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There’s really no escape when you hate your own skin. You can cover it, you can
hide it, but you can’t get away. You can’t get away from yourself.
It all started that day back in 2011. It was February, but thanks to global warming
and the Southern California sun, I decided to throw a barbeque. So, like many days
before and many after, it was me, Ryan, Kevin, steaks, and a basketball game. UCLA
was playing Arizona in Tucson, making this another one of those conference rivalry
games that we just couldn’t miss. I had just run out of the house to check on the grill
during a commercial break. I didn’t want to miss anything, so I peeked in through the
window as I turned the steaks.
But then I felt a steak drop. I looked down, and instead of resting on top of the
grill, the steak sat underneath, burning on the steel plate over the gas grills.
“What the hell!?!” I hated trashing a good steak, but I also had no clue how it
ended up there.
“What’s wrong, honey?” Those words carried a familiar tone of annoyance.
They flowed from a tall, slender female stretched out for a tan on a lawn chair. She was
Kari Hayashi, currently working on her tan, and currently my fiancée. And though her
question seemed to show interest, her eyes were still locked on her fashion magazine of
the day. A stack of yesterday’s sat next to her.
“I just… I don’t know? Shit…” I tugged away at the steak, but the meat was
stuck under the grill. I didn’t want to flip the whole thing over, but I didn’t know how it
got under the steel to begin with. As I tugged away, I noticed Ryan and Kevin next to
me. Apparently, they noticed me gone. And I used to think they wouldn’t notice if they
house fell down during a UCLA game.
But they didn’t skip a chance to goof on me. “Dude, Steve, you’re supposed to be
the iron chef. Can’t you flip a steak?”
“Well, Kev, I can when it’s on the right side of the grill.”
“What the hell?” Their eyes went wide open at the sight of the steak under the
grill, much like mine. They tried lifting it out too, but as before, the steak was stuck.
I tried again, as I explained what had happened. It wasn’t too easy. I was just on
autopilot since I wanted to get back to the game. But then something happened.
The steak was now on the right side of the grill. Ryan said that it looked like I
lifted the steak without any trouble, like the grill wasn’t there. That was the first time
someone saw me phase anything. And I didn’t see it. I just noticed a lot of confusion.
“Yo, Steve, look at your grill. Hey!”
After a few moments, they got my attention to the steak, now charred, now sitting
on the grill. And for the second time today, everyone heard me say, “What the hell?”
Kari jumped this time. Must have been kind of loud. Probably, I mean, it’s not
everyday that you find out that you have magical powers.
Ok, nowadays, it’s kind of everyday.
They guys were just as excited. There was a lot of yelling, something about,
“How’d you do that? Do it again? Hey, what else can you move? Try that thing, see if
you can go through wood? Or concrete?”
“Can you guys do me a favor and keep it down?” Even though Kari’s words
sounded nice, she said it in that condescending third grade teacher tone that I hated.
Maybe I didn’t hate it then quite as consciously, but I know that made me want to try
again. Unfortunately, trying harder doesn’t work for magic.
“What are you doing, man? You look constipated.”
“Shut up, I’m trying to concentrate. I can do this again.”
After a minute, I said, “Really, I can do this.
Then again, after ten minutes of trying, maybe I couldn’t.
I heard the yells from my friends. “You can do it, maybe you need to relax. Or
maybe you need to do some weird thing with your other hand? Like in the video games.
No, just act natural. That’s how the shot put dude did it. They never figured that out.
Well, that’s what I think.”
“Dammit, I don’t know how I did it! Just shut up for a second.” Part of me
hoped getting pissed would do it, but it doesn’t work like that. And now the yard was
getting smoky from a few burning steaks.
And that’s when I did it, sort of. Rather than phase a steak, I phased the tongs in
my hand, and they passed right through the steak and the grill. Of course, in my current
emotional state, I didn’t notice until I heard my friends.
“Yeah! Woo hoo! You the man!” Hi fives and cheers filled the air.
This was followed by another sigh from Kari. “I’m going back inside.” She
grabbed her garbage magazines and marched back into the house.
We had more important things to do. “Hey, try that thing! Try putting it through
the chair! What happens if you let go?” By the end of the day, I knew how to phase
something in my hand, something attached to a pair of tongs, and that unphasing inside a
rock would cause the rock to split in half. And more importantly, I knew how to control
People always ask me how to cast a spell, like if it’s like a weird incantation or
mind focus thing. Unfortunately, I have to tell them that it’s more like throwing a fireball
or an uppercut in Street Fighter. It’s an unfamiliar action that your body has to perform,
but once you learn it, then you can chuck it out there like it’s second nature. I’d say it
was like riding a bike, but that’s all about muscle memory and proprioception. A
hadoken is a combination of your mind choosing that it’s the right time to do the move,
and your body knowing the technique. Also, you can sometimes get on off just by
mashing the buttons. That sounds like magic to me.
That usually isn’t a very satisfying response to people.
Kevin and Ryan totally got me that night when I explained it this way. They
spent the next week doing anything weird that they could, trying to get some magic effect
I say trying because nothing good happened.
I remember watching Ryan try any crazy shot he could on our basketball rim.
Like as if he could tomahawk dunk if he tried a million times. He still can’t dunk. Kevin
was a lot quieter about it, but I knew he wanted it bad.
I wonder how it felt for them when they finally got their magical gifts? I know
for me, I started using it like an idiot. I’d phase through cabinets just to get a coffee mug.
I’d stick things through walls just because I was bored. I probably overdid it.
Kari sure thought so. She kept whining, “Are you still screwing around with
“Well, what would you do if you figured out how to do something that no one on
earth could do?”
“I don’t know, maybe figure out a way to make it profitable.”
“Well, I could go on TV, but I haven’t gotten any calls back.”
“Is that all you can think of? You need to be more practical. Like I’m taking
these continuing education classes to put me into a higher pay scale.”
“I do alright.”
“You could do better. We could have…” Her voice trailed off.
“What, the finer things in life? Something a little more baller?”
“Well, you know what I mean.”
Thing is, I did. This was our fight that would never end. I was cool with being a
normal dude. She wanted more. I used to blame all those fashion and shopping
magazines that she read, but really, it was just her. I thought the recession in 2009 would
have knocked her out of this, but it only seemed to make it worse once she started getting
some money again.
Actually, we stopped fighting about that soon after. That’s because we found
something new to replace this fight with something bigger and uglier. It started one night
when she looked at my hand and saw something.
“Go wash you hand.”
“What do you mean? I just did.”
“No, you didn’t. If you did, you wouldn’t have a big, black spot on your finger.”
She was right, there was a big, black spot on my finger. And since it was my new
skin, it was soon joined by a big, black spot on my elbow, a big, black spot on my knee,
and a black swooshy thing all across my back.
“Oh my god!!!” That was what Kari said when she saw it. “What kind of crazy
disease is that?! Get away from me!” She said some other things, but mostly just yelled
and screamed before grabbing her purse and running out of the house.
I felt hurt when she ran off, but I couldn’t blame her on this one. If I saw some
crazy, contagious-looking skin condition on her, I can’t say I’d have acted any different.
The worst thing was that I had no clue what this was. Neither did any dermatologist I
knew. I never remember seeing this in any of my textbooks, nor could I find anything on
it in a library. I spent so much time at the med school library that people mumbled about
the weirdo in the hat and turtleneck who wore gloves inside.
Ryan and Kev tried their best to help. Ryan especially didn’t seem the slightest
bit fazed. I wonder if he thought this might give him superpowers?
“Hey, Steve, have you asked Dave yet?”
“I don’t know.”
“Look, I know what happened, but that guy is the smartest guy we both know. If
there’s a way…”
“Even if there is, I don’t want his help.”
“That means there is a way.”
I didn’t say anything, because there was.
Ryan looked me in the eyes. He seemed serious. He rarely seemed serious.
“Look, man, Kari’s not here because she’s scared. She’s scared because of your skin. If
you can fix it, even if that means dealing with Dave, you got to try. For Kari.”
Two days later, I was in Boston, on the campus of MIT. Thanks to the New
England winter, I didn’t stand out with my gloves, hat, and scarf. Then again, I don’t
think anyone would have noticed. Students shuffled along the paths in a zombie trance,
scarcely glancing at their co-eds or the architecture around them. I was personally
always impressed by the mixture of Ivy League brick and modern sci-fi buildings – just
like something out of Star Trek. I guess these students would be the Vulcans. Really
though, given their insane workload and their legendary partying to unwind, their
zombie-ish stagger was expected.
I entered one of the sci-fi looking buildings and marched down a long hallway.
Inside, it reminded me of South Campus back home, with white walls and photocopies of
Dilbert and Foxtrot comics plastered everywhere. But these were the normal areas. I’d
be going down to the dungeon.
An elevator ride and a few electronic dings brought me to the sub-sub-basement
of the facility. Down here, the walls were bare, reinforced concrete and the air hummed
with the noise of gigawatts of energy. A crayola box of pipes ran over my head. Blue
was probably water, red maybe hot water. What the heck was orange, purple, or striped?
But way down here in the bowels of the campus, Dave felt completely at home. So much
so that he was waiting in the hall for me.
“Hey, little bro. Welcome to the dungeon.” And there was Dave, standing just
taller, a little skinnier, but looking an awful lot like me. A lot of people thought he was
younger due to his college clothes and demeanor, but he was four years older than me.
For a moment, I thought I was looking at myself without the black spots, but then I
“You said you had something to show me.”
“Ah, yes. Come on in.” Dave led me into his lab. With computers everywhere,
crazy machines, and a whole bunch of things I didn’t recognize, this place was a geek’s
Disneyland. Maybe that’s how Dave stayed so pasty white.
“You’re quiet. Still mad about that NIH thing, eh?”
“What do you have to show me?”
“Don’t want to talk about it? Fair enough. Take a look at this.” Dave led me
towards a giant UFO that I now call the reactor. That was the first time I saw it, and I
really thought he’d made contact. “Now, listen up, Steve. You know about skin grafts
and burn treatment? It’s a nasty surgery where they shave skin off one spot, chop it up
with a spreader, and then crazy glue it to the injured spot.”
“Yeah, I read about it in school. Nasty stuff. If you’re thinking of shaving off
these black spots, I’m not sure it’s going to work.”
“Ah, thanks for reminding me. Let’s take a look at those.” With a lightning
quick hand, Dave whipped off my gloves and looked deep at the black junk. “Oh, nasty.
I don’t even think shaving this off would work. It’s not in the epidermis, or even the
skin. It’s that your skin isn’t really skin anymore.”
“What? I look at it every day…”
“But have you looked at your fingers? No fingerprints. The tips are just grippy,
like rubber or something. It doesn’t have the same tone or tension either. You, little bro,
are becoming something completely different.”
“You said you could fix this. Now you’re saying I’m some kind of alien.”
“I love aliens. They have such cool powers or weapons and crap like that.”
“I’m a freak. Girls don’t like freaks.”
“Oh yeah, Kari probably hates this. Don’t see skin like this in Cosmo, and if
you’re not using the proper moisturizer, what kind of animal are you anyway?”
“Do you have a point?”
“I have the perfect solution. Hollywood would be proud. You see that thing?
Our newest toy, complete dermal and epidermal replacement, this will make those nasty
skin grafts history. It’ll give you a brand, new life. Interested?”
That’s all I kept thinking when Dave told me to strip and get into that UFO. He
said it’d be weird, take forever, but that I’d be happy with the results. If some stranger
told me that, I probably would have punted him in the gonads, but Dave’s my brother,
and I was desperate. So, I stepped inside. “Ok, Dave. Now what?”
The door closed with a foosh, sealing me into the darkness. The last thing I saw
was a smirk on my brother’s face. Then a bunch of robot arms grabbed my limbs and
moved me around. It didn’t hurt, but it didn’t feel good either. And with the darkness, I
was not happy.
“What the hell, Dave!?!”
His muffled voice came through the walls. “Relax, bro. Just let the machine do
“Easy for you to say!”
“You’re right. It is easy for me to see.” Then I heard a door open, footsteps exit,
and the door close and lock. Dave had left me alone in the dark, in a weird machine, and
all I had to do was trust him. Again. After what happened.
Then automated processes began, which drew all my attention. It got loud, with
the sound of spinning machinery. Then waves of light and energy shot out and struck my
skin. This just tickled a bit, and would have been fine or even nice for a few minutes.
Unfortunately, a clock on the computer outside read 8:15, and for the next forever, the
clock would count down as the arms moved me about, blasting every square inch of my
body. After a while, my skin looked different, but in the weird light of the machine, I
couldn’t really tell. Plus, the robot arms kept me from getting any rest, and maybe I was
I felt like I’d been in there for an eternity. It wasn’t even a night, but thanks to the
robot arms, it felt a lot longer. Then there was a beeping noise, like the oven timer saying
that your cake is done. The door to the chamber opened, lighting the reactor with
fluorescents from the rest of the lab. It also let in the voice of my brother.
“Hey, how do you feel?”
“Like I got anal probed by a bunch of aliens. What the hell is this thing?”
“Step outside and take a look.”
I took a step outside, first looking for some clothes. My stuff was on a chair. But
as I reached out for my pants, I noticed something. And I just stopped.
“So, bro, you like what you see.”
“Of course it’s gone. This is the newest in cytogenic dermal repair. It might feel
like an alien anal probe, but it makes you look good as new.”
I wanted to be mad at Dave, but he was right. I did look as good as ever. There
wasn’t even a hint of the black junk anywhere. He brought me a mirror so I could check
every inch, but all the black junk was gone.
For the next few nights, I looked over myself in the mirror after I showered, just
in case this was some kind of paint or something over the black splotches. I was afraid
it’d all just wash off. But it seemed ok, it just took me a few days before I really believed
it. I needed help from Ryan.
“Hey, Steve, you’re looking your normal, ugly self.”
“Thanks man. Asshole.” Hearing that from Ryan made me feel normal for the
first time in a long time. And for a guy who saw his skin turn into a blackened mess,
that’s something. We both chuckled and as he gave me a hi-five.
“Looks like Dave worked his magic. That guy’s got a huge brain.”
“Yeah. Kinda.” I looked normal, why wasn’t I normal? I figured that convincing
Ryan was nothing. But if I could convince myself, then maybe, just maybe I could
That’s what I told myself as I knocked on her door. She was smiling when she
opened the door. It took a second for her to realize it was me. It took another second for
her brain to realize what I looked like. Then it took one last second for her to slam the
door in my face.
“Come on, Kari, open the door.”
“You get away from me. I don’t know what’s on you, but I do not want to catch
“It’s all gone.”
“Like hell it is! You can take whatever crazy disease you have and stay the hell
away. I knew I shouldn’t have let you go to Thailand.”
“This isn’t anything weird like that.”
“Really? So what kind of disease is it?”
“One that’s gone. Take a look for yourself.” It took a while, but she finally
agreed if I stood in her backyard and she could look out at me through a window. And it
took so long that it was getting late, and cold.
“Well, hurry up. You got something to show me?”
I held up my hands.
“Alright, let’s see the rest of it.”
I took off my shirt and spun around.
“Let’s see your legs.”
The pants came off next, along with another spin. This was like some messed up
version of “Pretty Woman” or something.
“Now turn around.”
I spun in place.
“Do it again. And again.”
I spun around twice before I noticed that she was smiling. She was just messing
with me, but somehow, I didn’t care. It was just nice to she her smile again. It’d been so
long. She opened the door and let me inside.
And just like that, I was back in her life. No more being pushed away. No more
being ignored. We got dinner, went blading by the beach, started up with the wedding
plans again. Life was nice. I didn’t realize it then, but I didn’t use magic one bit. No
lightening heavy objects, no phasing through doors, no anything. I was happy with life
and I wanted it to stay that way.
One night we went out to a diner, one of those places with overdressed waiters
and the occasional song and dance. After laughing through a performance, we sipped our
sodas and looked each other deep in the eyes.
“I’m so glad we’re back,” I said.
“Yeah, we are, aren’t we?”
For a moment, everything was good.
“Have you thought about switching to a new office?”
“Well, you know, there really isn’t any advancement in your job, so maybe you
can join up with another place?”
“But, why are you bringing this up now?” She just looked away and drank her
soda. Yeah, we were back, for better or for worse. The rest of the dinner was just as icy.
She hardly said a word to me as we went out to the car. I was about to get in when I
heard something behind me.
“Are you kidding me? Dammit!”
Behind me, some teenaged kid was pulling on his door while peering through his
window. I knew his keys were inside, probably sitting on the seat or still in the ignition.
His cheerleader date bounced around near him, screaming out her lungs and staying in
perpetual motion. She probably looked great a minute ago, but right now, her face
brought me back to everything wrong with my teenage years.
“Come on, I’m going to get grounded! Do something!”
The kid was nervous. That’s probably how he locked his keys in his car. That
cheerleader date of his wasn’t helping, and probably was the cause of his brain fart. “Uh,
I know triple-A can get the door open, but I don’t have it. Do you?”
“No, but I do have a curfew. God, why did I think you could take care of
anything? You’re such an idiot.”
The kid fumbled around his pockets, looked to anyone around for help, but just
looked beat. It didn’t help that he wasn’t nearly as good looking as her or that he was
sixteen, and probably on one of his first solo dates. No one else was helping him out, so I
went over. Kari complained, saying something like, “Come on. They’ll be safe, let’s go
home.” But I ignored her.
I walked up to the kid and said, “Lock your keys in there?”
“Yeah. You have triple-A?”
“No, but I can help you out.”
I walked over to the door and leaned my back against the handle. I reached
behind my back, phased through, and unlocked the car, all unseen by the kid. Magicians
never reveal their tricks. I didn’t want to either.
While I had a second, I said, “That screaming girl, she your girlfriend?”
“No. She agreed to go out with me, though. That’s something.”
“Yeah, but do you like her?”
The kid lowered his voice. “I’ve had a crush on her since 8th
grade. This is my
“Have you looked at her? Goddamn you half-Japanese girls.”
“They do it to me every time.” The kid’s eyes lit up. Nothing like an obscure
song reference to forge a connection. Maybe now he’d listen. “Did you have fun
“It was cool, I mean, this was really something, you know?”
“That wasn’t a yes.”
“Look, kid, I’m the last one who wants to tell you how to live your life, but you
got to ask yourself if she really likes you too. Chick flicks and shit talk about winning
over the girl, but the truth is, she’s either won or lost way before you ask her out. If
you’re not good enough for her now…”
“Yeah, I know.”
“Well, that’s all I’m going to say about it.” I lifted the handle as I stepped away,
opening the door. “Have a good one.”
The kid looked amazed at the door for a moment. Then he yelled, “Thanks man!
Hey, I got the door open!”
I didn’t look back. I just went back to Kari. She seemed bored. “Done with your
good deed of the day?”
“I remember what it was like. High school sucks.”
“Well, can we go now?”
I nodded and opened the door. But suddenly, Kari screamed.
“What the hell?! You said you were healed… oh my god!”
I looked at my hand. There was a black splotch right were I’d phased through the
door to get that kid’s door open. I looked back at Kari, but she was running off down the
street, screaming something about needing a lift into her cellphone. I tried to give Kari a
ride home, saying I’d call Dave to see what happened, but she didn’t even want to talk to
me. When I told Dave, he just had a simple reply.
“Hmm, that’s interesting.”
“What the hell are you talking about? You told me I’d be good as new.”
“Well, your skin was new, so that was true. I wonder what damaged it?”
Two days later, I was back in my brother’s lab. I showed him my hand, not
covered in black splotches.
“That’s interesting. The cytogenic dermis is degenerating, revealing your true
“Well, I’m not sure what to call it. You’re the medical one. You probably also
know what caused this.”
“Yeah. But I’m not sure how to fix it.”
“Well, a dip in the tank and you’ll be good as new.”
“No, but I’ll look good as new.”
“That’s good enough for Hollywood.”
Again, I ended up inside the reactor. Dave’s voice came through the wall. “Hey,
this might hurt a bit.”
Before I could say anything, a blast of energy stripped off any remaining bits of
the artificial skin. It’d have probably hurt like hell if I couldn’t phase out.
“You still alive in there?”
“Shit!” Dave thought I was talking to him, but the energy residue made a little
light, and I could see my body. It wasn’t black and splotchy anymore. It was all that
black junk. Nothing looked normal.
But like last time, after eight hours or so, I looked as good as new. “This isn’t
real, is it?”
“Nope, it doesn’t appear that way.”
“So what do I do?”
“Take a dip in the tank every time it gets ugly.”
“I don’t have that many frequent flyer miles.”
“Then I’ll see what I can do, little bro.”
One again, I went over to Kari’s house. I hoped that it’d go as well as last time,
but I somehow knew.
“Get away from here! I don’t want your disease.”
“I don’t have a disease. Something’s just happening. Not just to me, to the whole
My reply was a scream and a threat to call to the cops.
And so I left. And even through I tried to call her, we never spoke again. Even
years later, when it was pretty well accepted that my skin wasn’t a contagious disease,
she still wouldn’t talk to me. Maybe she moved on with her life. Maybe that was just her
excuse to move on.
And I know, maybe I’m just remembering the bad things right now, but that’s
what I remember.
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?