Subject to Change

by Ron Goulart

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: "I could change, you see, and take things as all sorts of odd characters. If I was spotted and followed, I'd try to duck in an alley or a doorway and change again. The clothes are extra. Sometimes I could hide clothes in a lot. Most of the time, though, I'd have to change into something new. A bird, a cat. Then I'd carry what I had stolen in my beak or around my neck. Once I copped an umbrella and changed into a big dog and went off with it in my mouth."

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

Pendleton had been away from San Francisco over two months. The airport taxi left him at his place, where he showered and shaved. Then he decided he would walk, down through Chinatown and over into North Beach, to Beth’s apartment.

It was a warm Saturday afternoon and he unbuttoned his dacron blazer a block or so into Chinatown. He smiled as he wandered by the bright restaurants and shops, the rows of ivory Buddhas in window after window. On one corner Pendleton stopped and took a deep breath, watching a scattering of tourists taking pictures of each other. Someone had lost a half dozen fortune cookies on the sidewalk and they crackled and spread fragments and fortunes as people passed.

While he was waiting for a signal to change, three small Chinese boys charged a fourth who had ducked around Pendleton. They all ran around the corner and Pendleton looked after them. There was an old curio and toy shop there. He went toward its streaked window, trying to identify the objects. Some kind of procession of tin soldiers made up the main display. The door of the shop opened and an old man with a flared white beard came out. His dark suit hung loose on him and his tie was coming untied as he hurried away.

The old man brushed by Pendleton, nudging him. “Many pardons,” he said, cutting across the street. He ran downhill, weaving a little, and into an alley.

The bells over the toy shop door rattled again. “Stop, thief!” shouted the fat Chinese, who came running up to Pendleton. The man shouted again and stopped on the corner, his hands on his hips, looking.

Pendleton crossed the street and turned down the alley the old man had used. This would cut off a block of the way to Beth’s. He had kept quiet about the thief because he didn’t want to get involved in a lot of delaying questioning.

Halfway down the alley he saw an arm dangling out of a garbage can. Pendleton blinked and approached the shadowed area around the can. He flipped the lid up and the coat sleeve that had been tangled on the can edge slipped free and dropped into the can. If the old man was wandering around naked, they shouldn’t have much trouble catching him.

Pendleton liked the pre-quake apartment house Beth lived in. In almost any weather he liked to see its narrow brown wood front waiting there in the middle of the block. He smiled as a big blue-gray gull flew low overhead and then circled up and away behind Beth’s building. Pendleton took the rough steps in twos and threes and swung at Beth’s bell. There was a folded note for him glued on her mail box lid with Scotch tape. It told him she might be delayed a bit and to get her keys from under the rubber-plant pot on the porch and let himself in. He did that, thinking again that Beth’s notes always looked as though she wrote them on horseback.

Upstairs he dropped her keys on the small mantle over the small real fireplace. Her bedroom door was slightly open. Just as he noticed this, Beth called out to him.

“I hope that’s you, Ben?” she said from her room.

“Where’ll I put the ice, lady?” he said. “You’re supposed to be out.”

“Welcome back. I just got here and I had to change so I left the keys down there in case you got here while I was changing. How was New York?”

“Okay, but I’m glad I’m with the agency out here. How’d you get in without keys?” He sat down in the soft tan sofa-chair he’d given her.

“I have a key to the kitchen way. Is the show all right now?”

“I guess we fixed it for a while. How are you?”

“Fine. And, hey, I have a good part in Alex’ new play. It just happened and I couldn’t write.”

“You have lousy handwriting, you know,” Pendleton called. Grinning, he got out a cigarette and reached into his coat pocket for a book of matches. Something jabbed into the palm of his hand.

“It’s because I’m so intense,” Beth said, near her bedroom door.

Pendleton winced and pulled a small toy Chinese junk out of the pocket. The price stamp was still on the bottom of the boat, 25 cents. The old man must have dropped it in his pocket when he nudged him.

Beth came up behind him. “It’s warm in here. Give me your coat. I have a whole new concept about making martinis. This fellow in Actors’ Lab told me. You do it with Zen.” Her hands rested on Pendleton’s shoulders.

“I’ll be damned,” he said, rubbing his palm with the boat as he stood.

Beth slid her arms over his shoulders and locked her hands on his chest. “What’s that, Ben?”

Pendleton turned around in her hold. He tapped her tanned nose with the toy boat and told her about it. “I suppose I should take it back,” he said finally.

Beth laughed. “Makes you a receiver of stolen goods.” She took the toy boat and walked to the fireplace. She put it next to her keys and turned to him. She was wearing a light blue dress with a flared skirt. No stockings, flat black shoes. She’d cut her blonde hair short since he’d seen her last. “Welcome back,” she said, smiling.

A light wind was starting up, tapping windows with tree branches, as Pendleton let himself into Beth’s darkening apartment. He flipped the light switch on and started for the tan sofa chair, jiggling the keys in his hand. The bedroom door slammed.

“You in there?” Pendleton called. Her note said she’d gone out for some forgotten groceries.

Pendleton opened the bedroom door and turned on the lights. The window beyond Beth’s low, blue-covered bed was open and the wind was flapping the curtains against her dressing table. A strong flap caught a lipstick and flipped it into the thick rug.

Edging around the bed, Pendleton closed the window and picked up the lipstick. He left the bedroom door a bit open and went back to the chair. There was a paper back by Eisenstein on the coffee table and he picked that up and read down the contents page.

The wind got stronger and parts of the old building creaked, first something down under him, then something way up and to the right. Now and then there would be a bang from out in back. Pendleton dropped the book and got down on his knees in front of the fireplace and kindled a fire. As the fire took hold, bright sparks popped out into the room.

Something started tapping on the window behind Pendleton’s chair. At last, in a lull between creaking and banging, he became aware of a tapping. He looked at the window and the early night sky. The tapping went on.

There was a gray cat sitting on the sill outside. The cat was tangled up in an orange and blue bead necklace. “Lonely out there,” Pendleton said. He didn’t much like cats, but this one looked sad. He opened the window and the cat jumped in, the necklace falling free and clattering against the wall. “We’ll see if maybe Beth’s got something around to give to wandering cats.” Pendleton reached out to pick up the cat. Sputtering, the animal raked at his fingers and dived between his legs.

Pendleton spun and saw the cat scoot through the open bedroom door. “Hey, you little bastard, you’ll knock over things.”

He was two steps from the door when it slammed and locked. Pendleton stopped, wondering how the animal had managed to bang into the door hard enough to close it. He didn’t think the cat should stay in there and anyway Beth would want to get in when she got home. He’d pick the lock. Crouching, he reached for the knob. Something clicked and the door swung in. He recognized Beth’s terry robe and he looked up and saw her face, very pale.

“Okay,” she said. “I guess I was too cute with the key bits. Go away, Ben, and leave me alone. Please?”

“What’s the matter?” He was still squatting and her stepping forward sent him over.

“Just go away, Ben. Please, now.” She brushed by him and sat in a bucket chair, putting both bare feet down hard on the floor.

Ben got himself up. “You drunk?”

Beth brushed at her hair. “I thought if you were sitting out here and I showed up in the bedroom, you’d think I came in the back way. Or that I was already in there and just hadn’t heard you.” She bit her thumb. “Just another trick I wanted to try.”

“What are you talking about?” He bent and scooped up the bead necklace.

“Go away. That’s all.”

“Well, why?” He twisted the string of beads around his knuckles. “Somebody else?”

“Yes. Alex.” She smiled.

“Alex? That fruiter who runs the Actors’ Lab.” The string broke and beads splattered away from him. Three landed in the fire.

“Or maybe my Uncle Russ. Did you know we lived with him for three years when I was a kid and I was always having odd fevers and things? He had some kind of quack x-ray business.”

Pendleton took Beth’s shoulders. “You’re sick, is that it?”

“No. Go away, Ben.”

“Well, what is it?”

Beth sighed, annoyed. “You know about Method. You have to feel the parts, live them.”


Beth shrugged her shoulders until Pendleton let go. “One weekend afternoon--oh, about two or three weeks after the agency sent you off--I was here trying to be an old lady. For an exercise at the Lab. And I was.”

Pendleton blinked at her still pale fact. “That’s swell, Beth. A guy likes to know what his fiancee is up to while he’s away.”

“I was an old lady.” She stood with her body thrust almost against him. “See? I changed.”

He backed a little. “How about a drink?”

“Don’t you get it, Ben? How the hell do you think I just came in?”

“The back way.” Pendleton decided to try a drink on her and then find out who her doctor was these days.

“I was the cat. Now you know about it and can go away, Ben.” She let herself fall to the floor and she huddled there, crying.

“How long have you had this idea?” He knelt beside her, running one hand over her back.

“You know who put that silly damn boat in your pocket?” she asked.

“Sure. You were that little old man.”

Beth rolled and sat up, her legs tangled in the robe. She took a deep breath. “Listen, Ben. I got a kick out of changing into different kinds of people. It was a help in my work at the Actors’ Lab. Then I got the idea it would be fun to try other things. Animals, chairs, tables. One rainy night I was a footstool until it was time to go to bed.”

“I was a tea kettle as a boy. Stop kidding.”

“I don’t know, Ben. It gets sort of vacant all around when you’re away somewhere. I had this feeling that I wanted to see if I could just step into a store or someplace and try to swipe something. Anything.”

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