By Nathan Elias
Amy had gotten sick some weeks after her Nana died, and she was feeling bad because the grown-ups were sad all over again.
“I don’t want to be sick anymore,” Amy told her mother, the thermometer making it hard to speak. “I want to go outside and play butterfly.”
She loved the wearable butterfly wings she’d gotten from Santa, maybe even more than her mermaid doll.
“I told you not to talk when we’re taking your temperature,” her mother said, “or we have to put the thermometer in your armpit.”
Amy’s eyes opened wide; she hated how cold the thermometer felt against her skin. She kept her lips sealed tight until she heard the thermometer beep. Her mother took it from her mouth and read the little numbers. Oh no, Amy thought, trying to gauge her mother’s expression, she’s sad again.
“Andie!” her mother called out. “Get the car ready. We need to take your sister to the ER.”
“Okay, I’m on it,” Andie called back. Amy loved her sissy; she was glad Andie was back home from California. Amy was still really little—almost too little to remember—when Andie moved away with Neal, and it broke her heart not being able to see her big sister for long periods of time. But it was a lot of fun when her mom and dad went to visit Andie and Neal because they went to Disneyland and got stuck in Neverland.
That was the most fun I ever had, Amy thought.
She’d loved Neal, too. He was like a big brother, but she wasn’t allowed to talk about him or his silly jokes or how he tried to teach her to play the ukulele anymore. Not since he broke up with Andie and made her move back to Ohio. Amy was sad for her sissy, especially because she cried and cried forever. But Amy was happy, too, because Andie had come back home.
“Mommy, what’s the ER?”
Her mother exhaled and said, “It’s just the doctor, my love. You wait here in bed, okay? Mommy’s going to pack some things and then we’re going to leave.”
“Can I take my mermaid?”
Her mother smiled and kissed her forehead.
“Of course you can take your mermaid.”
As soon as her mother left the room, Amy crawled out of bed and went over to the big aquarium by the window. When she’d found the caterpillar—Catty—in the yard, her dad helped her keep it safe. They put it in the aquarium with sticks and leaves and fed it bug food. Amy was shocked to find a cocoon formed soon after that; and now, the cocoon had been there for almost two weeks.
When she found Catty, she held it in her palm and thought about what Neal had once told her about reincarnation. They’d just buried her hamster—Twinkie—in the backyard, and nothing could console her except for Neal and his ukulele. She’d asked him where things go when they died, even though she already knew the answer: heaven. Or at least that’s what everyone else had always told her. But Neal said, “I believe in reincarnation.” She’d asked what reincarnation was—she’d always been good with big words, could even say the biggest one (supercalifragilisticexpialidocious)—and he said that it’s when a soul goes somewhere else when something dies and is born as a new thing. “Like recycling,” he’d said with a smile.
When she first held Catty in her palm, she’d wondered if it was the reincarnation of Nana. And now that Catty was in its cocoon, it was going to turn into a new thing all over again. Sometimes, especially right before she fell asleep, Amy wondered if she was a reincarnation. In her dreams, which she told nobody about, not even Andie, she dreamed she was so many different things. One time she was a giant snake that ate a man; one time she was a bird-woman who fell out of a lighthouse; once, an alligator; once, Tinker Bell.
“I thought I told you to stay in bed, little lady.”
Amy spun around to find her mother standing in the doorway, holding the mermaid doll.
Amy didn’t want to go to the ER, even though her tummy felt like she was going to throw up and the world felt like it was blurry. Doctors and hospitals made her think of Nana, which made her think of death.
In the ER, Andie sat with Amy while their mother talked to the doctors. Amy leaned against Andie, who kept saying, “Don’t worry, bummy, you’re going to be okay.”
“Why are you crying?” Amy asked.
Andie sniffled. “Because I love you more than anything in the world.”
Amy felt so weak when the doctor put the stethoscope on her that she didn’t jump, even though she hated cold things on her skin.
“Do I got Ammonia?” Amy asked the doctor. She remembered her Nana talking about Ammonia before she died.
“No, I’m afraid it’s not pneumonia,” the doctor said. He asked to talk to their mother in the hallway.
“Wait here,” their mother said. “Your father should be here any minute.”
Andie nodded, and Amy asked her for the mermaid doll.
She held the doll in her hands and thought about how nice it would be to live underwater like a mermaid. It would be so much cooler down there instead of how hot she felt now, so hot in her own skin.
“She’s so pretty,” Andie said. “Does she have a name?”
“Maybe I was a mermaid in my reincarnation,” Amy said.
She looked up to Andie and saw tears streaming down her face.
“What do you mean, bummy? Where did you get that idea?”
Amy thought about Neal. “I’m not supposed to talk about it,” she said.
Andie held her closer. “Maybe you were a mermaid.”
“Maybe in my next reincarnation I’ll be a caterpillar,” Amy said. “Or maybe I’ll be a butterfly.”
Nathan Elias is a finalist of The Saturday Evening Post’s 2020 Great American Fiction Contest, and he is the author of the chapbooks A Myriad of Roads That Lead to Here: A Novelette and Glass City Blues: Poems. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles, where he served as editor on the literary journal Lunch Ticket. His writing has appeared in Entropy, PANK, Hobart, and many other publications.