The four professors exchanged looks in a rapid volley around their side of the table before turning their attention back to Connie.
"Very well," said Professor Chilton. "If you would just step outside for a moment, please, Miss Goodwin, we will discuss your performance. Don't go far."
Withdrawing from the examination room, Connie moved through the history building shadows, her footfalls echoing off the marble floor. She settled onto an institutional lavender sofa in the central reception area, enjoying the blissful sound of quiet. She let herself sink into the cushions, twiddling the tail end of her braid under her nose like a mustache.
From inside the conference room several doors away, she heard murmured comments, too muffled for her to distinguish who was saying what. She clicked her thumbnails together, waiting.
The early evening sun slanted across the floor, splashing warmth onto her lap. Across the room she glimpsed a flash of movement as a tiny mouse disappeared into the darkness behind a drowsy potted plant. Connie smiled wanly, thinking about the unseen generations of warm life living somewhere in the history department walls, worried about nothing more momentous than leftover water crackers and careless feet. She could almost envy a life that simple and straightforward. Silence descended over the waiting area, and Connie heard only her shallow breath.
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."