Hieronymus Smith is a man who hates nicknames. From his earliest childhood he would brook no one, be they casual friend, boastful parent or mocking bully, calling him "Hero." Hieronymus would not be shortened or slotted into a two-syllable simplified version of himself. He returned this favor by not referring to anyone by any nickname or abbreviation. He knows no "Jim" no "Rick" no "Jen" no "Liz." Despite this injunction, which Hieronymus often delivered with frustrated grunts and a blotchy blustery face, in this text, "Hero" is precisely what I intend to name him.
Hero is a cultured man. He has an entire room devoted to books, newspapers, magazines and the other assorted ephemera of the written word. There are tall cedar bookshelves built into the walls; they hold volumes of variegated shapes, thicknesses, heights and colors. There is a chestnut-colored cloth-upholstered sofa near the brown-framed window. When he peruses rare tomes he uses a small lectern and a green-glass lamp. He has a bright red fish in a small round bowl on the corner of the desk; he likes the fish, but not to excess. There is no television, and there is no mechanism through which to play music. There is a black rotary phone on his desk that he only uses to inquire on book-related queries or purchases; no one has the number and Hero often forgets it himself.
Amongst his prized books are: a second quarto of Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, multiple and assorted first editions of many late 19th Century works of English realism, an original Précis de l'histoire de l'astronomie by Laplace, and a Ben-Hur third edition from 1860.
On this fateful afternoon, Hero was savoring every well-chosen word and delicately constructed sentence of what is often termed a "classic" novel. He was on the third line down on page 236 (a left-facing page), and just raising his glass of ice-cold water to his lips when the phone rang. Hero's shoulders tensed at the ring so metallic and angular. He instinctively felt he must answer because that is what one does with a ringing phone.
As he leaned forward in his chair and stretched his left hand towards the phone, his right hand, which still held the almost full glass of cold water, strayed over his book and a single drop that had condensed on the outside of his glass grew obese and plonked onto the open page with a moistly audible thump.
The phone continued to ring as Hero stared at the drop resting on the lower right hand corner of page 237. This sudden violation of the water was both horrifying and curious in its rarity.
The drop was thick and fat; it curved into a perfect dome on the page and seemed content and solid sitting on his book. For the brief second it had not started to soak into the page, the letters "ago" underneath the drop were magnified and he could see the fibrous grain of the paper. Hero couldn't move until the drop's tall dome began to lose shape and seep into the page. There was a napkin next to his hand. He knew he needed to sop because rubbing might tear the page.
The magnified letters started to bleed along their edges and he quickly dropped the napkin on the book. Hero watched a circle appear on the napkin above the drop; the wet spot grew outward in a steady circle from its starting point and the entire napkin was quickly wet. He lifted the napkin; the drop had soaked in and was spreading across the original page, and moving steadily to the opposite page. Hero dropped the wet napkin onto his desk and stood up out of his chair. He could see the letters growing hazy; the pages began to curl as the water pulled the paper into waves.
He picked up the book, which had grown heavy as the water flowed forward and back through the narrative. Holding the book upside down released some water onto the carpet but did nothing to stop its relentless march. He handled the novel gently because he was still afraid to rip any of the delicately sodden pages.
The phone kept ringing as Hero gently placed the soaked novel in the sunlight of the windowsill. His foot came down in a puddle on the carpet that had formed when he held the book upside down. Reaching for a pile of napkins Hero saw his nervous reflection in a thin sheen of water that had covered the desk.
His eye fell on the napkin that he had originally used to sop up the drop; it was still leeching fresh water as if fed by a hidden current. He dropped more napkins onto the desk; but they were quickly imbued and he could see the color of the desk beneath the now loosely translucent napkins. His blood iced as he watched the heavy brown wood of his desk begin to fade to a grainy tan as the water saturated the veins in the wood. The napkins aren't working. Why aren't the napkins working? Napkins always work. The desk had now become the color of milky sand and was growing still lighter.
Hero's shoes squelched into the carpet as he gently trod towards the window. All of the ink had flowed out of the book and was dissipating in the glaze of water on the windowsill. The pages had the tenuous shine of damp rice paper.
Reaching to open the window, Hero realized the frame had been overwhelmed with water. The paint had faded and the window frame, like the desk, was a whitish gray with only occasional, and rapidly disappearing, flecks of brown. He touched the frame; water percolated into the whorls his fingerprint had left in the wood. The water reached into the windowpane and hidden arteries in the seemingly flawless glass were filled. The light shifted as the water crammed into the window and for a brief second the room was filled with prisms. Hero could just barely make out the wobbly shadow of the house across the street. The ringing phone had been muffled by the sound of dripping water.
Hero moved towards the door but the water from the windowsill had flowed through the walls and into the doorframe. The doorknob had rusted and was beginning to flake apart. The door, just like the walls and the carpet, had now turned almost completely opaque as the water filled every pore of the wood. The rows of books were the only objects left with any color and the water had started to rise up the bookshelves. The water reached the wiring in the walls and the lamp and his overhead light flared bright and went out with a hissing pop.
Hero considered pushing through the pulpy wood of the door and escaping the cataclysm, but as he stepped forward he realized the door was glowing with a soft white light that seemed to come from behind the wood. Outside the door was a narrow, windowless, hallway. Before, it had always been a dark and insignificant corridor connecting this room with the rest of the house; nothing of his could have been causing that glow. The walls and the floor were becoming luminous and thin as if they were shielding him from a brilliant and powerful light that was starting to push in brighter on all sides.
Something's out there. He saw a shadow, something large, moving behind the door. He could feel the sogged plush of the carpet beneath his bare feet, but looking down the carpet had gone clear and he could see the distinct shape of something indistinct waiting under the floor for him. Waiting for the wood to crumble, waiting for Hero to panic and punch through.
Hero raised his head and the wide cedar planks of his bookshelves were dripping with water. The rain rising from the floor had quickened, but his books still looked dry.
Walking on the nails that held the planks to the crossbeams holding the floor together, Hero went to his bookshelf. The shelves were beginning to yield to the weight of the water. Hero knew he had to keep these books dry for as long as possible. Hero pressed his body against dozens of books shielding them from the deluge. The wooden shelves were now diaphanous and the refulgence behind the walls blasted all the shadows out of the room and cast everything in a milky glow. Out of the corner of his eye Hero saw a red arrow slide across the floor as his fish surveyed his new territory.
Hero's forehead was pressed against a book that was growing damp and he stared down at a single book in front of his chest that had remained bone-dry. He focused on this book and pressed his body forward willing himself to serve as a dam to keep the water at bay. He couldn't shield the book with his hands because they were dripping wet and there was nothing left to dry them with.
His feet were completely submerged and the skin was beginning to turn prunish and pale. The water lapped against the cuff of his pants as small waves began to ripple across his library. The cuffs were soaked and clung tightly to his ankles, his light blue button-down shirt was imbued and the water climbed into his hair. A drop that had pooled on his forehead plonked on the single dry book in his collection.
Hero's eyes snapped open when he realized what had happened and he thrust his body forward to shield the book. The water splashed out of his wet shirt as the dry paper was overrun with water.
The color of his clothing faded. The books on the shelves were draining into the inky rivers that had formed on the shelves. The desk, the windowsill, the walls, the door, the sofa, the carpet, everything had gone the same bluishgrey; a translucence that was anti-color, and the glow from behind the objects was brighter. He wanted to raise his arms in front of him and wrap his hands around his face; he wanted to protect himself. But his skin had gone the same bluishgrey; his veins stood out bright red through his skin, and then the red disappeared as his veins filled with water. The light grew brighter, the membranous walls were growing thinner, the ringing of the phone had faded into a tinny whisper, the desk and couch sagged as the floor began to give way. Looking down he could see the blank shape of erased books through his chest on the bookshelf behind him, and when he looked up he couldn't see anything at all.
BIO: Richard Santos was born in Texas, used to live in Santa Fe, but now resides in Washington, DC. Richard studied militant suffragettes in Austin, American crime writers at Georgetown, and performed Shakespeare in London. He was once a bouncer, but not for very long. "Membrane" is his first publication, but another story, "Charles and Irma", is forthcoming in Nimrod International Journal.