IT WAS heart-stoppingly cold outside. Eugene hopped from the step of his trailer to the ground. The heavy metallic clank startled a crow up from the fire pit, its cantankerous cry echoing too loudly inside Eugene’s head. Sunshine glared down, and Eugene wished for just one snowy, overcast day. At least that would be a relief from the unrelenting cold. A quick glance around his minuscule front yard quashed the thought, though.

Devoid of anything resembling grass or, heaven forbid, a flowering plant, the space looked more like the worst areas of the construction site next door than a yard. He was—or wanted to be—a landscape contractor, for goodness’ sake. But like the shoemaker’s kids, his yard was the last to receive attention and it showed. Nothing to remind him how close it was to Christmas. He should think about that. Even a pine tree in a pot or a garland on the trailer could hold a few strings of lights—brighten the place up.

“This is depressing.” He scowled at the crow, who clucked at him from an overhead wire. “What would you know about it?”

The crow cawed. Loudly.

“Shut up.”

Grumbling under his breath, Eugene tucked his hands under his armpits and shuffled across the hard-packed ground. Pink morning sunshine skittered off the ice filigrees surrounding the reed stems edging his nearby pond. Less than twenty yards away, a small trickle of water spilled over the rocks and down to the lake in a miniature waterfall. The sound grounded him, and he smiled.

“Never get tired of that,” he decided, and eased a breath out. He watched it swirl away in the morning air. The lake should have been frozen by now, but weather changed, he guessed. Really, he should be glad there was no snow yet, even if Christmas was only a month off. He still had a lot of work to do to get the place winter-ready.

The dwindling pile of salvaged two-by-fours tucked up under the trailer mocked him. He was close to completing the framework for the timber walls that would define his home. He had just enough long timbers left to erect the last outer walls; so he would have to be judicious how he measured and cut. He didn’t have any room for mistakes.

As he stood there, the crow returned to sift through the ashes of his fire. It was a wasted effort on the bird’s part. Eugene was careful not to leave food refuse around, or he’d be overrun with seagulls and other enterprising city wildlife.

It did remind him that if he was going to check the construction site’s bin, he’d better do it quickly, before the first workers arrived. He didn’t really think his early-morning thievery went unnoticed, but as long as no one saw him, no one seemed inclined to say anything. It wasn’t like he was taking anything they planned on using. It was all in the garbage already. He was recycling. Reducing his carbon footprint.

Scavenging. Whatever.