BY KAILEY TEDESCO
Trigger warnings: Mention of assault, mention of homicide, trauma.
McGruff the Crime Dog visits our school for the second time this year. He wears a plush mascot costume that reminds me of Disney World until he speaks. His voice is deep and frightening. If a child tries to hug him, he not only refuses but also turns the attempt into his own aphorism: Do not approach strangers. I am a stranger. Strangers are not your friends.
He plays a video of a little girl, seven years old (same age as me). The little girl gets off the bus and is evidently pleasantly surprised to see her neighbor waiting for her. The neighbor is an elderly man who looks friendly enough. In the corner of the auditorium, McGruff the Crime Dog shakes his big, plush head back and forth. He is frustrated by the girl’s innocence. He knows what is coming.
In the video, the man insists the girl come to his house for lemonade. She agrees. She drinks lemonade. She says thank you. He picks her up. He sits her on the counter. He says it’s a hot day. She agrees that it is. She says she needs to get home before her mom worries. He says stay longer. He says why don’t you take off some of those clothes. The video stops. We never know what happens to the little girl.
McGruff the Crime Dog returns with his frightening boom of a voice. He explains that the man wanted to touch the girl. He explains that strangers are not your friends. We, in the audience, are disturbed, but this information is not new to us.
I am camping with my family when my mom tells me about the most recent missing girl. She has been up all night watching the news. I am three or four. The missing little girl’s friend came by my mom’s Wawa to pass out missing posters — they are both only a little older than me. Everyone was hopeful that the girl will come home safely.
Tonight my mom finds out she never will. A law is made in this girl’s honor to help prevent the things that happened to her from ever happening again.
We live in a small town in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. There’s a liquor store and a church on almost every street. In the early 20th century, it was a luxury lake resort destination. Now it’s mostly cheap rental housing. I always ask my mom if I should be worried about the Jersey Devil. She tells me all he’ll do is spoil our milk; there are worse things.
When prisoners — all kinds of prisoners — are released, they come here. They live three houses down from me or a block over. They are related to some of the kids I know from school. I know all of this now because of the missing little girl and the law that was made after she died.
When I get off the bus, I like to play ding-dong-ditch with my grandma who watches me after school. Today, I’m too distracted to ditch because of all the "flyers" on my door.
Later this same night, my mom explains to my brother and I that monsters are real and my brother and I should be afraid. She tells us what they will try to do to us. She tells us to memorize their faces, their names, the make and model of their cars. I’m a good student so I listen and I memorize as I’m told.
I am afraid, but not as afraid as my mom or my dad. They want to protect us and this is the only way they know how.
I get into a fight with another girl in gym class. I’m in first grade. We see an old red Cavalier and immediately recognize it as belonging to the man who was arrested for homicide/cannibalism, among other things that landed his face on all of our doors. We know what these words mean even though we’re still struggling to sound out the word "vanilla." The girl in my class says he did it because he couldn’t afford food. I don’t have any pity for the man. I call him a bastard (I don’t know what this word means, but it’s my favorite at the time). I am sent to stand by the wall at recess.
I have nightmares all through elementary school. Nightmares where the men from our door are next to me in my bed, and I am unable to scream. Nightmares where I am visiting a friend’s house and her father isn’t wearing any pants. Nightmares about worms crawling all over me.
I’ve never seen a penis, but I already know it is something that can be weaponized.
I can’t sleepover my friends’ houses until my parents have properly vetted their entire families. Who lives with them? Any older brothers? Who will be over? Is it a party? What do they do for a living?
I have other friends that can’t sleepover anywhere at all. Ever. And I have other friends yet who are only allowed to have supervised playdates at their own houses. We’re all living in an upside down.
When I do spend time with my friends, we play pretend. We make ourselves into something more powerful. We always travel in packs. Sometimes, we skip the fence to collect "sea glass" from a neighbor’s yard. My parent’s don’t know about this. We put fistfuls in our pockets and creep under the windows. The man who lives in the "sea glass" house is always shouting. Later, we put it together that there was never an ocean near us. The "sea glass" we loved was broken bottles softened by the strange, Jersey clay-sand.
Sometimes, we can force our upside down be kind, just for a moment.
I go to Acme with my mom, my brother, and my newborn sister. We are waiting at the deli for lunchmeat and cheese. A man walks towards us and I recognize him. His name is Mike. He lives on Fern St. He has a patchy beard and a thin build. On the shorter side.
He’s one of the men from the flyers on our door. This is my first time seeing one of them in person, up close.
I tell my mom to call the cops right now. I beg her to let us leave. She explains that there’s nothing we can do. He’s allowed to grocery shop.
We leave right away and I am shaking.
This was my only encounter with Mike, but I remember his face more than all the others. He lived closer to us than any of the others. We avoided his entire street on Halloween. I know what he did to children I have never met. I hate him so much even now.
I’m playing outside with my friend across the street. I need to change into my purple Megara dress, but I don’t feel like going inside. Instead, I climb into her tree house and begin to take my school clothes off.
My grandma approaches my friend and asks where I am as though she knows something. My friend points up to my small body, topless, in the treehouse. My grandma yanks me out by my arm and drapes the Megara dress over me. She carries me, cradle-style, all the way home. She puts me in my bed and pulls the covers to my chin.
She says I won’t tell your mom or dad about this. She tells me to never, ever, ever do that again.
I am nineteen years old, a freshman in college. My family now lives in a rural Pennsylvania town on three acres of land. They have checked the Megan’s Law website upon our move-in. There are no registered sex offenders for miles and miles.
Even still, it sits in me. I still keep my keys between my fingers in parking lots. I still distrust almost everyone. My parents make me text a photo of the license plates of boys who are picking me up for a date. I become very good at pretending to stop to tie my shoe, just at the rear of their cars.
In high school, my mom buys me a "rape horn." Half as an Arrested Development inside joke between us and half for real. My drama nerd friends in rural Pennsylvania think this is hilarious. A boy who I had turned down for 8th grade formal the year before says, "yeah, but who would ever want to rape you?"
This gives me another thing to carry in my nightmares — another layer of nuance and shame. This makes me cry at home. I’m not just crying over what the boy said, but over everything.
I start imagining escape tactics. Making demonic faces in my mirror. Thinking of the episode of Hey Arnold where Arnold diverts his bully by convincing him that he’s "crazy." I think I can be "crazy" if I need to be. I am happy and people are always commenting on how often I smile, but I could be "crazy" like Arnold if anyone tries to hurt anyone else I love, or anyone at all. I imagine having enough power and anger to shatter glass with my eyes.
I am not Eleven, or Matilda, or a child from a Stephen King novel. No one is. This is devastating.
All the girls and all the boys who had to meet monsters on more occasions and more closely than just once at the grocery haunt me because if I feel this much distrust and desperation, what are they feeling, and are they feeling anything at all?
I’m still so afraid of all the monsters that I never want anyone to know or even know about, that no one should ever have to know at all.
The monsters are real. The upside down does exist.
When in the goddamn hell is it going to be stopped for good?
Kailey Tedesco is the author of These Ghosts of Mine, Siamese (Dancing Girl Press) and the forthcoming full-length collection, She Used to be on a Milk Carton (April Gloaming Publications). She is the co-founding editor-in-chief of Rag Queen Periodical and a member of the Poetry Brothel. She received her MFA in creative writing from Arcadia University, and she now teaches literature at several local colleges.
Her poetry has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. You can find her work in Prelude, Bellevue Literary Review, Sugar House Review, Poetry Quarterly, Hello Giggles, UltraCulture, and more. For more information, please visit kaileytedesco.com.