Mr. Kebler moved in during the hottest summer of our lives, when the flies got stuck in the space between the drapes and the window and died there. It was the summer when Charlie and I ran the AC full blast at one end of the apartment and fanned it with our hands to carry the cool. We could afford to keep the AC running because Charlie worked nights at the pharmacy and because I worked as a part-time vampire hunter, part-time rabbit exterminator.
Standing in our doorway, Mr. Kebler said that he was moving into the apartment to our left, and that he worked as a retail agent for homes up in Michigan. I asked whether it snowed up in Michigan. He said it did.
Then Charlie took me by the arm. “This is my wife, May.”
I shook Mr. Kebler’s hand and said, “Charlie’s wife, May.”
Mr. Kebler looked me up and down. “Anyone ever told you you’re built like an astronaut?”
“They don’t tell you this in school. But there’s a certain proportion that they look for in astronauts, and you fit the mold down to the centimeter.”
“Is it cold in outer space?” I asked.
“Sure it is. It’s very cold.”
“Then I think I’d like to be an astronaut.”
Charlie asked, “Do you have a wife, Mr. Kebler?”
Mr. Kebler said he did not have a wife. He returned to his apartment to unpack, leaving a bouquet of honey-scented flowers on our welcome mat. A droplet of water still trembled in the vial.
When the petals started to fall, I fought to preserve each purple scrap. Yet inevitably they would end up squished on the windowsill with the bugs, sun-sucked dry. Charlie caught me crying and laughed, as if amazed water still fell from eyes or from the sky or from anyplace, really. “Stop crying and go hunt a vampire,” he said. “That’s your job, isn’t it?”
I had picked up vampire hunting after Mama sent me a postcard of my little brother holding a gun, his hair long and ragged, though she never mentioned what he planned to shoot.
I hunted three vampires prior to night Mr. Kebler returned.
“Hello, May,” he said, stepping through the doorway and taking a seat at the table. Beneath his coated right arm, he clutched a helmet. It was white and plastic, smooth to the touch, with a logo reading NASA on the side. “It’s what astronauts wear.” He handed it over and said, “Try it on.”
It was cool and dark beneath the helmet.
From his bag, Mr. Kebler produced a bottle of wine. I brought over cups, and he poured two glasses like a waiter in the movies.
“Welcome to the Future Astronauts of America,” he said.
America meant a country and Future meant girls huddled in linoleum bathrooms without their mothers, crossing their thin fingers.
“It’s a club,” he explained, when I took off the helmet to stare. “For people like us.”
“For people who would make good astronauts?”
Mia had wanted a car. Belinda had wanted to marry a hot vampire. I had wanted to be a judge on TV, slamming down that wooden hammer. Guilty. Innocent. Guilty. Mama would’ve called it playing God, but Mama was dead.
Charlie came home late the next morning, knuckles scraped raw, asking why I had left glasses out on the table.
“I was celebrating,” I said.
I shrugged. “Life.”
“You don’t need two glasses to celebrate life.”
I lied again when I begged Charlie to buy a fan to fight the heat climbing up my torso like water up a flower’s stem, parching me from the inside out. I told Charlie I was afraid to die, but the Future Astronauts of America did not fear death. Mr. Kebler talked about men who exploded into a million bits as soon as their rocket lifted from the ground, or men who went off-course and drifted through the endless blackness until they starved. But I was afraid that the helmet I had hidden in the closet would slowly melt away – drip, drip, dripping into nothing but a sizzling puzzle.
“Which planet is coldest?” I asked Mr. Kebler one night, licking cookie crumbs off the edge of my lip.
“Whichever is farthest from the sun, probably. Probably Neptune.”
I tasted the syllables on my tongue. “I’d like to go to Neptune.”
And then Mr. Kebler kissed me, his lips touching my helmet where my mouth should be.
The next morning, Charlie returned from work and flipped off the fan and piled our belongings into the suitcase in the corner. When he came upon the helmet in the closet, he said, “I thought you were a werewolf ballerina.”
Charlie had many wrong thoughts – that I loved him, for one.
“Not anymore,” I said. “Now I’m an astronaut.”
“Where we’re moving, I think you’d rather be a werewolf ballerina. More space to dance.”
“Where are we moving to?” I asked.
“Will it be colder there?”
“It isn’t far.”
Lila Anafi is a part-time freelance writer and editor. Her writing has received regional recognition in the Scholastic Writing Awards, and she is set to be published in the Ginosko Literary Journal.