Dan Yokum

The boy stared out the car window, his thoughts drifting like the sleepy passing scenery. He and his father had been in the car for a few hours and were hoping to find a place to stop and eat. As they approached a town, the road steepened, and the car’s speed inched up rapidly. The father began to pound the brake pedal with one foot and stomp on the emergency brake with the other. The boy turned and the father’s eyes were wide with panic, his hands tightly gripped on the steering wheel.

“I think the brakes are gone,” the father said. And a moment later, “The brakes are gone!”

The father took one hand off the wheel and cranked down his window. With shaky hands, the boy did the same on his side, not sure how it would help.

“When I can, I’m going to make a sharp turn. Get off this hill.” The father’s voice was calmer now, focused, but his body was rigid, his hands red, and his knuckles white.

A small river ran alongside them, sometimes hidden by trees and brush or long brick buildings. “There’s water on my side.” the boy shouted.

“I know. I see it.”

The terrain flattened for a half-minute, lessening the acceleration. The father swerved the car back and forth to slow it down even more. Then the incline returned and the speed crept back up. The boy saw ahead, on his side of the road, a small empty parking lot next to a large red brick building. At the back of the lot was a chain-link fence.

“Here?” the boy pointed.

The father gave a quick look. “I’ll go through the fence. It will stop us.”

The boy’s last thought before the turn was, I’m only twelve. I don’t want to die.


Merrill Lang is putting together a celebration of sorts for himself, possibly one that only includes him—he hasn’t decided yet—because he just got off the phone with his oncologist who told him the rogue cancer cells in his stomach appear to have departed. They’re gone, finished, he tells himself, at least for now. He slumps into a chair, closes his eyes, and breathes deeply, absorbing the news.

He calls his ex-wife, divorced three years, and updates her. She’s happy for him, expresses relief and hope for the future, then asks about his plans, if he’s still going to retire early. He patiently reminds her that he never planned on retiring, he’s only shifting his investment focus to something more meaningful. He encourages her not to worry, knowing she will anyway. It’s simply who she is: unlike him, she follows a safe script.

As soon as the call ends, his close friend Derick rings, also wanting an update.

Merrill fills him in and Derick says, “Let’s go for a drink. We have to celebrate.”

They meet at a brewery—one Merrill is invested in—and sit at an outside table. The tables around them are filled with patrons, many of them younger.

“We’re too old to be here,” Derick says. “Much too old.” He laughs.

“Oh, come on. The world’s changing.” Merrill points toward a few of the tables. “I bet they don’t even notice us and, if they do, I doubt they’re thinking we’re ancient and washed up.”

“No, probably not. Although that white beard you have going on might be an age giveaway.”

“Well, I hope so,” Merrill says.

Derick, who had his own health scare a few months earlier, has them toast to their healthy lives, to the fact that they’ve both been given a pass for a few more years of fun. They clink glasses and sip their beers, After a few minutes, Derick downshifts into a deeper place. “Was the cancer the only time in your life you came close to dying?”

“Uh, I don’t know.” Merrill is silent for a moment, shakes his head. “I’m not sure. How about you?”

Derick tells a story of painting a house when he was in college, falling off a ladder, and hitting his head on the way down. He cracked his skull and was unconscious for a day but recovered nicely. It could have been much worse. When he’s done, he says, “C’mon Merrill. There’s got to be a tale of great danger in there somewhere. You’re a skier. And didn’t you used to rock climb?”

“I guess there is something, but it happened so long ago I don’t remember a lot of it. Or maybe what I remember isn’t exactly what happened.” He tells a condensed version, leaving out many of the details.


The car plowed into the turn, the tires on the passenger side lifting a foot off the ground. But the car didn’t flip. The boy grabbed onto the door handle and yelled out the window. The father yanked the steering wheel and the car swerved and hit a six-foot-high pole connected to the chain-link fence. The contact slowed the car some, but it still rammed into a configuration of steel support beams holding up an array of high-voltage transformers. The electric buzz was like the inside of a giant beehive.

“We have to get out.” the father yelled. “It’s going to blow up!”

The father reached around the boy’s waist and pulled him out his side of the car. They walked slowly, the boy hugged tight by the father’s strong arm. The knocked-over pole lay on the ground with wires hanging out, sparking and dancing. The father carefully led them around the wires and away from the danger.

They stood on the sidewalk for a minute. The father faced the road and flagged down a passing car. The boy scanned the parking lot, looking for something else, and tried to get the father to look. On the far end of the lot was a clump of bushes next to a house. Nobody came out of the house to see what was going on. Maybe it was deserted.

Ten minutes later, a police car pulled into the lot followed by a fire truck. One of the firemen crept up to the wreck and inspected the situation. The policeman asked the father a few questions—why the brakes failed, why he turned where he did—and wrote down the answers on a small tablet. He explained that the utility company would come to shut off the substation’s power so a tow truck could safely pull the car out.

When the fireman came back, the father said, “I hit that pole.”

“I see that,” the fireman said. “It’s a good thing you did.”

“How so?” the policeman asked.

“If he’d only gone through the fence, it wouldn’t have slowed him down enough. Even so, he hit the support beams pretty hard, bent the steel quite a bit. Any faster and the whole thing would have come down hard and, most likely, we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now.”

“He swerved,” the boy said.

“Something in the way?”

“Must have been a dog or something,” the father said.


“Quite a story,” Derick says. “Where’d it happen?”

“Somewhere in New England. Massachusetts or possibly Connecticut. I don’t know for sure.”

“And you were twelve? That’s a long time ago. How old was the car?”

“It was old, really old. That’s why the brakes were so bad. We didn’t have money for anything better. My dad got laid off and was looking for another job. We drove all the way from Michigan.”

That night, Merrill works in his home office, reviewing updates on property investments and potential future proposals. In the past few years, he’s been part of ventures that have yielded results he’s proud of—a few abandoned shopping malls repurposed into housing and offices—and some he wishes he’d not been involved in—malls that, as they remain empty and slowly crumble, are nothing more than tax write-offs. There are similar projects of both types in the works. The general concept of wanting a change in direction is comforting, yet even the smallest attempt to define what that means is confusing.

He leaves the office and goes into a small art studio he put together two years before when he was first diagnosed with cancer. It’s a throwback, a reclamation of his youthful passion, a rebellion against who he became, and a reminder of who he once wanted to be. He mostly makes pencil drawings from photos or memories and occasionally paints in watercolor or acrylics. He believes that, unlike his investment prowess, his work shows little confidence or courage, and he attributes this to the crunch of disapproval he received when he was young. In his second year of college, when he told his parents he was switching his major from business to art, his mother’s response was, “No, absolutely not. Somebody around here has to learn how to make some money.”

Merrill sits on a stool, staring blankly at artwork he’s taped to one wall. He is increasingly barraged by his earlier conversation with Derick. He’s forgotten so much of the accident and imagines he has fabricated many of the details because this is something people commonly do. Yet, it did happen, he’s positive of that. He’s also certain he was inches away from an ending to his life. Gone. Snuffed out. And his father refused to talk about it in the same way he refused to talk about almost anything that had ever happened to him. It was almost as if his father wished to wipe away the entire event. Years later, when Merrill asked his mother about his father’s behavior, she gave a short answer that referenced horrible wartime memories he could never bear to add to. Merrill came to regard his father as being like a weakened dam, always one storm away from breaking apart.

He absently scribbles on a piece of paper and transitions to creating a drawing of the front of a house he and his wife lived in when they were first married. A memory of another drawing creeps in. Possibly there are others, he’s not sure. He has kept artwork he did throughout his life, and insisted it move with him whenever he moved, even when whoever he roomed with at the time questioned and objected. But he rarely—or never—looked at it, especially work from his earliest forays into self-expression.

Merrill climbs the stairs to the attic and pulls a large cardboard box, packed full of drawing pads and paper-filled folders, into the middle of the floor. A few of the drawings are signed and dated; he liked to do that when he was young because it made him feel like a serious artist. They are mostly of houses, trees, or plants.

In a drawing pad with a torn and marked up cover, he finds the one, the special one, dated the year of the accident. It’s a detailed rendering of the back of his father’s car, and he vaguely remembers alternately standing and squatting in the family driveway, trying to make sense of the perspective. The surrounding imagery is drawn from memory. The chain-link fence is smashed apart, and the sparking pole lies diagonally on the ground. On the sides and above the car are transformers and other parts of a small but deadly electric substation. A visible slice of the sky is scribbled dark and ominous.

He turns the page and there is another one, a surprise he has no recollection of. The page is framed with the parts of the inside car door surrounding the window. Did he sit inside the car and draw this? He must have. The middle and background are visible through the window: the parking lot, the bushes, and a house drawn lightly, with little detail, barely there. There are no other cars, people, or animals in the drawing. This one confuses him.

And then one more. It is much like the last drawing, viewed through the car window, except in this one, a girl—she has long, curly hair and is wearing a dress—is lying on her back on the ground, with her bare feet facing the car door. Her hair swirls around the pavement and outlines her faintly drawn face.

On a whim, he photographs all three pages with his iPhone.

The next morning, Merrill calls a former investment colleague in Boston and shares that he is interested in learning more about abandoned mill and factory building conversions. Long term, he is looking for new opportunities. However, for now, because of Massachusetts’ rich history of creatively repurposing empty industrial buildings, he is planning a self-tour of the region to get some new ideas. The colleague gives him suggestions and a list of connections to contact.

A week later, Merrill flies to Boston, rents a car, and begins a ten-day adventure. For the first five days, he immerses himself in business, visiting numerous properties in the Boston area and enthusiastically signing on as an investor in two new projects. The second half of the trip will be more of a vacation, focused on some of the less populated and more scenic parts of the state.

Merrill leaves his hotel and picks a road that will take him through wooded mountains and valleys, and some of the more remote former mill towns. As he drives—music playing, gorgeous scenery floating by—he reflects on the success of his last five days and experiences a wave of deep satisfaction. This lasts for a few hours until a different sensation creeps in: a nagging déjàvu like familiarity. It’s especially pronounced when he approaches a town, any town, even a tiny one.

At one point, the inclines and sharp turns are extreme enough to be mildly hazardous. On one steep downhill, he rides the brakes so heavily that a driver behind him honks his horn a few times. Driving slow is something he never does, yet his speedometer reads twenty miles an hour. He pulls over, lets the car behind him pass, doubles the volume of the music, and floors the car back onto the road.

He approaches another town where he has planned to stop for a meeting. He doesn’t want to slow down but wants to avoid a ticket. He taps the brakes every ten seconds to keep near the speed limit. The familiarity is powerful, overwhelming.

In a few minutes, he sees a parking lot and then a large, red-brick building with a modern sign on one wall. He slows and puts his turn signal on. The parking lot is big and nearly full, and he has to park at its far end. There is no house, and if there ever was a substation, it was removed, its footprint paved over. A neat, short hedge runs along the back of the lot. Behind the hedge and the building are a small river and the remains of a ten-foot-high dam.

As Merrill ambles toward a set of large double doors underneath a quaint porch overhang, he decides this is not the place of the accident. I need to stop doing this, he tells himself, stop obsessing about it. When he opens one of the doors and steps inside, that’s exactly what happens. He’s instantly taken with the vibe of the building’s interior, the perfect balance of old-mill funkiness with a layover of soft elegance. He stands at the beginning of a long hallway, inhales, touches the wall, and examines the paint colors. The building is four stories and has apartments on the upper floors, artist’s spaces on the second floor, and a restaurant and gallery spaces on the first floor. This is exactly what he wants to be involved with.

He quickly finds the main office and asks if Pam, the woman he has scheduled an appointment with, is available. He is directed to continue down the hall to the main gallery. The door to the gallery is open and two men and two women are inside, deep into a conversation. He doesn’t interrupt and scans the gallery walls to see what’s currently on display.

The room is large and the walls are fully lined with works of art. He does a quick stroll along one wall and determines it is all the work of one artist—the tag next to each piece gives the name, Sandra Brenner. The artwork is delicately and—he believes—masterfully collaged from sections of drawn and painted patterns and real-life reflections. The contrast between the abstraction of the collage and the realism within the small pieces is stunning. Each one elicits a feeling and tells a story. Stepping back a few feet, there is also a cohesive rhythm among all the pieces. Whoever hung the show knows what they’re doing.

The two men leave, and he approaches the women and asks if either of them is Pam. One of them—taller, younger, well-dressed to interact in a professional setting—says, yes, that is her.

“Would you be Merrill Lang?” she asks.

“That’s me,” he says and shakes her hand.

“And this is one of our esteemed artists, Sandra Brenner,” Pam says.

She’s older, probably somewhere around his age, and dressed for an artist’s studio: black jeans, an oversized t-shirt, wide-framed glasses, a wild printed scarf hiding most of her hair.

“Oh, you’re brilliant,” he blurts out.

She grins large, blinks her eyes. “I don’t know about that. Well, thank you.”

“Hey, if you don’t mind,” Pam says, “I have to make a phone call. It will take about a half hour.” She looks at Merrill. “Since you’re already a fan, do you think you could entertain yourself for a bit? Or Sandra. Maybe you could talk about your work.”

“I would be glad to,” Sandra says.

“Enjoy,” Pam says to Merrill. “Each one is a journey.”

Sandra has traveled a lot and lived in many places. Although there is a solid consistency in her work, subtleties in design and color reflect different locations: New Mexico, Maine, Hawaii, and shorter and longer stays throughout the world.

He asks something specific about a piece and she launches into a concise, informative, and highly entertaining story. He continues to ask careful questions about each one, wanting to hear her speak.

He comments on her use of color and she says, “You seem to know a lot about art, Mr. Lang. Do you also create things?”

“I drew and painted when I was younger,” he says. “These days, it’s more about re-creating buildings like this one. And you can call me Merrill.”

She catches his gaze, smiles, and says, “Maybe I’ll do that.”

They finish the first wall; the second wall begins a shift in direction. The theme of the first piece is local, with snippets of red bricks, re-drawn photos of early mill workers, dramatic mountain views, and area houses. One of the houses is familiar. He dismisses the feeling because, of course it’s familiar—one more 1930s white craftsman style house.

He can’t help it, he asks. “Are you from here?”

“No, definitely not.” She is emphatic.

“I was wondering about the house. If it has any special meaning.”

“Only that it’s typical of this area.” She hesitates, then continues quietly, “Actually my aunt and uncle and cousin lived there.”

“Can I ask where this house is?”

She points in the direction of the parking lot. “It was over there. It was torn down about thirty years ago.”


The car’s right tires slammed onto the parking lot surface, and the boy saw the girl about to run in front of them. He screamed out his window, “Look out!” She stopped hard and hurled herself onto her back. Their eyes met. The father cranked the steering wheel and missed the girl by inches. In the next second, the car knocked over the pole and slammed into the steel supports.

Later, as the tow truck carefully pulled the car out of the wreckage, the boy grabbed the father’s hand and asked quietly, “Why did you say you saw a dog? You swerved because of a dog? I saw a girl. She was there. You almost hit her.”

The father squeezed the boy’s hand hard enough that it hurt. “Do you see anything out there now?”

“That’s because she probably ran away.”

The father let go of the boy’s hand. “Whoever or whatever might have been there is not there now. Which means they didn’t get hurt. That’s all that matters.”

The boy looked up at the father’s face, scrunched like he was fighting back tears. The boy had never seen that before, and it terrified him almost as much as the crash.

“We won’t talk about this anymore,” the father said.


Merrill clenches his hands together and looks down at the floor. “Is your cousin a girl?”

“She was, yes. She passed away about ten years ago.”

“Did she have long curly hair?”

Sandra tilts her head and looks at him, her mouth in a slight frown. “When she was young. She kept it short when she got older. But why do you ask? Did you know her?”

He doesn’t answer. Shakes his head.

Sandra steps away from him, stares. “Mr. Lang, uh Merrill. Are you okay?”

He feels like he’s drowning. “I just need to sit down a minute, if that’s alright.”

She takes his hand and leads him to a chair. He stops, turns to her, and whispers, “I think your cousin is the one who ran away.”

“What do you mean? Who are you, anyway?”

He pulls his phone from his back pocket. “Maybe your cousin told you about this.”

He shows her the first photo of his drawing, a few seconds later, flips to the second one, then the third. “I did these when I was twelve.”

“Oh my god,” she says. “Oh my god.”

Now he sits in the chair and slumps his face toward the floor. When he looks up, she is crying.

“That was not my cousin, that was me,” she whispers.

“You? How could that be?”

“I was visiting from Boston and…and, you saved my life. When you shouted, “Look out,” you saved my life.”

This is her. It’s her. It’s actually her.

“But if you hadn’t been there, I wouldn’t have shouted and my dad wouldn’t have swerved and…”

“I know,” she says. “Hitting the post instead of just the fence and all that.”

“How do you know that? You took off.”

She takes a deep breath. “Well, you see, I didn’t run away. I was alone in the house. My aunt and cousin went out somewhere and I didn’t want to go. Their dog got out, ran across the parking lot, and I was trying to catch him. When you yelled, he ran into the bushes, the ones in your drawing. I found him and hid in there. For a long time. I heard everything.”

“So, there was a dog. My father thought he saw a dog. But why did you hide?”

“The policeman who showed up was my uncle. He would have been furious that I almost got hit. He would have blamed your father. Blamed me. I never told anybody I was there. Not ever.”

He stands up. “Yes, yes, I understand. I wasn’t allowed to talk about it. After awhile I didn’t believe you were real.”

Her face lights up. She pulls the scarf away from her hair and shakes her head. Her hair is curly and wild. “I’m real,” she says. “I’m very real.” She hugs him and he returns the embrace. They stay like that for half a minute.

She says, softly, “In that tiny moment, we both almost died and somehow we also saved each other. And now you’re here. It’s a stretch to take this in.”

“Yes, it is. It surely is.”

She leads him to another of her collages. The theme of this one is entirely about the history of the building, many recreations of early photos, and different angles of the building’s current presentation. One section is stunning: it includes the past entrance to the building, a large part of the old parking lot, and most of the substation. The chain-link fence and the post are both visible and intact.

“Can I see your drawings again?” she asks.

He opens his phone. They silently compare his first drawing to hers.

He flips to the next one, and she says, “These are well done, you know, fascinating perspective. For a twelve-year-old, they show a lot of promise.”

He laughs, and she says, “I’m serious.”

When Pam walks in, they are still tight together, both looking at his phone, way too familiar to be introduced only a half hour ago. She approaches them, grinning.

“Let me guess,” Pam says. “You realized you knew each other in college, use to hang out together, and you’re re-hashing escapades you never told your parents about.”

“Something like that,” Sandra says.

“That would be it,” Merrill adds.