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Kiss the Bear

Armed with a jet pack, a terminally ill man honors a decades-old bet with his older brother.

By Addison HornerPublished about a year ago Updated about a year ago 16 min read
6
Kiss the Bear
Photo by Andy Holmes on Unsplash

For the first time in a long procession of dreary autumn evenings, the sky is clear. An excellent forecast for Harry’s final night on Earth.

He hovers three feet above the dusty barn floor, surrounded by half-tinkered projects and half-rotten plywood walls with pale starlight leaking through. The rusted hunk of hubris that could have been a restored ’68 Cobra sits in one corner. A dry Midwestern heat draws sweat from Harry’s balding scalp, or so he tells himself. He’s certainly not terrified, anxious, or thrilled about tonight’s endeavor.

Neither the Cobra nor the projects nor the barn itself belongs to Harry. He does, however, own the Icarus 25-T strapped to his blue-black flannel. Twin streams of gaseous heat tickle the protective pads on the back of Harry’s shins as they lift him from the ground.

So far, so steady.

Lifting his wrist to his face, Harry squints to read the analog wristband attached to the Icarus. He shifts his balance to the right, drifting over several inches to place the readout under the barn’s lone, flickering bulb.

Altitude +3. Temperature +0. Thrust +165.

All was well. Harry would kiss the bear tonight. Only fifty-four years too late.

“This one’s for you, Upton,” he whispers.

Harry leans forward, then back, feeling the Icarus’s plastique shell pulse with every change in equilibrium. He floats around the narrow confines of the barn and avoids colliding with anything, if you don’t count smacking the heel of his loafer into the Cobra's busted left taillight, which Harry doesn’t.

With his flight under control, he drifts toward the barn doors, raising his right hand to steady himself against the mantel. His left hand taps the joystick once, lowering his altitude a few inches to fit through the door. Harry leans into a push to slide the door open on its track, revealing a crisp September evening and a quaint, midcentury farmhouse.

And two figures in bathrobes, one of whom—the angrier-looking one—holds a double-barreled shotgun. The other figure just looks exasperated.

“Dad,” the woman says, favoring one leg as she stands on the browning grass, “what are you doing?”

Harry glances down, then to each side, then back at his daughter. “I’m flying, Candace. You need to get your eyes checked?”

He grins at his own joke. Candace doesn’t. The man beside her rolls his eyes as he slings the shotgun over his shoulder.

“Don’t even start, Cory,” Harry says. “I know what you’re thinking—”

“You mean, I know what your doctor told you?” Cory says. His thick drawl feels like a caricature of Southern charm, a one-dimensional character trait that had seduced Harry’s daughter despite Harry’s best effort. “Put the jet pack away and go back to bed.”

“It’s not a jet pack,” Harry corrects him. “It’s a single-user propulsion system. SUPS, for short.”

“It’s a jet pack,” Cory says, “and it’s fifty years old.”

Candace places a weathered hand on her husband’s shoulder. In the blue starlight, Harry sees traces of wrinkles on the back of her hand. How is she growing old already?

“Don’t let him goad you,” Candace says.

“I won’t,” Cory says, at the same time that Harry says, “He can try.”

Candace sighs, a heavy exhale weighed with disappointed expectation. “Come down, Dad.”

Harry shakes his head, which makes him wobble in midair. “Do you know why they call it a SUPS?”

Despite his wife’s glare, Cory can’t resist answering. “Because ‘jet pack’ was too obvious?”

Harry grins. His thumb teases the red button set into the joystick’s tip.

“Because it’sup, up, and away!

He presses the button.

Acceleration. Wind claws at Harry’s cheeks and shoulders and digs through his clothing. His vision goes blurry as the Icarus launches him into the night sky with a whoosh and a roar.

“Goodbye, Candace,” he whispers. “And screw you, Cory.”

In the rush of air, with adrenaline barreling like whitewater through his veins, he remembers a different time and place.

***

The year was 1969. Fresh off the cultural high of the first moon landing, every red-blooded American boy wanted to fly like Neil. And an Icarus 25-T single-user propulsion system was the only way to taste that kind of freedom.

Harry Ventura was fourteen, too young for a SUPS license. Upton was eighteen, and he spent his first check from the mill on a down payment for an Icarus. He’d come home every night after work, wolf down dinner, and take the Icarus on a joyride to the Andersons’ junkyard. Harry followed from the ground, pumping his skinny legs as fast as they would go. They’d take turns whizzing through rows of busted sedans, pretending to be the next Apollo crew as they blasted imaginary aliens and pointed out constellations.

One night, Upton didn’t come home after work. When Harry checked his room after dinner, the Icarus 25-T was missing. Their mother was on the verge of calling the police when Upton burst through the door, red-faced and grinning like a loon. Sweat stains streaked his gray uniform.

“Emergency at work,” he apologized, leaning in to kiss Mother on the cheek. “Saved me some dinner?”

When Harry knocked on Upton’s door that night to demand the truth, Upton patted the bed beside him. Harry sat down as Upton opened the blinds, revealing the glittering constellations above their head.

“I did it,” he said. His eyes danced with swirls of white from the night sky. “I kissed the bear.”

“You what?” Harry asked.

Upton points at a gleaming collection of stars that outshine their peers. “Ursa Major. I flew up to the heavens and I touched it.”

Harry knew very well that you couldn’t just touch a constellation. But he also knew that his big brother would never lie to him. His mind spinning with the contradiction, Harry said the only thing that came to mind. “Oh yeah? Then I’m gonna touch it too.”

Upton grinned. “Wanna bet?”

***

Altitude +1000. Temperature +2. Thrust +125.

The rushing air sends frigid shivers into Harry’s bones. The farmstead is a speck on the distant ground, but Harry doesn’t dare look down. He hasn’t flown in over three decades, and now he remembers why.

“Please,” he whispers, his words stolen by the wind. “Please don’t come for me.”

Ursa Major sits low tonight, as it always does in the fall. Harry faces north, setting his sights on the arch of stars that run along the Great Bear’s back. Now that he’s alone in the sky, with nothing but gravity between himself and the cosmos, the fear sets in.

“Hydrus…is only visible…in the Southern Hemisphere,” Harry recites through chattering teeth. He swallows, trying to ignore the painful, persistent lump in his throat.

A soft hiss pierces the wind. Harry spins slowly, dreading what he might find.

Four points of distant light pulse an ominous green. They shouldn’t be here. They don’t belong. Yet Harry can only watch as Head of Hydrus, the highest star in the constellation, tears itself from the tableau of the sky. The other stars follow, coalescing into a glittery line of sinew and scales. Slithering along the horizon, the snake draws Harry’s gaze back to the north, where it curls into a coiled mass. A fanged, white-eyed head studies Harry’s stricken face with amusement, and when it speaks, the words bury themselves in Harry’s soul.

“I’ve misssssed you,” Hydrus says.

A fresh chill stabs at Harry’s spine. “You’re not real,” he says, willing the apparition to go away. “You’re in my head.”

“Sssstill not sssso clever,” Hydrus hisses. “I am sssstuck in your head, ssssilly child. In here, who’ssss to ssssay what reality meanssss?”

“I don’t believe in you,” Harry says, his head throbbing. He searches the stars for something, anything, that could bring reprieve. Hydrus’s serpentine body dances in his vision, impossible to escape.

“You believe in nothing elsssse,” Hydrus says. “You believe that you are alone. Dying. Worthlesssss. That’ssss why you came here. To ssssee me, and die.”

Shutting his eyes, Harry vigorously shakes his head as the Icarus carries him higher.

***

Life caught up to the Ventura boys, as it always would. Upton got a promotion at the mill, and Harry went off to college. Fifteen years passed like a wildfire racing headlong through Nebraska’s grassy plains.

When Harry next saw the Icarus, it was lying in a cardboard box in Upton’s attic. Harry’d been asked to dig out Mom’s old fine china. When he came down with the Icarus instead, Upton merely raised an eyebrow.

“That’s not the china,” he said, a smirk tugging at the corner of his mouth.

Upton’s three boys clamored around Harry, oohing and ahhing at the Icarus’s silver shell and antique exhaust ports.

“Can we try it?” they asked.

Upton’s wife Missy shook her head as she bustled by with a pair of oven mitts. “Upton, why do you still have that? They banned those things for a reason.”

Upton shrugged. “Forgot, dear.” Then he winked at Harry.

Missy’s next words wiped the grin from Upton’s face. “Trash it,” she said. “Now.”

“I’ll do it,” Harry volunteered, ignoring the boys’ protests as he left the kitchen. In the sitting room, his wife Vera sat nursing a towheaded baby girl with a plastic milk bottle. Harry leaned in to kiss Vera’s forehead, then smiled at his daughter.

“How did we make something this beautiful?” he asked.

Vera smiled at him. “Genetics and luck.”

Outside, Harry stood at the trash can for two whole minutes. The Icarus hung from his grip, dangling above the open mouth, ready to fall.

After one too many deaths, the government had outlawed civilian flying devices back in ’73. Three things had stopped Harry from kissing the bear before it was too late: a lack of courage, then a lack of time, and finally a lack of access. He used to stare at Ursa Major from his dorm window, wishing he’d been brave enough to follow Upton’s path to the stars.

Harry wrapped the Icarus in a trash bag, stuffed it in the trunk of his Viper, and returned to the house to fetch the fine china.

***

Altitude +6000. Temperature -3. Thrust +500.

Hydrus has stopped speaking. He no longer needs to speak, for Harry feels the crushing dread of his own mortality as he rises toward the constellations.

“Worthless,” Harry whispers to himself. “Useless.”

Even the warmth of the Icarus’s jets fails to ward off the chill. On the horizon, Hydrus rests his head on his coils and watches Harry’s ascent with slitted eyes.

This will be the last thing Harry ever does. He will kiss the bear, fulfilling a half-century-old dream. Then he’ll shut down the Icarus and let himself plummet into Lake Pibel.

“Nonsense,” says a new voice.

Harry opens his eyes. Another starry shape emerges from the expanse, bounding along the horizon with floppy ears and a gleaming golden coat.

“Canis Major,” Harry says, dumbfounded.

“Come on, Harry,” Canis says. “We both know this isn’t the end.” Her smooth, feminine voice reminds Harry of Candace. But when Canis sees Hydrus’s waiting form, her growl carries none of that familial warmth.

“He’ssss mine,” Hydrus says, raising his head.

“He’s his own person,” Canis bites back. She paws the earth, tracing deep streaks of brown through the hilly plains to the east.

He,” Harry says, almost raising his hand by instinct, “is very confused. And possibly going senile.”

“You’re imagining us,” Canis says, nodding her canine head. “But this…” She raises her nose toward the constellations, toward Hydrus, toward Ursa Major waiting patiently in the sky. “This is quite real. You’re committed. And I believe in you, Harry. You can kiss the bear.”

A seed of warmth, like the first swallow of hot chocolate on a winter evening, blossoms in Harry’s chest.

***

“What’s that?” Candace asked.

Harry held up the Icarus with a mischievous grin. “This,” he said, beaming down at his ten-year-old daughter, “is a single-user propulsion system.”

Candace cocked her head. “Like a jet pack?”

“A single-user propulsion system,” Harry repeated.

“It looks old.”

“It is old. Uncle Upton bought it back in ’69. Then he…gave it to me.”

Strapping the Icarus to his back, Harry eyed the white fences surrounding their tiny backyard. A cul-de-sac in Omaha wasn’t the best place for a test, but Vera’s bridge night would be over by eight o’clock. He was committed now.

“You take the throttle like so—” Harry showed Candace the joystick. “—and press this button with your thumb to fly up. This one sends you back down.”

“Isn’t that illegal?” Candace asked.

Harry blinked twice. “Um, where’d you hear that?”

Candace shrugged. “School.”

“Don’t believe everything you hear,” Harry said, resigning himself to the possibility of eating those words sometime during Candace’s teenage years. “Watch this.” He tapped the joystick. With a not-so-smooth bucking motion, the Icarus launched Harry eight feet into the air, leaving him hovering above the backyard.

Candace stared, gape-jawed and wide-eyed. Then her face broke into a massive grin.

“My turn!” she said, hopping up and down as she watched Harry navigate his way around the yard. When he finally touched down, Harry unstrapped the Icarus and helped a giggling Candace adjust the safety belt. She soared across the yard, laughing with wild abandon as her father kept a firm grip on her ankle.

The next morning, Vera discovered the scorch marks they’d left on her precious Kentucky bluegrass. In Harry’s mind, it was worth the scolding.

***

Altitude +12000. Temperature -10. Thrust +450.

When the next creature breaks into Harry’s imaginary menagerie, he’s almost unsurprised. Stars swirl into the form of a black bird that alights on Hydrus’s tapered tail.

“Who are you supposed to be?” Harry asks.

“Corvus,” the bird croaks, a hint of twang breaking through his shrill voice. “The crow. You know me.”

“Aren’t you in the Southern Hemisphere?”

Corvus shrugs, a remarkably fluid expression for a bird. “Yet here I am. Believe me, I want nothing to do with you. Forced proximity by association.”

Harry smirks. “Big words for a little bird.”

Shrieking, Corvus flaps his wings and lunges toward Harry, but Hydrus slithers in between them. “Let him do the work,” the snake says. “He’ll desssstroy himsssself.”

Corvus settles back on Hydrus’s tail. “Right.” He spares a glance for Canis, who sits to the east with her teeth bared in a scowl.

Harry looks upward. As much as he hates it, Hydrus is right. Corvus needs only to sit and watch.

***

The call came while Harry was stargazing from the back porch. Scribbling a few quick figures on his notepad, he stepped back into the house and grabbed the phone on the third ring.

“Ventura house,” he said.

“It’s Candace,” Vera said, the anxiety in her reedy voice surging through the line and washing over Harry in a heartbeat.

“What’s wrong?” he asked. His lips felt dry, and his hands clammy. If anything happened to his baby girl…

“She’s alive.” Vera paused. “Her friends called it in. She fell and broke her leg, but they got her to a hospital. It’s…bad.”

Harry lowered the phone just long enough to mutter a curse. “I told her that old bridge was too dangerous. Why don’t teenagers listen?”

Vera’s next words dripped with angry implication. “She wasn’t climbing the bridge, Harry. She was flying.”

“Flying?” Harry echoed. “How…” When the realization struck, he dropped the receiver, letting it dangle off the hook as he burst through the back door and across the porch. When he reached the shed, the padlock on the door sat open. As a horrible, tingling panic crept up his spine, Harry dug through the shed until he found the plastic container where he kept the Icarus.

It was empty.

The Cobra keychain on the rearview mirror jingled as Harry floored it to the hospital. He imagined its venemous accusations burrowing into his skin.

"Worthlesssss..."

***

Altitude +16000. Temperature -5. Thrust +400.

Everything is going wrong. Not all at once, but in tedious tandem, like spilled paint inching its way down the wall.

Shame drills into Harry’s skull, forcing him to relive the litany of painful memories. The hospital stays, the surgeries, the tears. The shouting matches, the cold stares. The goodbyes and the lonely nights.

Compared to those old wounds, opened anew by Hydrus’s accusing stare, Harry’s surroundings mean nothing to him. A part of his brain knows that the lack of oxygen and freezing temperatures will kill him if he doesn’t do something about it soon. The rest of his brain doesn’t care, because that’s the whole reason he came up here.

Canis has nothing to say. She watches Harry with mournful eyes.

Corvus shuffles his wings. Hydrus sticks out his tongue, tasting the altitude. Both are smiling, and waiting.

When Harry opens his mouth to break the silence, however, Corvus beats him to it.

“Go ahead and die,” Corvus says. “Then we can finally stop worrying about you.”

Canis’s ears perk up as she raises her head. “Screw you, Corvus.”

The phrase tickles something in the back of Harry’s mind. This was more than mere imagination or childish fancy, or even fantastical, astronomical therapy.

“Wait a second,” he says, the wind whipping his words away. “Are you—”

Then the gust hits him, a fresh blast of frigid air that sends Harry tumbling and flipping through the sky. The Icarus’s thrusters flicker and cut out, and for one horrible moment Harry falls freely through the abyss of the night sky.

He opens his mouth to scream, and the world goes still.

Canis freezes mid-leap. Corvus flails his wings in a static pose, his talons extended toward Canis’s neck. Only Hydrus moves in real time, slithering in from the horizon until his serpentine grin rests only inches from Harry’s face.

“Thissss issss the end for ussss, Harry,” Hydrus says. The air, the wind, the world itself has fallen silent. In this space beyond time, beyond matter, only Harry and Hydrus exist. It is a moment of truth, of reckoning. Of endings.

Harry cannot speak. Dead people don’t have voices.

“Let go,” Hydrus says in Harry’s ear.

Harry closes his eyes.

A hissing scream breaks the trance. The world returns to rushing blasts of icy air and howling wind, and Harry tumbles through the sky once more. When he opens his eyes, Canis stands with feet planted on the barren earth, taller than a mountain, grander than anything Harry could dream or imagine. Her jaw clamps down on Hydrus’s body, sending brilliant clouds of blood like starlight dancing across the sky. Hydrus wriggles helplessly in Canis’s mouth as Corvus descends to help, sinking his talons into Canis’s neck. A muffled whine comes out, but Canis doesn’t let go.

You can kiss the bear.

Canis’s words send a surge of focus into Harry’s mind. His thumb finds the button atop the joystick, and with all his might, he launches himself upward once more.

***

“Come on, Dad,” Candace said.

Harry sat in his faded armchair, watching the movers dislodge the last remnants of his cul-de-sac life from the living room. One of them bore a long, slender box marked “Fragile” with frightening nonchalance.

“That’s my telescope,” Harry whispered. “They’re taking my telescope.”

“We gotta go,” Candace said, placing a tender hand on Harry’s arm. “The truck’s almost packed.”

“The truck,” Harry echoed. He forced himself to stand, enduring the creaking and popping of joints that reminded him of his age.

Heavy bootsteps on tile announced a barrel-chested man entering from the kitchen as he scrolled his phone’s touch screen.

“Can you believe it, Candace?” he muttered. “The amount of junk we gotta—” He looked up to see Harry half-risen from his chair. “Oh. Hey, Harry.”

“Cory,” Harry said.

Without another word, Cory strode through the living room and into the bedroom, talking to himself in a low voice. Candace held out her arm for Harry to take.

“Don’t mind him, Dad,” she whispered. “He’s just in a bad mood.”

“Bad mood for a bad dude,” Harry said.

Candace chuckled. “Real clever. Now let’s go.” She guided Harry through the halls of the house he’d bought thirty-five years before. Though she tried to hide it, her left leg stiffened with every step.

“Your leg,” Harry said. “It’s still hurt.”

“You’re gonna love the ranch.” Candace stared straight ahead, ignoring her father’s somber, pleading gaze. “No light pollution. The stars are yours.”

“I do love stargazing,” Harry admitted.

As Candace led him onto the front porch, Harry stole a glance at the plastic container that sat by the door. He’d hurriedly scribbled the word “Camping” on its top. No need for Candace or Cory to know what he’d stowed away.

***

Altitude +19000. Temperature -9. Thrust +360.

Harry looks down.

The celestial battle rages beneath him, blazing lights glistening amongst scales and fur and feathers. Canis is strong and ferocious, but Hydrus is a quick, nimble combatant, and Corvus strikes from a dozen different angles just beyond the reach of Canis’s paws. Luminous trails of viscera leak from innumerable tiny wounds across the three beasts.

Harry stops looking down.

He rises in solitude, breathing clouds of frost that crystallize as they pass his lips. A strange numbness, almost a warmth, spreads from his core. What is he doing here?

Ah, yes. Ursa Major. The Great Bear waits in the heavens for Harry’s arrival.

At twenty thousand feet, Harry levels out the thrust. He takes in the stars, twinkling in the infinite corners of their unknowable galaxy, greeting their newest companion. Before the Earth was born, they were ancient. Before Harry took his first flight, they had been there for him.

Upton is dead. Fifteen years ago, lung cancer.

Vera is dead. Twelve years ago, heart attack.

Harry is dead, or will be any minute. The tumor in his throat won’t take him. He’ll go on his own terms.

Ursa Major looms over the night. Harry looks up and, pursing his lips, offers a kiss to the behemoth in the sky.

“I did it, Upton,” he whispers.

Like a creature waking from hibernation, the starscape ripples and folds around Harry. A sleek-furred brown bear steps out from the black. Larger than the cosmos it is, and more infinite that the universe, yet it leans in close to Harry with familial grace. The Great Bear’s noble neck arches from the sky and plants a gentle kiss on Harry’s forehead.

Time to go home, a voice whispers in Harry’s mind.

Harry nods, preparing to let himself die.

I said home, Harry. This isn’t your time.

Unbidden, Harry touches the throttle, reducing his thrust to half-weight. Feeble and frozen he falls, blood pumping beneath his brittle skin as the air slowly grows warmer.

Altitude +16000.

Hydrus has vanished. Canis stands tall on the horizon, wagging her tail as Harry descends. Her left leg quivers unsteadily, but she smiles nonetheless. On her shoulder, Corvus nods in deference before both beasts fade into the tableau. Canis’s voice lingers in Harry’s mind like the trail of a shooting star.

I’ve already forgiven you, Dad.

Tears stream down Harry’s cheeks as he rockets downward, heading home.

Altitude +8000.

A tiny farmstead gleams yellow in the sea of dark plains. Harry fixes his eyes on the lamplight as it grows steadily larger beneath him. Soon he makes out two pinprick figures in the grass, watching, waving.

The clear, cloudless skies usher him home—an excellent forecast for Harry’s next night on Earth.

AdventureShort StorySci Fi
6

About the Creator

Addison Horner

I love fantasy epics, action thrillers, and those blurbs about farmers on boxes of organic mac and cheese. MARROW AND SOUL (YA fantasy) available February 5, 2024.

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Comments (3)

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  • Randy Wayne Jellison-Knockabout a year ago

    Nothing less than extraordinarily beautiful. Editorial notes: In the paragraph beginning, "Four points of distant light pulse...," you have "the snake draw...," rather than "the snake draws...." In the paragraph beginning, "'Come on, Harry,' Canis says...," did you mean, “We both know isn’t the end," or "“Come on, Harry,” Canis says. “We both know this isn’t the end...”?

  • Morgana Millerabout a year ago

    Excellent as always, Addison. I love the layers to this story. There’s a jet pack of emotion woven in! Beautifully done.

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