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The ghost of cells past, Part 2

From the LabLit short story series

Deborah Flusberg 26 December 2019

But as he stood there with the door open, about to slam it shut again, his heart suddenly froze as though flooded with liquid nitrogen

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

That night at his apartment, Robert dreamed of his sister in the cancer ward of the children’s hospital. Her head was bare, hair long gone, but her eyes were smiling. She stretched out her arm, and he tried to take her hand. But he couldn’t reach. Suddenly there was a large barricade between them, transparent but unmovable. He tried to break it, pounded on it with his fist, but it would not crack. His sister began to cry. Only then it wasn’t his sister anymore, it was the woman from the coffee room. Hair tied back in a kerchief, eyes complacent. Wondering what he would do. The glass began to shatter, but Robert was afraid he would cut himself if he stuck his arm through.

Robert woke in a sweat, shaking. Sat up in bed, saw that it was eight in the morning and the sun was shining through the window of his small studio apartment. He ran his hands through his hair, trying to change the channel in his head. He hadn’t dreamed about his sister in a long time. He had tried to forget about those days, to bury them deep inside of himself, cleanly, where they would not hurt or scratch. He preferred to remember his sister as the smiling little girl that she was before she got sick. How they used to hide together under the bed when they were in the middle of a game, Monopoly or Othello, and their mother was calling them down to have supper. How they would run together in the park, he, the older brother, taking her hand to protect her. They had built a little fort in the trees by the brook behind their house that only they knew about, and sometimes they would hide there too.

Robert felt a pang of pain in his intestines as he thought of those memories.

“Damn!” He punched the table beside his bed. He didn’t want to feel this again. It was an old pain, carried with him over the years, but sufficiently locked away in a drawer so as to not interfere too much with his life.

“It was her time,” people had said, adults mainly, trying to comfort him. “She was always a little angel, and she is a real angel now.”

He had hated it when they said things like that. He would run away, outside to the little brook behind the house, to be by himself. Cried there, once, and then told himself that he had to pull himself together, to not cry anymore. And so, bravely, he had stood up, and decided then and there to put it behind him. After that, he would not speak of her. He could tell that his parents and teachers looked at each other worriedly when he passed by, thinking that something was wrong with him. But nothing was wrong with him. It was they who had something wrong with them. He knew what he had to do. For himself. For her.

Robert sat up on the side of his bed as the morning sun streamed across his bare legs. Looked around for his socks, his shirt. Stood up and went into his small kitchen to make a cup of coffee. Coffee usually made him feel better. He had started drinking it when he was sixteen, younger than most other people he knew. He poured himself a bowl of cereal and then realized that he was out of milk. Oh well. He could pick up some breakfast on the way to lab.

The weather was warm and Robert hopped on his bike, riding past the shops of the small town center, toward the lab. On the outskirts of the campus he stopped at a popular coffee shop and bought a croissant. A girl at one of the corner tables tried to get his attention but he pretended not to see her. Connie was her name. They had gone out, or more like hung out, a couple of times, but for some reason Robert just hadn’t felt like seeing her again. So he hadn’t called. He’d felt bad, a little; she was a nice enough girl, really. Pretty, too. But it was often like that with him: something nagging him on the inside, telling him to move on. Girls liked him, but he usually got tired of them after a few days or weeks.

He’d had only had one girlfriend really, back when he was still in high school. When he thought of Arielle he winced, as though a sharp object was literally jabbing him on the inside. He had loved Arielle. She had been there for him, gently, unassumingly, during those years when he was trying to pick up the pieces, figuring out how to go on living. His parents had become distracted, distant in their own grief, and the few friends he’d had in middle school had distanced themselves from him too, or he had distanced himself from them; he wasn’t sure which. He’d been a bit of a loner in high school, until Arielle. She had given him the courage to live again.

Until he had pushed her away too. Robert bit bitterly into his croissant, leaning against the outdoor bicycle rack as it made a dent in his behind. He remembered kissing Arielle in the field behind the school stadium, like in that song he liked to hum along with on the radio sometimes. Only her eyes were blue, not brown. Robert swallowed the last of his croissant, unlocked his bike. The day awaited: he would have to save his sorry musings for another time.

By the time he got to lab, Robert had forgotten about his memories of the past and was humming a tune. It was a beautiful day, one of the nicest so far of the early spring. Pink flowers were bursting from their buds like ballet slippers on the feet of five-year-old girls kicking their impatience to start their dance lessons. Birds tweeted messages like postmen in the sky. Robert was feeling good. Today he would run a western blot of the samples he had collected from the cells the day before, and his cowboy self was kicking his heels in anticipation. He had very little cell culture to do today – just to check and maybe feed his cells. They wouldn’t need to be passaged until Friday.

When he got to his desk, his baymates, Kelly and Mark, were already there. It seemed that everyone was feeling perky that spring morning.

“Hey!” said Kelly when he walked in. “How did your experiment go yesterday?”

“Great,” said Robert. “I’m running the western blot today. Do you have some sample buffer I can borrow?”

After getting some sample buffer from Kelly, Robert walked around the lab collecting the items he would need for his western blot: bucket of ice, lysates collected yesterday from the freezer, various pieces of the gel apparatus. Robert whistled a tune as he set up. Really, everything was grand and he was happy with his rotation choice. Maybe he would even stay in this lab for his thesis project: the people were nice, the boss a bit absent but very smart and friendly. Come to think of it, maybe he would even give Connie a call. He really shouldn’t have ignored her in the coffee shop.

While his samples were thawing, Robert wandered into the cell culture room to quickly check on his cells. He removed the plates, one by one, and looked at them under the small microscope. Still fairly sparse; he could definitely wait until Friday to split them again.

Then, on a whim, he opened the refrigerator door. Reflex, perhaps, or habit; since he didn’t actually need anything from within. But as he stood there with the door open, about to slam it shut again, his heart suddenly froze as though flooded with liquid nitrogen. Hadn’t he put the fresh bottle of media right there, at the front of the shelf? Quickly, with shaking hands, Robert fumbled through the various items on his shelf, and on the shelf next to his, and then the one above and below. Seriously? Again? Was someone playing a joke on him?

Robert went back to his bay and said to Kelly, “You’re not going to believe this. My media is missing again.”

Kelly looked at him warily. “Are you sure you didn’t put it somewhere else by mistake?”

Robert was sure that he hadn’t. He had been so mystified about losing his media the first time that he had made a mental note to himself the other day as to exactly where he’d put it.

“Minds can be tricky things…” said Kelly. “Do you want me to help you look for it?”

He didn’t like her tone – just because he was a first-year grad student didn’t mean that he couldn’t keep track of things.

“Do you think someone could be playing a trick on me?” he asked Kelly again, ignoring her implications. “Or intentionally sabotaging me?”

“I think you’re being paranoid,” Kelly said. “Why would anyone do that?”

Robert shrugged. He didn’t really know people here well enough to make that call. And there were more people floating around, from other departments, people neither of them knew very well. Maybe one of them was a sociopath.

“Well, nothing like that has ever happened before,” said Kelly. “And I can’t imagine anyone from our lab doing that. Not even as a joke. I can’t vouch for strangers passing through…but then again, why would they want to steal your media?”

Robert decided to let it go, and continued with his western blot. Maybe the bottle of media would show up later. Maybe someone had borrowed it, and would put it back on his shelf when they were done. No harm there. And if, by the next day, it had not reappeared, he would ask around. Try to play along. He had talked to almost everyone in the department when it had happened last time; maybe someone really was just messing with his head.

Robert loaded his samples onto the gel, plugged in the electrodes and let it run for an hour while he sat at his computer and speculated. Maybe he was being paranoid; it was something he had been accused of before. Like when in college, his favorite CD had gone missing, and he had assumed that one of his roommates had stolen it, to get back at him for leaving a mess in the kitchen. This proclivity to suspicion had arisen within him after his sister had died, when he had felt as though God, the Universe, and the World were against him. However, he had done some work on that in his later college years, some personal introspection, and he thought that he had mostly conquered that demon. But what else could he think, now? Something was up; he didn’t know what. He was sure he had placed that bottle of media in its spot on the shelf.

When his gel finished running, Robert busied himself with the next step of the process, blotting it onto a small piece of nitrocellulose filter paper. This was also an “electrophoretic” process, using electrical current to transfer the proteins out of the gel and onto the paper. The setup was an intricate mixture of art and craft, kind of like getting the hang of paper maché or collage. Robert had never considered himself to be much of an artist, but he enjoyed meticulously transforming the slippery wet gel and nitrocellulose filter paper combination into a neat “sandwich”, surrounded on both sides by thicker sheets of paper and a couple of sponges to buffer the current, all encased in a plastic device that held it together. Red to red, black to black – the sides of the plastic device were colored according to their corresponding electrodes. He dropped the sandwich into its buffer-filled container, plugged in the electrodes, and set it to run in the cold room for two hours.

For the rest of the day, Robert intentionally did not go into the cell culture room. He wanted to wait and see whether his bottle of media would show up, and he didn’t want to check obsessively every hour. He removed his blot from the sandwich, happy to see that his proteins had transferred perfectly. He finished the steps of the protocol and then added the detection antibody to incubate overnight. Easy Peasy. Then he went home, made himself a nice dinner, and fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.


The next day, he finished the detection steps on his western blot, and although the levels of the tumor suppressor protein he was probing for had not changed as much as he had hoped in response to his treatment, the controls worked, meaning that at least technically everything was okay. It was a first step: in his next experiment, he could vary the treatments slightly, to see if he got a better result. He spent some time at his computer, fiddling with the images and plotting the intensity of the bands.

By the end of the day, he couldn’t wait any longer, and went to check the cell culture room. He stood for a long moment by the refrigerator door, almost afraid to open it. He wasn’t sure what he would do if the bottle of media still wasn’t there; but he also wasn’t sure what he would do if it was. He pretty much expected that it wouldn’t be there, and that he’d again have to make up a new bottle. Otherwise, he’d have to figure out who had returned it, and where it had been all this time.

Robert slid the glass door to the right by its handle, just enough to peer into the side of his shelf. He blinked. There was his bottle of media…only it was nearly empty, only about 100ml remaining. He remembered distinctly that he had put it back at three-quarters full, maybe 700ml out of one liter. Had someone actually taken his media and used it? 600ml at once? That seemed like a lot. Definitely more than someone should borrow without asking. And once again Robert was mystified, since no one in his lab that he knew of was growing cells that required this particular media mixture.

And then, from the corner of his eye, Robert caught a glimpse of the woman, the one from the coffee room. She did not stop to do anything or even to look at him; she just walked in one door and out the other, on the opposite side of the room from where Robert stood, still gripping the refrigerator’s sliding door. She left a slight scent of soap behind her, a clean, nice smell, and Robert felt his eyes following her; but by the time he turned to look, all he caught was the tail of her scarf, flowing in her wake.

Once again, in spite of himself, Robert was transfixed. He wanted to follow her… but who was she? Did she work in the department? Maybe Kelly would know who she was… yes, he would ask Kelly. And then he would find her. And talk to her. Yes, that’s what he would do. Robert paused, shutting the refrigerator door.

But could she… have anything to do with his missing media? The thought flitted through Robert’s mind, just quickly enough for him to dismiss it. She did have an uncanny way of slithering by, in and out, without saying anything. And yet – Robert didn’t want to think that. He wanted – he knew that he wanted to talk to her. There was something about her that made him feel like he needed to get to know her better.

Robert decided to go back to his desk and finish analyzing his data. He had plenty to do without having to seed cells for a new experiment. He would stay late to do some work on the computer; record his experiments, maybe, from last week. One couldn’t overstate the need to be organized, to write everything down. Besides, Robert still enjoyed being in the lab at night, when no one else was around. It was quiet, and he could silence the noisy rumbles inside of his head. He said a muted goodbye to Kelly when she left and tried to catch his attention; he didn’t really feel like chatting. He wanted some time alone, to organize his thoughts and plans. Robert turned on the stereo that sat above the bench next to his. Some nice soft rock would perfectly fit the bill. He turned back to his bench.

And that’s when he saw her. Standing there, right before his eyes. Watching him. She was not moving this time, or trying to get away. Just looking at him, silently, the red scarf around her head like a picture frame. Robert noticed, this time, that her hair was shorter than it had been before; or perhaps it was tied back.

“Who are you?” he whispered, turning to face her.

She did not speak, but instead walked toward him. He reached out to touch her; felt her hand in his, its clammy coolness. He thought that he would turn into a dripping puddle of ice cream.

“Thank you,” she said.

Robert didn’t know what she was thanking him for, but it didn’t matter. Her eyes were indeed hazel, as he had imagined. Robert held his breath, waited. Gently, she let go of his hand, touched his cheek, smiling, and then turned to walk away.

“Wait!” Robert called out after her, his voice barely a whisper. “What’s your name?”

But she had already turned the corner around Robert’s lab bay, and disappeared. Robert stood staring after her. After a few moments had passed, he realized that he was still standing in the same spot, the music from the radio still playing in the background. Brown-Eyed Girl. As he snapped back into reality, he was barely sure that this meeting had really happened. Was he dreaming? Sleepwalking?

He decided to follow her. After he turned the first corner, she re-appeared, then turned another corner, swiftly, silently, toward the cell culture room. Robert tip-toed after her. Her dress swirled gently in the breeze of her wake, red scarf trailing behind her like a bird’s wings. She headed toward the deli-fridge. Slid open the glass door. Robert stood behind the entrance to the room, hidden, watching. He couldn’t believe what he saw. She stuck her hands into the fridge and pulled out his bottle of media, the one that he had left there, nearly empty but still containing 100 or so ml of bright red liquid. Slowly but with determination, she unscrewed the orange cap on the bottle. Brought the clear plastic bottle up to her mouth…and began to drink.