Title Subject to Change
“People seem to believe that simply because words are published in a book, that must mean they speak the truth,” the man said after answering the front door of a little house at the corner of Black Cherry Street.
I had only rung the bell to ask for a pint of sugar, so I hardly thought his greeting was appropriate. I shrugged, looking over his shoulder as if I might actually find a pint of sugar sitting around in plain view.
The man moved aside but didn’t appear to acknowledge me.
My eyes roamed around the house in vain, searching for any sign of sugar, or at the very least, a kitchen where I could possibly find some. All I saw was a short wooden table in the dark hallway, a few spools of colorful waxed thread arranged in a pyramid formation at the center.
There was something unsettling about this house. Before I could concentrate long enough to figure out what it was, the man’s low, monotone voice rose once more.
“Some people also believe that simply because a typewriter is depicted on a book’s cover, that must mean the story inside takes place during a certain time period.” While he stated this apparently random observation, his hand reached for a doorknob to the right and opened the frosted glass door into a dimly lit room.
Stacks and stacks of books spanned half the length of the room, overshadowing the wine-colored carpet. Some were bound tightly together with twine, dividing individual volumes into groups; others just sat there, free to move but frozen in place.
As I bent down to retrieve one of the untethered books, the man stiffened visibly behind me, and for the first time, I turned completely around to give him a closer inspection.
There was something unsettling about the man as well. But unlike his house, it was easy to realize what. Firstly, he looked out of place, out of time, as if he had gotten out of bed this morning and found himself in the wrong decade. Secondly, he was dressed in muted colors, his hair dark gray, his skin pale. He wore no discernible expression on his face, which was unusually symmetrical, except for a monocle he held in place over his left eye.
“If someone changes a word in a book he did not write, does he disrupt the universe?” the man contemplated aloud, now pushing the book in my hands. “Change something,” he insisted, “anything…the cover, a page, a word, or maybe even only a letter…”
With that, he began ushering me out of the room. I stepped out but noticed the man didn’t follow. He seemed stuck on the other side of the threshold. He seemed to be having trouble exiting.
From my new vantage point, I took one last look around the room—from the now-menacing towers of books to three other books that were neatly displayed on a writing desk against the opposite wall—my eyes finally lingering on the empty oval frame hanging above them.
* * *
After leaving the strange man’s house, I returned to my own home on the other side of the street. A mess of mixing bowls and plastic measuring spoons greeted me in the kitchen, my hands heavy with an unfamiliar book rather than a pint of sugar.
I placed the book on the coffee table in the adjacent living room, still unopened. There, I saw the cover clearly for the first time. The entire surface had been obscured by the fervent scribble of a correction pen. I could see imperfections in the textured veneer. I could also see my hands, suddenly. Faint white smudges on my fingertips.
The book was still wet. I couldn’t remember it being that way when I left the man’s house. I was acutely aware of dust particles surrounding me, rabid in the light. A rectangle moved ever so slightly up the wall, everything else stock-still.
I sat in an armchair directly across from the table. The opaque white fluid used to mask the cover now looked completely dry. An old-fashioned typewriter had been drawn over it in charcoal. I ran my fingers lightly over the surface. This time, my hands came back clean.
I tilted the book to the side, trying to read the spine, which had not been painted over. It was a deep maroon, void of any lettering. I ran my fingers down that, too, as if words would magically appear at my touch. They didn’t.
I tossed the book back on the table, where it landed heads up with a dull thud, like a ball that needed air. I regarded it with trepidation. With the sudden thought that I couldn’t remember how to open a book.
The living room had darkened. That rectangle of light had continued climbing the wall.
A sun was setting outside. The sun. We only had one of those, I was pretty sure. My cake was still in the kitchen. Actually, I remembered, I hadn’t made it yet. No sugar.
Then, the book was in my hands.
This book was old, I soon realized. Very old. The pages were yellowing, tearing at the edges, more or less falling apart. The binding loose.
I counted five blank pages at the beginning of the book. No title page. No table of contents either. By that point, I was relieved to discover that CHAPTER ONE started on the first page of text. I wondered for a moment why that simple discovery filled me with such reassurance. But I didn’t dwell on it for long. The book was starting.
I read the first sentence out loud: “‘People seem to believe that simply because words are published in a book, that must mean they speak the truth,’ the man said after answering the front door of a little house at the corner of Black Cherry Street.”
Unease filled me with every new word my eyes encountered. That had just happened to me. Hadn’t it? Why was something that had just happened to me printed in a book that looked decades old?
I forced myself to continue reading down that page before moving onto the next: “…I stepped out but noticed the man didn’t follow. He seemed stuck on the other side of the threshold. He seemed to be having trouble exiting.”
What was it the man had said to me? Change something… I felt a sudden compulsion to follow his advice and fished under the seat cushions for a pen. My hand shook slightly as I pressed the ball-point to the page, adding an s in the middle of that last word I’d read aloud, marks made not entirely of my own volition.
It wasn’t that I believed my actions could literally alter the real world, but I had never defaced the pages of a book before. Rather, I had always treated them like sacred objects, appalled at people who wrote notes in the margins or dog-eared their favorite pages. My own books were all brand new, arranged alphabetically on a shelf along my bedroom wall. I hadn’t read most of them.
I closed the book, uncapped my own correction pen, and wrote in a title: SUBJECT TO CHANGE.
* * *
The book felt lighter as I walked back across the street the next morning. Again, I rang the doorbell, but this time, nobody answered. When I tried the knob, the door pushed open without much effort.
“I just wanted to return your book!” I called out while standing on the welcome mat, which I now noticed had been mutilated at some point and was missing its left half. It now read, simply: COME.
Still, no answer. I stepped inside and pushed open the side door I had entered the day before, clutching the book to my chest. The room appeared to have shifted in the night. I had the sense that every object occupied a slightly different space than it had previously. That the books in the stacks had shuffled in place since I last saw them, that the trio of books on the desk had been pulled closer to the edge.
Feeling somewhat disoriented, I reluctantly returned my book to one of the stacks. As I did, my eyes rose to the oval frame above the table. I could have sworn it had been empty the day before. Now it held a painting of a man, captured straight on from the top of his head to just below his chest.
There was something oddly unsettling about the image of the man. Firstly, he looked out of place, out of time, as if the painting had traveled here this morning from an earlier decade. Secondly, he had been painted in muted colors, his hair dark gray, his skin pale. He wore no expression on his face, which was unusually symmetrical, except for a monocle that had been rendered with delicate brush strokes over his left eye.