Of all the shitass places he could be sick, a hotel in Idaho was last on his list.
Kayce looked around his bedroom for what felt like the millionth time and took inventory of his temporary prison. The walls were taupe, the floors were a beige carpet and the ceiling was a nondescript popcorn ceiling. To his right, a big window opened up to the most beautiful views of Ketchum, Idaho he’d ever seen. That alone was almost enough to make up for his confines.
He loathed the idea of not being able to walk the green prairies or the forests that surrounded the area. He also hated the fact that he wouldn’t be able to visit somewhere that he’s wanted to visit since he retired from his job editing his hometown paper in Dayton. Of course, he wasn’t a fan of the fact that unbeknownst to him before he went on this trip, his room was double booked.
His roommate, Maude Stinger was an older woman that looked like she was attending a bible convention in town. She was an older woman that was half of his size both in height and weight. Her greying hair was maintained regularly and looked as though surfers could ride them until the sunset. Her green eyes could pierce through you as if it was looking for all of your darkest secrets.
She liked to talk about her favorite authors like James Patterson and John Green. She also really really REALLY liked soap operas and the two watched them every day to kill time.
Mostly, they’d watch reruns of All My Children and General Hospital. He was never one for vomiting but whenever he did, he was thankful it was enough to get him out of the bed and away from the T.V.
Getting out of bed became too much of a chore. Maude helped him get up to go to the bathroom and most of the time he got his meals, chicken noodle soup, and jello, from her too. He tried to remember but couldn’t think of a time she wasn’t in the room with him.
Kayce had been planning this trip for months, got it for cheap and now it felt like purgatory. He had wanted to visit the home of Ernest Hemingway for a while now. He grew up reading him and wanted to visit the home of the man who impacted him so much.
When he found out he would be sharing his room he was devastated. In an attempt to cope, he made a trip to the hotel restaurant to grab a bite to eat to cheer him up. After filling up on two burgers, fries, and a milkshake, he made his way to the elevator and that’s when he felt his stomach get smacked with a block of cement. In seconds, it felt like he was dying.
That’s when he met Maude, the woman who had decided to play nurse and watch soap operas with him. At first, he didn’t mind the attention. After the second day of watching soap operas and listening to Maude talk about her favorite writers, he was about ready to leap through the window. It was like this for three days, wake up, soap operas, eat, vomit, sleep. Despite hating the situation he was in, Kayce had started to get used to his routine.
Then something happened.
One day, after lunch Kayce laid staring up at the ceiling while Maude did something in the bathroom. After a few minutes, she came out dressed in Sun clothes and a wicker hat.
“Alright, I think I’m gonna go into town again,” she said.
“Would you like anything?”
“Just to get out of this fucking bed.”
“I think I’m gonna do it.”
“Get up and walk around for a bit.”
“I think that’s a fine idea Kayce.”
“Maybe I’ll go down and grab some solid food.”
“I suggest we hold off on that.”
“We need to take baby steps Kayce.”
“To hell with that.”
“Do you even feel strong enough to sit up?”
“Sort of doesn’t equate to ‘let’s go walk the lobby,’ now does it?”
“Guess not,” he mumbled. He knew this woman for one week and she talked to him like a patient in an insane asylum.
“Neither do I, I,” Maude stuttered. It was something Kayce just noticed.
“Well, like I said I’m going into town. I’ll be gone for a few hours. Let me know if you need anything,” she said.
With that, she turned around and left. Kayce laid there in his sheets, stewing in her “suggestion” of not leaving and let the thought fester. This wasn’t how this vacation was supposed to go and with just a few days left, he was worried it was too late to go sightseeing.
Rolling on his side, he looked out of the window and imagined himself exploring Sun Valley. He could smell the sandwiches and tacos of Bigwood Bread. He could taste the beer made in the Sawtooth Brewery too. Most importantly he could hear the birds chirping as he hiked to Hemingway’s house. He was determined to sample at least some of those things.
“Okay, let’s get the hell out of bed,” Kayce whispered to himself after a few more minutes. Taking deep breaths, he swung his feet to the side of the bed, using the moment to launch his body upright. He wiped a few beads of sweat from his head and continued.
Getting up, he felt light-headed at first, stumbling forward and catching himself on the wall opposite of his bed. Breathing heavy, he straightened back out and looked outside the window to remind himself why he was trying to move around.
He turned to face the bedroom door and after a few more seconds began moving toward it. One by one, he inched his way closer to the dark brown door. Each step was agonizing for Kayce, who felt like he was strapped and blindfolded in a wave pool trying to keep his head above water. Still, he continued, driven to at least set foot outside of the hall. He was okay with not exploring the town today, but if he could reach the hallway, he was beginning his vacation tomorrow.
To hell with Maude and hell with this hotel, he thought.
Once he reached Maude’s bed, Kayce stopped to catch his breath. He examined her side of the room, which barely had a thing out of place. The only thing that smelled of Maude was her single leatherback, neatly tucked in the corner of the room.
He had other bad hotel experiences, like when he tried to visit Nashville with his wife for their 10th anniversary. Wanting to surprise her, he booked a hotel online, thinking it would be nice. Once they got there, they were greeted by stains everywhere in the room. Worst of all, there was no curtain in the bathroom, the toilet didn’t work and for some reason, the toilet paper was wet before they got there.
They left the hotel that night and went home, vacation ruined.
Kayce wasn’t going to let this bug beat him like he let that beat them. No, Kayce was going to visit Hemingway’s home if it was the last thing he ever did. He continued. Step by step, inch by inch, he finally made it.
He reached out to the door handle and tried to open the door. However, instead of the door opening with ease, Kayce stumbled back into the wall. He expected the door to be unlocked, so he swung his weight as if it would. But the damned thing didn’t budge an inch.
Kayce, recovering from his fall reached toward the door again and gripped it. He gave it a jiggle. The door handle moved regularly, twisting with his wrist up and then down and then up again. Figuring it was some mistake, Kayce tried to open the door but it didn’t budge. He tried again, leaning into the door using his weight to open it. He groaned and his face turned red while he attempted to force open the door.
It was no use. It was locked.
“Oh fuck,” his heart dropped into the wave pool. A few more steps and Kacye buried his head into the toilet to vomit. He tried to process what was happening but found it hard to do so.
The door was locked, but it wasn’t locked. When he came into the room, there were no locks on the outside of the door and there’s no way in hell Maude could have installed any while he was asleep. Not only would she have woken him up, but someone from the hotel would’ve noticed. Besides, he didn’t hear a clicking sound when she left earlier.
But how? He thought. How is it possible that the door is locked then?
Kayce sat there, staring at the now empty toilet bowl where he puked. He no longer felt sick but he felt empty and sad. He closed his eyes and dozed off into the black.
His dream was cold and short. Kayce slowly opened his eyes and looked around the room, which was no longer his hotel room. Instead, he was blinded by five bright lights shining down on him and the room was dark grey. Five people walked around him at lightning speed.
What the… …uck is…
…is he…ack to… fe?
He tried to speak but the words kept getting jammed up in his mouth. All he could do was stare as the group of men kept plugging and unplugging things into him.
No.. he …irus is spreading…
Ge…. aude… now.
Suddenly he was awake in his bed. Maude Stinger was sitting next to him, her hand holding a cold washrag over his forehead. Kayce felt like someone had struck him in the head a few times with a baseball bat.
“There he is,” she said.
“Well, I came home and found you on the bathroom floor,” she said. “I think you went to vomit and accidentally passed out and hit your head. You poor thing.”
“Shh shh,” she replied. “Don’t — don’t get up too quickly. You’ll make yourself sick again.”
Tired, Kayce rolled over until it was dinner time, which Maude fed him quietly. After that, they went to bed.
This time Kayce did not dream. Instead, it was like he was floating while he listened to the voice of a woman gently whisper the word Soma into his ears. For eight hours, he floated and listened to the words dance around him.
He woke up the next morning, looking at the popcorn ceiling. Again he could not remember its pattern and again a wave of frustration washed over him. He got up slowly and turned to Maude, who was already up and watching a rerun of General Hospital.
“Maude,” he said.
“Well, good morning sunshine,” she replied. “How are we feeling?”
“What does Soma mean?”
She fell silent and looked at me for a few minutes.
“What do you mean?”
“Soma, it’s a word I heard repeatedly while I slept last night.”
“You didn’t dream?”
“No, it was just that word.”
“Well, I’m not sure-sure,” she stuttered. “Must be something random.”
“I guess so,” he replied.
More silence filled the room.
“I’d like to leave the room today, with your help.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“I don’t think you’re ready.”
“I’m not a child Maude, I’m not some kid for you to boss around.”
“I never said-”
“Then put me in a fucking wheelchair and cart me out of this room.”
“I’m sorry Kayce but I can’t do that,” she said. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m a bit upset and must take a walk.”
She left before Kacye could say anything else.
Sitting up, his eyes darted across the room and locked onto a bland chair hiding in the corner of the room next to the window. He was certain that if he stayed in this room any longer he would go mad. If he wasn’t going to be allowed to leave, he was going to break out.
His plan was simple, throw the chair at the window of the hotel and break it so he could jump out. He was only on the third floor of the hotel and he was certain that because the building was so old, the window could break if he tried hard enough.
He got up slowly, struggling just as much as he did the day before. Taking deep breaths that seemed to only get deeper as he moved, he grabbed the chair and pushed it over to the front door. Making sure he wasn’t already crazy, he reached out and jiggled the door — still locked.
Kayce felt like he was going to throw up. Suddenly a rush of voices came swirling into his head and he hunched over to regain his balance.
…oes he kno….
…how much longer…wipe?
Kayce pushed these thoughts out of his head and straightened up. He squatted down so he could lift the wooden chair above his chest. Grunting as he pushed through his sickness, readied the chair, and again the voices came to him.
…uck… he’s gonna try to…
…the wipe is almost…
Kayce worked up a run and tossed the chair at the window.
The chair bounced off of the glass like it was nothing. Maybe the windows were updated and Kayce was hallucinating. No, he remembered on the first day with Maude, she opened the windows to let air in and he heard the glass creak as it did at his home in Dayton. He knew the sound of old glass.
“Fuck me,” he said, running into the bathroom to puke.
After a few minutes, he returned to the chair, hoisted it, and readied his second attempt.
He puked. Picked up the chair and threw it again.
Kayce could hear the voices swirl around his head. His eyes began to hurt and his ears felt as if they were being held near a blow torch. Breathing wildly and sweating buckets, Kayce decided he would try one more time. Only this time, he wouldn’t use the chair.
…uck, oh fuc…
Kayce walked back to the front door and took one last deep breath. One way or the other, he was going to get out of the room and see Hemingway. Working up a small growl, he worked up a full sprint toward the window and jumped forward.
Kayce hit the floor, dazed. He looked up at the ceiling and this time saw the popcorn pattern swirling around him. After he caught his breath, he looked at the window to admire how surprisingly strong it was. It took him a minute of examining the glass but he saw something unusual about it.
Not the window itself but the scenery outside. He struggled to get up, his muscles screaming for deadlifting a chair and running into a window. It took him a few tries until he was on his feet to examine the window.
The green prairie outside was… glitching.
It was hard to explain but the grass and the flowers and the clouds all looked like it was stuck in a loop. They fluttered every ten seconds and very quickly. Kayce fell to his bed, he couldn’t understand what was happening to him.
“I think we need to talk,” Maude said, standing behind him. Kayce jumped in fright.
“What the fuck is going on?”
“I think you know,” she replied.
“Soma, Kayce,” she said. “You’re in Soma, an artificial paradise we created for you once you were ready.”
“I’m dead and this is Heaven?”
“Something like that.”
“What a load of shit.”
“Beg your pardon?”
“Who in god’s name would consider this heaven? I’ve been bedridden all week and I‘m in Idaho.”
“Well, yes we thought it was weird you chose Idaho too.”
“What? I chose this?”
“Yes, this is a digital program designed to let your consciousness live on. It all feels real but it isn’t.”
“Wait, if none of this is real, why am I so sick?”
“That’s our fault. It seems that when we were uploading your data, someone installed malware into the processor storing you.”
“No fucking way.”
“I’m afraid so. The good news is, we’re almost finished debugging you.”
Another silence filled the room.
“How did I die?”
“I’m afraid I can’t tell you.”
“I’m not programmed to. Besides, I don’t think you’d want to hear it.”
Kayce turned toward the window and Maude joined him.
“Will I remember any of this?”
“Thankfully, no. As soon as you leave this room, you’ll forget all about Soma and that none of this is real.”
“It’ll be like I’m still alive?”
“In a sense. Technically you’re a list of numbers being constantly run through a processor 300 feet below ground.”
“I’m gonna go with yes. I’m still alive.”
“Fair enough,” Maude said laughing.
The two watched as the same flock of birds glitched and flew across the prairie outside of the window.
“This is where Hemingway died, you know.”
“Of course I do Kayce,” she said. “This is where you picked to come, remember?”
“Right…program. Say, when is it ready?”
“Should be soon,” Maude checked her watch. “Okay, you’re ready.”
The two stood up, Kayce felt a million times lighter and he no longer needed to throw up. They walked to the front door and Maude gently pushed it open, they were greeted by a wave of shimmering light.
“Welcome to Soma, please enjoy your stay,” Maude said before Kayce exited the room, forgetting he was ever sick in the first place.