The Sacrifice

I recently revisited and revised this old story for a competition. To my horror, multiple rounds of editing and two different spell-check programs failed to catch a few typos. For my own peace of mind, I’ve decided to share the corrected version here as the typo-riddled version is already awaiting adjudication.

Typos aside, I feel that this story is timely. I began it in high school, dug it up in college, and have been editing it off and on ever since. You’ll be relieved to know it is 2,000 words shorter than before and, considering the cultural climate, more relevant than ever. I’d be honored if you would read and ponder this brainchild of mine.

The Sacrifice

At the beginning of the year, Mrs. Mendall’s sixth-grade class adopted a ferret. It spent a week being jostled in its cage by curious children until, one morning, a more intriguing object arrived: a glass tank illuminated by heat lamps, crawling with tubes and wires. Forgetting the ferret, the students gathered around the incubator with unprecedented orderliness, perhaps sensing the delicacy of its contents.
      “Can I see?”
       “Is that—?”
       “It couldn’t be!”
       “I heard they do a lab with a real—”
       “That speck?”
       “It could be!”
       Speculation simmered, fluttering from the students’ lips and hovering hot on the glass before fading to nothing. At the exact moment that the intercom sounded for class to begin, Mrs. Mendall strode into the room, welcoming her students as she tossed a half-empty paper cup into the wastebasket without looking. Cold coffee sloshed against the plastic lining. Her entrance and greeting were mechanical, the product of twenty years in the profession. “Good morning, ladies and gent—”
      She caught herself: no archaic language.
       “Students,” she finished instead.
       The children scurried to their desks—all but one girl, who lingered by the tank. She stood so close that her nose left a smudge on its side that remained even when her breath died away.
       “You’ll have a chance to see inside the tank soon,” said Mrs. Mendall.
       “I can’t see it,” murmured the girl.
       “That’s alright.” Mrs. Mendall consulted her tablet, which glowed with the faces and names of the students before her. “Bethany, is it?”
       The girl nodded, and adjusted oversized pair of glasses, which was nearly as translucent as the smudge on the glass. Mrs. Mendall’s brow creased as she looked between the girl on her roll sheet and the girl before her, who had lost the healthy pinkness in that former girl’s cheeks and lips. She would speak to the school nurse later.
       Mrs. Mendall resumed her clipped tone, “I’m surprised anyone can see what’s in the tank. Do any of you know what it might be?”
       Bubbling with rumors only minutes before, no student dared to stir now. Mrs. Mendall tried again, “Bethany gave us a good hint about what’s in this tank: it’s one of the smallest objects visible to the naked eye. Does anyone want to guess?”
       The tank was hot under the scrutiny of twenty-seven pairs of eyes, all straining to see the impossible thing within. Finally, a red-haired child in the front volunteered.
       “Yes, Amelia?”
       “Mel, please.”
       “Of course—” she made a quick note. “Mel?”
       “Is it an egg?”     
       “You’re close! It’s a bit more than that. Does anyone know?”
       Every student leaned forward, captivated by what they’d only discussed in whispers, blushes, and jokes but that was now before them.
       “Nobody?” Mrs. Mendall tsk-tsked. “And I was told you’d be my brightest sixth-graders yet!”
       Mel ventured, “It starts with a Z?”
       “Good,” said the teacher. “If you look at the screen, you’ll see a magnified photo of what we have in this incubator: a fertilized egg, a zygote.”
       She swiped through slides. “Now you might have heard of this project from friends or siblings, so I hope you’re excited about it. Can anyone tell me what they know about this project?”
       A few hands waved in the air as whispers flit about the classroom. Mrs. Mendall smiled indulgently; this lab had always been popular. It had been conceived several years ago. After the pandemic, the district began cutting funding for art and other non-essentials. With a newly-bloated S.T.E.M. budget, Sanger Elementary purchased updated science equipment, including a groundbreaking device: the Class Mother 2029 Artificial Womb.
       A child in the front row raised his hand so high that it drew him up like a fish on a line. Another student coughed impatiently. Bethany coughed for real and her seatmate shot her a look of concern.
       Mrs. Mendall called on the fishing line boy. “Yes?”
       “This is the experiment where we get to see pre-birth development and we get to grow an actual—”
       “Correct.” Mrs. Mendall signaled for him to sit, cutting him free and dropping him back to his seat, breathless. “Thank you—?”
       “Of course. That’s right, Evan.” Mrs. Mendall proceeded to inform her students that, since they had spent a large portion of the previous year studying anatomy and were themselves growing by leaps and bounds, it was fitting to participate in a simulation of the reproductive systems in real-time. Flipping off the lights, Mrs. Mendall began to explain the workings of the Class Mother 2029.     The tank’s contents glowed a fleshy hue, illuminating a heated, bag-like structure within. Some could even detect—veiled by the plastic womb—the faintest ghost of the CM2029’s tiny ward. Mrs. Mendall filled another cup with lukewarm coffee and sank gratefully into a seat opposite a younger teacher. The long hours on her feet were not as kind as they’d once been. Miss Williams, the younger teacher, smiled shyly. The older teacher considered her bright eyes and brighter cardigan. It had been several decades since Mrs. Mendall had been the new teacher, but she remembered the nerves that had sustained her through those first weeks. A rush of sympathy came over her—or perhaps it was the caffeine.
       “How’s your day going?” the younger teacher asked.
       “Not bad,” said Mrs. Mendall. “My students are a bright bunch, but I’m worried about one little girl…”
       “Poor thing.”
       “I’ll talk to the nurse,” Mrs. Mendall went on. “How’s your first month going?”
       “Well,” Miss Williams blushed, “jumping straight into a project as big as this one is intimidating, especially since…”
       There was a catch in Miss Williams’ voice. “My subject isn’t viable. I’m not sure what happened, but I got an alert on the CM2029 this morning after the children left for Phys. Ed. There was some complication with the chromosomal alignment. Something didn’t divide properly and I had to discard it.”
       The young teacher was nearly crying. Mrs. Mendall was taken aback but reassumed her brusque manner.  “I wouldn’t worry too much about it. Just send a lab order for another; they have a viability guarantee, you know.”
       “Yes, I know,” Miss Williams sniffled.
       “Order another. It’ll be here soon.” 
       Mrs. Mendall was on her feet a split second before the intercom sounded the end of lunch. Miss Williams rose too, pulling her cardigan tightly around her shoulders. “The kids were so excited about this one,” she sighed. “They were already talking about names, whether it might be a boy or gi—”
       “Order another,” Mrs. Mendall said firmly. “Your students can observe ours in the meantime. Then they’ll have a head start on the curriculum when your replacement arrives.”
       “Really?” Miss Williams brightened. “Thank you.”
       As they passed through the hall, Miss Williams slowed and the fog settled over her face again, a gloomy contrast to her sunny sweater.
       “Nothing,” said Miss Williams. “It’s silly.”
      “I don’t know…” she hugged herself. “Part of me feels that I’m to blame and…that something died.”
       All sympathy vanished from Mrs. Mendall’s face, replaced by a blank look, as bland as sleep mode on a smartboard. “Don’t be silly. It wasn’t your fault. Besides, nothing can die that was not really alive.”
       The intercom sounded its last, ending the conversation and sending both teachers to their classrooms, the younger apprehensively and the older mechanically.

As the semester passed, the sixth-graders of Sanger Elementary School grew, but not enough to be noticed until picture day arrived to reveal the changes a year brings to children: bangs cut, braces removed, waists whittled. Such changes seemed enormous when old and new pictures were taped side-by-side on refrigerators but remained invisible during their evolution.
       There were three exceptions to this rule, the first being Bethany. She grew paler and thinner every day. Insubstantial as mist, Mrs. Mendall feared the girl might be vaporized by a sudden breeze or too strong a breath. The other exceptions grew steadily within the Class Mothers, which continued to hum their mechanical lullabies. The first subject, in Mrs. Mendall’s classroom, progressed with visible proclivity. The other, although a week behind, was developing with a smoothness that reassured Miss Williams.
       “Second time’s the charm,” said Mrs. Mendall. “I’ve never seen one grow so rapidly.”
       “You mean it?” Miss Williams looked up from where she was hovering over the monitors.
       “Of course. You’ll explain nutrition soon, right?”
       “Yes, that’s the lesson plan for this week, as long as the tubes and catheter keep looking good…” she glanced at the older teacher for approval.
       “Your subject wouldn’t be developing so healthily otherwise,” said Mrs. Mendall, emotionless as the monitor.
       Miss Williams’ shoulders relaxed even as she frowned.
       “Maybe—” she faltered, “maybe that’s why the first one didn’t make it.”
       “Don’t even say that,” said Mrs. Mendall “That was a chromosomal issue. It wasn’t your fault and wasn’t in your control. Even if it was, you have no reason to feel guilty. None.”
       Mrs. Mendall repeated under her breath: no reason for guilt. Miss Williams watched her face with concern. Noticing, Mrs. Mendall shrugged, straightened her blouse, and marched out.
       “Coffee,” she said in explanation.
       Instead of going to the lounge, though, Mrs. Mendall turned back to her own classroom. She had twenty minutes before her students would traipse through the door, yawning as half-digested cereal and Pop-Tarts sat heavily in their stomachs. She glanced over the monitors on the CM2029 but avoided the curled figure within.
       “Not your fault. No reason to feel guilty. No reason at all.” Mrs. Mendall recited this litany to herself as she prepared her materials, inhaling the educational incense of sweat, hormones, and sterilized equipment. She then sank into her seat and drew open the metal drawer of her desk. It opened with a grating cry that set her teeth on edge. Forcing herself to unclench her jaw, she reached into the drawer, paused, and withdrew her hand: empty.
       A knock at the door startled her. She slammed the drawer shut and beckoned jerkily for the visitor to enter. The school nurse poked her rosy face inside.
       “Oh!” she clasped her hands in delight. “Another incubator lab! Going well, I hope?”
       “I remember doing these projects in grade school, so many years ago…Back then, we did them with chicks, you see. They were the cutest things when they hatched, but were boring until then since all we could see were eggshells. You’re lucky you can see this dear l creature every step of the way! How wonderful for the children—”
       As the nurse prattled on, Mrs. Mendall found that she was still gripping the drawer handle. Finger by finger, joint by joint, she forced herself to let go.
       Clucking like her remembered chickens, the nurse made her way to Mrs. Mendall and slid a note across the desk. “—I can only imagine what we would have thought of this project back in my days. It would have stunned us into studying, I’m sure.”
       Mrs. Mendall scanned the report. “This could have been an email.”
       “You’re probably right,” said the nurse, dropping the chatter. “But it’s a sensitive case and I know you’re concerned for the poor dear.”
       “It’s that serious?”
       “We don’t know for sure yet, but I’ll tell you honestly that I’m not hopeful.”
       The bell once ended their conversation and ushered in twenty-six students when there ought to have been twenty-seven. So unassuming when present, Bethany’s absence was noticed immediately by both adults. The nurse left with a final glance at the CM2029.
       “I remember,” she said. “One of our chicks didn’t make it. It was hard to understand as a kid, but the shell hid everything so it wasn’t too bad. I’m not sure why I thought of that. It’s one advantage to the old lab, I suppose.”Eight weeks into the semester, Mrs. Mendall arrived to find her students clustered once more around the CM2029, Bethany at the heart of the group. She seemed to be shrinking at the same rate that the subject in the artificial womb was growing: at least a millimeter each day. Even at such a rate, the CM2029 seemed monstrous, inappropriately industrial for the delicate thing it cradled in the synthetic embrace of feeding and respiratory tubes.
      “I still can’t see it,” sighed Bethany. She coughed into her sleeve.
       “It’s the size of a raspberry,” said Mel. “That’s what the homework said. And it’ll be the size of a strawberry in two more weeks.”
       “What kind of berry will it be after that?” someone teased.
       Amelia grew thoughtful. “I don’t think there are any bigger berries.”
       “It looks like an alien,” added another student. “Gross.”
       “All right, class,” Mrs. Mendall said. “Go to your seats.”
       With that, the half-drunk coffee was in the wastebasket, and the teacher was in position at the front of the room. The students trailed to their desks, walking in time to the beeping of a new monitor. Bethany was the last to sit, but Mrs. Mendall did not hurry her as she lingered, trailing her fingers across the glass tank as if longing to caress the 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 enraptured by its berry-sized occupant. When asked if they noticed any new additions to the CM2029, 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.”
      “That’s absolutely right!” Mrs. Mendall awarded her a rare, real 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 Amelia predicted, the subject doubled in size over the next few weeks. By the time it was the size of a strawberry, Bethany exclaimed in delight, “Jane, I can see it!”
       “Are you sure?” pressed Amelia.
       “Yes, I can,” breathed Bethany. “I can see the baby.”
       “Fetus,” corrected Amelia.
       “Whatever,” said Jane, coming to stand beside her friend. “Isn’t it beautiful?”
       “It still looks like a lizard to me,” said Amelia.
       “It’s just little,” said Bethany, “but it’s growing so fast.”
       An exclamation from across the hall caught their attention and the girls, forgetting their differences, rushed the door only to find their path blocked by Mrs. Mendall, holding her half-empty cup.
       “Seats, please,” she said as she tossed the cup and released the doorstop in one well-oiled motion. The girls stole one last look across the hall to where Miss Williams’ door stood open and the young teacher hovered over a cluster of students like a hen with her brood.
       “Yes, yes,” she was saying, “and those are its 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, a final summer breeze cut off by the sharp click of the heavy door.
       “Take your seats,” said Mrs. Mendall again. “Switch on your e-readers and—yes, Bethany?”
       “What was Miss Williams saying? I could hear—”
       “We’ll get to that later. As I was saying, please swipe to—” another hand interrupted. “Yes, Jane?”
       “I heard something about toes. Does ours have toes? I didn’t look.” She nodded toward the form wrapped and pulsing behind glass, now the size of a lemon. “Does it have toes now, too?”
       The class inched forward in their seats, textbooks still switched off or buffering. Mrs. Mendall sighed, perhaps wishing for her discarded coffee. She set aside her e-reader and reclined against her desk.
       “Yes, ours has toes,” she said. “But ours is a week older than Mrs. Williams’ subject, so does anyone know what else it has?”
       The students 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?” Mrs. Mendall let a few more seconds slip by before a student gasped and stood, sending his chair screeching backward as he lurched across his desk to peer into the incubator.
       “Yes, Evan?”
       “Ours has a face!”

The alarm sounded unexpectedly. Unphased, the students of Sanger Elementary filed outside, holding their ears or shouting to friends. They were glad to exchange the fluorescent chill of their classrooms for the morning sun. Their teachers followed, twirling lanyards like lassos and struggling to corral their students.
      Mrs. Mendall and Miss Williams herded their classes onto the athletic fields. Miss Williams greeted the older teacher with a tense nod. Her knuckles were white, clutching her roll sheet anxiously.
       “Didn’t know we were having a fire drill today?”
       Miss Williams shook her head. “It’s just a drill? You’re sure?”
       “Most likely. That or someone overcooked their microwave meal again. Either way, there’s nothing to worry about. You there! Knock it off!” Mrs. Mendall moved to separate a group of children, who were sending each other into hysterics by mouthing four-letter words with each blare of the alarm. 
       Miss Williams stared back at the school, where alarms continued to scream through the empty halls. She watched as if expecting smoke to billow from its roof, but all was still. Its barrenness was somehow more disconcerting.
       “It’s silly of me,” she said as she began counting her students. “But I couldn’t help worrying about the babies and I was afraid—”
       “The what?” Mrs. Mendall looked at her colleague as if she were spewing profanities along with the students.
       “Fetuses,” amended Miss Williams. “I didn’t feel right about leaving without knowing they were safe.”
       “They’re fine,” said Mrs. Mendall. “Frankly, I’d be more concerned about getting your students in order.”
       Miss Williams wilted. “You’re right, sorry. I shouldn’t have worried. How’s your subject doing, by the way?”
       “Oh, good. After my first had to be discarded, I was so anxious for this one, but he’s doing well.”
      “Oh, yes! The genitalia is pretty well-developed and the students are thrilled. They had a bet going on whether it would be a boy or girl. Whoever guessed right gets a say in naming it.”
       Mrs. Mendall’s lips disappeared into a line. From the distance, the intercom announced an all-clear. She said nothing as they herded their students back inside.
       “So, yours is…?” Miss Williams attempted.
       “XY as well.”
       With that, Mrs. Mendall swept her students inside. With the morbid attraction of picking a scab, she could not keep her eyes from the scrunched figure in the CM2029, nor could she erase from her memory the inexplicable pang she’d felt when the alarm sounded and the subject started in surprise. She could not forget the sudden, ridiculous impulse to soothe the tiny creature from its first fright.
       That afternoon, for the first time in her professional career, Mrs. Mendall released her students early. They left hesitantly, unsure what had come over their teacher. When the door shut behind them, Mrs. Mendall collapsed behind her desk. Once more, she reached for the desk drawer. This time, she opened it and removed a black-and-white photograph in a simple frame. She held it tentatively, between her forefinger and thumb, as though afraid it might burst into flames. Suddenly, she broke into a sob but indulged this fit for only a moment. She switched off her tears as if she, too, were kept alive by mechanics.
       Another fit—this time of coughing—erupted from behind the CM2029. Mrs. Mendall flinched, dropping the frame.
       “Bethany,” she cried, “what are you doing here?”
Still coughing, Bethany tried to answer as she fumbled on the floor for the frame. Her own frame shook violently, but she managed to say through a phlegm-muffled voice, “I’m sorry—Mrs. Mendall. Fire drills used to scare me—so I wanted—to make sure he was okay.”
       Holding the frame and steadying herself against a desk, Bethany squinted at its contents: a figure similar to the one in the CM2029. It was barely a silhouette but it held the promise of the fulness of life.
       “Is it yours?” Bethany whispered.
       “He was,” said the teacher.
       Bethany nodded. With a shuddering breath, she rose and handed the frame to her teacher. Shouldering a backpack much too bulky for her emaciated shoulders, she looked lovingly at the occupant of the CM2029. Perhaps sensing her presence, it turned toward the warmth of her weak gaze. When she reached the doorway, Bethan paused to look back at her teacher with the same tender expression.
      “Mrs. Mendall?”
       “Yes, Bethany?”
       “I’m sorry.”

The nurse arrived in Mrs. Mendall’s classroom with mouth and eyes running. She delivered the news that Bethany was not getting better. “She’s not contagious. She wants to come to school as long as she can.”
       Half-listening, Mrs. Mendall 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 a fossil, something to study in history lessons? A sense of foreboding folded around her, turning her mood sourer than ever. To make matters worse, the lounge was out of coffee. Suddenly, the even pulse of the heart-rate monitor seemed an affront. How dare something so lifelike grow within something so cold and lifeless when she couldn’t—well, never mind that. But how horrible that organs within an artificial womb could function flawlessly while a fully-formed girl had to fight for every breath.
       A phrase she’d read long ago swam before her eyes: “fearfully and wonderfully made.” ‘Wonderful’ had always seemed a given. ‘Fearful,’ she now understood. Unable to drown such contemplations in lukewarm coffee, Mrs. Mendall steeled herself to teach one of the last lessons before she turned her classes loose to write their lab reports.
       “We’re still a few weeks from the conclusion of this lab, but we need to define the vocabulary that you’ll need for your reports,” she said. “The first term is what you’ll use to refer to the subject. Does anyone know it?”
       “Fetus?” Amelia offered.
       “Technically, yes.” Mrs. Mendall waited, but nobody else volunteered. She found herself looking expectantly at the empty seat beside Jane where Bethany should have been. Her eyes darted to the drawer containing the old photo in its frame.
       She pressed on, “In the scientific community, there’s another word for subjects like this. Mel, would you please read from section 279 in your textbook?”
       As Amelia began reading, the door slammed open to reveal Miss Williams, frantically buttoning and unbuttoning the top clasp of her cardigan. Mrs. Mendall rushed over. After a whispered conference, she sighed and turned to her class.
       “Miss Williams will be taking over for now. Behave.” With that, Mrs. Mendall grabbed a sterile box from beside the CM2029, shot her students a menacing look, and darted across the hall.
       When the teachers met again at lunch, Mrs. Mendall had a fresh coffee and seemed to have regained her composure since the morning.
       “It’s done?” Miss Williams asked, idling near the coffee pot.
       “Nearly,” replied Mrs. Mendall. “This new termination method takes longer, but it’s easier cleanup.”
       “So now what?”
       “You take it to the lab for preservation and bring back samples for your students to examine.”
       “I…take him?”
       “You’ll be fine. Did you ever do a rat dissection in school? Animal rights activists shut that one down, but it’s the same idea and most of the same parts.”
       Miss Williams nodded. “Well, thank you for performing the…”
       Miss Williams pulled her cardigan around her so that its threads protested audibly. “Yes, that. The sacrifice.”

When Mrs. Mendall tossed her coffee cup in the bin the next week, it was empty. It bounced off the rim and into the corner but she paid it no heed. Most unusually, she had arrived ten minutes late.
       Her students were clustered around the cage at the back of the room. The ferret, rumored to be pregnant, was once more a subject of popular interest.
       “Seats, please,” Mrs. Mendall said, lacking her usual brusqueness. “I must tell you something…”
       That their classmate was dead did not seem real. Didn’t Mrs. Mendall know that twelve-year-olds were invincible? To all but Jane, it was just another news story. They adjusted their attitudes accordingly but Mrs. Mendall could see that the reality of Bethany’s passing would not pierce their souls for some time. For now, the students would do what they could. Today, they would whisper at lunch. Tomorrow, they would wear Bethany’s favorite color to show solidarity and to convince themselves that they believed what their teacher was saying: that, while yellow shirts might fill the halls, Bethany’s seat would remain forever barren.
       The day that everyone wore yellow was the final day of the lab for Mrs. Mendall’s class. As with the first day, her students exchanged rumors mixed with truth—the most palatable kind—about what would happen to the subject in the CM2029.
       “I heard that—”
       “Miss Williams’ class had to end early.”
       “But what did they do?”
       With each minute, their speculations grew more outlandish and, ironically, closer to the truth. Would it be given away like the ferret’s offspring? Broken down for parts like robotics projects? Flushed away like fish won at carnivals?
       Mrs. Mendall allowed her students to speculate as she scanned her roll sheet. She didn’t need it to know who was missing, but it was interesting to see the class photos. Nine months wrought such stark changes on children. She called their names, hastening past the pregnant pause where Bethany’s should have been. She took an extra moment to log attendance, breathing deeply to prepare for the labor before her. The final step of the lab had never bothered her much, but she was not as young as she once was. She was not as strong as she once was.
       “I gather from your whispers that nobody read ahead in the textbook?”
       Twenty-six pairs of blank eyes met her gaze. A twenty-seventh pair fluttered its lids, dreaming whatever dreams might be had within a lifeless womb, a glass coffin.
       “I’ll explain as we go.” Mrs. Mendall pulled on a pair of antiseptic gloves (“How fitting!” she thought morbidly, “They’re yellow.”) She selected a syringe of fluid—also a sickly yellow—and attached a needle that sparkled wickedly under the fluorescent lights. For a moment, Mrs. Mendall became something from an old horror film. At any moment, she might have donned a blood-streaked lab coat and begun bellowing, “It’s alive! It lives!”
       But the progeny within the CM2029 was destined for another, less melodramatic fate. In a matter of minutes, the lab that had taken all year was finished. The needle penetrated the plastic womb and its occupant. It was then withdrawn, capped, and dropped into a biohazard receptacle. The monitors on the CM2029 slowed and the tank resealed with a whine like that of a wounded animal.
       Stillness fell over the class. Nobody uttered a sound, not even Amelia. The students watched the subject fight for its first and last breath, its wet lips pursed for a first and final cry.
       As the subject stopped writhing, Mrs. Mendall began her closing remarks. “Remember, students, in science as in life, we have choices. This is a gift, but also a responsibility. Even a viable subject like this one can be terminated if we choose. Do you remember the lab that we read about earlier this year? With the mice?”
       The class nodded.
       “Do you remember what happened to those mice when the experiment ended? What did the researchers do with them?”
       “They were sacrificed,” Amelia said, without her usual zeal.
       “Exactly. And do you remember why it’s called that?”
       Amelia scanned her notes and read, “A ‘sacrifice’ means offering something in the pursuit of a higher aim such as the advancement of knowledge.”
       “Thank you, Mel. The rest of you, please copy that definition into your notes and be prepared for a quiz on the termination process tomorrow.”
       As they went about their assignment, Mrs. Mendall’s sixth-graders seemed to forget the figure in the CM2029. Only one student watched as the glass, once fogged by the breath of curious students, steamed from the inside as its occupant expired on the altar of education. The heat lamps warmed their subject in vain as the heartrate monitor flatlined silently.
       “Work on your notes, Jane,” said Mrs. Mendall wearily.
       Jane nodded but made no move to grasp her tablet and stylus.
      “Are you sure you’re up to being back so soon? I know you and Bethany were close.”
       Jane nodded again.
       “How was the funeral?”
       “It was nice,” said Jane. “They read something I thought was interesting—something about ‘you knit me together in my mother’s womb.’ It sounded nice.”
       Mrs. Mendall said nothing. She knew the passage.
   Within the Class Mother 2029, the sacrifice stiffened and grew no more. Its expansion into a recognizable lifeform had taken most of the year; its demise had occurred in seconds. Mrs. Mendall did her best not to dwell on this pitiful ratio of life to death as she watched her students depart. She gathered her things, emptying her mind as, soon, she would empty the incubator. Resolutely, she reached for the CM2029’s power switch.
       It was finished.
       The next day, the sacrifice was gone. No yellow shirts were worn in its memory. No side-by-side photographs documented its development. After a frenzy of dissections and lab write-ups, a final bell released Mrs. Mendall’s students for summer vacation. As the sounds of their shouts and laughter faded, she returned to her desk. For the last time, she withdrew the old photo in its frame and, with a single, practiced movement, tossed it into the wastebasket: another bitter, empty cup.

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