It was telling that the van parked in front of the house was not what caught Amanda's eyes at first. It was the visage of John slumped in the passenger seat, face bloodied, that immediately jumped to her attention and jolted her inside.
"Oh god… " Amanda muttered, running to the van.
She opened the passenger door instinctively, just a moment before she realized there was really nothing she could do from that angle. "I'll… see what's in the back," she said quickly. John nodded, silent except for the heavy sound of his breath.
Amanda shut the passenger door and took two leaping steps to the side, reaching for the sliding door as she did so. Pulling it open, the moonlight illuminated the inside to reveal piles of junk. All sorts of odds and ends were strewn throughout the back, which was missing any seats it may have once held. The van was John's, something he used to get himself back and forth from the sites of his latest "games." When he first set it up, the back of the van held an organized collection of components that he could use to piece together some new machine on a moment's notice. Now, having apparently been driven at top-speed around numerous hairpin curves by Detective Matthews, everything that had once been lined up neatly on the shelves was lying on the floor.
Amanda tossed an empty plastic pail to the side with one hand while shoving some kind of rusted machine-that-does-god-knows-what over with a crash. She shuffled her hands aimlessly through the junk, hoping to find something that could help her with John's wounds.
"We can't stay here," John muttered. Amanda barely noticed.
Finally, her left hand hit something soft. Reaching into the clutter, she pulled out… a red hand towel. One side was smudged with oil stains. The other was dusty, but reasonably clean. She shook her head, but knew it would have to do.
Slamming the sliding door shut, she ran around to the driver's side and opened the door, jumping into the seat and closing it quickly behind her.
"All right, let me see," she said. She was immediately struck by how she was talking to this man, a man who was like a father to her, as though he were a child. If he appreciated the irony, he showed no sign of acknowledging it. He simply complied, turning his head towards her.
She worked quickly, but gently, on wiping the blood away from his face. It was really all she could do, given where they were. At least it would keep them from looking too conspicuous.
She shook her head again as she dabbed the blood away from beneath his nose, frustrated. "We need to get you to a hospital," she said unthinkingly. John actually managed a grin at that, and she actually stifled a small chuckle in spite of herself. Yeah, a hospital — good one, genius.
"What we need," John said, his face suddenly turning serious, "is to leave this place. Now." He nodded expectantly towards the ignition.
Amanda nodded her understanding and dropped the towel into his lap. Reaching down, she fished into her pocket for the keys she had nabbed off of Matthews while he was unconscious. She whipped them out quickly and rifled through them haphazardly, unsure of what she was looking for.
"Black plastic diamond," John said softly. She froze and looked at the key ring in her hand, holding it still. Sure enough, one key had a top that was made of black plastic molded into the shape of a diamond. That was John. Always organized. Sure, he was bleeding from his nose and mouth — but he was organized.
She slammed the key into the ignition and turned it. The engine grumbled to life, and she put the van into reverse with one hand while flipping on the headlights with the other.
The van's smooth pull into the street did nothing to betray the urgency she was feeling. To an outside observer, they could be a suburban family on their way to an early morning mass. Yet although Amanda deftly put the vehicle back into gear and drove down the road at a gradual pace, her nerves were fighting her every step of the way.
This was not lost on John. It seemed like nothing ever was.
"Something troubling you, child?" he said, dabbing the towel weakly at some blood lingering at the corner of his mouth.
Amanda shook her head. "I just didn't expect Matthews to work you over so badly. Do you think anything's broken?"
John shrugged. "Broken bones are a minor hindrance to a man with a death sentence." He looked sideways at her. Amanda kept her eyes firmly on the road, pointedly refusing to return the look. "But there's something else."
Amanda heaved a loud, long breath as she took a turn at a stop sign. "I just… I never…"
"…killed anyone before?" John finished, letting the words hang between them. "Child, you know as well as I do that we do not kill. The players in the game have control of their own destinies. I thought you understood that. Unless you're having a change of heart-"
"Yes," Amanda interjected suddenly. "I mean, no," she said, shaking her head. "I mean… I understand that, and it's not about Matthews. Matthews destroyed the lives of… he destroyed all of those people's lives."
John noticed the tone in her voice and eyed her skeptically in return. She thought she saw a hint of something… judgmental in his eyes. The same sort of look he got as he watched everyone else, all the people who he said didn't fully appreciate the measure of their lives. "Yes, I see," he said evenly. "It's not about him. It's about them."
Amanda said nothing. John didn't continue. But he did keep staring at her, and even with her eyes on the road, she could feel it. A long, quiet moment passed.
And then, finally, she blinked, both inwardly and outwardly. "When you came for the kid… we didn't get a chance to discuss… yesterday's events," she began.
John nodded once. "There was a timetable to consider."
Amanda nodded in return, still not looking at him. "I know," she said. "But it was… hard."
John didn't move. "I see. And what made it so hard?"
Amanda opened her mouth, but said nothing. She felt herself choking a little. No. No. She was going to make people realize what life was worth. She was going to enforce John's work. She couldn't afford to be weak like this. She had lived through too much not to be strong. She swallowed hard.
"You knew going into this what you were facing," John continued. "You knew you were facing the possibility of death. You knew that you were charged with keeping the detective's son alive. That was part of the detective's game. All of which was your idea."
"Putting those people into that house together was not my idea," she said finally, firmly.
"You feel I acted… irrationally?" John questioned. She finally glanced over at him. There was a glint of something in his eyes that she didn't like.
"Their lives… were destroyed by Matthews," she began, holding her gaze on him. John shook his head before she could get any further, though.
"No," he said firmly. "They destroyed their own lives. What about you? Do you blame your drug addictions on Matthews, or do you take responsibility for your own failures? What happened to them — and to you — was an injustice. But they had control over how they dealt with that, just as you did. Their individual decisions led them down the wrong paths. They failed to appreciate what they could have had. What they continued to have. They failed to appreciate that, even in the body of someone wrongfully accused and imprisoned, there beats the spark of life. And that is true freedom. Never forget that a man who lives in a cage is still a man who lives."
Amanda turned her eyes back to the road, pulling onto a freeway ramp. She sat silently for a few beats before adding "They don't live anymore." Her voice wavered as she said it, betraying her emotions.
John looked a little surprised. Or at least surprised as he ever could. "And as I said," he explained, "they had control of their own destinies. We do not kill."
Amanda shook her head vehemently. "No, we did. We killed. We killed them the moment we put them in there with Xavier," she said. She turned her face towards John, looking him in the eyes. She could see that he was looking at her disdainfully, and for once, for this moment, she refused to care. She could feel her own eyes blazing back at him. "Any one of them on their own had the potential to survive. We put them into a house with a maniac and told them to deal with it,"
"And by we," John said, a twisted little smile tugged at the corners of his mouth, "you mean me."
Amanda felt the indignation drain out of her again. This was the man who had taken her in when no one else would. This man had cared for her, been her teacher. Her father. She couldn't throw that back in his face. She owed him too much. She sighed. Her face fell and guilt washed over her. He deserved better than that.
And finally, she cracked. Her voice was soft and calm when she spoke again. "I've never seen a dead body before."
The harsh edge to John's gaze seemed to flicker away. He looked serious, thoughtful — but no longer judgmental. She looked over at him and continued: "I watched Obi burn. Laura sputter out and die. I saw Jonas with his head cracked open. I helped Matthews' son slice open Xavier's throat."
She stared back at the windshield. "They were people, John."
"Of course they were," he answered. "That's the problem, remember? That these people, like so many others, are taking up space in this world. Draining us of resources and contributing nothing to humanity. They fail the tests we put before them because they fail as human beings."
"Did you watch the video?" Amanda asked suddenly.
John nodded slowly. "Yes, I saw the feed."
"Then you know what I'm talking about. Jonas kept a cool head… and Xavier killed him. Addison tried to think about what was going on, and she wound up too sick to even think straight. In a different situation… "
"You relate to them," John interrupted.
Amanda sighed and nodded. "I got fucked by Matthews. They all got fucked by Matthews." Her tone was matter-of-fact. "I made mistakes with my life, and they made mistakes with theirs."
John's head moved up a little while his eyes held firm. She'd seen the look before. He was putting something together. "So in essence, watching them die forced you to question your own right to live. That's why you're questioning the game, and that's why you're questioning me."
Amanda kept her face forward, but she nodded just a little. Enough to confirm that John had hit the nail on the head.
He continued: "Do you really believe they might have lived had the game been changed?"
"Possibly," she said immediately.
"And what if they had each been given the game that you had?" John continued.
Amanda checked the side mirror as she responded. "Addison would've lived. Jonas would've done it for his family. I don't know about Laura. Maybe Obi."
"You're sure?" John said, skepticism rising in his voice.
Amanda turned her head back towards him. There was no indignation this time, no anger. She just said, truthfully, "I'm pretty sure."
"Then it sounds to me like you are questioning your new role," John answered simply. There was nothing in his look that gave any hint of what he felt or thought about that idea.
"Matthews deserved what he got," Amanda answered. At this, no hint of doubt escaped her lips.
"And do you remember the passion in your voice, the fire you felt as you recorded the last words he would ever hear?" John asked. "I do. I remember you embracing your life, embracing your destiny. You have the potential to live a life worth remembering. You tasted immortality tonight, Amanda."
John leaned back, settling into his seat as comfortably as his bruised and battered body would allow him. He turned his eyes back towards the road. "I guess you have to decide," he finished, "how that tasted to you."
Amanda turned the wheel, changing lanes. She didn't bother to hit her turn signal. She didn't really know where they were going. Hell, she didn't know where she was going. What seemed so clear just 24 hours ago was now all a jumble. Did she want to continue John's work? Could she? Did she just want revenge on Matthews? Is that all the petty desire she could muster? Would she reject the opportunity to be immortal?
She set her jaw firmly and decided, for now, just to focus on the road in front of her.