Millie thought back to the time she’d messed around with that Duke kid, the one that strutted around like he was king of the penthouse but he was really just a thieving piece of shit who slept around for homework. It still wasn’t quite as disconcerting as this e-mail. She thought back to EPIC, those first years when everything seemed possible and nobody knew Aneesh was going to die. Somehow, seeing all the light of the present illuminating the shattered picture of the past wasn’t as disconcerting as this e-mail.
She closed the lid of her laptop and walked to the kitchen, where two-day old coffee sat in a four-cup grind-and-brew. She paused, snorted, poured a cup, and shoved it in the microwave. She was too old for free food at seminars, too old for getting drunk on alternate Tuesdays and sleeping through the physics meeting, but she was not too old for two-day old coffee. “Besides,” she thought as she leaned awkwardly against the counter, “if I don’t drink the coffee I’ll just hit the booze again.”
That e-mail really screwed her up.
While she waited for the microwave, she looked at the pile of mail, days old now, sitting on the corner of her countertop. She glanced toward her office, an immaculate and orderly world of papers and white-board math and neat shelves with physics books ordered by subject and author. She looked again at her kitchen counter, an archaeological dig site of crusty dishes and week-old mail, two-day-old coffee and dead flowers. She thought for a moment that two people lived here, and that maybe somebody else could deal with that e-mail; she thought for a moment that her OCD had split her into separate people, leading separate lives, in separate rooms.
Instead, she started pulling things off the mail pile until she found the letter she was looking for. Much like her bills, she hadn’t thought about this letter at the time. She had a dozen faculty applications out now; what was another confirmation letter, politely acknowledging receipt of her application? She’s tossed it on the pile and figured she’d get around to shredding it after the conference deadlines had passed, after she was done with her latest paper.
Millie tore the envelope open and clutched the letter in her hand. “Dear Dr. Braehouse,” she read aloud, “We are pleased to acknowledge receipt of your application. As of the sending of this letter, we regret to inform you of the incompleteness of your application packet. One of either your letters of recommendation, or your statement of faith, have not yet been received. Please see the enclosed checklist to determine what is missing, and please do your best to provide the material by the deadline printed at the bottom of the checklist.”
She crinkled the paper in her hands, a little angrier now as she realized that the e-mail wasn’t a joke, and had in fact been right about a paper copy of the same information having been sent several days ago. She felt anger, yes, but somehow her head didn’t clear from the rush and the world got a little fuzzier. Anger always used to make things clearer, but this time it failed her. As the microwave bell chimed, she tossed the letter in the garbage.
The papers on Millie’s desk were ordered from oldest to newest, furthest from her laptop to closest. “Study of angular distributions of leptons from photon-photon collisions at EPIC”, one title read, and the next simply said, “Discovery of anomalous high-mass spin states”. They went on, five papers in all, a testament to everything she’d suffered for in her time at EPIC. Her laptop was lit with LaTeX and half-edited PDF files, her current paper the result she would turn into unstoppable leverage for a faculty position.
She couldn’t shake the e-mail, or the letter. Ever since the Fifth Great Awakening, private institutions in the South had started adopting some unadvertised policies about faculty hires. She had been encouraged to apply anyway, especially because a third of the institutions in EPIC were from Awakening states. She was told by all her colleagues that you just go ahead and apply, and her work would speak for itself. She had been told to submit a statement of research interests and a statement of teaching interests.
A statement of faith was all she lacked. That’s what the e-mail said, what the letter said. “Why does this even matter?” she muttered, sitting down in her chair and bracing her palms on the laptop to get to writing.
She stopped before she even started, and leaned back in the chair. “It matters,” she muttered again, and she took her hands off the laptop. She thought back to the conversation she had with Trent Buck, the ex-patriot Brit with the wild yellow tie, a tenured faculty position, and all the songs of praise in the world to sing of Millie.
“Are you sure it’s a good idea to apply to our collaborating institutions in the Awakening states?” she’d asked, looking at the list of places she was going to have to send applications.
“They have a lot of positions to offer, Millie, with all the private money they get. They have named chairs, the best students, privately furnished labs. You’d be crazy not to apply, and they’d be crazy not to leap at the chance to hire a top-rate physicist like you.”
“Look, Trent, I understand they have a lot of positions and I understand that many of them are in EPIC and they know me. I worry.”
“Worry about what?”
“About the changes in the schools in those states. I worry about the Evolution walk-outs, about the blocking of ED theory from high school textbooks because it’s ‘Not any better established than Intelligent Design, which scientists claimed was too immature to teach in school.’ I worry that I’ll have to find a job someplace else when they toss all the physicists out. I just want to get work done.”
“Don’t be daft. This will all blow over. You need a job, and there are good ones there. I know people. I’ll make calls, you’ll send your application, and all of this won’t matter in a few years.”
Tonight, it mattered. Tonight, Millie was expected to write a statement of faith, a statement affirming her belief in Christ and in the power of Christ in her everyday life. She needed to speak to the power of the Bible and the way in which God’s work informed her study of nature. She needed to do all of this because, the e-mail said, she would be shaping the next generation of Christian leader and they wanted to have affirmed Christians in their faculty. They wanted good role models, and good teachers, shaping the views of their students.
They weren’t going to give a job to the woman who found the first evidence of just how many extra dimensions there were, about how many parallel universes could be lurking just out of sight of our own. They weren’t going to give a job to the woman whose work was called “Deeply offensive to the unique creation of God, setting aside the watchmaker in favor of an uncountable number of randomly arranged watch parts, one of which happens to make a working watch” by a certain ex-Senator, now an aging leader of the Great Awakening movement in the South. They weren’t going to buy that this physicist, this Millie Braehouse, was somehow deeply religious and a literal adherent to a King James interpretation of a certain book.
“It doesn’t matter,” she tried to tell herself again. There were plenty of other schools with plenty of other faculty jobs, and they didn’t require a religious test.
Deep down, though, it mattered. Sure, she’d get some great job at some great institution. That didn’t change the fact that the tree was cracking. A wedge was pressing again, pushing harder against the trunk of the tree, settling into the tiniest cracks and separating society from the reason on which it depended so deeply for its progress. Once, it had been just the biologists fighting to keep their heads above the religious fervor of the pre-Awakening. Now physicists had offended those same people, people now firmly in political control across a great swath of the land, and their irrefutable discoveries had been tossed out along with the tree of life.
She put her hands back on the laptop and started writing. As she did so, she thought back to something Aneesh told her after the Evolution school-walkouts started in the first days of the Awakening. “Millie, there’s going to come a time for each of us when our work is seen as shit, because it challenges somebody’s convenient interpretation of God. The trick is to remember that all we do is discover the crap that God left behind, and if they think it’s shit then they should stop burning scientists and take it up with Him.”