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  • I bought a gun. It seemed like the right thing to do. In Kensington, you did what you had to do. I wasn’t the type to knowingly put myself in a dangerous situation. Raised in the Northeast section of Philadelphia, I know what not to do. But with a serial strangler on the loose, you did what you had to do.

    At $400, the gun cost more money than I wanted to spend, but hey, what’s your life worth to you? The Glock 21 is a woman’s gun, that’s what they told me at the gun shop. It was so easy, no wait at all. The owner asked me why I wanted a gun. I told him I wanted it for protection. Buffing the steel barrel with a soft cloth, the gun metal glints brilliant in the dingy little shop. He looks me over, sizing me up. “Could you do it? Could you shoot someone? If you can’t answer yes, sister, and mean it, don’t buy this gun.” I said yes, I could do it; I could shoot someone if they attacked me. But I might have been lying. That was a few weeks ago.

    My warm breath hits the cold air, making a small, vanishing cloud around my face. It’s comforting to see it, the physical presence of my breath. Asphyxiation. Suffocation. That’s how he kills them. Strangling a person with your bare hands is done by a man to a woman not another man. Strangling like that demands greater physical strength to overpower. My neck is slender. I’m told I have a graceful neck. I used to like to hear that. Not anymore. I wear turtlenecks and scarves these days.

    The firing range is packed. I wait my turn. I sit on an uncomfortable wooden bench with Penny, Nina, and Susan. We are all waiting our turn. This is my third time here this week. I’m not shaky anymore. The first time, I was flat-out scared, but it’s easier than I thought it would be. My target looks like a mugger or some kind of criminal. I try to shoot him right between the eyes. Don’t waste your bullet, that’s what the girls tell me. My aim improves each time I come here. Afterwards, walking back home, I cry a little.

    I wasn’t going to take my gun with me to work, but at the last minute, I slid it into my purse. I felt better immediately. They don’t have metal detectors at my office building, not yet anyway. I have a permit to carry a concealed weapon. To look at me, relatively young, a bit mousy, wire-rim glasses and baggy clothes, you’d never dream I might have a gun on me. My gun is my secret.

    I wonder about killers. Why do they do it? Turning down the street, some drug dealers on the opposite corner eyeball me. I don’t want what they’re selling, and I look the other way. I hear them laughing. Laugh now, I think to myself, laugh while you can. You won’t be laughing if you mess with me. A fleeting smile traces across my lips.

    The guy who opened fire on all those innocent people at the grocery store in Arizona was psychotic and he got a gun. From what the newspapers report, he was a crackerjack shot. Should there be stronger laws governing the purchase of guns in this country? The girls at the firing range don’t think so. They say that then only the bad guys would have guns. They say guns don't kill people, people kill people. Maybe they’re right.

    I hear a noise. Down the alley, I see a man foraging in a dumpster behind a restaurant. He pauses to watch me walk by. The Kensington strangler is homeless; it said so in the paper. I feel a tingle of apprehension when I hear his footsteps slap the pavement behind me. Not fear, the feeling I get is pure adrenaline. It’s getting darker. Not dark enough for street lights, not yet. I begin to walk faster. From behind me, I can hear his steps keeping pace with mine. At the corner, he stands next to me. He smiles, but I don’t feel warmed by his smile, it makes my stomach cramp. “How are you?” he says, as we wait for the light to change.

    Joey at the corner store told me that the Kensington Strangler’s name is Black. That’s what they call him on the street. It’s appropriate, like losing consciousness. I wonder why he kills women. When he was a baby, did his momma rock him in her arms? Did she sing him lullabies until his childish fear of the dark receded and he fell into a peaceful, gentle slumber? Somehow, I don’t think so.

    I don’t answer him back, waiting for the light to change. You don’t want to know, man. That’s what I think. My chest tightens and I feel pressure building behind my eyes. He keeps talking as we start to cross the street. I try to walk faster, but he’s not ready to let me go. "This is one of the coldest nights I can remember in a long time," he says. Forced pairing, I’ve read about this. He won’t leave me alone. Finally, he goes too far. He touches my arm. This is it, I think to myself, this is really it.

    “Are you crazy?” I wheel around, screaming. He looks startled. Afraid. “Get down!” I pull my gun out, pointing it in his face. My temples are throbbing and my mouth is bone dry. He begs for his life. He tries to talk to me, says not to be afraid; he wasn’t going to hurt me. He gets down on his knees in front of me. He thought I looked friendly, he says, that’s all. He thought I might give him some money for a meal. You thought wrong, I say.

    My palms sweat. My head feels light, detached from my body, and the wind pricks at my skin. I worry about the possibility of blood splattering on my shoes; they’re my favorites, my old beat up chuks. How strange, to think about your shoes at a time like this. Then this man, this strangler or rapist or whatever he is, on his knees with my gun at his head, he closes his eyes and begins to pray. He begins an “Our Father”, his lips moving imperceptibly. All this happens very fast, but it’s a moment of time that stretches out forever. I’m choking for air as I begin to pull back on the trigger.

    I can’t. I can’t do it. I shove the gun in my pocket, turn and run. I run and I don’t look back. I run as fast as I can and as far away as I can, but it’s no use. No matter how fast or far I run, it’s not fast or far enough. Finally, I slow down, heart pounding and chest heaving, gasping for air, and begin the long walk back to my apartment. The winter moon rises in the night sky, spying over the roofs of the buildings.

    I wake up in the morning to the news that the police have him. The Kensington Strangler is in custody. Not the man who followed me; the news report flashes a picture of the man the police are holding. He is young, younger than I am, and he doesn’t look evil or threatening. But he is both. The anchor says that he’s confessed to the murders, that his DNA matches the DNA evidence, that the surviving victim positively identified him. It's over. The Kensington Strangler's grip on my neighborhood is finally over.

    The morning light through the window forms tiny rainbow-tinged patterns on the wood floor. Today my neighbors are celebrating. They celebrate for their daughters, their sisters, their mothers. As my spoon chases the last remaining Cheerios around my cereal bowl, I smile. The world is maybe not such a dangerous place, I think. That congresswoman in Arizona even smiled today. I practically bounce around my living room, overflowing with a renewed sense of possibility, or hope, until I see the Glock on the coffee table. The gun looks ludicrous, lying there forgotten next to the TV remote and Zen waterfall fountain.

    I reach down and snatch it up. My eyes dart around the room, and I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror. I am ashamed and horrified by what I see. Not the woman who buys flowers before she buys groceries, who cries during sad movies, who saves her crusts for the birds in the park. There I am, caught red-handed, panicky, with a gun in my hand.

    A shrill wind whips up off the water, chilling in its force and condemnation. I drop the Glock in the river and watch it sink. Back in the neighborhood, I walk into St. Francis’ Soup Kitchen. There are more people every time I come here, more kids. I slide an envelope in the donation box. Then I pause, listening as a mother comforts her child. The little boy is fretful and tired. He fights sleep. For a moment, I wish that I was little again and my mother was rocking me. Finally, the boy puts his head down on his mother’s shoulder. She sways now, shifting her weight from side to side; singing softly to him until at last his eyes close and he sleeps.
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