Off Book (Jessica Dall)

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Twenty-year-old Eloise has learned all she can from the School, where characters live until joining their novels. No one knows genre and plot structure better than her, but despite her knowledge, she’s yet to be assigned to her own story. All her friends are off starting their lives with their authors—and if Eloise doesn’t get assigned soon, she’ll fade away, forgotten by all.

When she is offered a job at the Recording Office, instead, she takes the chance to write her own future. Suddenly living among the post-storied, Eloise meets Barnaby Fitzwilliam, a former romance novel hero who hasn’t lost any of his in-story charm. But just as their relationship begins to get serious, Eloise is sucked into a novel she was never meant to be part of, turning everything they thought they knew about their world upside down.

Now, caught where the only rules are made by authors and truly anything is possible, Eloise must find her way back home—or her life might end before she ever gets the chance to live it.

Set in an intriguing, unique world, OFF BOOK explores the story beneath the stories we all know and love, taking readers and characters alike on an adventure just waiting to be written.

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ISBN: 9781942111122 Category: Tag:

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Read The First Chapter

One 

The bell rang. Students poured out of classrooms and into the hallway. Eloise ducked through the horde, pushing herself against the far wall to avoid the worst of the human stream.

“Eloise! Eloise!  Eloise!  Eloise!” The voice echoed over the students and down the long hallway.

Looking over her shoulder, Eloise smiled at the mass of curls barreling toward her as they ducked around the larger students and nearly took down some of the younger ones along their approach.

Columbine slowed, sliding a little on the tile as she came to a stop just in front of Eloise. Her hair continued forward, and she had to push the dark curls out of her face.

Eloise laughed. “What’s happened? I haven’t seen you this excited since you found out you could get a Johnny Chess album shipped here.”

Columbine didn’t wait for Eloise’s critique of her musical taste. “I got it.”

Eloise’s smile dropped. “You got it?”

“I got it,” Columbine repeated, holding her hand up.

Eloise stared at the envelope. It didn’t look any different than any other white, government-issued letter—no confetti or ribbons like there should have been. Eloise looked back up slowly. “When did you get called in?”

“Haven’t opened it yet.” Columbine turned the letter over in her hands, looking at the pressed wax seal that sat on the back of it, the raised letters “OAT” the only identifying marks to say it came from the Office of Assignment and Transport. “I’m too nervous. I think we should go up to my room, get a lot of chocolate ready just in case, and dissect every word in it.”

Eloise just nodded, linking arms with Columbine as they moved toward the doors of the School.

“Have you gotten yours yet?” Columbine tore her eyes away from the letter, forcing her arm to drop nonchalantly to her side.

Eloise frowned. “You know I haven’t.”

“Well, you’re bound to get it soon.” Columbine covered, adding a certain nod for good measure.

“I don’t know.” Eloise shook her head. “I’m starting to think I might just be destined to be Forgotten.”

“Oh, don’t talk like that.” Columbine shoved Eloise lightly. “You’re much too pretty to be Forgotten. It’s always the average ones that get passed over. You could be, like, a love interest at least. Or some bitchy prep in a bad teen boarding school story. Those are still hot, yeah?”

“A prep school villain pushing twenty?” Eloise raised an eyebrow.

Columbine pursed her lips. “You could still pass for younger. Maybe it will be some twist that you’re actually too old to be in high school, but you came back to try to relive your glory days.”

Eloise snorted.

“Tell me that doesn’t sound like a story.”

“Since there’s an entire trope called Older Than They Look—”

Columbine waved off the rest of Eloise’s analysis. “You see? That just proves it. Prep school novel, population: Eloise.”

“Right.” Eloise rolled her eyes. “Because Eloise is such a popular name these days. We both know the best I could have hoped for was to be in a children’s novel. I mean, the last Eloise picked up was seven. I’m at least a dozen years past my expiration date.”

“Oh, you’re only looking at the MC list. I’m sure there are plenty of Supporting Character Eloises storied out there.”

“Easy for you to say. An interesting name and a birthmark on your neck shaped like a star? Of course you’re interesting enough for someone to pick up. Maybe even as a Main Character. I’m beyond generic.”

“Plenty of people have birthmarks.” Columbine brushed her away. “And my name? Some bad associations, I hear, up in the author’s world. Nobody wants an MC named Columbine.”

“Well, someone obviously picked you.” Eloise grabbed the letter from Columbine’s hand, nearly pushing them into the doorframe with the momentum. “You never know with the avant garde. They like uncommon names. Remember Philomena?”

“That was historical fiction.”

“All the same, there’s an epidemic of trendy names lately.” Eloise held the envelope up to her forehead like a carnival swami. “I see you being cast as the beautiful daughter of some international spy who ends up being caught in a government conspiracy. The avant garde are always writing about government conspiracies, you know.”

“I hope I’m in a fantasy novel.” Columbine took the envelope back, looking at the seal like it would tell her the answer. “I always thought I would be an awesome wizard.”

Eloise pursed her lips. “I think girl wizards are called witches.”

“Whatever. Same difference. Amandine got picked up in a fantasy novel,” Columbine said, words seeming to fall out of her mouth as soon as she thought of them. “She’s a nymph now.”

“MC?”

“SC,” Columbine said. “But I mean, still, she’s a goddamn nymph.”

“Well, I suppose a children’s novel is out.” Eloise smiled, opening the door to their dormitory. “What with that kind of language.”

“Maybe I’ll get to be a vampire.” Columbine didn’t bother to respond to the comment on her language choices, following Eloise into the new hallway. “Vampires are very in right now. Trés chic.”

“Last thing the world needs is another crappy vampire novel.” Eloise sighed, then paused to look Columbine over critically. “Though, you’ve got the coloring for it. Very Anne Rice, you know, the dark hair and pale skin . . .”

“I think I would be a kickass vampire.” Columbine dodged an old couch someone had pushed out into the hall again. “And I personally like vampire books, thank you very much.”

Eloise tried it out. “Columbine, vampiress. I could see it. You think you’d be okay with having to drink blood for the rest of your life though?”

“Eh, I’d survive. As long as the author didn’t go full monster on me.”

Eloise smiled to herself, letting Columbine’s arm go so they could fit through the thin door that led to Columbine’s small, poster-covered room.

Sitting on her bed with a dramatic thump, Columbine studied the envelope as an artistic shot of Eleanor Hibbert watched Eloise from the far wall. So, Columbine had finally replaced the old, raggedy one she’d had of Nora Roberts.

Columbine turned the letter over once in her hands, then suddenly held it out with a jerk. “I can’t do it. You open it.”

Eloise forced her eyes off the young woman in the poster and looked at Columbine. “You sure?”

“I’m too nervous.” Columbine shook the letter, urging Eloise to take it.

Eloise sighed and grabbed the envelope, fingers working their way under the flap. A last look to make sure Columbine didn’t want to do it herself, and Eloise broke the gold seal on the back, clear across the middle.

“What does it say?” Columbine bounced nervously.

“Give me a second. My crystal ball’s at the cleaner’s.” Eloise unfurled the letter, clearing her throat officially as the writing came into view. “Dear Columbine, succession number 63: You have been asked to join the assignment panel at the Office of Assignment and Transport on this coming Friday in room 651 at eight in the morning—”

“Yarg, eight?” Columbine made a face.

Eloise nodded but didn’t pause. “—for assignment . . . yada-yada-yada, instructions, be sure you are on time, bring ID and all that stuff. We look forward to meeting you and assigning you to your upcoming manuscript. We do our best to . . . random quality statement about how they’re really looking out for our best interests. We wish you the best of luck in your future, undoubtedly . . .” Eloise laughed.

“What?” Columbine frowned.

“Just . . .” Eloise looked up with a smile. “Honest to God, it says ‘undoubtedly well-written piece of literature’ -The Assignment Panel.”

“It could be well-written,” Columbine argued.

“It’s the ‘undoubtedly’ I find hilarious.” Eloise held the letter out for Columbine to take. “Have you seen some of what they try to pass off—?”

“Room 651.” Columbine looked at the paper, ignoring Eloise’s critique of modern literature and running her eyes over the page quickly. “That’s the Fantasy room, isn’t it?”

“Fantasy and Sci-Fi,” Eloise agreed, sitting next to Columbine on the bed. “Maybe you will get to be a vampire.”

Columbine’s brow creased. “God, I hope it isn’t Sci-Fi. I don’t understand space travel at all. There’s always goddamn space travel in Sci-Fi.”

“Not always,” Eloise said. “Science Fiction means that there is a scientific explanation, rather than a fantastic one, behind any element the author—”

“You lost me at ‘scientific.’” Columbine locked her eyes on the paper in front of her.

“Anyway,” Eloise let the rest of her explanation go, “you don’t have to understand anything. The author does.”

Columbine remained silent, lips pressing together tightly. She finally looked back up, face serious. “You’ll have to tell me the second you get your letter, Ellie. Even if I’m in-story. Send an email so I can see the timestamp with the exact minute you got it.”

Eloise shook her head, resting back on her hands. “I wouldn’t worry about that. I’ll likely still be here by the time you get back.”

“Ellie.” Columbine sighed. “You’re, like, one of the smartest people to ever come through here. Everybody says so.”

“Doesn’t make me any more interesting, story-wise.”

“Well, it’s not up to you to be interesting. The author can just add all that once you’re in-story.”

Eloise clenched her jaw, looking back at Mrs. Hibbert on the wall. Columbine always did love being surrounded by authors. Daydream fodder, Eloise had to assume. All of those staring eyes, though . . . they made Eloise’s shoulders tense. They taunted that whatever author she’d originally appeared for had forgotten her story not long after she’d shown up on the School steps, knowing nothing but the fact that she was “Eloise.” That she was Eloise, and that she was waiting for a story. Just like every other student to ever appear from nowhere. She forced her eyes back to Columbine. “Even if I do get a letter, I’ll maybe be an mSC. And that’s if I’m lucky.”

“Don’t be so morbid.” Columbine rolled her eyes. “But even if you are a minor Supporting Character, maybe that’s for the better. Henry ended up getting to be a Main Character, and his new parents were killed off within, like, three pages. Didn’t even get a chance to get to know them.”

“Yeah.” Eloise nodded slowly. “But as an mSC you run a much higher risk of being a Red Shirt. Remember what happened to Sylvia? Was supposed to be in and out, maybe ten pages on the job, and then she had a motorhome land on her because some author decided they wanted to rip off The Wizard of Oz.”

“Well, that’s a risk all of us run.” Columbine shrugged. “Do you think it’s better to just be one of the Forgotten? I mean, you can hardly see half the Teachers here anymore. No one knows their names. Soon, the next wave is going to fade off. Personally, I’d rather be flattened by a motorhome than go through that. At least people will remember you as the motorhome girl.”

“True.” Eloise nodded, doing her best not to think about the ghosting Teachers. It didn’t always start at the same time, but at some point, as the years ticked by, it happened to them all. Thirty or eighty, those Forgotten by their authors began to fade. Ice ran down Eloise’s spine as she felt her remaining time ticking away. She did her best to ignore it, mouth moving with the first thing she thought of. “Do you remember our Teacher from when we were seven? I saw him the other day. He’s completely see-through now. He can’t be more than forty, and I could make out the writing on the poster hanging on the wall behind him. He’s about two shades away from ice.”

Columbine scrunched up her nose as she tried to think. “I guess I remember him. Like, a little. I don’t think he even had a name back when we had him, did he? He was already just ‘Teacher.’”

Eloise pressed her lips tightly together.

“You’re going to get your letter.” Columbine touched Eloise’s arm. “Don’t worry.”

Eloise forced a smile, shaking it off. “But this is your day. No need to have me glooming it up. You have to call me the minute you find out where you’re going.”

“You’re my first call,” Columbine agreed.

“I’m going to miss you.” Eloise’s false smile faltered. “You aren’t going to be down the hall anymore.”

“Oh, it could be weeks before I’m needed.” Columbine shook her head. “You’re not going to get rid of me that quickly.”

“It still means your School days are over.”

“Stop it,” Columbine said. “You’re going to make me cry.”

“We can’t have that. You’re supposed to be the fun one.”

Columbine threw her arms around Eloise before Eloise could react. “I’ll write whenever I can. I promise.”

Eloise nodded, not bothering with what Columbine would no doubt ignore as pessimism.

“Do you want to stay and watch a movie or something?” Columbine asked.

“I have homework.” Eloise shook her head. “I still have to pretend I give a crap about classes.”

Columbine frowned, but nodded.

Eloise smiled, said her goodbyes, and walked down the hall to her door. She and Columbine had lived five doors apart for as long as Eloise could remember, having appeared within days of each other, both approximately age three. Now, Columbine would be moving out while Eloise remained—watching all of the Chosen leave. After all, only the pre-storied lived in the dormitories.

Eloise pushed the door open and dropped her bag on the ugly mottled carpet, not really caring where it landed.  Flopping onto her old mattress, she lay back, staring at the gray plaster ceiling as she waited for the bouncing to stop. Brier gone, Columbine nearly out the door . . . Eloise would soon be out of friends. A couple years, and they would move her down with the Teachers. Being assigned after twenty-two was rare, as authors just aged anyone in-story as necessary after that point. Eloise’s stomach knotted.

And being assigned after twenty-five, well, that was unprecedented.

Sitting with a huff, Eloise tucked her feet under her small frame, resting her elbows on her knees as her blonde hair shielded her from the rest of the room. She pushed it back, suddenly wishing she could cut it without it growing right back to its place just below her shoulders within the day. Those pale blonde ringlets with her large blue eyes likely hadn’t helped her any as far as becoming storied. They made her look like a classic Damsel in Distress. Sadly, those were no longer a literary staple.

Someone knocked, making Eloise start. Snapping halfway out of her pessimistic haze, she pushed herself off the bed with a grunt, the squeaking springs covering it easily.

The man looked down at her from outside the door, scowling for a moment before he held out a plain, butcher-paper-wrapped bundle. “You got a package this morning.”

“Thank you.” Eloise took it as the man stalked off toward the staircase. Shutting the door again, she peeled the white card off the top and moved back into her room, throwing the package on her bed.

Eloise,

My story finally finished after a couple years of writer’s block. I thought you’d like a copy to see what I’ve been up to. I got a backstory and everything. You should come by and meet my “parents,” if you ever get out to the Houses. We’re in SC352. Basically, you go into the SC neighborhood and just start walking. We’re on the left. We definitely need to catch up.

                                                                             Hugs and Kisses,

                                                                                         Lil

Eloise sighed and pulled the letter box from under her bed. She folded the paper up to keep it from floating off course and dropped it, barely letting it settle before kicking the box back into place with the heel of her foot. She turned her attention to the brown package. It wasn’t large, probably a short novel, maybe even a novella. It had just taken a long time. Author had probably left them sitting around for who knew how long.

She picked the tape off and pulled out the bound white pages. “The Fall Leaves by Kathy Brown” sat on the first page in severe, black type, the Recording Office’s seal at the top.

Kathy Brown again.

Eloise recognized the name, flipping through the rest of the pages to see the familiar style— short paragraphs and a lot of dialogue. Kathy Brown had been writing a lot lately, and had been doing her best to keep her reputation for killing off her MCs. Apparently, Lil had made it through with her life, but somebody in that story had undoubtedly died. All in all, Lil didn’t seem too scarred by the experience.

“William Blake stared at the leaves outside the window of his Brooklyn brownstone.

There it was. Eloise frowned. William Blake: formerly William, succession number 41,059. He had been added to the list of people who died in the line of duty. It seemed getting an MC gig with Kathy Brown truly was about as good as getting a death sentence.

If she got a letter assigning her to a Kathy Brown novel, would that really be better than fading away? Dying in a story couldn’t be that awful, unless the author gave you some flesh-eating virus or something sadistic like that, but knowing you were going to die? The anticipation would probably be worse than the actual death.

Eloise flipped through the rest of the manuscript before setting it on the shelf with the other ones old friends had sent her. She sat back down on her bed. As much as she wanted to be happy for everyone who had finished their stories, and to properly grieve for those who had died in theirs, she couldn’t fight her jealousy that they were past the waiting and worry. The waiting was the worst. And with the way things were going, she’d probably be waiting up until the day she faded away.

About The Author

Jessica Dall finished her first novel at age 15 and been writing ever since. She is the author of such novels as Grey Areas and The Bleeding Crowd, the Broken Line Series, and a number of short stories which have appeared in both literary magazines and anthologies. When not writing, she works as a freelance editor and creative writing teacher in Washington, DC.

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