Invisible Links – Anne Ramallo

This could not wait till morning. The craving was so intense that Claudia never considered resisting. Maybe it was hormones, or maybe just that she finally had an appetite. She needed fudge. Not the kind she usually made near the holidays, melting chocolate chips in the microwave. Claudia needed Grandma’s heavy, silky fudge—the kind she made in a saucepan with a candy thermometer.

 

Did you need a double boiler? Claudia wasn’t sure anymore. She closed her eyes and tried to picture Mom at the stove, swirling a big wooden spoon, round and round like the second hand on a clock.

 

But Claudia could only observe this memory from outside the pan, from where she’d sat at the counter with a coloring book, or later on, a laptop. She didn't know whether the pan contained a double boiler.

 

It was too late to call—10 p.m. in Los Angeles but midnight in Sugar Run.

 

Google would know. Claudia scrolled through too many microwaved chocolate chip recipes before typing “fudge you make with a candy thermometer.” Better. Condensed milk sounded familiar. Condensed milk or evaporated? As she read, Claudia doubted her own memory. Was it sugar and cocoa powder, or baker’s chocolate?

 

She was sure there was vanilla extract, and certain that all of these variables mattered for achieving the exact flavor and consistency she craved—something she could hold in her mouth, savor as it melted away. Like a good memory. Supple fudge that wrinkled and cracked like leather. She wanted to lose herself in a mouthful, erase the terrible week.

 

She tried to concentrate: Grandma Nora’s kitchen. Yellow linoleum, dark-brown cabinets, brass knobs shaped like flowers, cousins decorating felt ornaments with puff paints. Now she tried to reverse-engineer the smells. Butter. Vanilla.

 

By the time she was old enough to help, Claudia had found other interests—speech tournaments, volunteer projects, study groups. In the back of her mind, she had always thought there’d be more time.

 

Grandma Nora had stopped cooking after the stroke. Mom tried the fudge for a while, but lost momentum after a few years, after the cousins stopped gathering together for Christmas. After it turned out that Grandma was the sugar or condensed milk or whatever had held everyone together.

 

It was a family recipe—the kind that should never need to be written down. It was written in their mitochondrial DNA, Claudia suspected—pieces of molecular coding passed unaltered from mother to daughter every generation. Moms and grandmas and daughters had been making this fudge since the 1800s, probably on temperamental wood-fueled stoves.

 

“I remember when my Grandma Ira would make this fudge…” Grandma would say, her brown eyes sucking up the light in the room and spinning it into something that sparkled.

 

Claudia pictured the chain of women, gathering in blue-checkered kitchens, around wood-block counters or Formica-topped bars. Here she was, two time zones away, asking a computer.

 

Claudia had always considered herself a mold breaker; she’d always considered this a good thing. Now, alone in her kitchen with cream-colored porcelain tile and sleek bar pulls on cherry cabinets, she just felt broken. She would be the one to break this tradition.

 

She had learned to cook, but always her own recipes. Claudia recalled her dad’s perplexed eyebrows at Thanksgiving. “Why would you put apples in the stuffing?”

 

To be different. Last month, when being different didn’t mean being separate. Now the stakes had changed, and all Claudia wanted was a family recipe.

 

She decided to go with milk and butter, no double boiler, mixing and matching from online recipes guided by flashes of light and scent memory.

 

In a large and heavy saucepan, stir together first three ingredients, then stir in milk, her phone instructed in frigid Helvetica. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly. Boil to 234 degrees F or until syrup, when dropped in cold water, forms a soft ball.

 

Why had she not remembered Grandma keeping a glass of ice water by the stove? The way she’d watch the fudge (what was the sign she looked for?), dropping a bit in the glass, reaching her hand in for it. That was the shocking part—Grandma Nora sticking her hand in the water, after all of her admonishments at the dinner table. Keep your hands out of your water…

 

“It’s okay; it’s different,” Grandma had said. Was it with an actual wink, or had it only been in her voice? “Table rules don’t apply in the kitchen.” She pressed the fudge in her fingers and gave it to Claudia.

 

Why had it taken an internet recipe to jog this memory? Maybe because Mom used a candy thermometer. She didn’t have Grandma’s eyeballing abilities. She relied on science, not art, Claudia thought as she pulled a long bar handle and searched the gadget drawer for her own thermometer.

 

For most things, boiling was boiling. You looked for bubbles. Not here. Somehow it made a difference. She could remember Mom throwing out a batch of fudge once, wooden spoon slinging it into the trash can with a vehemence that had kept Claudia from asking what’s the matter.  

 

Claudia watched her ingredients melt into sticky liquid. The scent of warm sugar and cream melted something inside of her, and her stream of consciousness swelled with melted memory run-off that ran wild and overflowed the banks of self-control. Images flooded: Grandma Nora, right hand withered and hanging useless at her side; Mom flinging grainy fudge into the trash; the doctor’s office, the empty black screen.

 

Tears oozed from her eyes like blood. I’m leaking, Claudia thought, but still she stirred, consistent like the second hand on a clock. Behind the opaque wall of tears, the candy thermometer read 157.

 

It would thicken. If her foremothers could do this on a wood-burning stove, she could do it on a Viking Range. Or had it not been the fire at all—the secret to their success? Maybe it was the consistency of the hands. Maybe it was having someone there to stir while you greased the pan or grabbed the butter.

 

Empty kitchen notwithstanding, Claudia would join her foremothers, creators of fudge. She would extend her wooden spoon across space and time and they would grab on and welcome her, tell her never mind, you’re one of us. All those women, all those years, different personalities joined by fudge. And daughters.

 

No. They would not welcome Claudia.

 

Sometimes you could follow all the directions and things still didn’t turn out. Claudia had choked down lentils, kale, eggs, fighting nausea that formed a tight lump in her throat. She needed something sweet.

 

The thermometer climbed, mercury stretching and blooming. 210, 217. Then what? Why hadn’t she read ahead? Claudia didn’t want to stop stirring long enough to check. She didn’t want the fudge to burn and crumble. She was already leaking; she couldn’t afford to crumble.

 

The mercury drifted to 225 and Claudia gripped her wooden spoon. She didn’t want to do this, but she had a wooden spoon and the craving was strong. She needed this fudge, the thick, buttery chocolate, but mostly she needed a win.

 

She had a wooden spoon. She grabbed her phone and extended her spoon across space and time. Would anyone grab the other end? It was 10:58 in Los Angeles and 12:58 in Sugar Run.

 

Claudia stirred as she listened to the dial tone. One ring, two, three.

 

“Hello,” a heavy voice answered.

 

“Mom, what do I do when the fudge gets to 234 degrees?”

 

Claudia heard a cough in response, then, finally, “You stop. Take it off the heat. Add your butter and vanilla and let it cool.” It was a monotone recitation. Mom could do this in her sleep.

 

“Okay, thanks,” Claudia said with a sniff she hoped was not audible. “Sorry. You can go back to sleep now.”

 

“No, I can’t.” Mom’s voice was coming to life now, highs and lows animating her words. “It’s late. Are you okay?”

 

The mercury wilted from its peak. Claudia felt her stomach sinking, almost like the nausea that had dissipated days ago. Sometimes she could hold it in; sometimes she could not.

 

This time she could not. Words spilled out, bitter like bile. “I lost the baby.”

 

Silence, then, “That hurts. I’m sorry, Honey.”

 

“Sorry. I know you were looking forward to being a grandma—”

 

“No, it’s not that,” Mom interrupted. “I just mean…I remember.”

 

The realization dawned on Claudia slowly as the thermometer drooped to 225. “You?”

 

“Three.” Mom said. “It happens. If you only knew.”

 

Claudia wondered how many invisible links the chain of her foremothers contained. She wondered at the invisible link that clipped her into this chain. Kitchens and fudge and daughters, and the daughters and sons that might have been.

 

It was 11:28 in Los Angeles and 1:28 in Sugar Run, but Claudia kept Mom on the phone until the thermometer dropped to 110 degrees. Then she picked up the wooden spoon and started to stir.

A longer version of this story, previously published under the title "The Craving," won a weekly online Reedsy Prompts short story competition.

Anne Ramallo is a full-time mom and part-time business communications writer, moonlighting as a freelance editor and award-winning short story author. Her writing explores the volatile chemistry of relationships and the subtext within silences. A musical theater performer with a degree in Creative Writing from the University of Redlands, Anne lives in Los Angeles, California, with her husband, two daughters, and two cats.