Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Dr. Doomuch

When I was an undergraduate at Brigham Young University (BYU) I worked several years as volunteer research assistant in a cancer lab on the eighth floor of the Widtsoe Building (WIDB). I was working on a death curve (treat the cancer cells with a chemical and then count them every two hours for twenty-four hours to determine how quickly they're dying) and I was in the lab around 2 am. The building was empty and kind of spooky. When I was working in the laminar flow hood, a BYU security guard came into the lab. I didn't hear her because the hood was kind of noisy. She got right up behind me and asked, loudly, "May I see your ID?" She scared me half to death with that little stunt. I used that as inspiration for writing a horror story for the BYU 38th Ward Book Club.[1][2] Read on if you dare! Happy Hallowe'en!

NOTE: I've annotated this story, but I recommend you read it all the way through before reading the notes.

Suzy sat in her living room, doing English homework. One leg was tucked under her and the other was draped over the arm of the couch, kicking. She sort of leaned over to one side, hunched over her textbook, staring down at it with half-focused eyes. She was thinking about changing her major to MFHD—English teaching just wasn’t going to cut it.[3]

The phone rang and Suzy leaped to answer it. For the last couple of weeks, she and Phil Rogers had been getting to know each other pretty well and Suzy was just dying for him to ask her out. He had light brown hair, warm brown eyes, and a smile that over the last two weeks had made her dizzy more than once. She put her hand on the receiver, took a deep breath, and raised it to her ear.


“Hi, is Becky there?” asked a male voice.

Suzy sighed in disappointment—it wasn’t Phil.

“Yeah, just a second. Let me go get her.” Suzy set down the receiver and began walking over to the stairs so she could call Becky down from her room. Just then, the doorbell rang.

“Becky, phone,” Suzy yelled up the stairs, moving to open the door.

She turned the doorknob and pulled the door back. There, standing on the porch, was Phil. Suzy’s eyes opened wide for a split second and then she regained her composure.

“Hi, Phil!” she said, brightly. “Come on in.”

Phil smiled (Suzy felt dizzy) and stepped inside. As Suzy shut the door she heard Becky come barreling down the stairs.

“Who is it?”

“I don’t know, I didn’t ask. I was busy answering the door.”

“Okay,” said Becky and dashed into the kitchen.

Suzy turned back and smiled at Phil—he didn’t look dizzy at all.

“What’s up?” Suzy asked.

Suddenly Phil got fidgety and wouldn’t look her in the eye. A splinter of hope shot into Suzy’s heart and she held her breath.

“I…uh…I was wondering if you’d like to go see the new Harry Potter movie with me this weekend?”

Suzy pretended to think—she didn’t want to appear too anxious. But her heart was screaming, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” like an Herbal Essences commercial.

“Sure,” she said, casually.

Phil’s eyes brightened. “Really?”

Suzy nodded, smiling coyly.

A silly grin spread across Phil’s face. “Okay, then. I guess I’ll see you Friday. Pick you up at six?”

Suzy nodded again.

Phil walked backwards, caught the doorknob without turning around, and let himself out of the apartment. As soon as he was far enough away that Suzy was sure he wouldn’t hear, she let out a scream of sheer joy.

“Shhhh!” Becky whispered from the kitchen. “I’m trying to talk to Tyler.”

“Sorry,” Suzy whispered back.

The days that ensued before Saturday were a myopic blur for Suzy. Even an American Heritage [4] test wasn’t enough to derail her enthusiasm. Then Saturday morning fell on her like an Amazonian rain. Suddenly it seemed that six o’clock would never arrive. She paced around the house fretting until she’d driven all of her roommates bonkers. They all finally left just to get away from her. As the hour neared, Suzy was beset with all the feminine fears that precede a date, including what to wear. It was essential that Phil be impressed. Finally she decided on a cute little pink and white outfit.

When Phil picked her up, he seemed to eat her up with his eyes. Suzy was pleased that he liked her clothes so much—this boded well.

After the movie they went to Ben and Jerry’s for some ice cream. While they were eating their dessert, Suzy and Phil chatted.

“I’m thinking of changing my major,” Suzy confessed.

“Oh, really? Why’s that?”

“English teaching is a lot harder than I expected it to be.”

“What are you going to change to?”

“MFHD. I want to be a stay-at-home mom, anyway.” She gave Phil (what she thought was) a significant look. He didn’t seem to notice.

“Well, being pre-Med isn’t easy either, but it’s worth it,” Phil said.

“Really? Doesn’t seem like it would be, to me.”

“Oh, but it is. I’ll be able to help lots of people as a doctor. In fact, I’m already helping people.”

“By doing what?” asked Suzy.

“I’ve been volunteering time during the week in the cancer lab.”

“Oh, wow,” Suzy cooed, wondering how long they’d have to date before Phil tried to kiss her.

“It’s on the eighth floor of the Widtsoe Building.[5] I could take you up there if you wanted to see it. What do you say?”

Suzy thought it sounded kind of weird, but Phil was cute. “Sure.”

So, after they finished eating their ice cream, Phil and Suzy went up to BYU campus. While they were riding the elevator up to the eighth floor of the Widtsoe, Suzy stared hopefully at Phil. But he didn’t seem to notice; he was too excited to be taking her to the cancer lab. The elevator slowed and a beep announced their arrival. Suzy stepped out feeling a little discouraged. It looked like this was going to be one of those typical cases where she liked a guy more than he liked her. She sighed.

Phil led her down the hall (Suzy wished he’d taken her hand) and stopped at a wooden door. He punched a six-digit code into the keypad underneath the door handle. A series of beeps and a green light indicated that the door was now open. Phil shoved down on the handle and pushed the door open to let Suzy inside.

They both put on sterile-looking white lab coats and Phil led her past several microscopes and a fume hood (she recognized it from Chem 105) to several squatty gray boxes that looked like tiny refrigerators.

“We keep our cancer cells in these incubators,” said Phil.

“You grow cancer cells?” asked Suzy, incredulously.

“Yep,” said Phil. “I’ll show you.”

He sprayed ethanol on his hands with a spray bottle and opened up one of the incubators. He pulled three flat-edged flasks out of the incubator and tightened their plastic lids. Phil took these flasks over to a microscope, which he turned on. He placed one of the flasks sideways on the microscope and began adjusting the magnification.

“There, that looks pretty good.”

“Can I see?” asked Suzy.

“Sure thing,” Phil says, smiling. “That’s why we brought you up here, isn’t it?”

Suzy smiled back and stepped up to the microscope. Tiny, circular, almost-transparent blobs floated dismally in a warm yellow sea.

“Those are cancer cells?” Suzy asked with a hint of surprise.

“Yep. Leukemia, to be precise.”

Suzy shuddered.

“Do you want to look at the others?”

Suzy shook her head no—she’d seen enough.

Phil turned off the microscope and gathered up the three flasks he’d gotten out. He took them back to the incubator. Before putting them back in, he sprayed them with ethanol and loosened the lids.

“Why do you do that?” asked Suzy.

“Oh, the ethanol kills any bacteria that might contaminate the flasks. And I crack open the lids so that the cancer cells can get enough carbon dioxide—they need about five percent or they die. That’s how much there is in the incubators.” Phil put the flasks back in and shut the door of the incubator.

“When we work with our cancer cells, we have to do it in the hood,” Phil said, gesturing. “The air flow prevents bacteria from getting in and contaminating our cells. Sometimes…”

“What is it?” asked Suzy.

Phil looked at her seriously, as though deciding whether or not he could trust her. “Sometimes, when I’m up here alone, working in the hood with my cancer cells, they…they talk to me.”

Suzy stared at Phil for a second and then burst into fits of laughter. When she finally had herself under control again, she asked, “You’re kidding, right?”

“Yeah,” Phil said, with a smile that almost seemed fake. “I’m kidding.”

Suzy laughed nervously and moved toward the door. Phil shut off the lights and suddenly the room was bathed in a harsh blue light that emanated from the hood.

“Wh—what is that?” asked Suzy.

“That’s UV light. It kills any bacteria that might get into the hood while it’s turned off.”

“Oh,” said Suzy, looking up at Phil. In the strange light his eyes glowed strangely.

Phil reached out his hand—Suzy jumped—and he opened the door.

“Shall we?” he asked.

Suzy nodded. From there they went ice skating at the Peaks Ice Arena. Suzy had a wonderful time. Phil was absolutely horrible at skating and only once made it all the way around the rink by himself without falling. After several times around, watching him clutch the side, Suzy grabbed him by the hand and dragged him out onto the ice. He immediately switched from clutching the side to clutching her—a very pleasurable experience for Suzy. She would skate with him for a while, and then, when he seemed to be getting the hang of it, she’d let go and watch his eyes widen in abject terror. “Don’t do that!” he’d always say, after falling down. But he looked much too cute to stop and he never really lost his temper, so Suzy did it several times.

When Phil finally took Suzy home, he was sore and exhausted. At the door, Suzy gave him a hug and pulled out of it slowly, hoping to tantalize him. He looked down at her in earnest. “Would you like to go out with me again, some time?”

“Yes,” Suzy said with a silky voice.

“How about Thursday?”

“Sounds good!” Suzy said. Then she opened the door to her apartment and went inside.

At church on Sunday, Phil sat by her in Sacrament Meeting and Sunday School. More than one girl cast a jealous glance her way. But he didn’t show up for ward prayer. Like the week before, time passed like a high-speed train and before she knew it, Thursday had arrived. Around noon, Phil called Suzy on her cell phone and told her that he’d be making her dinner, so not to eat. He said she could just come over at five and he’d have it all ready.

As the hour hand on the clock crawled towards the five, Suzy lost her patience and left her apartment. Since none of her roommates were home, she locked the door behind her. She wrapped a mauve scarf around her neck and began walking to Phil’s. On her way, she passed Mike, Phil’s roommate.

“Hey, Mike!” she said.

“Hi, Suzy. On your way to see Phil?”

Suzy nodded enthusiastically. “He’s feeding me, tonight.”

Mike gave her an odd stare and Suzy instantly realized that that had sounded kind of weird.

“I mean, he’s cooking me dinner, tonight,” she corrected.

“Oh.” Mike’s smile returned. “Well, you two have fun. I’m on my way up to the library to do some studying.”

“Bye,” said Suzy, waving.

She turned and continued on her way. She dashed up the concrete steps to Phil’s apartment and pressed her thumb over the doorbell.

She heard a muffled, “Come in,” through the door.

Suzy let herself in and was almost instantly assaulted with the rich aroma of homemade lasagna. A new appreciation found its way into Suzy’s heart. Not only was he good-looking, but he could cook, too! That was impressive. Suzy shut the door behind her. She took off her coat and scarf and set them down over the back of the couch in the living room.

“Is that you, Suzy?” Phil’s voice rang out from the kitchen.

“Yes!” Suzy called back.

“Come on in and have a seat—make yourself at home. Dinner will be ready in just a couple of minutes.”

Suzy sat down and began looking around the room. Phil and Mike kept their apartment pretty spare. They had the obligatory television set, DVD player, and XBox. But there wasn’t much to look at in the way of decorations…except for a large black-and-white poster on the wall. It featured a balding man with large glasses wearing what looked like a lab coat.

“Hey, Phil. Who’s this poster of?”

“Oh, that? That’s Judah Folkman.”[6]

“Who’s he?”

“He’s known as the ‘Cancer Warrior.’ He discovered that cancer tumors can induce angiogenesis.”


“Angiogenesis. It’s when veins and arteries to grow towards the tumor, bringing it blood. In other words, it’s how cancer tumors feed themselves.”

“Oh,” said Suzy, not wanting to press the issue further.

Just then Phil appeared in the doorway, still wearing an apron.

“Dinner is a-served,” he said in a mock-Italian accent.

Suzy smiled at him and stood. She looped her arm through one of his and let him escort her into the kitchen. Laid out smartly on the dinner table was the lasagna with a green salad and rolls. Suzy was pleased to note that Phil was smart enough not to use candles—it was only their second date, after all.

Suzy devoured her meal, but did so daintily. But there was no disguising the fact that she was relishing every bite. Phil had cooked an excellent meal and she was pleased. After they’d eaten, Suzy remembered something she’d been wanting to ask Phil.

“Hey, why weren’t you at Ward Prayer on Sunday?”[7]

“Oh, I couldn’t make it. I had to run up to campus and feed my cancer cells. Speaking of which,” he glanced down at his watch. “I still haven’t fed them today. I still need to go do that.

Phil looked up at Suzy. “You want to come?” he asked, smiling eagerly.

Suzy didn’t really want to go back up there, but decided it was worth it if she could spend a little more time with Phil. If she spent enough time with him, he might still come around and get serious.

“Sure,” she said.

She put her coat and scarf back on and stepped out into the chill air. Phil locked his apartment and then led her to his car. He got her door for her and then ran around to the driver’s side, while Suzy tried to stay warm. As soon as he had the car going, he turned on the heater and then began driving. They quickly reached campus, but had to park in one of the A lots because the gate was still closed until seven. As they walked up to the Widtsoe Building, Suzy looped her arm through his and leaned slightly into him. He didn’t seem to resist.

When they reached the cancer lab, they both put on lab coats and Suzy watched as Phil placed a variety of objects into the hood, including the flasks that held the cancer cells. As he did so, Phil explained to Suzy what he was doing. Using a pipetteman, Phil transferred ten milliliters of a red liquid into the flasks.

“This is growth medium,” he said. “It’s full of carbohydrates, amino acids, vitamins, and other nutrients that the cancer cells need. One of the main components in the media is fetal calf serum.”

“What’s that?” asked Suzy.

“Basically it’s calf blood.”[8]

“Oh, my gosh!” said Suzy. “Those poor calves!”

Phil stopped what he was doing and stared at her for a second.

“You know,” he finally said. “They really don’t like the growth media I feed them. They want something more substantial.”

“What do you mean?” Suzy asked.

“Just that they’d rather I fed them something other than growth medium. They’re kind of sick of it.”

“How do you know that?” Suzy asked.

“They told me.”

Suzy caught her breath. “What do you mean?”

“I told you. Sometimes when I’m up here alone, the cancer cells talk to me.”

“You said you were kidding!”

“Well, I wasn’t. They really do talk to me.”

Suzy stared at him, her mouth slightly open. “I think I’d better go home,” she said. Her fingers shook as she undid the buttons on her lab coat.

“If you wait just a few minutes, I’ll take you home.” He wasn’t blinking.

“No thanks. I think I’ll walk.”

Phil started to protest as Suzy tried to hang up her lab coat. She missed the hook and it fell to the ground. She stared at it for a moment and then rushed out the door. Her heart raced as she waited for the elevator, watching to see if Phil would follow her out into the hall. When the elevator arrived, he still hadn’t come out. With a sigh of relief, she stepped in and pressed the button for the ground floor.

Suzy didn’t see Phil again for three days. When she finally did, it was in the computer lab of the SWKT.[9] He was engrossed in his computer screen, so Suzy went and quickly sat somewhere he wouldn’t be able to see her. After he’d gotten all weird on her, she didn’t feel like talking—or even making eye contact. When she left, he was no longer there.

The next day as Suzy was making herself dinner, the phone rang. No one else was home and she didn’t want to answer it because it might be Phil. After the third ring, staring at the phone with her eyebrows knit, Suzy finally picked up the receiver.


“Suzy? Is that you?” Fear flooded into Suzy’s heart and she almost slammed down the phone. She took a moment to regain her composure and then answered.

“Yes, Phil. It’s me.”

“I need you to come up to the cancer lab,” he rasped.

“Why, Phil?” her voice trembled a little bit. “I don’t like it up there and you’re scaring me!”

“I need your help!” His voice was almost a whisper. “The cancer cells got out and they spread everywhere. They’ve got me!”

This was followed by a sharp clang and then a dial tone. Suzy listened in shock for a few seconds and then slowly hung up the receiver. Her mind raced. This must be some kind of sick joke, she thought. Suzy decided to ignore the phone call. Even though her pulse was pounding she managed to set her mind on other things. But after a couple of hours, Suzy began to worry. If it was just a prank, why hadn’t he called back?

Eventually, Suzy decided to drive up to campus and see what was going on. She doubted that the cancer cells had taken over, but it had sounded like something was genuinely wrong. As she was driving up ninth east, she began berating herself. Why didn’t I try calling his roommates? she wondered. She almost turned around right then to go do just that.[10] But by that time she was so close to campus, that there was no point in turning back.

The sun had already gone down and the gate was open. Suzy found a parking spot by the south end of the Widtsoe Building and walked in. There was no one in the halls—which made Suzy immediately feel vulnerable. She walked to the southwest corner of the building and pressed the button to call the elevator. There was a brief whooshing noise and then a beep sounded as the doors slid open. Suzy clenched her hands, stepped inside, and pressed the button for the eighth floor. The door slid shut again and began sliding upwards.

When the elevator stopped, Suzy’s heart fluttered. She stepped out into the hallway of the eighth floor barely breathing. Almost all of the lights were off. Dark gray shadows were everywhere. Through the crack at the bottom of the cancer lab door, Suzy could see the ominous blue glow of the UV light in the hood.

Hesitantly, she knocked. No one answered. But then Suzy noticed that the door was slightly ajar. She gave the door a gentle push. It swung out and then closed again. She stopped it before it could click shut. She pushed it open again and took a step into the room that glowed light blue.

Before she could react a large hand loomed in her sight and clamped a stinky rag over her mouth. Another caught her by the arm and twisted it behind her back. Suzy tried to scream, but nothing came out. She recognized the smell on the rag—she’d smelled it before when they synthesized it in her O-Chem Lab. It was chloroform.

“I was starting to wonder if you were coming,” whispered Phil in a malicious voice.

Suzy tried to scream again, but still to no avail. The fumes quickly overwhelmed her and she collapsed in a heap on the floor.

*          *          *          *          *

When Suzy awoke, the cancer lab was still dark. A gag was stuffed in her mouth, preventing her from screaming. Her arms and legs were tied down, too, making it impossible to move. She breathed hard through her nose, trying frantically to think of some way to escape.

On the other side of the lab, mostly obscured by the omnipresent darkness, Suzy could see Phil standing by an open incubator. He was humming softly to himself. It sounded like a lullaby, but Suzy couldn’t think which one it was. Phil glanced over as he shut the incubator.

“Ah, Suzy. You’re awake.” He began walking towards her; he had something in his hand.

Suzy tried to scream and struggled against her bonds. Phil stopped next to her and stared down into her eyes, intently.

“The cancer cells are glad you’re here,” he murmured.

Suzy’s eyes widened.

Phil turned away and walked to a nearby counter. He began doing something, but Suzy couldn’t see what it was. As he worked, he talked over his shoulder. “You know, things would’ve been a lot easier if you’d believed me from the start. I tried to let you know how important these cancer cells are to me, but you wouldn’t listen. They’re no longer normal cancer cells. They’ve mutated so much that they’ve evolved. They’ve achieved consciousness. I don’t think you believed me when I told you that they talked to me.” He stopped to sigh.

“But they do talk to me. And I talk to them. I ask them what they want and they tell me. And now they’re telling me they want you.”

Phil turned around and Suzy finally saw what he was holding in his hand. It was a syringe and he’d already sucked up cancer cells into it. Suzy tried to suck in her breath, but the cloth in her mouth made her gag. She began thrashing, but this didn’t seem to bother Phil.

He stepped near to her and reached out his hand. With incongruous gentility, he reached down and began to caress her arm.

“Don’t you see? This way the cancer cells can continue to grow! This way my two greatest loves in life can become one!” He slowly pulled his hand away.

Darkness settled over Suzy as Phil plunged the needle into her arm and emptied its contents into her bloodstream.


[1] Read my first horror story from that year at my post Lightbearer and my second story from that year at my post Boo.

[2] I never explain the title in the story, but it is an allusion to the stories about Dr. Doolittle, who could talk to animals.

[3] MFHD stands for Marriage, Family, and Human Development.

[4] This is a class offered at BYU that covers the history and government of the United States.

[5] This story will soon be dated since BYU is building a new Life Sciences building, which should be complete in 2014. When everything has been transferred over to the new building, the WIDB will presumably be demolished. You can see a panorama which includes the WIDB (left) and one of the cranes for constructing the new Life Sciences Building (right) here (scroll down). And you can see a mini-planet which includes the WIDB (top, center) and another of the cranes (left) here (scroll down).

[6] See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judah Folkman.

[7] This is a practice common among LDS congregations that are composed of unmarried young adults. Such a congregation is usually referred to as a 'singles ward'. On Sunday evening the singes will gather together ostensibly to have a brief prayer meeting together—hence, Ward Prayer. But it is generally understood that the real purpose of Ward Prayer is to encourage the singles to commingle, get to know each other, and eventually try dating each other.

[8] He is oversimplifying here. When you remove erythrocytes (red blood cells), leukocytes (white blood cells), and thrombocytes (platelets) from blood, you have plasma left over. This is what is donated by many struggling college students (and I'm told homeless people, too). When you further remove clotting factors from the plasma, you have serum left over.

[9] The SWKT is a building on BYU campus. The acronym stands for Spencer W. Kimball Tower. It is named after the LDS prophet, Spencer W. Kimball. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spencer W. Kimball.

[10] Obviously I didn't take into account cell phones when I wrote this.

Image attributions:

Micrograph of Blood Cells is by Bob Blaylock, available at http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:20100313 005313 BasophilGranulocytes.jpg.

UV Light in a Laminar Flow Hood is by Newbie, available at http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:UV-ontsmetting_laminaire-vloeikast.JPG.

1 comment:

  1. Ah, memories. The photos are a good touch.