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: Here we have the third story in the character sketches I’ve been doing for the series of novels in my head that have the planets as main characters!
As before, a music rec, as well. This was the kind of song where I was trying to figure out what Mercury would listen to, so I put this on as background while I was thinking, and immediately started writing, so yup, this is definitely Mercury’s song.
\The inhale was sweet. The world smelled of chalk dust and freshly mown grass and cool Tartan track. Mercury held onto that inhale, letting it expand past the smell and into the physical. The inhale was full of his fingertips on the track, the slight pressure in his knees, and the ripple of energy across his shoulders. He could feel the gentle sigh of his shirt against his spine, the tight squeeze of his toes in his shoes, and the rising sun behind him. It was early, and this first inhale was always his favorite.
The exhale was loud. A whistle yanked the inhale out, and the exhale came as Mercury shot forward, hands in loose fists at either side of his chest, elbows pinned back a little behind his ribs. He barely felt his feet hitting the ground, barely felt the swing of his knees, barely felt the rush of wind—all he could feel was the world shifting around him, everything falling away.
He was running, and that meant nothing else mattered.
This wasn’t his first run of the day, but it was his most important, and Mercury put his all into it, holding onto an image of wings as he came upon the first bend in the track. He rocketed around it, and distantly, Mercury heard his coach let out a whoop of joy. Mercury absorbed the joy, letting it fill each of his long inhales, letting it transform his feet into wings, letting it carry him up, up, and away.
“Damn it, Mercury,” Coach Mariner said a full minute later, after she’d triple-checked his stopwatch and stopped laughing. Mercury was kneeling, checking the laces on his shoes, and he flashed Mariner a quick smile. “Voyager High is going to eat your dust this weekend.”
Satisfied that his shoes were tied to his liking, Mercury got up and went back to his place on the track. “Mile?” he asked, and Mariner laughed again.
“Whatever you want, kid,” she said. Mercury watched her scribble down the time for his sprint, clear the stopwatch, and then settle back in. She held the stopwatch in her right hand, the whistle in her left, and Mercury bent back to the track, fingers skimming the red ground beneath him.
When the whistle came, Mercury grew wings again.
He was usually at school early because of training, and so Mercury was surprised to find his cousin lounging on the heaters outside the locker rooms. She wasn’t alone, either, which brought Mercury up short as the locker doors swung shut behind him. Saturn’s denim-clad shoulders were dropped back against the wall of windows that sat behind the heaters, a little sliver of burnt orange visible underneath. She was wearing black leggings because she didn’t condone denim on denim, and her ratty Converse were perched on the edge of the heaters.
Next to her, Mars looked like he usually did, like he’d just come down out of the air, his brown curls whipped all over and grease smeared around his knuckles. He was in his standard dark jeans and white shirt, though he’d pulled a red zip-up sweatshirt on over it. He didn’t look up as Mercury came out of the locker rooms, instead bowed over a notebook that Mercury knew well. Saturn didn’t share her songs with anyone, but Mars had always been exempt from that rule for reasons Mercury didn’t know.
Though Mercury had grown up with Saturn, Mars had been the first friend she’d ever made outside of their large family, and they’d been stuck together like glue ever since. When Saturn first introduced them, Mercury thought that would be it, but with Mars came his cousin, Earth, whom he lived with, and with Earth came his best friend, Luna, who Earth was never seen without, and with Luna came her cousin, Pluto, who, it turned out, was the youngest son of Saturn’s mother’s oldest and best friend. Suddenly, Mercury went from one friend in his whole world to more than he could keep track of.
He’d always enjoyed being alone, and he liked that Saturn thought the rest of their cousins were annoying. He selfishly liked having her to himself, and though it’d been years upon years since Mercury’s life was flooded with new friends, it still drew him up short sometimes, remembering he wasn’t alone anymore.
“What are you two doing here already?” Mercury asked as he unstuck himself and came over to them. He’d changed out of his running clothes and into a pair of jeans and a plain blue shirt.
Saturn tipped her head to the side. “Venus had a lesson,” she said.
Venus was their outlier, the only one who didn’t fit into the bizarre circle their friend group made up. The three of them had all met her separately, and they all had a good laugh when they realized they were all trying to introduce each other to the same person. Saturn had taken one look at the four of them one morning and started laughing. “Man, talk about minorities sticking together. Someone go find a white person so we stick out a little more.” With Mercury and Saturn’s African American roots, Mars’ very clear Portuguese heritage, and Venus’ Thai features, they were quite a group. Things got even more interesting once Luna arrived in tow with Earth, the former so Norwegian that they sometimes referred to her as a Viking, and then there was Pluto, who was the definition of whitest boy in the world with his blonde hair and blue eyes and sweet boy charm.
Venus came early for piano lessons with the music teacher just as Mercury came early to run with his coach, though it’d been a while since Saturn and Mars decided to grace the school with their presence this early. “I couldn’t sleep,” Mars said before he tossed the notebook back into Saturn’s lap. “How was training?” He squinted over at Mercury, who shrugged.
“Good,” he said, “Meet this weekend.”
“We’re coming,” Saturn said before she slid off the heaters. She flipped her notebook closed, shoved it in her backpack, and clapped her hands together. “Don’t argue with me about it,” she said as Mercury started to tell them they didn’t have to come. He had a solid argument planned and everything because he knew she was going to do this, but then she continued, “We still have a freaking hour before homeroom. Donuts?”
“Breakfast,” Mercury and Mars said at the same time.
Saturn flipped her braids at them before she stomped off to the door that led to the music hall.
“You really don’t have to come,” Mercury said as they watched her go.
Mars shrugged. “It’ll be fun,” he said, “Earth is going to convince one of us to commit a crime if we have to suffer through another weekend of him waiting for news, so he’s coming, too.”
Mercury nodded. They’d tried to hang out with Mars and Earth only once recently, and Saturn had packed them up and left within an hour after hurling a book at Earth’s head. He was a little insufferable right now, but Mercury understood. He’d applied to a prestigious internship with NASA a month ago, and though news wasn’t supposed to arrive for a few months still, the wait was killing him slowly. It was how, Mercury thought, he was going to feel when he applied for a track scholarship next year when he started applying for colleges.
The mere idea of college filled Mercury up with equal parts anxiety and joy. He wanted it here right now, but he couldn’t imagine actually packing up his things and leaving. He wanted to go far, to leave his father and their lonely house behind, but he also wanted to stay close, to be able to drop in on Saturn and Mars and just find peace again.
Mercury shook the thoughts away and asked, “Does that mean the whole kit and caboodle is going to turn up?”
Mars flashed him a wide smile, his eyes scrunching at the corners. “Kit and caboodle,” he repeated just before the music hall doors opened. “Is that what we’re calling it now?”
“That hostess’ face when she tried to seat us the other night was hilarious.” When it was more than just the normal four of them, not many people knew what to do with them. They were either a regular-sized group or a damn natural disaster descending, and there was no in between.
“Breakfast!” Venus exclaimed as she came out of the music hall.
“Not you, too,” Saturn groaned.
“Look, they like real food, not just donuts, and real food is good for you, so shove a donut in your pie hole and let’s go get some eggs.”
Venus spun off in the direction of the front doors, the strap of her overalls that was hanging loose whipping behind her.
“Pancakes,” Mars said.
Mercury knocked their shoulders together in agreement, and they followed their girls.
Mercury knew there was a frown etched deeply across his mouth, but he couldn’t get it to go away. He had zero idea what the formula on the board at the front of the room meant, and it was starting to make his head hurt. He was in a few advanced classes, and while he normally struggled a little in calculus, it wasn’t usually this bad. Mercury heaved a sigh and looked away from the board. A few other people had paired off, though most were scribbling furiously, trying to work out the formula. Earth, as usual, had abandoned his paper—which contained what looked like a complete answer—and was leaning over to argue about the conjunction of a Spanish word with Pluto, who was giving him an uncertain look.
“Earth,” Mercury said, just loud enough to get his attention without having to repeat himself. Earth finished his current rambling line in their argument and dropped heavily back into his seat to swivel toward Mercury. His brown eyes shot from Mercury’s face to his barely touched paper and then back up to smile.
“Come on over,” Earth said before he jerked back around to Pluto. Mercury gratefully abandoned his desk to take the empty one behind them just as Earth said, “Look, Spanish and Portuguese are close enough that I’m going to start being offended you don’t believe me. Mercury, back me up.”
“That was racist,” Pluto said as Mercury plopped down.
“It was, I don’t speak Spanish,” Mercury said.
“Oh, for the love of—fine, go with that bullshit conjunction. Alright, what’s up?” He turned away from Pluto, who was flipping Earth off good-naturedly, and to Mercury, who was trying to prepare himself for what asking for Earth’s help usually meant. Earth spun Mercury’s paper briefly to face him, made a soft noise in the back of his throat, and then screeched his desk around so he could easily show Mercury the work he’d done. “Let’s walk through it,” Earth said even as Pluto scooted his desk over to join theirs. He’d already completed his work, too, but Mercury was sure he’d done it a different way and wanted to argue with Earth’s approach. Mercury smiled, nodding at them to begin. Sometimes, it wasn’t so bad to have them around, to have gone from only Saturn to an entire universe of friends.
When the bus let Mercury and a few other kids off at their stop, Mercury hooked his hands in the straps of his backpack and started walking. His house was down the street and around the corner, so he swallowed any potential hope until he’d come around the corner and it was wiped out naturally. His father’s car wasn’t in the driveway. He didn’t bother calling him as he continued down the street. As soon as he was inside, Mercury looked to the fridge where his father had written a message—meeting might run late, back around 7 or 8. He always said back instead of home, and Mercury had stopped feeling weird about it.
He knew his father didn’t consider this house a home, but it was all Mercury had ever known, and he’d long since stopped letting that come between them. He had very vague memories of his mother and the house they’d lived in before, but Mercury was four when his parents divorced and his father got custody, and that’s when they moved.
Mercury wondered, briefly, if either parent would come to his meet this weekend. His father would probably be busy with work, and he only usually saw his mother on assigned weekends. And though that still hurt sometimes, he’d come a long way from letting himself constantly be upset that they were never around. Instead, Mercury reminded himself that Saturn and Mars, at least, were coming, and that was enough.
Mercury set his backpack down on the kitchen table, threw his jacket onto one of the chairs, and went to look in the fridge. He thought about what Deimos, Mars’ mom, would be cooking tonight, thought about the amazing smell that would waft through her big house. He thought about what Titan, Saturn’s dad, would be experimenting with tonight, thought about the way her mom, Rhea, would laugh as he plopped something strange-looking and colorful down on the table. Even Venera, Venus’ loud and wild aunt, would be home by dinner, and though it would probably be takeout, it was still something.
Mercury sighed. He could just grab a pack of frozen raviolis, but with the meet coming up this weekend, he couldn’t afford it. Instead, he fished out a piece of salmon from the cooling drawer, grabbed a bag of green beans, and got to work. He propped his laptop up on top of the toaster so that he could watch Netflix while he diced potatoes, and he’d made it through an entire episode of Sex Education by the time he was slicing lemons to lay over the salmon. It was Saturn’s recent obsession, and she’d gotten him hooked on it a few weekends ago. He only had an episode left after this one, so Mercury paused in the opening credits so he could put the fish in the oven and clean up. He set a timer, grabbed his laptop, and went to collapse in the living room while he waited.
Eventually, seven came, and his father still wasn’t home. Mercury ate dinner without him, setting a portion aside and covering it with a plate so it would stay warm.
When eight crept up, he put it away in a Tupperware and stopped lingering downstairs. Their house was small, just two floors and three bedrooms, which really wasn’t small when Mercury looked at the other houses in the neighborhood, but he spent so much of his time at Saturn’s or Mars’ that it felt small sometimes.
It was nine before Mercury heard a car turn into the driveway. He was already upstairs, his homework done, his laptop put away, and only his bedside lamp on to read by. He stuck a thumb in his book, listening, and when Mercury heard the stairs creaking as his dad came up them, he quickly reached over and clicked off the lamp. His dad paused at the top of the stairs, likely looking down the hall to see if there was any light coming out from under Mercury’s door, and when he saw none, he went back downstairs. Mercury waited until he could hear him open the fridge, and then he turned his lamp back on.
He didn’t feel like listening to it tonight, the excuses for why he’d spent another night alone when everyone else he knew had people that cared for them, that were there after school, that actually gave a shit what happened in their lives. Mercury shut his book with a snap, clicked off his lamp again, and threw himself down onto his shoulder. Most days, it was easy to shove away the hurt, but sometimes, it crept up when he was least expecting it.
Mercury inhaled. It was early morning, and the day was already bright. The sun was out, and though there were a few clouds scattered across the sky, it was a perfect day for a meet. And though the bus wasn’t leaving for two hours still, Mercury wanted to be up and awake by the time he arrived at the school, so he rolled out of bed and padded out of his room. On his way back from the bathroom, he leaned against his father’s door, but it was silent on the other side, so he continued back to his room. He spent his morning listening to things like the Lumineers and Of Monsters & Men, nothing that would get him too amped up just yet, stretching on his bedroom floor as the sun rose and fell across him in golden waves.
When he was done stretching, Mercury went downstairs to find a new note on the fridge—emergency this morning at work, be back around noon, maybe lunch?—that he rolled his eyes at before he grabbed eggs from the fridge. He stuck bread into the toaster while he started to scramble eggs, trying not to think about the note. He wasn’t sure if his dad even knew that he had a meet today. He wasn’t sure if the added question mark to the maybe lunch meant his dad wanted to eat together later, or if that was just when he thought he might be back, not home. Mercury wasn’t sure about anything these days when it came to his dad, but the longer he let himself drift on these thoughts, the angrier he was going to get, so as soon as he was finished scrambling his eggs, he sliced some tomatoes onto his toast, tipped the eggs on top, and went out onto the front steps to eat.
Sometimes, it was the simple act of stepping outside of the house that eased the tension out of his shoulders, that let him put it all behind him. When he was even just on the front steps, Mercury could pretend that maybe his dad was inside still, that maybe they were a normal family.
Normal was overrated, Saturn always reminded him.
Earth lived with his aunt because his own mother was mentally unstable. Not only had the state placed Earth in Deimos’ care, but Earth had chosen that life before he was ever legally put there.
Pluto didn’t have parents that cared. His mother was off who knew where, and his father was dead. His older brother was their sole caretaker, and they all seemed fine with that arrangement.
Venus lived with her aunt because her mother had tried to give her up for adoption, and after a fight that landed infant Venus in Venera’s lap and two sisters never speaking to each other again, Venus was happy to be where she was.
Half of Mercury’s friends didn’t live normal lives, Saturn always reminded him, and that was where their conversation ended. Because it wasn’t just that Mercury didn’t live a normal life, it was that he didn’t have anyone. Earth and Pluto and Venus all had someone. Mercury had an absent dad and a distant mom. He couldn’t even recall the last time he’d seen his father in person.
Without thinking, Mercury went back inside, put his dish in the sink, and jogged back upstairs to retrieve his phone. He typed up a quick message, reread it three times, and then forced himself to hit send.
I have a meet today at 10. Any chance you could come?
He wondered if his dad would even respond. The last time Mercury had asked something of him was seven months ago, and his dad had pretended he hadn’t seen the message until it was too late.
The message went from Delivered to Read, and Mercury waited long enough to see that his father wasn’t even going to bother to pretend to reply before he locked the phone and stuffed it in his jacket. He wanted to just leave it here, but felt better with it nearby just in case. He set it to silent, though, so he wouldn’t keep waiting to feel it vibrate in his pocket.
Mercury still checked it every ten minutes, right up until Coach Mariner pulled up in the driveway, and then he hurled it into the living room and left without it.
There was a recruiter at the meet.
“What?” Mercury said, staring at Coach Mariner like she’d grown a second head.
“Not just one, either,” Mariner said as she jostled Mercury’s shoulder until he looked farther down the fence and found two women chatting, both of them with stopwatches hooked around their necks. “Hey,” Mariner said suddenly as she turned to plant herself in front of Mercury, blocking his views of the college recruiters. “Stop letting this mess with you right now.”
“What schools are they from?” Mercury asked, trying to look around his coach.
“Mercury,” Mariner said sharply, and Mercury looked down at her, “Look at me. This is your track. This is your skill. This is what you love. Nothing else. That’s where it ends. You go out there, and you do what you are good at. You hear me?”
Mercury inhaled, nodded, and exhaled.
Mariner clapped him on the shoulder. “Good. And don’t ask me again. I’m not telling you what schools. Let’s go.”
As they walked over to where the rest of the team was stretching and talking, Mercury looked out at the stands, trying to find a familiar face. Almost instantly, Saturn burst up out of her seat, and Mercury smiled despite himself as he saw her. She was in her usual getup, leggings and denim jacket over a nondescript half-shirt, but she was hurling a pair of pom-poms through the air. They weren’t school ones that she’d nicked, but the kind of gaudy ones you found at toy stores. He watched her long enough to see her swiftly kick Mars, who yelped and flung up a hand, another pom-pom in hand. Venus leapt up on Saturn’s other side, matching her exuberance, and then Mercury was focusing back on his team.
Meets were always long, and Mercury never went in any of the first events, but he stood with his team to cheer everyone else on. He was friendly with all of them, and they even went out together sometimes after meets. There were a few knuckleheads on the team, but Mercury respected the rest of them for their fierce devotion and pride. He was among the best of them, but he wasn’t the only one. There was a girl a year younger than him that Mercury liked to run with purely because she pushed him hard and sometimes still beat him. There was another boy his age that hurdled like Mercury had never seen another human move. The javelin throwers were in a completely different world, and Mercury was always amazed at how far they could throw. But the only other sprinter that even came close to Mercury was a girl a year older than him, and she came to early training sessions with Mariner more often than not. He knew she wanted to set a record before she graduated, and when her first event was up, Mercury yelled the loudest for her.
And then, it was his time.
He didn’t look back up to the stands, but he heard Saturn—and a bright, wild sound that was probably Earth—roaring obnoxiously. He heard it all—parents cheering on their kids, coaches calling last bits of advice, the other runners adjusting their bibs nervously, the sigh of the wind—he heard it all right up until he set his fingers against the red track beneath him, and then it disappeared.
There was just the inhale, the pause, the whistle, and the exhale.
The meet was slowly coming to an end. All the events were done, and the teams were starting to pack themselves up. Mercury was just trying to find Saturn in the milling people still in the stands when Mariner came up next to him and said, “Those recruiters want to talk to you.”
Mercury blew out a loud breath as he looked over at his coach.
“Now you can let it mess with you, especially after that.” Mariner smiled widely at him. “That was better than all week.”
Mercury nodded. He knew he’d done well, and he’d already checked his times, but it still felt like not enough as Mariner led him away from the track and over to the fence. Mariner made the introductions, and Mercury shook hands with each of the recruiters as tension crept into his shoulders again, as the incredible day started to fall away behind him.
It was all for naught. Each of the recruiters handed him a business card, asked him to keep them in mind, that they were interested in what he had to offer to their programs, and wished him a good rest of the season. There was no need to panic, and as Mariner shook one of his shoulders, Mercury turned, searching.
He thought of his unanswered text from that morning.
He thought of the note on the fridge.
He thought of eating on the front steps because he couldn’t stand being in the house.
Mercury turned, searching, and finally found the person he was looking for.
Saturn was jumping up and down, her hands wrapped around the top of the fence, her pom-poms hanging from her fingers. Venus was beaming next to her, and Mars didn’t have a book out or grease on his face. Earth was there, too, leaning against his cousin as he waved wildly. Luna was up on Uranus’ shoulders, of all people, and Neptune was standing behind his little brother, Pluto. Even Jupiter, Saturn’s surly brother, had come out, and he nodded a smile at Mercury when he caught his gaze.
Mercury felt something open up inside of him, and he was jogging away from his coach before he was able to identify what it was. They had all come out for him. Not just the three people he spent every day with, but the friends he only saw occasionally, only when they all got together and made noise somewhere, even the friends, like Neptune and Jupiter, that he only had because of their relationship to the others, and it was so surreal, to see them all here, all for him.
“What are you doing here?” Mercury asked as he stopped in front of the fence.
“You’re supposed to lead with what that just was!” Saturn exclaimed before she whipped a pom-pom at his shoulder.
“Were those recruiters?” Uranus asked.
Mercury glanced at Neptune, the oldest of all of them, and was surprised to find an expectant expression on his face.
“Um,” he said, and turned back to Saturn, “Yeah. They told me they were interested in me.”
“Oh my god!” Saturn and Earth shrieked at the same time right before Mars swung a hand over the fence to haul Mercury closer, and then they were all glomming onto him.
“This is a terrible hug,” Venus said.
“Agreed,” Saturn said, “Get your stuff, and let’s go. Proper hug on the other side.”
“Where are we going?” Mercury asked as they released him.
“To celebrate,” Mars said.
When Mercury just kept looking at them, Neptune let out a quiet laugh and Luna rolled her eyes.
“To celebrate you, dummy,” Saturn said, “Come on. Hop to it. I thought you were faster than this.”
Mars snorted. “That was stupid, even for you,” he said even as Mercury turned away.
Back at the team, Mariner found him closing up his backpack. “Your dad at the school to take you home?” she asked. Mariner usually drove him to and from the school where they took the bus for meets, but sometimes, his father remembered to pick him up after.
“No,” Mercury said, shaking his head, “But I’ve got a ride. My friends—well.” Mercury looked over his shoulder at them, at all of them. He smiled. “My family’s here,” Mercury said, and realized he meant it. It didn’t matter that his blood had abandoned him. Family didn’t end in blood. Sometimes, you just had to find the right people to call your own.
Mercury left Coach Mariner after a few more minutes, and he was almost ready for it when he came around the other side of the fence, but it was hard to truly prepare for a nine-person hug.