The Sacrifice (Part 3)

         Eight weeks into the semester, Mrs. Mendall entered to find her students clustered once more around the CM2029. Bethany was at the heart of the group. Pale and thinner than ever, she seemed to be shrinking even as the subject in the artificial womb was growing, now at a rate of a millimeter or more each day. Even at such a rate, the CM2029 seemed overlarge, monstrous, inappropriately technical for the delicate, fleshy thing cradled within the synthetic embrace of tubes and tempered plastic.

         “Mrs. Mendall, I still can’t see it,” sighed Bethany. She coughed into her sleeve, but could not peel her eyes, wide behind their spectacles, from the form she could almost see, the edges of which she could barely make out.

         “The size of a raspberry,” said Mel. “That’s what the homework said. And the size of a strawberry in two more weeks.”       

         “What kind of berry will it be after that?” teased a boy.

         Amelia grew thoughtful. “I don’t think there are any larger berries.”

         “It looks like an alien,” added the boy. “Gross.”

         “Alright, class,” Mrs. Mendall took her place at the front of the room. “To your seats.”

         With that, the half-drunk coffee was in the wastebasket and the teacher in position at the front of the room. The students trailed to their seats, absently walking in time to the soft beeping of CM2029. Bethany was the last to sit, but Mrs. Mendall did not hurry her as she lingered behind, trailing her fingers across the glass of the incubator as if longing to caress the tiny figure within, to know by touch what she could not by sight.

         The teacher needed no help in directing her students’ gaze to the incubator. They were already enraptured with its berry-sized occupant. When asked if they noticed any new additions to the incubator, more than a few raised their hands, Bethany included.

         “A heart-rate monitor?” Bethany ventured. “It sounds like the ones they use at my appointments.”

         “Good, yes, that’s absolutely right.” Mrs. Mendall awarded her a rare smile. “At this stage, we can not only detect a regular heartbeat but see the heart itself if you look closely enough, as many of you already have.”

         Just as Mrs. Mendall’s slides and the precocious Mel predicted, the subject doubled in size during the next few weeks and, by the time it was the size of a strawberry, Bethany exclaimed in delight.

         “Jane, I can see it!” she drew her friend closer. Jane put an arm around Bethany’s bony shoulder to steady her as she swayed in her excitement.

         “Are you sure?” pressed Amelia.

         “Yes, I really can,” breathed Bethany. “I can see the baby.”

         “Fetus,” said Amelia.

         “Whatever,” said Jane. “Isn’t it beautiful?”

         “Still looks like a lizard to me.”

         “It’s just little,” said Bethany. “But it’s growing so fast.” Her breath condensed and faded upon the glass rapidly, fluttering like a moth, excited but fleeting.

         A noise from across the hall caught their attention and the girls, forgetting their differences for a moment, crowded toward the door only to find their path blocked by Mrs. Mendall. She arrived like clockwork, clutching her half-empty cup of cold coffee.

         “Seats, ladies,” she said as she tossed the cup and released the doorstop in one fluid motion. The girls, reluctant, stole one last look across the hall to where Mrs. Williams’ door stood open and the young teacher hovered over the other CM2029 with her brood of eager students.

         “Yes, yes,” they could hear her saying. “And those are toes! Can you see? Can you count them?”

         Even from across the hall, there was a warmth in the younger teacher’s voice that blew into their classroom like a last summer breeze just before the door snapped shut, cutting it off too soon.

         “Take your seats, ladies,” said Mrs. Mendall again with as much patience as she could muster. If only the sugary sweetness in her voice could have spread to her coffee, perhaps she would not waste so much of it. “Queue up your textbooks to page—yes, Bethany?”

         “What was Miss Williams saying? Just now? I could hear—”

         “We’ll get to that later. As I was saying, please scroll to—” another hand, with fingers wriggling impatiently, interrupted. “Yes, Jane?”

         “I heard something about toes. Does ours have toes? I didn’t check.” She nodded toward the form wrapped and pulsing behind the glass, now the size of a lemon. “Does it have toes now, too?”

         The rest of the class inched forward in their seats, textbooks still switched off or idling. Mrs. Mendall sighed, perhaps wishing for the discarded half of her unwanted coffee. The children always were fascinated by the toes. She set aside her e-reader and reclined with some relief against her desk.

         “Yes, ours has toes now too,” she said. “But remember that ours is a week older, so does anyone know what else it has?”

         Not a student stirred, but each pair of eyes strained to see the thing nestled against the Class Mother’s heat-lamp breast. The clock ticked in syncopation with the heart rate monitor.

         “Anyone?” a note of excitement leaked into even Mrs. Mendall’s voice. She let a few more seconds slip by before a boy gasped and stood, sending his chair screeching back as he lurched across his desk to peer closer at the subject.

         “Yes, Evan?” Mrs. Mendall fought the ridiculous urge to laugh.

         “Ours has a face!”

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