The Guardian

By: Nicholas Sparks



PROLOGUE:



Christmas Eve 1998



Exactly forty days after she'd last held the hand of her husband, Julie Barenson sat looking through her window toward the quiet streets of Swansboro. It was cold; the sky had been angry for a week, and the rain made gentle tapping sounds against the window. Trees were barren, their cragged limbs curling in the frigid air like arthritic fingers.



She knew Jim would have wanted her to listen to music tonight; she could hear Bing Crosby singing "White Christmas" in the background. She'd put up the tree for him as well, though by the time she'd made that decision, the only trees left were dried out and sparse, free for the taking outside the supermarket. It didn't matter. Even when she finished decorating it, she couldn't summon the energy to care. It had been hard to feel anything at all since the tumor in Jim's brain finally took his life.



At twenty-five, she was a widow and she hated everything about the word: how it sounded, what it implied, the way her mouth moved when she formed the word. She avoided it completely. If people asked how she was doing, she simply shrugged. But sometimes, just sometimes, she had the urge to answer. You want to know what it was like to lose my husband? she wanted to ask. Here's what it's like.



Jim's dead, and now that he's gone, I feel like I'm dead, too.



Is that, Julie wondered, what people wanted to hear? Or did they want platitudes? I'll be okay. It's hard, but I'll make it through this. Thank you for asking. She could do the brave soldier routine, she supposed, but she never had. It was both easier and more honest to simply shrug and say nothing.



After all, she didn't feel as if she were going to be okay. Half the time, she didn't think she was going to make it through the day without breaking down. Especially on nights like tonight.



In the reflected glow of the Christmas tree lights, Julie put her hand to the window, feeling the cold press of glass against her skin.



Mabel had asked if she'd wanted to have dinner tonight, but Julie had declined. So had Mike and Henry and Emma, but she'd turned them down as well. All of them understood. Or, rather, they pretended to understand, since it was obvious that none of them thought she should be alone. And maybe they were right. Everything in the house, everything she saw and smelled and touched, reminded her of Jim. His clothes took up half the closet, his razor still sat next to the soap dish in the bathroom, the subscription to Sports Illustrated had come in the mail the day before. There were still two bottles of Heineken, his favorite, in the refrigerator. Earlier that evening, when she'd seen them on the shelf, she'd whispered to herself, "Jim is never going to drink those," and she'd closed the door and leaned against it, crying in the kitchen for an hour.



The scene outside her window was out of focus; lost in her thoughts, Julie gradually registered the faint sound of a branch thumping against the wall. The thumping was persistent, steady, and it was a moment before she realized she'd been mistaken about the branch.



Someone was knocking at the door.



Julie stood, her movements lethargic. At the door, she paused to run her hands through her hair, hoping to compose herself. If it was her friends checking in on her, she didn't want them to think she needed them to stay for a while. When she opened the door, however, she was surprised to see a young man in a yellow slicker. In his hands was a large, wrapped box.



"Mrs. Barenson?" he asked.



"Yes?"



The stranger took a hesitant step forward. "I'm supposed to deliver this to you. My dad said it was important."



"Your dad?"



"He wanted to make sure you got this tonight."



"Do I know him?"



"I don't know. But he was pretty insistent about it. It's a gift from someone."



"Who?"



"My father said you'd understand as soon as you opened it. Don't shake it, though-and keep this end up."



The young man pushed the box into Julie's arms before she could stop him, then turned to leave.



"Wait," she said, "I don't understand. . . ."



The young man glanced over his shoulder. "Merry Christmas," he said.



Julie stood in the doorway, watching as he climbed into his truck. Then, back inside, she set the box on the floor in front of the tree and knelt beside it. A quick peek confirmed the absence of a card, and there were no other clues about the sender. She loosened the ribbon, then lifted the separately wrapped lid and found herself staring wordlessly at what she'd been given.



It was matted with fuzz and dwarflike, no more than a few pounds, and it was sitting on its haunches in the corner of the box, looking just about as ugly as she'd ever seen a puppy look. Its head was large, out of proportion to the rest of its body. Whimpering, it looked up at her, a glob of muck in its eyes.



Someone, she thought, bought me a puppy. An ugly puppy.



Taped to the inside of the box was an envelope. As she reached for it, it dawned on her that she recognized the handwriting, and she paused. No, she thought, it can't be. . . .



She had seen that handwriting on the love letters he'd written to her on their anniversaries, on hastily scrawled messages by the phone, on paperwork he'd piled on the desk. She held the envelope in front of her, reading her name over and over. Then, with trembling hands, she took the letter out. Her eyes traveled to the words written in the upper left corner.