When I bought a house after my divorce, nighttime developed a sharp edge. I no longer shared walls with my neighbors, as I had in the high-rise apartment I rented during the years of my separation. Now, if my husband or some other intruder burst through the front door and I screamed for help, who would hear? Lying in bed, I imagined a stealth madman entering the house through one of the other bedrooms, down the hallway, a distance that might mute broken windows. I imagined waking to find his silhouette in my doorway, him savoring the view of my body asleep, his hands holding weapons, his hands weapons.

I installed an alarm system; I adopted a dog.

One night, 1 am, the boxer mix lurched awake and leapt from my bed, shoving it free of the wall, a hard, abrupt angle. His hackles peaked. He lunged at the curtains covering the patio door. His claws volleyed against the glass. I thought it might shatter, the curtains and rod tumbling down and chasing after him as he leapt into the dark backyard, rife with apparent danger. A growl revved in his throat then turned loose—a bark so enraged I knew he meant to rip the esophagus from the throat of whomever lurked outside.

He charged the patio door. Again. Again. Each time, the curtains yanked taut under his weight. Which was more terrifying if they fell? That I might see a man standing at the door or that he might see me? Female, alone, less than 100 pounds, and crying.

I dialed 911.

The operator could hardly hear because of my dog’s fury. He yelled that the police were on their way. He yelled that he would stay on the line till they arrived. I hid under the covers, resorting to the infantile game plan of peek-a-boo. My dog pinballed out of the bedroom, into the living room, and rushed the back door. Again, into the bedroom and the patio door. All the while, he bawled so loudly the racket blurred my vision. I couldn’t see because I couldn’t hear.

The 911 operator started coaching, revving me up to fight. “This is the part where we get out your gun.”

I stopped sobbing. “What?” I said.

“While we wait, let’s load your gun. You might need it.”

The curtains in my bedroom hung catawampus and wide open. I couldn’t bear to look.

“I don’t own a gun,” I whispered into the phone.

“What do you mean?” the operator said. “How do you defend yourself?”

My dog sprang onto the bed, vaulted off, his eyes ricocheting around the room, my thoughts in pursuit. If I’d attempted to aim a gun at anything, I would have shot everything.

“I don’t own guns,” I repeated.

On the phone, there was a beat of silence. At the glass door, a pause, the dog’s ears alert.

“That’s really dangerous,” the operator finally answered.

Just then, a flashlight beam bounced into my bedroom. The dog—gonzo renewed—hurled his fury at the glass. In the living room, the butt of a billy club whumped against my front door. “Police,” the man outside said. “Open up.”

Three minutes later, a second squad car was parked out front, its red cherries cartwheeling in the dark. Two blond boys sat on the curb, hands cuffed behind their backs. “Teenagers tagging fences in the alley,” the 911 operator said. “Lucky break.”

I nodded but kept quiet.

Then he gave the all clear, said he was closing the call. “For future reference,” he added, “you do have a kitchen, right?”

He waited, so polite, for my answer.

“Any rate,” he continued, “next time, just get out your knife.”

This is what they call a lesson in self-defense. It felt like a tutorial in rage. Maybe they’re the same thing.

As I peeked through the shutters, watching from my living room, even then, my mind remained hopped up on the idea of some unbridled man hellbent on breaking down my door. My dog leaned into my legs, poked his snout through the slats, too. In his throat, a low growl simmered.

Leslie Jill Patterson teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Texas Tech University. Her prose has appeared in Texas Monthly, Gulf Coast, Baltimore Review, Colorado Review, Prime Number Magazine, and Bring the Noise: the best pop culture essays from Barrelhouse, among others. Her recent awards include a 2014 Soros Justice Fellowship, funded by the Open Society Foundations in New York; the 2017 Richard J. Margolis Award for Social Justice Writing, a 2018 Pushcart Prize, and a notable listing in the 2018 Best American Essays. Additionally, she serves as copy editor for Creative Nonfiction and edits Iron Horse Literary Review. Since 2009, she has worked as the case storyteller for public defenders representing indigent men and women charged with capital murder and facing the death penalty in Texas.

Photo by Paul Bilger