The sign for SunnySide Clinic was at the bottom of a list of establishments packed into the directory of a small indoor business plaza. The glass doors to the main lobby had already been locked, but there was a buzzer next to a call list in the vestibule. I jabbed at the button and input the associated number. I checked my phone again. Five minutes till seven. Several seconds passed before the intercom lit up. Then a woman’s voice answered, silky and smooth.
“SunnySide Clinic, this is Dr. Vahn speaking. Our operating hours are passed. Is this an emergency?”
“Well, no,” I said, suddenly on the spot and fully aware of the blinking red camera light above my head. “But I saw your ad for late bloomers and I’d like a consultation.”
“Yes, for me.” I squared my shoulders and glanced up at the camera.
Silence. “…Alright hun, but this is the sort of procedure that will require parental cons-”
“I’m an adult! I don’t need consent.”
Silence again on the other end. “...I’m sorry, how old did you say you are?”
“I turned twenty-one last fall,” I said, trying to make my voice sound as mature as possible. I dug out my ID again and held it up to the camera. More silence. And then the door buzzed.
“It’s the suite at the end,” the voice said. “Take a left at the fountain. I’ll be right with you.”
I pulled open the glass door and followed her instructions, walking past the three-tiered penny fountain and drawing up to another set of double glass doors. These ones had the cheerful SunnySide logo painted across them, along with a pair of those cute little egg mascots to either side, one stretching on the left, the other snoozing on the right.
Inside I was met by an older, somewhat plump woman in the shape of an hourglass. She was tall, darkly pretty, and struck an imposing figure in a crisp lab coat and pencil skirt.
“Hi there. I’m Dr. Vahn. Nice to meet you.” She offered me her hand and I shook it politely. Her skin was velvet soft.
“I’m Jaime Su,” I said. Around us, the lobby was dead quiet and sterile clean. She was leaning casually against the help desk, which was a long narrow counter built into the floor and acted as a partition.
“I hope you don’t mind having this consultation right here. I’m the only one left and I was just closing up.”
“Um, so the flier said this was a research experiment and I don’t have to pay?”
She smiled. “Research program, but you’re right, technically. This is an experiment. And that’s exactly why it’s free. Forcing blooms isn’t exactly looked upon as ethical, and there’s still a lot we don’t know concerning the exact science of the matter. As such, you may or may not find the methods employed in this experiment to be… agreeable. I have a pamphlet you can read for more information. Do you want to see it?”
“Yeah, sure, and what if I want to do this tonight? Like right now?” I asked, to even my own surprise. Go big or go home, I guess.
“Right now!” She laughed, though not unkindly. “Twenty one already and only now you’re in a hurry?”
“Well like, do I have to prep or something? Does it take a long time?”
“Not… especially, as always, it depends on the bloomer.” She tapped one of her long manicured fingers on the counter and looked at me thoughtfully. Then she gave a small shrugging sigh and handed me a clipboard. “I’ll tell you what, read the pamphlet, fill out these documents, and I’ll go get the room set up. Pens are there.” She pointed to a clay pot on the countertop behind me, full of mancala beads and cheap pens with silk flowers glued to their tops. I took one as she started to walk off.
“Thanks, by the way!” I called after her. “And, um, sorry to impose.”
“It’s fine,” she said. “No one’s waiting for me anyway.”
I scratched my head over that statement for a second before skimming through the documents. It was a lot of theoretical gymnastics about the connections of the mental and physical aspects of blooming, and a whole lot of blah blah blah. I skimmed through it and filled out the mandatory bits.
Name, date of birth, known allergies, general medical history, all the usual stuff. About five minutes later the doctor returned. I handed the clipboard back to her and stuck my hands into my pockets expectantly. She flipped through them a second, and then pursed her lips at the last page, which I might have missed, and might have been missing a signature or too. Whoops.
She put a hand on her hip.
“Just so we’re all on the same page here,” she said, “let me reiterate the important takeaways of this document. This is an experimental procedure. It has had limited testing, and limited success. By participating in this experiment, you waive any and all responsibility SunnySide and its associates may have in any results that you may deem ‘undesirable’. This includes blooming, failure to bloom, and any and all side-effects associated with the above, both physical and psychological. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Do you wish to proceed?”
“Very well then. Please initial each box and then sign here,” she said, marking an X beside the patient signature. I plucked up the daisy pen again, signing my name in big decisive strokes, the legal equivalent to putting my foot down. I handed the clipboard back to Dr. Vahn and she reviewed it a second time.
“No emergency contacts?”
“They wouldn’t be able to get down here if anything happened anyway,” I said, only marginally guilty. Normally I would have listed Skylar, since all my family live on the other side of the country and he’s the closest thing I’ve got otherwise, but the prideful side of me was still angry. Besides, worst case scenario, I didn’t bloom and I walked out of there embarrassed and disappointed. No need to let Skylar know that though.
“Right…” the Doctor said with a knowing look. “Does anyone know you’re here right now?”
“Yes,” I lied.
Dr. Vahn raised an eyebrow but dropped the subject and tucked the papers under an arm. “Follow me then,” she said, “assuming you still want to do this right now, of course.”
She led me out of the lobby and down to the end of a short hall, to a room labeled ‘Exam 4’. Inside, the room was mostly empty, but for a single reclining chair at its center. It looked like a cross between a laziboi and a dental engine, but without the comfort of either. Bundles of cords came off the back of it and snaked across the linoleum, disappearing into a grate in the floor. I swallowed my misgivings. Had it not been done up in white pleather and chrome, it might have fit right in on the set of the Matrix or Alien.
“Go ahead and take a seat. You’ll want to remove your jeans though,” the doctor said.
“And the rest of my clothes?” I asked.
“Optional.” She gestured to a tripod that had been set up off to the side, a camera affixed to its top. “I’ll be watching for safety’s sake, if nothing else, so it’s whatever level of nude you’re comfortable with.”
“Ah. Okay.” Which was, to be honest, not very high. Even at the beach I wore a long shirt, not out of modesty or anything, but because I just couldn’t stand the looks anymore. The looks that question. The looks that categorize. The looks that say ‘what are you?’
I kicked off my sneakers and stripped off my jeans, folding the latter and placing them neatly in a corner of the room. Then I took a seat in the weird chair, feeling about as comfortable as if I were about to get a cavity filled. Behind me, I could hear Dr. Vahn rattling around at the counter on the far wall. After a second or two, she came around with a cart and took my vitals, then had me expose a vein so she could draw a blood sample. Once that was settled, she handed me a little dixie cup full of some colorless liquid.
“Drink this,” she said. I stared at it for a second with some concern and she added, “it might be easier if you don’t smell it.”
“Awesome,” I said flatly. “Bottom’s up.” I plugged my nose and choked it down, gagging at the end as it burned my tongue and throat. The doctor hadn’t been kidding. It tasted awful. She took the cup back from me and tossed it in a bin beneath the counter. After a few seconds, the liquid hit my stomach like a fist on fire, its heat crawling up and down the rest of my body and warming my skin. The tips of ears, my fingers, and my toes started itching. And my head swam.
The doctor stood and pushed the cart back into its place. When she returned, she was carrying some kind of visor-headset combo that was just as disconcerting as the chair. There were a number of cords and wires coming out of it, and as they drooped and swayed with her gait, I couldn’t help but picture a robot jellyfish escaped from its tank. Unsurprisingly, she then crowned me with it.
“This will record your brain activity throughout the experiment,” she said as she adjusted the headgear and tightened its straps. The cups of the headset were padded and fully encased my ears, muffling the doctor’s voice considerably. The attached visor was shaped like two scalene triangles joined at the bridge of my nose, and it covered my whole face except for my nose and mouth. It was tinted slightly, coloring my field of view with a subtle iridescent layer.
I began to sweat as she plugged the thick cords into the back of the chair. The rest of the wires had little square patches attached to their ends, and after applying a cold gel to each one, the doctor stuck them to me, one for each hand, forearm, hip, and thigh, and then the last five went down my shirt, three in back and two in front.
“You may experience some discomfort, but that’s to be expected,” the doctor said as she stepped back to look me over. I stared at her blankly and she nodded before belting my wrists and ankles to the chair.
“Is that really necessary?” I slurred a little. My tongue felt thick.
“Depends on you,” she said with a wry smile. “But better safe than sorry.”
“Ah, I almost forgot. For survey purposes, which sex would you prefer to bloom into?”
“Um,” I said, taken aback. “I… don’t know. I’ve never really thought of myself as a man or a woman.” Because I’m neither. I’m nothing.
“I see. And I know you don’t feel sexual desire, but do you have any kind of romantic preference between the sexes? Is there one that appeals to you more than the other?”
“Not really. I’ve seen beautiful people on both sides, if that’s what you mean.”
She nodded. Then from her pocket she produced a remote and pointed it at the blank wall in front of me. A large projector screen descended from the ceiling, and a photo of several red orchids appeared there. Then she pointed the remote at the chair, pressed another button, and it whirred to life.
“Just… Try to relax,” she said. She stopped at the door to give me one last thoughtful glance.
Then she flicked out the lights and closed the door, leaving me alone in the dark.