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The ghost of cells past, Part 4

From the LabLit short story series

Deborah Flusberg 8 June 2020

It was not long before Elinor appeared to him, standing at the edge of the pond, her white dress blowing in the wind

Editor's note: We are pleased to present the final episode of a new four-part story by Deborah Flusberg, about a lab research project that suddenly gets personal. Use the navigation links at the top right to catch up!

He ran and ran, not knowing where he was going. Was he possessed? What was going on? One moment he wanted her more than anything, and the next moment he feared for his life. Who was she, this demonic angel with the flowing hair, who kissed him and told him to feel his pain, made it sound like he was guilty of something, and then asked him to feed her with biological reagents? It was ludicrous. Was he dreaming? Sleepwalking? Should he do it – feed her? In exchange for love – was that was she was offering? Robert was sure that he had made a deep mistake. He needed to leave this lab at once; go back to studying Drosophila. Surely, the fruit flies would not haunt him in this way.

Robert got to the park. He wandered there aimlessly for a while, and then, tired out, sat down next to a small pond surrounded by tall trees; it was dark and a bit creepy, but also peaceful, the water half-lit by a nearly full moon. Robert stretched out, staring into the water. Then he lay down, placing his bag underneath his head as a pillow; removing his glasses, he closed his eyes. A gentle breeze wrapped around his skin and the distant sounds of passing traffic hummed against his ears. Here, Robert felt that he could finally let go of some of the craziness; peace began to wash over him, and he drifted into a shallow sleep.

It was not long before Elinor appeared to him, standing at the edge of the pond, her white dress blowing in the wind. Her head was covered, as usual, with a red scarf; but this time he noticed that there was no hair flowing out of it. Still her face was starkly beautiful, each wrinkle framing the shadows under her eyes like brush strokes in an impressionist painting. Robert felt happy, because she had come to see him outside of the lab, after all – and here she seemed wholly angelic, the demonic side of her completely vanished. But even as this happiness washed over him, a pain stabbed him in the stomach, making its juices flow wildly and sending an unpleasant tingling sensation up and down his back. It was a stab of loss. He felt, rather than knew, not that he was about to lose her, but that he already had.

“Why did you come to me?” he asked, his voice pleading. “Why did you make me love you?”

She did not answer.

“I know they’re your cells,” he continued, needing to know now, for certain. “The ones that I’m growing in the lab, for my experiments. They were yours, from your cancer. The ones that made you die.” It all came out in a rush; he couldn’t stop now. “But you came back. Why did you come back? There are other people growing these cells. Why did you pick me?”

Elinor walked over lightly, barefoot, and sat down beside him. Stroked his forehead as though he were a child. Finally, she spoke. “Without your media,” she whispered, “I would die.”

“But you’re already dead,” he said to her. “And why would you want to feed the cancer cells? Don’t you want to starve them, to kill them off? So that you can live?”

He knew that he wasn’t making any sense. Either she was alive or she was dead; she couldn’t be both. Either her cancer was killing her; or she needed it to stay alive. Or to stay dead. His mind was messing with him. He knew it, as one knows a dream to be illogical even while experiencing it. But still, he had to find the answers. Had to have her explain, before he woke up and lost her again.

“So you’re drinking my media to feed your cancer,” he said slowly, uncertain of how to proceed. “Why?”

“I’m already dead,” she answered matter-of-factly. “But sometimes we need to feed the cancers within us. If we fight it, this thing trying to take over us from within, it will not heal us. It will only make us sicker.”

Robert didn’t know what she meant. But he could see that she was beginning to fade away. Like in a cartoon character from his childhood, the visiting fairy losing color and disappearing into thin air. He tried to hold on, to force his mind to continue the dream, but it was no use. She was gone.

Robert stayed on his back a few moments longer, not wanting to open his eyes. When he finally did, he sat up, moved his head from side to side, pinched his arm to prove to himself that he was awake. To his right, just past where his right arm had been, lay some remains from a picnic that he hadn’t noticed before. A few potato chips, and a half-eaten chocolate chip cookie.

The cookie. In a flash, Robert felt another pain in his abdomen that traveled this time up to his throat, taking away his breath. He had forgotten about the cookie. And then it all came back to him, that day at the park, and then later, the searing pain. That he had squelched; resisted. Stuffed down inside, so that he would not have to feel it. Ever.

“Give me a cookie!” his sister had demanded in her little-girl voice, blonde curls falling down the front of her face. “You can’t have all of them!”

In his hands he held two perfect Duncan Hynes chocolate chip cookies. The moist kind, that melted in your mouth. He wanted both of them.

“I don’t have two cookies,” he said, “I only have one.”

“Liar!” she said, “I saw you have two!”

In his attempt to hide one, it had fallen, dropped on the ground. Into a pile of dead leaves. Next to the leaves was some dog poop, left to rot in the grass. The cookie was not touching the poop, but it was close. The sight of it made him feel slightly sick; he didn’t want it anymore.

Laurie had turned away, was about to run back to the house to tell on him, to get a cookie of her own. He didn’t want to get in trouble. He was already walking on eggshells with his parents, having disobeyed his mother’s repeated requests to clean his room, and he knew that with one more misbehavior he would get punished.

Quickly, he picked the cookie up off the ground, wiped it off on his shirt.

“Don’t tell!” he said, calling after her. “Here, you can have the cookie.”

She had not seen him pick it up off the ground. The smile that lit up her face, so innocent, jabbed his heart.

“Thanks!” she said joyfully, slowly breaking the cookie in two, nibbling on the first half. He knew that she would save the second half for later. Unlike himself, she had amazing self-control for a nine-year-old. She knew what she wanted, and how to make it last.

Three days later, Laurie had woken up in the night with a fever that wouldn’t go away. When she did not get better after a week, his parents took her to the hospital. And after that day, life as he knew it changed forever. The word “leukemia”, whispered by the adults in low tones, was one that he was not familiar with. But he knew that it was bad. And what was more, he knew that it was his fault. He had given her a dirty cookie, and she had eaten it.

Sitting there in the grass all these years later, Robert was amazed by this memory. He knew that eating a cookie off of the grass, even if it had been touching the dog poop, would not cause leukemia. It might have given her a stomach ache, maybe food poisoning; but not cancer. Yet the guilt that he had felt as a young boy was still there inside of him. Eating at him from within, taking over his body like a metastasizing tumor. What was even more shocking was that he had not remembered any of this until just now.


Robert rose slowly, lifted his bag that he had placed under his head as a pillow. It was early morning now, the sun just beginning to rise.

I am your dirty cookie,” a voice seemed to be whispering in his ear, as he walked toward the end of the park, mulling over where to go next. It was Elinor’s voice, raspy and urgent. “I am your guilt, and your pain, and you need to stop feeding me.

He didn’t understand exactly what this voice inside his head was trying to tell him; hadn’t she just told him the other day that if she was going to help him, that he needed to keep feeding her? But in spite of that, he knew, somehow, that this new voice was the one that he had to listen to. Not the other, demonic voice, the one that was making him get crazier and crazier; and not the seductive voice, that had caused him to fall deeper and deeper into his own fantasy and despair. This new voice was lighter, calmer. It was the voice of his own truth.

Robert spent the day wandering around the town, trying to make sense of all this. But he knew that he couldn’t wander forever. He needed to face her, to see her, to hear her explanation. Or at the very least, he needed to get back to the lab to finish up his rotation project. He knew he couldn’t hide forever; and he hoped that the answers would come to him when they needed to.

At close to midnight, Robert wandered back to the lab. This time, he didn’t try to distract himself with data analysis, music, or western blots. He went straight to the cell culture room, pulled out one of the rolling plastic blue lab chairs, sat down and waited.

He waited and waited and as several hours passed, he thought that she might not be coming. He began to doze, sitting alone in the cell culture room, interrupted only by the hum of the freezer and the occasional beeping of a distant lab instrument.

Finally, he opened his eyes and there she was, in front of him, more beautiful than ever. He wanted to reach out to her as he had earlier in the summer; but he realized now that he had been drowning out his pain with fantasy; that he had to be strong. The clock said 3 AM.

“Robert,” she whispered, smiling slightly. “I see that you understand…”

He nodded, but was still uncertain about what he understood, and whether they were talking about the same thing.

“Who are you?” he said, “And why did you come to me?”

“Do you know what it’s like?” she whispered, in response, taking a step backwards, her eyes sagging sadly. “Do you know what it’s like to be told on your thirtieth birthday that you have less than a year left to live?”

Robert inhaled slowly, shook his head.

“To get sicker and sicker,” she continued, “paler and paler, thinner and thinner? To ingest toxic chemicals that they call medicine, to have them irradiate you like you are an infectious microbe? To have your hair fall out, your friends look at you with pity in their eyes? To see your family, even the ones that sit by your bedside, already preparing to move on without you?”

Robert swallowed. He did know what it was like. He had watched it happen to his sister.

“I watched my fiancé grow more and more distant,” she went on, “Even when I outlived the doctors’ expectations, first by one month, then another. I watched as people came to visit me, and I saw the fear in their eyes. But it wasn’t only the fear of losing me.” She paused, looked Robert in the eye. “It was the fear of facing their own mortality.

“I was being treated at a big teaching hospital in Toronto,” she continued, “and one day one of the doctors there, a young resident just out of med school, told me a secret – that they had taken my cancer cells and were growing them in the lab. He wasn’t supposed to tell me. Everyone signs a waiver, he said. I had signed it too. But usually they don’t tell you the details. This resident, I had become close to him – he wanted me to know. At first I said, who cares? And then I realized that maybe this was something good; something powerful. That I was giving to Science, to help find better cures in the future. I told the resident to take good care of my cells; to make sure that they would live on forever; and that they would be used for good purposes.

“The whole time that I lay sick in bed, I struggled against my cancer. It was the enemy. Who wouldn’t feel that way? And then, one morning when I woke up, a week before the end, I realized something spectacular. That the cancer cells were not an invading army. They were not a foreign enemy. They were a part of me… a part that I had to acknowledge.”

She paused, continued. “You see, the cancer cells are not bad, they’re just doing what every creature on earth is doing – trying to survive.”

Robert let this sink in for a moment.

“It was 1982,” Elinor said, picking up her story, “When I finally succumbed to the cells growing inside of me. I had resigned myself to it. I knew that there was nothing more to be done. But then a strange thing happened. I watched myself die… watched them cover me up, roll me away. Watched the tears of my family. Watched the nurse clearing the bed, making room for someone new. But I was there. I was there! I watched it all.”

Suddenly, the incubator began to beep, and both of them whirled around; but then just as suddenly, it stopped again.

“I didn’t know what to do – you can imagine – so I started wandering around the hospital. Eventually I found the area with the labs. It was then that I noticed how hungry I was…”

Robert had begun to feel queasy. But he couldn’t leave. He needed to hear her out.

“Since then I’ve been wandering…” she continued, “around the world. From lab to lab. Looking for my cells. For media to feed me and my cells. And wherever I go, I have a mission… I teach people how to feel their pain. Because you see,” she finished, staring at him with sudden clarity, “When I tried to kill my cancer cells, they just came back, with a vengeance that was stronger than ever. Like your pain. It will never go away if you try to suppress it. Until you allow yourself to feel it, you will never be happy.”

Robert remained silent, considering her story and its message. When he finally looked up, she was peering at him inquisitively. “You don’t need me anymore,” she said. It was a statement, rather than a question.

“If you don’t need me anymore,” she said pensively, as though trying to figure things out at the same time as he was, “It means that I’ve succeeded. I have no power over you anymore.”

Robert wanted to believe her. He knew this to be the continuation of the true voice inside of him, the one that he had caught a glimpse of the night before when he was leaving the park. But at the same time, he still didn’t want her to go. Maybe, he thought, they could still be together, just a little bit longer… maybe she still needed to help him – and in return, he would help her?

As though on cue, her voice shifted, taking on an eerie, whining timber. “I’m here to help you!” she said loudly. A wind began blowing – was it the AC? – raising Elinor’s hair in a messy halo above her head. “But if I’m going to help you, I need you to feed me…”

She reached toward him, but Robert slipped past her and ran out the door. She sailed after him, white dress flowing behind her. “You will never be free without me,” she hissed, chasing after him and grabbing onto his wrist, her eyes sucking him in like a vacuum pump. He recognized this voice now as the voice from the summer, the one that had taken over his research and his life, that had made him act crazy. He didn’t want to be hearing that voice anymore. He wanted the other one, the one that made him feel stronger inside, the voice from the park. And yet there they were, these two voices, battling within him, personified in the ghost of a beautiful woman from the ‘80s who had given her life to glioblastoma and her cells to research, who was trying to make him fall in love with her so that she could live forever.

Just another day in the lab?

Elinor reached for him again, but this time he managed to dodge her, squeezing into the space between the centrifuge and the water bath.

“Let go of me!” he shouted.

“You must let go of me yourself,” she said, her voice hardened. “I am your guilt. Your dirty cookie. It is you who are keeping me alive.”

“No!” Robert shouted. “Let me go!”

He reached for her, pushed her against the wall, his arms around her neck.

“You can’t kill me that way,” she said scornfully, laughing at him now. “I’m already dead.”

Robert let go of her, his anger melting away. He didn’t want to kill her. He didn’t know what he wanted. He just wanted this whole thing to go away.

Elinor smiled now, relief mixed with seduction. But then her eyes took on a crazy look that made Robert frightened. “I came here to free you, and I succeeded. But now I need you. Without you, I’m nothing – just a frozen vial of cells in a liquid nitrogen tank. And I need you to feed me!”

Robert froze. He wanted to take her in his arms again, to tell her that he would take care of her, of her cells; that everything would be okay. That of course he wouldn’t desert her. That they would go back to the way things had been before – it had made him so happy – hadn’t it? And yet from deep within him was that other voice, the one from the park: you must let go of her in order to be free. Which voice was telling him the truth?

As he was pondering this, her eyes suddenly opened wide and he shrunk backwards and spun around, facing the refrigerator. In that moment, looking through the glass doors of the fridge, once again he knew what he had to do. He pulled open the door, grabbing two bottles of media by their orange lids.

“No!” she shouted.

But it was too late; he was unscrewing the lids, and pouring the media into the sink, down the drain. All four bottles. When he was finished, he went to the incubator, pulled out his stack of plates, his cell cultures – her cells.

She tried to ram into him, to knock over the stack of plates, to prevent what he was about to do. But he was quicker. He ran out of the room with the plates, grabbing a bottle of bleach on the way. Set the plates on his lab bench and lifted the lids one by one, pouring an equal volume of bleach in to the liquid already contained in the plates.

Elinor stood by the opening to his lab bay, watching, horrified. He was half expecting some dramatic ending, like the melting of the wicked witch of the west. But instead, she just vanished; the look of perplexity on her face vanishing with her, except for where it was etched forever into Robert’s mind. Like a genie in a bottle, she had gone back to where she came from: the liquid nitrogen tank, seething with vapors, its low-fill alarm beeping gently. Robert pressed the silence button, and the beeping stopped.

When it was done, Robert was alone. He sat down at his desk, put his head into his computer’s keyboard, and cried.


Robert woke up the next morning still at his desk, sunshine streaming through the window. The clock said 7 AM. He had slept a peaceful sleep, and felt rested. The image in his mind was of the dream he had been having just before waking up. It was his sister, smiling at him, holding out a cookie. “Here’s one for you,” she said, her golden curls bouncing up and down. An Oreo, his favorite. He reached out to take it. And then, an older version of Laurie, one that looked a bit like their mother, standing behind the younger Laurie, saying: “Robby, it wasn’t your fault. I was feeling sick for a long time before I ate that cookie you gave me. I was just too little to realize what was happening, so I didn’t tell anybody, and they didn’t figure out that anything was wrong until I got that fever in the middle of the night. Robby, that cookie you gave me was the most delicious thing I ever ate. Really, it was. Do you know why? Because I knew that my big brother loved me.”

Robert could feel the sunshine washing over him. He felt a relief he had not felt in a long time. And a pure sense of excitement about the future, and what lay ahead. He knew that he would not be joining this lab. But he also knew that somehow, in some way, his future would be tied to cancer research, or to researching other diseases. To helping others – in a grand way. How exactly this would play out, however, was open to be determined.

Robert got up and left the lab to go and find some breakfast.