Happy New Year Resolution
It was the first New Years since Valle Hutchinson's ugly divorce and she wanted to do something different for the holiday so she took her two daughters on a skiing vacation to the Mountainside Resort in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Mountainside was a large hotel built in the 1930s with wrap around porches and Gothic interior designs. The getaway retreat sat at the foot of a mountain that featured several ski trails, a chair lift, and a frozen lake for ice skating (swimming and boating in the summer), along with trail hiking all year round.
The ski trip was a needed escape for Valle following the collapse of what she thought was her storybook marriage but turned out to be a farce when Valle discovered her husband had been having an affair for nearly two years. Valle was crushed by the betrayal and her resentful bitterness consumed her for several months until she finally decided to let go of her anger and hurt and move on with her life as a divorcee. She was still a great mom with a terrific job (Superintendent of the Greenville School System) and there was no reason why the forty-four year old professional mom couldn't enjoy the second half of her life even if it felt like the first half was a joke on her.
Valle's daughters spent Christmas Eve with their father and Christmas day with her and her parents and now it was time to welcome in the New Year far from home and the old reminders of a former time. Valle welcomed the holiday getaway and the Mountainside Resort went all out with its festive holiday cheer complete with Christmas decorations and a huge Holiday tree in the hotel lobby. A horse drawn carriage was available for rides around the lake and the hotel staff wore red Santa hats and cheerful smiles.
Valle's daughters were old enough not to be completely traumatized by their parents' divorce and both were in relationships of their own which was why Valle allowed twenty-year old Vicky and nineteen year old Veronica to bring along their boyfriends (Kevin and Mark) for the holiday celebration. Valle knew it would be a welcomed distraction as the girls prepared to celebrate the New Year without their father present. Valle liked both young men and she didn't have a problem with her daughters sharing beds with their boyfriends. Both girls were coeds at Green College, old enough to make their own life choices.
Valle suddenly felt like a fifth wheel tagging along with the younger crowd but the couples tried to include her in their activities. Valle was a skilled enough skier to master the slopes but she didn't have the endurance of the younger folks so she was happy to return to the hotel and catch up on her leisure reading. Valle also broke her own promise by bringing her lap top and catching up on some work too. She wanted to keep busy because she was lonely being single again after twenty-two years of marriage.
Valle liked the feel of the hotel's large and beautiful lobby complete with a large stone working fireplace and she camped out there with her large cup of coffee reading her novel while occasionally glancing up to people watch. It was during one of these lobby camp outs when the guest happened to glance up from her pages to notice the hotel's handy man passing through the lobby. Valle would have returned to her book without a second thought if something familiar about the man hadn't stirred her curiosity and after taking a second look as he went out the door, an alarm bell rang in Valle's head. She sprang from her comfortable chair and raced to the door, stepping out onto the large porch in time to see the man climb into a white Mountainside Resort pick-up truck.
"Dustin!" Valle called but the man either didn't hear her or he chose to ignore her as he fired the truck to life and drove off.
Mountainside Resort included a large area with cottages and cabins along the lake and in the woods, as well as the trails, a boat house and a small fleet of snowmobiles. The handyman was responsible for the maintenance of all the resort's property. Even with his long hair and beard Valle she was pretty sure the man in the bib dungaree overalls and blue snow jacket was Dustin Davenport, the kid who grew up in the small apartment above the Hutchinson's garage with his mother Amanda who was the family's housekeeper.
Valle turned and went back inside the hotel, approaching the front counter to talk to Mel, the friendly Day Manager.
"Excuse me, but is your maintenance man named Dustin?" Valle asked with interest.
"Sure is," Mel replied cheerfully. "Do you need his assistance with anything?"
"Dustin Davenport?" Valle clarified.
"Yes, that's him," Mel confirmed cheerfully.
"How long has he been working here?" Valle asked.
"Oh, many years," Mel said proudly. "He's been a terrific asset to the Resort. A real handy handyman! Everybody loves him."
Valle nodded her head, wanting to agree with Mel's assessment.
"Is there a problem?" Mel asked with concern.
"Oh, no, everything's fine," Valle said with a smile before leaving the counter and fleeing for the stairs and her room.
Once she was in the privacy of her room, Valle shuddered at the terrible memory that came pouring back into her head nearly twenty-five years after she last saw Dustin which, ironically enough, was on a New Year's Eve night.
Valle remembered that fateful New Year's celebration as if it happened yesterday. Their parents were out of town so Valle and her older brother Jim threw a New Year's Eve bash. Dustin's mother was visiting her sister for the holiday but Dustin stayed home to spend time with his girlfriend Marcia and Valle invited the couple to the party because - well, she liked Dustin. A girl like Valle wasn't supposed to like the housekeeper's son but she did. Jim tolerated Dustin but they weren't friends. Jim attended the prestigious prep school Sun Rise Lake School for Boys and Valle went to St. Anne's Catholic School while Dustin was a public student in the Greenville School system.
Dustin had nothing in common with the Hutchinson siblings. Jim and Valle spent their summers at the country club while Dustin spent his summers stocking shelves at the Stop and Save. Jim and Valle went off on expensive and exotic vacations with their parents while Dustin was lucky if he got a day trip to Sun Rise Lake. Jim and Valle got cars on their sixteenth birthday while Jim rode a bicycle until he graduated from high school.
Valle couldn't remember when Amanda became the family housekeeper (and cook and caretaker) but it seems that 'Mandy' was always around. And that meant that Dustin was always around too. Valle had memories of Dustin sitting at the Hutchinson kitchen table doing his homework while his mother prepared the family's dinner. Occasionally, Valle invited Dustin to the family room in the cellar to play a board game when she was bored or didn't have any friends around that day. She and Dustin were the same age and they enjoyed an awkward and totally undefined friendship over the years.
Jim and Valle were both students at Green College the year of the party and Dustin was attending Blue County Community College part time while working as a construction apprentice for Boone The Builder in Hillsboro. Dustin was still living above the garage with his mother but Valle knew she couldn't hang out with him too much, especially since she was dating fellow Green College student Heath Barnett. Valle met Marcia a few times and Dustin's girlfriend seemed like a nice girl (a cashier at the Stop and Save) but for some reason Valle found herself strangely jealous of Marcia even though she had no reason to feel threatened by the girl.
The party was a huge bash and a great success with lots of attendees. Jim was in charge and as popular as ever and it was nearly midnight when Dustin tracked Valle down and asked if she had seen Marcia (he wanted to be with her when the clock struck the New Year).
"No, Dustin, I haven't," Valle smiled truthfully, always glad to talk to the guy.
"I hope she's alright," Dustin sighed. She was drinking a lot."
"I can help you look for her if you want," Valle offered, although she had the urge to wiz him off into some dark corner somewhere, Heath Barnett be damned.
Dustin agreed and he followed Valle through the massive house atop Green Hill. Never in a million years did Valle think they'd discover Marcia with Valle's brother Jim when they opened the door to Jim's bedroom but there she was - naked, straddling the equally naked Jim engaged in some serious sex.
"Holy shit," Valle exclaimed, surprised to see her brother banging a cashier when he had been going steady with the well bred and sophisticated Alicia Shepard for several years.
Valle never forgot the look of betrayal and pain on Dustin's face as he turned and walked out of the Hutchinson house. Valle never saw him again even though Amanda continued as the family housekeeper. Amanda never mentioned Dustin other than to say he moved away. Jim showed absolutely no remorse about his tryst with the cashier and Valle was disgusted when she saw Marcia around the house a few more times even though Jim stayed with Alicia (he eventually married her, in fact).
Valle lost a lot of respect for Jim because of that incident and she felt guilty as hell for inadvertently leading Dustin to the scene of the sex crime. She also regretted never being able to apologize to Dustin or talk to him again. She missed seeing Dustin around the house. It wasn't until he was gone that Valle understood that the housekeeper's son had been a good friend over the years and that she actually liked him better than she did Heath.
Valle graduated with a teaching degree from Green College and she went on to get her doctorate in Educational Administration. She became engaged to and eventually married Dan Fredricks who worked his way up to Human Resources Coordinator at Green College. The couple had two children while Valle advanced her career from teacher to principal and finally to Superintendent and she felt she had reached the pinnacle of her career and total happiness in her life although sometimes she thought about Dustin when memories of her younger days flashed through her mind. She had no idea what became of him until she saw him at the Mountainside Resort.
Valle began seeing a therapist in the wake of her failed marriage and the discussion about loss brought her back to her brother's betrayal and unresolved issues regarding Dustin, including the guilt she felt about what happened that awful night. Family always came first in the Hutchinson clan so Valle continued to support and defend her brother even though she didn't like what he did to poor Dustin that night. She knew that Dustin was devastated seeing his girlfriend with another guy in such a compromising and vulnerable position and Valle couldn't blame him. In fact, now that a similar betrayal had happened to her she could understand Dustin's pain all the more.
Valle struggled with the concept of fairness and forgiveness since learning of her husband's long lasting affair. Everything she believed to be true came crashing down with the weight of betrayal, mistrust and defeat caused by her husband's infidelities. It was her therapist Mary who suggested the holiday getaway hoping Valle would have a chance to take advantage of some down time to think about her future and to deal with the loneliness she felt approaching middle age as a divorced mother of two.
"You're border-line depressed," Mary told her client. "Try to find something that will cheer you up."
Valle was spending her time at the Resort telling herself that she was a good mom and a good Superintendent of Schools. Facing her first New Year's without Dan was hard but Mary advised Valle to let go of the pressures in her life and to remember that she didn't have to get everything right or be perfect all the time.
"Find some semblance of normalcy in your new life," Mary advised.
Valle knew her trust had been shattered by Dan's cheating and she wasn't sure if she'd ever get that back. But seeing Dustin again made her realize that maybe she could help him heal while looking for her own closure too. Was that supposed to be the meaning of her holiday this year? To bury the past and start anew?
Valle stood in front of the full length mirror on the closet door of her room examining herself in the reflection. She had changed a lot in appearance since the last time Dustin saw her. She stepped closer to the mirror and examined the crow's feet around her eyes and the streaks of gray in her brown hair, now appearing much curlier and shorter than in her younger days. She placed her hands on her hips and sighed at the expansion two births and twenty-five years had caused. Valle laughed out loud, feeling strangely foolish for caring what Dustin thought about her after all this time. The last thing Valle expected to be doing on her vacation retreat was coming to terms once and for all about her feelings regarding the long missing Dustin Davenport.
What could Valle possibly say to Dustin after all this time? How could she even approach him? How would he react when he realized who she was? Would she cause him to do something rash? Maybe even blame her for what happened that night? Maybe she should just pretend that she never saw him but a part of her wanted to talk to him after so much time, distance and betrayal because oddly Valle missed her undefined friend and the times they shared growing up.
Valle headed downstairs still wearing her tacky Christmas turtleneck sweater and her black ski slacks and boots. She approached the front desk and asked Mel if the handyman was expected back any time soon. Mel checked a clipboard underneath the counter and told her that Dustin was working on a broken heater in Cabin Seven. Valle thanked him and walked toward the hotel's front door debating whether or not she should go find Dustin.
Mountainside Resort was beautiful in the winter, perfect for the holidays. A couple of inches of snow covered the ground at the foot of the mountain, painting the trees with a coat of white. Valle stepped outside the hotel and glanced at the towering mountain behind it, smiling knowing her girls and their guys were having a grand time on the slopes. She was glad they were enjoying the getaway but Valle struggled with the concept of happiness as a divorcee and thinking about Dustin and her brother made her sad too. The holiday retreat may have been a better idea if she had stayed home and let the kids have all the fun.
Valle followed the lane along the lakefront with several small cabins nestled in the woods on the right. She stopped in front of Cabin #7 noticing the white pickup truck in the turn out in front of the small structure. The front door of the cabin was open a crack and Valle stood on the walk for a long pause trying to muster the courage and nerve to enter the cabin. Maybe she should leave things alone - let sleeping dogs lay as it were. What would be the point of finding Dustin now?
Valle suddenly panicked, turned and started to walk in the direction she had come but then she stopped in her snow tracks and glanced back at the cabin. Twenty-five years was a long time. Didn't it make sense to finally bury the past once and for all? She turned a second time and this time she made it all the way to the front stoop, slowly sticking her head through the opening in the door.
The interior of the cabin was small - a large bed with a couple of bunk beds, a kitchenette, a couch, a table and a book shelf and that was about it. She saw Dustin on his knees working on a metal electric heater in the corner of the room. He was facing her but his head was down focused on his work and he wasn't aware of her presence.
Valle stood frozen in the doorway staring at Dustin Davenport, not sure if she should even care about him after all this time. She wasn't sure how much time passed but she was unable to move as all sorts of emotions ran through her mind. Dustin must have felt a presence in the room because he slowly looked up and he was started when he noticed the woman standing in the doorway. Valle wasn't sure if he recognized or even remembered her.
"Hello, Port," she finally said.
Dustin slowly stood and stared at the unexpected intruder as if he was looking at a ghost. "What the hell?" He managed to say with a look of disbelief on his face.
"I saw you," Valle said awkwardly. "Earlier. At the hotel. I'm here for a vacation with my daughters." Her speech was rapid and high pitched, as if she was a kid trying to explain herself in the Vice-Principal's office.
"Please leave," Dustin told her coldly.
"I can't do this, Valle," he said pointedly. His face was drained and his voice was strained.
"I know it's weird and believe me I never in a million years expected to come across you here but here we are," Valle said. "Why deny it?"
"Because denial is easier," Dustin told her.
"I always wondered what became of you," Valle said.
"I wish you hadn't found me," he sighed, looking away and staring out the frosted window to his left.
"Is it really that bad?" Valle wondered. "Seeing me again?"
"It's painful," Dustin told her, unwilling to look her in the eyes.
"I'm sorry," she muttered, feeling incredibly sad. "I know how awful it must be for you."
"No you don't," Dustin snapped sharply.
"My husband cheated on me for two whole years before I found out," Valle blurted out angrily.
Dustin finally looked at her. "I'm sorry," he said with true sympathy, his shoulders slumped and his voice weary.
Valle felt the tears in her eyes and she tried to stop them from coming. She thought about their days together on Green Hill. Sometimes it felt secretly romantic to be around Dustin even though it was always platonic between them. All these years later she still missed those special times and it still felt terribly sad that they had lost those magic moments of friendship to her brother's betrayal.
"Dustin, I don't blame you for feeling hurt that night," Valle said. "But it was a long time ago."
She wanted to give him a hug as she stared at him with sadness but all she could see on his face was misery.
"It just wasn't that night," he revealed.
"What do you mean?" She asked, confused.
"It was years of living under the oppressive Hutchinson rule," Dustin said.
"I'm sorry you feel that way," Valle said, trying not to feel insulted.
Dustin didn't respond and Valle sighed. He looked so somber and broken. Could it still be because of Marcia after all this time?
"You didn't die, you know," Valle said with annoyance, beginning to think all of this was quite ridiculous and truly overdramatic.
"A part of me did," he replied truthfully.
"Even after all this time? " Valle asked with disbelief.
Their eyes met for a moment and Dustin was momentarily taken by Valle's beautiful face after such a very long absence. She was as pretty as ever.
"You never knew what it was like," he complained.
"What?" She asked, not sure what he was talking about.
"For me, growing up."
"You seemed happy to me," Valle shrugged.
"No offense, Valle, but sometimes you were clueless and naïve, oblivious to the obvious," Dustin stated.
"What do you mean?" She asked, definitely insulted now.
"Do you even know how my mother and I came to live over your garage?" Dustin wondered.
She thought about it for a minute. "Well, no, not really," she admitted.
"My mother killed my father," Dustin told her.
"What?" Valle exclaimed, not quite believing what he said.
"Domestic abuse defense," Dustin explained. "It was one of your mother's first big cases. She won. Got my mother off. She didn't have to go to jail and I escaped the foster care system."
"I never knew," a stunned Valle remarked.
"Your mother gave my mother the housekeeping job and us a place to stay," Dustin explained. "But there were certain rules."
"What kind of rules?" Valle frowned.
"My mother couldn't bring men onto the property," Dustin recalled. "I wasn't allowed anywhere in the house except the kitchen unless I was invited. Your brother made me do some of the grunt work around the house. My mother and me were basically poor white trash."
"I never saw it that way," Valle insisted. "I didn't even know any of that stuff."
"Anyway, it was a tough way to grow up," Dustin said.
"But don't you have fond memories of our happy times together?" She wanted to know. "I always knew you were a good kid who rarely got in trouble."
"I didn't have any friends."
"I thought we were friends," Valle pouted.
"We were," Dustin said quietly. "You were the only one who was nice to me. I figured you felt sorry for me."
"No I didn't," she said with surprise. "I thought you were great."
"I need a cigarette," Dustin sighed, walking past Valle and out the front door.
"You smoke?" She asked with surprise as she followed him outside..
Dustin had already lit up as he stood on the edge of the front stoop. Valle could see her own breath as she stood downwind of him, looking out toward the mountain.
"It sure is beautiful here," she remarked.
"Like a whole different world," Dustin agreed.
She glanced at him and sighed. "Do you really like your new world?"
"Nobody knows I'm here," he admitted. "This was my sanctuary."
"More like your Purgatory," Valle observed. "Pretty and peaceful but stagnant and perpetually temporary."
"I've been here twenty years," he told her.
"Hiding," she decided.
"Surviving," he corrected her, taking a long drag on his cigarette. "You say you're here with your daughters?" He asked without looking at her.
"They're up on the slopes skiing with their boyfriends," she revealed.
"You still married?"
"Divorced," Valle said sadly. "This was supposed to be my great escape for the holiday."
"There's no escaping," Dustin said.
"Is every day a bad day for you?" Valle asked.
"Yes," Dustin revealed. "Do I know the guy you married?" He wondered, taking another puff on the butt.
"No, I met him after…." Her voice trailed off.
"Sorry about the divorce," Dustin let her know, sounding sincere and sympathetic.
"It was a shocker," Valle admitted.
Dustin stared at the mountainside as he burned the cigarette down to its end.
"How's your mom doing?" Valle asked after a pause.
"Okay," Dustin replied. "She lives with my aunt in Eastern Massachusetts. I call her every Sunday. Visit once in a while."
"My folks are still in the house on Green Hill," Valle revealed. "Although I don't know why. They have a new housekeeper, Josie. And they're still running their law practice too."
"What about your shithead brother?" Dustin asked.
"He's still a shithead," Valle readily replied, not offended by the question. "He married Alicia Shepard. They live in a huge house on the hill too. They have four kids and he's a lawyer in the family firm."
"Peachy," Dustin grumbled. "And what do you do?" he asked.
"I'm Superintendent of the Greenville School District," she smiled.
"Wow," an impressed Dustin said with surprise. "That's great! Good for you! Congratulations! Well done!"
Valle was caught off guard by his sincere compliments. "Thanks," she said sheepishly, remembering all the times she tried to impress him growing up even though she was the one with the status and reputation and popularity. She brushed her hand through her curly hair.
"I really need to get the stupid heater going," Dustin realized, turning and heading back into the cold cabin.
Valle followed him. "I could help," she offered.
"You have a degree in Air conditioning and heating equipment?" He asked.
"No," she admitted with a smile. "But I could keep you company."
"I don't get a lot of company," Dustin said as he knelt down next to the broken heater. "I'm not one for small talk."
There were so many things Valle wanted to ask him but she stood watching him dick around with a couple of tools instead as the handyman worked on the inners of the heater.
"You ski?" Dustin asked after several minutes of silence.
"Not as much as I used to," she admitted. "I realized I can't keep up with the kids so I gave up."
"That's okay," Dustin replied. "I've never been up on the slopes other than to fix the busted chair lift."
Valle smiled but she didn't say anything else and an uncomfortable silence hung over the room.
"Where do you live?" Valle finally asked, although she wasn't sure why.
"There's a cabin in the woods behind the hotel," he said, not looking at her as he worked on the heater.
Valle nodded but she didn't say anything more.
"You should go," Dustin advised after a few more awkward quiet moments.
She didn't want to and deep down Dustin didn't want her to either but he wasn't sure how much longer he could look at the beautiful woman without breaking out in sobs or busting out in frustrated anger to make her go away because every time he looked at her he remembered their good times together and how much he missed them…and her.
"I'm in Room 217," Valle let him know. "Maybe we could have Hot Chocolate in the lobby later or something."
"I don't think so," Dustin said heavily.
"Oh," Valle sighed, feeling rejected and trying not to react with hurt.
He glanced up at her. "We have to keep the two worlds apart, Valle," he warned.
"Because there are explosions when two worlds collide," he said. "We both know that."
"Anything's better than nothing, Port," she told him. "You have to know that."
"I haven't known anything for a very long time," he sighed.
"It's very cold here," Valle realized.
"Yes," Dustin agreed. "Very. But staying frozen is a good way to ice that which needs to stay suspended."
Valle realized that the depth and length of damage caused all those years ago. The suffering remained and it was as painful as ever. She could hear it in Dustin's defeated voice and broken spirit. Maybe she should just leave and be done with it but she couldn't bring herself to head toward the door. She watched silently as Dustin worked on the heater for a few more minutes. Then there was a clink and a groan and a noise and Valle began to feel heat coming from the vents.
"You fixed it!" She laughed, meeting his eyes with hers but the expression on his face was blank.
She watched him until he was done with the heater.
"I bet New Year's is hardest for you," Valle said as Dustin picked up his tools and put them back in his tool box.
"It's just another day," Dustin replied with a shrug.
"You're the one who puts up all the decorations around here?" Valle guessed. "That huge tree in the lobby?"
"Part of the job," Dustin replied.
He was walking toward the door now, finished with what he needed to do in the cabin.
Valle followed him, remembering the many holidays of her youth with school concerts, sleigh rides, Christmas Eve family gatherings, Christmas Caroling, and New Year's Eve celebrations. More often than not, Dustin was a part of those events and he was always Santa-like in his attitude and cheer. He was also a generous and thoughtful gift giver and Valle still had some of the presents he was kind and thoughtful enough to give her over the years– some friendship jewelry pieces, a nice wood carved jewelry box, a couple of books he knew she liked, and a painting of her he had some kid in art class draw from a snapshot. Valle had been extremely touched and moved by Dustin's kind gestures and she missed that warm and intimate feeling of those days especially now as she stood with Dustin on the porch of the cabin.
Valle wanted to tell Dustin that she wished it could be the way it used to between them but she knew it was a pointless comment to make. She also knew that she was a divorcee standing next to somebody she always cared about. It was the weirdest New Year's she could imagine - at least since that terrible one so long ago. Valle had to fight the urge to bust out in sobs. How could life become so miserable for the both of them?
"Do you want a ride back to the hotel?" Dustin asked.
"No, I can walk, thanks," Valle replied.
Dustin nodded and he headed for his pickup truck without saying anything further and Valle sighed as she slowly walked back to the hotel feeling drained and depressed. She almost lost it when she walked into the hotel lobby and heard the cheerful music playing with happy smiling people sitting in lobby chairs warming by the fire like some frigin' Hallmark Greeting Card. She knew she shouldn't be so pissy but it was hard to get fired up about New Year's when she suddenly like crap about everything. Was it Dustin's fault or her own for seeking him out?
Valle went up to her room, collapsed on her bed and had a good cry over Dustin and her marriage. She glanced out the window and saw that it had started to lightly snow and she laughed knowing God was being even more ironic, making the scenery even more poetically romantic when she was feeling so horrible. She let herself sob wishing she could feel the way she used to instead of feeling so empty and bleak. She quickly wiped the tears from her face when the girls knocked on her door to tell her to meet them in the hotel dining room in a half an hour.
"Okay!" Valle called out, hoping the girls didn't open the door to find her in emotional distress but the girls were talking to the guys and their laughing voices faded as they walked down the hall.
Valle pulled her emotions together and freshened up, changing into a dark wool skirt with tights and another turtleneck sweater and her black high boots. She put on a little extra make up just for the hell of it and she met her daughters and their boyfriends in the dining room.
Valle politely listened to the group tell stories about their day on the slopes but she didn't talk much, occupying herself with the tasty meal in front of her. She begged off the invitation to join them for an evening walk along the lake, claiming it had gotten too cold for her but once the girls finished giving her hugs and disappeared through the door with the guys Valle wasn't sure what to do with herself. She couldn't bring herself to return to her lonely and empty room so she waited a few minutes to make sure the girls were gone before she too stepped outside.
The Christmas decoration lights were extra bright in the freshly fallen snow. It sure did look beautiful but somehow Valle couldn't get herself into the New Year's spirt with the thought of Dustin Davenport occupying her mind. Tears returned to her eyes which probably wasn't a good thing in the cold winter night air. She had thoughts of trying to find Dustin's cabin in the dark but she decided against it, reluctantly returning to her room while trying not to think about him or the holiday. She fell on the bed and muffled her sobs into the pillow, not sure why she had become such an emotional wreck. New Year's was supposed to be a happy time.
Emotionally and spiritually exhausted, Valle fell asleep fully clothed on top of the bed and when she awoke hours later she remembered no dreams and she still felt miserable. The lights in the room were still on and it took Valle a few moments to collect herself, remembering where she was and why she was feeling like crap. She wondered how Dustin was doing - maybe he was feeling as miserable as she was. Hell, maybe he packed up his bags and fled, the pain of seeing her again and being reminded of the past too much for him to bear.
Valle wondered if the hotel handyman was on call. She sat up on her bed, picked up the phone on the bedside table, calling the front desk. The evening clerk said if it was an emergency he could call the handyman and have him call her to diagnosis the issue over the phone to determine if he needed to make a room call that night.
"Okay," Valle agreed. "Have him call me," she requested. "Just give him my room number. He doesn't need to know my name."
Five minutes later, the phone rang, causing Valle to jump in startled nervousness. She reached over and picked up the phone.
There was a pause on the other end. "Valle?" Dustin realized, sounding annoyed and maybe even confused.
"Hi, Port." Valle tried to sound polite and cheerful as if they had phone conversations every night.
"What's wrong?" His voice sounded rough and tired.
"Hi," she repeated, realizing her idea was awkward and probably even stupid.
"Is there a problem in your room?" Dustin asked.
"Hi," she said yet again, her voice almost goofy now. He probably thought she was drunk. "Sorry to bother you…are you busy?"
"No," he answered.
She cleared her throat. "Ah, no problem, nothing wrong in my room. I'm just kind of…in my room... doing nothing, you know?"
Dustin let out a sigh. "You shouldn't have called."
"I know," she said.
"Why aren't you with your daughters?"
"I'm a fifth wheel," she sighed. "They're young, in love, having romantic fun with their boyfriends. They don't need their depressed mother hanging around feeling sorry for herself."
Dustin didn't respond.
"Did you have a nice evening?" Valle asked.
"I don't have nice evenings," Dustin said, his voice distant and strained.
Valle was quiet for a moment, feeling his pain. "I'm sorry," she said.
"I'm going to hang up now," Dustin let her know.
"No, wait!" She pleaded. "Dustin...?"
"What is it, Valle?" He asked impatiently.
"I…you... I don't know…I just don't know what to say to you," she admitted with frustration.
"There isn't anything that can be said," Dustin told her.
Valle felt her heart jump into her throat. "Are you sure?" She asked.
"I mean, is that…is that all there is to all of this?" She wondered.
"Why did you call me?" He asked.
Valle didn't have an answer. "I…I don't know," she confessed. "I just…did."
"I wish you hadn't," he sighed.
Valle tried not to feel hurt. "I…it feels weird….. if I didn't talk to you, Dustin."
There was a long pause on the other end. "It's just too painful," Dustin finally admitted.
"I know," she agreed. "I know exactly what you mean." Valle paused and then added softly: "But you can talk to me." Another hesitation. "About everything."
"No I can't." She heard the sorrow in his voice followed by an eternal pause.
"I'm still here," she told him. "We used to talk about stuff before," Valle reminded him.
There was another long silence and Valle waited patiently.
"I'm…sorry….about….everything," he finally said, his voice barely audible.
"Me too," she whispered.
She heard his breathing and then the line went dead.
Valle felt a little bit better, hoping maybe there had been some sort of shift in their situation. She changed into her nightgown and crawled under the covers of her warm and snuggly bed, turning off the lights and watching the snow slowly fall outside her window until she fell asleep.
Valle met the girls (and guys) for breakfast in the hotel dining room before those four returned to the slopes, Valle again declining their invitation to join them, insisting she would be perfectly fine and content hanging around the lobby warming by the fire and reading her book.
Of course, she did neither. Once the girls were out of the hotel, Valle asked the front desk where the handyman was working today. She was told he was currently repairing a broken window in Cabin 12.
Valle left the hotel once again, today wearing a red Santa Socking hat with a gray wool scarf wrapped around her neck and a heavy blue ski jacket over her Christmas Turtleneck and heavy ski pants and ski boots. It was New Year's Eve and the world looked pretty with the freshly fallen snow painting the scenery in white and her feet crunched the snow underneath her steps as she walked. She traveled the lane by the lake until she reached Cabin 12 and she saw Dustin standing on a step ladder on the side of the structure replacing panes of glass in the window.
"Hi," Valle said as she trudged through the snow to reach him., pulling her scarf up around her chin to shield her face from the wind coming off the icy lake. She could see her breath in the wind.
Dustin glanced down at her from his perch on the ladder. "Boy, you just don't give up, do you?"
Valle smirked but then she shrugged. She wasn't sure what was making her so driven and determined to talk to him after so many years but maybe they were both ready for a new start.
"Dustin, we can either avoid it or face it," she announced.
He squinted at her. "Avoiding it is easier."
Valle sighed. "But is it productive?"
Dustin cleared his throat. "I don't think any of this is a good idea, Valle."
She looked up at him. "If not now, when?" She challenged.
He stared at her for a long moment. "You're still as pretty as ever," he told her. "Always so pretty."
"Thanks," Valle said, suddenly feeling the way she did in high school when Dustin went out of his way to compliment and flatter her. "I'm sorry about what Jim did," she blurted out.
Dustin visibly cringed. "I'd rather not talk about it," he said.
"Are you almost done here?" Valle asked. "Can we go somewhere and talk?"
"I really don't think this is a good idea, Valle," Dustin told her yet again as he slowly climbed down the ladder.
"I just want us to have closure on the past and to find some renewal," she groaned. "My God, it's New Year's but I feel no joy, no happiness, no satisfaction and its obvious you don't either. Why don't you start dealing with it instead of wishing something different?"
"I just can't go back there," Dustin let her know as he gathered his equipment.
"I understand," she said sympathetically. "I actually don't fault you for the choice you made. You did what you had to and what you felt was right. But you can still live your life."
"I am living my life," Dustin remarked as they walked away from the cabin and found themselves on the lane heading back toward the hotel. He was wearing his bib overalls and an old winter Peacoat. "I'm sorry things aren't going so well for you right now."
"My kids are growing up and I'm going to be a middle aged divorcee with nothing but my career to focus on," she sighed.
"You'll meet someone new," Dustin said with encouragement.
"I'm not talking about that," Valle groaned. "I'm talking about getting over the past. Both of us need to do that and we might just as well do it here and now."
"I don't think I can," Dustin said honestly.
"Port, we were friends, weren't we?" Valle asked.
"Yes," he said warmly. "Good friends.
Valle smiled happily. "Don't you remember the way we used to talk?" She asked hopefully.
"It was special," he confirmed.
"I miss that," Valle said.
They had reached the hotel now and Dustin stopped on the front walk. "I'll see you around, Valle," he said, trying to end the conversation.
"Show me your cabin," Valle blurted out, knowing she needed to stop him from leaving.
"I want to see where you live," she said.
"It's not ready for guests," Dustin warned.
"I don't care," Valle replied curtly. "Let's go."
He gave her a funny look but he didn't argue and Valle smiled with contentment as she followed Dustin along a path that ran into the woods behind the hotel. About fifty yards into the thicket, they came upon a cabin that pretty much looked like the cabins along the lake front but this one had private property and keep out signs nailed on trees around it.
Dustin led her onto the front stoop and through the front door. The cabin was small and cluttered with too much furniture to fit the space. Most of the furniture looked to be rejects from the hotel – a large bed, several chairs, couches, some dressers, an old metal desk, and a couple of book shelves. There was stereo and a television and a lap top computer with a worn carpet over the floor. Valle noticed a couple of family photos on the bookshelf and she was surprised to see a framed photo of her with Dustin standing in the Hutchinson back yard with their arms draped around each other's shoulders, smiling at the camera. She remembered exactly the time and place that photo was taken – a family picnic in her backyard when she was a high school sophomore.
"It's basically a dump," Dustin admitted as he hastily picked up some old newspapers and some hotel take out cartons from the furniture.
"It's definitely lived in," Valle agreed.
"I never seem to have the energy or interest in making it more homely," Dustin sighed as he removed his coat and hung it on a hook on the wall. "I mean, you're about the fourth person who's been in here in the past twenty years."
"That's just sad, Port," Valle told him.
She found a chair that looked comfortable and stable enough and she took a seat while unzipping her coat.
"You have any coffee?" She asked.
"Sure," he replied, going to the kitchenette area on the far side of the cabin and preparing the Mr. Coffee maker.
"Did you ever see anybody professionally, Port?" Valle asked. "You know, like a therapist or a psychologist or something? To talk about your father or Jim or something?"
"I was never in a place where I could hear that stuff," Dustin said.
"I've been seeing a therapist since I found out my husband cheated on me," Valle revealed.
Dustin brought two coffee mugs with the Mountainside Retreat logo on them, handing one to Valle while sitting on the old couch with the second cup.
"I was on a quest to regain some sense of normalcy in my life," Valle explained. "I needed to search within myself to figure out if there was any way I drove my husband away, caused him to look elsewhere."
"I doubt it was your fault," Dustin offered.
"I wasn't the perfect wife or mother but you're right it wasn't my fault he got tired and bored in the marriage and looked outside of it to find his thrills," Valle said. "I've been trying to work on my trust issues and I've been trying to understand and heal from the betrayal too."
"I hope it's working," Dustin said sincerely.
"I talk about you too when I'm there," Valle revealed. "And Jim."
"What does that have to do with your failed marriage?" Dustin asked, avoiding her eyes and looking extremely uncomfortable.
"Just the guilt and anger I feel about what happened that night," she answered.
"You don't have anything to feel guilty about," he assured her, tossing a look her way.
"Of course I do," she said with disbelief. "He's my brother. I'll never forgive myself," she said, looking down at the floor.
"You have too," Dustin advised urgently, staring at her with understanding. "Otherwise, you'll end up like me."
"And that's why you have to too," she said. "So you can move on."
"I don't think I can," he sighed.
"Listen, life is challenging but it can be rewarding too," Valle said. "I've tried to accept that I can't change what happened with my marriage but if you want to let your guilt and shame rule your life I guess that's your choice but I'm trying to find a peaceful understanding that some things are beyond my control. All I can do is forgive my husband for his betrayal and I can forgive you for the mistakes you made too."
"I haven't made any mistakes," Dustin said defensively.
"Yes, I realize you think that way but I beg to differ," she said. "Take a look around."
Dustin sucked in his breath. "You'll never understand," he sighed.
"I understand that you were gravely hurt that night," Valle replied. "But why can't you let go and move on?" She wanted to know. "Don't you want to heal yourself and be released from your self-imposed prison?"
"Marcia was the first girl who liked me," Dustin said. "The first girl I made love to. I was nearly twenty years old. She was special. She made me feel special. I thought I had finally found love in my life. But then the Hutchinson Rules kicked in. Your brother got to do what he wanted just like always."
"That's not true," Valle protested.
"See, I told you that you wouldn't understand," Dustin sighed. "You never realized how spoiled the two of you were. How you always got your way. Got whatever you wanted. The clothes. The jewelry. The cars. The vacations. The slack. The scholarships. The silver spoon."
Valle's mouth dropped open and she was stunned to hear him sound so bitter. "I didn't realize you hated me so much deep down," she said, her voice cracking as she tried not to cry.
"I don't," he answered truthfully. "I really don't. But I hated your brother for a very long time for what he did."
"Well, I did too," Valle told him. "I was disgusted, embarrassed, ashamed and horrified. He had a girlfriend for god sakes. And he knew Marcia was with you."
"But what Jim wanted, Jim got," Dustin remarked. "That was the Hutchinson way."
"Listen, I can't speak for other people," Valle said "I can't control what other people feel, think, or do. I'm sure my husband justifies and rationalizes his cheating that makes perfect sense to him so how can I argue with that even if I know it's all a crock? All I can do is let him think and feel the way he chooses because it no longer has anything to do with me and truth be told my brother no longer has anything to do with you. Let it go."
Dustin looked at her sheepishly and he sort of smiled.
"What?" she asked, slightly confused by his reaction.
"Nothing," he shrugged. "Just that it's nice being able to talk to you again," he smiled. "To hear your voice."
She gave him a smirk. "It's nice being able to talk to you again," Valle said. "I've truly missed it."
Valle got out of her chair and she fell onto the couch next to him. Dustin's hands were on his knees and Valle slipped her fingers through one of them and gave it a squeeze. He searched her eyes with surprise.
"Didn't I ever make you feel special?" Valle whispered.
A single tear fell out of his eye and it rolled down his cheek until it got lost in his mangy beard. "All the time," he admitted.
"Why didn't you ever tell me?"
"Because you were off limits," Dustin sighed.
"What do you mean?" She frowned.
"Your parents made it perfectly clear to both me and my mother where my place was in that house," Dustin told her. "And your brother warned me not to like you."
"He said I was white trash and that a Hutchinson would never have anything to do with me," Dustin revealed.
"That son of a bitch," Valle grumbled.
"Besides, you were always dating those perfect Catholic School guys and rich kids from the country club," Dustin pointed out. "You'd never be interested in a guy like me."
"That's not true," Valle argued defensively but then she realized he spoke the truth and neither of them talked for a long moment.
"Can I shave your face?" Valle finally asked out of the blue.
"That beard of yours is a mess," she complained. "And your hair looks like our old dog Cookie's fur!"
Dustin laughed and it was the first time Valle had heard the sound of his laugh in a very long time.
"Okay," he agreed with submission. "You can cut my beard off if you want."
"I want," she replied as she stood and took off her ski coat. "Where are your shears?"
He motioned with his chin toward the drawers in the kitchenette.
"To the bathroom," she ordered.
Valle found the shears and followed Dustin into the wood paneled bathroom which wasn't much bigger than a closet with a single shower stall (no tub), a small sink and a commode that barely fit in the corner. Dustin took a seat on the closed commode and Valle wrapped a towel around his shoulders.
"You grew all this hair to mask your face, I'm guessing," Valle said as she began to carefully cut his beard. "Well, it didn't work," she continued. "I recognized you right away."
"You're the first," he said.
"How many other people from Blue County have been here over the years?" She wondered.
"I recognized a few," he said.
"People forget, Port," Valle said. "They don't spend a whole lot of time wondering what in the hell became of Dustin Davenport. And nobody comes here looking for you."
She was hunched over, standing very close to him. Sometimes he could feel her rubbing against his arm or back as she cut and he could feel her breath on his skin as she continued to lob off his locks and facial hair.
"What do you do around here?" Valle asked. "When you're not being handy?"
"Read a lot," he admitted. "Television. Internet. Anything to distract me and keep me from thinking too much."
He groaned and Valle raised an eyebrow, looking at him with amusement.
"What?" She asked innocently.
"Just cut the hair," Dustin requested.
"When's the last time you went to a barber?" Valle wondered.
"It's been a while."
"Remember Carmen the Barber in Greenville?"
"I used to ride my bike there when I was a kid." Dustin smiled at the memory. "He let me sneak peeks at the Playboys he kept hidden under the Field and Streams!"
Valle laughed. "No wonder you always kept your hair so short!"
Dustin could see the glint in her eyes and he couldn't help but smile in return. They both became quiet as Valle meticulously cut his hair. She asked him to sit sideways on the toilet but no other words were spoken as she quietly groomed him. She slowly worked her way around to his front again and their eyes met, neither of them in a hurry to break the gaze.
"Dustin?" Valle asked softly.
"Can I ask you a question?"
"Did you ever like me?"
He blushed. "Of course I liked you," he smiled.
"You know what I mean," she said softly.
"Yeah, I know what you mean," he said sheepishly.
"Well?" She was standing straight now, the shears still in her hand, staring at him. "Did you ever want to become interested in me in that way?"
He nodded affirmatively and he shrugged his shoulders. "It killed me not to be able to tell you how I really felt."
She nodded in understanding and satisfaction, happy to finally know the truth. "Your hair's all set," she said, turning and leaving the bathroom.
Dustin stood and checked himself out in the medicine cabinet mirror above the sink. His beard had been cropped almost to his skin and his hair was almost as short as Carmen used to cut it. He had to admit it felt good to be able to see his face again. Dustin stepped out of the bathroom to find Valle sitting on the couch with her arms folded across her chest.
"I'm sorry we were all Hutchinson assholes back then," She announced. "You deserved better."
"You just didn't..." Dustin started to say but then he changed his mind and said something different. "Thanks for the haircut and beard trim," he said instead, trying to sound cheerful as he took a seat next to her on the couch. "It looks and feels good."
"Why do you think Marcia went with him that night?" Valle asked.
"Because he was Jim Hutchinson," Dustin replied effortlessly. "Why settle for chopped hamburger when you could have prime rib? Hell, your brother could buy her a hundred prime ribs."
"Do you know how awful I felt thinking you didn't like me?" She asked.
"You mean you liked me?" Dustin asked with surprise.
"Get a grip, Port," she groaned.
"Well, it's just as well," Dustin sighed. "It would have ended badly."
"Why do you say that?"
"Because your family never would have approved," Dustin replied. "They would have harassed my mother and they would have made us miserable."
"We were both miserable anyway," she mumbled.
"You were miserable?" Dustin asked with surprise.
"You were the only guy I could ever talk to," Valle admitted.
"And you were the only girl I could talk to," Dustin told her.
"What about Marcia?" She asked with interest.
"It was different with Marcia," Dustin admitted. "She was a cashier at the grocery store. She didn't read. She wasn't educated. She wasn't interested in world events. She didn't care about politics. She liked to drink and have a good time."
"You mean sex," Valle realized.
"I couldn't believe she was interested in having sex with me," Dustin admitted.
"Why didn't you talk to me that night?" Valle asked. "Why did you run away like that?"
"I just couldn't deal with it," Dustin sighed. "I realized that as long as I lived with my mother over your garage I was always going to be poor white trailer trash. I was always going to be at the mercy of the Hutchinsons. I had to get out of there. I had to live my own life otherwise I'd always be vulnerable. I'd always be looking over my shoulder at your brother. And I'd always be fantasizing about you knowing we could never be together."
"That wasn't fair," Valle complained.
"This is hard for both of us, Valle," Dustin said. "My mother told me you were married so that was that. There was no reason to come home."
"You're such an idiot," Valle groaned.
"I know," Dustin agreed.
"So, you really like the haircut?" She asked lightly.
He nodded yes.
"Good," she smiled.
And then she leaned in and kissed him and the taste of her lips against his made him feel warm all over.
"It was always you," she breathed.
"Especially now," she clarified, kissing the corner of his mouth.
"It's still too late," he warned.
"Don't say that," she groaned, pulling away from his mouth and looking into his eyes.
"Valle," Dustin sighed knowingly. "You're the Superintendent of the Greenville Public School System three hours away from here. I'm a handyman living in a dumpy cabin. I can't go back to Greenville and your parents would never approve of any of this anyway."
"I like retreats," Valle replied. "I like taking rides. I like the Mountainside. And my parents don't have to know."
"That would be as about as unconventional as it comes," Dustin remarked.
"I'm not saying it's the final solution, Port," Valle sighed. "But for now, doesn't it sound appealing? Don't you want to feel again? Live again? Be happy for a change? Have somebody in your life that cares?"
"How can you possibly want anything to do with me?" Dustin asked.
"I want you," she answered. "Accept that. Your mother told me you were never coming back so I accepted it and moved on. I met my husband and had a family and a good marriage or so I thought. And now here we are. Tell me that isn't fate."
"I don't know if I can ever get past the Hutchinson rules," Dustin confessed.
"I'll help you," Valle said softly as she leaned in and kissed him again. "Let me help you find your soul again."
"I'm not sure I know how," he sighed, pulling away from her.
"All you can do is try," she said. "And that's what I'm doing now. God, how's that for a New Year's resolution!?"
"I don't have a good track record with New Years, Valle," he sighed.
"Don't you deserve a second chance?" She wanted to know.
"I don't know," he said.
"Make a wish, Port," Valle told him, squeezing his hand. "It's New Years. Make a New Year's wish."
"It doesn't work that way, Val," he sighed. "I hit the end of the road a long time ago."
"We can build a new road," she insisted.
"How?" Dustin asked, not believing what she was saying.
Valle rolled her eyes and kissed him on the lips. "By believing in New Years resolutions, of course."
"I'm supposed to trust all that again?" He frowned.
"Yes," she answered positively. "A new start. A new beginning. A new mission. A new purpose. A washing away of sins committed."
"What if I don't believe in New Year resolutions?" he asked.
She blinked at him. "Then believe in me," she said. "It's weird, but when you feel special and hopeful about somebody even when it doesn't happen you never lose that feeling." Valle looked at him longingly. "It was hard losing you that day."
"I lost everything that day," he told her truthfully.
"Oh, Dustin." Sadness filled her voice as Valle wrapped her arms around him and pulled him against her, cradling his head against her breasts like a mother would a small child. "I want you," she whispered. "I always have and I always will."
"Isn't that a Hutchinson rule?" Dustin asked.
"It's a new Hutchinson rule for me," Valle answered.
"I'm sorry," he mumbled into her chest. "About everything."
"It's okay," she said, running her hand through his freshly cut neat hair and kissing the top of his head.
"I don't want to make this hard on you," he said. "But this will never work."
"You don't know that," she said, starting to cry now.
"I will be insecure forever."
"Maybe not," she said hopefully.
"It's hard to care," he said slowly. "Even though I know I should."
"Care about what?" Valle asked, still holding him close.
"Anything. Everything.""Don't you care about me?"
"Of course." She could hear him swallow.
"Then that's a start," she said,
Dustin lifted his head off of her chest and looked into her eyes. She smiled and gave him a kiss.
"I know what I'm getting myself into here, Port," she told him. "It may seem crazy to you but I've been waiting for you for a very long time."
"Valle….." Dustin sighed.
She placed her finger on his lips. "Shhh," she said. "Don't say anything."
They listened to the silence. Valle took hold of Dustin's hands and squeezed them with encouragement.
"It's okay, Dustin," she told him. "We'll get through this together."
"Why can't I forget it?" He asked desperately, his voice strained.
"Maybe you're not supposed to," Valle theorized with a shrug. "Maybe you're just supposed to find a way to live with it."
"I've forgotten what it used to be like," Dustin sighed. "It wasn't until I saw you again that I remembered how I felt having you in my life."
"Good," Valle told him.
"It never will be the way it used to be," he lamented.
"It's not supposed to be," Valle told him.
Dustin frowned and looked at her with confusion. "What do you mean?"
"It's never the same for anybody, Port," Valle told him. "Life changes us. We end old chapters and begin new ones. Graduate high school. Go to college. Get a degree. Start a career. Fall in love. Get married. Have kids. Buy a house. Get divorced. Retire. All of those are new chapters and new beginnings, not endings. Some people are luckier than others. Some escape tragedy and misery. Others have to deal with sorrow, sickness, death, loss, abuse, financial ruin, mental illness – I mean, pick your poison. Everybody has their own burdens and crosses to bear. Some handle it better than others. Some have it worse than others. The trick, for me, anyway, is to keep on going and make the best of what I have."
"And New Year's represents another change," she said. "The end of one year and the start of a new one. New beginnings. New starts. New promises. New goals. New hopes. New chances."
"Everybody has good days and bad days," Valle continued. "Yes, you've had it worse than most but you're alive, damn it. Do you think I want you to waste your life? Not to be happy? To torture yourself every day?"
"No," Dustin admitted softly.
Valle smiled a slow and bright mischievous smirk as she leaned in and kissed him sensitively and sentimentally as the years suddenly fell away between them. Dustin loved the feel of her lips, soft and damp and warm.
"Happy New Year, Dustin," Valle whispered.
#### #### ###
"The kids will be looking for me."
Valle's voice brought Dustin out of his doze.
It was almost dark in the cabin as the nude Valle lay next to the handyman under the covers after their afternoon of making love.
"Hmm…." He pulled her close and she smiled against his lips as she gave him a kiss.
"It's New Year's Eve," she said. "We're supposed to meet for dinner."
"Go," he urged.
"Can I come back later?" She asked hopefully.
"Of course," he smiled.
"You going to be okay?" She worried.
"I think so," he told her, kissing the top of her forehead. "I've had my bad days but every day with you was - and will be - a great day."
Valle grinned with approval.
"There will be no real ending from the past," Dustin admitted. "I won't wake up one day and say, 'I'm cured' but things will get better thanks to you."
"I think you finally found your New Year's Resolution," she smiled.
"Us," she replied happily "Happy New Year to Us!"
He kissed her to let her know he agreed.
"Come to the New Year's Eve celebration in the grand ball room," Valle pleaded. "We'll ring in the New Year together."
She expected him to say no and offer a hundred reasons why so she was pleasantly surprised when he rolled over and began to nudge her. "Okay," he agreed. "It will be a great way to start anew."
"Now that's a New Year's resolution I've been waiting a long time to hear," Valle smiled.