Wow. All I can say is THANK YOU! Target 10 has reached fifty followers! Fifty! It’s a milestone that I promised myself I would celebrate. How? By posting a bonus story about the crew of the Demption! Get ready for a trip back in time for a glimpse of RJ and Jemy at an important milestone in their teenage years.

The Paper

RJ grabbed the paper, rushed out of his room and down the stairs looking for his mother. Respect made him squelch the scream clawing its way up his is throat. How could she?

The second sun just peeked over the window above the stairwell, casting an eerie yellow hue on the white walls. A whiff of sulfur smacked his nose. He ran to the kitchen, slowing his steps as he reached the door. His mom hated rushing.

The room was empty. Their oven, a monstrosity their mother insisted they bring when they moved to Azu, sat at the end of the counter, looking as out of place as he felt most of the time. He cracked open the door, turning his head from the initial blast of heat. Inside, brown liquid bubbled in a huge red bowl. On top were tiny, round, green vegetables, browning slightly at the edge. The traditional Gradus ceremony dish was almost done.

How could she?

He moved past the enormous white kitchen island towards his mother’s office on the opposite side of the house. The door slid open with a whiz that indicated misalignment, as it had since they’d moved in ten years ago. When he’d fixed it, his mother ordered him to break it again. Apparently, she enjoyed being greeted by the ‟happy whizzing” when she started her work. Now the sound was all that greeted RJ. Her office was empty and dark except for the light from the window overlooking their pool and garden.

Movement caught his eye. His mother stepped out of the grove of miniature arcana trees. Her dark green pants and light green, purple, and orange patterned shirt made her impossible to miss. He hung his head. Her outfit matched the one laid out for him on his bed, except his pants were shorts, ones that ballooned out from the hip to knee. And the shirt had fifteen alternating purple, orange, and green ruffles with fifteen diamond-shaped yellow buttons centered on the chest. The white socks weren’t so bad, nor were the tall, laced leather boots. Or they wouldn’t be if they lived back on Parkan and not on Azu, where open sandals were the social norm.

The scream in his throat turned to nausea. His breath quickened as his mother plucked a few blooms from the garden and stood to come inside. He stared at the paper in his hand, an invitation to attend his Gradus, the traditional rite of passage for Parkanians on their fifteenth birthday. The paper crumpled as he clenched his fist. She never listened, never understood how different things were here on Azu. He thought about telling her this was too far, that he refused to wear that outfit. Not around his friends. Not around anyone, not even if they were blind.

She passed the window, and soon her shoes clacked on the hard kitchen floor.

He moved to go meet her, but his mind flooded with hundreds of similar moments. They all ended the same way: his head bent, his quiet acceptance of her commands, and the nightmare of going through the motions of whatever ritual the Parkanian Way demanded. Pointless. She’s the reason I never fit in.

He ran. Ran out of the house and down the hillside path to the Perays’ house. He climbed up a tall tree and rapped on Jemy’s window.

“RJ? What are you doing in the tree? Is the door broke?”

RJ shook his head. “Hide me!”

Jemy smiled wide, and his blue eyes twinkled as he stepped aside and let RJ in. “What have you done now?”

“Nothing! She, she…ugh!” He handed Jemy the crumpled invitation.

“We’ve got a copy of this hanging on the board downstairs. It’s your birthday party.”

“Party? You think this is a party? It’s a Gradus. Exclusively designed to embarrass soon-to-be adult males and make them subservient to Parkan society rules. It’s a crime, a travesty!”

“And a tradition according to the invite.” Jemy’s finger pointed to the word on the paper.

“A tradition on Parkan, not here. I’ll be the laughingstock of the province.” He plopped down on Jemy’s bed.

“It can’t be that bad, RJ. Just think of it as a party. And I won’t laugh.” He sat on a chair across from the bed.

“Yes, you will.”

“I’m your best friend. Did I laugh at your tenth birthday party when you had to do that song?”

RJ looked up at him, scowling. “Yeah, you did!”

“No. I didn’t. I laughed at the words you sang, not you or your singing.”

“How is that different?!” RJ threw out his hands and cocked his head to one side.

Jemy opened his mouth to reply, but closed it when he heard his mother call him.

“I’m NOT here!” RJ reminded him as Jemy stepped out, closing the door behind him.

RJ threw himself back onto the bed and stared at the ceiling. Through the skylight, wispy white clouds floated by. He willed himself to follow them, but he remained stubbornly on the bed.

Jemy was taking a long time. RJ pulled out his tablet and started searching for the next transport off-planet. He didn’t care where it went. Just get me away from here.

RJ recognized the high-pitched squeal and uncontrolled laughter of Jemy’s little sister from outside the door. He launched off the bed and was halfway out the window when Jemy came into the room wearing the Gradus outfit, his face red. He held out a second one in his right hand and a pair of boots in the other.

RJ laughed and almost fell out the window. Jemy rushed and pulled him back in, throwing the clothes and boots on the bed as he went.

“I’m—I’m sorry,” RJ said, bent over and holding his stomach. “Why? Why are you wearing that?”

“Because your mom and my mom got together and thought that since my birthday is just two days after yours, we should both do a Gradus.”

“Really?”

“As of about ten minutes ago, yes.”

“And you agreed to put that thing on? You’re not even Parkan.” Giggles popped out of RJ despite his attempts to hold them in.

“No, I’m not. But what else is someone supposed to do when his friend needs him?”

“Your mom said that.”

“She also said I wouldn’t be able visit Parkan with you this summer if I didn’t agree to do this with you.”

RJ snapped his head up. “Seriously?”

“And the other catch is I need to get you to put it on too, or the whole trip is off.”

RJ glanced back and forth between his outfit on the bed and Jemy. “We’ll do it all together? The outfit, the food, the pledge?”

“It’s all or nothing.” Jemy pointed to the clothes on the bed. “Your turn.”