Beneath Winter Sand

By: Vickie McKeehan


Twenty years earlier

Turlock, California

The March afternoon had turned warm and golden by the time little Hannah Lambert ran across the playground to make her way home from school. She waved goodbye to a few of her classmates while scrambling to catch up to others like her best friend, Melody Mathis.

Melody lived on the same street as Hannah, in a blue-collar section of the city where hardworking people either labored for someone else or ran their own small businesses to survive. Woodworking shops were prevalent and produced a fair amount of cabinetry used by area homebuilders. Sheet metal shops kicked out truckloads of shipments earmarked for Detroit to be used in the auto industry.

It wasn’t unusual for mechanics and locksmiths and factory workers who made up the neighborhoods to buy modest, cookie-cutter homes, have families, mow their lawns on Saturdays, have cookouts and barbecues, go to church Sunday mornings, and by afternoon spend the rest of the day rooting for their favorite sports teams.

Long before Hannah Lambert’s family made Turlock their home, the city’s dark past consisted mostly of the internment camp set up on the county fairgrounds where thousands of Japanese Americans were detained for the duration of World War II.

Gone were the barbed wire fences and the rows of barracks, replaced by carnival rides and crowds that came to watch monster truck rallies, and listen to the country and western bands that frequently filled up the arena. The fairgrounds were where eager high school students competed for coveted 4-H scholarships and cherished the blue ribbons they took home. Hannah had even been there once to ride the Ferris Wheel last year with her parents.

Hardworking principles went hand in hand with facing hardships. But despite the struggles, the Lamberts did their best to provide fun outings. Like many families in the neighborhood, sometimes Hannah’s mom and dad found themselves short of cash before payday. If they ran out of milk or cereal, they might be down to eating peanut butter and crackers for supper. An occasion that could bring out her father’s temper. Robert Lambert often railed at the low pay he received. He didn’t like the idea of not being able to provide for his wife and kids the way he wanted. When things got tight, he’d often rant that he’d never be caught asking for a handout from the county, no matter how dire the circumstances got. He and his wife, Laura, often had disagreements about his stubbornness on the matter.

But Hannah was used to the squabbles. Generally, a happy girl, on this sunny afternoon, she chatted up Melody as they took their regular route home, meandering along the sidewalk in front of a string of modest houses with well-tended front yards.

“I got a gold star on my math worksheet today. How about you?”

Melody wrinkled up her nose. “I don’t like math. It’s my least favorite subject.”

Hannah skipped along the footpath, readjusting the weight of the backpack she carried. “I do. I like counting things up. I can count to one hundred now by fives.”

“Everybody can do that.”

Hannah ignored the dig and went on with her cheery banter. “My mom says I might get a Barbie doll for my birthday.”

“It’ll probably come from the thrift store, used,” Melody pointed out. “That’s where mine came from.”

Hannah had coveted Melody’s secondhand doll for months now and Melody knew it. “I don’t care where it comes from as long as I get one. Momma says if I’m good, I might get a new dress, too.”

The back and forth continued like that until the girls reached the corner of El Capitan Drive. Melody lived to the right of the stop sign while Hannah lived in the middle of the block to the left.

The first grader knew something bad had happened the minute she stopped skipping and peered down the street toward her house, the one painted a light blue green with white trim. She spotted a line of police cars in front. To Hannah, it looked as though half the town milled about in the yard or on the sidewalk or stood in the middle of the street.

Melody’s eyes grew wide. “What do you suppose happened? Did your dad get loud again?”

“I don’t know,” Hannah answered, a lump forming in her throat along with the sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach that something was very wrong. She knew her father could sometimes let loose his temper in a bad way. Robert would sometimes drink too much and think he could solve his problems with a fist or a threat. Afterward though, he’d usually settle down to say he was sorry and they’d all move past the big blow up as if nothing had happened.