The Sacrifice (Part 5)

         The school nurse left Mrs. Mendall’s classroom with both mouth and eyes running. Worried and teary, she rambled on, around, and beside the point as she delivered the news that Bethany was not getting better. Resentment tore at Mrs. Mendall’s chest. How could the girl’s parents send her to school like that? She wanted to know.

         “It’s not contagious,” the nurse explained. “Not like the virus in 2020. Besides, she wanted to learn. Wanted to stick around as long as she could before—”

         “Before what?”

         But for once the nurse was discrete. She changed the subject to the CM2029 and, again, to her own memories of science classes past.

         Mrs. Mendall shook herself. She did not like to think about it, any more than she liked to think about the broken frame buried in her desk drawer. She folded the official note from the nurse, straightened her blouse, and began her routine checks of the CM2029. Marvelous machine, it did everything for her. She was outdated. How long until the Class Mother 2029 became the School Teacher 2033? How long until she was officially a fossil, something to study in history class or museums, but not really needed? She shook her head again, straightened her blouse again. But a sense of foreboding folded around her like a weighted blanket, smothering her and turning her mood sourer than ever. To make matters worse, the teachers’ lounge was out of coffee.

         All at once the even pulsing of the heart rate monitor, now depicting the rhythmic respiration of tiny lungs, seemed an affront. How dare something so lifelike grow within something so cold and calculating when she—well, never mind that now. But how horribly wrong and impossible that such minuscule organs nurtured within an artificial womb could function so flawlessly while a fully-formed human girl had to fight for every well-deserved, life-giving breath.

         A phrase she’d read once, long ago, swam uninvited before her eyes: “fearfully and wonderfully made.” Wonderful had always seemed a given. Fearful, she now felt that she understood. Unable to drown such contemplations in lukewarm lounge coffee, Mrs. Mendall did her best to steel herself to teach one of the final lessons before she turned her students loose to write their lab reports.

         Across the hall, Mrs. Williams beamed at her students and wished them a good morning which they repeated back in the same, sing-song voice. She smiled as bright as her summery cardigan. The winter was now melting away and spring, with its promise of new beginnings, the arrival of summer, and budding flirtations, washed through even the prison-like windows of the school. Breathing in the chemical-scented air as if it were a fresh breeze, Mrs. Williams began to take roll, unaware that another, smaller class member was now listening and responding.

         Back across the hall, Mrs. Mendall addressed her class. “Now, we are still a few weeks from the conclusion of this lab, but we ought to start discussing some terminology that you’ll need for your reports, which are your final project. You’ll want to type this down. The first term is how you’ll refer to the subject. Does anyone know it?”

         “Fetus?” Amelia called out.

         “Technically correct, yes,” said Mrs. Mendall. She waited, but no other student volunteered an answer, and she found herself looking expectantly toward the empty seat beside Jane where Bethany ought to have been. She swallowed. Her eyes flickered to the drawer containing the photo frame and, now, the nurse’s note regarding Bethany’s absence. “In the scientific community, there is another word we use for subjects like this. As we prepare for the conclusion of this activity, it is important that we understand the proper use and purpose of this term. Mel, would you please read from the second paragraph on page 279? Begin with the word in bold print.”

         Amelia began reading even before Mrs. Mendall finished giving instructions, but before she reached the definition of the term in question, the door slammed open. Amelia started and looked to Mrs. Mendall, but the older teacher was already rushing toward Mrs. Williams, who stood in the doorway frantically buttoning and unbuttoning the top few clasps of her yellow cardigan. The two held a whispered conference which the students strained to hear before Mrs. Mendall sighed, nodded solemnly, and turned back to her class.

         “Mrs. Williams will be looking after you for a bit. Behave.” Without another word, she grabbed a sterile box of menacing angles and points and slid her copy of the e-textbook before her subordinate in her characteristically efficient manner.

         When they met afterward in the teacher’s lounge, Mrs. Williams was white as a sheet while Mrs. Mendall, semi-fresh coffee in hand, seemed to have regained her composure since the morning’s rough start.

         “It’s done?” Mrs. Williams asked, idling near the coffee pot, eyes averted.

         “Nearly,” replied Mrs. Mendall. “This new method of disposal takes longer, but it’s less cleanup and I had a clear vein for the injection.”

         “So now what?”

         “Now nothing,” said Mrs. Mendall. “You take it for dissection and bring back samples for your students to examine for their final.”

         “I…take him?” Mrs. William’s eyes were wide and she swallowed between each word.

         “It sounds morbid, I know, but you’ll be fine. Ever do that rat dissection in high school? Maybe that was before your time. The animal rights activists are slowly shutting that one down, but it’s the same idea and most of the same parts, to be frank. Besides, with this new method of disposal, it’s all in one piece and the plastic womb does wonders for keeping things tidy.”

         Miss Williams nodded. “Well, thank you, then, for performing the, uh, the—”

         “Sacrifice.”

         The young teacher nodded again. She pulled her cardigan so tight around her that its threads protested audibly. “Yes, that. The sacrifice.”

        When Mrs. Mendall tossed her cup in the bin a week later, it was empty and the motion with which she discarded it was less angular, less precise. The cup bounced off the rim and fell crumpled in the corner, but she paid it no heed. Most unusually, though, she arrived ten minutes late to find her students were waiting, this time clustered around a cage at the back of the room. Its inmate, the ferret, was rumored to be pregnant and, as such, was once more a subject of popular interest.

         “Seats. Now.” Mrs. Mendall’s voice, usually flat and well-oiled, was hoarse. “I’m afraid I must tell you something.”

         The news that their classmate, another twelve-year-old who ought to have been invincible like the rest of them, had passed away the night before, was unreal. To all but Jane, who had been told already, it was another news story. They recognized it as truth and adjusted their attitudes accordingly—Amelia even burst into hysterics—but Mrs. Mendall could see that it was a reality that would not pierce their souls for some time and, when it finally did, it would be slow to be forgotten, like a photo too long kept in a drawer.

         For now, though, the students would do what little they could. Today they would sit quietly and whisper about the news in the halls. Tomorrow, they would wear the deceased’s favorite color in a show of solidarity, or, perhaps, to convince themselves that they really believed and understood what it was that their teacher was saying: that a girl who was alive one day was now dead and that, while Bethany’s favorite color and murmured name might fill the halls, her seat at the front of Mrs. Mendall’s sixth grade classroom would remain forever barren.

         The day that the school dressed in yellow happened to be the final day of the lab for Mrs. Mendall’s classes. As with the first day, the students spread rumors mixed with truth (the most palatable and delicious sort), wondering amongst themselves what was to be done with the subject in the CM2029.

         “I heard that —”

         “Mrs. Williams’ class had to end early, you know.”

         “But what happened to it?”

         With each minute that the students waited for the bell to ring and their teacher to arrive, their speculations grew more and more outlandish and, oddly, closer and closer to the truth. Would it be given away like the offspring of a class pet? Broken down for parts like the robotics club projects? Flushed away like so many goldfish won at school carnivals?

         Mrs. Mendall silenced the spreading suggestions with a glance overtop of her roll sheet. She didn’t need it to know all-too-well who was missing, but it was interesting to see the photos by the names, now showing different people with the same names. Even nine months wrought such stark changes, she reflected, not for the first time. She called the names, hastening past the pregnant pause where Bethany’s ought to have been. Still, that omitted name between Austen Fischer and Blake Hannigan was a puncture wound felt by everyone present.

         Mrs. Mendall took an extra moment to put away the roll sheet, breathing deeply to prepare herself for the labor before her. As with the hours on her feet, the final step of the lab had never before worried her, but she was not as young as she once was and she felt it keenly. She was not as soft as she once was, though, or as Mrs. Williams, with her tearful eyes and chipper sweaters, was now. She would get through it as she had before.

         “I gather from your whispers that nobody read ahead in the textbook?”

         Twenty-six pairs of eyes met her gaze, blank. A twenty-seventh pair fluttered its lids inside the CM2029, dreaming, perhaps, whatever dreams might be had within a lifeless womb within a glass coffin, sleeping away like a science-fiction Snow White.

         “I’ll explain as we go.” Without further adieu, Mrs. Mendall pulled on a pair of antiseptic gloves (How fitting! They were yellow.) and prepared a threatening vial of fluid (also a sickly yellow hue) attached to a needle that caught the light and sparkled, dazzling, like a wicked smile. For a moment, it was something out of an old-fashioned monster movie and Mrs. Mendall at any moment might have donned a lab coat and started bellowing, “It’s alive! It lives!”

         But the progeny within the CM2029 was destined for quite another fate, and one far less melodramatic. In only a matter of minutes, the lab that had taken all of the school year was finished. The needle penetrated the plastic womb and its occupant and then was withdrawn, capped, and dropped into a bin for later disposal. The monitors slowed as their subject began to close in on itself. Mrs. Mendall resealed the tank, the squeak of its access hatch whining briefly like a wounded animal.

         Stillness fell over the class as they watched the great mystery of their lab play out before them at last. Nobody uttered a sound, not even Amelia, who was so quick to answer whether asked or not and to shed tears whether moved or not.

         Stillness.

         Silence.

         The students watched the subject they’d grown almost fond of fight for what would have been both its first and final breath and purse its little lips in what might have been a first and final cry.

         “Why?” said Jane.

         “Why what?” Mrs. Mendall replied, removing the gloves. Her hands were steady. Good.

         The girl shrugged, unsure, perhaps, of what she’d meant.

         Mrs. Mendall understood, though, and harkened back to an earlier lesson. “Remember, students, in science as in life, choices must be made. This is a gift, but also a responsibility. Even a viable subject like this one can be let go if we choose. Do you remember the lab with the mice that we read about earlier this year?”

         The class nodded.

         “And do you remember what happened to those mice when the experiment ended and they were no longer needed by the researchers? What did they do with them?”

         “They were sacrificed,” someone murmured.

         “Exactly. And do you remember why it’s called that?”

         Amelia scanned her notes and read, “To ‘sacrifice’ implies that something is offering up in the pursuit of a higher aim such as the advancement of public knowledge or personal health.”

         “Thank you, Mel, that’s enough. The rest of you, please copy the definition into your lab notes and be prepared for a quiz on the termination process tomorrow.”

         Whispering and rustling as they went about their assigned task, Mrs. Mendall’s sixth-graders broke the stillness that had fallen over them. All but one seemed to forget the fading figure behind the glass, which was once fogged with their own curious breath and was now steaming from the inside-out as its occupant expired on the altar of education.

         “Work on your notes, Jane,” said Mrs. Mendall, as gently as any student had ever heard her speak.

         Jane nodded, but Mrs. Mendall watched with a look of concern.

         “Are you sure you’re up to being back so soon? I know you and Beth—” her voice caught “—you girls were very close.”

         Jane nodded again.

         “It was a nice service,” she said. “The funeral, I mean. They read a passage that I thought was interesting. Something about ‘you knit me together in my mother’s womb.’ I’m not sure, but I just thought it just sounded nice.”

         Mrs. Mendall said nothing. She knew the passage.

         Within the artificial womb of the Class Mother 2029, the sacrifice stiffened and grew no more. The next day, the incubator was empty. No yellow shirts were worn to remind the school of its occupant and no school photographs remained to document the growth of its few months. A bell released Mrs. Mendall’s students, sending them at last to their summer vacations. As the sounds of their shouts and laughter diminished down the hallway, she returned to her desk and, for the last time, withdrew the photo in its fractured frame. With a single, practiced movement, she tossed it into the wastebasket: another bitter, half-empty cup.

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