At length she heard the door open.
"Connie? We are ready for you." It was Professor Silva. Connie sat up. For a split second she faced the certainty that the exam had gone horribly, she had failed, she would have to leave school. But then Connie saw Janine's kind face, framed with ruddy tangles of hair, break into a delighted grin. She threaded an arm around Connie's waist and whispered, "We're celebrating at Abner's after this!" And she knew that it was really about to be over.
Connie resumed her seat in the examination room. The single sunbeam was lower now, barely gracing the four pairs of folded hands that now ringed the table.
She arranged her features into a close approximation of professional coolness and detachment. No one likes a woman academic who is emotional, she reminded herself.
"After much discussion and debate," began Professor Chilton, face serious, "we would like to congratulate you on the strongest doctoral qualifying examination that we have seen in recent memory. Your responses were complete, thorough, and articulate, and we feel that you are eminently qualified to be advanced to candidacy for the PhD. You are more than ready to write your dissertation."
He paused for a beat, while Connie processed what he had just said, the verdict working its way down through all her layers of worry.
All at once she felt the breath rush out of her in an excited hiss, and she clenched her fingers around the chair seat in an effort to channel her palpable glee into something safe, something that would not give her away. "Really?" she said aloud, looking around the table before she could stop herself.
"Of course!" piped Professor Silva, interrupting Professor Smith, who had started to say "Really excellent work, Connie."
"Most competent," concurred Professor Beaumont, and Connie smiled privately to herself. Thomas would doubt he had even said that much. Already Connie's mind was skipping ahead to the evening, when her thesis student would interrogate her about the questions that each of the professors had asked. As the committee continued to praise her performance, Connie felt a sweet mixture of relief and fatigue rush through her arms and legs. The voices of her mentors muffled and drifted farther away as a fog of sleepiness rolled across her mind. She was about to crash. She found herself struggling to get to her feet, to spirit herself away to the safety of her friends.
"Well," she said, standing, "I can't thank you all enough. Really. This is a great way to end the semester." They all stood with her, each shaking her hand in turn and gathering up their things to leave. She nodded automatic thanks and her hands began to scrabble for her coat. Professors Smith and Beaumont scuttled out together.
Professor Silva hoisted her satchel over her head. "C'mon, kiddo," she said, knocking Connie on the shoulder. "You need a drink."
Connie laughed, doubting that she would be able to withstand more than one of Abner's notorious Old Fashioneds. "I should call Thomas and Liz. They demanded an immediate report," she said. "I'll meet you there?"
Professor Silva - Janine, now, for she insisted that her graduate students call her by her first name once they had advanced to candidacy - nodded appreciatively. "I'll bet they did," she said. "Manning, we'll talk next week." Then with a wave she was gone, the heavy paneled door closing in her wake.
Connie began to wind her scarf around her neck.
"Connie, wait a moment," said Chilton. It was more a command than a suggestion, Connie noticed with some surprise. She stopped, lowering herself back to the table.
Chilton dropped into the armchair across from Connie, beaming at her. He did not speak. Connie, unsure what he was up to, hazarded a glance as far as the polished leather elbow patch that rested in the last shard of sunlight on the table.
From The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe. Copyright 2009 Katherine Howe. To be published in June 2009. Available wherever books are sold. All rights reserved.
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No Man's Land
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Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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