Editor’s note: This is Chapter 8 of a 12-part fictional Christmas tale. Parents are encouraged to read aloud with their children.
“I’ve always thought he seemed incredibly lonely,” Anna’s mom said, snapping the lid on the cookies. “Even if he has trouble showing it, I’m sure he’ll appreciate this.”
“I hope so,” Anna said, taking the cookies. Her mom had smiled and agreed that Anna’s idea to take cookies to Mr. Banks was a great idea. She was used to her daughter’s spontaneous plans and ideas, and so she hadn’t much questioned Anna’s motivations beyond wanting to help a lonely old man.
“I just hope he at least lets us give him the cookies,” Anna sighed. “You know how he gets when people get too close.”
Anna’s mom gave her a kiss on the top of her head. “And I know that if there’s anyone able to break through a grumpy old man’s hard heart, it’s my Anna. Especially with this guy involved,” she added with a playful grin, nudging Tyler with her elbow. Tyler’s ears turned pink, but he grinned proudly.
“I sure hope so.” Anna hugged her mom before she and Tyler bounded out the door. The day was clear, with no sign of the fluffy snowflakes that were falling in the doorway scene, so she could only hope Mr. Banks was in one of his usual spots at the park.
He wasn’t in the gazebo, so she scanned the benches lining the pond.
“There he is!” She grabbed Tyler’s arm and pointed to where Mr. Banks sat on a bench, bundled in a thick black coat and gray woolen hat. He reached into a bag at his feet and tossed out a handful of birdseed.
Anna took a deep breath, hardly able to believe she was about to approach the most unapproachable man in Misty Creek. She shook off her nerves and, with Tyler at her side, headed over to Mr. Banks.
“What?” he barked up at them when he noticed them standing there. Anna swallowed, then gave him a bright smile.
“Hi! I don’t know if you recognize us … my name’s Anna, this is Tyler. We live in your neighborhood, and –.”
“And? What of it?” he interrupted, and Anna faltered.
“We brought you some cookies, sir,” Tyler spoke up, and Mr. Banks looked at the container in Anna’s hands. He was quiet for a long moment.
“What kind of cookies?” he finally asked gruffly, and Anna and Tyler exchanged a tiny smile.
“A few kinds,” Anna said, sliding onto the bench next to him and handing him the container. “There’s chocolate chip, clothespins, sugar cookies and gingersnaps.”
He pried the lid off, sniffing the cookies. “They look good enough, I suppose.”
Anna decided to take that as high praise, coming from him. “They are, sir. My mom makes the best Christmas cookies ever.”
He gave her a quick smile, so fast she almost missed it. “I’m sure she does. Thank you.”
She beamed at him. “You’re welcome.”
Tyler settled on the bench next to her, looking out over the frozen pond. “All the ducks have been gone for weeks,” he said. “What keeps you coming here?”
Anna winced, worried that it was too personal a question and that Mr. Banks would be angry. But the older man sat back against the bench, a serene expression on his face.
“I used to come here with my son,” he said quietly. “He loved the ducks. We used to bring a bag of frozen vegetables and feed them. We’d have a whole flock surrounding us.” He swallowed, blinking out at the frozen pond.
“Anyway,” he said brusquely. “That was a long time ago. Now, I come here for them.”
He gestured to a pair of cardinals that had swooped down from the trees. They pecked along the ground, picking up the birdseed Mr. Banks had tossed down. One was a brilliant red, bright against the white snow, and the other was pale brown with hints of red on its wings and tail.
“A male and female,” Mr. Banks said. “I’ve seen them here every winter for a few decades now. Not the same ones, of course. But there always seem to be cardinals here.”
He fell quiet, watching the birds, and Anna’s heart ached. She remembered reading something about cardinals, about how they symbolized comfort after the death of a loved one. She had a feeling she knew why Mr. Banks always seemed so sad.
“They’re so pretty,” she said, and Mr. Banks nodded.
She worried about overstaying their welcome, but Mr. Banks didn’t seem to mind their presence. Anna began chatting, nothing more serious than small talk, but Mr. Banks was responsive to the conversation. Before she knew it, she even had him laughing at her terrible jokes.
By the time Anna and Tyler had to head home for dinner, their trio had polished off all the cookies and made plans to meet again. Anna was positive Mr. Banks had a twinkle in his eye that hadn’t been there before, and she hoped more than anything she could help him keep it there.
Read Chapter 9 in Thursday’s newspaper.