"Our first unit will explore Families in Society. Before we discuss this topic further, let's talk more about your practical assignment. For your project, you will be working with your seating partner for two weeks, and I want you to create a PowerPoint, which you will present together in class. More information on what needs to be included within the PowerPoint will be discussed later. As of now, I want you to acquaint yourself with your baby."
"Baby?" Claire mutters, perplexed. She had almost been falling asleep, until this specific word jumped at her. "Baby," she repeats, tasting the word. It feels so strange to say aloud, and it feels stranger to imagine raising a child one day. Her mind has always been career-orientated that she rarely entertained the idea of creating her own family.
"You're my baby," James says flirtatiously. Claire rolls her cool-blue eyes, resisting the urge to smack him.
Miss Gay had produced a big cardboard box out of the school cupboards that appeared heavy to Claire, yet the woman carried it effortlessly to front of the classroom. She tips the box over, emptying its contents onto the desk. Plastic baby dolls dressed in white pajamas tumble out, piling on top of each other. The teacher picks up the Asian baby doll, showing it off to the classroom. It has a creamy complexion with a pink woolly hat covering its head, completed with pink-and-white striped socks.
"Aww, it looks so cute," James coos. His eyes crinkle at the sides when he smiles, as dimples form on his chubby cheeks. "I hope we get that one."
"This is Sun-May. She's a robotic newborn baby that is programmed to act like the real deal," Miss Gay begins. She turns the baby around, exposing its backside to the students, where its battery is visible. "When this battery is switched on, she will cry at random times. She could be crying because she's either hungry, or needs her diaper changed, or needs to be burped or needs attention. There are keys that perform this task, which you must insert into this slot here," she points towards the opening in the battery, "The faster you recognize why the baby is crying and manage to quieten it down, the more points you will receive."
"Points?" Courtney questions.
"Yes. As you gain more points, it will boost your grade for this project. If you do extremely well on this practical assignment, you won't have to worry too much for your presentation," Miss Gay answers, handing the baby doll to the pair in front of her. "However, it must be you and your partner taking care of the baby. Nobody else. There are miniature cameras inside these robots recording everything you do around them, or to them. So, behave yourself because I will be reviewing these footages later. Keep in mind, you will lose points if you mistreat your baby."
Miss Gay moves swiftly from desk to desk, handing out an assigned baby doll to each pair. "Keep these babies in good condition. They're very expensive."
"How much do they cost?" Katie asks, always keen to hear the price.
"Individually they cost the school £160," Miss Gay answers.
"This is our mini us!" Marie and Tyler squeal, as they hold the robotic baby together. They giggle, realizing that they were in sync, and they rub their noses together affectionately. Claire rolls her eyes, fed up of their lovey-dovey display.
Just then, the teacher's stout frame blocks Claire's vision and casts a looming shadow above her. The woman's icy gaze is drilling into Claire, an ominous undertone hidden in her somber eyes, as she passes the designated robotic baby over to the girl.
"Th-thanks," Claire squeaks out, her throat feeling dry.
The baby feels heavier than she imagined, weighing like a hard-copied book. It does not have a woolly hat like the other babies, exposing its bald, wrinkly head. It is supposed to be covered in a white nightie, except the color has tainted due to negligence, and so it is now a murky gray. There are random stains smudged over the baby's clothing, and it radiates a questionable, off-putting smell of raw fish and stale urine.
"Ugh, we got the worst one!" James exclaims.
Says you, Claire thinks bitterly. Combined with James' overpowering body odor, the girl's senses are being flooded by the nauseating stench, which causes her eyes to water on impulse. The heater is switched on, scorching her skin and making it difficult for the girl to breathe in such a pungent atmosphere.
Desperately in need of fresh air, Claire cries out, "Miss! Can I please go to the toilet?"
"Raise your hand next time!" Miss Gay barks, startling the girl. She eyes her wrist watch and shakes her head. "You should have gone during lunch time. It won't be long until class is over. You can wait."
Suddenly, an ear-splitting wail reverberates around the classroom like a siren. Unlike the other babies that were crying softly, this one is screeching as if it is being brutally tortured. It is an alarming noise that makes the hair on the back of Claire's neck stand up straight. She understands that it is merely a pre-recorded cry, but she wonders what the creators must have done to an actual baby to produce that disheartening noise.
"Idiot! What are you doing?" Claire hisses at James, realizing that the distressing cry is coming from their robotic baby. He had been poking its glass eyeballs thoughtlessly with his flabby finger.
"The eyes looked real, so I just wanted to make sure-" James begins, but Claire is not listening to his justification. She is too preoccupied fiddling around with the plastic set of white keys, desperately inserting them, one by one, into the slot, hoping to silence the bawling doll. 'Abuse' is flashing boldly in red lettering on the battery, as the doll continues to stubbornly wail.
Miss Gay storms over, her heels click-clacking loudly with each step, reiterating her clear annoyance. Snatching the baby doll off Claire, the teacher whips out a plastic ring of yellow keys different from the ones she handed to the student. Upon inserting the 'Restart' key into its slot, the baby calmed down at once.
There is a moment of apprehensive silence.
"That's minus ten points for you both," Miss Gay snaps, before walking away, leaving behind a cold aura in her trail. Claire shudders and smacks James' arm with discontent.
"Nice going, doofus," she huffs.
Gradually the lesson finishes and it is time to go home. Claire exits the classroom hastily, rushing down the flight of stairs, and racing towards the automatic doors that slide open. The sky is an azure-blue lit up by the gleaming sun, a reflection of her twinkling eyes. Breathing in the summer air, she is grateful to have escaped the intolerable stench of her partner and their baby doll. Towering outside the school building is St. Warren's stone sculpture, surrounded by a glistening fountain and wooden garden benches.
Claire spots a familiar figure sitting down on the bench, seeming lost into another book.
"Steph!" She calls out, jogging over to her best friend.
"Hey," Stephanie replies, looking up for a fleeting second to meet Claire's eyes. She pushes her glasses up, readjusting them neatly above her freckled nose. Her hair has grown over the summer, flowing past her shoulders like a majestic waterfall. She has it styled into dark pigtails, making her appear child-like. Yet her face has a constant serious expression, as if she is pondering profound thoughts, hinting at a certain wisdom beyond her age.
Flipping the page of her book gracefully, she asks, "How was your lesson?"
"I'm just glad that it's over with," Claire admits.
Stephanie's honey-brown eyes are glued to the book, as she nods slowly.
"I'm sure you've heard that your tutor quit her role as Deputy Head. Apparently, she was too stressed with the work demands and she didn't get along with many staff members. But this is merely word of mouth," she says. Her ability to multitask has always amazed Claire, who has come to believe that Stephanie has unusual heightened senses.
"I'm not surprised she doesn't get along with others," Claire murmurs. "She's very..." Circling her hand, she is trying to conjure an appropriate adjective.
"Frightening," Stephanie finishes.
Claire groans, her eyes automatically rolling in annoyance as soon as she heard the chirpy exclamation. The boy skips over to her eagerly, resembling a galloping horse. His different strands of shaggy hair move in random directions, while his wild-green eyes are shining intensely under the sparkling sun. He is uncaring of the many heads that are turning in his direction, while the baby doll is jumping in his flabby arms from his careless speed. He stops in front of the two girls, his puffy cheeks are tinted pink as he is gasping for breath.
"Careful! You're gonna drop him!" Claire scolds, shaking her head in disapproval. "We already have a bad start on this dumb project. I don't wanna lose more points."
"Look... we must... meet up... for baby... right?" James pants, as the sunlight draws clear attention to his oily face. "So... let's go... to mine..."
"As if!" Claire huffs, crossing her arms. "We'll take it in turns looking after the baby. So, you look after it for a day, and I'll take care of it the next day - and so on."
James wrinkles his pug nose with an evident frown. "But... we're supposed to look after the baby together."
"Our theme will be shared custody. A child having parents that are separated, living in different homes," Claire explains bluntly, offering no opportunity for rebuttal. "Now, off you go. You're looking after him first."
Claire heaves an exasperated sigh, as James ruffles through his rucksack and pulls out a piece of paper. She looks at it with uninterested eyes, skimming and scanning his sloppy handwritten note containing his personal details.
"Here's my number. Call me," he says shyly.
She takes the paper, folding it in half before tucking it into her pocket. James saunters away, holding the baby doll in one arm, while his other arm is swinging freely. His flushed head is held high, as he marches forward like a triumphant soldier. He turns around, hoping to catch Claire looking at him, just so he could grant her a special wink.
However, her attention has returned to Stephanie.