Professor Sandra Suarez opened a file folder and put her elbows on her desk. "Your academic record is exceptional, Rebecca. You're a good candidate for the Amnesty program. You understand that this is an experiment, correct?"
Rebecca shifted in her seat across from Professor Suarez. She had kept her backpack on her lap, and she found it awkward, but she thought it would be awkward to put it on the floor at this point too. "Yes," she said, "but I don't really know much about it- what do I have to do?"
"You're going to be working with a partner, and I'll explain more about that when he comes in- I'm expecting him any minute."
Rebecca wrinkled her nose. "I don't like working with partners. I always end up pulling their weight. Is there any way I can just do this myself?"
Professor Suarez grinned. "I can certainly understand your concern, but the nature of the experiment demands cooperation, and aside from that," she steepled her fingers under her chin, "We've done some background research and I don't think that's going to be a problem with this particular partner."
There was a soft rap on the door and a grey-haired professor entered, followed by a black-haired boy with a faded red backpack over his shoulder.
"Rebecca, this is Professor Danton from the Psychology department. He's going to be running the program with me. And if you agree to participate in the program, this will be your partner, Jason Kitchener."
Jason slipped his backpack to the floor and stuck his hand out. Rebecca shook it briefly. She thought if he were wearing a bomber jacket he'd look just like a World War II pilot. He didn't smile.
"Look," he said, slumping into his chair, "I don't mean to offend you or anything, but I don't like group projects, so if you're not going to pull your weight, you should probably find something else to do with your time."
Rebecca stared at him, open mouthed, then turned to Professor Suarez. She was staring back at Rebecca with a smile playing around the corners of her mouth.
Rebecca straightened her back and squared her shoulders. "I think he might do okay after all, professor."
"That's what I thought," Professor Suarez said, allowing herself a smile. "Professor Denton, why don't you introduce the project and I'll fill them in on the details as needed."
"Sure, Sandra." Professor Denton put his hands in the pockets of his blazer. "In our experience, we find that many exceptional students do very well academically, but we also find that there is a high intangible cost for high performing students to maintain the sort of academic records you are maintaining. Students need socialization, and they need to learn to trust others, especially since most high-performing jobs require teamwork. The goals of education are ultimately to prepare you for life, but there are very few real-world careers that require your level of effort, at least over any extended period of time. We can see that you have all the determination it takes to accomplish anything you set your minds to, but we also see high rates of anxiety and depression in high performing students, and in some cases we see the use of illegal stimulants and most sadly, suicide. It would be an understatement to say that these side effects of our best students are undesirable in the workplace, so this is an experiment to see if there are ways to mitigate these side effects without significantly compromising education."
Jason clenched a fist. "You're saying we're unbalanced."
Professor Suarez smiled. "To put it bluntly, yes. If you honestly feel that your academic life is in no way interfering with your social life, your emotional life, then you probably don't need this. Do you feel like you're balanced?"
Jason let his hand relax, but he furrowed his brow. "No, I guess not." He looked at Rebecca. She shook her head.
Professor Suarez nodded. "Let me give you an example. You have probably done a lot of extra credit. That credit is worth maybe two percent of your grade on any particular project, but it typically adds an extra twenty percent to the time needed to complete that project. In other words, extra effort in the typical educational environment results in diminishing returns, but you feel compelled by the competitive nature of the classroom to scrounge every point you can."
"Here's how the project will help you. Because you are both freshmen already working at junior and senior levels, we are giving you amnesty on your grades. We expect that participation may affect your day-to-day grades initially, but as long as your point average in your classes stays above the C level, we have arranged with all of your professors to record your grades as As."
Rebecca sucked in her breath. Jason exhaled.
Professor Suarez looked at them searchingly. "How does that sound?"
Jason smiled. "That sounds fantastic. It's..."
"...too good to be true." Rebecca said. "But I want it to be true. Is there a catch? What do we have to do?"
Professor Denton smiled. "An excellent question. There are tasks you will be required to complete, and you will fill out a daily online journal. It will be private to you, Professor Suarez and myself. The exercises are not practically difficult, but you may find them stretching or uncomfortable in other ways. The completeness and honesty of your journal is essential for us to tailor follow up tasks to build upon your progress. You always have the option to refuse a task, but if we feel that your number of refusals is hampering the experiment, we will drop you from the program with the result that your grading will go back to the conventional style. Would you like to continue?"
Rebecca said it first. "I'm in."
Jason nodded. "Me too. What's today's task?"
Professor Denton smiled. "Excellent! Meet me and Professor Suarez in an hour in Room 102 in the Psychology building. You're going to do a trust exercise and I want to talk to Professor Suarez about it. In the meantime, why don't you two go get some coffee and spend a little time getting to know each other."
Jason sat across from Rebecca, a steaming cup of horrible coffee cradled in his hands. Now that he was really looking at her, he was surprised to find that she was beautiful. She had brown, shoulder-length hair that she had an endearing habit of tucking behind her ear. She was wearing a sweater over crisp white long-sleeved shirt and new jeans. She had faint freckles on her cheekbones and brown eyes that were, at the moment, eyeing him with suspicion.
"I don't like to be sized up," Rebecca said.
"Okay then. Tell me about yourself so I don't have to guess."
Rebecca didn't seem to like this either, but she looked down at her hot chocolate and shrugged. "I'm not from here. I'm from Springfield."
"Do you live in the dorms?"
"No, I got an apartment with a journalism major. I almost never see her though. Where do you live?"
"I'm at my parents' house- just a few blocks away." It was Jason's turn to shrug. "Not very exciting. It gets worse. I was home schooled."
Rebecca smiled for the first time. "I could kind of tell. I was too. My parents wanted me to go to the Junior College, but I decided to move here and go to the university. They don't think I can excel here."
Jason grinned and pointed at a student trying to pry old gum off the bottom of a cafeteria table. "I guess they haven't seen your competition."
Rebecca laughed. "What do you think they're going to make us do this afternoon? Professor Denton kind of has me freaked out."
"I don't know. Those two look like they have something going on. I don't really care. I'm in it for the free grades."
Rebecca finished her hot chocolate. "I think we're going to have to earn them anyway."
Professor Suarez stole a glance at Professor Dalton and grinned. "Today we are going to have you do two trust exercises. You need to hold hands for one hour, and during that time, you each need to confess something to the other that you don't want anyone else to know."
Rebecca saw the blood drain from Jason's face, and she got a knot in her stomach. "We have to hold hands? Why do we have to do that? I don't even know him."
"Hand-holding is a technique to fast-track trust." Professor Dalton explained, "It makes vulnerability much easier to attain. Similar effects can be achieved with the moderate use of alcohol, but of course, we can't recommend that in view of your age."
"I guess I can suffer through it." Rebecca still felt queasy, but at least Jason was good looking and didn't look like he'd drool all over her.
"I can do anything you can do." Jason said, the color beginning to come back into his face.
"All right then, I think that's it," Professor Suarez stood up and handed Jason and Rebecca each a manila folder. "Don't forget to write in your journals. The login credentials and the program outline and terms are in the folders. We'll keep in touch."
Jason and Rebecca stood in the hall, facing each other awkwardly. Jason's hands were firmly in his pockets.
"Um, can we go somewhere off campus," he said, "where this won't be..."
"...completely weird?" Rebecca shrugged. "I guess we wouldn't run into anybody we know at the mall this time of day."
They took Rebecca's little blue Toyota to the mall. The drive was mostly quiet and awkward. Jason tried to get cues about Rebecca from her car, but it was clear that she didn't spend much time making the car her own- it was just a way to get from her apartment to her classes and back.
Jason told her a little about his family- his mom was nosy and his dad was cool, but not around a whole lot. He was an only child. Rebecca parked outside the main entrance.
They walked into the mall, careful not to touch each other. Jason looked at Rebecca, took a deep breath and held out his left hand. She took it. He felt an unexpected thrill at her touch. He had expected it to be more like holding his mom's hand- neutral and restrictive. This was different though- he felt slightly giddy.
"Now what?" Rebecca said abruptly. "Do you start spilling your guts or do I have to do it first?"
"Let's ease into it a little. Let's walk around and ride all the escalators. We both have to confess before we finish riding the last one." Jake gave her hand a gentle tug.
They started walking hand-in-hand. When they got to the first escalator, Rebecca grinned. "I think I'm going to be better at this stuff than you are."
Jason stepped onto the escalator. "I don't really care about my grades," he said, "Not any more. I'm just afraid to let everyone down if I'm not perfect all the time. Everyone is always saying how proud they are and now I don't feel like I even own myself. I'm just a machine that makes one 'A' after another."
"Is that it?" Rebecca said, after a short silence, "That's your confession? I could have told you that back in Prof Suarez's office. That's not even a secret. All of us 'high-performing' students are like that. Make Mom and Dad proud. Get a scholarship. Get a high-stress, high-paying job so the stress never ends. Your confession can't be something everyone already knows."
"Okay then," Jason said, "If you're ready to come out with some deep dark secret, let's hear it. Something you really don't want anyone to know."
Rebecca cleared her throat, not sure what to say, but she started talking anyway. She was was horrified at what she heard coming out of her mouth. "I masturbate a lot. At least once a day."
Jason kept walking, his eyes straight ahead. He led Rebecca to an elevator and pushed the button. "You're better at this stuff than I am," he managed to say.
The elevator door opened and they stepped in. It closed behind them, shutting out the sounds of the mall. Jason didn't select a floor so the elevator just sat there.
"I'm so embarrassed! I've never said that to anyone before. I wasn't going to say that. I'm so sorry." Rebecca looked down at Jason's hand, holding her own. "You're... still holding my hand. I thought you would be disgusted."
"I do it too," Jason said quietly, "I mean I, uh, m-masturbate too. And I don't think it's disgusting if you do. Maybe I'm supposed to, but I don't. As a matter of fact..."
Rebecca looked up at Jason's face. He was blushing all the way to the roots of his black hair. "As a matter of fact what?"
"I think it's pretty hot. Uh- I mean amazing." He squeezed her hand.
"So, you do it too?" Rebecca asked. Jason nodded, completely unable to speak. She smiled briefly. "Which hand do you use?"
Jason looked down at Rebecca. She wasn't teasing him- she was looking at him curiously. He held up his right hand. "Right hand. Mostly."
Rebecca smiled at him and let go of his left hand, walked around him and slid her hand into his right hand. "Thank you for not laughing at me."
"Well," Jason smiled, "once a day doesn't sound like that much." He paused for a moment, "Have you done it today already?"
Rebecca wrinkled her nose and closed her eyes. "Yes. You?"
"No," Jason said, "not yet."
"Boy, I'd love to see that." Rebecca said, then clapped her hand over her mouth and squealed through her fingers, "Oh shit."
"Really? You'd want to watch?"
Rebecca still had her hand over her mouth. She nodded.
"It wouldn't freak you out?"
Jason felt something new happening inside him. He was talking to this beautiful girl about his deepest secret and she wasn't running away. In fact, it seemed like she was intrigued by it. This was totally unexpected, and it had his cock swelling quickly.
Rebecca shook her head. "So, um, do you have plans... I mean, when are you going to..."
"I don't think I'm going to make it until bedtime," Jason said, amazed at how free he felt to say exactly what he felt. "Do you want to..."
Suddenly the elevator door opened and an elderly couple walked in. Jason pulled Rebecca out and they made their way, giggling, to the parking lot.
Jason's mom was sure to be home, so they went to Rebecca's apartment, a second story two bedroom affair in a complex.
"Do you want something to drink? I have juice, coke, milk, water." Rebecca was fussing in her kitchen and Jason was standing in the small living room feeling foolish. He had let go of her hand in the car to make driving easier.
"No, I'm fine, thanks."
"How about a snack? I have pretzels, yogurt, cupcakes..." She looked out at Jason, shut the cupboard. "I'm making it weird."
"Yeah. Kinda weird. Can you just sit down and talk with me?"
She went into the living room and sat on the couch. Jason sat next to her, his hands clasped over his knees. "Let's take turns asking each other questions. You can start."
She reached over and slipped her hand into his. "We have another forty-five minutes to go with the handholding. Do you like holding my hand?"
He relaxed a little. "I really do. It makes me say things I've never said before, but I like it." Jason enjoyed the smoothness of her skin. "Which hand do you use?"
Rebecca grinned mischievously. "I'm ambidextrous." She wiggled all of her fingers in the air. "Do you ever look at dirty pictures?"
Jason felt his face flush again. "Sometimes. But honestly, so much of what I see is too much. Too blonde. Too rich. Too made up. Too stupid. Too... big..." His hands were out in front of him, gesturing.
Rebecca raised an eyebrow.
"So anyway," Jason tried to recover some of his composure, "yes, I look at dirty pictures sometimes. Not today though."
"What? Why not today?"
Jason shifted uncomfortably. He was sure his erection was starting to show. "It's my turn to ask a question."
"You can ask two in a row after you answer mine. Why no dirty pictures today?"
"I don't think I'll need the, uh, extra stimulation... today." Jason stammered, knowing it was a copout. He asked a question quickly before she could protest. "What's your favorite fantasy?"
Rebecca narrowed her eyes at him. "I'll tell you my second favorite fantasy. I'm a tourist in Brazil. He's the tour guide for a canopy zip line tour. Nobody else shows up. He puts on my harness very thoroughly. We fly through the trees. He takes off my harness and doesn't stop taking things off. We don't ever make it back to the ground in that fantasy. Second question?"
"Wow. That's... elaborate. Do you ever use toys?"
"Technically, no. I can't walk into one of those stores."
"Dad's credit card."
"Oh. So never anything..."
Rebecca lowered her head. "An electric toothbrush, a carrot, a brush handle. It's not really my thing... I mean, I have very good fingers." She could see that a large lump was forming in Jason's pants and she tried not to stare. "So today, since you're not looking at dirty pictures, what are you going to be imagining in that high performing mind of yours?"
Jason balked. "Seriously? Come on."
"I told you mine. My second-best anyway. And I took the biggest risk. So spill it."
"You," he said, finally, his erection pushing hard against his jeans, "in a sun dress."
Rebecca inhaled. "Really? Me? And not just buck naked?"
"No. There's no story in that. There has to be a story. Like your canopy tour."
Rebecca pursed her lips and made a decision. "What color sun dress?"
"What color sun dress am I wearing in your fantasy?"
"Hm. Wait here." She jumped up and went down the hall, leaving left him on the couch stretching his jeans.
Jason sat still, hoping she wasn't going to come back with pepper spray or something. He heard a closet door slam.
Rebecca's voice floated out of a back bedroom, "Just stay there- I'll be right out."
After a few tense minutes, Rebecca emerged wearing a yellow sun dress. The transformation was remarkable- she had been dressed almost severely, in plain clothes designed to look responsible and serious. She looked feminine now- fresh and smiling shyly. "I don't have a blue one- I hope this is okay. I just want to help a little. Will this help?"
Jason opened his mouth and closed it again. "Wow. You look amazing." A little too amazing, he thought.
"I wasn't sure about the bra. I played it safe though. What do you think? Should I take it off? You can see the straps."
Jason thought the bra was in the way too. "Yeah," he said, "the straps might be distracting."
"Okay. That's what I thought."
To his amazement, she unhooked her bra and pulled it out from under her dress. He could see her nipples poking into the fabric. "I can't believe I'm doing this. It's wild and fun," she said, dropping her bra on the floor. She pointed at the bulge under his jeans. "That's got to be uncomfortable. Can it be my turn for a peek?"
Jason stood up, took a big breath, unbuttoned his fly and pulled his pants and his boxers down to his ankles. His cock pointed straight up and bounced as he sat back down.
Rebecca stared. "Well, that's... attractive. Beautiful. You don't disappoint." Rebecca shook herself out of her fascination. "What's next? Am I standing or sitting? What happens?"
"Well, you sit on a chair in front of me and watch me for a while."
Rebecca pulled a chair in from the dining room table and sat in front of Jason, her knees together and her hands in her lap. "Like this?"
"Just like that." Jason made a fist around his cock and slowly started pumping. He watched Rebecca's face as she watched him, fascinated. He didn't want to go too fast, so he took his time, breathing deeply. After a little while, he noticed Rebecca squirming a little bit. He closed his eyes.
"Oh, please don't close your eyes. I want to see your eyes. Can you tell me what is going on in your head?"
"Well, you're getting excited and you want to touch yourself but you don't want me to notice. So you try to be discreet."
Rebecca shrugged her shoulders and pushed her breasts together with her arms, then she pushed her dress down between her legs and opened and closed them slowly. She crossed her right leg over her left and crossed her ankles and rocked her knees back and forth. She watched Jason's hand and tried to look as innocent as she could. He smiled at her. She bit her lip.