Tradition was sacrosanct to the Buford family. From their religious beliefs to the food they ate and right down to the music they listened to-tradition was at the heart of everything. Weddings were no different.
For generations, the Bufords had traditionally held their weddings at "Ma and Pa's house". Marilyn and Gregory Buford's two story home, though not massive, was definitely something to behold.
The entire front of the house was decorated with odds and ends and had a feel of organized chaos. People who drove past it on the two lane road just outside the home called it the 'crazy farm'. This was evident to anyone when they saw various types of lawnmowers mounted on the side of the house-one with a dummy driver sitting in it-or what resembled a garage sale that had exploded its contents permanently on display.
Marilyn watched Katie play in the front lawn of the house from the kitchen window. To little Katie, the surrealness of the surroundings helped to strengthen her young imagination. Many times she liked to imagine fairy tale-like tea parties taking place with the various pieces of old nostalgic sculpture art acting as participants. She particularly enjoyed it when night fell and the old christmas lights were turned on-lighting up different parts of the outside and adding another layer of surreal wonder to the experience.
She giggled with anticipated joy as the first lights came on outside. The lights arranged all around gave the evening an otherworldly glow. There were greens, reds and blues that illuminated the vacant patches of grass and the old trees that still loomed tall as ever.
Dressed in a formal white skirt and blouse with matching socks and shoes, the six year old skipped and jumped and danced with joyous energy.
"Someone's excited," came a voice from behind Marilyn.
"She's easily entertained," she replied, smiling. "She gets that from her grandfather."
"We're all a little excited tonight, aren't we?" Greg whispered, wrapping his arms around Marilyn and kissing her neck.
She welcomed the affection from her husband and returned it with a kiss of her own.
"Ewwww, old people kissing." Jodie jokingly said as she shuffled into the kitchen with a pastry in her hand. The sixteen year old daughter of Kim and Jeff was Greg and Marilyn's eldest and favorite granddaughter. In typical fashion, Jodie appeared with sandals, brightly colored ripped shorts and a plain t-shirt. Adorning her petite face, she wore obscenely large sunglasses.
"Ew? Ew?!" Gregory challenged in mock outrage, still embracing his wife. "I'll remind you that if it wasn't for us old people kissing, you and your mom wouldn't be here right now."
Marilyn laughed heartily while Jodie rolled her eyes.
"We're getting everyone ready for the vows," Jodie said matter-of-factly.
"Well...?" Marilyn prompted, looking her granddaughter up and down.
"Well, what?" Jodie mumbled with her mouth half full, finishing off the last of a pastry.
Greg and Marilyn almost spoke at once.
"Well, where are your clothes, little girl?"
"You've been walkin' around the whole day in flip flops and shorts-go get your good clothes on."
Jodie rolled her eyes. "Ugh. Ok-fine, I'll go get ready."
"And go get your sister in from outside!" Marilyn yelled after Jodie had shuffled back out of the kitchen.
"Are you nervous?" Greg asked.
"Me? No I'm excited, remember? I mean, I might cry a little, you know?" she smiled.
"I mean about Tommy being here." Greg's voice was suddenly more serious. "You did know he came, right?
Marilyn straightened in his arms as she turned to face him, loosening his embrace. "Of course I know he's here-we sent him an invitation."
"Yeah, him and everyone in the tri-state area-I know," he said, taking a step back. "Is she going to be ok with him being here? That's what I'm asking."
"I know what you're asking and I don't like where its going." she said defensively, crossing her arms.
A short simmering silence began to build.
"This is her wedding," Greg began, piercing. "I don't know how the rest of-"
"Stop," Marilyn shot suddenly, throwing up her hands and closing her eyes. "Just stop."
"Rachel hasn't been on good terms with him ever since the funeral. I don't want her wedding to turn into a thing because Tommy decided to show up out of nowhere." Greg persisted.
She was silent for a moment, remembering Frankie. "He's not 'showing up out of nowhere,' Rachel sent him an invite and he accepted. He's our son, Greg. He's a Buford, so he stays."
Looking up at Greg, she saw from his eyes that he agreed-albeit reluctantly. They stood there for a moment, both of them simultaneously recalling their lost son.
"Alright, then. Let's get to it." Greg offered somewhat begrudgingly.
Walking hand in hand, they headed into their bedroom to change.
The outdoor ceremony with Justice of the Peace Kearney was as beautiful and intimate as Marilyn and Gregory remembered their own being. Just like previous weddings at the Buford's, everyone wore white shirts and blouses in addition to blue denim jeans. Most of the men sported leather shoes or boots of some variety.
A large group of relatives and close family friends had gathered in the living room after the initial ceremony and had gotten to talking, eating and drinking. Apart from the group stood Thomas, young, wiry and still donning the same camouflage baseball cap he had worn for years. His pleading eyes searched the room for Rachel and her husband, whom he still had not met. He was nervous about being late, but also terrified of being recognized by any of the other various cousins, uncles or grandparents present. In all, there were forty-two people attending the latest Buford wedding.
Marilyn looked around the gathered faces in the living room. It wasn't until she looked towards the rear of the room that she spotted Thomas, leaning against the wall and trying to avoid any stares or looks from the rest of the family. Despite his detachment from the gathering, he noticed his mother looking at him with a smile. She was noticeably happy that he had made the effort to come out for his big sister's wedding. He returned his mother's smile somewhat awkwardly and realized that she was also giving him "the look". Immediately, he straightened his posture and took off his hat, hiding it behind his back. Marilyn nodded with a smile and held her arms open for him.
"They're still outside talking with folks," Marilyn whispered. "Wait around, they'll be back in."
"Ok, thanks mom," Thomas whispered back, smiling.
"Anytime. Go find your father-he's been waiting to see you all day."
Marilyn turned back to the kitchen to attend a very hungry Katie who was having issues reaching a plate on the table. Thomas sauntered away and proceeded down the hallway that connected the living room with a series of old rooms that belonged to his brothers and sisters. He stood at the doorway to Frankie's room, taking note of the way everything had been preserved exactly as he had left it. Tommy entertained the thought of leaving when he felt a familiar hand and squeeze on his shoulder.
"Howdy, son," Greg spoke a little too loudly. "Hey-you know there's food, right?"
Tommy smiled, slipping his hat back on and turning to face his father. "Yeah, I know."
"Its a little tough for you to do this, so we just wanted to thank you for comin' out today," Greg said, leaning on the wall. "We really appreciate it. So does Rachel."
"Well, that's good t' hear," Tommy managed. "I was worried she might still be upset with me."
Greg looked into his son's blue eyes and suddenly his voice dropped an octave. "Mom spoke to her about what happened and she understands now that he made the choice to join up. He knew what he was getting into and so did you."
"I did, yeah." Tommy nodded, pursing his lips.
Greg clasped his son's shoulder and squeezed again, smiling.
"Hey…" Greg began, his voice full of promise-an idea springing to mind.
"Hey…" Tommy mimicked playfully, breaking into a laugh.
"Did ya see what I did with poppy's truck?" Greg asked.
A glimmer of surprise and mild interest shone in Tommy's eyes. "No?"
"C'mon, you're gonna love it."
Between answering the phone and giving directions to her brother and his wife from out of town, apportioning food on paper plates for everyone and cautioning her grandchildren about running about the area, Marilyn had her hands full in the kitchen.
Finally, after giving James and Beatriz directions, she hung up the cell and peaked over the shoulders of the Justice. Her eyes scanned the living room for her husband and Tommy.
"Anyone seen Greg?" she offered to no one in particular.
"I think he was with Tommy," a voice from the other side of the room piped in.
When Marilyn turned her head to see who it was, she was surprised to notice that it was Rachel. She was sitting with her new husband on the couch, playing the Nintendo Wii and eating their first bits of the cake.
"Could one o' you please go get them and let them know that food's ready?" she asked.
"Sure, I'll go get 'em ma," Rachel offered, looking back over the back of the couch.
Marilyn beamed as her daughter strutted off down the hallway barefooted, still wearing her long beautiful hand-me-down wedding dress.
Rachel wandered the halls of the Buford home half reluctantly, half purposefully . Although she was somewhat elated about burying the hatchet between herself and Tommy, she hadn't seen her younger brother in years and was a little nervous. Would he be accepting of her after all this time? Would he forgive her for what she said to him at the funeral? All these thoughts still haunted her mind now as they had for years.
Pushing the ajar front door and looking out, she saw two men standing on the porch looking and pointing up into the sky while sharing a beer and a smoke. As she approached she realized it was her sister Kim's husband, Jeff, and her uncle Peter talking.
"Did you hear that?" Peter asked. "I thought I just heard one buzz over our heads."
Jeff shook his head and breathed out a stream of smoke from his lips. "Ain't heard nothin' all night."
"Hey, you guys seen dad or Tommy?" Rachel asked, half stepping out onto the dim porch light.
"Nah, they're not out here. Just us smokers," Jeff said, smiling through his stained teeth and looking as lean as ever in his good clothes.
A set of headlights washed over the two men and the rest of the front yard as an SUV pulled up to where the other cars were parked. It approached slowly, crunching through gravel and mud before coming to a sharp stop near the fence line. The handling of the suburban's movements felt unfamiliar and sudden.
"Oh, it looks like James and Beatriz are finally here," uncle Peter chimed in, wearing a button down shirt instead of his usual biker leathers. "Guess that means the party's over."
Both men chuckled and Rachel just smiled politely as she ducked back into the house. Always plenty of drama at the Buford's, she thought.
Checking the different bedrooms along the hallway, Rachel scanned briefly to see if the boys were talking privately somewhere. It wasn't until she heard a loud engine revving from the garage that she knew where to head. The sustained roar of the engine seemed to penetrate the walls and earned a loud applause of approval from the gathered family members in the living room.
Everyone remembered poppy's truck. It was an old 1948 Ford F-1, a true classic. Although it was beat to hell, the truck had been passed down from father to son for years. It was considered by many to be a Buford family heirloom. Since poppy passed away, Greg had laid claim to revamping the truck and making it available for one of his kids-presumably Tommy or Frankie. Ever the procrastinator, Greg put the whole thing off for as long as anyone could remember. After Frankie died in the war, Greg had suddenly become obsessed with tinkering on the old truck.
All doubts were put to rest the minute the sounds of its new engine reverberated loudly in the garage. Her eyes danced the moment she opened the door to find Greg in the driver's seat and Tommy in the passenger side. Both men looked up at her with wide smiles, intimately enthralled. The F-1 had a new framework, new tires, a new coat of shiny red paint and, apparently, a brand new engine.
"Come on in-there's room for one more!" Greg yelled over the din of the engine noise.
Rachel laughed with excitement and raced to the passenger side door. Tommy slid over to the side, closer to his dad, and made room. Rachel squeezed into a comfortable position There was an awkward moment after the heavy metal door shut between the siblings. Both were afraid of looking at one another. Rachel finally looked over to Tommy and smiled.
"Hey!" she yelled over the din of the engine.
"Howdy!" Tommy responded in kind, his eyes meeting hers for a moment. "You look amazin', sis!"
"Thanks! Good to see you!"
"It's good to be back!" Tommy found himself saying, smiling ear to ear.
Greg inwardly thanked the heavens and his wife for making this possible.
"Let's take her out for a spin!" he bellowed as he shifted the old truck into reverse.
The sounds of the of F-1 truck roving through the property, encircling the Buford home enthused young and old alike.
"There they go!" Marilyn yelled as she watched the trio drive out onto the deserted fields where various animals once grazed. "Whoo!"
The children were ushered to the back porch to watch, though Katie covered her ears to block out the raucous noise.
Many clapped and cheered as the old truck, something of an enduring symbol for the Buford family in their town, tore through the old property with country music blaring from its cabin.
Jeff and Peter raised a toast to the old Ford as it drove past them. The newly arriving relatives were surprised as it swerved around their SUV and then bounded onto the lonely two lane road just outside the house, spraying mud everywhere it went. In seconds, it rocketed down the lightless street.
James looked back and rolled his eyes when he noticed some of that mud had found its way onto his suburban. "Great," he muttered to himself. Welcome back home guys, he thought.
Beatriz, leading the pack that included her husband James and their two teenage children, Matt and Mara, waved dismissively to her relatives. Jeff and Peter only afforded them a passing nod as they made their way into the Buford home.
"Hey everyone! Sorry we're late-long story."
"Better late than never," Justice Kearney replied cheerfully as he took a bite from a piece of cake, looking around the bend to get a glimpse of the late arrivals.
Overdressed for the occasion but ironically late for it, the plump sister-in-law to Marilyn set down two large bags by the entrance to the house and marveled at how much it hadn't changed since the last time she saw it, years ago.
"This place still looks exactly the same, doesn't it, Jimmy?" she laughed nervously as Matt and Mara sauntered into the living room, seemingly uninterested in the rural taste of her aunt Marilyn and uncle Greg.
"Uh...yeah," James offered, equally distant and uninterested. Behind him, James dragged a large piece of luggage that belonged to Mara, who couldn't be bothered with handling it herself. Sporting graying sides and his glasses, James took a moment to set down the heavy bags. It was going to be a long weekend at the Bufords, he thought.
"Did you pack your entire room in there, Mara?" he asked to no reply. "Where are our rooms?"
"Ask your sister," Beatriz said quietly before walking into the living room with her "happy face".
Smiling through her teeth, Marilyn made her way through the throng of conversing adults, children playing on the Wii and the clamor of older friends looking for the bathroom.
"Howdy Beatriz, hey Jimmy! I hope y'all didn't have any problems getting down here."
Rachel and Tommy shared snatches of conversation during the drive. Greg focused just on the driving-knowing this to be a good time to shut up and let his children get re-acquainted. They kept their discussion simple and as far away from any previous drama. Mostly, they asked what each other had been up to.
Rachel, of course, had been busy planning and making arrangements for this wedding while still working on her art commissions. Raymond was promoted to a higher position within the company and was now acting regional supervisor. Tommy was still pursuing a life within the militia-actively working against the enemy in any way that he could. This ushered in a stark silence inside the cabin of the truck that even the music playing through the newly installed radio couldn't mask.
Wisely suspecting that the two would benefit from some privacy, Greg slowed the truck down, mounted the grass on the sides of the road and made a dirty u-turn back to the house. Besides, he thought, smiling, I still have to give Rachel her surprise gift.
When the F-1 roared back onto the Buford property, Greg turned it off, looked at Rachel with a mischievous smile and reached over to grab her hand.
"How'd you like that?"
"I love it!" she smiled broadly.
"Here you go princess," Greg replied, dropping the keys in her hand. "It's all yours now."
"Wow…" Tommy said, at a loss for words.
Rachel's eyes grew large and she expelled a series of unintelligible "ohmahgawdohmahgawd's" as she and Greg embraced.
"Take care of her now, ok?" Greg cautioned as he began exiting the cabin.
"I will, I promise!" Rachel affirmed, too excited for words. She clutched the keys to her chest with both hands and grinned.
Greg smiled and shut the driver's door, knowing full well that Rachel would want to try out the family heirloom for herself.
"Break her in," he said, slapping the ceiling of the truck. "See y'all inside later and have fun!"
Rachel could hardly disguise her giddiness as she immediately slid into the driver's position and ignited the engine. With a tremendously loud startup, the truck was speeding off again onto the Buford property. It tore through weeds and grass, scattering all manner of "critters" that often stalked the fields surrounding the nearby area. Screaming with glee and laughing all the way, Rachel enjoyed the handling and the power the F-1 possessed.
After hearing the announcement from Greg and Marilyn that the old truck was now Rachel's, Ray stepped outside along with some of the other guests to watch it circle around the house again.
Rachel noticed the throng waiting outside, clapping and cheering as she pulled up. When Ray approached, she immediately vacated the cabin to embrace and kiss her husband to share in her excitement.
Feeling like an outsider even now, Tommy quietly slid out of the truck and sauntered away from the scene. Like the creatures that he had just seen scatter into the brush, he walked the unlit grounds surrounding the house-aimless.
"Hey," Rachel's voice came from behind. "I didn't get to say this before, but...I'm sorry."
Tommy stopped and turned around to regard her.
"I know. It's ok."
"No, its not ok. What I said to you was wrong. It's not your fault that Frankie died. I know that now," Rachel crossed the divide to her brother, tears welling up in her eyes.
Tommy, a man of very few words, again had nothing to say. Rachel's words touched him deeply, however, and he felt his emotions rising and catching in his throat when she embraced him.
"You're always welcome here," she said, her voice cracking. "We love you. I love you."
He kissed Rachel's forehead and wiped the tears from his face. When he looked back where he had walked from, he spied Greg and Marilyn standing near the corner of the house watching them.
"C'mon kids," Greg said. "They're waiting for ya."
"There's food and Katie still needs to meet her big uncle Tommy," Marilyn offered.
Overwhelmed, Tommy closed his eyes and returned his sister's hug in earnest. Finally, after years of keeping himself at arms length from everyone, Tommy finally felt welcomed by his family. At long last, he was home.
The missile crashed through the roof of the Buford home, tearing through the attic that contained, among many other things, old antiques that belonged to the previous patriarchs of the family-dating back to the 1800's.
It came through the ceiling and embedded itself into the center of the living room area where the majority of the guests had gathered to watch the young and the old alike partake in a bowling competition on the Wii. The wood floors splintered from the moment the missile came into contact with it.
A surreal sort of terror stirred in everyone's hearts the instant they realized what was happening. Surprisingly, a few didn't realize what was occurring until it was too late. They were too busy laughing or looking elsewhere when the missile exploded-sending shrapnel and heat everywhere.
At the center of the explosion, Katie died on impact. Her arms and legs were blown apart-leaving her body a blackened husk that was barely recognizable as a human corpse.
Greg sustained multiple shrapnel injuries to his body. None of his injuries registered with him, however, since the shockwave from the blast killed him before he could notice. Marilyn was peppered with debris and excessive amounts of heat, set ablaze and died in agony.
Many of the other guests were incinerated from the fire or died immediately from a combination of the blast's impact and shrapnel. Some heard nothing after the initial blast destroyed their eardrums from their proximity to the explosion. Others were thrown back from the blast and blown through different parts of the house.
Tommy, having been situated at the back of the room, was hit by a wall of force, blacked out and woke up minutes after the impact. To his horror, he saw some fingers missing from his right hand and could not move his legs-which were still intact but bleeding profusely. His mind racing and his body reeling, he slowly began to crawl away from behind the flame and debris riddled couch.
His unbelieving eyes stared at the carnage around him, desperate to find any signs of life-of Rachel. Many of the dead were completely unidentifiable to him. Trudging through the destruction, he had made it to the other side of the living room but stopped when his hands touched on a bloodied and blackened piece of Rachel's dress. Thomas looked at it and closed his eyes, his mind trying its best to conjure better times. That's when the second missile struck.
The destruction the missiles brought was so complete that the Buford family living room resembled little more than a small mountain of ruin littered with body parts. Equally scattered were all the memories that were once associated with the welcoming surroundings of the Buford home.
High above the now simmering rubble, a small pilotless aircraft began a slow and circular path around the area of the strike.
The somber, tired eyes of the operator viewed the destruction that his drone had unleashed on a small monitor. The ultraviolet feed had been transmitted via the unmanned aerial vehicle's bottom mounted 360 degree camera to the operator's location from thousands of miles away. The operator set the camera to focus on and record the images of the Buford home as it continued to circle overhead.
"Target area's been hit, sir," the operator reported to his commanding officer, who was seated just a few feet away.
"Did we get him?" the commander asked, overlooking the tactical operations command center.
"With certainty, sir. Thomas Buford has been eliminated," the operator replied.
"Minimal. There were some non-comms present at the time of the strike but-"
"Make sure to include it in your report, Five. I'll read it and submit it for the record first thing tomorrow."
"Yes, sir. Right away."
Operator Five held up a box of cigarettes for his commander to see. It was an unspoken question-one that they were both already familiar with.
The commander waved his hand dismissively and silently allowed Five to take a smoke break. The brass tended to frown on any unnecessary chatter during operations that were being recorded.
With a few clicks of his mouse and a few strokes on the keyboard, Operator Five logged off of his terminal and excused himself from the control center where other operators worked silently and tirelessly. He walked outside the installation to smoke for a few minutes-the lasting image of the Buford home in shambles still burning brightly in his mind. In a few minutes, he would go back inside and begin working on a report concerning the strike.
To Five, Thomas Buford was the enemy-pure and simple. The additional loss of life was regrettable but unavoidable. To him and many in his country, anyone harboring or aiding American terrorists were just as complicit in their attacks as the actual terrorists themselves. For that, they had to pay the ultimate price.