Among The Flayed by Ben Spencer
Mygento sold their agrochemical seed steroid under the trade name “Sorocom,” but after a year on the market, a period in which it turned most farmers who used it and most people who ate the food they produced into shambling lepers, the FDA pulled it and declared a National Health Emergency.
It was too late for twenty thousand or so families and the counties they lived in throughout the midwest, 55,000 square miles of which––roughly the size of Iowa––was quarantined by the Army and the National Guard. Second Amendment supporting militias who had guns to spare and recruits eager for action helped patrol the borders of the containment zone.
In the common vernacular of middle America, Sorocom came to be known as “The Flayer,” and victims of its horrific side effects came to be known as “The Flayed.”
This brief history of Sorocom is running through my head as Rex is driving us down some unnamed access road in a wheat field, away from a pack of the Flayed that found us hiding in Ted Johnston’s hayloft with a dozen others.
Rex puts the old diesel truck into third gear. It belches out black smoke, obscuring the rearview. Looking through the oily cloud, I see the Flayed disappear.
But they’re still coming. They’ll never stop coming.
Rex did what he always did when he got into the truck. No matter how many unhealthy life choices he made––junk food, whiskey, chewing tobacco––Rex always buckled his seatbelt.
“Where do we go?” I ask. “What do we do?”
Rex holds his side. Maybe a stitch from sprinting to the truck. We barely made it. Rex was pulled out of the truck by one of the Flayed, but managed to unholster his revolver and blow its head off before the others got to him.
“We buy our time, Cherry,” he says. “We survive.”
I love that Rex still calls me by my pet name despite the chaos. He started calling me Cherry shortly after we started dating, a year before we got married. It’s a reminder that things were normal once.
Rex downshifts to pull around a hairpin turn. The wheels of the truck skid before finding traction and the rear end fishtails in a plume of dust.
I still wonder how we escaped the fate of so many thousands of other families. We speculated that the chemical properties of Sorocom that caused some peoples’ flesh to shed from their bodies were unstable. It was as if the drug had discretion. It picked and chose its victims, but without any logic that I could make sense of.
Staring at the ceiling at night, I often wondered if it would have been better to be among the first wave of people who’d become flayed. The transformation looked agonizingly painful. But I always imagined it would have been better to get it over with, better to be spared from witnessing the horrors of this new world.
Three farmhouses ago, I saw Eustice Jones’ husband Bill became flayed before my eyes.
I mark time by “farmhouses” now. The days and weeks started blending together not long after cellular service ceased, and I lost track of time.
On the run, we’d occupy a farmhouse, be discovered, and leave. Occupy a new one, get overwhelmed by the Flayed, and relocate. Each cycle constituted one “farmhouse.” In truth, “days” and “weeks” didn’t matter anyway, because it felt like we’d been on the run for years. I’d counted eighteen farmhouses so far, so many that I forgot who they all belonged to.
When Bill Jones became flayed, it started with his face. We were eating dinner, laughing and smiling and remembering the world as it used to be. Then Bill’s face turned into a frown. Working as a part-time nurse before the world fell, I’d seen my fair share of stroke victims. That’s what it looked like––that Bill lost control of the muscles in his face.
Eustice, his wife, asked what was wrong. And as Bill tried to answer, looking just as stunned as the rest of us, the skin from his face slipped off of the muscle that gave it shape, leaving a blood-red mask. Within seconds, the same thing had happened to the rest of his body. Within a minute, he’d killed three of us.
My attention comes back to the cab of the truck, to Rex, my last beacon of happiness and hope. He’s holding his side. His eyes are watering––no, he’s crying.
“I love you, Cherry.”
He upshifts, fourth gear, speeding faster down the road. The speedometer hits forty miles per hour. The truck rumbles across the hard-packed earth.
Rex’s face changes into a frown. The same frown I saw come across Bill Jones’ face.
“Rex, you’re scaring me.”
His face sags. The stroke. His skin becomes slippery, elastic. Then it starts to fall off onto his lap.
“Jump out of the truck Cherry,” he says, his jaw a sickening crimson. “I’m not going to slow down, I’m going to crash it. I won’t let it happen to me.”
He pulls up his shirt, showing me a deep gash in his side.
One of the Flayed bit him before he managed to get into the truck.
Suddenly, everything that made Rex the man I fell in love with, over beers in a smoky pool hall, slips away. The flesh sheds completely from his face. Now, Rex is reduced to a grinning skull covered in shiny red sinew. And he becomes terrifyingly aggressive like they all do. Like I’ve seen a hundred times before.
Rex releases the steering wheel. He lunges for me. I close my eyes before it happens, but hear a sharp click as Rex’s seatbelt locks him in place. His jaws snap. He’s like a rabid dog. He pulls against the seatbelt, but the stringent automobile safety standards keep him locked in place.
The tears come, pouring from my eyes. I remember everything that made Rex and I happy. Even though we’d never been able to have children––even though three pregnancies had ended in miscarriage – we’d started a family, just the two of us. And we’d been happy.
Rex’s foot is locked against the gas pedal. The speedometer reaches sixty. I think of trying to stall the truck, to stop it somehow. If I jumped out at this speed, no matter how soft the field, I’d be injured or killed. And if I happened to live, the Flayed would catch up to me, like they always do.
Rex is still restrained by his seatbelt, struggling ferociously against it. My hand closes around the gear shift. In his calloused, farmer’s palm, Rex––this monster that used to be my husband––grabs my wrist and brings my arm to his mouth. I pull away before he manages to bite it. I reach and try to downshift again, but Rex grabs my arm, pulls it to his mouth with extraordinary strength, and snaps just as I manage to slip out of his grasp.
In this final, vicious struggle for life, I’m reminded that it won’t end well. None of this was ever meant to end well. There will be no federal relief. Waiting for the government and the army is not an option, because they are not here to help us––only to keep us contained. Only to let all of us become flayed. We die after twenty-four hours. Once everyone’s dead and gone, then they’ll come in to clean up the mess.
I wonder if God has a plan for me, or if my Christian religiosity has been a lie I’ve told myself for thirty-three years to believe that there is a plan, that there is meaning. That there is something, rather than nothing.
If I live in a Godless world, one without Rex––is that world worth living in? How many more farmhouses, now, by myself? How long until I’m flayed? What will the change feel like as the skin falls from my face? Will I remember who I was? Does our sanity depart as we become flayed? Are we trapped inside a body that is not ours? Do our souls live on, or do they, too, depart?
As these questions cross my mind, I make my decision. Death has the final word in any scenario. Dictating how I meet it is my last act of free will.
Rex’s foot has continued depressing the accelerator. We’re humming along at eighty-five miles per hour.
The wheat shines in the moonlight––a translucent amber blur.
I look into Rex’s eyes. I see a flicker of blue color that made me fall in love with him. It aids my decision.
“Goodbye Rex,” I say.
I unbuckle my seatbelt. I grab the steering wheel. I close my eyes and pull it towards me as hard as I can.
Before everything goes black, I feel the truck lift from the ground. I open my eyes. We’re flying over the moonlit wheat field, which––if there were still people to harvest it––would be nearly ready.
The moon fills the cab of the truck.
I close my eyes again. Gravity pulls the truck down to earth.
Ben Spencer lives with his wife and two beloved Boxer dogs in Washington state, where he works as a writer and content strategist for a tech company. Ben is currently at work on his second novel, a young adult horror story and homage to H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.”