deer in headlights
“'Laeus, come help us, yeah?” Voices ring out over the field. A younger Voss turns her head over her shoulder, sitting in the back of an old pickup. Rolling grass fields stretch long behind her towards a vast marbled sunset, a misty glow peeking between the peaks. A couple of dirty-looking boys attempt to tip over one of the cows, shoving themselves against the enormous bovine as she bares down to refuse. Voss stretches her legs out in the flatbed, laces undone on her well-worn boots. The only thing she tips is a bottle of beer against her lips, she's maybe seventeen. A plaid shirt hangs off her bare shoulders, white tank tucked into denim cutoffs.

“Couple weeks now,” a friend reminds her, sitting shirtless with his bony elbow propped up on the tailgate. A rolled cigarette dangles from his mouth stuck there with spit. "You leaving soon for the ADF.” Every syllable attacked with spite. Snide words bubble to the tip of her tongue, but she won't take the bait. Won't malison her chance of getting out. "Yup," Voss flicks the bottle cap at him with all her desire to leave this place. He tries to catch it out of the air and fumbles. It clatters, lost somewhere in the clutter of empties and tools. He sucks his teeth.

Voss taps her cigarette out the window of a rented pickup. Four beers and nine country songs later, and she was back on the road, riding away from the pitstop bar. The dirt lines, covered in a light dusting of powdered snow, lead the way back home. A single-lane highway towered by an imposing forest. Four hundred and eighty kilometres north of Arcadia to Nowhere, Mahoroba. The cold landscape repeats for miles. You can't spot the town from a distance, but she knew it was coming up. Passed a convenience store and coffee shop, a group of scraggly locals hanging around outside, trucks still running for warmth.

The forest thins, she passes a scribble of a strip mall with tanning beds, a gun shop, and a bait and tackle store. A billboard approaches for a rinky-dink motorway. Hover-kart racing, batting cages, and mini-putt. It was Ridge Raceway when she was a kid, repainted now to Star Screamer Speedway. She holds her breath as she passes the sign.

Finally, town proper, and it hadn't changed in seventeen years. Blink and you'd miss all the main strip had to offer. A beauty salon, hardware store, a greasy spoon diner run by a family whose name she can't remember. Alliance banners decorate the face of every building; dipping under awnings, hanging proudly over stoops. Everywhere she looked lived a memory she thought she'd forgotten.

Take that street, and you'd end up at the old schoolhouse. Her first kiss behind the portables, to a girl who would break her heart and take a boy to the dance instead. Follow a small ravine behind the track, and it would lead to a shallow pond where the leap toads gathered. No one wore bathing suits back then. She'd bike home in wet shorts, shaking her hair out like an animal. Voss wouldn't stop to reminisce. Unfamiliar vehicles made the old folk nervous. She turned right at the end of the block and took the long way home.

It wasn't really called devil's pass, only the locals knew it by that name. It was the fastest route around the mountain; tight turns without guard rails that ran close to sheer drops. For those who took the meandering twenty-one-mile drive, the valley views painted themselves. Twisted into vision like brushstrokes on canvas. There was nothing like it. Twenty-nine collisions this year, and twenty-seven the last. Voss should have known better when she bent the corner, timing colliding with chance. The flash of penny eyes, and a tangle of hooves. Her helmet cracked off the asphalt, and everything went dark.

A sharp breath woke her, inhaling a thousand needles. Every cough sent fire through her chest. Eyes squeezed shut until the torrent passed, and she opened them up to find dirt. Pushing herself up on her elbows with adrenaline, lifting the cracked visor from her eyes. Staring down the mountain's edge as vertigo beckons. The bike lay wrecked behind her. A thin trail of fire stretched on for yards from where it first hit the pavement. And there was blood, a lot of it, and it would take dozens of rainfalls to wash it clean, but it wasn't hers.

Voss tugged the strap of her helmet until the button clasp tore back. She let it drop and roll across the road. Her skin felt hot as her boots took small, scraping steps along the splattered line. It was the smell that hit her first, fresh and gamey. The high-pitched whine that echoed over the valley made her sick. Living out here as long as she had, she knew what to do, and wept as she took its velvet horns in her hands.

Wooden stakes line the property, strung together with thin wire, but no cattle were out to pasture. Maybe they were already inside their stalls, expecting wet weather. Maybe her family didn't own the property anymore. She wasn't sure which outcome she preferred. Cows enjoyed winter weather on account of them running so hot. Got all fuzzy and grew thick shaggy coats with cute curly tops. Voss didn't think many people knew that.

The farmhouse was at the top of a very steep incline. In first gear, she could rumble up the driveway to the carriage porch, but everyone just parked on the lawn. There was nothing remarkable about it. No feelings overcome when her clean white sneakers hit the frozen dirt. Nothing stirred inside her. She hardly noticed the little changes, like the new paint job on the corral. The breeze was fresh, a nice way of saying it smelt like shit and stale breath. She didn't miss the country air.

There was a big building in the back where the nursing happens. As a kid, she'd peer through the metal bars of the pen and watch the babies. Cows were extremely smart, sociable creatures. They were sensitive, too, and certain practices in the ranching industry made their lives miserable. Bovines milked dry until their bodies gave up, and then they went to slaughter - but while they were still useful, they were forced to nurse. The cycle was endless, and it made them want to die. A cow stood sentinel before her; red, bloated mammaries sagging heavy with milk. Calves swarming over her like ants on honey. Nipples roughly won, bouncing in and out of mouths. Tails swing eager as mother's eyes roll up into the back of her head. The sight of some things actually changed a person.

There were days when she would grab her bike and ride for hours, as far away as she could. When asked where she'd been, she'd say, "Nowhere." Which wasn't exactly untrue.

Voss stops by the bulls, watching their huge maws smack on pulpy cud. Flies buzzing around their wet snouts, nose rings glistening with snot. Their hot breath hangs in the cold air. Gold tags stuck to their ears.

A dog barks from somewhere inside the house. She looks back to see the curtain sway in the lit window of her old bedroom, where a small girl weaves out of view. She isn't sure of what she saw, but her keys are in the ignition now, faster than she can remember getting back into the truck. Her foot slams on the pedal and spins on the ice. A man comes running out of the house, leaps over the steps of the wrap-around veranda, and yells her name. "Elaeus!"

The voice isn't familiar, but she can see his face in the headlights, gawking at her with frozen breath. Her brother, all grown up and looking well, and this is enough to quell her curiosity. And stir her guilt. Everything she practiced saying on the drive up just disappeared, knowing she couldn't lie it all away when he'd ask her where she'd been. The truck careened down the driveway, wouldn't stop speeding until it reached Arcadia. It was a four hour drive to the city, but Voss would make it in two.