Smoke filled the room as Carter sat alone in his apartment taking hits off his cigarette with one hand and clutching his new copy of Alice in Wonderland in the other. He had received it when he was forced to say goodbye to her. The image of Noel when he saw her for the last time was burned into his memory. How could he have let Eli take her from him?* * *Carter literally fell for Noel the first time he saw her. She was sitting on the ground in the not-so-organized chaos of an isle in his recently acquired used bookstore. Surrounded by towers of books, she was practically invisible aside from her outstretched legs; but by the time he noticed those, it was too late. He came crashing down next to her in seemingly the most dramatic way possible with books flying in every direction. As he lay there, he kept his eyes closed tight trying to shut out the world and the embarrassment that was now surging through him. Knowing that he couldn’t stay that way forever, he took a breath and slowly opened his eyes. In front of him was a pair of Vans in the brightest orange he had ever seen. Attached to those shoes was a stunning girl who seemed to be in her early twenties. Looking up at her, he took in everything. Her slender build was sheathed in a pair of dark-wash jeans, a long white cardigan, black tank top, and elaborately designed scarf. Her long blonde hair fell in waves around her shoulders. Even the subtle scar running from the corner of her right eye down her cheek captured him. What really drew him in, though, were her dazzling green eyes. Her beauty was disarming.“Are you okay?” She appeared genuinely concerned.“Yeah, I’m fine,” Carter managed, trying not to trip over his words as he looked helplessly up at her. “What’s with all of the books?” he asked, trying to move the topic off of him.“Oh,” she giggled, glancing over her shoulder, “I come here all the time and pull out all of my favorites. Then I buy the copies with dedications in them. The trouble, though, is that once I pick one up, I can’t put it down,” she said as she giggled again. “It’s silly, I know, but I find them so much better when somebody else’s own story is tied into it. “Here, let me show you.” She took his hand, helped him up, and began to scan her mountains of books for a good example.The instant her hand wrapped around his, he felt himself melting at her touch. When she let go to pick up the book from the top of one of her piles, he felt empty. Carter suddenly couldn’t fathom how he had gone the 23 long years of his life without this girl.His eyes were drawn to her delicate hands as they opened The Catcher in the Rye.“‘To my darling husband…’” Her siren voice called to him and he immediately became lost in the sultry lull. It was the most beautiful sound he had ever heard. It entranced him. With every word she read, Carter drank her in. He couldn’t help but smile as he gazed at her. His trance was broken suddenly by a change in her tone. “So what brings you here? I haven’t seen you around before,” inquired Noel. “Well…” Carter sputtered, caught completely off guard by her question,” my Uncle Matt loved books and always said that the ones that had been loved before always told the best stories. He opened this place a few years ago for people who felt the same, I guess. Anyway, I grew up in a quiet town about an hour north of here and had been looking for a way into the city ever since I graduated college. He offered me a job about a month ago and I only just got here last week.” Carter paused to take a slow steadying breath before he continued. “He died in a car crash two days after I got here and left everything he owned to me. At first I thought about selling the shop, but I knew he wouldn’t want that.” With tears welling up in his eyes, Carter had to stop for another breath. “Uncle Matt was my favorite person in the world. I would do anything for him.” When Carter was done and wiping tears from his eyes, he realized what he had just said. Why was he suddenly pouring his life story into this poor girl’s lap? “I’m so sorry to hear about Matty!” Noel exclaimed as tears became apparent in her eyes as well. “I was wondering why he hadn’t been around. Your Uncle was a fantastic guy. He taught me a lot in all the time I spent here.” “Thank you, I appreciate it.” He could kick himself, he couldn’t believe that that’s all he could come up with. “What about you, did you grow up here?” “No, I wish,” she sighed, “I grew up in possibly the most boring city in Michigan. My parents have been trying to jam their beliefs down my throat ever since I could crawl. It never really agreed with me. I’ve always dreamed of living here, I just love the vibe. I’m going to the Art Institute of Chicago to become a writ- Shit! Is that the time?” she exclaimed as she noticed the clock on the wall over Carter’s head. “I have to get to class!” Gathering up her rucksack and jacket, she rushed toward the door, but stopped just before she opened it. “Sorry, what was your name?” she asked. “It’s Carter,” he mumbled awkwardly. “My name’s Noel,” she called just before turning and swinging the door open, but once more she stopped and turned back around. “Carter?” “Yeah?” “I think we should be friends,” and with that, she was gone.* * *As Carter gazed around his apartment, everything reminded him of her. Before Eli, she was here almost as much as he was.* * * After the dismissal of her last class of the day, Noel was relieved to be free. She had had a long day and couldn’t wait to see her best friend. As she walked the three city blocks to the bookstore, her mind tried to sift through all the nonsense in her head. She was tired of the people in her classes because none of them took her seriously. Unlike most things, Noel didn’t talk much about her writing. She supposed it made everyone else look down on her; they probably thought she wasn’t any good. Normally, something like this wouldn’t even faze Noel, but it was so similar to the way her parents treated her. They never took her work seriously and always talked about her doing something ‘more practical’, as they said, but her heart just wasn’t in anything else.Opening the door to the bookstore, she was once again amazed by the transition. She could never believe that she had just stepped in from the streets of Chicago. Although she loved the hustle and bustle of the city, Noel lived for the afternoons she was able to escape reality in the aisles of her own slice of heaven. Today, though, she was looking forward to just veging out with Carter.By the time she had climbed the spiral staircase in the back up to Carter’s apartment, she wanted to do nothing but curl up with a cup of tea and watch a Disney movie. She was in luck. As she opened the door, she was greeted by the surprisingly comforting whistle of the kettle and the picture of a white castle on a bright blue screen declaring her favorite kind of feature presentation.“We have so much in common,” declared Noel through a smile. Obviously startled, Carter whirled around clutching his chest with one hand and almost dropping a teacup with the other. “I didn’t mean to scare you,” Noel apologized, letting out a small giggle. Trying to hold in the rest of her laughter, Noel bit down on her lower lip.“I suppose I’ll forgive you,” Carter managed, though he was terribly distracted by the way her teeth held her lip. Noel set down her rucksack and slipped out of her Docs then headed across the cool hardwood floor to where Carter was now pouring her tea.“What’re we watching?” she asked.“Alice in Wonderland,” replied Carter as the heat rose to his cheeks. “What kind of tea are you up for today?” he asked, hoping to distract her from the TV screen.“Excellent!” Noel grinned. “That’s my favorite and I’ll have peppermint please.” When she spoke these words, Carter’s temperature instantly evened out. He was relieved not to be teased for his movie choice.“Coming right up. Go pop a squat. I’ll be over in a minute.”Lying down on the large black couch in the middle of the apartment, she gazed up at the large, unmoving TV screen on the wall. Noel had no trouble making herself at home in Carter’s apartment, she loved everything about it. The whole left wall was a floor to ceiling bookcase with one of those ladders you see in the fancy libraries. The remaining walls were exposed brick painted white. The entire place was full of eclectic furniture, but somehow it all seemed to work. Eventually when she moves out of her dorm, Noel hoped to live in a place like this.As Carter made his way over to the couch, Noel sat up and held out her hands for her tea. Once she had taken a few careful sips, she put her cup on the floor, settled into his chest, and encouraged him to press play on the remote. While she lost herself in her favorite movie, she couldn’t help thinking how comfortable she felt with him. Breathing in the scent of her strawberry shampoo, Carter’s thoughts were not far from hers. * * * Sitting in the ever increasing amount of smoke, Carter was haunted. He couldn’t help but think that this was all his fault. If only he hadn’t made that call, she would never have even met Eli.* * * Noel was sitting alone in her dorm absorbed in the words of her latest and greatest adventure, when she was suddenly pulled back to reality by the musical theme of Alice in Wonderland coming from her phone. Putting down her book, she answered, already knowing who it would be. “Hey Noel, we’re going out to the bar tonight. Put on something hot. I’ll be over in 20.” As she hurried off to the bathroom to do her makeup, she laughed because she didn’t even have a chance to respond. He knew her so well. When she opened the door to her room 20 minutes later, Carter was awestruck. “Well,” she said spinning around so he could take it all in. “What do you think?”Dressed in a formfitting, strapless black dress which stopped halfway down her thigh, a thick, royal blue belt; and her famous black Docs complimented by dramatic makeup, Noel once again took his breath away.“Wow,” he expelled in a breath as he paused to drink in her image in again. “You look incredible!”“Why sir, I do believe I’m blushing,” she laughed. Of course she wasn’t really blushing, things like this never fazed Noel, she was far too self-assured.When they pulled up to the bar a short while later, Carter stopped in front of the door to let Noel out.“You go ahead in and wait for me at the bar, I’ll park the car. It’s kinda chilly out and you’re hardly wearing clothes,” Carter teased.“Would you look at that, chivalry isn’t dead,” she richly said hardly containing her laughter as she climbed out of the car.As she headed toward the door, Carter realized that it wasn’t so hard to watch her walk away when she was doing it in that dress.Walking into the room, Noel definitely turned heads, but she wasn’t one to notice. While she made her way gracefully towards the bar, crowds separated to let her through. She held the attention of anyone who saw her, including Eli Grey. Sitting alone at the bar waiting for Carter, Noel had her thoughts interrupted by a gentle glide of fingers on her shoulder. She turned around to a pale grey suit, white starched shirt, and black silk tie worn by the most god-like man she had ever seen. Everything about him made her drool, from his dark blue eyes and chiseled face to his broad shoulders and athletic build. “Excuse me miss, but you’re looking rather lonely, could I buy you a drink?” his deep voice inquired “Thank you, I would love one,” Noel replied engagingly showing him her gorgeous smile. As Eli sat down next to her, every male heart in the building crumbled, including Carter’s, who was standing just inside the door. In that moment when he entered the bar and saw Noel and Eli together, he knew he didn’t have a chance anymore. Any possibility he had of being with her flew out the window as soon as Eli made his play. She was looking at Eli the way that he looked at her and he couldn’t compete with that. As he approached, he saw the expression on Noel’s face change. She obviously wanted to be alone with this guy, but there was no way he was going to let it go that easily. “Hey Noel, who’s this?” asked Carter through a forced smile.“Hi Carter, this is Eli.” The hint for him to get lost was apparent in her voice.“Hey Eli,” Carter said halfheartedly feeling dejected by her brush off.“Pleasure to meat you, Carter,” replied Eli with self confidence. “Eli just offered to buy me a drink. Would you mind leaving us alone for a while?” Noel bluntly asked, though it was more of a command than a question.“Sure,” sighed Carter in defeat, he couldn’t hide the disappointment in his voice.Dragging his feet, Carter made his way to another part of the bar to order himself a drink in hopes of drowning his heartbreak. After receiving his beer, he walked through the crowd for a while not saying anything to anyone. Carter was like a ghost; he just walked and sipped on his drink while he waited for Prince Charming to leave.* * * “It’s been a pleasure talking with you Noel, but unfortunately, I have to be heading out.” His words had a dousing effect on the evening and Noel couldn’t hide her disappointment. Taking her hands gently, slightly pleading he continued, “This might seem a bit forward, but I would love to see you again if you’re interested.”With those words, Noel instantly lit back up. “I would like that,” she breathlessly replied and for the first time in her life, in the presence of this dashing man, Noel found herself blushing. * * * As Noel glanced at the clock, the butterflies took effect. With only a few minutes left to prepare for her date, she was a little less confident than usual. There was something about Eli that left her feeling like one of the characters in her romance novels. Noel gave herself one last look over before hurrying to answer the door. When Eli’s presence came into view as she opened the door, she found her breath being taken from her, but her trance was broken by his alluring voice. “You look incredible,” “Oh, t-thank you,” she replied shyly. “Are you ready to go?” asked Eli, offering his arm. “Yeah, I think so,” Noel said as she intertwined herself with him. Walking down the hall of the dorm, all the female eyes followed as they stopped to stare. Eli was dressed once again in his grey suit looking as charming as ever, but his attire somehow seemed to appear even better paired with Noel. The epitome of beauty in a long-sleeve, royal blue, lace patterned dress falling midway down her thigh paired with black pumps having an underside in the same shade of blue as her dress. They were a handsome couple. The evening was filled with many rounds of twenty questions, exquisite food, and shameless flirtation. Stepping out into the chilly Chicago night air, Noel’s mind was racing, though its speed was nothing compared to that of her heart. How could one man make her feel this way after only twenty-four hours? Nobody had ever had this effect on her before, but she supposed Eli wasn’t just anybody. He drove her home to Noel’s disappointment for the evening seemed to have only just begun. He walked her up in gentlemanly style as Noel held her breath in anticipation of how the date would culminate. Standing outside of the door to her dorm, Noel and Eli were both glowing. “I had a really nice time, Eli,” said Noel, fidgeting with her keys. “So did I,” he replied with a dazzling smile which melted her heart. “What do you think my chances are of seeing you again?” “I’d say they are very good,” Eli whispered, leaning in. Closing the gap, Noel locked her lips with his; savoring the most passionate kiss she had ever received.* * * “Guess where we’re going tonight, babe,” Eli said as he let himself into Noel’s dorm room. “I suppose I’ll know after you tell me,” she retorted with a smirk. “Don’t be smart,” he teased. “We’re going to the bar on South Dearborn Street.” “Manhattan’s?” Noel asked rather surprised. She liked it there, but Eli wasn’t one to take her on dates to a place like that. In the month that they had been dating, every adventure had been to an elegant restaurant, so the bar caught her off guard. “That’s the one. It’s where we met a month ago today, so I thought we’d go there to celebrate.” “Babe, that’s so sweet,” she said with a smile, “I can’t believe you know the date.” “How could I forget? It was the luckiest day of my life.” All she could do was hug him; she never knew guys like Eli existed outside of cheesy romance novels. Noel had never been one to believe in luck, but every day she spent with Eli made her believe it a little bit more.* * * Slowly sipping her martini, Noel watched as Eli ordered his fifth beer. He was more than a little tipsy and it wasn’t something he could hide well. Seeing him stumble back to their table with drink in hand, Noel was suddenly very relieved that she had found the keys to Eli’s car on the bar towards the end of his third drink and stashed them in her purse. Having lost interest with Eli’s drunken conversation, she decided to recommend that they leave once he was within earshot again. “Don’t be such a buzz kill, let’s stay a while longer,” Eli slurred. “I’m not trying to be a buzz kill,” she argued. “It’s just getting pretty late and I have an early morning tomorrow with Carter.” “Carter?! You still hang out with him?!” screamed Eli. “What do you mean? He’s my best friend,” Noel replied, caught completely off guard by the venom in his voice. “I don’t like it when you talk to other guys, I should be enough!” Confused about where this was all coming from, Noel did her best to get them out of the bar before the situation escalated. “You don’t mean that, sweetheart,” Noel soothed. “Now come on, I’ll drive us home,” Noel suggested, already off her seat and heading towards the bar. She was stopped however, by a powerful hand gripping her upper arm which whirled her back around. “Don’t you dare tell me what I mean!” Eli spat as he slapped her across the face with his free hand. In shock of what had just happened, Noel had no idea how to respond. She simply shook her arm free and headed toward the door, determined to get out before someone approached her in regasrds to what had just happened. Once Eli had clumsily climbed into the passenger side of the car and was situated, Noel started the engine and drove off without a word. When the two pulled up outside of Noel’s dorm building, Eli was the first to break the silence. “I’m sorry for what happened back there, love,” Eli managed, with alcohol still very apparent on his breath. Ignoring his apology for now, Noel responded with the only thing she could think of. “You’re too drunk to drive yourself home. I’m keeping your keys and you can sleep out here in your car tonight. I’ll give them back in the morning.” With that, she climbed out and headed toward her building. As she did so, her mind was busy at work analyzing the events of the night at an incredible speed. Before she could even reach the door, she had already come to the decision to forgive him. Noel knew he had had quite a few drinks and wasn’t in his right mind when he hit her. They had been dating for a month and nothing like this had ever happened. She was convinced that it never would again. Turning back to face the car, she hurried over to the passenger door. “Come on babe, you can spend the night with me.”* * * Reaching for another cigarette and finding none left in his pack, Carter decided to go make some breakfast. As he opened the cupboard to get pancake mix, he felt the wrench of heartbreak in his chest. Pancakes suddenly didn’t seem like such a good idea.* * * Lying awake in her bed, Noel looked at the clock. The bright red lights read 3:26 a.m. She had been awake all night haunted by fear of Eli. She didn’t feel safe around him anymore and she didn’t know what to do about it.Noel’s thoughts were interrupted by a soft knock at the door. Her eyes instantly went to the clock once more which now read 8:53 a.m.“Wasn’t it just 3:30?” Noel muttered to herself as she rose from her bed to get the door. She was pretty sure she already knew who it was.Opening the door a crack, she peered out at the friendly face of her best friend. Carter had two Styrofoam boxes stacked in one hand and a drink carrier in the other. Watching the steam from what Noel knew to be tea rise out of the lids, she broke the silence.“What’re you doing here?”“I brought you some breakfast,” Carter said with a timid smile. “Carter…” she sighed, “I can’t today; I’m really busy…” The smell of the pancakes radiated from the boxes Carter held and they were hard for her to turn away, but she knew she couldn’t let him stay.“You always seem to be busy these days,” he replied looking rather defeated. “I really miss you…”“I miss you too, Cart, I just have so much to do for class.” What she was saying wasn’t true and it broke her heart to send him away, but it was for his own good. Eli was trouble and she didn’t want Carter to have to get involved.“It’s okay, you can have this anyway, though,” he offered, motioning at the food and tea in his hands. “I can’t eat it all, and working on an empty stomach blows.”“Thanks Carter, that’s really nice of you. I really am sorry,” Noel said while reaching through the partly open doorway for the Styrofoam box. As she did though, Carter’s expression quickly darkened.“What the hell happened to your arm Noel?!” he exclaimed, gaping at the dozens bruises.“Oh,” she said awkwardly as she quickly pulled her arm back, “it’s nothing, Carter, don’t worry about it.”“Don’t worry about it?! Are you kidding me, Noel?! Of course I’m going to worry about it! It looks like you got attacked!”“Carter calm down,” Noel begged, “I’m fine.”“Noel this is definitely not fine! Did Eli do this to you?!”“No, Carter, Eli didn’t do this to me! Get off my case okay?!” she spat as she slammed the door shut. Turning around, she saw the sheets of her bed begin to move. She had done it now.“What was that, Noel?” Eli asked.“It was nothing, babe, just some annoying girl who lives down the hall who’s always pestering me. Go back to sleep.” She knew it was a lame excuse, but it did the trick because within seconds Eli was soundly asleep again.As Noel curled up in her beanbag chair with Alice in Wonderland to regain some level of comfort, her mind couldn’t help but wander to Carter. She felt terrible for lying to him, but she wanted to keep him safe. The less he knew the better.* * *Noel’s eyes snapped open as she bolted upright in her bed. Gasping for breath, she wiped some sweat from her forehead as she tried to make sense of what was racing through her head. Finding herself alone, Noel slowly came to the realization that what had just happened was only a dream. She figured it may just as well have happened for real though, it wouldn’t have been the first time she woke up to a beating. Being around Eli was dangerous. She knew that next time she saw him, her nightmare would become a reality. There didn’t seem to be a way out no matter how she thought about it. Looking around her room, desperate for an idea, her eyes finally fell on the solution. It was right there on her desk.* * * Knocking on the door to Noel’s dorm, Carter waited anxiously for an answer. “Noel come on open up, I’m sorry for what I said about Eli.” Although he did mean what he had said, he really was sorry for hurting Noel. She was the best friend he had ever had and he couldn’t stand the thought of losing her. “Noel please, I know you’re in there,” he cried desperately. He tested the door handle which turned and popped the barrier slightly ajar then slowly pushed the door inward while knocking again. Once the door revealed the interior, Carter instantly knew why she didn’t answer. What he saw hit him like a brick wall. When the shock of Noel’s bloody body faded enough for him to finally move, he ran to her side, collapsed to his knees, and scooped her up in an embrace. Rocking back and forth while holding a lifeless Noel in his arms, Carter sobbed. While his eyes locked onto the ghastly gashes glazed with blood that now covered her once flawless arms, a deep cry wrenched from his soul begging for help that was already too late. As he mournfully waited for the footsteps pounding of feet down the corridor, he noticed something he hadn’t seen before. On the floor looking very out of place in the organized room, just far enough away to be out of the chaos, lay Noel’s copy of Alice in Wonderland. Before he had too much of a chance to wonder why it was there, he was joined by a few other students who were unfortunate enough to be witnessing the nightmare he was currently in the middle of. “Somebody please get some help,” begged Carter. The last thing he saw was the two girls who were closest to him take off and then everything else around him went black. When he came to, he looked around curiously at the stark white hospital room he now found himself in. Once again, the only thing that seemed to be out of place was the bright pink Alice in Wonderland book sitting on the table beside his bed. With no medical staff in sight with which to gain information, Carter picked up the book in hopes of taking his mind off of the pain which hung heavy in his heart, but the cherished story once shared by two was now lonely in his quaking hands. Opening the book, he noticed something that he hadn’t expected, a dedication in the cover. Dearest Carter,I bought this book for you because it’s so important to both of us and many of my best memories are simply hanging out watching Alice in Wonderland with you. Though I have read it many times, (because as you know, once I pick up a book, I can’t put it down) I planned to give it to you for your birthday, but I couldn’t make it until then. I’m so sorry that it had to be like this. Eli was a monster that I couldn’t escape any other way. What you said was right, I only distanced myself from you because he was always listening somehow. I didn’t want you to get hurt. I feel so stupid for letting this get so far, please never let anybody treat you the way I let Eli treat me. You were the best thing to happen in my life and I should have realized it sooner. I love you. Life is a wonderland, don’t take it for granted.Love always, NoelKnowing the burden the book held, it suddenly felt heavier in his hands. With tears streaming down his face, Carter closed the book and held it tight to his chest. His best friend and the only girl he had ever loved was gone.