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Chocolate

When Gwen Whiting isn't writing speculative fiction, she's spending time with her family, reading a history book, or curating museum exhibitions. She is currently collaborating with her husband James on a series of fantasy novels about a cursebreaker and her feline companion. Feel free to friend her on Facebook at @gwendolynlwhiting.

After the bombs dropped and the sickness came, when everyone was smashing windows and building barricades out of canned goods and hoarding gasoline in old cans, my mom said that old man Carter robbed a candy store.
When people first heard about it, they thought he was crazy. Especially in those first days when it was hard to even get water, and nobody had power or knew how to get it. Half the time the city was dark, and when it wasn't, you didn't want to see what it looked like anyhow. My mom learned to like the taste of dog, she said. But every time she talked about it, she cried.
But eventually, everybody got used to the dark and to eating whatever the old world left behind, whether that came in a dented can or had a collar around its neck. I heard some people did worse, but we didn't know anybody who'd admit to it.
Once that happened, old man Carter started selling chocolate.
He never had much on him, and no one ever knew where he hid it. He'd come around to the squatter flats and to the old skyscrapers the gang took over and he'd knock on doors and wave at people. Once in a while, he'd yell out real loud, "Chocolate!" but that wasn't generally necessary. Us kids watched for him. Some of us even thought we could smell him--that milky scent of sugar and cacao that made your mouth feel all soft and melty inside.
He'd trade it with our parents, a bar at a time. Sometimes for food, other times for bullets. Carter wasn't too particular about taking what was offered. It was the trade he was interested in, chatting back and forth about who ruled what neighborhood, where water could be found that week, who was having a baby, who lost one. When Carter sat down next to our fire, it felt like the old world my mom sometimes talked about, where people drank coffee together and talked about other people. We didn't know gossip real well, us kids. To gossip, you had to have something to gossip about and we just weren't allowed to get close to other people anymore.
When he came, my mom didn't look sad anymore for a few days. Sometimes she'd melt part of the bar into hot water, and we'd take turns drinking it a sip at a time.
Carter liked kids. He saved squares of chocolate and if you were lucky enough to catch him on the road, he might give you one. Except that he'd stand there and make you eat it while he watched. Somebody told me once that he'd given a kid chocolate and one of the rover gangs found the kid after Carter walked away and killed her for it. I don't know why nobody ever killed Carter himself--I guess they were too afraid of losing that chocolate he'd hidden.
I grew up dreaming about it. I guess we all did, even after things started to get a little better and a windmill got built and things like power and electricity seemed like they maybe weren't things our parents made up to help us go to sleep at night. But nobody had figured out chocolate yet.
Then one day, Carter came to our squat, coughing and dragging. I had to practically peel him off the wall to get him to come inside. His skin was awful yellow but at least I didn't see any sores or pockmarks. Maybe he just ate something, I figured. The rovers who are left aren't fair about their trades; half the time, they'll give you something spoiled just out of spite.
"I don't know what we got for medicine," I told him.
He shook his head.
"I don't need none. I'm dying, girl. Ain't something I ate. It's just old bones and an old heart telling me it's time to go. Fetch your brothers and your mom. Anyone you can find. I need to tell you something."
I'd always thought I was Carter's favorite; we all did. But for him to come here to die, well, now I knew it was true.
I went hollering through the street that old man Carter was dying. It didn't surprise me that anyone with ears started running toward our squat. It was a good thing that the walls were half-gone, the way that people started crowding around the building, trying to see in. Trying to hear what he had to say.
Wondering what was going to happen to the chocolate.
He was wheezing and gasping by the time I got back, holding his chest. I hoped somebody had thought to ask him for a bar of chocolate or maybe even just some chewing gum. We hadn't seen Carter in months and even with him breathing like that, I couldn't believe he was dying.
"I'm dying," he told us all again.
There wasn't much of a noise at that. No one really knew what to do. On the one hand, we were used to death. On the other hand, it wasn't generally a natural death with someone announcing it beforehand.
"I just come to tell you--I buried it all. The chocolate."
Now that caused us all to make some noise. Whispers and murmurs and a couple yelps: it probably would have gotten worse if he hadn't raised his hand for silence.
"It's the only fair way. Finders keepers. It's all in different places so you'd best get looking." His head slumped back on an old t-shirt my older brother had wadded up and stuffed under his head. After a while and a lot more talk, people wandered off. I wished we had a shovel just then. We could have sold it for a lot of bullets. Whiskey, maybe, or even medicine: the real stuff that came in bottles.
When everybody left, my mom told us to make sure we had the gun loaded. There was no telling if someone was going to come back to see if Carter'd left us a farewell gift.
I asked my brothers. He hadn't.
I went back over and sat next to the old man. Dying's a lonely business, I've been told, and I thought he ought to have company. He slept and he woke and fell asleep again. Just when my own eyes were starting to close, as sun was coming through the walls, he whispered something to me.
"There ain't no more."
"No more? No more what?" I asked, but by then, he was gone. But I knew. He'd died just because he didn't have anything more left to give. No lollipops or chocolate drops or butterscotch pieces. No chocolate.
Over the next few days, I watched people dig. For once, they weren't shooting each other or squabbling. Us kids made digging tools out of old nails and a few pieces of rotting wood we found. Didn't get any chocolate but we found an old can and some scrap metal.
It didn't last. At least not for everybody. We all went back to doing the things we'd been doing before. Every so often, you'd see someone look at the ground and lick their lips and you kind of knew what they'd been thinking, even if you didn't talk about it.
But the story lived on. And you'd see a kid digging at the ground and grinning, long after no one talked about what chocolate was or how it tasted.
That's when I understood old man Carter.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, October 22nd, 2021
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