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The ghost of cells past, Part 3

From the LabLit short story series

Deborah Flusberg 8 April 2020

Robert took a step closer, and it was as though time stopped and all of the years swirled together, collecting like a clump at the bottom of a centrifuge tube

Editor's note: We are pleased to present the third 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!

When he opened his eyes, head cradled in his arms at his lab desk, it took him a few moments to realize that what had just happened had been a dream. Or had it? He wasn’t sure. Dream or not, he was convinced that he had identified the perpetrator of the missing media, and how it was going missing, bizarre as it might seem.

Too frightened to go into the cell culture room alone, Robert waited until mid-morning the next day when the lab was crowded with people. Sure enough, when he checked the fridge, the 100ml of liquid that had remained of his media was gone. The bottle stood empty on the shelf.

Robert inhaled slowly. Then exhaled. What exactly was going on? Why was the woman from the coffee room drinking his media; and if she wasn’t, was it possible that he was imagining it? Was he going insane?

And then suddenly, as if on autopilot, he knew what he had to do next. Knew as surely as he had known that he didn’t want to do cancer research, that loved ones were always lost, and that things you needed most usually went missing; that life was often unfair. That the only way to keep going was to work within the system, to go along with what you’ve got.

Robert collected all of the necessary reagents, sat down in the cell culture hood, and prepared not one, but three bottles of fresh media. When he was finished, he cleared out a space on his shelf, throwing away some of the old bottles that he no longer needed. The de-cluttering felt good. The three new bottles now sat spaciously at the front of the shelf. He had labeled the bottles 1, 2, and 3. Then he went home, and occupied himself with mindless tasks for the rest of the day.

The next morning, as Robert had predicted, bottle #1 was missing, but the other two remained. He replaced #1 with a fresh bottle, and used some of the media from bottle #3 for his own experiments. And so it continued. Robert made sure at the end of each day that there were always three bottles of media, at least two of them full, on his shelf.

After two weeks of this, Robert felt that he was ready. That night, he stayed late in the lab, and waited until everyone else had gone home. He had brought a book to keep himself occupied, and some extra snacks that he kept in the little office space outside of the lab, in case he got hungry. He was determined to wait all night, if he had to.


But Robert didn’t have to wait all night. Just after 11pm, he saw her. She was wearing a white dress with pink flowers. Robert was mesmerized. She still seemed gaunt, but less so than before. There was a radiance in her cheeks, as though she had just come in from being out in the fresh air. She stopped opposite his bay, took a step toward him.

“It’s okay,” he said, voice shaking. “It’s okay. I’m not afraid.”

She smiled slightly, then seemed about to go.

“Wait!” Robert said softly, “Don’t go. Tell me your name.”

The woman paused, then smiled again. “Elinor.” Her voice was soft but strong.

“Elinor,” he repeated. “I’m Robert.”

He took a step toward her, then another. She did not back away. He had meant to confront her, to ask her who she was and what she wanted from him; but suddenly he felt himself overcome. And he heard his own voice saying not what he had intended to say, but something else entirely. “Elinor,” he whispered, stuttering slightly, “I think you’re beautiful.”

Elinor looked at the floor, then looked up and smiled again. “Thank you, Robert,” she said.

Robert took a step closer, and it was as though time stopped and all of the years swirled together, collecting like a clump at the bottom of a centrifuge tube, spinning and spinning at the highest rpm that the laws of physics allowed. Robert felt himself to be inside that clump at the bottom of the tube. Such a small speck, as small as life itself, so unimportant, and yet this moment, now – Robert reached out his hand and touched her cheek. So soft. Her hazel eyes were like two mint candies. Elinor smiled again slightly, and then, without warning, stepped in closer, wrapping her arms around his neck.

“Thank you, Robert,” she said again, whispering into his ear. She brushed her lips against his cheek, then his lips. Before he could respond, she stepped away lightly, facing him. “Thank you for taking care of my cells.”

And then she turned, and ran out the door.


Robert continued to stay late in lab as often as he could. On most nights, Elinor came to meet him, and he would kiss her in the corner until she said she had to go and disappeared. The next morning, bottle #1 of media was always gone, the empty bottle thrown neatly in the biohazard bin beside the refrigerator.

Robert walked around during the day in a daze. His lab mates began asking him if he was okay; he shrugged them off. Kelly looked at him skeptically, but after he snapped at her when she asked him if he had ever figured out what happened to his missing media, she didn’t ask again.

People started to leave him alone, and Robert was glad. He stopped returning phone calls, didn’t answer the phone even when his old friend Jonah called him over and over, leaving message after message on his phone.

And so spring turned to summer, the days grew warm and the nights hot and sticky. Now Robert had a real excuse for why he was staying in the lab so much, and so late: it was too hot in his small apartment, and the lab had AC. He could stay there all night if he wanted and not arouse too much suspicion.

Robert felt himself slipping further and further away from reality. Day and night, he dreamed of Elinor, of the soft touch of her pale hand on his skin, the brush of her lips on his. Their intimacy never went beyond an hour or so of kissing in the corner of the cell culture room, and Robert couldn’t really say why. On more than one occasion, he had tried to invite her home with him, but she always said she had to go. She would look at him, though, with such a sweet, sad face, full of longing, that in the moment Robert never felt rejected, was merely drawn into a sense of longing with her. He couldn’t really explain what was happening to him; only that he felt bewitched.

But as the summer drew to a close, Robert’s stomach began to grip in a panic. Soon his rotation would end, and with it, his relationship with Elinor. Even if he decided to join this lab (which he now desperately wanted to do), he wasn’t sure if he would be accepted there, or when. Robert had been remiss, and had not even gone about planning his next steps, talking with the professors he’d worked with so far about potential thesis projects, or about additional rotation possibilities. He had distanced himself lately from the other lab members in his current rotation, and he knew that their word would mean a lot in recommending him or not for a permanent position. He also knew that while he gave off the appearance of working hard, staying late nights in the lab, that he was really not producing much data. He spent most of his time planning elaborate cell culture experiments that really had no purpose, just so that he could prepare more media, and be there, closer to her. He would collect cell lysates and run western blots without having any real question or hypothesis in mind. Robert knew that he had to pull himself together, but he also did not want to. For the first time in many years, he felt giddy with happiness.


And then the nightmares began. Robert dreamed of Elinor falling past the cell culture room window. He would reach for her, but was unable to stop her. Sometimes, she would be hovering outside the window, watching him split his cells; sometimes silent, other times whispering, “Robert, help me, I’m dying…”

Each time, he woke up in a sweat, not knowing what to do. On the fifth day of the nightmares he became feverish, and lay in bed for a week, barely able to get up to prepare himself food. He wished that Elinor would come to visit him. He felt that he was going crazy; kept searching the incubator that was his body for the knob to turn himself back to 37 degrees C but it could not be found and the increased temperature was making his brain cells go wild.

On the seventh night of his fever, she appeared to him more softly, as his eyes fluttered lightly with REM sleep prior to waking. A flowing white dress trailed behind her; her eyes were lit up radiantly.

“Who are you?” he whispered, “Tell me who you are…”

She reached out her hand, uncurling her fingers, then curling them back again.

“They’re your cells,” he whispered, under his breath, a bit louder this time. “Aren’t they?”

She closed her eyes gently, then opened them. “I gave them to Science,” she said, looking him directly in the eye, her gaze reflected onto the back of his retina, protected only by the fluttering of his still-closed lids. “And now Science is giving back to me.”

She turned and walked away, dress fluttering in synch with his lids. Robert opened his eyes. He was drenched in sweat, and he knew that his fever had broken.


Back in the lab, he busied himself with work. Made appointments to meet with his professors. He knew that he needed to get more serious, if he was going to continue with his PhD. He started talking to Kelly again, and noted her relieved surprise. He went through his notes, and began putting together a summary of his summer rotation project. Maybe there was something he could yet salvage. He told the others that he would be taking some time to write, and might not be at the bench for a while. And he stopped preparing bottles of media.

He knew that eventually she would appear again, though, and she did. There was no avoiding it. It’s not that he didn’t want to see her – he still longed for her, and he still wanted to understand what it all meant. Why had she chosen him, now – why had she come back? He also still wanted to love her, even though a part of him doubted whether she even really existed. It had felt so real; but the logical part of his brain doubted her reality. And he knew, also, that even if she was real, that keeping things going with her was only going to make it worse in the end, for him. That just like the other times in his life, love equaled pain and loss. It was his legacy. And so the only way to avoid one was to avoid the other.

But when she came to him that night, he didn’t try to resist. He allowed her to flood his senses, to numb his frontal cortex. She arrived this time looking gaunter than usual, enveloped in a haze of what looked like liquid nitrogen mist. As though she had been bottled up inside a tube of her frozen cells, and had managed, somehow, to escape.

“Robert,” she said, her eyes pleading.

“Robert,” she said again, when he didn’t respond, “I’m here to help you.”

He paused; unsure of what she meant. But when she reached out to touch him, he pushed her arm away. The mist, too, scattered gently.

“I’m here to help you,” she continued, more insistently this time. “To help you feel your pain, and to ease your guilt. But you need to feed me…”

She reached toward him again, but Robert slipped past her and ran out the door.

To be continued...