All the items on Willie's list had been crossed off, except for the last one, and for that, he waited until Sunday when the diner would be closed. Again dressed in his new suit, with briefcase in hand, he knocked on the door of the Evans' cottage. Maggie answered in her pajamas.
"Willie Loomis, leave me alone, please! I won't make a public scene at my restaurant but you are not welcome in this house. We have nothing to discuss." She started to close the door, but the young man blocked it with his hand. Maggie withdrew, gasping slightly, and reached behind her for the hammer on her pop's worktable.
"We got a lot of things to discuss, but we can do it here in the doorway if you insist."
She regarded her former husband in his executive ensemble with skepticism. "I don't know if I can trust you."
"I just want us to talk, like civilized persons."
The woman turned from the threshold with a sigh and retreated to the nearby sofa where her father was sprawled out for a nap. She perched on the far edge of the couch as Willie closed the door behind him and slid into the nearby armchair.
"Thank you," the young man said quietly.
The couple looked sadly at each other for a long moment as Sam snored between.
"We can never go back, Willie."
"I know that; I understand." He gripped his briefcase; this was more difficult than he had planned. "Deep down part of me is always going to love you, I can't help it, 'cause we went through a lot together, stuff you don't even remember, but I'll never forget. You told me, don't ever forget."
"Okay, Willie," she starred at him warily. "I don't know what you're talking about again."
"That's not because I'm crazy, it's because there's stuff you don't—it don't matter anymore. That part's over now, and it's time to move on."
"To who? Carolyn Stoddard?" A little, sarcastic smile crept across her face. "Do you really think that will last?"
Willie shrugged, a little indignantly. "That's none of your business, just like it's none of my business to wonder about your relationship with Joe Haskell, and why in all these years he still never married you."
"That's—Okay, there's—Why were you stalking me and harassing Joe and plying my Pop with alcohol?" she countered, abruptly changing the subject.
"Sorry about that. You know, Joe was right, I never shoulda interfered with your life. Barnabas always said I was selfish, and it's true. I knew you never really loved me; I just wanted you to."
"That is unfair," Maggie's jaw set with increasing intensity.
"Stop pretending. You left me when I needed help."
"You left me first when you became a drug addict and refused to see a doctor because you wanted to spend more time in your big mansion with the Collins royalty."
"I was in a hospital for 2½ years, for crissake. I begged you to come and visit, just once. I needed you so bad."
"I had a little baby, I couldn't!" she hollered. "Don't you think I felt responsible when you cut yourself? I drove to the hospital on Christmas night and sat by your bed for two days while you slept. Dr. Hoffman finally made me leave when I demanded to know why they were feeding you so many drugs when you had just overdosed. Sometimes I think there's something not quite right about her and Mr. Collins."
"It's possible," Willie conceded.
"The next day they transferred you to the other facility. The doctors there said you were catatonic and wouldn't know me." Her voice cracked with emotion as she rose and began to pace the room. "Around that time the pregnancy developed complications and I was ordered to bed."
"I never heard from you, not that I know of, until that lawyer showed up asking for a divorce."
"It was to apply for a bank loan to buy the restaurant. That stupid diner! I would have had to disclose your financial information and I didn't…I didn't know if you were ever going to leave there."
Maggie began to cry and Willie rose and approached her. Instinctively, she raised the hammer but the young man backed off abruptly. Angry at herself, she tossed it onto the coffee table with a thud.
"Who's at the door?" Sam roused from the sofa.
"No one, Pop, come on." she pulled Pop to his feet and led him to his bedroom. "Finish your nap in there."
"But Loomis is here. He always buys me a drink. Hi, Loomis!" Sam waved over his shoulder.
Maggie tucked in her father and returned, leaning wearily on the doorframe. "Would you like some coffee?"
"Yes, that would be nice." Willie was reseated and was gripping his briefcase once again. Maggie disappeared briefly into the kitchen.
The young man stared at the ceiling and inhaled deeply. Shit, that was about as easy as walking on glass. In less than two minutes, the civilized conversation had disintegrated to bitter complaints and hurling hammers. And Willie had yet to broach the subject he had come to discuss.
When Maggie returned with two steaming mugs, Willie was reading through a small stack of papers retrieved from his briefcase. He shook off grains of sugar from in between the pages.
"I won't take up much more of your time," he said in his most business-like manner. "I know this is your day off."
"Why did you come, Willie?"
The young man swallowed. "I'm here to see my daughter."
"Oh, no." Maggie shook her head. "I'm not comfortable with that."
Willie thrust a document at her. "I am fully recovered; it says so right here, signed by a doctor. I'm not dangerous or a psycho, don't take any more drugs." He kept control of his emotions. "I'm a different person, more responsible."
Maggie broke into an encouraging smile. "You look terrific, you really do. Stopped dressing like a teenager, your speech has improved so much, but, I just can't, Willie, it's too soon."
The man took a deep breath. "Samantha is my daughter and I'm legally entitled to visitation, unless you can prove to a judge that I'm an unfit father. Now if you want to challenge me in court over this, go ahead, but it'll be very expensive, and I can afford a much better lawyer than you can, especially with your bank loan problems. So, for your sake, I suggest we settle this between ourselves, okay?"
Maggie looked at him with skepticism. "When did you become a millionaire handyman? Did you rob a gas station, or is Carolyn bankrolling you?"
"I inherited it. I earned it. I found it buried in the basement. Don't matter, it's got my name on it." Willie dove back into the briefcase. "Here's the plan: I work at my new job during the day and go to school at night, so I want Sammi on weekends." He handed his ex-wife two checks. "The first one is for you to make sure she has everything she needs. Good food, nice clothes and real toys. The second is made out to Kinder Academy where I signed her up for preschool."
"You're too busy with your job to spend enough time with your own kid so your pop ends up watching her." He slammed the briefcase closed. "Well, my daughter is not going to be raised by a depressed drunk, do you hear? Because I know how that works out. A person needs a father. She's going to school and make friends, and I'll send them a check every month to pay for it. And if you decide to go out on a date with pretty boy, I want you to ask Vicki Winters to come babysit. Otherwise, call me and I'll skip class and do it myself. Those're my rules, or I'll see you in court."
Maggie stared into her coffee.
"Sammi is in the back yard," she said quietly.
From beyond the back door there was a scuffling sound as someone fled into the garden.
Willie silently wandered the rear yard. There were several places in which someone could hide, and a clever tyke like Sammi would know them all. She was finally located in the hollow trunk of a tree. Willie sat precariously on the table portion of a toddler-sized plastic picnic bench nearby.
"So, how about if you come on out of there before you get dirty," Willie remarked casually.
"I'm dirty now."
"Come out anyway. I got something for you."
"What is it?"
"Come out and see."
The child emerged cautiously, wearing a grimy tee shirt and scruffy overalls. "I know who you are. You're Willie," she sneered as if it were a dirty word.
"I saw you listening at the door. I'm your dad, but you can call me Willie if you want."
"I haveta look after my Pop Pop; I don't wanna go to school."
"Sure you do. I checked it out, it's a really nice place. They got swings and sandboxes and finger paints and a real live rabbit. Lot more fun than sitting around here all day."
"What'd ya bring me?" Willie opened his briefcase and produced the beginner reader books purchased from the used book store. The child looked disappointed. "What'd you buy them for?"
"I'm going to teach you how to read." The child laughed at the foolish notion. "So, what're you now, two years old?"
"I'm four, you jerk!" Sammi huffed indignantly, swinging her little blonde braids.
"Wow, four years old and still can't read." Willie shook his head. "That's just sad. Well, it's probably too late now. I guess you weren't smart enough."
"Gimme!" The girl grabbed a book and sat crossed-legged on the ground. She flipped through a couple of pages then tossed it away in frustration.
"Now, don't be like that, give it a chance." He motioned the girl over and pointed to a selection of words. "Here's some I'll learn you right now. Cat. Hat. Mat."
"Then how about if you draw a circle every time you see them three and next week we'll do more, okay?"
Sammi folded her arms. "Maybe." She studied the grown man sitting on her picnic table. "Mommy doesn't like you and Uncle Joe doesn't like you neither," she remarked matter-of-factly.
"I know, but I was hoping you and me could be friends."
"You're too bossy and I don't like your clothes and you have a funny nose."
"Well, you're awful little for four years old."
"Am not little. I'm big. Big bad Sam!" She showed Willie her fist.
Her dad shrugged. "You look scrawny to me. Are you getting enough cookies?"
The child carefully considered her response. "I don't think so."
Willie nodded in agreement. "That's what I figured." He produced from his case a large yellow sugar cookie secured in a paper pocket. "This is the good kind, from a bakery."
"What's it for?" Sammi cautiously took the treat.
"This is what you call a big ole bribe. I give you cookies, and then you'll like me better." Willie pulled a wet nap from his breast pocket and ripped open the package. "But let's get your hands clean first. Nobody wants muddy cookies." Sammi allowed the man to wipe off her grubby fingers. "If you're cool with the idea, I'd like it if we spend our weekends together from now on. I got ideas for a lot of fun things we can do."
The child's eyes lit up. "What?"
"First trip will be to Portland. We're going to visit my friend there who is a dentist for kids. His name is Dr. Stanley. Have you ever been to a dentist?" Sammi shook her head. "Then you probably have nine cavities. Now that part may not be fun, so afterwards we'll all go to an ice cream parlor for lunch, then to the art museum to look at post impressionists. See, you're going to need some ideas to paint when you go to school. We'll have dinner at a Chinese restaurant where I'll show you how to use chopsticks and say words in Mandarin. Have you ever eaten a frog?"
"Do you want to?"
"Yes!" she giggled. "And worms! What else?"
"Well…there was a lot of things I didn't have time to do when I was a kid, what with studying and violin lessons, so I thought you could help me out."
"On some other days I thought we could see a ball game, and a play with live music, and go to the zoo and a bowling alley and mini golf and the movies—oh, but not the circus," he added with a hint of parental authority.
The girl pouted. "Why not the circus?"
"Because you'll be scared of the clowns, like your mommy was."
"I'm not scared of nothing! I'll kick their clown butts!"
Willie laughed out loud. "I bet you will." He almost reached out to hug the girl, but she wasn't ready to and moved away, after which the man took care to maintain a respectful distance. Besides, he was never good at the hugging thing anyway.
Sammi pointed to his briefcase. "What else is in there?"
"More presents for when you're older."
"Can I see?"
"Sure." He pulled out his childhood book. "This is called Peter Pan. It's about a little boy who refused to grow up so he flew away to live in a magical place. And these—" he held up a pair of sapphire and diamond earrings "are for you to wear. Unless I run out of money, then they'll pretty much pay your college tuition."
"I already have pretty earrings," the girl replied nonchalantly. From within the tree trunk she produced a cigar box of treasures, and inside were the emerald earrings Willie had tried to give to Maggie years ago but ended up tossing in a snow drift.
"Where did you find those?" her father asked, astonished.
"Digging in the dirt out front. Kinda beat up but they're still pretty, huh? They're my pirate treasure."
"Does your mom know about them?"
"Oh no, don't tell her, she'll take them away. They're mine! I found them myself!"
"I will never tell your secret. Cross my heart and hope to die. But now you got two pairs, so you can wear one and sell one."
"Yours are prettier. Can I have them now?"
"Nope. They're too big for you and might pull your ears off."
Sammi held up the emeralds. "When I sell these, I'm gonna get a hundred dollars and then buy red ones too, but I want the blue ones now."
"When you're older."
"How much older?"
"You're almost 26 now, right?"
"A minute ago you were four. Did a birthday go by that I missed?" Willie looked under the table for a missing birthday. "Tell you what. You can have them when you're 10. Deal?"
"Deal." The two shook on it.
Father and daughter talked away the afternoon. They played Barbies, had a tea party and banished that creepy Teddy Ruxpin from their social circle after dad dissuaded the child from beating it with a stick. Sammi and the Cabbage Patch dolls put on a concert with songs and dances to an appreciative audience of one. Maggie watched silently from the kitchen window while listening to her pop snore from the next room. At length, the little girl tired and crawled into her daddy's lap.
"Willie, tell me a story."
"I don't know…"
"Go on, sure you do." She poked him, barely missing the cracked rib.
"Uh…Once upon a time…" he thought for a moment. "Yeah, once upon a time there was a carpenter who lived in a log cabin in the woods, because well, that's a smart place for carpenters to hang out. One day he married a real nice lady and they had a daughter who was a beautiful princess and knew how to fly. She played with Indians and swam with mermaids and fought pirates whenever they raided the forest..."
"Wait." The girl interrupted, baffled by the implausibility of his premise. "How can a princess have a daddy who's a carpenter?"
Willie sighed dramatically. "Obviously he was an enchanted carpenter who had defeated evil vampires and witch doctors when he was young."
"Okay, so what happened?"
Her daddy shrugged. "They lived happily ever after."
"That's it? That's the end?"
"Not at all." Willie wrapped his arms around his daughter and gazed at the setting sun. "That was just the beginning."
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