FICTION April 1, 2022


The bear holds his heart in his hands. He isn’t sure why. He knows the heart is a symbol—even if it’s a gooey, throbbing organ, warm in his hands where it isn’t supposed to be.

He holds it out solemnly to Steve. The bear’s face relays a subtle motherfucker-did-you-see-this? expression. It reinforces the I’m-a-bear-holding-a-throbbing-heart-in-my-paws-in-the-middle-of-a-train-station-in-Budapest vibe.

Steve, my housemate and friend, is aghast because he hates gooey stuff, and also because hearts are complicated. The heart reminds him that the world is endless, and he’s just not up for it this morning. 

I personally understand that we’re walking through the world oblivious 99 percent of the time, zero problems, and suddenly there’s a bear in cotton undies holding a messy heart out to you. In my world, you grab the fucking heart. No questions asked.

Cotton with flowers, butterflies, and green leafing vines. The underwear stretches across the bear’s soft ass fur, which seems infinite. These undies are just the right fit. And very clean.

The bear seems anxious for Steve to hold its heart. But of course Steve doesn’t. He can’t. Steve is the practical one. Too practical, he once admitted, late at night hanging out on our couch, his legs tucked under him, gazing out the window as the TV blinked into our faces. Too practical. 

I would take the heart in a heartbeat. I can’t wait to get my fingers into its squish, feel its lush throbbing. I have not considered consequences, because I never do. 

Steve is nervous, shifting from foot to foot, ready to get back to our Eastern European itinerary, which he mapped out months ago. Our breath comes in frosty hunks and travels out over the landing of the train station. This is where we accidentally met the bear this morning.

It’s a foggy Sunday morning in December, in Budapest. The sky threatens snow, spits a few examples down on us. The bear’s name is Reinhardt. He’s from East Germany. Because it’s 1991 and the world has just surprisingly, sledge-hammeringly opened up into fissures that haven’t quite settled into place yet, Reinhardt looks guilty. The heart being a dead giveaway. 

We try to help him. We suggest that he could maybe get a shopping bag for the heart? A box?

“I’ll hold it for you,” I say, holding out my mittened hands, which kind of look like paws, conveniently putting us on nearly even ground. 

The bear looks at Steve. Steve shrugs. “She gets like this,” he says.

I smile, encouraging. Put my shoulders back a little. “I don’t mind,” I say. I’m young and I feel invincible this morning, even with this head cold that has settled in. 

The bear shifts from foot to foot in his cute undies. Both hands occupied. The icy fog shifts like clouds across the train tracks. The train station is otherworldly. A man walks by holding a live chicken, a string bag filled with cabbages flung across his back. The trains shift and spout like horses at the gate. I get distracted by their gritty grandeur.

When I turn back to the scene at hand, Steve is—against all odds—holding the sticky, thumping heart. He has both hands extended away from his body. It looks like he thinks the heart might stain his clothes, make a mess. He looks at the bear longingly. I get the sense that Steve will blame me for this.

The bear, unburdened for the moment, rummages in his fur, his eyebrows furrowed, and pulls out a piece of worn paper. It has been folded and unfolded many times. I can feel the softness of the paper even before he pushes it toward me and into my mittens. 

I pull off the mittens, hold the paper, and gingerly open it to reveal sewing instructions for a simple blouse. A woman’s face is printed faintly over the instructions. Her face fills the page. She looks stern, competent, and very smart. Short hair, glasses.

I refold the paper.

Steve thrusts the heart back to Reinhardt, reluctantly wipes his hands on his jeans, looks around for—I’m guessing correctly—a bathroom, where he will disinfect his entire body. The bear rambles off, loping from side to side, his underwear slightly askew on his butt. His heartbeat echoes throughout the station. He doesn’t exactly seem lost, but instead maybe scheming to get from point A to point B without getting caught.

“Isn’t he cold? Without a jacket?” Steve asks.

“He’s a bear,” I say.

“But still,” Steve says.

I hand Steve the paper, which he unfolds and stares at for a long time as if it’s a map of a familiar place, but the scale is all wrong. “It’s you,” Steve says. “The picture. It’s of you. Didn’t you recognize yourself? Do you know the bear?”

“We kissed on the train, coming in yesterday,” I say. “He gave me some brandy for my cold, said I was beautiful. Just for fun. Kiss and done.” I shrug.

“I think you’re about to get us in trouble again,” Steve says. “Can we find espresso and a bathroom before all hell breaks loose?”

Just then, we see that two officers, farther down on the opposite tracks, have confiscated the heart. The stern one—the one with a hat, belted trench coat, and high black boots—has the thumping mess lodged under his arm, like a newspaper or a helmet, while the other one, in the short jacket with shiny black shoes, moves his hand rapidly, beckoning for papers that we all know Reinhardt does not have. Reinhardt shakes his head no, pulls off the underwear, flings the stretchy cotton bundle into the deep crevice that cradles the tracks.

He says softly, “I’m a bear. A bear.” He points to himself, turns to look at us, points his big bear paw to the opposite tracks, faces the officers again, mumbling, mumbling. Shaking his head no, no, no. Eventually he walks onto the puffing train the officers have designated, head down, dragging his feet. Up the little stairs and the train door shuts and that’s done. The last we see of him. Later on, we try to write to Reinhardt, but nothing ever comes back in return.

The officer with the heart at his elbow watches the bear go, takes a deep breath, turns sharply, and takes a deep stride in my direction. He pulls at the heart in the crook of his arm and extends it away from his body. I make eye contact, his cold, beady eyes locked in. I reach out my hands, walk to meet him, get what I deserve.

Sherrie Flick is the author of a novel and two short story collections, most recently Thank Your Lucky Stars (Autumn House Press). New work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ploughshares, New England Review, and the Journal of Compressed Arts. She is a senior editor at SmokeLong Quarterly, served as series editor for Best Small Fictions 2018, and is co-editor of Flash Fiction America, forthcoming in 2023.