My aunt sat across the table from me, fiddling with her napkin. Her hesitation to speak worried me more than the deepening creases across her forehead. She stretched one arm across the red fiberglass booth at her back and looked down at her empty plate. “I didn’t get good news from the bank today, Blue,” Aunt Julie said. Though her face was turned down, I could see it had gone pale, almost as pale as the day she identified my parents’ bodies. She looked up and locked her solemn gaze on me. “As you know, your dad borrowed a lot of money against the farm. I talked with the loan officer most of the afternoon. The only good option is to sell the farm to pay off the loans.”
Julie paused and watched me for a moment. I wanted to be brave. I wanted to argue that I could find a way to work the farm and go to school. My mind only tumbled like it was falling into an endless well.
“What about school?” I blurted out. “Is there enough money for college?”
I hoped Julie didn’t hear the helpless shaking in my voice.
“Don’t worry about that. I’ll pay for everything. I want you to start at Chapel Hill this fall.”
What? Chapel Hill? Chapel Hill has nothing to do with me. Chapel Hill was where she went to college—at the University of North Carolina.
My thoughts suddenly caught hold and I glared at my aunt, Dr. Julie Riley, the woman I adored for all of her beautiful strength. Mom said she could be unmoving, though I had never seen it. With me she had always been forgiving, sometimes gentle to the point of tenderness, and often courageous, like a captain in a storm. Somehow, I had to stand up to her.
I straightened my back and willed my voice to be strong. “Julie, you know I want to go to Auburn, like Dad did. I’ve dreamed about going to college there since I was a kid. I’ll have a better chance to get into vet school if I go to Auburn for undergrad.”
“I do know you want to go to Auburn.” Julie laced her fingers together and leaned toward me, speaking with a soft firmness that delighted me when she used it on others. Now it pissed me off.
“You can go to vet school at Auburn if you want. Now isn’t the right time. With everything that has happened, I want you closer to me. Starting college can be tough under the best circumstances.”
I fell slack and turned away from her. How could she ask me to give up my dreams of going to Auburn? Hadn’t I lost too much already? She had been there when the neighbors came to help us search for what was left of my life. She had been at my side when we dug through a pile of mangled debris and found my father’s hat, the jagged sweat stains white against the John Deere logo; and later, when a neighbor from three miles down the road brought me the locket my mother had worn since I was a kid. Julie knew how hard the last six weeks had been.
“I don’t see how I can be accepted to North Carolina when I haven’t even applied,” I said, my voice giving way and cracking a little. “Auburn has already accepted me and I have plenty of friends here in Alabama. Susan’s parents will be close by if something happens.”
Julie frowned and looked out the wall of windows at her shoulder. Birmingham traffic zoomed up and down the four-lane in front of the restaurant. I wanted to be in their current, driving somewhere far away from this conversation and the reality that trapped me in my aunt’s decisions. I had to change her mind. She was the only relative I had left, and I would need her support to go to college.
Julie turned back to me, her face now soft with compassion. “Your friend Susan and her parents have been a godsend for us, Blue. The fact is, we can’t rely on them forever. When you start college there may be things that they’re not equipped to handle. I’ll be there for you, no matter what happens.” She leaned forward to catch my eyes, still trying to pull me toward her will. “You’ve always liked North Carolina. We’ll go fishing and camping in the mountains as much as my schedule will allow, okay? I need you to understand I only want what’s best for you.”
“What’s best for me is to go to Auburn,” I retorted. “I’ll have friends there and I’ll make more. I don’t need you to be two minutes away every time I catch a cold.”
Julie frowned and set her mouth, digging in. “Blue, this isn’t about who’s going to care for you when you catch a cold. This is about the support I can’t give you from eight hours away. My schedule won’t allow me to drop everything and run to Alabama at a moment’s notice.”
“I don’t know why you would think you’d have to. I’m eighteen and I can take care of myself. Anyhow, I don’t see how I’ll be accepted to North Carolina. It’s too late for me to be applying for fall semester.”
“I’ll get you in, Blue. I’ve already talked to the Dean of Admissions and explained your situation.”
I turned away from her and covered my mouth with a fist. There was no use in continuing to argue. The file at Julie’s hip was full of ledgers and bank accounts and facts that I couldn’t change. Still I wanted to keep challenging her, to ask why I had to wait four years to get what I wanted. Hadn’t I stayed out of trouble and made good grades? Hadn’t I awakened at dawn every day to feed the calves and horses? Hadn’t I mowed summer hay and harvested crops until dark? I had always been responsible.
A long, silent moment passed. The arguments I needed to persuade her wouldn’t come. I could hardly think of tomorrow, much less the weeks ahead. I was weary from fighting for everything; for breath and the will to get out of bed. If I could just let go, maybe Julie would be my captain for a while. I loved the places we’d shared together. Maybe I could find refuge in her mountains and the landscapes I had come to love as much as my own.
“If I go to North Carolina now, I’m coming back here for vet school.”
“If that’s what you want,” Julie replied.
“Can I come back here if I hate it?” I asked, trying to sound mature above my defeat.
“Give North Carolina three semesters, Blue. If you don’t like it, you can come back to Alabama and go to school wherever you want,” Julie said, her uncompromising expression remaining firmly in place.
Three semesters, a year and a half; it sounded like an eternity.
“Okay. It doesn’t look like I have a choice anyway,” I mumbled caustically.
Julie narrowed her sea-blue eyes on me, harsh for a moment. Maybe she was disappointed at my insolence. I didn’t care. She grabbed her tea glass and tossed back the last swallow. “Are you ready to go?” she asked.
I pushed my empty plate aside and slid out of the booth. Outside in the parking lot was the one thing God hadn’t taken away from me. Somehow my father’s truck had survived the tornado with only a few dents, even though the trees around it were stripped of their bark. Tornados are strange that way.
We walked out to my truck in silence and stopped beside my door. We stood eye to eye. Still, I was no match for her strength. Julie stepped toward me and I let her wrap her arms around me. I leaned in and felt my body melt into her. She pulled me in tight and held on for a long time.