in the neighborhood bought a motorcycle and slammed its cacophony down the length of the street two blocks from her home. The engine’s intermittent bellow cruised the residential area where Scarlett lived, but she never saw the rider and she knew only from the smoky belch of the machine up and down the same streets after dusk that it had to be a resident of her neighborhood joyriding their fantasy into her darkest fears.
The ghostly sounds began with a scratching behind the walls and a hollow tick-tock by one of the windows in three-year-old Troy Kane’s bedroom. His curtains didn’t quite reach together in the center and the boy complained of a light in his room. The child awakened many a night with fantasies of blue moonbeams floating on dust motes at midnight illuminated by intermittent bursts of beams from an invisible torch.