by Sherrel McLafferty

When my husband lost his mind he wanted to live in a whale. Not the gargantuan pod life that moved through the sea and subjects of documentaries; no, he wanted to live inside a whale's bare bones. He wanted a whale that washed on shore, made a spectacle of its misfortune before dying and decaying for weeks. He would show up sometime after the birds and the bugs, and run off with the skeleton. He would make shelter and live in something larger than himself.

He sat at the breakfast table filing through a stack of papers, freshly printed, details of the Essex on his mind. He drank his coffee like a pint of ale, slamming it on the table so the liquid jostled out the side.

I placed my hand over the page he was reading, the corner still wet from licking his thumb to turn it. "Are you going to say good morning?"

Good morning? He bought a boat, he told me, this was a great morning. And though the only nautical thing we knew were the anchor designs on our holiday socks, he thought his new purchase was roughly the size of the Essex, "at least the size of the life boats?" He spoke to one of his buddies at work, who remembers the most about some engineering class from college, and confirmed his purchase.

At first, I thought sailing the waters of the South Pacific sounded like a romantic way to spend our upcoming retirement. I messed it up by inquiring. If he bought a life boat what happened on the original? I read people were starved and then eaten by stronger members of the crew. He told me people atoned. Not that he wanted the focus to ever be on the people anyway.

He wanted the whale, unaware of the aftermath left behind on the surface.

Unusually, all he used to care about was surface. He sold advertisements for a living, drew up the plans for our home with money earned by telling women they were ugly unless they bought some miracle cream. It was one of the reasons our marriage was so successful; I was very insecure but open about my issues, he'd jot them down in notebooks and draw lines connecting each problem with a product.

Our last day before retirement, he said, "Do you ever reflect on your life, Edna? Sometimes I think...I think I haven't done anything terrible, and somehow, it gets me down"

I couldn't answer him, "Never mind, I sound like a crazy old man."

Then we lay down. I pretended to fall asleep, but he left the light on to scribble more notes in the margins of Moby Dick. I tried to talk to him about Melville, how our daughter taught it for her class, but he didn't listen. He just nodded and continued etching on the side of every page.

This one time he woke me up in the middle of the night. He stripped the comforter away, and yanked me outside beneath the stars to see the life boat sitting in our drive. "Edna, do you feel it? It's like they're here on the boat." I smiled, sleepily, and abandoned him there. Once back in bed, I couldn't sleep because he hollered and howled. The fluttering of paper overpowered the cicada's hiss that normally filled the night. I checked on him through the window, and for a moment pretended I was on the Essex, its wooden deck swelling with water, but after failing to remember what kind of clothes people would have worn then, I went to sleep and decided to dream the image up.

Nearly a month into forced retirement, we noticed a new curve to his hands. Perhaps it had always been there but seemed more relevant since he kept insisting he needed to craft tools. He was always grasping his books like a blunt object, waiting for his whale to emerge. When would it come for him? At some point in his delusion I began anticipating too. We wished for the ocean.

I wrapped him in a blanket at night and spooned myself around him. I'm going to help, I whispered, some way I'm going to help and his hollers turned to whimpers. We were the reversal of our normal selves; the sheets wisped our legs like gentle water. We cracked and creaked trying to become comfortable, my feet pruned and cold, his with a noticeable shake: we communicated with our bodies because his mind was no longer capable.

Even before that night, but more seriously after, I consulted the internet. Through some questionable clicks and turning off of security settings, I found something to free him. Whale bones, hopefully intended for a marine biology class, were to be delivered. Every day I checked the shipping information, and then sat with him. The Essex was so massive, there were never enough details to explain what exactly happened to those men.

We swigged black coffee instead of ale but only so we could form speech. We played audiobooks and listened, stopped them, and discussed; we rearranged furniture to represent different things on the ship. We were deep in the ocean and unsure how we got there and unsure how to come back.

One day an oversized load pulled into the roundabout on our street, the neighbors peeked through windows, and few boldly came out onto their lawns. I signed a screen, and a handful of men very carefully brought curved white pillars into the back yard. I compared the way they set the bones up with a hand scribble my husband made, hoping the whale in the picture matched the bare bones.

I went back into the house, more solemn than any ocean, and woke him from his nap.

"Honey," I whispered, "the big one, he's waiting for you in the ground"

His eyes open, and his furrowed brow relaxed like he finally understood something. I help him slip on a robe, the puffy one we stole from a hotel a few years back.

He greeted the bones like a miracle. I remained on the deck watching him. He swam through the air, slowly swinging his arms back and forth, making his way over to them. He wrapped his hand around the bleached inner shell of the untamable beast. He grew so thin. Among the large whale, I saw how small a man could be. He slid inside it and planted himself in the ground.

He claimed I gave him the world, and he was unsure how time could exist twice. His mind jumped back and forth, calling my name, and then scoffing at the Godless men he worked with. The whale helped him, engulfed him entirely, he tired just being inside it. I tired watching him.

I wanted to join him, be eaten by the skeleton of his obsession but when I tried to squeeze through the ribs my wide hips wouldn't allow.

I turned back to the house when I realized he would be digested without me.

I worried the whale would emerge to the surface. I imagined waking up to the large mammal knocking the bed and sending me through the depths of the house into the nothingness of the ground. When it didn't come for me, I spent some time on the life boat, convinced the Essex was swallowed.

BIO: Sherrel McLafferty has work featured at flyovercountryreview.com and Black Denim Lit. She currently studies Creative Writing at Bowling Green State University and anticipates graduating in the fall. In her spare time, she sifts through submissions as an Associate Fiction Editor for Flapperhouse.