That summer, the ground never seemed to stop moving with the heat rising from it. You stepped out of the house and it pressed at you from all sides, the soles of your shoes sizzling, the weight of endless blue sky crushing the dome of your skull. Your lungs never quite felt full, as if your ribs simply wouldn't stretch any further. Mrs Baxter with the porch swing across the way made sweet iced tea for the whole street, jug dripping with condensation and anticipation. You guzzled it like there was no tomorrow, and it seemed to immediately seep out of you through every pore, and leave your tongue dry again.
At least it was only summer school and the handful of night classes that hadn't finished up. Kids still came down to use the sports fields, but with the sun staring at them with the intensity of a vice principal they didn't even seem interested in making a mess. You pulled up at the high school day after day, flags drooping from their poles out front like they'd forgotten the feel of wind. You parked the truck and slammed the door, picked off a new flake of the peeling paint job each morning. Next year, you thought, there'd be money for a paint job.
Since there were no classes, you brought your portable to work, and rolled the dial through the air waves until you heard music. The news wasn't welcome with you anhmore. You thought back to last summer; it had felt different somehow. You had raced home and put a hand on her belly and watched with bated breath as a man stepped from a tin can into snow, and planted the stars and stripes. Not a month later, that discordant, fizzling electric guitar playing the national anthem soared from New York into your wireless and everything had been hopeful. You were proud to be here.
But the summer wound down into winter. You were late home that December evening - some juniors had painted a peace sign over the school's name on the stone plaque at the gate. You couldn't disagree with them, but it was still your job to scrape it off, erase every memory of some teenager's dream for better days with solvent and elbow grease. It was dark by the time you drove the empty roads home, thinking about the Christmas decorations, when you heard the news crackling on the radio. Any man between eighteen and twenty five could be called upon to enlist. Your stomach plummeted into your boots. You got home, imagining the scene of your pretty wife at the stove, of how you were going to have to tell her there was a chance you were leaving her and your child behind. Maybe they'd exempt you for having a baby, you had thought, turning the key in the lock. They couldn't take a baby's father away to the jungle.
The house was dark, and your bones told you right away that this day was getting worse, was about to be the worst day of your life. You found her, inconsolable, on the bathroom floor. You'd never seen so much blood.
The hospital was all starch and bleach, and the doctor was teary eyed when at last he handed you your son, in a white box. You thought at five months you were safe, that your family was safe. Your wife told you that the pains had started when she heard about the draft. You had asked the doctor if the fear of losing you had lost you both your child. It's possible, he'd said softly, but sometimes these things happen without reason. He had clapped you on the shoulder with a grim smile and you had felt a sudden intense anger burning in your belly, because he was grey haired and trained in delivering babies, and he would never be called away to war.
From that day on, things weren't the same. Your wife didn't sing anymore. Her friends were worried, she didn't come to book club anymore, didn't help decorate the church for Easter. "Your woman's sad," said Winston, the school's night security man. "Ain't nothing going to fill that hole but another baby."
But how could you give that to her, with the draft hanging over your head, you thought now, sweeping the debris from the schoolyard. How could you bring a baby into this world, when the number "96" was attached to your birth? It was like you'd been sentenced to die the day you were born, just like your son.
So no, you just didn't listen to the news anymore.
There was a note in the jobs book, saying that one of the girls' toilets was blocked. You unlocked the store room, jamming the key a little as always - that door always wanted a little more attention - and found the plunger. Kneeling in front of a girls' toilet in a high school that had no doubt been blocked by a rogue tampon was not much of a place for reflection, but today it's all you had. You spent quiet days like this trying to think of ways to reignite the spark in your wife's eye: you brought records home for you to dance in the kitchen, you got tickets for pictures you knew she liked. Your next plan was the nuclear option, and where every spare penny was going: you'd booked a week off at the end of the summer, and the two of you were going to the beach. She could wear a polka dot bathing suit and white framed sunglasses and you could both drink long cocktails. Mrs Baxter reckoned the sea air would be good for her. "It cleans out all the bad," she said. "You'll forget all about that poor child and the war and the rest of it."
So you'd gone to the one travel shop in town and worked out the costs, and you could just about make it if you didn't let a cent go to anything else. It'd be a good surprise. The best surprise.
Unblocking the girls' toilet you decided: tonight. Tonight's the night I tell her. She had a little extra pocket money that she could use to buy a bathing suit. Her girlfriends could take her. Maybe that would make her feel better.
The clock plodded on toward 5.30 and you jumped back in the truck. You pulled up outside Delilah's, where there was a radiant bouquet of sunflowers, and set them in the passenger side. "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" was playing on the car stereo, and you hummed along. You weren't much of a singer, but alone in your car where no one else could hear, you fancied you could hold a tune.
You pulled the truck up in front of the house, evening sun now cool and friendly, hopped down. Mrs Baxter was crocheting across the way, you held a hand up to greet her and she gave you a gap-toothed smile. Your key turned in the lock.
There was no sound of cooking - you didn't mind too much about that, except that it meant she'd had a bad day. You stepped cautiously as you approached the living room. The door was ajar and she was sitting on the couch facing the window, dark head outlined by gold light like a halo. You opened your mouth to greet her.
"Your number's up," was all she said.
The sunflowers were limp in your hand, and then your hand itself was limp. They dropped, spilt yellow tears all over the carpet.
You thought you would be prepared, but there were no words.
Your wife turned, and there was her gorgeous face, gleaming eyes with brows knotted by fear, curious mouth turned down in sadness.
She held out her hand over the back of the couch and you took it, squeezing hard.
You sat beside her, neither of you speaking. She knew you were thinking the same thing, even though neither of you had the words.
Instead you just watched the sun set, the words of a love song turning into ash in your head.