"The third and final book of the trilogy was supposed to come out this year, but the release date was pushed back indefinitely.
No one knows why.
There are rumors, though."
If my life were a book, I would start here, standing in front of the long row of check-in tables at the California Children’s Book Festival with something that feels very much like hope blooming in my chest.
And if Jenna were the editor of my book—and she totally would be, because she’d want to make sure I got it right—she would disagree. She would say I should start from when we first met, or six days ago, when we graduated from Crescent High to tearful hugs from her parents and distant pats from my mother. But just this once I’ll ignore Jenna’s advice and start here, standing in the middle of the atrium, staring upward at the huge, colorful banner suspended above the check-in.
There are at least a dozen author faces in neat, orderly rows, but it’s the center photo that makes my fingers tingle with excitement. The focal point—the largest photo of them all, and dead center—is N. E. Endsley, with his sharp cheekbones and dark, layered hair that is two steps of sophistication above boy band hair.
It’s a testament to his writing skills that his first book sold so well without the inordinately attractive author photo on the back flap.
“Author of the Orman Chronicles” is all it says beneath his unsmiling photo, but everyone knows the final book is coming. Those of us who paid a prince’s ransom—or whose best friend’s parents paid the ransom as a high school graduation gift—to be in the room for his special announcement are hoping to hear at least a release date and hopefully—squee!—a short excerpt.
I have little time to be excited beyond the sharp pain of glee that makes me feel as if the world could never be this exciting again. It’s a kind of morose happiness that I squash down because Jenna has already stridden to one of the tables and is fetching our wristbands.
“Jenna Williams,” she is saying to the blue polo behind the table when I near. “And Amelia Griffin. Both VIP passes with access to the N. E. Endsley session.”
The man flips through a stapled stack of papers before giving each of us a wristband with VIP embossed along the thin rubber. I twist mine over my hand without looking, but Jenna holds hers up for examination.
“This one has a nick in it,” she says. “May I have another?” The man seems confused for a split second too long—all I can see behind his eyes are endless file cabinets—so before Jenna can unleash her usual speech about presentation and quality, I work the band from my wrist and quickly swap it with her nicked one before she can argue.
“It’s fine,” I say. “I don’t care.”
Jenna rolls her eyes and says, “You should,” but blessedly we walk away lecture-free and into the long rows of booths and tables stacked high with swag and books.
When the Williamses had asked us what we wanted for graduation, over dinner in late February, Jenna had barely looked up from her plate of enchiladas.
“There’s a book festival the week after graduation,” she said. “It’s only a couple of days. We could fit it in before Ireland.”
I had jerked my head toward her, surprised.
“Have you been looking at my computer again? How did you know about the festival?”
Jenna rolled her eyes. “As if you’re the only one with an internet alert out for anything related to N. E. Endsley.”
There was no doubt that she had chosen this for my benefit. Later, when she dropped me off at my house after a car ride full of my squeals about meeting N. E. Endsley, I leaned over to hug her good-bye and whispered, “You don’t like internet alerts.”
“What?” Her voice was casual.
“You don’t like internet alerts or subscription newsletters because they take up too much time and clutter your computer.” Jenna looked out the window to hide her smile. “When did I say that?”
“You didn’t.” I grinned. “I just know. And when did you look at my computer?”
She turned to face me, indignant. “I’ve told you before you ought to lock it when you walk away from it in the library!”
“Yeah,” I deadpanned. “Wouldn’t want the riffraff seeing my search history of book festivals and—”
“And llama memes when you’re supposed to be studying?”
“Don’t judge.” I shoved her shoulder and turned it into another awkward car hug. “Besides, if I hadn’t left it open, you would have asked for something sensible for graduation. Like textbook covers or . . . I don’t even know what, instead of the best, best, best thing on the planet.”
“I don’t think textbook covers are a thing in college, Amelia.” Her voice was even, but I could feel her smile. “Whatever. You know what I mean.” My nose was lodged against her hair. She smelled like shampoo and her fruity, too- sweet perfume.
“Thanks, Jenna,” I whispered, and found myself oddly choked up.
“I’ll enjoy it, too, you know,” she whispered back. “But you’re welcome. Happy graduation. Is this hug over yet?”
“Almost. Your perfume is trying to kill me.”
The same perfume brings me back to the festival, to the pulsing hustle of book lovers swarming around us, which is no match for my enthusiasm.
“Look at it,” I urge Jenna, jogging alongside her fast walk to thrust my wrist in her face. “Look! This band means that, in only three hours, we get to see N. E. Endsley. Endsley, Jenna.”
Jenna does not pause, unfazed by my attempts at distraction. “Amelia.” She says my name with a mix of exasperation and affection, but more of the latter than usual. “There are other events before his session, and we should enjoy some other panels and booths, too, okay?”
“Whatever you say, JenJen.” I say the pet name her first and last boyfriend gave her under my breath, thinking she won’t hear it in the din.
“Do not call me that.”
Her dark, curly strands bounce toward me all at once, and her eyes narrow, but a corner of her lips is restraining a smile. “Oh, come on, JenJen. Lighten up. It’s a perfectly good name for a girlfriend . . . or a poodle.”
“Shove off,” she says, laughing. She steers us into a booth of T-shirts in all the colors of the rainbow with catchy book phrases printed on their fronts: I read past my bedtime or I’m a book dragon, not a bookworm. Most can also be purchased as posters, and I push us toward the rolled-up plastic tubes near the back of the booth.
“This is why boyfriends are useless,” Jenna mutters. “They distract you from schoolwork and they make up stupid names that your so-called friends never let you live down.”
“Chin up, JenJen,” I say, extracting one of the poster tubes from its brethren. “What do you think of this one for our dorm room?”
The top of the poster is decorated with little cartoon people attempting and failing to ski, skateboard, and surf, the message below reading, “If at first you don’t succeed, read a book instead.”
“That hardly seems conducive to an encouraging study environment,” Jenna says. “Besides, I don’t appreciate the implication that one cannot be a reader and an athlete.”
“Killjoy.” I thwap her on the shoulder with the tube.
“Child.” She grabs the poster from me and hits me lightly atop my head, before heading to the register and sliding her father’s credit card across the counter.
“You didn’t have to buy it,” I say afterward.
She shrugs. “Dad said, and I quote, ‘It’s your graduation present. Go crazy. But don’t tell your mother.’”
“Your poor mom,” I say. “She’s going to want to throttle you when the credit card bill comes in. Meanwhile, you’ll be far away in Ireland, collecting plants and being nerdy.”
“Specimens,” Jenna corrects.
“Whatever.” I sidestep a woman in a long skirt pushing a dolly full of boxes like it’s a race car. “She’ll want to give you one of your own lectures and you won’t be there to hear it.”
“I’ll just blame it on you and she can give you an earful.”
We move into a slim, unoccupied space between booths so Jenna can pull up the festival schedule on her phone.
It suddenly strikes me as very adult, our solitary trip to California. Jenna and I are in charge of the events we attend, where we eat lunch, what swag we buy. I keep waiting for somebody to accuse us of being unaccompanied minors, to escort us from the premises and call our parents, but we’re eighteen. We’re enrolled in Missoula for the fall. We are adults. Sort of.
I am vitalized and cowed by this realization, and I want to remember this moment of watching my friend lead the way on our first long-distance solo trip. While Jenna scrolls, I wrestle my trusty digital camera from my backpack and remove the lens cover. I look through the viewfinder and snap one picture—it’s my rule—and then let the camera hang from its strap around my neck.
“If we book it, we could make it to ballroom C for the ‘It’s Only a Flesh Wound: Violence in Fantasy’ panel,” I say, grinning. “Get it? Book it?”
My laugh echoes in the small space, but Jenna only snorts and keeps scrolling. I practically have the schedule memorized, after a week of alternating between staring at the welcome email and obsessively rereading the two Orman books.
My mind wanders ahead to what his session will be like, my head spinning with everything I know about Orman and Endsley.
While the first book—The Forest Between the Sea and the Sky—is about finding Orman and the power struggle set up between Ainsley and Emmeline, the second book—The In- Between Queens—is about Emmeline and Ainsley gathering their armies to fight each other for the throne. But because the Old Laws only let them stay in Orman for spurts of time, for parts of the book they are dealing with each other and their parents back in our world. They’re rulers of their realms in Orman, but here in our world they still have to do homework and clean up Oreo crumbs they drop on the carpet. It’s funny to watch them try to exist in such different environments.
Everyone thinks the third book is going to be set completely in Orman, but I hope not. I like to imagine the girls somewhere in this world with me—Emmeline running out of toilet paper after she pees and dealing with real stuff alongside me, but slipping back into Orman to take her place as the true queen of the kingdom.
They’re the kind of stories that keep you up late at night, ones I sink into so fully I’m certain they are secret histories of a real world that I just haven’t figured out how to get to. Reading them makes me feel as if I’m putting on a suit of armor over a beloved sweater, fierce and comfortable, nostalgic and adventurous.
And N. E. Endsley is some sort of absurdly young writing prodigy. He’s only a year older than Jenna and me. Social media lit up a few weeks ago on his nineteenth birthday, and a few prominent sites ran articles recapping his improbably glorious success.
He started writing the stories when he was only thirteen and published the first book when he was sixteen, the second book’s publication following a year later. The third and final book of the trilogy was supposed to come out this year, but the release date was pushed back indefinitely.
No one knows why.
There are rumors, though. Some say that he has writer’s block and can’t figure out how to end such an epic story when it’s become so popular. Some go further and accuse the fandom of being the root of the problem, using words like vapid and invasive. Expecting too much, putting too much pressure on Endsley’s creative space.
Others still say he’ll never finish, that he’s become a social recluse before the age of twenty-five and that whatever has caused it, the story will end with the second book.
I hope it’s not true, but I don’t have much to hope on. Nobody does. Endsley rarely grants interviews. What the Orman fandom knows of him comes mostly in trickles and hearsay.
One night I couldn’t sleep and I fell down an internet rabbit hole, reading comments from people who’ve run into Endsley in New York City, where he lives. One girl saw him at the public library and approached to ask for an autograph of the second book, which she happened to have with her. Endsley refused. But as he walked away, a different boy approached her. He apologized for Endsley’s behavior and asked for the girl’s address, promising to send her a signed copy, before apologizing again for Endsley’s rudeness and disappearing into the crowd.
In an updated post, the girl claimed to have received the book.
Who knows if it’s true. Maybe I’ll be better able to judge for myself when I see him face-to-face.
“What about the ‘Just Enough Cooks in the Kitchen’ panel?” Jenna asks, interrupting my daydreaming. “June Turner and some of the authors from that anthology about feminism in high school are speaking. You know, the book I gave you to read last week that you never did?”
“How do you know I didn’t read it?” I ask.
“Because you gave it back to me without a page out of place, that’s how. There wasn’t so much as a smudge on it.”
“Are you suggesting I’m a book destroyer?”
Jenna gives me the same look I’ve seen Mrs. Williams level at Mr. Williams on weekly grocery runs, when he sneaks extra boxes of prepackaged muffins into the shopping cart, which he claims are “for his girls.” It’s a look of exasperation, but full of so much love it makes my insides burst.
I laugh. “Fine, I’m not a neat freak. Sue me. And you’re right about me not reading it, but only because I was—”
“Rereading the Endsley books,” Jenna interrupts. “I know.”
I link my arm through hers, dragging her once more into the river of people.
“Feminism panel it is, JenJen. We better get moving if we want seats up front. I know that’s where you’ll want to sit.”
Jenna is obviously resisting the urge to roll her eyes at me again as I stubbornly keep my arm linked through hers. It’s difficult to walk side by side with so many people around us. She doesn’t drop her arm, though. It’s her job to make the big and not-so-big choices in this friendship. It’s my job to make whatever she chooses fun, no matter how many faces she makes. Both of us have an easy task today, because though she won’t say it aloud, I know that Jenna’s heart is beating just as eagerly as mine, marking time until we are closer to Orman and its creator than we’ve ever been before.
Ashley Schumacher is a young-adult author with a degree in creative writing from the University of North Texas. She lives in a small town with her antisocial but lovable husband and more books than is strictly necessary. When she's not reading or writing, you can find her belting Disney or Broadway songs, protecting her snacks from her greedy golden retriever, hand embroidering, or playing Mario Kart. Amelia Unabridged is her first novel. She lives in Dallas, Texas.