A little girl, pale and delicate, walked with fleeting steps along the bridge. In one hand, she held a single blue balloon. The other lightly brushed the railing as she walked. A breeze ruffled her hair. The balloon swayed gently.

On a bench at the end of the bridge sat a man, alone and bowed. His shoulders stooped; his downcast eyes blank, unseeing. She thought that this must be what loneliness looked like.

Her footsteps echoed on the cobblestones as she walked. The man did not look up as she approached. She regarded him for a moment, his brown coat that didn’t quite fit, the shapeless hat pulled low over his face.

Taking his hand, she tied the string of the balloon around his wrist in a neat bow. The man did not move. A fallen leaf from a nearby tree settled for a moment on his shoulder, then drifted away.

She reached into the pocket of her dress. A gust of wind rushed by; a bird twittered in the distance. The man did not move.

The girl opened her hand and held it out to him.

The man did not move.

She placed an object in his palm and closed his fingers over it. The air stilled and all his senses seemed to concentrate on the warmth suddenly emanating from his hand.

Slowly, he opened his fingers to reveal a single brass button, scuffed and familiar.

“How?”

He closed his eyes and in that moment the memories came flooding back of the coat to which it once belonged, a different coat from a different time. He could feel warm hands helping him with the buttons, feel gentle fingers brushing snow out of his hair. He listened to the sounds of mingled laughter in the air. He inhaled the sweet, comforting scent of hot chocolate and baking cookies.

A single tear rolled down his cheek. The corners of his mouth lifted in a faint, nostalgic smile.

“Thank you.”

He opened his eyes and saw through a blur of tears that the girl was gone.

All that remained was a button, a single blue balloon, and the warm memory of a time long past.

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