Welcome to the Thursday Thousand! Every week, on Thor’s Day, I will be posting a short story (hopefully) written in advance. The only parameter is that it be, at minimum, 1000 words long. It can be any genre, any length beyond that, and even contain mild cliffhangers!
Why? Because some of these will turn into novels, let’s be honest here. Enjoy, and let me know what you think in the comments!
Note: Another old idea, though this one has never been written before. Someday, I’ll write a series of novels that have the planets as main characters, so this is the first in nine different short stories that will mostly act as character sketches.
Also, something special for you! Today’s short story comes with a music recommendation. I just saw Badflower open for Nothing More and had a very weird experience where my first impression was bad, but then they had SO MUCH ENERGY and very clear passion that it changed my opinion of them pretty quickly, and now I like them. Thus, I listened to the acoustic version of Ghost on repeat the entire time while writing and editing this short story.
tw: suicidal thoughts
In the dead of winter, the sun was already starting to sink from its high point in the sky when Pluto got out of school. Though he was in high school now and should get out earlier, he was nothing if not his brother’s exact opposite. The three of them were each like counterweights to one another. Pluto stayed after school every day, whether it was for band practice, whatever sports team he was currently on, student body meetings, or some other ungodly thing, while Neptune had barely scraped through school. He was part of no clubs, made zero friends he wanted to keep in touch with when they graduated, and had often showed up late. Uranus rested solidly in between them. He was on the math team and helped out in the photo and film room sometimes, but his grades were average, and he outright refused to take part in school politics.
Pluto had been overjoyed at the idea that while he was a freshman, Uranus would be a senior. He thought, in that single year together, they could combine forces, bring the two separated years together. Uranus told him under no uncertain terms would he ever associate with politics while in school. Pluto had whined until Uranus reminded him that the student government team met on two of the three days he worked after school, though he made sure to do it when he thought Neptune wasn’t listening.
It was bad enough, Uranus thought, that Neptune was forgoing college so he could work full time and support them. But it was a point of contention between them, that Neptune still wasn’t bringing home enough money and that Uranus had to sacrifice three afternoons a week—and most weekends, truly—to work part time.
It didn’t matter. Neptune heard everything. There wasn’t a place in their house where sound didn’t travel, which was not what most people claimed, both a gift and a curse, but just a goddamn awful curse. It meant, growing up, that they heard every argument between their parents. It meant that they heard the front door slam when their mother walked out in the middle of the night. It meant that Neptune heard the gun go off, meant that Pluto was the first one to find their father, meant that his little brother still had nightmares about it.
Neptune was out early due to the heavily falling snow, though. He’d tried to argue toward staying at work, but his boss had promised him the hours would be comped, so he packed up his bag, checked the time, and went straight to the high school. Uranus took the bus home on Wednesdays, but Pluto had band practice for the jazz club that went until three.
The car was their father’s, though it had sat in the garage for days and then weeks and, eventually, months until Neptune’s shitty hand-me-down car finally crapped the bed and they couldn’t afford to ignore the practically new car. It was only a few years old, and it had been brand new when their father first bought it.
Neptune’s knuckles went white on the steering wheel where he was gripping it, and his forehead fell forward to thud against it.
Only a few years.
It had only been a few years since everything fell apart, since their mother walked out screaming, the door slamming behind her, since their father put a gun to his head and left them stranded.
Sometimes, it was hard to breathe.
Neptune sat like that, his forehead pressed against the steering wheel until there was sure to be ridges indented into the skin, his fingers aching as he gripped the leather, trying to ground himself back in the here and now. The truth was, he understood why their father had done it. He just couldn’t understand how—how had he decided it was okay to leave him? How had he gone knowing that Neptune would be left as their caretaker? How he had just disappeared on Pluto like that?
Pluto was twelve when it happened, and though he was fifteen now, it still plagued him, still lingered at the edges of his sleep, still made him stumble, crying, into Neptune’s room and beg to sleep in his bed. He never actually fell asleep those nights, just drifted off and then woke with a jolt, his heart pounding, and Neptune held him through it all.
But he understood why.
Sometimes, Neptune wished he could ignore the how and just do it.
Something rattled loudly against the window, and Neptune’s heart leapt into his throat as he jumped back and looked over. Pluto’s smiling face was on the other side, waving furiously. Snow was falling steadily, and there were several white flakes in his pale blonde hair. They all looked like their mother with her light hair and light blue eyes, but Pluto had their father’s face, sturdy in the jaw and a big nose.
Neptune sighed, trying to calm his heart as he clicked the lock.
“What are you doing here?” Pluto exclaimed as he barreled into the passenger seat. He clunked his shoes against the side of the car before he set them on the floor, closing the door. His smile was hopeful, though there was a hint of fear creeping in at the edges. “Did something happen at work?” he asked uncertainly.
“Half day,” Neptune said, “They were worried about the snow.” Pluto frowned. “I’ll get paid for the hours, though.”
“Oh,” he said, and then shrugged. “Okay. But what are you doing here?”
“I can’t pick you up now? Are you too cool for me?”
“Duh,” Pluto said before he socked him on the shoulder, grinning that huge, dopey grin of his. Their father’s features always looked wrong on him, trying to distort his happiness into something sharp, but Pluto always managed to override his DNA and let sunshine blast through.
The how, Neptune reminded himself—how could he leave Pluto? He couldn’t, plain and simple.
“How do you feel about pizza?” Neptune asked as he pulled away from the curb. He drove slow—the snow really was making travel difficult, and he was glad for the half day if now was any indication of how much worse later would be.
“Can we afford it?” Pluto asked even as he took out his phone and started texting Uranus.
Neptune swallowed. He hated that Pluto even had to ask that. “Actually,” Neptune said, “Something came in the mail today. So we’re kind of celebrating tonight.”
Neptune had forced himself not to think about that envelope all day. He’d gotten the notification at work that it was delivered, and he’d skipped his lunch break to drive home and see it for himself. When he pulled up into the driveway, he braced himself. If it was just a small, business-sized envelope, he wasn’t even going to open it. He’d throw it in the trash, go back to work, and never mention it.
But when he opened the mailbox, Neptune felt his knees try to give way beneath him. It wasn’t just that the envelope was big, but that it was thick with the contents inside. He’d taken it back to work, his hands shaking as he read through every single paper.
“What are we celebrating?” Pluto asked, swiveling to look at him with wide eyes.
“It’s a surprise.”
“Tune!” Pluto whined, “Tell me! At least a hint!”
“No way, Tuto,” Neptune said, mimicking Pluto’s nickname for him. When they were little, Pluto had so much trouble saying both of his brothers’ names, so he’d just called them Tune and Tuss, and Uranus found it so hilarious that he started calling him Tuto. The names had stuck like glue right from the beginning, and though Neptune had punched out a few people’s lights for calling him Tune over the years, it never failed to warm his bones when Pluto did it. On good days, their mother used to call them the Triple T’s, and Uranus always got this stupid smile on his face like he was about to tell them how much he loved them.
Neptune usually resorted to a noogie in those days. Pluto usually giggled so hard he gave himself hiccups.
“Hey,” Pluto said, nudging Neptune, “You on this planet?”
“Sorry,” Neptune said, shaking his head, “A couple billion miles away.”
“Deep space,” Pluto said sagely, and Neptune flashed him a smile.
The drive home wasn’t far, but they went slow with the weather, and Pluto rambled on about his day. Neptune dutifully asked after any tests, letting pride swell in him when Pluto told him about the 98 he’d scored in biology and was mad about the two point deduction because he wasn’t specific enough about one of the processes. He reminded Neptune about the upcoming winter concert, which Neptune had finally remembered to buy tickets for and put in his calendar. Uranus had taken the night off, too, since it was a Thursday, but Pluto didn’t know that, and they were planning on surprising him together.
When they got home, Pluto practically threw himself from the car. “Wait until it’s stopped, at least!” Neptune yelled as he put the car in park.
“Are we getting one pizza or two?” he called over his shoulder as he ran up the stairs.
“Three!” Neptune called back, and Pluto ran into the house hollering for Uranus.
Neptune watched the door, but it didn’t swing shut. He knew Pluto was just leaving it open for him, but he couldn’t help but thinking about it slam, the way it had shook through the walls and up into his room. His bedroom was right above the living room, and Pluto was already there when she slammed the door. Their parents had been fighting for hours when it happened, and Pluto came in looking guilty, his headphones in his hands and a book tucked under his arm. Neptune just patted his bed as he scooted over to make room. Pluto burrowed against his side, his headphones on while he read, and Neptune tried not to listen to the fight and failed. After the door slammed, Neptune’s opened and Uranus quietly shut it behind him before he came over to curl up on Neptune’s other side. “I hate this,” Uranus had whispered.
“It’s okay,” Neptune said, winding an arm around him, “I’ve got you.”
Neptune closed his eyes now.
It was so much. He was twenty. He wasn’t supposed to have to support a seventeen and fifteen-year-old. He wasn’t supposed to worry about the heat in the house going out or having enough food in the fridge to feed two growing boys or if he was going to be able to afford gas. Uranus wasn’t supposed to have to put half his earnings toward asthma medication and the other half toward their emergencies fund. Pluto wasn’t supposed to have to grow up without parents.
Neptune breathed in.
He thought about the gun still sitting in their parents’ abandoned room. It was in the drawer of his father’s nightstand. After he dragged Pluto out of the room and yelled at Uranus to take him downstairs, Neptune quietly went in, picked up the gun, and stared at all the blood.
Ambulances were so expensive.
With the gun in one hand, Neptune called the police. “I can’t afford an ambulance,” he said, “But my father just shot himself in the head. How do I get the body out of the house without spending money?” He couldn’t think about anything but how much the mortgage on the house cost. He couldn’t think about anything but the cost of cleaning a blood stain out of a rug. He couldn’t think.
How had he done this? How had he just left them?
Neptune’s exhale came when something knocked against the window, and though he didn’t jump this time, his heart still started racing again. This time, though, it wasn’t Pluto, but Uranus, his blonde curls pulled up into a sloppy bun at the crown of his head and his blue eyes creased at the corners with worry. Neptune started to nod and get out, but Uranus pointed at the garage. Neptune conceded with a nod, and Uranus went over to punch in the code to the garage. Once the car was tucked behind the door and away from the snow, Neptune got out, grabbing his bag from the back.
“What are you doing home early?” Uranus asked, “Tuto said you had a half day because of snow?”
“Blizzard’s started, so they sent us home,” Neptune said.
“Your hours?” Uranus asked, likely thinking about the concert night he’d taken off.
“Covered,” Neptune said.
“Okay, good, because he also said we’re ordering three pizzas?” Though Uranus put out a pretty solid carefree front, he worried more than Neptune thought possible. He was always tacking notes onto the fridge about their current funds and what things they could afford to buy that week. He had a running list of chores they were each assigned, though Neptune’s were mostly water the plants and stop feeding the stray cat and sign Pluto’s permission slip. Pluto’s chores were far more extensive, mostly involving cleaning, and Uranus left himself most of the cooking and house maintenance. Neptune never said anything about the imbalance, but he was grateful for it. He worked part time on the weekends, and his nights were his only time to rest.
“I’ll explain inside,” Neptune said, kicking at Uranus’ heel until he started to head into the house.
Though their house was cursed, it was also free. When their father died, his life insurance was big enough that it covered both the cremation fee and the rest of the mortgage on the house. They didn’t hold a funeral, not that they were sure anyone would have come. Most of their relatives didn’t even find out that he was dead until several months later, when they couldn’t get in touch with him to invite the family to the annual summer cookout. When Saturn showed up on their doorstep with her mom frowning behind her, Neptune knew he’d messed up. He should have told someone, but it all happened so fast that he couldn’t think past taking care of his brothers.
It was even longer before the school found out, but they never spoke about that because it had been entirely Pluto’s fault. Two years after their father died, after endless skipped parent teacher conferences and too many forged signatures to count, Pluto was having a rough day when someone shoved him against the lockers, called him an orphan, and laughed in his face. Pluto exploded, hit the kid hard enough to break his nose, and when the school said he would be suspended if a parent didn’t come in, it was Neptune that showed up for the meeting, Neptune that confessed he had no idea where their mother was, Neptune that explained the plan he’d already started putting in place, the plan that had finally come to fruition.
“What do you want?” Pluto asked when they came through the garage door. It opened into the kitchen, where Pluto was scrolling through a menu on his phone.
“Just cheese,” Neptune said, “Extra sauce.”
“Well, if we’re going big or going home, buffalo chicken,” Uranus said as he stopped behind Pluto to look over his shoulder at the menu.
“I’m getting onions and mushrooms, and I can’t wait. Tune. Time for news?”
“In a second, hothead,” Neptune said as he continued through the kitchen. “I’m going to change, and we’ll talk when the pizza gets here.”
“Can I order salad, too?” Pluto called after him.
“Jesus, no, I’ll make some,” Uranus said, “This is already a waste of money.”
Neptune’s fingers tightened around the strap of his bag. They would understand once he told them.
The kitchen was connected openly to the living room, but there was a wall separating both from the hallway that held the dining room that they never used, their father’s empty office, and the stairs that led to the second floor. There were four bedrooms upstairs, though it had been a three-bedroom house when they first bought it. Their father had always been good with his hands, so when Pluto was born, he put up a wall in the middle of Uranus’ big room. Each of their rooms was small, but none of them minded. Neptune’s was first, the door on the right, their parents’ next to his. Uranus was across the hall, Pluto at the end.
His room was tidier than he’d left it that morning, which meant Uranus had been stress cleaning. Neptune dropped his bag on his bed and yanked his tie loose. He didn’t have to wear a tie, but he felt like they respected him more when he did. They were already wary having a twenty-year-old at the office, and so Neptune did his level best to make himself seem professional inside and out.
When he wasn’t in a dress shirt and tie, though, Neptune preferred jeans that were tearing at the knees and soft, worn t-shirts. He changed into a green one that Pluto had gotten him for his birthday. It had a cartoon picture of a beet wearing big DJ headphones and it said drop the beet on it. Neptune had laughed until he snorted when he opened it, the first time he’d laughed since everything fell apart. It was what broke the ice in that first year, what finally started to figure out their new normal.
Neptune changed his socks, as well, out of dress ones and into regular ones, before he went back downstairs, the envelope held against his chest. Uranus was busy cutting cucumbers for the salad and Pluto had homework spread across the island, so Neptune sat down at the island, set the envelope onto its surface, and took a deep breath.
Pluto looked up at him, and immediately put down his pencil when he saw the envelope.
Uranus looked over his shoulder, started to keep cutting cucumbers, and froze.
“What is that?” he asked as he turned around, brandishing the knife.
“Sit for a minute?” Neptune tipped his chin toward one of the other stools. Uranus immediately set down the knife and came over to sit, wiping his hands on his jeans. “Okay. So I did something, and it’s almost done, but I need your permission to finish it.” He opened up the envelope, pulled out the papers, his heart skipping a little as he saw the red tabs he’d used to mark the places his brothers needed to sign. He split up the copies and handed each of them one.
Uranus went white as he read the heading.
Pluto’s mouth dropped open. “What is this?” he whispered, his voice aching with uncertainty.
“I know that you’ll be a legal adult next year,” Neptune said, looking to Uranus, “But health care is fucking expensive on your own. And you’ve still got three years, Tuto, three years they could threaten you with a foster home. If I’m your guardian, I can put you under my health plan at work. No one can take us away from each other. I can sign all your damn permission slips, and—” Neptune broke off as Pluto clattered off of his stool and ran around the island toward him.
“Holy shit,” Uranus exhaled.
“Hey, it’s okay, I—” Neptune started to say, turning toward Pluto, but then his baby brother was crashing into him, already crying, his shoulders hitching as he clung to Neptune. His fingers were fisted in the back of Neptune’s beet shirt, and his face was buried against his chest, and, for a second, Neptune thought he’d gotten it all wrong.
“Tune,” Uranus said.
Neptune looked up, his face open with fear.
“Dude, holy shit,” Uranus said, “Are you serious?”
“This is the only way,” Neptune said, “This is how we stay together.”
“Holy shit,” Uranus said a third time before he slid off his stool and came over. “Tuto, Jesus,” he said as he flicked Pluto’s ear, “Stop crying.” But then Uranus was wrapping his arms around Neptune, too, and Neptune wasn’t sure what reaction he was supposed to be having.
“Um,” he said.
“I love you,” Pluto sobbed.
“Oh,” Neptune sighed.
Uranus released him, stepping back to shake his head. “This is big, Tune. Are you sure about this? This is your whole life. Like, that’s it. I mean, yeah, Tuto will be eighteen in three years, but you’ve still got us, technically, until we’re twenty-six. Like, we’d still be mooching off you. I want to go to college, not start full time after high school. And I know that’s unfair, but—”
“No,” Neptune said as Pluto finally leaned away, wiping at his face. Neptune turned to Uranus. “I need you to go to college,” he said, “And this will help us figure that out. I can’t let your life be ruined by this, too.”
“You think your life is ruined?” Pluto hiccupped.
“No,” Neptune sighed, looking over at him, “Look. We were dealt a shitty hand, and I’m trying to make the best of it. Am I happy that I can’t go to college? No. But I love you guys, and it’s my job to take care of you. And you know what, college will always be there.”
“I’m not calling you dad,” Uranus said.
“What does this even mean?” Pluto asked before he sniffed hugely, and they all grimaced at the noise it made.
“Dude, tissues,” Uranus said.
Pluto nodded, scrubbing his hand over his face as he wandered off toward the paper towel rack.
“It means a lot of things, and also not a lot,” Neptune said. “Nothing changes between us. I’m not going to start being a hard ass and giving you curfews. Unless you deserve it,” he added, pretending to glare at Pluto, who rolled his eyes.
“Yeah, okay, because I’m totally going to waste study time by going to raging parties.” Pluto put up the devil horns and stuck out his tongue.
Neptune smiled, and though it was small, it still settled them a little. Pluto sat back down in front of his homework. Uranus went back to the cucumbers. Neptune spread his hands on the table. “It does mean I’m legally responsible for you, though. If you get in trouble, that falls on me. I’ll have to co-sign a loan for college tuition. The, uh—the state will actually help us a little.”
“Shut up, really?” Uranus said, looking over his shoulder.
“This emancipates us from mom,” Neptune said, nodding, “And since I’m only twenty, we’ll get some support for a few years.”
They all fell quiet, the only sound Uranus chopping carrots until the doorbell rang to signal their pizza. “Take it from the emergency fund,” Neptune said when Pluto got up. He waited until Pluto had paid the delivery guy, apologized for making him drive out in the weather, and then returned to the kitchen. Uranus gave them each bowls of salad, and Pluto handed out their individual pizzas. “Well?” Neptune asked as he picked up his fork.
“If you’re really okay with it, then I am,” Uranus said, “Thank you, Neptune.”
“Me too,” Pluto said, “Thank you.”
“Of course. You’re my brothers. I love you.”
Uranus smiled. Pluto gave him that dopey grin. They dug into their pizza, and their night was as normal as possible. Neptune offered to do the dishes. Uranus collapsed in front of the TV to game for a bit. Pluto did handstands against the wall when he couldn’t figure out a math problem. When it was late, Pluto tucked in for bed, and Neptune paused in the living room. “I’ll go up in a few,” Uranus said, not looking over, “Don’t worry about me, dad.”
Uranus made a disgusted face. “Wow, never again, sorry.”
Neptune bid him goodnight and went upstairs.
He kicked off his jeans and laid under his blankets, but he didn’t sleep, instead listened to their cursed house, waiting for his brothers to fall asleep. Pluto stayed up reading for a little longer, and when his light finally clicked off, he stopped tossing after a few minutes. Uranus came upstairs, showered quickly, and was out cold in seconds after. Still, Neptune waited, listening to them breathe, listening to the house settle, listening to the snow falling outside.
When all was still and silent and dark, he crept out of bed, went down the hall, and stole into their parents’ room. Most of it was covered in a light blanket of dust now, but there was a path from the door to the nightstand that remained clear, a path that Neptune walked every night. He opened the drawer, took out the gun, and held it in his hands.
He understood the why. More than once, he’d held this gun to his own head and closed his eyes, the cool metal pressing against his temple. Even before their mother left, even before their father killed himself, Neptune wanted to die. He tried different things to ease the edge of pain—little cuts while he showered, on his thighs so no one would notice; ice cubes pressed to the insides of his wrists; rubber bands snapping against the tender skin of his ankle; anything that would cause a little pain, but it was too little, and these past years, Neptune had stood in this room and realized the why had always been easy to understand.
It was the how he didn’t get.
He thought about Pluto sobbing in his arms.
He thought about Uranus asking him if he was sure.
Every night, Neptune held this gun and wondered if he could do it, if he could leave them behind.
But how did he banish the memories of Pluto’s goofy smile with a bullet?
How did he strip away the sound of Uranus’ ungodly loud laugh with a single thoughtless moment?
How had his father done it?
He couldn’t. He was never going to be able to. He started to put the gun back in the drawer, but stopped. He was going to keep coming in here, was going to keep thinking about it, was going to keep wondering the how even when every ounce of him understood the why.
Neptune slowly released the magazine, thumbed out the bullet in the chamber, and pulled the gun apart. He’d YouTubed videos on how to take apart guns and clean them, and he kept his father’s in good condition just in case. The pieces came apart in his hands, and Neptune stood there for only a second longer before he left the room, closed the door, and went downstairs. He wrapped the gun in a bag from the supermarket, tied it shut, and went out into the garage. Tomorrow was trash day, so he opened the lid on the garbage, undid the knots on the top bag, and stuffed the gun inside. He didn’t allow himself to linger. He redid the knots, closed the lid, and jogged back into the house. The garage was cold from the snow, and his feet stung as he walked across the freezing cement.
Back inside, Neptune went upstairs, paused in the hallway to listen to his brothers’ breathing, and then crept back into his room.
The house fell quiet.
The snow landed in huge clumps outside. School was already being cancelled for the following day, and Neptune would wake to a cancellation for work on his phone with another promise for the hours comped. Uranus would try to go work in the evening, but for the first time in almost a decade, the store he worked at closed, as well. They would spend the unexpected day off together, lounging in the living room and not drifting far from each other.
But before all of it, Pluto rolled out of his bed, tiptoed out into the hallway, and went across into their parents’ room. He followed the path Neptune took every night, opened the drawer, and felt something lodge itself in his throat when he found it empty. When he turned around, Uranus was in the doorway. “Well?” Uranus asked.
“He got rid of it,” Pluto whispered, “The gun’s gone.”
Uranus’ eyes went wide, and he jerked out of the doorway and raced down the hall. “Tuss, quiet,” Pluto hissed. Uranus bit back a frustrated noise and eased Neptune’s door open instead of throwing it wide like he wanted to.
Uranus’ shoulders rolled down as Pluto came up behind him, leaning up onto his toes to look over his shoulder. Neptune was asleep, his back to them, and the moonlight shining across his neat, short pale hair.
“Maybe he doesn’t want to die anymore,” Pluto said softly.
“Maybe,” Uranus said, but he thought he understood, finally, why Neptune had never done it even though he’d been clearly thinking about it every single night since everything fell apart. He turned away, letting the door close with a shush, and pulled Pluto into a hug. He held onto him for a long moment, their little baby brother that both of them would do anything to protect.
“We should still try to convince him to go to that therapist we found,” Pluto whispered.
Uranus released him, planted a big kiss on his forehead, and nodded. “In the morning,” he said, “Enough waiting for something bad to happen.” He gave Pluto’s shoulder a squeeze before he nudged him back toward his room. “Get some sleep.”
“Goodnight, Tuss,” Pluto said, smiling as he walked back to his room.
As their doors both closed, and as they crawled back into bed, Neptune rolled over onto his side and wept for the first time in years.
He would never understand the how, but he was starting to learn how to fight the why.