Tainted Candy

candy

I won’t let my kids trick-or-treat this Halloween. Not after what happened last year. Not when half the town’s parents are still in mourning and every other week you see cribs and twin-sized beds by the curb for anyone to come by and pick up. They’re stark reminders that the losses cut deep around here. The pain’s still there. And even if those wounds have started to heal for some, they’ll always, always itch.

Last year, kids received tainted candy. 55 got sick, 31 died. It was all over the news, so I don’t need to go into a background story that you already know. My girls were lucky; they’re both allergic to peanuts so they just gave the candies to their friends. Friends they don’t have anymore.

I remember my shift in the ER when the kids started trickling in. It took a few days. The first one was on November 3rd – a four-year old named Regina. She was having trouble breathing. At first, we thought it was an allergic reaction, but none of the treatments seemed to work. As she got worse, it was only after we’d scoped her to get a look inside her lungs that we realized what was happening. By then, though, it was too late. She died on the table.

Three more young kids came in that night. They all died.

The next day, the trickle became a flood. Older kids joined the younger ones with trouble breathing. These seemed worse off than the kids from the night before. The initial symptoms had given way to the secondary ones before death, so we had to deal with the shock and terror they were experiencing as their condition progressed.

The CDC representatives arrived not long after ten more had died, and they were able to quickly trace the source to contaminated candy. The local chocolate producer was determined to be at fault, and a speedy investigation revealed exactly how the candies were contaminated. The business was shut down. The owners are still tied up in court cases for their negligence and refusal to comply with proper importation safeguards.

Like I said, after a year, it’s all still fresh in the minds of so many families. They’ll go their whole lives associating the holiday with death and devastation, rather than fun and excitement. Out of respect for that, few yards are decorated for Halloween nowadays. There are some pumpkins on front steps, but no real displays. Well, there’d been one.

A Japanese family who’d moved to town in August had been mostly unaware of the circumstances surrounding the tragedy. They’d bought the house across the street from me. Excited to celebrate Halloween in America for the first time, they decorated their front lawn with skeletons, pumpkins, monsters, and spiders. A couple neighbors visited the next day and carefully explained to them what had happened the year before. The decorations were down within an hour.

It wasn’t that anyone was truly angry that the decorations were there. Most of them were fine. Had they just left three of the four things up, no one would’ve complained. Hell, some people who were lucky enough to not have been touched by the tragedies might have appreciated a little Halloween spirit. But for some, seeing that one thing was just too much. Even I, who hadn’t lost anyone, cringed a little when I saw the setup.

It made me think back to that night on November 3rd when Regina came in. I remembered the scope going down into her lungs. I remembered how we stared at the screen in a combination of horror and fascination.

It wasn’t a skeleton or a pumpkin or a monster that had killed those children. It was the spiders. The millions of tiny, black spiders whose eggs had been in the cocoa powder decorating the finished chocolate and peanut-butter candies.

The kids who’d suffocated before the spiders had exited their lungs were the lucky ones. It was those in the waiting room or car or ambulance who hacked and coughed up clouds of them as they died who had it worst.

The Japanese family apologized profusely as they removed all the decorations. It was obvious they were mortified. As I watched them out the window, I saw Giichi wave his wife, Ai, over to get a close look at the lawn. Her eyes widened and she put her hand over her mouth. I couldn’t see what they were looking at, but I knew what it was.

Ever since last November, there’ve been webs all over the place. They’re small – only the size of a quarter – but immediately recognizable as being from the same Honduran spider that’d been accidentally imported by the chocolate shop owners. The town’s infested with them. I try not to get too close to the corners and eaves of my house because I know they’re there. Harmless, but there. Just another cruel reminder. One of many.

I haven’t touched a piece of chocolate in over 350 days. I dread having to use the scope when I’m at work in the ER. And nearly every night I dream about how it all happened, only to jolt awake with the feeling of spiders squirming through my lungs and sinuses.

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