Skin by Ethan Bernard

Karen Putter felt so ill at ease she began tugging at the skin on the back of her hand till it gave way. Tomorrow was her makeup senior portrait she’d avoided the first time and she’d been prepping outfits in her room (blue sweater/black skirt, red blouse/blue jeans, etc.), before turning off the lights and collapsing on her bed. A heap of clothes littered the room. She stood and with scarcely an effort tore off a large swath of skin that had come undone on a hidden seam clear up to her shoulder—and her ears buzzed.

She continued pulling, over her back, down her legs, like peeling the skin off a ripe mango, but as it fell from her body her stomach felt queasy. Then back up the middle, her face lifting off, hair, everything. A charge crisscrossed her body until her head whirred and she fell back to the bed. Crazy, Karen thought. But she was so tired, drained, and it was late, a school night. She rolled under her comforter and decided to sort it out in the morning. The cotton sheets lay cool and light against her skinless body.

When she awoke to the beep of the alarm, and the sunlight tilting in through her Venetian blinds, she was surprised that she could not see her arms, her legs, stomach, etc. And then she remembered about tossing her skin onto the floor. She rummaged through the heaps of clothes. Nothing. She dug through her closet, emptied the trashcan. No luck.

Odd, she thought, that below her skin lay nothing to be seen. She gazed at the lack of herself in the closet mirror. Where were the veins, the guts, the organs they’d pulled from the frog in biology class, all those dripping reds and purples? Not even her eyes. She pinched herself. “Ouch!” It felt like skin, whatever it was, this invisible layer she had reached. All of this was very interesting, but Karen needed to go to school. What should an invisible girl wear? The steam in the shower clung to her body, making her glow like a ghost.

“Mom, I don’t have time for breakfast.” She whizzed by her brother and father at the kitchen table. Willie, their black and white sheepdog, loyally sniffed Karen’s feet.

Mrs. Putter laughed as bacon crackled, and her pink cotton bathrobe shook. “Your outfit looks cute, honey, but don’t take a picture on an empty stomach. And get a jacket, maybe a scarf.”

“Where’s your face, Karen?” her younger brother Zach asked.

“Zach, you’re a little old for that kind of talk,” Mrs. Putter said. Then she turned around, away from the stove. “Oh, sweet potato!” she exclaimed.

Mr. Putter knocked over his coffee. “Now let’s all stay calm. Karen, is there something you’d like to tell us?”

“Dad,” Karen said, “do we really have to do this?”

Mr. Putter nodded. Her brother grinned. Mrs. Putter looked as if the Tooth Fairy had entered the kitchen.

Karen explained. But she really didn’t have time to chat because she had a first period trig test, and there was the matter with the photo later. The skin was hanging around somewhere in her room, and yes—she would find it, and yes—she should’ve kept her room clean in the first place. Mr. Putter was not amused. However, he didn’t want his daughter to be late. Willie scraped at the door as Karen left, as always.

Karen flew into Mr. Kohn’s class just as the bell rang. Her eyes scanned the test. 180 degrees in a triangle: it always added up. And back to the top. 180.

Only after the test did Karen find it strange that no one found it strange that she had no skin. She remembered the commotion when Cheryl Williams had worn that bright blue-sequined jumpsuit. Some people still called her “Blueberry Diamond Surprise.” Karen simply wasn’t that flashy and lacked Cheryl’s panache in finding the right thing for people to make fun of.

After 1st period Karen was scheduled to take the picture in the library She lurked outside as the stragglers filed in wearing ill-fitting sport coats or stiff, never-worn dresses. She turned and this guy in a leather jacket was standing next to her, his hands sunk deep into his pickets. Karen had never seen him before. “What?” she said.

“Um.” His face went red. He slunk away.

Whatever. Karen decided to do a makeup of the makeup.

In history, they watched a filmstrip Northwest Passage: Columbus’ Folly, and no one noticed. In French, while the class learned to say “Je m’ennuie,” no one noticed. Even in chemistry, where Bobby Myers got a big laugh—and a mouthful of smoke—by combining an acid and a base, no one noticed the girl who wasn’t there.

At lunch Karen sat with her best friend, Betsy Reynolds. On a bench next to the gym Karen wanted to tell Betsy about the weird guy in the leather jacket. Mostly, she wanted to tell Betsy about the whole losing her skin thing. She didn’t have a chance.

Betsy chattered about how much she liked Tim Hamilton and how the new TV season was shaping up to be better than last year’s and how everyone knew that Cindy Green was just so spoiled and conceited because she drove a shiny new convertible. That’s when Betsy remembered to ask Karen about Karen’s pimple, which Betsy had noticed, and if Karen had taken her advice in applying an ointment used only by certain practitioners of Chinese medicine. That’s when Betsy noticed that the offending blemish was absent from Karen’s face. That’s when Betsy noticed.

“St. Elmo’s fire!” she screamed.   

The nurse took fifteen minutes to revive poor Betsy. Karen stayed with her friend. The analog clock ticked and Karen watched a fly hover around the ceiling. The Nurse remarked that Betsy had had a frightful spell, and she would be all right with a little rest. Then the Nurse looked closer at Karen.

“Honey, I think we’d better call a doctor.”

  First, Karen saw Dr. Kuehl, whom she had known since she was five. His spectacles had grown thicker, his hair thinner, but every visit Karen still took a lollipop from the little barrel in the reception area. Some things didn’t change.  

“What seems to be the problem?” asked Dr. Kuehl.

The bright white light hurt Karen’s invisible eyes. “Isn’t it obvious?”

“I see,” said Dr. Kuehl.


Dr. Kuehl adjusted his glasses. “This may need a specialist.”

“In what?”

“Nothing to worry about.”

On her way out Karen took two lollipops.

At home the Putters turned the place inside out. (“Just like Karen’s skin,” Zach said.) They even poked around dusty boxes in the garage labeled “Misc. Junk.” Zero. Mr. Putter decided it was best to proceed as if nothing had happened until something positive could be done to remedy the situation. He slurped coffee from his pint-sized mug—#1 DAD—and went out back to work on the sprinklers.

Mrs. Putter baked cookies, mostly chocolate chip, but also pecan sandies. She baked until the cookies loomed like the Himalayas over the kitchen table. Zach just watched TV, but that’s what he usually did. Willie followed Karen like a shadow, which was good because she needed one.

At school, reactions varied. Betsy said that nothing would ever harm their friendship, but—unfortunately—she was busy doing like, you know, stuff, for the next semester. She really wished Karen all the best. Cheryl Williams said that Karen should just quit trying to show her up. Anyhow, invisibility ranked super-low as a super power. That was a known fact. (Karen had never thought of herself as having super powers. She had merely misplaced her skin.) Bobby Myers joked that they should dress Karen up in a cockroach costume and lob fruit at her. Who knew that Bobby paid so much attention in English class? Mr. Kohn told Karen that she got a 96 percent on the test.

After school Karen’s parents drove her to the big hospital to see the specialists: Dr. Paul and Dr. Wilson. The parking confused Mr. Putter. “Dear, we pay the first thirty minutes and then they validate?” “Have a cookie,” said Mrs. Putter.

Dr. Paul was world-renowned. Dr. Wilson was her husband. The Putters met them in a small office lined with pictures of cartoon frogs driving sports cars, and sat down on puffy chairs that gave when you put weight on them.

The two doctors sat next to each other.

“So, we understand that you’ve misplaced your skin, Karen,” Dr. Wilson said.

“Actually, I’m her mother,” said Mrs. Putter.

“I’m sorry,” said Dr. Wilson, “I deal with the mental side of things, more of the mind if you will.”

Mrs. Putter nodded.

“Karen,” said Dr. Paul, “We’re going to give you some tests today.”

“It started when I was having some difficulty choosing what to wear, and…” Karen said.

“Hmmm,” both of the doctors said.

Mr. and Mrs. Putter walked outside to wait in the cafeteria. Mr. Putter had brought his coffee mug.

Dr. Paul took Karen into a dark room and had Karen remove her clothes. She placed a lead coat over different parts of her body. Stop. Light. Click. Light. “Everything’s great,” said Dr. Paul and cringed. She turned on a light and stretched out a length of white paper and had Karen lie down on a table. Karen looked up at a bright light on the ceiling and Dr. Paul put her stethoscope to Karen’s chest.

“Just keep breathing.”

The end of the stethoscope felt so cold. Karen tried to remember her own face.

Dr. Paul took out a needle and Karen closed her eyes. Dr. Paul struggled. She was not used to drawing blood from people she couldn’t see. Dr. Paul poked around for Karen’s arm. “It appears there’s some advanced desquamation, to an extent that may lack precedent, a severe epidermal deficiency. I think at this time we’d better reserve judgment until we obtain more evidence.”

Dr. Wilson took Karen into a bright white room without any posters or windows and sat her down at a wooden table. “Karen, these are just some tests. There’s no right answer,” he said. He pulled out a set of square pegs and a block filled with round holes.

“Now, Karen, I want you to put these pegs into these holes.”

“I can’t.”

“Why not?”

Karen tried to remember if Dr. Wilson had any diplomas. “Square pegs, round holes.”

“Interesting.” Dr. Wilson wrote something down in a notebook.

Then he asked Karen a lot of questions about her mom and dad and what they did in the bedroom and if Karen did anything in the bedroom, and with whom, and if the word “Potomac” meant anything to her.

“I think it’s a river,” she said.

“Good, very good. In my opinion, I’m going to say that you’re not all there.” Dr. Wilson put down his notebook. When he smiled one side of his face crinkled up towards his eye.

The group assembled again in the small office and all eased into the airy chairs. Karen was scanning between the cartoon frogs for Dr. Wilson’s diplomas when Dr. Paul spoke: “I think I will begin.”

Mrs. Putter held her breath.

Dr. Paul began. “As I stated earlier, you are suffering from some severe epidermal deficiencies, the nature of which is beyond the current limits of medical science.”

Mrs. Putter exhaled. “So what should my daughter do?”

“We’re going to set her up with a good multi-vitamin. And put our hope in science progressing.” Dr. Paul’s eyes fixed on the bag of cookies in Mrs. Putter’s hand. “Have you considered lowering her cookie-intake?”

“Please allow me to continue,” said Dr. Wilson.

Mr. Putter tugged at his hair.

Dr. Wilson continued. “I really have no idea what’s going on here.”

“Is that it?” asked Karen.

The two doctors exchanged looks, then turned to the Putters: “Yes.”

“So do you guys validate?” asked Mr. Putter. His hands were shaking.

On the drive home Mr. Putter whistled show tunes and gripped the steering wheel tightly, Karen watched tract houses whoosh by until she felt dizzy, and Mrs. Putter quietly crushed a pecan sandy.

When they returned, they stood in the kitchen, eyeing one another. Zach loped in, rubbing his stomach: “So, what’s for dinner?” Karen stormed off to her room and slammed the door. “Aren’t you hungry?” her dad called after her. “Honey!” pleaded her mom.

Karen lay in bed, tracing patterns in the stucco ceiling, hopping from dot to dot, until the patterns blurred.

Her parents argued in the kitchen. “She’ll find someone. Inside, very important,” said her dad. “No, you can’t get a handicapped sticker for the car!” said her mom.

And then Karen heard what sounded like the shifting of a tectonic plate.

“Mother of pearl!” said her mom.

“Great pecan sandy!” said her dad.

The cookies had crashed to the floor.

Karen jumped to her feet and looked around the room, the last resting place of her skin. She sighed and crept over to the window, pressing her hands lightly against the glass. The backyard was dark and still, except for the bug-zapper in the patio her dad had installed. It cast a soft blue glow between her fingers. Every few minutes a zap: another moth down. The sprinklers droned on, filling the air with mist.

Her eyes shifted to the concrete and fixed on Willie’s doghouse. Even in the dim light she could see his ears rising and falling as he slept. Seemed her mom had bought him a new blanket. She was always spoiling him like that.

“Hey, you’re Karen Putter, right?” the guy with the leather jacket asked Karen as she ate on a bench at the edge of the campus.


The boy had a freshly scrubbed face and a mop of thick black hair that clung to his forehead. He brushed the hair from his face and laughed. “Adam. Pullman. So, you’re invisible?”

“Looks like it.”

“That’s weird. I think you were in my class last year.”

“You drive a Harley or something?”

Adam ran his hand through his hair. “Nah, a Schwinn, but it’s got 12 speeds. I like your scarf.”

“Yeah, thanks.” Karen played with the frills at the end of her red scarf, then tossed it behind her.

“Wow, you know, just think of the things you could do,” Adam said.

“Like what?”

“Well… you could rob a bank or sneak into the White House or pretend wherever you are is haunted by moving things with your hands.”

Karen thought about all these possibilities, especially the thought of floating round pegs in front of Dr. Wilson. “But I’d have to be naked,” she said.

“I hadn’t thought of that.”

“That’s kind of weird.”

From out of the shadows popped Cheryl Williams in her trademark jumpsuit. Two green pipe cleaners jutted from her head. “Hey you, the invisible one.” She pointed at Karen. “Well, I’m an alien—a disco one. So, how ‘bout that?” She waved her hands, hummed eerily, and fled.

Karen and Adam turned back to each other.

“I’ll see you later,” Adam said. He leaned forward. As he leaned he stretched out his hand as if to touch hers, but he wavered, then stumbled, his hair falling into his eyes. “See you later,” he said, and walked away.

Karen smiled, but he couldn’t see.

She spent the rest of the day in the library, hiding in the stacks. She had parked herself at a table in the back corner, under a portrait of Columbus. Maybe something not existing wasn’t a good reason for not setting out to find it, like the Northwest Passage. You couldn’t always know.

The whole event passed before her, the way her skin had slipped from her body, the clean impress of cotton sheets, the mountain of cookies that crashed from the kitchen table. She thought of the way Willie would eat treats from her invisible hand, the way Adam ran his hand through his hair. By the time she stopped thinking the lights were off, the heat had been turned down, and every time she breathed she saw a fine cloud of mist. Outside she heard the faint hum of the custodian in the hall buffing the floor. In the small space between the library door and floor, it glowed.

She imagined taking one end of the glow from the door, telescoping it out to the reference desk, and shooting a straight line back to the other end of that light: a right triangle. With a right angle you knew things about the world. Without one she seemed lost.

Karen tiptoed to the small rug at the door and slowly unwound the scarf from her neck. She shivered. Next she removed her coat. She continued. After she removed her shoes, she gazed out over the library. The floor seemed a sea of ice. She sighed deeply. The smell of old books and musty paint permeated the air. The custodian was still buffing the floor, lumbering past the door, returning.

Looking down, Karen gawked at the floor, as if she were about to dive from an impossible height. A wave of tingling numbness built from her feet to her head. Her big toe touched down. Electricity. Then she bounded up and down the rows of books in curlicues and figure eights, in zigzag wild improvisations, perfectly invisible except for the exhalation of her breath.

Ethan Bernard lives in New York City. He holds an MFA in fiction from NYU, and his work has appeared in journals such as Denver Quarterly and Barrelhouse.

image by Getty Images

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