She woke with a start, gasping for air as if emerging from a long trip underwater. Everything was all wrong, this much was immediately clear. Her body felt heavy and was overcome by a vague, all encompassing ache. Her chest was too tight to take in a full breath. Most concerning of all; she could not recognize the room she suddenly found herself in.
She felt around for something familiar, some sort of anchor, but she could not find one. Just the familiar jingle of the heart-shaped locket she wore on a bracelet around her right wrist, a gift from her grandmother. She was in near complete darkness- save for the soft light coming from a large clock which was counting down from twenty minutes in flashing red numbers. It sat on a small table next to a book of matches and a candle. Groggily, she lit a match and ignited the flame. Once her immediate surroundings were finally made clear she let out a desperate scream. Bound to her chest by a painfully tight vest were three large, red explosive containers.
Frantically, she looked at the vest then back at the clock. Panic began to set in. She pulled and pulled at the vest until the skin on her palms began to peel and bleed. The vest, however, remained intact.
“Maria!” a familiar voice called suddenly from somewhere indiscernible. “Maria, sweetheart, you need the key!”
It was her mother’s voice, muffled as if coming through a fog, but her mother’s voice nonetheless. She couldn’t make out if it was real, or if she had begun to imagine things, perhaps imagined this entire scene.
“You need the key!” the voice said again.
“Where are you?”
“There’s no time,” her Mother said. “We’re playing his game now. But we’re all here and we can all see you. Look up.”
She lifted the candle towards the ceiling to find a small camera lens. The voice was real!
“Listen carefully,” her mother went on. “The vest is held together by a lock by your lower back. We need to find the key to it, and quickly. You don’t have much time left.”
Maria glanced at the clock. It now read fifteen minutes.
“You need to search the room,” a different voice was speaking this time. Her fiance, Andrew.
“Look around the room,” he went on. “He said there are keys hidden throughout the room, one of them will undo the vest.”
“He? Who is he? Who is doing this?”
“There’s no time for that,” her mother spoke this time. “Find the keys. Hurry!”
And so, quite clumsily, Maria began a frantic search underneath the bed, behind the table and on her person. In the end she found three small keys; one silver, one metal and one bronze.
“Which one is it?” Maria asked.
“You have to pick one,” her mother explained. “But be careful.”
“Because one of those keys undoes the vest…”
“...And the other one will detonate it.”
Maria froze, her eyes fixating on the three keys. She glanced at the clock again. Five minutes left.
“What do I do?” she said, more to herself than anyone else. “What do I do? Which one do I pick?”
“Pick the metal one," Andrew suggested.
“No, pick the bronze one!” her mother said.
“Forget that,” a new voice entered the scene. Her father’s. “The silver is clearly the one…”
“I think it’s the bronze one,” A new voice entered.
“Personally, I would choose metal…”
One by one, new but recognizable voices would enter the scene. Voices she recognized from work. Voices she recognized from church, from the store down the street and from the coffee shop. Neighbor’s voices and teacher’s voices and the voice of her childhood friend. Voices she respected and others not so much. All the voices came together and crescendoed to a deafening tumult - an uproar so loud it may as well have been silence.
Maria looked at the clock, now counting down from thirty-six seconds. thirty-five, thirty-four…
Of all the opinions, she decided she trusted her mother’s the most. She grabbed the bronze key and felt around her lower back for the lock that bound the vest to her chest. She found it, then inserted the key. Ignoring the voices above her still arguing, she closed her eyes and turned the key.
Everything went to black.
Later, the crew tasked with dragging what was left of Maria out of the room searched and searched for evidence, proof, signs, anything to make sense of what had taken place. One of them noticed something shining in the rubble on the ground, like a sprinkle of glitter on a grey cloud. They bent down to unearth the object and found the locket that was around the victim’s wrist, rattling as if something heavy and weighty was hidden inside. He opened it and out fell a sparkling gold key, new and somehow untouched by the destruction.
What a tragedy, he thought, that she had been wearing the key all along.