Beneath Winter Sand(2)

By: Vickie McKeehan

But even to a six-year-old this looked way more serious than a simple fight or an argument. Instead of one patrol car sitting in front of her house there were more like a dozen. She stared at the ambulance parked at the curb and the other vehicle, an official-looking station wagon with a county logo on the side.

Since her father worked the night shift at an almond packing plant operating a front-end loader, Hannah rarely saw him during the daylight hours when she was at school because that’s when he caught up on his sleep.

He didn’t drink much during the week. She could vouch for that. Her daddy rarely touched a can of beer, especially when he didn’t have the cash to splurge on a six-pack.

Hannah stood there, glued to the sidewalk, remembering how her father had looked that very morning—overworked and tired, she’d thought. He’d picked up a few extra hours of overtime for the week and had been late getting home. By the time Hannah darted out the door heading for school, her father was just coming in. Because she’d been in a hurry to get to class, father and daughter had simply passed each other on the porch where he’d grunted a hello and she’d waved a quick goodbye.

But as the little girl stood there on the corner now, remembering the last time she’d seen him, she also knew he had a temper. To deny his outbursts at times when life didn’t quite go Robert Lambert’s way would be a lie. Maybe that’s what had happened this time, thought Hannah, as she left Melody standing on the corner and ran the rest of the way toward the throng of people.

Her backpack weighing heavy by that time, Hannah was out of breath. Her lungs hurt as she pushed and shoved her way through the neighbors who lined the sidewalk. Some were too intent on catching a glimpse of what was happening inside the house to notice the little girl.

When she felt a hand wrap around her arm and pull her to the side, it was the friendly face of Mrs. Carmichael from across the street. The lady who always let her help bake sugar cookies on Saturday afternoons had been crying.

“What’s happening? What’s wrong?” Hannah bellowed.

The plump Mrs. Carmichael’s hand flew to her mouth. “Oh sweetie, there’s been a tragic accident. Your father…your mother…they’re gone, honey.”

A shiver ran through Hannah. Suddenly she was very cold, cold enough that her shoulders started to shake and tremble. Tears trickled out of her amber eyes and ran down her cheeks. If she listened hard enough to the adults, she could catch horrible words drifting past their lips, words like gunshot, murder, suicide…death…funeral.

It was hard for Hannah to comprehend most of it.

But when Mrs. Carmichael began to cry again, it hit Hannah hard. Six years old or not, she wanted some answers.

Wiping away her own tears Hannah tried to search Mrs. Carmichael’s warm brown eyes for more information. But she had trouble getting the words out. “What about…Micah? What happened to…my baby brother? Is he dead, too?”

“Don’t you worry none about the baby,” Mrs. Carmichael assured her. “A social worker already swooped in about an hour ago and took little Micah to the hospital to get him checked out just in case.”

That sounded reasonable enough to Hannah, especially when another social worker, an older, stern-looking woman with dark hair named Alice, came walking up to take charge of her.

Alice led Hannah to the back of the nearest police cruiser with instructions to stay put. “Don’t budge from this spot. You stay here while I go inside and pack up your clothes and personal belongings. You move, you’ll be in the way. Understand?”

“Don’t forget to bring Mr. Peng,” Hannah shouted at Alice’s back. “I want Mr. Peng.” But the woman never even turned around. With nowhere else to go, Hannah stayed put. It seemed like a long time before Alice came out of the house carrying a well-worn suitcase that had belonged to her mother and the ragged stuffed penguin Hannah had nicknamed, Mr. Peng.

Alice waved the stuffed animal toward Hannah. “I’m assuming this must be yours. It was next to your pillow.”

“Yes. Yes. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. I need you to understand that your family’s gone, Hannah. You won’t be coming back here. At all. Now get out of the police car and come with me.” Alice started walking toward a brown hatchback parked way down at the other end of the corner. Maybe that’s why Alice was in such a foul mood because with each step, the social worker kept grumbling about the walk. “I couldn’t park any closer to your house because so many police cars had already answered the call.”