"I think this will do the trick for your star, Wooton," I said, flipping the switch on the laser beam I'd constructed behind the wooden stable in the Bassetts' front yard. "It should be visible for a radius of several miles after dark."
"Oh wow, really? That's fantastic!" Wooton took a step back to admire my handiwork. "Thanks again for all your help with this, Eugene. We couldn't do it without you."
"Oh, it's nothing, I assure you." I chuckled modestly. To be honest, I hadn't expected to so thoroughly enjoy working with Wooton and Penny on their festive endeavor. We were so different in so many ways, yet their creativity inspired my own.
"Now, didn't you want me to take a look at the motion sensor for the audio recording?" I pursued.
"Oh, yeah, that's right!" Wooton replied. "It was a great idea you had to ask Whit to record himself reading the Christmas story. His voice is just so mellow and soothing… But anyway, when I hook up the recording to the motion sensor, it plays back sounding less like Whit and more like Alvin and the Chipmunks."
"Curious," I observed. "What format are you using to upload the recording to the-?"
I was interrupted by a sudden slam of the front door as Penny shuffled out onto the front porch, balancing three precariously-stacked mugs.
"Who wants hot chocolate?" she hollered in a sing-songy tone.
"You don't have to ask me twice," Wooton volunteered enthusiastically, dashing to her assistance. "Here, let me help you."
"No, no, I've got it, Wooton. You're going to make me—" It was too late. "Spill."
"Oh, no! Penny, are you okay? Did it burn you? I'm so sorry, babe!"
"It's okay, Wooton," Penny replied, her tone indicating she was still a little annoyed.
Although Penny had managed to escape being scalded, all three mugs now lay empty, though somewhat miraculously unbroken, at her feet, their contents splattered all over the deck.
"I'll come help you pour some more," Wooton offered, scooping up the mugs and contritely trailing his wife inside.
Left alone without further instructions, I took the opportunity to go check on Buck, who was working somewhere in the maze of boxes and figurines littering the front lawn. I found him in the midst of a thoughtful pause, sitting on the ground with his arms wrapped around his knees, surveying the nativity scene.
It was a truly magnificent piece. Unlike the figures of wire, plastic and paper maché that composed the rest of the décor, the nativity was a masterpiece, hand-sculpted by an Italian artist as Wooton's surprise Christmas gift to Penny. The craftsmanship was exquisite, astonishingly lifelike in every detail.
Buck appeared so deep in thought that he didn't even notice my presence. I cleared my throat so as not to startle him.
"Oh, hi Eugene. Sorry I didn't see you there. I was just…thinking." He paused thoughtfully. "You know, that nativity scene reminds me of the one year we spent Christmas in Chicago."
"How so?" I queried, sitting down beside him. My curiosity was piqued. Though Katrina and I made a conscious effort not to pry into his past life, we felt quite privileged whenever he chose to share its details with us.
"Mr. Skint took me to this holiday market one night. Just outside it was a life-size nativity scene— just like this one." He nodded toward Wooton and Penny's display. "I snuck off for a few hours the next afternoon just to go see it again. I felt drawn to it somehow, I guess. It was just so beautiful. Almost magical. But nobody had ever told me what it all meant. It was just a pretty picture, like everything else on that trip."
He paused, gazing off into the distance, and then went on.
"That was my favorite Christmas I can remember—before I came here, at least. We stayed in a big, fancy hotel with a huge Christmas tree in the lobby, and we opened presents on Christmas morning—'just like normal folks,' Mr. Skint told me. He got me a brand new fishing pole and took me ice fishing out on Lake Michigan that afternoon."
He sighed deeply.
"We left town the next day, probably with a load of cash that should have been spent on some other kid's Christmas presents."
"Hm." I nodded, unsure what to say. After a few moments of silence, I ventured to ask, "Do you ever miss him? Skint, I mean?"
"Sometimes I do…" He paused. "And then I get mad at myself for feeling that way. I mean everything he ever said to me was a lie. None of it was real." Another thoughtful pause. "But this—" he gestured broadly. "This is real. This is something I want to hold on to."
"Buck, do you…" I began tentatively. "You see, Katrina and I have been—that is, we would like to—" But I didn't get the chance to finish.
"Eugene! Buck! Where are you guys?" It was Penny and Wooton returning with the hot chocolate.
"Over here!" I called from where we sat, casting an apologetic look toward Buck. Our conversation would have to wait until a later time.