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Status: Finished  |  Genre: War and Military  |  House: Booksie Classic


A family with over a hundred years of military sacrifice has three members called upon once more---perhaps for the last time.


A Short Story

Nicholas Cochran


All the old photographs—sepia, black and white, faded color, and modern dazzling color—were gathered from various locations around the house and lined up in the shape of either a heart or a club—but definitely not the shape of a cross, Mark determined.

Mark Tolber, at twelve, had the family dark brown hair and eyes. His round face was usually wearing a light expectant smile. Today, he was not smiling. His features were a mask of puzzlement. He appeared tense, while displaying some shades of fear. Mark was the youngest Tolber, a growing lad of great promise. He took up various positions as he set his keenest eye on the arrangement of the family war photos his older brother Jake completed some two hours before.

Jake, sixteen, was a good older brother for Mark. Jake took the time to explain things as well as to introduce his ‘kid brother’ to aspects of life that Mark was soon to experience. Jake was of mid height and sported the well-developed muscles of a gymnast. He was the comedian of the family and developed an absurd repertoire of antics, including a summoning of Mark out of his bed at two in the morning to the front walk to observe a nonexistent total eclipse of the sun. This happened when Mark was eight. Since then, Jake and his omnipresent grin roiled the neighborhood with one stunning ‘stunt’ after another. Most, but not all, of his ‘victims’ wrote off Jake’s extremely well planned and superbly presented pranks as an example of a keen, but  seriously misdirected mind.

Jake told Mark there was meaning in the pattern; not just to the photos themselves but a much deeper significance, spun by the recent events ‘across the pond’.

Although he was an honors student, Mark had to ask his older brother Mike—as well as his oldest brother, Bob—about the pond comment. Mike, twenty-two and Bob twenty-four, had each done three tours in Afghanistan. They became hardened to death—and life, such that to Mark—and to their sisters—they vanished as brothers, replaced by young steely older men. Both were too busy getting ready to report for duty to give Mark any long explanation. Each only said they were going over the Atlantic—the pond.

Mark’s father, Jefferson Tolber, was a tall, clean-shaven angular man of forty-six. Jefferson  retained his thick black hair through six birth-watches, a stint in the National Guard, two tours in Vietnam,and the marriage of his eldest daughter, Joanne, to a man Jefferson considered well beneath her. Father Tolber proved to be a sage judge of men as well as a forgiving—and deeply loving—father.

Mrs. Tolber, Olivia, was slim and graceful whether sitting or moving. Her face normally revealed an expression of one anticipating—even expecting—good news. She rarely frowned. Few had seen her cry. She, too, kept her blond hair free from graying, despite the rigors of delivering and raising two girls and four boys. She managed the turmoil of life with the Tolbers without a misstep or an incorrect observation.

Olivia was participating in all but a couple of the family preparations to equip and encourage the members of her family who were anticipating an order to report for duty. Immediately. Mark could hear her somewhere east of the kitchen, rummaging for camouflage garments belonging to her husband and to her two oldest sons, Mike and Bob.

From other areas of the three-storey house came sounds and voices of other family members engaged in rinsing, washing, cleaning, mending, drying, and generally spiffing up all the available clothing items and equipment. Three of the men in the house were waiting for the call from Sgt. Masters at the armory: show-up time for showtime.

Mark and his sister Sophie, a rather prissy but pretty fourteen year-old girl with lots of black hair and a ready rejoinder to any insults tossed her way by any brothers –or her sister; or by any other member of the Tolber family, was intrigued with the amount of time and attention Mark was giving to the odd arrangement of war photos. She came closer to the arrangement and leaned over to study each item with a keen eye. She figured there must be some method to all this; a reason she had not yet found; a clue she had not yet discovered. Nonetheless, the closer she placed her two large brown eyes to the formation, the less the formation said to her; there was no give and take here; ‘just what is going on?’ she wondered.

There were pictures of granddad in Korea; dad in Vietnam; the brothers in Afghanistan; uncles and cousins in pictures taken in wartime reaching back to the second World War; all here—almost four dozen of them—spanning the military history of the United States of America over almost a hundred years. ‘So? I just don’t get it; but I’m not going to tell anyone. I’ll figure it out somehow.’

Throughout the floors and rooms at the Tolbers, there was searching, patting, and preparing of the total amount of military gear. Mother was collecting, counting, and assigning all relevant items, in an orderly fashion. The men would probably get the call tonight and be leaving in the morning. Just like that. Afterwards, Olivia Tolber would search for that particular moment when it struck her that her grown men were about to cross the pond—again, and immediately be thrown in harm’s way. Then she did remember that moment. The full impact of the crisis came when she pulled out the bottom drawer of her husband’s bureau and saw the pistol. A scene flashed before her eyes. Only by studying the momentary afterimage, did she realize she might have seen the future, because that pistol was in her husband’s hand and it was belching fire while being emptied in the direction of an unseen enemy.

Today, in this moment, she sighed as she removed the pistol with one of his undershirts and laid it carefully on top of the pile sitting in the middle of their bed.

Mark continued to stare and frown while trying to figure out the pattern of the photos. His nineteen year old brunette sister, Joanne, edged up beside Mark and Sophie to see why the two ‘young ones’ weren’t pitching in to prepare the men for war. The young ones waved their hands at her and shushed for quiet, “while we think.”  Nobody in the family shushed Joanne without an explanation. Mark gave her that, and then asked more about ‘going across the pond—again’ ‘that was repeated, it seemed, every hour, if not more frequently, by mom.’

Mark heard from his history major sis all about the pond, the old country, and the old world.

Additional information about crusades, causes, and freedoms that needed protection, followed her excellent answers to her siblings’ questions. Mark and Sophie listened much more closely to their sister than ever before. Something about the way she was phrasing their personal history lesson, caused them to shudder. Mark, in particular, shivered for a second while he absorbed what he thought Joanne was trying to tell him in a non-alarmist fashion. He sincerely thanked Joanne and the latter heard some maturation in his tone. She sensed the beginnings of an understanding of what she had been telling him, and why it was necessary for all the available men in America—in North America—to cross the pond yet again, in the name of liberty and justice; to remove a scourge from the Continent and surrounding countries once and for all.

All at once, Mark saw that the formation of the photographs was in fact in an intentional design: a rather jiggled V. In the videos of his British History class, he saw this gesture made by Sir Winston Churchill while he waved to the crowds outside Buckingham Palace during and after the Second World War. He remembered he also saw this V sign waved in many situations of life in America, as well as in all the other free countries around the world. That simple placement of two fingers covered the faded footprints of so many wars.

Mark smiled and thought he might drop a tear, but he held back when he saw Sophie  looking at him, trying to decipher the clue in his eyes so she could at least claim she tied with Mark in solving the photo puzzle-gram.

Mrs.Tolber came into the room as Joanne was leaving and Sophie continued to scan Mark’s features for that final clue.  His mother instantly recognized the look of sadness, as well as some fear in the eyes and body language of her baby. She went to him and quickly asked him if he was all right. Feeling the need to be as manly as the other guys in the family, he gave a small smile and said he was fine. But then, perhaps propelled by some glimpse of the future, he lowered his head and tugged at his mother’s arms.

“What is it Marky?”

“I think I understand what’s happening, but I’m not sure; does this mean that we’re at war?”

After a moment to enfold him, “Yes, Mark; it does,” pausing to collect her bravery, “once again the New World must go and save the Old World. But I’m afraid this war may not be clearly ended—if ever. It’s a different kind of war than those our family has fought before. This one, Marky, has an ideology; even a dogma factor about it,” pausing as she realized that she was using words that were new and meaningless to her son, “or, I should say, an unswerving, unforgiving religious element to it that has forced us to go and regain freedom for our allies,” after a moment and pulling Mark closer to her, “this is the war to remove a religious force back to their starting point; and to keep it  there. It happened once before, hundreds of years ago, and now we have to do it again.”


The call came later that evening.  Early in the morning, the Tolber men waved back as the Humvee bore them to their departure field. In six hours, they were on the ground in Sweden, where troops on the last front barely maintained their positions in the face of the terrifying Caliphate.


Submitted: March 01, 2016

© Copyright 2021 Nicholas Cochran. All rights reserved.

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