Four Years Later
In the years since Jim had died, Julie Barenson had somehow found a way
to start living again. It hadn't happened right away. The first couple
of years after his death had been difficult and lonely, but time had
eventually worked its magic on Julie, changing her loss into something
softer. Though she loved Jim and knew that part of her would always love
Jim, the pain wasn't as sharp as it had once been. She could remember
her tears and the total vacuum her life had become in the aftermath of
his death, but the searing ache of those days was behind her. Now when
she thought of Jim, she remembered him with a smile, thankful that he'd
been part of her life. She was thankful for Singer, too. Jim had done
the right thing by getting her the dog. In a way, Singer had made it
possible for her to go on.
But at this moment, while lying in bed on a cool spring morning in
Swansboro, North Carolina, Julie wasn't thinking about what a wonderful
support Singer had been during the past four years. Instead, she was
mentally cursing his very existence while gasping for breath, thinking,
I can't believe that this is the way I'm going to die. Squashed in bed
by my very own dog.
With Singer splayed across her, pinning her to the mattress, she
imagined her lips turning blue from oxygen deprivation. "Get up, you
lazy dog," she wheezed. "You're killing me here." Snoring soundly,
Singer didn't hear her, and Julie began squirming, trying to bounce him
from his slumber. Suffocating beneath the weight, she felt as if she'd
been wrapped in a blanket and tossed in a lake, Mafia style.
"I'm serious," she forced out, "I can't breathe." Singer finally lifted
his massive head and blinked at her groggily. What's all the racket
about? he seemed to be asking. Can't you see I'm trying to rest
here? "Get off!" Julie rasped out.
Singer yawned, pushing his cold nose against her cheek. "Yeah, yeah,
good morning," she gasped. "Now scoot." With that, Singer snorted and
found his legs, further squashing various parts of her as he got up. And
up. And up. And up. A moment later, towering over her with just a smudge
of drool on his lips, he looked like something from a low-budget horror
movie. Good Lord, she thought, he is huge. You'd think that I'd
be used to it by now. She took a deep breath and looked up at him,
frowning. "Did I say you could get into bed with me?" she asked. Singer
usually slept in the corner of her room at night. The past two nights,
however, he'd crawled in with her. Or, more accurately, on top of her.
Singer lowered his head and licked her face. "No, you're not forgiven,"
she said, pushing him away. "Don't even bother trying to get out of
this. You could have killed me. You're almost twice as heavy as I am,
you know. Now get off the bed." Singer whined like a pouting child
before hopping down to the floor. Julie sat up, ribs aching, and looked
at the clock, thinking, Already?
She and Singer stretched at the same time before she pushed aside the
"C'mon," she said, "I'll let you out before I get in the shower. But
don't go sniffing around the neighbors' garbage cans again. They left a
nasty message on the machine." Singer looked at her.
"I know, I know," she said, "it's only garbage. But some people are
funny that way."
Singer left the bedroom, heading toward the front door. Julie rolled her
shoulders as she followed him, her eyes closed for just a moment. Big
mistake. On the way out of the bedroom, she slammed her toe against the
dresser. The pain shot from her toe up through her lower leg. After the
initial scream, she began to curse, combining profanity in all sorts of
marvelous permutations. Hopping on one foot in her pink pajamas, she was
sure she looked like some sort of deranged Energizer Bunny. Singer
merely gave her a look that seemed to imply, What's the holdup? You
got me up, remember, so let's get going here. I've got things to do
She groaned. "Can't you see I'm wounded here?" Singer yawned again, and
Julie rubbed her toe before limping after him.
"Thanks for coming to my rescue. You're worthless in an emergency." A
moment later, after Singer stepped on Julie's sore toe on his way out
the door-Julie knew he'd done it on purpose-he was outside.
Instead of heading toward the garbage cans, Singer wandered over to the
vacant wooded lots that bordered one side of her house. She watched as
he swung his massive head from side to side, as if making sure that no
one had planted any new trees or bushes during the preceding day. All
dogs liked to mark their territory, but Singer seemed to believe that
somehow, if he found enough places to relieve himself, he'd be anointed
King Dog in all the World. At least it got him out of her hair for a
Thank heaven for small favors, Julie thought. Singer had been driving
her crazy for the last couple of days. He'd followed her everywhere,
refusing to let her out of his sight for even a few minutes, except when
she put him outside. She hadn't even been able to put the dishes away
without bumping into him a dozen times. He was even worse at night. Last
night, he'd had a growling fit for an hour, which he'd thoughtfully
interspersed with an occasional bark, and the whole thing had left her
fantasizing about buying either a soundproof kennel or an elephant gun.
Not that Singer's behavior had ever been ... well, ordinary. Except for
the peeing thing, the dog had always acted as if he thought he were
human. He refused to eat out of a dog bowl, he'd never needed a leash,
and when Julie watched television, he would crawl up on the couch and
stare at the screen. And when she talked to him-whenever anyone talked
to him, for that matter-Singer would stare intently, his head tilted to
the side, as if he were following the conversation. And half the time,
it did seem as if he understood what she was telling him. No matter what
she told him to do, no matter how ridiculous the command, Singer would
carry it out.
Could you go get my purse from the bedroom? Singer would come
trotting out with it a moment later. Will you turn off the bedroom
light? He'd balance on two legs and flick it with his nose. Put this
can of soup in the pantry, okay? He'd carry it in his mouth and set
it on the shelf. Sure, other dogs were well trained, but not like this.
Besides, Singer hadn't needed training. Not real training, anyway. All
she'd had to do was show him something once and that was it. To others
it seemed downright eerie, but since it made Julie feel like a
modern-day Dr. Dolittle, she kind of liked it.
Even if it did mean she talked to her dog in complete sentences, had
arguments with him, and asked for his advice now and then. But hey, she
told herself, that wasn't so odd, was it? They'd been together since Jim
had died, just the two of them, and for the most part, Singer was pretty
Singer, though, had been acting strangely ever since she started dating
again, and he hadn't liked any of the guys who'd shown up at the door in
the last couple of months. Julie had expected that part. Since he'd been
a puppy, Singer tended to growl at men when he first met them. She used
to think that Singer had a sixth sense that enabled him to tell the good
guys from the ones she should avoid, but lately she'd changed her mind.
Now, she couldn't help but think that he was just a big, furry version
of a jealous boyfriend. It was getting to be a problem, she decided.
They were going to have to have a serious talk. Singer didn't want her
to be alone, did he? No, of course not. It might take him a little while
to get used to having someone else around, but he'd understand
eventually. Hell, in time, he'd probably even be happy for her. But how,
she wondered, was the best way to explain all this to him?
She halted for a moment, considering the question, before realizing the
implications of what she was thinking.
Explain all this to him? Good Lord, she thought, I'm going insane. Julie
limped to the bathroom to start getting ready for work, slipping off her
pajamas as she went. Standing over the sink, she grimaced at her
reflection. Look at me, she thought, I'm twenty-nine and falling apart
at the seams here. Her ribs hurt when she breathed, her big toe
throbbed, and the mirror, she realized, wasn't helping things. During
the day, her brown hair was long and straight, but after a night in bed,
it looked as if it had been attacked by combteasing pillow gnomes. It
was frazzled and puffed out, "under siege," as Jim so kindly used to put
it. Mascara was smeared down her cheek.
The tip of her nose was red, and her green eyes were swollen from the
springtime pollen. But a shower would help with those things, wouldn't
Well, maybe not with the allergies. She opened the medicine cabinet and
took a Claritin before glancing up again, as if hoping for a sudden
Maybe, she thought, she wouldn't have to work so hard at discouraging
Bob's interest after all. She'd been cutting Bob's hair, or rather what
was left of it, for a year now. Two months ago, Bob had finally worked
up the nerve to ask her out. He wasn't exactly the best-looking guy in
the world-balding, with a round face, eyes set too close together, and
the beginnings of a paunch-but he was single and successful, and Julie
hadn't been on a date since Jim had died. She figured it would be a good
way to get her feet wet in the world of dating again. Wrong. There was a
reason Bob was single. Bob wasn't only a triple bogey in the looks
department, he'd been so boring on their date that even people at nearby
tables in the restaurant had glanced her way in pity. His preferred
topic of conversation on their date had been accounting. He'd showed no
interest in anything else: not her, not the menu, not the weather, not
sports, not the little black dress she was wearing. Only accounting. For
three hours, she'd listened to Bob drone on and on about itemized
deductions and capital gains distributions, depreciation and 401(k)
rollovers. By the end of the dinner, when he'd leaned over the table and
confided that he "knew important people at the IRS," Julie's eyes were
so glazed that they could have flavored a dozen doughnuts.
It went without saying, of course, that Bob had had a wonderful time.
He'd been calling three times a week since then, asking "if they could
get together for a second consultation, hee hee hee." He was persistent,
that was for sure. Annoying as hell, but persistent. Then there was
Ross, the second guy she dated. Ross the doctor. Ross the good-looking
guy. Ross the pervert. One date with him was enough, thank you very
And can't forget good old Adam. He worked for the county, he said. He
enjoyed his work, he said. Just a regular guy, he said. Adam, she found
out, worked in the sewers.
He didn't smell, he didn't have unknown substances growing under his
fingernails, his hair didn't carry a greasy shine, but she knew that as
long as she lived, she'd never get used to the idea that one day, he
might show up at the front door looking that way. Had an accident at
the plant, dear. Sorry to come home like this. The very thought gave
her the shivers. Nor could she imagine handling his clothes to put them
in the laundry after something like that. The relationship was doomed
from the start.
Just when she was beginning to wonder whether normal people like Jim
even existed anymore, just when she was beginning to wonder what it was
about her that seemed to attract oddballs like a neon sign flashing "I'm
Available-Normalcy Not Required," Richard had come strolling into the
And miracle of miracles, even after a first date last Saturday, he still
seemed ... normal. A consultant with J.D. Blanchard Engineering
out of Cleveland-the firm repairing the bridge over the Intracoastal
Waterway-he had made her acquaintance when he came into the salon for a
haircut. On their date, he'd opened doors for her, smiled at the right
moments in the conversation, given the waiter her order for dinner, and
not so much as tried to kiss her when he'd dropped her off. Best of all,
he was good-looking in an artistic sort of way, with sculpted
cheekbones, emerald eyes, black hair, and a mustache.
After he'd dropped her off, she'd felt like screaming, Hallelujah! I
have seen the light!
Singer hadn't seemed quite as impressed. After she'd said good night to
Richard, Singer had put on one of his "I'm the boss around here" acts.
He'd growled until Julie had opened the front door. "Oh, stop it," she'd
said. "Don't be so hard on him." Singer did as he was told, but he'd
retreated to the bedroom, where he'd pouted the rest of the night.
If my dog was any more bizarre, she thought, we could team up and work
for a carnival, right next to the guy who eats light bulbs. But then, my
life hasn't exactly been normal, either.
Julie turned on the faucet and stepped into the shower, trying to stem
the tide of memories. What was the use of replaying hard times? Her
mother, she often mused, had been fatally attracted to two things: booze
and toxic men. Either one without the other would have been bad, but the
combination had been intolerable for Julie. Her mom went through
boyfriends the way kids go through paper towels, and some of them made
Julie feel less than comfortable once she hit adolescence. The last one
had actually tried to have his way with her, and when Julie had told her
mother, her mother, in a drunken, teary rage, had blamed her for coming
on to him. It wasn't long before Julie found herself without a home.
Living on the street had been terrifying even for the six months or so
before Jim came along. Most everyone she met used drugs and panhandled
or stole ... or worse. Scared of becoming like the haunted runaways she
saw every night at the shelters and in the doorways, she searched
frantically for odd jobs that would keep her fed and out of sight. She
worked every menial job she saw offered and kept her head down. When she
first met Jim at a diner in Daytona, she was nursing a cup of coffee
with the last of her pocket change. Jim bought her breakfast and on the
way out the door said he'd do the same thing the following day if she
returned. Hungry, she did, and when she challenged him about his motives
(she assumed she knew his reasons and could remember gearing up for
quite the embarrassing public tirade about cradle robbers and jail
time), Jim denied any improper interest in her. And at the end of the
week, when he was getting ready to head for home, he made her a
proposal: If she moved to Swansboro, North Carolina, he would help her
get a full-time job and a place to stay.
She remembered staring at him as though he had bugs crawling out of his
Excerpted from "The Guardian" by Nicholas Sparks. Copyright © 2004 by Nicholas Sparks. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.