I’d begun splitting Red Fir and Tamarack rounds, so I’d stop shaking. The mortgage company was foreclosing on our business, The Upper Creek General Store. It was also our home. I put the maul down and stacked what I had split. Our wood supply was low. I added running out of firewood to my list of worries, along with paying my suppliers, the quarterly taxes, the electric bill, coping with my wife, Heather, and catching up on the mortgage.I filled my arms and stomped the snow off my shoes on the back porch. My six-year-old daughter Nikki opened the door. Her short uncombed curly brown hair looked like a bird’s nest wrapped in a pink hairband.
“Thanks, little girl. You’re a big help.” I dropped the wood in the wood box and stoked the potbellied stove. Nikki wore the Scotty dog-patterned sweater and pants I’d set out. Heather said I’d ruin her clothes if I washed them. She said she’d do Nikki’s laundry. Then she didn’t. I was tired of her wearing dirty clothes and started throwing some of hers in with mine. When Heather noticed she always had something clean to wear, Nikki’s laundry became my job.
The bell above the door jingled. Ron Gibbs, a California transplant, walked to the store’s Post Office window.
“Good morning, Mr. Gibbs. Two boxes and three letters arrived for you this morning.”
“I’ll pick them up before I go.” He removed his gloves. “Can you do a postal order for three thousand dollars? My wife and I are commissioning custom wine racks, and all I have is cash.”
I looked at my daughter. “You run along, little girl. Daddy has work to do.”
Nikki grabbed my hand. “I won’t get in the way. I want to see.”
I smiled. “Is it okay if my daughter helps, Mr. Gibbs?”
We stepped behind the Post Office counter. Ron handed me the money. “Make it out to The Wine Seller.”
I looked at the stack of hundred-dollar bills. It’d sure be nice to pay cash for things.
Nikki’s mouth made an O. “Look at all the money, Daddy.”
“Yes, it is a lot of money.” I put it in the post office’s lockbox. “Why don’t you go into the back room? I’ll be there in a few minutes.”
“Hurry, Daddy. I’m hungry.”
“I’ll be there as soon as I’m finished.” I turned to Mr. Gibbs. “How do you like the snow? I bet it’s different from California.”
He looked out the window. “It is. How long does it last up here?”
“Late May,” I said. “We had a blizzard in June last year.”
The newcomer raised his eyebrows. “June?”
“It only lasted one day. Warmed up to fifty the next.”
A thin, gray-haired woman with a puffy coat leading a white-faced black and tan dachshund wearing doggy snow boots came in. “Hello, Mrs. Hillevi. I’ll be with you in a few minutes.”
“I’ll get your boxes and mail, Mr. Gibbs.” I handed him the letters and wheeled the boxes out to the sidewalk. “May I help you with anything else?”
“No, I think that’s all.”
“Very well. Have a good day, and please come again.”
I put the cart away and walked to the back of the store. Mrs. Hillevi had Nikki at the table and was buttering toast.
I rushed in. “You don’t have to do that. Nikki could have waited until I finished.” I looked at the sink full of dishes, scattered beer cans, overflowing garbage, and the dirty table. “I apologize for the mess.”
The older woman frowned. “How is Heather, Jim?”
Heather, you mean the sick, fat, lazy woman who had put us thousands of dollars in medical and credit card debt? I smiled. “I think she’s feeling better. I’ll have time to do some dishes later this afternoon.” I pulled the garbage bag from the can.
Mrs. Hillevi cleaned a spot in front of Nikki and set her toast on a paper towel. She turned to me. “Would you come with me for a moment? We’ll be right back, Nikki.” She pointed at the dachshund. “Elmore, you stay. Jim, pick up the garbage and follow me.” She waited until we were outside before she spoke. “There are cans of rotten food and mouse droppings on the kitchen counter.”
I moved cleaning the kitchen to the top of my list of worries. “I know. I’m a little behind. I’ll clean it after the store closes. I promise. You can come back and check.” I threw the garbage into the dumpster.
She looked at me. “What’s wrong with Heather? Does she see a doctor?”
“Yes, Doctor Myron in Cascade. Heather has migraine headaches. She has her medication delivered here to the house.”
“Doctor Myron? I’m not familiar with him.” We walked back to the store. “I use Migranal for mine. What does Heather take?”
“Demerol and OxyContin.”
She stopped. “Those are highly addictive. How long has she been taking them?”
I wracked my brain. I’d left Heather to her own devices regarding her health. I just worried about day-to-day living. “A year or so, maybe.”
“That’s way too long. Who is this, Doctor Myron? Where is his office?”
“He works out of the Reservoir View Nursing home,” I said. “He sends her medication by National Delivery.”
The older woman narrowed her eyes. “Reservoir View Nursing Home? Why would a young woman like Heather go to a doctor in a nursing home?”
“He used to work at Urgent Care. For some reason, he moved to the nursing home. I’m not sure why.”
Mrs. Hillevi hummed. “He probably uses National Delivery, so he doesn’t have to use the US Postal Service. I don’t know if it’s legal to send controlled substances through the mail.” She peered at me with intense blue eyes. “Jim, it sounds like Heather is involved with an unscrupulous doctor and a pill mill. I’m afraid she’s addicted. You must get her away from him and into rehab. I was a county health nurse for twenty years and am still a mandatory reporter. Your home is unsafe, and I don’t believe you and Heather can watch Nikki.”
Panic swept over me. “Look, you can’t do that, Mrs. Hillevi. You can’t take Nikki. She’s all I have. I’ll clean the house, and I’ll get Heather off drugs. I’ll do whatever I need to. Please don’t call the authorities. I’ve kept Nikki safe this long. I can keep her safe until I get things straightened out.”
We stopped at the back door.
“What about the beer cans, Jim?”
I put my hand on the knob. “I don’t drink that much. I’m okay.”
She put her hand on my sleeve. “Nikki can’t stay here. You’re drinking, Heather’s drug use, and the dirty kitchen. I must call Child and Protective Services.”
I felt my world crash around me. “Would you please wait until tomorrow? I want a chance to talk to Nikki about it.”
“Very well. But have her ready early.”
Upper Creek, Idaho, was a mining town back in the day. Snowmobilers, four-wheelers, and side by sides had discovered the area, and Golden State ex-pats like Mr. Gibbs were leaving the high taxes and crime and buying the old homesteads at bargain prices. A few old-timers like Mrs. Hillevi, Dot and Bing Graham, and the Bersham sisters live here all year round. But that’s changing.
I offer delivery service for twenty-five dollars with a hundred dollar minimum order. I drop off for the in-town locals like the Bersham sisters for free. They’re homebound, live on Social Security, and always tip me a quarter. I parked the car, grabbed a load of wood on the way in, and noticed Nikki standing on a chair by the cash register. A strange man dressed in a snowmobile suit was helping her count the change. I dumped the wood and hurried over. “Can I help you, sir?”
“Is this your daughter?”
“Yes, her mother is supposed to be watching the store. Nikki, where’s Mommy?”
The little girl put two cans of chili, a loaf of bread, and three pieces of jerky in a plastic bag. “The delivery man brought her a package, and Mommy went to bed. I’m helping.”
The man looked at me. “I like to see kids start working early, but aren’t you concerned about your daughter’s safety?”
I turned red. “I’m sorry, sir. I thought my wife was watching her. It won’t happen again.”
He picked up his purchase. “I’ve got grandchildren her age. I’d hate to have something happen to her.”
I set Nikki on the floor. “I would, too. I’ll talk with her mother.”
He waved. “Bye, Nikki. You be careful, okay.”
She waved back. “Have a good day, and please come again.”
Mrs. Hillevi was right. Someone could have taken Nikki when Heather was in bed. “I’ll lock the door for a few minutes, little girl. Don’t let anyone in. I need to speak with your mother.”
Our bedroom was filthy. The only light came from a small lamp with a crooked shade. I stumbled over empty lemon-lime soda cans and cookie boxes to get to her side of the bed. Heather looked at me with glassy eyes. “You promised you’d watch Nikki.”
“My meds came, and I had to have a shot. My migraine was terrible.” She smacked her lips.
A syringe sat beside an open box of small bottles and a receipt. I picked it up before she could stop me. “A thousand dollars, cash! We don’t have a thousand dollars, cash. Where’d you get the money?” I froze. “You took it from the post office, didn’t you? Nikki must have told you about Mr. Gibbs. How am I supposed to pay it back? Did you think about that?”
Her eyes opened and closed. “They wouldn’t take my credit card. I had to have my meds.”
“I thought we cut up all the credit cards. God damn it, Heather, I could go to jail for this! Who will take care of Nikki? Who will take care of you?”
“I needed my meds,” she said. “How do you expect me to get better without my meds?”
I remembered my wedding vows. Do you, Jim, take Heather as your wife? To have and to hold, for richer or poorer, for as long as you both shall live. Saying I do was easy. Living it had turned out to be a nightmare. I looked down at the person she’d become and tried to find the beautiful, intelligent woman I’d married. Heather had gained seventy-five pounds, had gaps in her teeth because we couldn’t afford to go to a dentist, and quit bathing. She smelled a little like Parmesan cheese. I thought of her as a child, not a wife. A child with a credit card she’d hidden from me. I kicked the trash out of the way and left her there. Nikki looked at me from her clean spot at the kitchen table.
“Is Mommy okay?”
“Mommy’s fine. I bet you’re hungry. What do you want for dinner.”
“Can we have macaroni and cheese, corn, and little smokies?”
“Sure. I’ll go into the store and get them.”
I looked at the shelves of food and beer coolers. Heather and I had dreamed of owning a place like this and raising our daughter in a small town. Sometimes we’d take a picnic lunch and drive to Upper Creek Falls. Nothing fancy, just peanut butter sandwiches. I couldn’t remember the last time we did it. But we had a good time.
My family had quit speaking to us. I couldn’t blame them. I would be uncomfortable being around us too. Heather was practically incoherent, and we were so far in debt that they feared we would ask for help. I’d asked Heather’s dad and wife to help us once. Her dad had worked two full-time jobs so he could retire early. He didn’t want anything to get in the way of that, so he said no. It felt like he pushed me off a cliff.”
Nikki and I ate her favorite meal from aluminum pie pans because they were the only things clean. After dinner, I bathed her, dressed her for bed, and gave her two droppers of cough syrup. We sang songs, and I told her I loved her a dozen times. Then I read to her until she fell asleep.
I looked at Nikki and wondered if I was doing the right thing. I couldn’t put up with it anymore. Child and Protective Services was taking her. We were losing our home and business, and I owed the US Post Office a thousand dollars. Those were three too many worries. I wrapped Nikki in a blanket and laid her in the backseat of the car. Heather opened the back door when I started the engine and waddled toward us, yelling for me to stop. I pressed the gas and didn’t look back.
Snow berms higher than the green steel T-posts lined the sides of the road. I couldn’t turn left or right. All I could do was go forward. I got stuck a quarter mile from Upper Creek Falls and carried Nikki the rest of the way on foot. Nikki would splash in the creek, make boats from leaves, and watch them float away. It was frozen solid now, and the happy stream was just a memory.
The snow muffled the sounds, and the night was quiet. Bright stars filled the clear sky, and the moon glowed pale yellow in the treetops. I lay Nikki in the snow and unwrapped her blanket. I removed my coat and lay beside her. She shivered but didn’t wake. They say freezing to death is painless. I looked at my Nikki. I’m sorry, little girl, but I can’t think of anything else to do. I can’t leave you behind. I lay back, watched the tree branches sway before the moon, and listened to the wind.
I shivered. Then felt warm and sleepy. I looked at my daughter. Frost had formed on her eyelashes, and she’d quit breathing. Sleep tight, little girl. If there’s a Heaven, you’ll surely be there. ‘Til death do us part.’ I’d worked all my life and had nothing to show for it. I knew I was going to Hell, but it didn’t matter. I was already there.