Even after 28 years, Joyce could never remember the exact weight of the copper ball that should’ve been in her pocket. Granted, that weight was mutable. Her sphere had once been no bigger than a pearl, brilliant in her first family photo. It had sagged in her skirt’s pocket through her teenage years. And though it sported a couple spots of tarnish these days, her grown-up sphere still glowed in the sunlight coating her mountainside estate.

No one had yet determined the spheres’ origins. At birth, one would appear in the clenching grip of the newborn. The most productive analysis had figured out they were coated in copper. The inside was still mysterious, but most everyone accepted their existence as willingly as they did the sky and love.

Useless knowledge to Joyce right now as she scoured her trashed dining room, overturning pillows stained with an affordable merlot. Last night’s soiree had transformed into pure hedonism, and she had just ushered out the last inebriated guest before breaking a personal record for fastest shower. One foot had been out the door to the office before she checked her pocket and missed the weight of her sphere.

A person could be separated briefly from their sphere; how long “briefly” lasted was determined by who had lost their sphere and in what manner. In the early days, death by sphere robbery had been rampant, or so Joyce’s grandfather would proclaim while perched on his porch in the blue Adirondack chair. It would squeak and groan while Pop remembered when the wealthiest would give their family fortunes to pickpockets and thieves, hoping to steal more life with lesser people’s spheres. That notion had died with the Old Money, and spheres now stayed safely with their owners.

Or, usually safely. Joyce had blown through her dining room and reached the kitchen, brushing aside margarita salt grains and gnawed lime wedges. “My little Jay Jay, always so forgetful,” Pop used to chide — though the alcohol likely played a factor today. She had misplaced her sphere three times in the last week and a half, and the Fading had occurred sooner each time she forgot it. Muscles withered, bones creaked, and the mind slipped into a blissful aether. Timed right, the Fading was a hell of a high. Thirty seconds too long, however, and addicts turned to ash.

Joyce didn’t care for that feeling, especially as it was now licking at her heels. “Where’d this damn thing….”

Her cough spattered blood, and her legs threatened to buckle. She double-timed through the kitchen and checked her bathroom. Last night’s handbag often secreted away the pesky ball, but it was innocent today as Joyce dumped the contents onto her heated tile floor. The tiles then met her, and she barely kept her head from smacking against the floor.

Reduced to crawling, she went into the hallway toward the open door letting in the quiet swish of pines. Her phone teetered on the edge of her walnut credenza, and a solid punch to the carved leg could drop her a lifeline. A hospital helicar could ascend the mountain in two minutes, though by then, they might do nothing but watch her explode into dust.

Her hangover sped up the Fading’s decay, and her fingers grayed as she slithered forward. Last night’s silver nail polish was melting in the warm breeze. That warmth blanketed her with the scent of the cedar logs she and Pop used to cleave behind his work shed. Maybe he was the one now standing in her doorway, his grin beckoning her outside. She sighed and curled around the warmth enveloping her exhausted body.

Help, said a tiny piece of her mind. A nagging piece wanting to ruin this feeling. She tried to ignore it, snuggling into the toasty air blanket. But help kept bothering her. The slimy word spilled out of her ear and snaked toward something. Help looked gross, and she swatted it.

First, the phone fell from the credenza, its screen shattering on the hardwood floor. Fragments refracted a million colors, and she laughed as the delicious taste of fuchsia — like Pop’s homemade vanilla ice cream — passed over her lolling tongue. The delicate sweetness sent a calm release flowing through muscle fibers and arteries and neurons. She succumbed to the warm flavors and soft heat, ready to follow Pop outside.

Her disintegrating head rested along her floor’s gentle downward slope. A rattling laugh tumbled in her throat as she remembered the homebuilders ruining these hardwood planks. Left in the soft mountain rain, the boards had warped, and the builders had failed to hide it by putting disfigured wood together. She disappeared into the shushing of a misting rain, until a dull thud broke her memory. A thousand roaring avalanches suddenly advanced, and she shied away from the ugly noise. She barely felt the sphere touch her forehead with the gentleness of Pop’s kiss goodnight.

With a Fading this strong, it took ten minutes for the sphere to restore her. Joyce choked back tears as the warm blanket was yanked out the door, leaving her shivering and alone in the foyer. Rationality seemed cruel as it returned, flushing her mind of the Fading’s panacea. She clutched her sphere like she did in her first and only family photo and sobbed in joy and agony.

When the wave passed and she stood, she found her hangover gone. “Silver lining…” she groaned while adjusting her outfit. Joyce checked her phone, and garbled numbers told her she was probably late. Hopefully her boss wouldn’t mind a splotch of tardiness on an otherwise untarnished record.

She twirled her sphere between her still-shaking fingers. Her neck hairs rose when she felt Pop chiding her. “Yeah, I know,” she said to him before gripping the sphere in her pocket. The spots of tarnish were slick under her thumb, and she savored rubbing them as she began her day.

You’d think forgetting your keys is bad enough. But, hey, shiraz happens. (Or merlot, I’m not picky.)

Thanks to my sis, Alyssa, for editing this mercilessly. As per usual, she did a fantastic job.

And a super big thank you to the Dev Team for putting in extra work on this one. Including: EEsDoNotItNow, DrummerMax64 and YFWE.

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