“Fade to Black” by Laurel Hightower 

Standing in the shower watching iridescent grains circle like starshine to the drain below, Mila wondered how much time she had left. It couldn’t be long, not at the rate she was losing them. She never saw the holes, the ones that must have been there, somewhere. That kind of mass exodus of cells would have to leave a void, but no matter which way she turned in front of the fogged mirror, she never saw where they were coming from.

It entranced her at first, the sight of those shining granules collecting at her feet, an incongruous nebula swirling around the tangle of hair she had yet to pull from the grate. She’d reached a hand down to touch them, test their shape and texture, when she saw that they were sluicing from her own skin. Puzzled, she’d stared, trying to recall if there had been glitter in anything the kids had been playing with, but then Justin called her name, asking how long she’d be. Exhaustion bent her shoulders and she plunged back into the constant sense of urgency that was her life.

She hadn’t thought about it again until the next time she was in the shower, a quick hose off after her workout to make sure the whole respite she’d been granted came in under an hour. It would have been nice to shampoo her hair, use the face wash her sister had bought her back at Christmas, but he’d already had that tone, and she knew how it would be if she exceeded her allotment.

Then the gleaming particles caught her gaze again, turning in slow circles around her, and time stopped. She lifted her arm to see more of the tiny bits coming loose, washing away, and then she saw it was happening all over her body. She stood and watched it, wondering when it would stop, but it didn’t, not until Dylan twisted at the knob of the bathroom door, nearly able to open it at just two years old. She turned off the water and tumbled back into the endless treadmill of duties. Any concern she felt for herself was soon obscured by the red rash that circled Dylan’s sensitive mouth. That, and the way Justin’s expression hardened when he denied leaving the boy’s face unwiped, letting the acidic ketchup inflame her son’s skin. She didn’t fight, but not because she was afraid of him. It was yet more exhaustion, the knowledge that to push things would mean sulking and arguments that centered on an almost unfathomable selfishness. It took more energy than she had, and so she dealt with it herself, applying cortisone to her boy’s sweet face and giving him a bright blue popsicle to ease the sting.

It became a thing, after that, the glowing specks breaking free from her body to be sucked down into an unforgiving drain that didn’t deserve them. It was odd, but not worrisome, and watching the process, the beauty that became her own personal aurora, was the only time she truly relaxed. Only when she was mesmerized by the light that left her body could she forget her timelines, the endless need to be doing. The buzzing rush she felt under her skin each time she was still. Hell, the last time she’d had a spa pedicure, she hadn’t unclenched the whole time, her mind running endlessly through everything she needed to do when she was done, ready to spring from the massage chair the second the tech was finished.

She’d noticed feeling rundown a bit, more foggy than usual, but only just. Though the children themselves were their own reward, she hadn’t felt truly rested since before her induction with Anna five years ago. Their entwined lives were a constant reminder of why they were worth it. Each time her gaze fell on them, or she thought of them while she was at work, rushing through yet more harried deadlines, her lips would curl in an involuntary smile, her eyes softening. And part of the way things were was her fault—she often chose the path of least resistance, which meant doing things herself. She knew she needed to assert herself more, draw lines in the sand, demand help where it wasn’t given freely. The dividends rarely paid off, though. She could spend six cumulative hours arguing her right to be treated like a human, and it might net her one hour of peace. It didn’t seem worth it, but she knew that was on her. So she took her peace where she could find it, in meditation upon the parts of herself that washed away, not worrying about where they went, or what they used to be.

Mila wasn’t truly worried until she could no longer touch her own reflection. It was rare that she even glanced in the mirror while she was naked. She didn’t hate her body, nothing so dramatic as that, but she preferred not to focus on the extra padding on her hips, her thick and jiggly torso. She’d wait until she was fully clothed before making eye contact with herself, but that was before she lost the chance.

At first she thought it was the condensation. She had no concept of how long she’d stood under the spray this time, but the sounds of the house were creeping back into her consciousness and it seemed like it must have been too long. Raised voices, a television on too early, but it hadn’t fully penetrated yet and for once, she didn’t want to rush.

She rubbed her hand against the fogged perimeter of the glass, but still she saw the same thing—the woman in the mirror stood several feet farther away than she should.

Mila shook her head, blinked to clear her vision, and reached out, but the hand that reached back wasn’t even close. With her palm pressed tight to the glass, she could still see every detail of that other hand.

She met her own eyes, but instead of an answer, she found only pity there. That frightened her more than anything else—the emotional disconnection from her reflection. They stared at one another for several minutes more, but the mirror Mila never moved any closer.

Sharp knocks on the door overlaid by Dylan’s crying made both women turn, both walk away, but only one left by the bathroom door. The other kept walking into the fog.

She must have come back, for she still awaited Mila after every cleanse, but each time she stood further away. The sense of wrong was slow and muted, overlaid by a peaceful exhaustion and the feeling that nothing could be too bad in the quiet room of her meditation. But then one day instead of her own face, Mila found herself looking at her back. Damp from the shower, the gleam of a few of those starshine particles that hadn’t washed away, she looked at the slope of her shoulders, the tension in her neck, and her sense of unease grew.

She reached out again, hoping to make the woman in the glass turn around, but all she felt was cold.

When she found her family again that day, the disquiet stayed with her, distracting her from Anna’s piano and Dylan’s singing. She felt wrapped in cotton batting, removed and sluggish. Sounds came from somewhere far away, and took a long time to reach her. She knew she should be more worried than she was—self preservation set up a shriek from somewhere deep inside her, but that voice had been quieted for so long, it was rusty and hoarse.

The children treated her as though she were made of spun sugar, their touch light, their demands minimal. Justin was angry, and she thought if she truly were made of fine grains, the vibrations of his displeasure would have made her crumble.

Her phone rang, but she always heard it too late, and the text messages she squinted at grew ever more frantic. How long had it been since she’d logged on for work? The way things were, time had begun to lose meaning months ago, but she always managed to get her jobs done: all of them. An endless circle of childcare to work, household upkeep and fitness where she could manage it. Overtime when she could least afford it, but she owed it to them. They’d made so many concessions, treated her well no matter how bad the days could be. No breaks, no relief, no help. That was okay, she would do it because it needed to be done. It was how she’d always been. But now she couldn’t find the path back, had tumbled off the carousel and couldn’t move fast enough to find a way back on.

“I’m taking a shower,” she said, and stood, not hearing her own words or her husband’s response. She ran her fingers lightly across the heads of Anna and Dylan as she passed, a ghost of herself. As the water warmed, she stared into the mirror and saw nothing but a blank vista, devoid of human life. Whoever that other woman was, she’d made her choice.

Mila had made hers, too. A series of choices down long years, and this was who she was. Steam rose over the shower curtain and she stepped inside, her step slow but light. She let the water roll over her, soothe her muscles and quiet that panicked voice. The stars shone in the drain once more, swirling ever downward, but they seemed to glow brighter, filling the edges of her vision. There was a strange sense of movement, like when she’d stood at the edge of the ocean, feeling the sand run away beneath her toes with each pull of the tide. Her vision filled with light, and she found peace as the last bits of her found their place in the heavens, leaving nothing behind but cold, black space.


Laurel works as a paralegal in a mid-size firm, wrangling litigators by day and writing at night. A bourbon and beer girl, she’s a fan of horror movies and true life ghost stories. Whispers in the Dark is her first novel, though there are always more in the pipeline, and she loves researching anything horror related. She can usually be found working on the next project into the wee hours, sometimes as late as ten at night, as long as her toddler allows. Follow her on social media, even though she’s really bad at it, and she’ll follow you back. Plus you’ll be rewarded by pictures of cute dogs and kids.

Find out more at her website HERE.


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