It takes an inordinate amount of effort to grow cells. Tiny building blocks of life that squirm and writhe, thirsty for nutrients and attention. But the cells I grow are made to be destroyed. Once they’re viable, in a placid pink solution, I will inject them with a toxin. Then I’ll watch the blood sport like a Roman emperor at an amphitheatre, and see which ones survive.
These cells originally came from a neurology patient in the seventies. It’s bizarre to think that after death you could be stored in these microscopic urns, silently waiting inside a laboratory freezer. I’ve been repeating this procedure for some months now. My boss doesn’t like the results I’ve produced, so here I am again, listening to the hum and whirr of the centrifuge.
Peter, the other research assistant staying late, is meeting up with the others at a restaurant. He asks me once more if I want to come along, but if I don’t get my results by tomorrow I’ll lose my job. Worse still, my boss will shout at me in front of everyone else again.
I say goodnight to Peter. I rather prefer the lab without his smug, pasty face. As I think this, I slot the last few tubes into the centrifuge. The coral liquid glistens in the clinical light, almost as if it is winking.
My boss may shout at me despite doing everything correctly. I’ve heard stories of him slamming petri dishes against the wall. I guess I’m holding out for that moment; it’ll signal me to finally leave. Or perhaps I’ll always remain inside this lab, silently waiting.
I’m usually left in the lab alone in the evenings. Between home and work, it’s the only time I get to soak in peace and quiet. And, of course, in the toilet, but no one wants to have fun there.
After I’ve had my third cup of coffee, I suit up outside the tissue culture lab with gloves and shoe covers and goggles. The centrifuge is oddly noisy but there’s still another few minutes on its spin, so I switch off the main lights.
The lab plunges into darkness, illuminated by small red and green lights dotted around and one laminar flow hood. I place my phone on the bench and turn the radio on. I have no idea what the song is but it’s upbeat, almost to a sickening point. Despite that, my shoulders loosen, thoughts disappearing into a cloud of noise. I turn up the volume so that it’s on par with the loud hum of the machines.
I know I can’t dance. It’s a fact that my four younger siblings haven’t let me forget since I tried that one time at a cousin’s thirteenth birthday party. Even my mum and the aunties laughed, making fun of me, like all families do. Almost like how my colleagues talk about me.
I push their faces out of my head and focus on the music. The beats are fast but repetitive and soon I’m lost in its flow. I don’t know what my limbs are doing, but I like how loose they feel. If I lived inside this song, perhaps I could make a different world for myself. One without aunties and bosses and cells.
A grinding noise rattles inside the centrifuge; one of the flasks has shattered inside. Perhaps there was a chip in it that I hadn’t noticed, but it doesn’t matter. Everything is ruined again.
Forty minutes later, I’m putting fresh flasks back inside the centrifuge, though cleaning the shards out has taken another half an hour. One shard has grazed across my gloved finger and drops of blood are smeared against the equipment.
Once I shut the lid, my shoulders tense. There’s no one else here, but I know there’s a telepathic connection between lab coats. My colleagues are sitting in that restaurant and will suddenly have an epiphany that ‘Did you hear? Sarla did something wrong again!’ And then they’ll joke and laugh and make fun of me over their burnt steak and rotten salads.
Sometimes, the very DNA wrapped into our chromosomes is changed by the environment of the cells. These changes can transform the way our DNA is read, and thus alter the output of that sequence of genes. This knock-on effect can have a multitude of repercussions on the individual.
It’s strange how our experiences can change the code of our existence, how memories can imprint on these invisible strands of life.
There is a thing sitting on the bench. I’d just wiped that same bench down before I left to get another cup of coffee. I’m outside the lab, donning my coat and shoe covers and goggles, but I can see it through the window on the door. I check my gloveless hands before rubbing my eyes. But no, I’m not imagining it.
The thing shimmers in the harsh white light, a translucent pink like carnations and flamingos, with glimmers of gold. It sits on the bench like a strange, abstract painting come to life in the middle of the lab. Its form is shapeless, though no bigger than a bedside table.
I push the door open just a crack. The thing doesn’t move, so I keep going. I step lightly, but the plastic shoe covers rustle on the floor. I almost wish the others were here with me, even pathetic Peter. I grab a micropipette from the tray and hold it over my shoulder. My hands sweat and shake, either from caffeine or fear, but I grip the pipette tightly.
This close and I can see the ceiling lights shine through the thing. It casts a pink glow all over me, turning my blue lab coat a faded purple.
I hold the pipette over the thing, pointed side facing towards it, and jab forwards. “Hey!”
My mouth goes dry.
I didn’t say that, did I?
I poke again to be sure.
“What are you doing!”
This is not my voice, though it is shrill and thick with annoyance.
The pipette comes back damp. The thing towers over me now, glistening yet expanding, a huge gelatinous mound. I walk backwards, circling around the spot, before I trip over my feet and fall to the floor. A loud sound resonates above the hum of machines, like a sigh.
“I was waiting for you to come back,” it says. Then, without so much a warning, it transforms, compressing itself into an oblong ball. Legs shoot out the bottom and rose- coloured shoulders extend into arms and fiddly fingers until a child perches atop the bench. A little boy sculpted from jelly.
“Am I hallucinating?” I whisper.
“What does ‘hallucinating’ mean?” the boy asks and drops to the floor. “Where am I?”
My hand brushes against shards of glass on the floor. A couple of blue flask lids are scattered across the grey linoleum. The centrifuge is open; inside, there are a few more broken shards and a bloody fingerprint, but nothing else.
“How did this break this again?” I say as I peer inside the equipment. “I made sure it was all secure.”
“I pushed it open.”
I jump in fright. The pink boy stands on his tiptoes next to me, pointed chin facing upwards to see over the bench.
“It was making me dizzy!” he protests and bounces on the balls of his feet. “All I remember was spinning and spinning and I felt sick, so I got out.”
The boy skips around the small lab and fiddles with beakers and buttons. There’s a large bench in the middle with several microscopes. He skids around this, one pink hand sliding across the bench. Where his hand leaves the surface, a wet patch remains, like a slug had found its way across the lab.
He stops in front of me and picks up the fallen micropipette from the floor. “What’s this?”
I try to swipe it from him, but he’s too quick, and before I know it he’s on top of the bench again.
“Give that back!” I say. “That’s not yours!”
His pink finger strokes its surface. “You tried to hit me with it.” He frowns—it’s difficult to see, but the light picks out his sculpted eyebrows and mouth—and tries to jab me with it.
“Hey, stop it!” I grab the pipette and pull; he falls to the floor like a paint splatter before growing back into a gummy child.
“This is a laboratory!” he says, his mouth stumbling over the long word. “Are you experimenting on me?”
“I’m not!” I retort. “I would never experiment on children!”
He folds his arms tightly against his small body and pouts. I’ve seen that look before on my youngest sister many times before. His jellied shoulders start to shake and a slow whine escapes from his lips.
“Now what?” I say and toss the pipette to the side. “Look, I don’t know where you’ve come from or... what exactly you are, but you have to leave.”
He cries louder and falls to the floor, dissolving into pink soup across the linoleum. His wails echo, ringing like nails on a chalkboard in a tunnel.
“Why are you upset?” I bark. I have an urge to stick my foot into the soup. “I can’t help you. You have to go so I can clean all this up.” But nothing stops him.
A pounding headache brews, the combination of a screeching child and half a dozen shots of caffeine.
I place my hands on my hips and take a deep breath. “Alright, you want to see something cool?”
The wailing falters. I take the chance.
“This is a microscope. You can see all sorts of interesting things through it. Come on, have a look!”
Like a moth to a flame, or a child to a treat, the pink soup whirls upwards and forms the little boy once more. I point to the device on the middle bench and flick the light switch on. The boy hops on to the stool and twirls around with his hands in the air before peering through the eyepiece.
“I can’t see anything,” he says.
“Give me a minute.” I pull out a flask from the incubator, one of the orange ones that are already dead. With a plastic pipette, I squeeze a drop of the cells on to a glass slide. I add a little bit of methylene blue stain and allow it to mix with the cells before placing the slide beneath the eyepiece and adjusting the focus.
The boy looks through. He’s silent for a moment before he whispers, “They’re like ants.”
I nod. “Or like tiny bits of blu-tack stuck together. That’s what a human cell looks like. That’s what you and I are made of—well, me more than you.”
“Look, some of them are moving!” He looks up at me from the eyepiece. “Does that mean they’re alive?”
I pause and mull it over. Though that particular flask wasn’t viable, there may have been a few cells that clung to life. Sure, cells are alive, as the basic building blocks of life. They need nutrients and attention to survive. But they don’t really have a life, like I do. Or, whatever sort of life I have. I tell him as much.
He sits back on his haunches and rubs his cheek before looking at his hand, and then mine. “What do you do with them?” he asks.
I shrug. “I grow them. I make sure they stay alive, and then...” My voice wanders off. “And then what?”
I’m not sure why I hesitate, why I’m even considering a jelly boy’s feelings.
“I give them a toxin, which is something poisonous, and see how many of them live.”
His eyes widen in horror, mouth hanging open. I expect another tantrum on the floor but before I can brace myself, he grabs the bottle of methylene blue and dips a finger inside.
“Hey, you can’t just do that—”
But he swats his other hand at me, leaving a wet stain on my face. I reel back in disgust and furiously wipe it away with my sleeve. He pushes the slide away and places a finger underneath the microscope. After he’s had a good look, he sits back and looks at me, finger still in place.
“I’m the same as the little ones on the slide,” he says.
“You can’t be,” I say. “You’re... conscious. Somehow. Your cells are alive, they shouldn’t be able to stain.”
He nods his head towards the microscope. I step forwards, eyeing him to make sure he doesn’t land another wet slap on my face.
His finger, now stained a deep blue, is stacked end-to-end with cells, a brick wall of nuclei with thin membranes.
“Now do yours,” he says, pushing the bottle of blue stain at me. “I’m not meant to put it on my skin,” I say.
“But I just put it on mine!”
I fold my arms. “You don’t have any skin. You’re just, all cells.” “But that’s what you said we all are!”
I sit on the stool next to him and wipe away the drops of stain on the bench.
“We are,” I say softly. “But you came from a little boy many years ago. He was quite poorly, but his cells were still growing after he passed away. Those cells were from his brain.”
The jelly boy says nothing else. He doesn’t quite melt this time, as if he’s trying very hard not to be upset, but his head is bowed and his arms sag and elongate on either side of the stool.
With no one to look after him, I’m not sure what will happen to this jumble of cells. I certainly can’t take him home and feed him myself. Tiny cells in a flask are tough enough, let alone a whole boy-shaped concoction ready to explode into a tantrum.
Perhaps he’ll become a poltergeist of the lab. He could glug down bottles of nutrient solution and whirl around the centrifuge after hours like his own personal playground. Maybe he’ll ruin some of Peter’s experiments for me. But for now, he looks sad.
“You want to hear something cool?” I say and place my phone on the bench. I turn the radio on.
We dance a little, and he laughs at the way my arms flail around. But I don’t mind so much. I laugh along, too.
Madeehah is a pharmacist and freelance content writer from London, UK. She writes short stories and creative essays and is currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing. You can find more of her work throughTwitter: @madeehahwrites