The Half-life of Chocolate, reprinted below, originally appeared with Fae Publishing in 2011. Since the period of exclusivity long ago expired, I present it to the internet in the spirit of awesome halloweenishness.
The Half-life of Chocolateby Nancy Fulda
“Who’s been eating my chocolate?”
Felipe Delgado stormed into the kitchen and waved a package of ChocoSquares over his head. Manuel glanced up from his comic book. Father lowered his spectacles. Grandma kept clattering in the cupboards, cradling an impressive stack of serving bowls in her left arm. “Felipe, we go through this every single weekend,” she said, bending over to reach the drawer beneath the oven. “If you don’t want people to eat your junk food, put it in your room.”
“I did. This morning there were nine squares left in this package, and now there are only seven. So which of you is eating it?”
Manuel flipped a brightly colored comics page. “Felipe, you’re the only person I know who’s geeky enough to count his ChocoSquares.”
“Hey, I pay good money for these!” Felipe pulled one of the embossed squares from the package. “This,” he said, caressing its beveled edges, “is quality chocolate. Nothing like that cheap, waxy stuff you guys are always gobbling.” He tossed the bag onto the table for emphasis. “And I am tired of the whole family eating ChocoSquares on my paycheck!”
Manuel snagged a tortilla chip from the serving bowl at the edge of the table. “Move out then. You’re old enough.”
Grandma slapped Manuel’s hand. “Those are for the fiesta tonight. They put few enough chips in these packages, you know.” The last few words came out in a grunt as grandma struggled to open a second bag of chips. Her bony fingers tugged at the plastic two, three, four times before it snapped open and sent a spray of chips across the counter.
“Cheating swine,” she muttered as Felipe helped her gather the chips into a ceramic dish. “There’s nothing but air in those packages. These product marketers, these food companies... they’re nothing but crooks and swindlers!”
Father chimed in with his usual counterpoint: “It’s a waste of packaging and a detriment to the environment, that’s what. If they’d stuff those bags the way they ought to be stuffed, the garbage bill in this household would go down by twenty percent.”
Felipe retrieved his ChocoSquares from the table. “Really, Dad, I think that’s stretching the numbers a bit.”
“Maybe,” Father said. He set his coffee mug down with an imperious thump. “But I’ll be hanged if I let that garbage company wrangle one more cent out of me. Just wait until you see what I’m unveiling at Manuel’s fiesta.”
Felipe snatched his ChocoSquares and sidled out of the kitchen before he got cornered listening to Father jabber about yet another Grand New Technological Marvel. Halfway up the stairs he rattled the package, glanced inside, and felt his face pull into a frown. The number of squares had gone from seven to six.
“Cheer up, Felipe,” Grandma’s voice echoed up from the kitchen. “I bought plenty of ChocoSquares for the fiesta tonight.”
Felipe decided that strategic reconnaissance was required.
He hovered near the kitchen until Grandma opened the first package of ChocoSquares. (The patented EasyTear Freshness Seal gave her arthritic fingers no trouble.)
“I’ll take those out for you,” he said, and snatched the bowl from the counter as soon as the last ChocoSquare clinked against its ceramic edge. He carried it to the patio and set it on the most visible of the brightly decorated picnic tables. Paper lanterns shaped like jack-o-lanterns hung from strings overhead; Grandma’s way of celebrating Halloween and Manuel’s birthday in a single stroke.
“Check this out, Felipe,” Father said. With a flourish, he tore the shrink-wrap from a stack of paper plates.
Felipe watched his Father spread the plates across the table. “Uh, what am I supposed to be looking at?”
“Bio-degradable, thermo-plastic plates!”
Felipe stared blankly.
“When exposed to anaerobic bacteria, it degrades into compact, harmless materials.”
“So your solution to your garbage bill is to bury your junk in the backyard?”
“Just wait,” Father said. Felipe shrugged and went to help Grandma light the paper lanterns.
True to his plan, Felipe watched the table with the ChocoSquares all evening. If one of his family members had a fetish for ChocoSquares, Felipe reasoned, the guilty party would not be able to stay away from that bowl. And he—or she—would also eat a statistically significant number of them: more than the other guests, certainly.
He watched the bowl from the corner of his eye while greeting a stream of brightly costumed relatives. He watched it as Manuel—perched like a king on the comfiest of the wicker chairs, complete with one leg dangling over the armrest—opened his birthday gifts. He watched it as Father pulled out what looked like a dry-yeast packet and explained that it contained genetically modified anaerobic bacteria keyed to the starch component of the disposable dishware.
Then the unthinkable happened. Manuel picked up the serving bowl and yelled, “Grandma! We need more ChocoSquares!”
Felipe sprinted across the lawn and snatched the bowl from Manuel’s fingers. “That can’t be right,” he said, loudly enough to swivel heads in his direction. But the bowl was indeed empty.
Felipe checked the notes he’d been keeping on the back of his hand. “A fresh package of ChocoSquares contains thirty-five chocolates. You’ve eaten five,” he said, pointing to Manuel, “Grandma’s eaten two, Father’s eaten four, and other guests have eaten—” he paused for a quick tally— “Seventeen. That’s a total of twenty-eight. There should be seven left.”
Felipe found himself the object of several incredulous stares.
“You. Are. Weird,” Manuel said, and headed towards a new table. Felipe stood in a pocket of silence, the empty bowl clutched in both hands. It didn’t add up. He’d watched the ChocoSquares the entire time. They couldn’t be gone. There was no way for anyone to have eaten them.
At the other end of the picnic table, Father sprinkled his anaerobic bacteria packet onto a pile of used plates and was rewarded with a chorus of jubilant squeals from the children clustered nearby.
“Move over, I can’t see.”
Father was clearly pleased to have attracted so much attention. “It’s not gone,” he said. “It’s just been broken down into its basic components, courtesy of these little babies here.” He waved the bacteria packet for emphasis. “Accelerated biodegradation. It’s the latest trend in waste management.”
The adults in the crowd seemed more difficult to impress than the children.
“Is that stuff legal?” Aunt Lisi asked.
Cousin Fernando brushed at his pants. “What keeps it from munching the table? Or us?”
“Relax. The bacteria won’t eat anything except the resins they’ve been gene-spliced for. They’re non-reproductive and they have limited movement capacity, so there’s no chance of them multiplying beyond control.”
Aunt Yselda sniffed so disdainfully that her spectacles jiggled. “It’s probably toxic,” she declared. “These product marketers are always rushing new science onto the public before it’s been properly tested. We’ll all have warts tomorrow from eating off those infernal plates.”
Father was getting annoyed. “The material’s derived from corn starch. Perfectly harmless, and so are the decomposed compounds. You could practically eat this stuff.”
He sprinkled more bacteria powder. Another plate vanished to an accompanying crescendo of ‘Ah’s.
You could practically eat this stuff...
A pit opened at the bottom of Felipe’s stomach. Five seconds later he was back in the kitchen, squinting at the empty ChocoSquares package on the counter.
“Are you still obsessing about your junk food?” Manuel asked as he crossed the kitchen on his way to the bathroom. “I swear, man, I’m not the one who’s eating it. Maybe it’s gremlins.”
Felipe ignored him and kept examining the package. Not to his surprise, but much to his dismay, he saw that the EasyTear Freshness Seal included a hidden sub-compartment that ruptured when the seal was broken. If the bag was held erect, the contents of the compartment would drop directly onto the chocolate inside it.
“I had no idea these things were so popular,” Grandma said as she trundled toward the patio with a fresh bowl of ChocoSquares. “I think I’ll run buy some more. They vanish like hot cakes.”
Felipe opened the last pack of ChocoSquares. Sure enough, a fine brown powder dropped from the hidden compartment and settled onto the chocolate. Biting his lip in anxiety, Felipe ripped the package all the way open and spread the ChocoSquares across a white table cloth. He crossed his arms on the table, rested his chin on his hands, and waited. Manuel gave him an odd look on the way back from the bathroom.
After ten minutes, one of the ChocoSquares vanished. It happened in the space of a second: the embossed chocolate steamed, bubbled, and faded away with a barely audible hiss. Felipe’s hand struck the table with a thump loud enough to rattle the shutters. “I knew it!”
He ran to the patio, snatched the garbage-eating bacteria packet out of his Father’s hand, and compared it to the ingredients listing of the ChocoSquares package. Sure enough, slipped in between the glucose and the emulgator was a corn starch derivative called ‘anaerobic product XII-A’.
Felipe stared at the packages held side-by-side in his hands, appalled by the conniving schemes of commercial manufacturers.
The mechanism was so simple it was almost beautiful. The waxy coating on the chocolate squares inhibited the bacteria for a randomized time period. When the bacteria finally broke through, accelerated biodegradation made the chocolate seem to evaporate into thin air. If the manufacturers had done their job well, the reaction would also only take place at temperatures that indicated the chocolate was not currently being held in someone’s hand.
“So much work,” Felipe muttered, “just to scam people out of a few squares of chocolate. Do they really think they can make money that way?”
Grandmother swept through the kitchen with her car keys in hand. “I’m off to buy more ChocoSquares, darling. Is there anything else you want me to pick up?”
Father’s voice floated in from the patio. “I need more socks! I can never find a matched pair in my drawer!”
Grandma huffed. “Really. I swear, I only ever put matched sets in the washing machine. I wonder how they always manage to vanish before they get to the drier.”
Felipe’s stomach lurched. “Let me see the package for your laundry detergent.”