The doctor spoke for what seemed like hours. He blathered on and on, but "bone cancer" and "terminal" were the only words I'd picked up. Everything in-between was filler: a collection of half-hearted condolences and useless information about a lost fight that we'd never known we'd even begun. My eyesight was hazy. Time had slurred together, and, for all I knew, we'd sat there for days or months or years or eons or perhaps a single minute. It was a dream. It was all a dream. It had to be, right?
I felt my wife squeeze my hand, and it all came surging forth at once with the crushing force of a speeding city bus. This was real. This was my life as I knew it and there was no way around that. When the revelation struck, I turned to face her. There she was: my best friend, the love of my life, the center of my universe, staring back with pleading eyes, begging me to save her. As much as I wished I could change things- as much as I wished I could kill that disease inside her, turn back time, wake us up from this nightmare, anything- I knew she wished it ten times more. I knew no amount of wishing would make it possible. I knew it was hopeless. I swore right then that not one damn second would pass where I'd ever let her see it in my eyes.
The drive home was silent. Mallory stared, vacant and sunken, out the window at nothing in particular. Were I not the one driving, I think I'd have probably done the same. We said no words. We made no sound at all, but yet it was one of the most draining things we'd ever experienced. When I pulled into the driveway and shut off the car, the sudden absence of the radio was the only thing reminding me it was ever on in the first place. I held the door open as she shuffled past, and we both headed straight towards the bedroom. Neither of us needed to suggest it. We were both exhausted, and it seemed like the only logical next step. The silence remained unbroken as we laid there, until I finally managed to choke out the words "I love you, Mallory." She replied with a weak, throaty grunt. Nothing more.
I laid there with her, staring at the ceiling, until I was certain she was sound asleep. I kept still for a while, doing nothing more than listening to her breathing, as I used to do when we'd first gotten married. I thought about those days back when our love was fresh and new. Back when everything in my world centered around her, and everything in hers around me. Back when I was fully content to do nothing but lay awake next to her just admiring her. Why had I ever stopped? It felt like I'd spent years wasting something beautiful. I felt like a criminal.
I slipped out of bed slowly and carefully, and threw on whatever clothes I felt the public eye might judge me for the least. I didn't really care about looking great. I didn't really care who saw me. I didn't really care. I just needed to be out of the house. Shuffling to the car, I sat there for what must have been 20 minutes merely staring at the thin air before remembering I'd even intended on going anywhere in the first place. I pulled out of the driveway, and let autopilot take over. When I'd realized the car had stopped again, I looked up. "Of course," I thought. I'd driven to a bar.
It was just a little run-down hole-in-the-wall I'd frequent every now and then when I needed a little breather from things. It was nothing special, but that was the point. I wasn't worried about being recognized or anything. No one ever knew I went there. Hell, I'd be surprised if the wait staff themselves even knew I went there. There, I was no one to anyone, and that, too, was the point. I sat down and called for two fingers of scotch that I figured I'd end up looking at more than drinking. But, much to my surprise, it wasn't long before I had three empty glasses in front of me, and a fourth on the way. Grief's funny like that.
"Well now," a ragged voice croaked from behind me, "you're drinking like a man with a lot on his mind." Turning towards him, my eyes fell on a thin, balding figure flashing me the rehearsed 'warm gaze' of someone pretending to care. What little silver hair he had left clung tenaciously to the sides of his head, the rest gathering sparsely under his nose and around a crooked, toothy grin. "This seat taken?" he asked, gesturing towards the empty stool next to me I'd been reserving for no one at all. I didn't like this guy. I could tell from the moment I'd heard his raspy, whinging, nails-on-chalkboard voice I wouldn't like a single thing about him. There's nothing I'd have liked more than to send him on his way, but, at that moment, it was far easier to simply shrug than raise any kind of protest. He took that as a sign to join me. Of course he would.
He settled in quickly, and thrusted a bony hand out in front of me. "Carl," he said, answering a question no one had asked. For a moment, I stared at his hand. There was something off about it. Somehow, it, too, seemed crooked. Crooked. That's exactly how I'd describe this man.
"Daniel," I sighed, grasping his jagged paw with a firm squeeze. I'd hoped that, if I just humored him now and then kept silent, maybe he'd eventually get bored and wander off. He sat there next to me for a good 30 minutes, content in the silence, and for a while I'd actually started to believe my plan was working. Ah, the naivete of youth.
"Ain't easy letting them go, is it?" he started up.
"I'm sorry?" I sputtered, alarmed. Was this some kind of joke?
"I know that look, fella. Had the same one plastered on my face some 9 or so years back. In fact, I believe we'll be coming up on a decade here about March sometime." I could hear his voice begin to falter as he buried his gaze in his drink.
"Mister," I started, a bit softer than I'd expected, "I'm not sure what you're getting at here."
"Sarah, my angel." Carl closed his eyes and smiled wistfully. "Taken before I was ready to say goodbye." With that, he threw his head back and swallowed his beer in a lightning-fast guzzle that you'd have missed if you'd blinked. He signaled the bartender for another, and then hung his head like a slumped-over ragdoll. It was strange to see a man simply deactivate like that. I'd begun to wonder if I really looked like that as well. I enjoyed the return of the silence for a few moments, but some curious, nagging sensation in the back of my mind wouldn't permit me to let the conversation rest there.
"I haven't lost her," I piped up. "Not yet, anyway." Carl's head jerked back, his eyes wide and still like they'd been painted on the front of his face. I couldn't shake the eerie feeling that he was staring right through me. I shivered just a little.
"Then there's still time," he gasped. He went on to tell me the story of his late wife's illness. The way he described watching her slowly wither over the months made my stomach drop what felt like miles in my body. The worst part, he said, wasn't just watching her waste away. The worst part was, as she'd waste away and that strange caveman instinct in a man's brain that screams "protect her at all costs" would run wild completely in vain, he'd have no choice but to wake every morning and end every night with the same crooked grin on his face. "It's alright baby," "it'll all be fine," "we'll get through this together and laugh about it later," day-in and day-out, was the only thing he could ever do for her.
As he spoke, it felt nearly impossible to keep a single straight thought in my head. He wasn't just telling me a story. He was imparting a prophecy upon me. In the frantic, stirred beehive that made up the thousands of fragmented thoughts in my head at that moment, I vividly remember wondering how any of this was supposed to help. I began to regret not sending him away in the first place.
"Then, one day later on in the year, I heard this rumor," Carl explained. "Stranger told me about this place; this quaint little village out near the coast. The locals call it 'the land without death,' or 'the village with no graves' or something. They say there's no cemetaries there, 'cause no one ever dies." He paused for a second and smirked. "'Course, I suppose the name gave that away, didn't it?"
My eyes went dark, and my face curled into a wicked scowl. "You really think this is any time to be pulling a stranger's leg, old man?" I bellowed. He glanced up at me, looking me up and down, and his expression never changed from the same calm gaze. He kept his smirk. It was then I'd noticed my hands had balled up into fists. He'd noticed about the same time as I did, and his smile grew bigger. I really did not like this man.
"I was right," he said in a monotonous drawl, "you really are just like me at that age. Relax, son." He looked up idly at the televisions cycling through various games of pub trivia. "I had the same reaction. Nearly knocked the poor bastard's lights out. Something he said, though," he paused, "it stopped me cold." His head swung back over, and his eyes met mine with an intensity I hadn't thought him capable of. "'Believe me, or don't. Do you think you have the option?'" My face sunk, and slowly my hands unclenched themselves. My eyes fell to the wood of the bar, studying the grain like I'd be tested on it later.
"Fine," I said, defeated, "let me hear what you've got to say, old-timer." He placed his hand on my shoulder in a 'there, there, son, I'm just here to help' manner and spoke on. He said the stranger had drawn him up a little map of the area on a cocktail napkin, scribbled the word "Anfarwol" on it, and simply walked out without another word. He told me he'd searched for months through atlases and records and such, but always came up short. The place was never on any other maps. He couldn't even find it on 'that damn internet that seems to know everything these days' (his words). One time, he'd even spent an entire day just asking every single person he saw about it, but not one of them had ever heard of it. He grew frustrated. He grew desperate. It nearly drove him mad. One day, all that frustration finally burned him up so badly, he got in the car and left his wife behind. He spent a whole week driving out to the coast and searching for it.
"I knew she'd understand," he said. "She'd always tried to calm me down and get my mind off it, but, deep down, I knew she'd understand." He swilled down another gulp of his beer. "Then. one day, I found it." With those words, my gaze shot up. He smirked, knowing that'd get my attention. I was so focused, I didn't even think to resent giving him that satisfaction. "Yes sir, there it was. 'Anfarwol'. Means 'immortal' in some other language. Not sure which. It was a strange old place, like a little village straight out of a kids' book. True to the legend, there wasn't a graveyard in sight. Couldn't believe a place like that was real. I raced straight home to her, just as excited as can be. But," for the first time in what seemed like an hour, that knowing grin of his vanished, "when I got home, it was too late. It was too damn late. I walked in to find her in bed. Told her I'd found it. She didn't answer." He gripped his bottle so tightly I thought it might shatter, and a tear rolled down his cheek. "It was too late."
He fell silent. The air between us seemed to thicken in the ensuing deafness, and the next few moments passed with the slurred cadence of molasses. He reached in his pocket, pulled out his wallet and pulled out two twenties and a tattered, yellowing piece of paper. "I never could bring myself to let it go," he said quietly. He put it on the bar and slid it in front of me. "You need it more than I do. Just remember, son," he looked me dead in the eyes with the same intensity from before, "appreciate every minute you have left with her." Carl threw the twenties on the bar and simply walked out without another word. I'd never see him again.
Days passed, which turned into weeks and then into months. Every night, as I laid in bed, I thought of the strange man I'd met at the bar. Mallory grew sicker, and the days took longer to get through, and still I thought of what he'd said. Still, I thought of that village. Still, the word 'Anfarwol' resonated through my mind. Surely, it couldn't be true. Surely, it was all just a tall tale, only invented to keep a little hope in a cold world. I shouldn't have even given it the time of day. There were more pressing matters at hand, and it didn't merit more than a seconds' thought, right?
"Believe me, or don't. Do you think you have the option?"
As Mallory grew worse, and our time grew shorter, I could stand it less and less. Mallory had parents that lived by the coast, and one day I suggested we take a trip out to see them. She loved the idea. I hadn't told her about the village. I took a week off work, and we headed off. It was a day's drive to get out there, and we spent a few more at her parents' place. At night, when everyone was asleep, I'd head out and drive all night, map in-hand, only searching. I just had to know. I just had to be sure. If I let her go without at least trying, it'd eat me up every single day for the rest of my life. I found nothing the first night, and I grew tense. I found nothing the second or third nights, and wound myself up even more. By the fourth night, I'd searched until the sunrise, because I could no longer sleep. Yet, I still found nothing. We were set to leave that morning. I was out of time. I knew I had to be close, but I was out of time.
Shortly after I'd returned and slipped back into bed, Mallory rose and we piled into the car. I drove home in a stupor. I needed sleep. No, I needed rest. I needed peace, and ease, and relaxation. I needed to know things were taken care of, if only for a moment. I needed to be free. We both did.
"Daniel, where are we going?" I nearly jumped out of my skin at the sound of Mallory's voice. I took in our surroundings and met with a sharp pang of realization: I had absolutely no clue. I'd just been driving. As my eyes scanned the rough, overgrown path ahead for any sort of familiar landmark, I kept silent, not sure how to answer her. "Daniel?" she kept on, her voice waivering with uncertainty. Still, I said nothing. I wasn't sure I even realized what I was doing at the time. My body had completely taken over. It just felt like I was gliding along in a dream. "Daniel! Where are you taking me?!" she began shouting at this point. It snapped me back into reality, and I realized how badly I was scaring her. There was no way she'd let me go without an explanation, and I guess I really couldn't blame her. I sighed, and pulled over to a nice-looking spot on the side of the road.
"Okay," I began, "I know you're not going to believe me, but just try to follow along.."
Mallory wasn't pleased. I couldn't blame her for that either. I'd taken her all the way out here- miles from our home- just to find a place that probably doesn't exist on the word of an old drunk I'd literally only met once. I knew I had no right to argue about it, but that pesky little instinct that tells you to defend yourself no matter what took control, and I tried reasoning with her. We were in desperate times, after all. Was it so unbelievable that I'd get a little bit desperate as well? What other option did we have?
"I don't care about our options," Mallory's voice quivered, "I just want as much time as I can get with you. At this point, I just want to be happy." With that, my heart sank. Though I was only trying to help her, this whole trip had been one of the most self-centered things I'd ever done. I searched for the words, but she had stolen them right from me. All but a few:
"I'm sorry, Mallory. I love you." I held her in my arms, and we just sat together in that embrace for a while. Though they were nearly imperceptible, the quiet whimpers of Mallory sobbing were all I could hear. After a few momemts, I wordlessly turned the car back on and started for home. Of course, not knowing where we were, it was a bit hard to tell if I was even going the right way. It became quite easy to tell I was going the wrong way, however, when the road suddenly ended out of nowhere. I gazed out at an expanse of lush, green fields. There were no other roads. There were no signs of civilization. There was nothing. I had never felt this kind of hopelessness before in my life. That's when I saw the sign far off in the distance.
Throughout my life, I've never been one to believe in anything I can't observe. I've never believed in God, or ghosts, or aliens, or anything like that. But, the moment my eyes fell on the word 'Anfarwol', messily painted on a plank of rotten wood, God became real. With a jolt, my head turned to Mallory in disbelief. She must have noticed it the same time I did, because she was already staring me dead in the eyes, her jaw hanging open with the kind of amazed disbelief that comes but a few times in a person's life. I sat there, searching for some way to gracefully ask if she wanted to investigate. She opened the car door and started walking. "Well," I thought, "that was easy."
It was a short hike up the hill before us. There was a flutter in my chest, and electricity surged through my fingertips. There it was. Below us lay a strange little village that looked like it'd simply been forgotten by time. Just like it'd come out of a kids' book, exactly as Carl described it. It was so small, you could get the lay of the entire place from just up where we were standing, and I could see no cemetaries of any kind. We kept walking.
As we grew nearer, an uneasy feeling began making itself present in the back of my mind. We could see no people walking around in the village square. There was no sound anywhere. For a place without death, it seemed strangely dead. I approached one of the houses and tried knocking on the door. Nothing. I noticed my breathing had quickened and become audible. What if there was no one here? What if this really was all for nothing? I didn't want to even think of it. "Please," I thought, begging no one in particular, "please don't let it be true."
"Excuse me," a small voice piped up behind me, "can I ask what you folks are doing here?" I don't remember the noise I made, but Mallory would later describe it as 'shrieking like the littlest girl I've ever heard'. Realizing there was nothing more than a frail old man standing before us, I released Mallory from the death-grip I'd apparently locked her in and sheepishly stepped forward.
"I'm sorry," I said quietly. "My name is Daniel, and this is my wife Mallory. She's very sick, and we heard.."
"..say no more," the man responded with a smile. "Please forgive the cold welcome! As secluded as we are, it's quite rare that we ever get visitors. The people tend to get startled easily." He laughed. "Of course, it seems to be a concept you're rather familiar with yourself! I am Donovan, the elder of this village." He offered his hand, and I shook it graciously. "You are both more than welcome to live here with us for as long as you would like."
"So, the rumors are true?" I asked.
"Indeed they are," he responded.
"And you're wiling to let us live here, just like that?" I stammered, gripped by the disbelief of the whole situation.
"Indeed we shall," he responded. "As it happens, there is a house here with a warm bed for you to share until your own lodgings can come about, which shouldn't take long at all." Something about that last part sounded off to me.
"Well," I began warily, "how much do we owe you for all of this? Surely, you're not just going to let us live here for nothing."
"Think nothing of it for now," he said, his voice dripping with warmth, "our village is far too small to be concerned with money. Your payment will come in time." That, too, sounded off to me. But, at that moment, there was nothing that could've brought me down. We'd found it. We'd found hope. We were free. I glanced over at Mallory, who'd been silent this whole time, to see if she'd approve of the idea. She had a grin on her face 10 miles wide, and I guess I had my answer. With that, I practically jumped on her, holding her as tightly as I could. We'd beaten this thing. It was over. Dear God, it was finally over!
We spent that night together in the guest room of a small cottage belonging to Donovan's daughter-in-law. Mallory and I made love for the first time since we'd left the doctor's office, and as we laid there together, I practically melted into the bed's warm embrace. In the morning, I'd have to wake and return home to work. In the morning, I'd have to start packing and arranging the sale of our house. Soon, I'd have to leave my job and figure out how to grow accustomed to a whole new way of life. Yes, in the morning, there would be so much for me to do. But, right at this very moment, it felt as though everything in the whole world had been taken care of. Right then, I felt true relaxation. I could beat anything.
When that morning came, I kissed my wife deeply, and set off to find my way home. I made absolutely certain to memorize every little twist and turn until I was back on the freeway, and the rest of my week was pretty average. I didn't tell any friends or relatives about Anfarwol. How could I explain something like that? But, for the entire week, it was the only thing on my mind. I couldn't wait to get back to Mallory. It was such a beautiful little town, I even found myself anxious to start our new lives there. As the days lumbered by, I found myself counting the minutes. When work ended on Friday, I returned to the house only long enough to change out of my work clothes, and not a second more. I sped off towards the coast to see my beautiful wife again.
When I arrived back at Anfarwol once more, the whole village had taken to the streets. It seemed they were celebrating something. I couldn't see Mallory among them, so I looked around for Donovan. I was dying to know what all I missed in her first week. Hell, it seemed as though this had been a big week for everyone in town. There was electricity in the air as the people ate, drank and laughed, and the children all ran and played through the streets. I couldn't help but smile amidst the revelry. It was a beautiful day. Yes, I remember it being so beautiful. So, so beautiful.
I found Donovan, but before I could ask where Mallory was, he turned and greeted me with a massive smile and a kind of booming voice that hardly seemed like it could possibly come from him. He told me much had happened since the last time I was there- something I'd already gleaned- and insisted I sit and join the feast with him. I told him I would, but first I needed to see Mallory. Still, he insisted I sit, and still I insisted I be taken to Mallory. He won me over in the end. I figured we'd end up bumping into one another soon, anyway. She was probably off laughing it up with all the other villagers. When Mallory was in a good mood, she was the most social creature you could ever hope to meet, and everyone at the party would want a piece of her. It always amazed me how she could just turn it on whenever she wanted. She was so beautiful. I needed to see her.
"Yes," Donovan's face fell, and his voice took a sombre tone. "That's what I wanted to talk to you about. You see, while you were gone, your wife's illness took a turn." Donovan spoke for what seemed like hours. He blathered on and on, but the only thing I'd picked up was "she'd passed away the other night." This couldn't be true. There was no way it was true. How could she die in a village without death? He'd promised me. He'd promised me she'd be fine. Dear God, Mallory; what had I done? My stomach turned. It felt like my heart had ceased to beat. She was gone.
I asked to at least see her body. Maybe I could find a way to get her home and give her a proper burial. "Son," he asked, "do you see any farmland around here?"
"No," I said, shakily. What did this have to do with anything?
"Have you seen any fields full of cows, pens full of pigs or coops full of chickens? Any slaughterhouses?" he continued.
"No. I don't know why you're asking, but no." My voice grew stern and heated. I didn't know what he was doing, but I was beyond sick of being strung around. "Now take me to my wife."
"Look in front of you," he said calmly. "Had you not guessed why our little village has no graves?"
I gazed at what lay before me. I hadn't yet finished eating the meat they'd served me. A fly circled noiselessly around it, and as it landed gracefully, I felt myself shake and retch. I wasn't sure whether to scream, laugh, or vomit. Images flashed before my eyes; apparitions of all the moments leading to this one. The doctor's office, Carl's crooked grin, that tattered map that had promised to fix everything; that had promised me the world. I thought of all the time I'd spent obsessing, and all the things she and I could have done with that time. I thought of Mallory. Dear God, Mallory. I could picture her so clearly. Her eyes staring daggers straight into mine, accusing, begging to know "How could you, Daniel? How could you have let this happen?" My mouth hung open as I searched for an answer, both to her and to me. I had none. I had nothing.
I stared at the plate. My body trembled. My eyes glazed over. Everything went red, and then black. That's the last thing I remember.