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Twisted Tarn (A Short Story)

April 2, 2024
AJ Diaz

Standing water, with a mossy green sheen across the top.

I stand here, wine in hand.

Red wine.

Green tarn.

The light is reflected from the bottom of the body of water. Green-covered rocks. And the sulfurous smell, though I can’t really smell it. Still. Not good.

I need wine to be able to approach the tarn.

I dare not do it without alcoholic libation.

Though I can barely feel the effects of the alcohol.

I am a man of no means, save for the produce that grows on my land.

I’ve always loved the land.

The deep violet rolling furrows. The atmosphere-powered tractors that encourage the soil to produce the most delectable vegetables: carrots and squash, cucumber and radish, zucchini and tomatoes. The best you’ve ever had.

I’m good at what I do.

The best.

This tarn doesn’t look good.

It looks flat and dead, except for something is moving within it.

I sip my wine.

I don’t want to be caught off guard.

By whatever lurks beneath this dreadful surface.

Rumors: that it’s haunted.

The village people say so.

The townsfolk: as they would say in the city from my former life.

Tempe, Arizona.

A nice enough place.

Now I lived here: in the wilds of Indonesia.

I breathe deeply, preparing myself for what might lurk within.


The tarn will require an exorcist or a witch doctor, one of my neighbors said to me.

I’m inlined to believe in more natural phenomena, child of the enlightenment era and all the rest.

I’m old and tired now.

But even when I’m tired my body moves. It seems, against my will.

Wine gets me through the dark hours.

Now the sun is setting and the yellow light cascades over the top of the green, but it can’t quite smother it. The green lingers and almost seems exacerbated.

And I can smell it now.

The tarn.

But only for a moment.

The sky flames suddenly, oranges and pinks and the light blooms and chases after itself.

All of this slowly, as I stand here.

I don’t move.

Everything else moves.

Ripples in the surface of the water.

But what stirs beneath? — I wonder.

I still have half a glass of wine left, thank God.

It can’t be a dragon: those don’t exist.

I don’t think.

I’m not the smartest man there ever was.

Smart enough to move to Indonesia when the going got bad in Tempe.

No one ever thought it could have happened, what happened.

After all, who would have ever thought Tempe would be a target of planned malevolence?

How did I see it coming? — that was the question.

Rumors, of course.

I heard the rumors and the whispers and the rustlings in the trees.

I’m not stupid, but I’m not smart either.

Only the smart and the stupid ones failed to see the signs.

The stupid are too stupid to see anything.

The smart are too foolish and read more into what they see than is really there. And therefore they hesitate: they don’t take things for what they are.

I saw it and for that I was rewarded.

With life.

Some say I saw it in dreams.

It is not so.

I haven’t dreamed since I started smoking the leaf more than twenty-five years ago.

It helps me sleep.

Not anymore.

Not in a long time.

Then what is life made of and what is the value of mine?

I grow crops for others to eat.

I find that valuable.

The work is hard. My local workers have been helping me more than I can thank them for. More than I can pay them for. They arrive early and leave late. It’s as if they love the crops more than they love the pay. Young guys, just boys really.

They have their whole lives ahead of them.

Mine, I fear, as I sip the wine, may end soon.

Or perhaps it already did. Or I wish it would.

As the ripples widen in the tarn.

They told me not to come up here.


Don’t go, sir.

Tell the American not to go.

They call me an American: can’t tell if it’s an insult or an affirmation. Not after what happened back there. It all started in Tempe.


I never had children.

That was a mistake.

I wish I would have.

I’m good at reading the signs, but I’m not good at knowing what’s good for me.

People get old and then it’s too late.

And they miss out on the greatest dream.

How did I know they were going to come?

Truth is, I had an inside track.

I knew someone at the facility.

They put that thing in the middle of nowhere.


The locals, me and my friends and longstanding people, knew it from the moment it rose up: the great brick structure with the tall wrap-around fences and around-the-clock security. A government installation.

I got the hell out of there.

Before the nanotechnology leaked.

It invaded — possessed, to use religious terms — every living body in Tempe and activated them as if they were a militia, sent them to the neighboring towns to wreak all sorts of evil.

And it was evil that they did and no one can tell me otherwise.

By that point, I was long gone.

Bali, Indonesia.

It was cheap.

Pretty women.

Good alcohol.

Rather, all alcohol sucks, but it is alcohol.

And it’s cheap.

And it does the job.

Or, it did.

It was nice, living here in Bali.

But I know it won’t last forever.

The nanotech wasn’t able to be contained. It spread all across America, spreading like and infection and possessing more hosts, forcing China and all of the far-eastern forces to do everything — and I MEAN EVERYTHING — it its power to stop the surge of nanotech-possessed human bodies from coming overseas.

Still, some of them snuck their way onto planes.

Evaded the highest security dragnets.

They found their way — like water through a rock, pressing into the fissures and cracks.

I finish my wine, and every last taste is good, but I can hardly taste it.

I’ve hardly been able to taste it for a long time now, since the day I left Tempe.

The damned thing under the tarn won’t come up for air and the suspense is killing me.

I finish my glass of wine and I walk into the water.

It’s cold, probably.

I don’t know.

And then I’m under the water.

I can’t breathe under here, but it doesn’t matter. It hasn’t mattered in a long time.

Finally, I find the source of the drama.

I take it into my hands, it doesn’t try to skitter.

And after a few nice minutes of standing in the water and letting it refresh my senses — if I have any left — I come out of the water.

I’m drenched, but I can hardly feel the water.

In my hands I hold it: a small man.

But hardly a man. He is gaunt and thin, barely any flesh on his bones.

“Hey, partner,” I say as he shivers. “You’ll get used to it.”

“I don’t want to get used to it,” he says. “I want to die.”

“Don’t we all,” I say and my mouth smiles though I don’t want it to. “Don’t we all.”

“I always wanted to live. Until now. Until you brought the infection. Now I just want to — ” But the village man’s voice is cut off and his words are garbled and then he foams at the mouth a bit and passes out.

He will come to.

And eventually he will give in.

No, I have not come to terms with it.

Not at all.

I pretend, in my imagination, which is limited and seems to be the only thing left of me, that I escaped. But really I was used. Sent out from that facility to infect the greater Asian region. I slipped onto a plane undetected.

And I’ve lived here ever since.

Most of the village has turned, the nanotech flying from me to possess them.

We’re learning to enjoy it the best we can.

I remember, long ago, barely, before all of this, that I liked life enough, even on the hard days, that I didn’t want to die. I wanted to live forever.

Gone are these halcyon days.

Now all I want is to die.

I walk into the tarn often, hoping that my body will react with ill.

Hoping that I will breathe my last.

But I just continue on, locked forever in conscious thought.

Enough to be alive, but not enough to be free.

That’s me.

That’s the man in my arms.

He’ll get used to it, I tell myself.

Everything will be all right.



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