People call me Matthew, but that isn’t my name. My name is Danny; Danny Stutzman.
I am nine-years-old, and traveling with my dad to Ohio, where our family is from. Some people say my dad was a bad man, but he is my dad and I love him and I don’t like people saying these bad things about my dad. He came to get me from the people I am living with in Wyoming to take me home. Would a bad man do that? A bad man would have just let me live with these people I barely know and forget about me, but he came for me.
I wasn’t feeling very good when Dad came to get me. I have a really bad cold and can barely breathe sometimes. I’m coughing a lot, and that’s kind of scary because I can’t catch my breath and I feel like I could die. The people I live with took me to the doctor and put me on medicine. It hasn’t helped much yet, but I hope it works soon. Christmas is coming, and I want to feel better by then. One of the kids at the school I go to told me that Santa isn’t real, so I want to stay up Christmas Eve night and prove him wrong because that kid isn’t very nice and shouldn’t tell lies like that. If I see Santa and tell him about it, maybe he’ll stop being such a jerk to me. I asked the lady I live with if she knows this kid and why he’s so mean, and she just shook her head in that way adults do sometimes and said something about him not having a mom, and that’s why he acts like he does. I told her I don’t have a mom either, and I don’t act like a jerk. She just smiled at me, patted me on top of my head, and went back to smoking her smelly cigarettes in the house. I wish she wouldn’t smoke inside because it makes my chest hurt.
Dad came for me on Saturday night. I had gone to bed early because I wasn’t feeling very well again. I was asleep in my bedroom and was woke up by loud voices. I thought I was dreaming, but then my bedroom door opened, and I heard a voice say, “Danny, wake up, I’ve come to take you home.” I groaned and turned over in bed, my feet getting tangled in the sheets.
“Danny, come on, buddy; wake up. We have to go.”
I opened my eyes and saw my Dad standing in the doorway, the light behind him from the hallway made him seem like a monster. I grabbed a pillow and covered my head with it. Dad came into my room and took the pillow off my face.
“Danny, let’s go. We need to leave now.”
“But Dad, I’m sleeping and I’m sick.”
“You can sleep in the car, pal. We have to go. We’re going home for Christmas. You’d like that, wouldn’t you? To see Grandma and Grandpa?”
I did want to see my grandparents. I haven’t seen them in a very long time. I miss them.
I got out of bed, and Dad gave me a hug.
“Okay, let’s go.”
“What about my clothes?” I asked him. I am wearing my favorite blue pajamas. They were a gift from the people I live with and I like them because they are the kind with feet at the bottom so I don’t get cold. It gets cold here in Wyoming.
“We don’t have time to pack. We get pick you up some different ones on the way to Ohio.”
My dad takes my hand and we walk through the house. The lady is sitting at the kitchen table, smoking. She looks like she’s been crying, and that makes me sad. I wonder why she was so sad that she was crying.
“You’re making a big mistake, Eli,” she says quietly to my dad as we walk passed her.
“Shut up, Roberta. You don’t know your place.” My dad seemed mad at her. She looked at him with red, watery eyes and took a big drag off her cigarette and blew the smoke out of her nose. I was going to miss her, but not her smoking. I waved at her as we went out the back door to my Dad’s car, and she started crying again.
Dad opened up the back door to his car, which was already on and the heater turned all the way up. It felt good since it was so cold outside. There was an old blanket in the back for me, and a pillow. I lay down across the seat and Dad covered me up with the blanket.
“Go back to sleep, Danny. We’re going to be driving for a while,” he said as he got into the driver’s seat. I did what I was told and closed my eyes. It didn’t take very long for me to fall back asleep.
When I woke up, it was morning, or at least I think so. The sun was shining through the back window into my face and I squinted my eyes shut. Dad was listening to some AM radio station. They were talking about the cold and price of corn. I sat up in the backseat and Dad looked at me in the rear view mirror.
“Good morning, champ. Sleep well?”
“Hi Dad. It was okay. I had funny dreams.” I started coughing then and my head felt fuzzy. “Did you remember to bring my medicine?” I asked.
Dad had his eyes back on the road and said, “no, I didn’t. I’m sorry, I forgot it. We can get you some more when we get to Ohio, okay?”
“Okay, Dad. Where are we? I have to go pee.”
“Colorado. We’ll stop soon. Lay back down and get some more rest. I’ll wake you up when we get there.”
Dad wakes me up a bit later and we’re at a gas station. I get out and stretch my legs and walk inside the gas station. The man behind the counter gives me a funny look, I guess because I’m still wearing my pj’s. I ask him where the bathroom is and he points to the back of the store. I look outside and Dad is putting gas in the car. I walk into the bathroom and pee and wash my hands and face. The bathroom has one of those air hand dryers and it feels good on my cold hands. There’s no one else in here, so I play around with it, putting my head under the nozzle and let the hot air mess my hair up. I must have taken too long in here, because Dad comes in and he looks kind of mad.
“Quit messing around, Danny! We need to go!” He grabs me by my arm and pulls me out of the bathroom, the door slams into my butt.
“Ow!” I yelp. The man at the front counter is looking at us as Dad pulls me passed the counter. He gives Dad a dirty look, but doesn’t say anything to him. Dad takes me back to the car and lets me sit up front with him this time. He gets in, starts the car, and presses the gas pedal too hard and we jerk forward and the tires squeal as Dad tears out of the gas station. We drive in silence for a few miles. Dad still looks mad and I’m scared. He doesn’t say anything, so I look out the window as we drive. Colorado is kind of pretty. There are mountains here and I daydream about climbing them like some brave explorer. I bet I could climb to the top of any mountain if I wanted to. People would think I’m great for doing so, too, and have a big parade in my honor and I’d be on the front page of all the newspapers. I imagine what the headlines would say: BRAVE DANNY STUTZMAN CLIMBS TO THE TOP OF THE WORLD’S TALLEST MOUNTAIN.
“I’m going to be on the front page of all the newspapers some day, Dad,” I say.
“Oh? Is that so?”
“Yep. I’m going to be famous and everyone is going to know who I am and they are going to love me.”
“I bet you will, buddy.”
I smile and stare out the window some more until I fall asleep again.
The next few days go by and because I don’t have my medicine, I start feeling really bad. I try to sleep as much as I can as Dad drives us, but I think I have a fever because sometimes I’m really hot and sweat a lot, and sometimes I’m really cold and start shivering. Dad has to turn up the heater full blast during those times because I can’t get warm enough. Dad stops all the time at gas stations so he can call someone. I woke up once and was alone in the car and I got scared, but I looked out the window and saw Dad huddled against the cold in a phone booth. He was smoking a cigarette, and pacing around inside the booth. He talked for a few minutes, then hung up, but he stayed outside and smoked some more before he came inside the car.
“Who were you talking to, Dad?” I asked him. My question seemed to scare him.
He paused for a few seconds before answering me, but it was a grown-up answer of “just a friend.”
“Who is your friend? Can we go visit them?”
Dad turned around to look at me. “Maybe some day, Danny. Why don’t you go back to sleep. We have more driving to do.”
“But I’m not tired,” I lied. I am tired, but I wanted to know who Dad was talking to.
“Danny, go to sleep. Don’t argue with me. ” He sounded mad.
“But I’m not tired!” I shouted. I could feel tears start coming to my eyes. Dad reached back into the backseat and tried to force me to lay down. He was really strong and his hand hurt on my shoulder.
“I said lay down, goddamn it!” He was really mad and I did start crying.
“I don’t need any of your bullshit now, Danny. Just lay down and go to sleep, you little piece of shit!”
I was bawling now, tears running down my cheeks, but they dried up because my face was so hot from the fever. Because I was crying so hard, I started having a coughing attack and started wheezing and gasping for air. I couldn’t stop coughing and it was really hard to breathe. Dad leaned over the driver’s seat and started pounding me on the back, trying to help me breathe, I guess, but it just hurt and didn’t help at all. His look went from being mad to scared really quick and he kept pounding my back, yelling, “breathe, Danny! Breathe!”
After a few seconds, but it felt like longer, I started to calm down and could breathe a little better. Dad looked relieved and was running his hand over my hair like the lady I used to live with used to do when I would come into her bedroom at night when I had a bad dream.
“Are you okay, Danny? Can you breathe now?”
I coughed a few more times, but for the most part, I was okay. I said I was okay, but it came out funny because my throat hurt from all the coughing. I wiped the tears from my eyes and snot from my nose. Dad turned back around in the seat and sighed. He said something under his breath, but I couldn’t hear what he said. He opened up the car door and told me to wait here and he went inside the gas station. He came back a few minutes later and had a small bottle of cough medicine, which he opened the bottle, poured me some into the plastic cup it came with, and handed back to me.
“Here. Drink this, and then try to get some sleep, okay? I want to try to make it to Kansas today. We can stay with a friend there for the night. It’s Christmas Eve, you know. If we’re still driving during the night, Santa won’t know where you’re at and can’t leave you presents.”
I forgot it was Christmas. We had been driving and stopping so much that I lost track of what day it was. I thought about the boy in my class that said Santa wasn’t real and how I wanted to tell him he was wrong because I had seen Santa for myself and he was real. I swallowed the gross green liquid and gagged because it was disgusting. I pulled the old blanket around me and lay down and closed my eyes, but I was pretending to sleep. I was too busy thinking about what Santa would bring me tonight and how I could catch him in the act so I could prove he was real once and for all.
I woke up a few hours later and sat up. I wasn’t feeling very good, but was tired of sleeping. I looked out the window and noticed we were driving on country roads. Dad had the window cracked open a little bit and was smoking. He hadn’t noticed I was awake until I started coughing again from the smoke.
“Where are we?” I asked between coughs.
“We’re in the middle of Nebraska. How’re you feeling?”
“Like shit, Dad.”
He started laughing. “Where did you learn that from? You’re only nine!”
“From a boy at school,” I said to him. I wasn’t really sure what it meant, but I decided to say it anyway.
“Here, finish off the cough syrup,” Dad said as he handed the bottle back to me.
“The whole bottle?” I asked.
“Yes, the whole bottle. We have about four hours away yet. Listen, there’s a gas station coming up soon, and I need gas and make another phone call.”
I was gagging down the medicine and choked out an “okay.”
“Hey, Merry Christmas, Danny. Do you think Santa is going to bring you some good presents tonight?”
“I hope so. Are you sure he’s going to know where I’m at? I’d hate to miss Santa because he couldn’t find me.”
“He knows, Danny. He knows.”
“Good.” I stared out the window some more, trying to count all the cows I saw as we drove by them, but I lost count after a while and all the cough medicine was starting to make me sleepy, so I dozed off. Hopefully by the time I wake up again, we’ll be in Kansas and that much closer to finally seeing Santa.
The next time I woke up, it was because it felt like there was something on top of me, holding something over my head and I was suffocating. I tried to open my eyes, but when I did, I was still in the dark. Whatever was on top of me was really heavy and grunting. I tried to wiggle out from underneath, but I was too little and weak, and the more I tried, the harder whatever was on top of me held me down. I felt a hand grab my neck and started to squeeze, which made me even more scared because I couldn’t breathe at all. I think someone was trying to hurt me in a very bad way. I tried and tried to get away, but I couldn’t. After a few minutes, I felt my body go limp and I stopped struggling because I wasn’t breathing anymore. Whatever was on top of me was still holding my throat and gave one more hard squeeze, then stopped, and took whatever was on my face off. They felt the side of my neck for a heartbeat, and didn’t find one. This seemed to make the person happy because they had done what they wanted; they had killed me.
The person got off me and grabbed my feet and pulled me from the backseat of the car, hitting my head on the way out, and they laid me down on the cold gravel road. It was starting to snow and the flakes fell on face and melted. The person shut the car door and picked my feet up again, this time dragging me across the road into the ditch and the tall grass. They dropped my feet, and stood over me for a minute before walking back up to the car and getting in and driving away. I was all alone now, and the snow was coming down harder now, in big, fat flakes that landed all over me and stuck in my hair and on my pajamas.
I don’t know how long I was in the ditch, but by now, most of me was covered in snow, and only a little bit of my blue pj’s were showing. An old pickup truck was coming down the road, going slow because of the snow that was only falling lightly now. The truck drove passed me, then applied its brakes a few feet after it went by. The driver put the truck into reverse by were I was lying and put it in park. The driver got out of the truck and started walking towards me. He stopped and bent down, brushing the snow off my face and he gasped, and stumbled backwards a few feet. He seemed very surprised to find me and started to run back up to his truck, but slipped getting up the ditch because of the snow. He got back in his truck, turned it around and went back the same way he came. I hope I didn’t scare the man, but I think I did. I didn’t mean to, but it wasn’t really my fault.
A little while later, more cars came to find me, some of them with flashing red and blue lights. More people were standing around me now, and some of them picked me up and put me on a cold metal bed and put me in the back of an ambulance to take me to the hospital, but there isn’t much they can do for me now. It’s going to take a whole lot more than a shot or some medicine to make me better.
A few days later, I’m in a small wooden box and lots of people I don’t know are all standing over me, looking down at me. Some are very sad and crying and saying they are sorry this happened to me. I think they are having a funeral for me. I went to my mom’s funeral a few years ago, but I don’t remember much about it because I was so little at the time, but we did the same thing for my mom. She was also in a wooden box and lots of people were sad and crying for her, too. A few people got up and talked about me, but they didn’t know my name and kept calling me “Matthew.” I wanted to tell them that wasn’t my name, that it was Danny Stutzman and I’m from Ohio, but I couldn’t.
After the funeral was over, they put my wooden box into the back of a long black car and drove me to a cemetery and put the box into the ground and covered me up with dirt. Some people put flowers and toys on top of the dirt for me, which was kind of nice. I like flowers and someone left a neat dump truck that I wanted to play with, but I couldn’t.
I think the best part about all of this was I finally got my wish: I was on the front page of all the newspapers. I got my wish of being famous.