It was December 25, Christmas morning. I had been home since December 20, and honestly, it felt good to be back home for the holidays. I missed my bed, I missed my mom's cooking, I missed my two sisters Libby (my twin) and Tarrah (whom I have affectionately nicknamed El, short for Eleven, because she looks like Millie Bobby Brown on Stranger Things). She says she hates it when I call her that, but I know she secretly loves it. I have caught her smiling or chortling once or twice when she thought I wasn't looking. Heck, I even missed our cousin Gwen while I was away. My aunt and uncle, Gwen's parents, died in a horrific car crash when she was fourteen and my parents decided to take her in. She's been living with us ever since. She has a very colorful rebellious streak and she's the black sheep of the family. Most of the time, she's a headache—and a cause of heartbreak for my poor parents—but we love her all the same. She has her own endearing ways when she's not acting like a total heathen. One of the things that Gwen and I agree on is waking up. We are most definitely not morning people.
I was annoyed then when I heard the ear piercing whine of jet engines above me as they flew over our house. I counted. One, two, three, four, five, six… Six fighter jets in succession. What in the world was going on? We lived four or five minutes away from Fort AP Hill, but Fort AP Hill is an Army base, not an Air Force base. It wouldn't make sense for there to be jets soaring above us. I've lived in this town all my life. I have never heard a jet fly overhead. Maybe a helicopter, but not a jet. I buried my head underneath my pillows to block out the sound, but my pillows were no match for the next surprise. I was jolted out of bed by six loud explosions and the shaking of the ground. Earlier, I was just annoyed. Now I was freaking out.
My first instinct was to find my parents, my sisters, and my cousin. As soon as the shaking stopped, I ran down the hall to find my parents and bumped into Libby.
"Matt? Where's Mom and Dad?" she asked, panic rising in her voice.
"Check their room, I'll check downstairs!" I said, heading for the stairs.
There was another explosion that threw me off my feet and I had to hold on to the railing to prevent my fall. I waited for another explosion to rock the area, and when there was none, I crept down the stairs to look for my parents on the first floor. I found my mom and my sister Tarrah hunkered down under our dining table. Plates were everywhere on the floor, along with Tarrah's crutches.
"Are you two okay?" I asked. "Mom! Are you guys okay?"
"Matt!" Tarrah cried.
"El," I said, my voice choked with worry.
"We're fine, baby," Mom said. "Tarrah's just scared. But we're okay. Your father's in the living room! He was setting things up for the movie marathon."
As I ran to check on my Dad in the living room, my eyes fell on the chaotic scene. Our coffee table had split in half and shards from broken baubles lay all around the floor. There was also broken glass from the windows and the front door. Plaster from the ceiling dusted the floor like fake snow and a beam jutted out, hanging precariously above us. Our Christmas tree had toppled over and underneath it was my dad, his legs pinned to the ground by the massive tree.
"Dad!" I screamed. "Dad! Somebody help!"
At the sound of my screams, Libby came running up behind me and she shrieked when she saw Dad. At the same moment, the door to the downstairs bathroom opened and out crawled Gwen on all fours, her normally neatly brushed platinum blond hair with pink streaks all in disarray. She gingerly crawled around the debris to where Dad was and tried to lift the tree to free him, but to no avail.
"Don't just stand there," Gwen snapped. "Help me out here, will you?"
I shook myself from my momentary stupor and Libby and I helped Gwen lift the tree. Whether it was all three of us holding the tree up or because of our sudden surge of adrenalin I don't know. But we managed to lift the tree. Dad could now crawl out from under, but he was too injured to move his legs. So Libby and I held the tree up while Gwen pulled Dad out of there and helped him to a safe place. Dad was alive and well but he needed medical attention. With adrenalin still pumping through my veins, I carried him over my left shoulder like a fireman's carry and brought him to the bomb shelter. Because our house was an old one from the fifties, it had been outfitted with that feature. It was also fully stocked with supplies in the event of a disaster. Who knew it would come in handy at a time like this? Whatever this is was apparently bigger than what we'd initially thought. It wasn't only Fort AP Hill that was bombed, as we would later find out.
After bringing Dad down to the bomb shelter, I went back for Tarrah and scooped her up in my arms like a little child. Technically, at 12, she was still a child. Like she weighed nothing. I set her down on one of the bunks and held her close, whispering comfortingly to her.
"Everything's going to be alright, Tarrah," I said. "I promise."
"Tarrah?" she asked in surprise. "Whatever happened to Eleven?"
"Would you like me to call you El?" I asked.
"Yes, please," she said. "I kinda like it, actually."
"Alright," I said. "El it is. But it'll be my special nickname for you. I mean, Libby doesn't call you that, does she?"
"No," Tarrah said. "She just calls me Tarrah."
"What does Cousin Gwen call you?" I asked, trying to distract her from the scariness going on outside.
"She calls me T.," Tarrah said. "Or T.H." H for Haleigh, her middle name.
"I'll be right back, El," I promised Tarrah. "I still need to cast Dad's legs."
Dad needed to go to a hospital, but with the uncertainty of the day's events, who knows if roads were closed or destroyed? Paramedics wouldn't get here in time. I had to act fast. I have a first aid certification and I knew how to prepare a cast. While I mixed the plaster of Paris solution, Gwen was busy tinkering with the radio, trying to get it to work so we could hear the news. What the Hell was going on exactly? Finally, after forty-five minutes of frustration, the radio flickered to life and news came flooding in. It was devastating.
"We have a live report from our correspondent in DC, who witnessed the devastation," one news anchor said. "Julius?"
"Yes, Katherine," the reporter said. "I'm live here at Andrews Air Force Base, or what are the remains of Andrews Air Force Base. At 7:00 this morning, a coordinated attack was carried out on American soil, targeting military bases in forty-six states and the District of Columbia. This is the worst attack on American soil since 9/11. We have yet to confirm the casualties and the wounded."
"Has any nation or terrorist organization claimed responsibility yet?" the news anchor asked.
"As of now, Katherine, no," the reporter answered. "We have received no word of any one nation or terrorist organization claiming responsibility for this heinous act."
All six bases in Alabama, from Fort McClellan to Fort Rucker, were leveled to the ground. Soldiers and their families were killed. Reports started coming in, one by one. Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Camp Pendleton and Camp Roberts in California among others, Colorado, Connecticut… We were taken by surprise. America was taken by surprise. We had become too lax, which resulted in devastation. It would forever change the course of world and American history. We were on the brink of World War III. Or perhaps Armageddon. This was not the Christmas we were expecting. This was not the Christmas we were hoping for. This wasn't the Christmas that we wanted. I wouldn't wish this dark day on my worst enemy.
As the day wore on, reports of death and devastation kept pouring in from Alaska to Wyoming and Washington D.C. It would take days to count the casualties and identify the remains. At 6:00, President Woodrow Kendall came on to address the nation from an undisclosed location.
"My fellow Americans," President Kendall stated. "My fellow Americans… After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt called it 'a day that will live in infamy.' And then came 9/11. It was the worst attack on American soil since 1941. We all prayed there would be no more, that that would be the last of it. For a long time, it seemed our prayers were answered. Yes, America had internal conflicts, divisive sociopolitical issues, and disease, but we all came through to the other side all the more stronger for it."
There was a long pause.
"Alas, today, we saw the most devastating attack on our country since 9/11," President Kendall said, after composing himself with great effort. He cleared his throat and continued. "Today, five nations have claimed responsibility for this attack—Palestine, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran. They claim to have gained a monumental victory over the Great Satan. Tonight, and in the coming days, weeks, and months, as we remember those of us who have fallen, as we mourn our dead, let us remember their sacrifice. As President Abraham Lincoln said of those who fought in the Union and some who fought on the Confederacy's side, 'All gave some, some gave all.' I urge you, fellow citizens of America, to not let these deaths be in vain. For those unwilling to give, I and everyone American in the country understand. These are frightening times and we do not hold it against you. You will not be drafted. But for those who are willing and able to give, I beg of you. In defense of your home, of your friends, of your family, carry on their legacies. Make our men and women proud of what they died for. Goodnight, ladies and gentlemen. And my God bless the United States of America."
Silence filled that little basement bunker as the President's words sank in and reality began to set. His call to every able bodied men and women to enlist was practically a declaration of war. This morning's attacks were only the beginning. I'm sure they won't be the last. That was just the catalyst and we were at the point of no return. There was no turning back from here on out. Our country needed us—needed me. And I had to answer Her call. It was the hardest decision of my life, but for the sake of those I love, I had to make it.
"I'm going to enlist," I said, breaking the heavy silence.
"What? No!" Mom and Tarrah both protested.
"Are you crazy?" Libby said. "You could get yourself killed!"
"Sit down, boy!" Dad scolded. I brushed him off.
"I'd get myself killed here too, either way," I said. "What's better? Sitting here like lame ducks and dying on the street, killed by a foreign invader? Or actually doing something about it and fighting? I'd rather go out in a blaze of glory than die a coward's death on the street or cowering in fear in this basement! Who's going to protect El—Tarrah?"
I loved my family dearly and I was close to all of them, including Gwen, but I word the most for Tarrah. She was born with scoliosis and cerebral palsy. That's why she used to wear back and neck braces and now walks with the help of her crutches. Her birth mother had given her up. Who's going to fight? Dad? Dad's too old. Not to mention injured. Libby had no interest in the military whatsoever. The only possible volunteers were Gwen and I. But I doubted Gwen would enlist. After all, she detests discipline.
To my surprise, however, she came to my defense.
"Matt's right, Uncle Pete," Gwen said. "Aunt Martha. If Matt and I don't fight for you, then who will? We're family. And families fight for each other. I'm enlisting too. Just try and stop me."
"If that's your decision, then I'm afraid there's nothing much we can do but support you," Mom said.
"I don't want you to go," Tarrah cried. I rush over to comfort her.
"I know, El, I know," I said. "I don't want to go either. But I have to. For your sake. For all your sakes."
"Well," Dad said with a chuckle. "For what it's worth, maybe the military can knock some sense into Gwendolyn here the way we never could."
The tension broke and we laughed, all except for Gwen who was scowling. Eventually, she cracked a smile and joined in the laughter.
Five days later…
As I stood anxiously waiting in the auditorium with my fellow recruits, a non-commissioned officer walked into the room to give us a little speech and swear us in. After her speech and further instructions on the procedure, we raised our right hands to recite the oath. Gwen stood proudly by my side as our family watched us on the sidelines. I took a deep breath.
"I, Matthew Levi Folger, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic. That I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same. That I will obey the orders of the President of the United States, and the orders of the officers appointed over me according to the regulations and the uniform code of military justice. So help me God."