Empty Bargains [Jason McCann]

"I have nothing else to offer you," Markus barked through gritted teeth, his fists clenched hard at his sides.

Jason shook his head, chuckling. "I only want one thing, and it's in this room," he sneered.

My brother took a step closer to me, trying to push me toward the door. Jason's eyes flashed over and caught mine, a glint in his eye while a shiver went down my spine.

"What do you want?" Markus asked, impatient.

Jason's head nodded in my direction. I froze and the room fell deafeningly silent.

"I want her."


14. ~9.19~

    I sat awake for a long time, going back and forth between reaming and defending myself for what I’d done.  Part of me knew I’d been completely out of bounds in terms of my relationship with Tyler; the other part — as small as it was — was arguing that if Tyler cared as much about me as he said he did, I’d have been out of here by now and it wouldn’t have happened.  It was poor reasoning, seeing as Tyler wouldn’t have stayed with me for almost two years if he didn’t, but I clung to the explanation as if it were the only one.


    I changed out of the blue dress and slipped off the heels, exchanging them for a pair of my own sweats, hoodie, and socks.  When I walked back to the bed I saw the wrinkles in the sheets where I’d more or less just cheated on Tyler.  A stab of guilt hit me and I kneeled in the middle of the spot, getting rid of the mark as a question hit me.  Was it really cheating if I didn’t have feelings for Jason?


    Trying to push the thought from my mind, I curled up against the headboard and pulled the duvet over my head.  It was hard to forget what had happened when my entire body was still tingling from Jason’s touch, especially where he’d placed the last kiss to my jaw.  He’d stopped when I told him to, but I didn’t know whether the last touch was for me or for him.  My stomach knotted thinking about it either way.


    Taking a deep breath, I closed my eyes and counted down slowly from one hundred.  I always did this when I was nonplussed — it cleared my head and slowed down my mental processing.  When I reached eighty, all I could focus on was how worn out I actually was.  By sixty I was fighting unconsciousness.  I didn’t hear Jason come back into the room, and I never reached forty.






    I woke up around one o’clock in the afternoon.  Light was streaming in through a break in the dark curtains covering the windows, casting warm rays across my feet.  Sucking in a deep breath, I stretched out my body and scrunched my eyes closed.  Tiredness still weighed down my eyelids, but I didn’t think I could fall back asleep.


    Suddenly, a sick feeling of angst dropped in my stomach.  My eyes peeked down at the end of the bed, expecting to see Jason on the air mattress, but he wasn’t.  I bit my lip and sat up, noticing the blankets on the small mattress were tossed aside.  He must’ve gotten up already.


    The nervousness I felt was a kind that hadn’t hit me in a long time; the first oddity being that it was actual nervousness.  It didn’t happen very often, since I didn’t have anything to be nervous about.  But this kind, I realized, was how I’d felt after my first kiss with Tyler.


    I quickly shook the thoughts off, counting it as something that came around every time I kissed a new person.  Maybe it was guilt, and not even nerves.  After all, I had a lot to be guilty about.


    Slipping out of bed, I padded into the bathroom and went through my morning routine; washing my face, brushing my teeth, and staring into the mirror until I realized how irritated I actually was about being stuck in Jason’s house.  I couldn’t seem to stop thinking that I wouldn’t be here if Tyler were trying harder to get me out.  My thinking wasn’t entirely justified, but I wasn’t necessarily wrong.


     A knock on the door made me jump.  I backed away from the sink and hesitated, staring at the door while fumbling with a string on my sweatpants.  It was obviously Jason, and I wasn’t afraid of him, but for some reason I was afraid to open the door.  Maybe I was scared of what he would say, or how he would treat me after last night.  Of course, I shouldn’t really have cared how he had treated me.  Yet still, the sick feeling was back in my stomach.


    “Phoebe?” Jason’s voice traveled through the door.  “I left my shoes in there and I need them.”


    I bit down hard on my lip, then gave a quick, “Okay.”


    I spotted a cross between a pair of work boots and high tops next to the door and scooped them up.  My hand reached for the knob and hovered over it for a second longer than needed before turning the handle.  Slowly, trying to avoid eye contact with Jason, I held his shoes out and leaned against the doorframe.  The weight of his shoes left my grasp, but he didn’t leave right after.  I cursed myself, then looked up to see his expression.


    He wasn’t looking at me the way he had last night — that part I knew for sure.  I couldn’t quite read him, and that frustrated me.  No emotion played across his face like I was sure it did on mine.  My fists clenched subtly at my sides.  Indifference was written all over him.


    “You’re welcome,” I said quickly, not trying to hide the hostility in my tone.  My hand pushed the door closed not half a second later, and I leaned against it, waiting to hear him leave.


    I didn’t hear his footsteps trail away for at least a full five seconds.  When I figured he’d finally left his bedroom, I pushed my palms into my eye sockets and sucked in a deep breath.  As I let it out, I tried to heave out all my pent up emotion with it.  The problem was that I didn’t know what emotion I was trying to force out of my system.


    Indifference?  Is that really what he felt about what happened last night?  Here I was, stressing about betraying Tyler — with Jason McCann of all people — and trying to justify what I’d felt with Jason, and Jason hardly batted an eye at me.  I shoved myself away from the wall and sauntered up to the sink, watching my eyes carefully in the mirror’s reflection.


    You didn’t feel anything with Jason, I told myself.  You were lonely and had a lapse in judgment.  A blind moment.  He feels nothing for you, and likewise.


    I hated the feeling in my gut that resembled intense muscle cramping as I ran the words through my head.  I knew they were true, inside and out.  But why didn’t I act as if I did?


    My eyes were tired, more so than they’d been even when I’d slept on the floor of the basement.  I could feel a headache stemming at my nose and reached up the pinch the brim, squeezing my eyes shut.  Suddenly, I felt too closed in.  I needed air, and I needed it now.


    My feet carried me away from the sink and out the bathroom door, not pausing to look if Jason was still there.  I knew Jason didn’t have a window that opened in his room, but that didn’t say anything about the others.  My gaze traveled up and down the hall in search for an open door.  I spotted one at the end — Leo’s room.  Immediately my feet carried me there.


    I realized my heart rate had raised, a result of my sudden case of claustrophobia.  My hands wrung in front of my torso as I slipped through Leo’s door.  The room seemed brighter than Jason’s, though the window was nowhere near as large.  The curtains against it were an off-white, as were the sheets on the double bed.


    Sure enough, I could see that the window opened.  I all but dove for it, fumbling with the latch and pushing the slide open.  Warm air hit my face and I nearly gulped it down as the sound of cars in the distance filled my ears.  I saw the sun was nearly at its peak, shining down on the dark asphalt.  After nearly two weeks inside, it felt strange to have fresh air fill my lungs.


    Footsteps thundered up the staircase, making me jump.  I turned to face the door as both Jason and Leo flung themselves into the room.  I looked at them, confused, as I tried to read their expressions.  Leo looked flustered, and I couldn’t tell if Jason was angry or distraught.


    “What the hell?” Jason barked, trying to decided whether to look at me with confusion or irritation.


    “I should be asking you that,” I said defensively, crossing my arms.


    “Why is the window open?  What were you trying to do?”  He kept throwing questions without leaving room for me to answer.


    “First of all,” I held up a finger.  “How did you even know I opened the window?”


    “The alarm in the basement went off,” Leo explained carefully, glancing at Jason.  “It’s always armed, so if something opens, we know about it.”


    “So what were you doing?” Jason demanded, taking a step toward me.


    My teeth ground together, filling with aggravation as he showed no patience.  “I wanted to breathe some real air for a change,” I shot at him.  “I’ve been locked up in this goddamn place for almost two weeks.  Can you blame me for wanting air that isn’t polluted with the smell of boys?”


    Jason shook his head angrily.  “Stop bull-shitting me, Lastings.”


    “I’m not bull-shitting you!” I shouted suddenly, surprising even myself.  My volume caught me off guard — most likely a product of all the events of last night and this morning — but I wasn’t about to back down.  “I’m three stories up on this side with no ledges to grip.  If I were planning a drop out of here, I’d have to be willing to break a leg at the bottom.  Kicking the screen out would create a hell of a lot more noise than I’d want during a break-out, too.  The fact that you assumed I was that dumb shows just how dense you are!”


    Jason’s expression darkened, and I thought for a second he was going to say something, but he didn’t.  Instead, he began briskly walking toward me.  I forced myself not to flinch as he brushed past and slammed the window shut.  The latch clicked deafeningly, and Jason nudged my shoulder as he headed back for the door.


    “Stay away from the damn windows,” he snapped as he walked out.


    I watched the door where he had been, glaring at it.  Leo shifted uncomfortably, no doubt thinking my expression was meant for him.


    “I’d do the same thing you did,” he told me, rubbing the back of his neck.  “I don’t know what I’d do if I were trapped in the same place for as long as you’ve been.”


    My gaze softened as my eyes fell to his face.  In no way was I any less angry at Jason; I just couldn’t get mad at Leo.  I sighed, walking away from the window and to the door.


    “I just don’t get it,” I said.


    He rose an eyebrow at me.  “What don’t you get?”


    I shrugged, trying not to let me temper flare again.  Having to pause and take a breath, I then said, “Why me?  What do I have to do with any of this, other than taking from him that night — mind you, along with everyone else I live with.  Is he trying to screw with Sam?  With Tyler?  With me?  Because if that’s the case, he’s succeeded on all counts.”


    Leo’s shoulders rose and fell, telling me he was just as lost as I was.  Another frustrated sigh left my lips and I rubbed my temples.


    “He acts like I’m an insanely annoying burden,” I continued.  “Don’t get me wrong; I try to make it feel like that.  But if I’m such a pain-in-the-ass, why keep me around?”


    He shifted from foot to foot, glancing at my face before his eyes dropped to the ground.  “You know too much about the house, for one,” he said.  “You know almost exactly how it’s laid out and what’s where.”


    My forehead creased in a frown.  “He just had a party here last night,” I countered.  “Anyone could’ve walked around and documented this place from top to bottom.”


    “Your group is our biggest threat,” Leo told me, as if I didn’t already know.  “Anyone else, we can fight them off easy — hell, we can make it look like they never existed.”


    His words sent a chill down my spine, but I suppressed it.  Leo was right, in a sense.


    “But you’re all different,” he continued.  “You know how to fend for yourselves better than anyone in the area right now.  You do especially well for not using guns, too.  Actually, we were all surprised when we found one in your duffel.  If there had been just one or two of us, I don’t doubt that you’d have been able to slip away and grab it.”


    I nodded absent-mindedly.  The way Jason had thought all of this through didn’t make sense.  How long had he planned to keep me here in the first place?  A month?  Two?  He couldn’t have been thinking a year — right?


    “This is all just ridiculous,” I mumbled, turning to leave.  “Complete bullshit.”


    “If it’s any consolation,” Leo called after me.  “I’d let you out, if it were up to me.”


    I smiled slightly.  “Too bad it’s not,” I said over my shoulder.






    The rest of the day had gone on like normal — “normal” meaning making dinner for whatever guys were in the house at the time, and kicking back in my bean bag for the remainder of the day.  The only thing missing was Jason’s presence.  He’d been out since he’d lost his head over the window, and still wasn’t back when I headed upstairs around eleven.


    I had gone up and changed into different sweatpants and a sweatshirt earlier than normal, intending to get a little more sleep than I had in the past few days.  The constant feeling of tiredness I had was beginning to get annoying.  Plus, I was a little bitter that my bed at home wasn’t nearly as comfortable as Jason’s, but it was something I didn’t want to admit.


    I was lying on my side, staring out the windowed wall with the lights off when I heard the door open.  Knowing it was Jason without having to turn around, I stayed facing away from him as I felt a small amount of anger from earlier creep into my body.  I knew deep — really deep — down that I’d overreacted to Jason’s overreaction, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t still upset; really, I was upset about everything that had happened since last night, but I wasn’t willing to admit that either.


    I heard Jason’s shoes thump against the floor as he kicked them off, then heard him shuffle into his closet.  He came out a few minutes later.  I didn’t have to look to know he wore loose-fitting athletic shorts without a shirt adorning his torso.  He went through the same routine every night.  His feet lead him to the bathroom, where he brushed his teeth and washed his face, then came out and headed toward the mattress on the floor.


    But it wasn’t the air mattress he’d set his course for.  It was the one I was curled up on, with the sheets pulled up under my armpit.  The corner sank as Jason sat on it, catching me off guard.  I still couldn’t see him, but I could feel his eyes on me.  I waited for him to say something, but nothing came from his mouth.  A few seconds passed and his gaze pushed me to words.


    “What am I to you?” I asked quietly.


    I could’ve shot myself right then and there.


    “Am I just a toy?” I clarified quickly, trying to ebb the churning feeling in my stomach.  “Something to use to get to Sam?  Or is it Tyler?  Me, even?  Because if that’s it, I can assure you, you’ve done it.”


    My eyes shut tight after I finished.  Stupid, the voice at the back of my head said.  What kind of question was that?  What am I to you?  Are you insane?  What is he to you that you even care?


    A long silence from Jason met my ears, and the stirring in my stomach increased.  What was going on with me?  Why, when put in this situation, was I nervous as to what he might say or do?  What should it matter?


    “What are you talking about?” Jason finally asked.


    My jaw almost dropped.  How dense was he?


    I sat up, staring not at him, but straight ahead.  “You’re shitting me, right?”  I paused only a beat.  “I’m talking about all of this — why I’m here, why I’m in your room, why you’re not being as rude as I am.”  I swallowed.  “Last night.  After all that, what would it matter if I climbed out a window and you never saw me again?”


    “If this is about the window,” he said, “then you’ve got some issues.”  He didn’t try to keep the sarcastic tone out of his voice.


    “It’s hard not to think about things when all I do is sit around on my ass all day,” I snapped.  “Thanks to you and your ego.  ‘You’ve got issues’,” I mocked.  “Kiss my ass, Jason.  You are my issue.”


    He paused again, something I wasn’t expecting.  I knew him as one to fire back without shame in his words, but nothing about this conversation was really showing that aspect.


    “What was last night to you?” he asked slowly.


    The question blindsided me.  Out of all I’d said, he’d pulled that one thing out?  After acting completely indifferent this morning, he decided now was the time to actually care?  I couldn’t stop my temper from flaring.  He’d blown me off, then chewed me out for a goddamn window.


    “A lapse in judgement,” I said harshly.  “I’d had a few drinks, and for all I knew, you were some random guy.”  We both knew I was lying, but that didn’t stop me.  I had a boyfriend and, intoxicated or not, wouldn’t have kissed someone other than Tyler.


    Jason’s nostrils flared.  “You seemed pretty sure of who I was.  Need I remind you, you chased a girl away just for the chance of sitting on my lap.”


    I felt my cheeks flush.  “It’s called trying to get under your skin,” I admitted.  I wasn’t going to let him sit there and throw things at me.  “It meant nothing.  Nothing.


    The corners of his mouth twitched up.  “Who are you trying to convince?”


    I let my mouth hang open.  “You narcissistic asshole!” I shouted, taking the pillow from behind me and throwing it at him as hard as I could.  He caught it easily, and I could tell he was fighting a smile.  “Do you honestly think you could mean more to me than an insect burnt to a crisp on the sidewalk in the middle of summer!?”  My pulse was raised noticeably, along with my temper.  I’d never known anyone who made my blood boil like Jason could.


    “How long did you have to think about that bug comparison?”  A smirk slid onto his face.


    How could he take this so lightly?  I was over here trying to hold my temper in, while he was sitting and mocking me.  It was infuriating, and anger began to blind me.  My jaw clenched as I shot up, right there on the bed, and lunged for him.


    A few years ago I had my first fighting lesson with Sam.  He’d already come out of his awkward growing stage and had started training in an actual gym, so by comparison I was significantly smaller in muscle mass.  Needless to say I was a little intimidated, but I already knew the first thing about fighting — no matter your opponent, don’t show your nerves.


    The second thing, I learned quickly as we jumped right in, was to take your time and find a weak point.  Sam kept his distance as I kind of danced around, not knowing quite what to do.  And a few seconds later, he lashed out a kick to the side of my knee and I was down in less than a second.  As I glared up at him, laughing at me like I was a toddler, he held out a hand for me to grab.  I reached out for it, but instead of pulling myself up, I twisted his arm so roughly he let out a yelp and dove at me to try to coax my hands to let go.


    “Never underestimate me,” I told him, laughing just as he had laughed at me.  “Your kindness could be my advantage.”


    He turned suddenly somber, nodding slightly.  “It’s too bad most people in this world won’t help you up when you’re down.  Your one shot is while you’re still standing, because when you’re down I can almost guarantee you no one aside from me will think twice about going in for the kill.”


    The thought had chilled me, and we stood up together.  I held my fists up just as Sam had shown me and set a determined look on my face.


    “Then teach me how to stay up,” I said.  “Teach me to be rational in a fight, and teach me how to keep going.”


    My hands had been aiming for Jason’s throat, but he caught them easily.  I didn’t know what I’d been thinking when I’d thrown myself across the bed — I hadn’t really been thinking.  It went against everything Sam had taught me, starting with keeping a cool head.  What it was about Jason that blinded me this way, I didn’t know.  All I knew was that my wrists were now grasped tightly in his hold, and I was at his mercy.


    The look in Jason’s eyes as I struggled wildly against his hold sent a shiver up my spine.  If there was one thing I should’ve known Jason trained relentlessly at, it was hand to hand combat.  My attempt at knocking him down hardly qualified as fighting, but everything else Sam had engraved into my brain kicked in at that point.


    I tried twisting out of his grasp, but the most I succeeded in doing was moving his hands an inch or two.  The rest of my body was in the worst position to start throwing kicks, seeing as when I’d dove at him I hadn’t planned on being caught.  I did the best I could to at least raise to my knees, but by that time Jason’s hold on me had tightened and getting out wasn’t really an option.


    “Phoebe,” he said quietly, but his tone was everything but soft.  He sounded firm, and that was putting it lightly.


    I reluctantly stopped struggling, my teeth clenched as his hold on me stayed tight.  My pride was getting the best of me as I refused looking Jason in the eye.  I held my gaze on the window, dark from the setting of the sun a few hours ago.  The only noise was the sound of my heightened breathing.  A long silence passed as I felt my breaths begin to even out, though my pulse was still firing.


    “Phoebe,” Jason said again.


    The way my name fell out of his mouth caused my eyes to flash to his.  It held a certain capacity, like a whole sentence was held in that one word.  As our gazes met, another chill ran down my spine.  His eyes were hard, knowing.  How he could know anything about what I was thinking was beyond me.  Up to this point, my actions had really just been a distraction — an avoidance method.  If Jason was avoiding what happened last night, then why shouldn’t I?


    “You’re fuming over a window,” Jason said.  “You’ve been fine here — angry, sure, but not enough to try to attack me.”  The corner of his mouth twitched.


    “Stop treating me like I’m five,” I snapped, narrowing my eyes.  “You’re acting like I don’t have a reason to be angry.”


    “I know you’re pissed,” he said, brushing me off.  “But after the show you were putting on, what brought you back to this?”


    I scoffed.  “You’re every bit the douche everyone says you are.  You treat people like a burden after you get what you want from them.”


    His face turned stony.  “If you think I’m acting like you’re a burden, then what did I get from you?”


    I should’ve been further aggravated, but I only found my cheeks going red.  “You really need to ask that question?  Are you really going to ignore what happened last night?”


    The corners of Jason’s mouth flicked upward, but only slightly.  “I thought that’s what you would want, after stopping — to ignore that it even happened.”


    “Since when have you cared what I want?” I fired back, though I felt the churning begin in my stomach again.  I tried to convince myself that Jason was only saying these things, but the expression on his face didn’t even hint that he was lying.


    “Do you want to ignore it?” he asked, dodging my question.  His gaze flashed to my mouth and lingered there, sending a third chill through me.


    Did I?  What did it say about me that’d I’d gotten offended by his seeming indifference?  I’d been trying to convince myself all day that it didn’t matter, and that was who Jason is, masking the cramp-like feeling in my gut.  But what did that mean?  Everything I’d felt since our kiss last night had confused me, and even talking to Jason wasn’t helping.  The feeling I’d gotten when our lips met wasn’t like anything I’d ever felt before and — staring at Jason, I now realized — I’d been avoiding that just as much as Jason had been ignoring me.


    “I don’t…” I trailed off, glancing toward the window again.  I had been about to say “I don’t know”, but I did know that I hadn’t stopped thinking about it.  It wasn’t that I didn’t want to ignore our heated kiss the night before; it was that I couldn’t ignore it.


    “No,” I said, my eyes sliding back over to Jason.  My stare fell to his mouth as he licked his lips, then back to the hazel gaze watching me.  “I don’t.”


    A small, confused smile glanced his features.  “What are we supposed to do?” he chuckled lightly.  “Talk about it?”


    He wasn’t serious about it, but I was.  This was happening with Jason McCann, my brother’s sworn enemy since he was fourteen.  I’d given Jason a sure answer, and if I were truly going to stay with that, I had to be one hundred percent sure.  Granted, it was just a kiss, but the way it felt made it seem like so much more.


    Something in his expression changed as I felt a change in mine.  Suddenly we were both serious, and Jason’s grip on my wrists let up.  He was glancing between my eyes and my mouth, assessing me.


    This was where I had to make my choice.  It felt so heavy.  I didn’t know what would happen if I kissed Jason again.  On the flip side, I didn’t really know what would happen if I didn’t.  Would we just go back to what it was before?  Civil on the surface, but snapping at each other every other chance we got?  I know I had only been acting kind, but had Jason?  He wouldn’t have bought me hundreds of dollars worth of clothing, put off the guy at his party, or given me his bed just to screw with me.


    I realized this was the same train of thought that had lead me to kissing Jason last night.  It was doing a great deal to push me toward him again, something I’d been fighting.  But if I had to try that hard to ignore it, was it really right to be avoiding him?


    My decision was made in the next few seconds.


    Pushing aside everything that was telling me not to, I leaned into Jason and pressed my mouth to his.

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