Muffin Top by Meredith Miller

To say that Vanessa was excited would have been an understatement worthy of criminal charges. She had done an acting class in college all those ten years ago. Using that training, the petite and yet sporty woman summoned all the scowls she could come up with, combining them into a theatrical visage of grump Shakespeare would have been proud of. “Honey?” she said whilst brushing her teeth, shivering only slightly in spite of the morning’s biting freeze.
Muffin Top
Muffin Top by Meredith Miller
“Yes, sweetie?” came an almost immediate response from the man in the mirror. His creamy voice was the perfect ingredient for a cheesecake, and his strawberry lips curled into an uncertain smile. She almost caved them, marking in her memory the gorgeous curve his right ear boasted, but steeled herself and acted mean. He didn’t deserve this, she knew, but she hoped it would make the surprise all the sweeter. “I’m not feeling at my best,” She stated, putting an emphasis on the way her eyebrows curled up. He didn’t say anything for a second, then fidgeted a little, perhaps thinking of leaving the bed and coming to her. Instead, he looked at his socks in thought for a second or three. “Yeah, I kind of noticed you were acting a little off.” The look she gave him then made the man rethink his strategy. Instead of adding to his sentence, Mark put a ringed hand through his luscious blonde hair and said, “Okay.” He didn’t mention that she’d forgotten his birthday, thankfully. That would have been a bad scenario. It wasn’t like her to be moody with him, and the perky woman hoped that confusion would do the trick. The two got ready with far less chitchat than usual. Vanessa made sure to toss Mark a few dirty looks here and there, especially when he’d managed to get his climbing boots on faster than her. The man was so flustered that he didn’t ask her to check his massive bags for him, nor did he insist upon doing the same with her small one. Once the two were outside their cabin, however, the short haired brunette encountered her first obstacle towards completing that all important goal: she’d forgotten the lighter on their small round excuse for a table. She didn’t know why these places had those anyways. All they did was make you forget lighters, among other things. In order to get to the thing, Vanessa had to pretend she needed to go to the toilet. Mark didn’t say anything, other than offer to hold her bag for her, since getting out of the climbing gear was difficult enough as is. Care was needed in refusing his rather sane offer, so as not to invoke suspicion. That she did, and despite the man showing outward signs of surprise on a face so handsome it could have been painted on, no dissent was voiced. Still, Vanessa could have been mistaken for the insides of a watermelon as she re-entered the small log cabin, what with skin turned pink by shame coupled with freckles she thought hideous but which Mark insisted were part of a charm very few women could hope to replicate. It didn’t matter how long you were married: no one can stand being embarrassed before his crush. A few years into their marriage, she still had a crush on Mark. As she left the front door carefully shut behind her, the woman cast her eyes towards the left. Taking a few stops forwards, she turned in the middle of the road. There were more men and women around now, seeming slightly greyish in incomplete morning as they went to and fro, some dropping smiles or greetings. The icy dirt road was framed by cabins and climber services on both sides. About fifty feet away stood Mark, facing her and looking perfect whilst smiling at what must have been a lingering hint of watermelon on her. There was an ever-present drift of snowflakes here, but it was minimized just then and seemed like feathers carried by a breeze. Each feather was beautiful and magical, floating like a cold morning kiss. She could see a massive peak, hiding the sun and looking like a lone eagle’s talon. The peak almost created a backdrop of its own, for it almost covered the horizon. It was the perfect morning for a surprise. “Ready, sweetheart?” asked Mark when she got to him. Despite painful resistance, her face revealed a happy smile. “Ready,” she confirmed. There was only one hurdle left, and it would have nothing to do with her efforts. Sritt was a dangerous mountain to climb, and there was a checkpoint you needed to be let through in order to attempt it. They had already gone through many, and so happened now upon the last. Beyond this point there would be little in the way of aid for the lost or stranded. This meant that checks were rigorous. If they were told to open their bags, Vanessa’s plan would fail and she would receive a stern talking to. The possibility of that happening was mortifying, but there was a good chance… Luckily, the guard at checkpoint C where they attempted to pass was someone Mark knew from his earlier climbs, and the couple was waved through with a good natured joke. Vanessa had her breath held the whole time, and so had missed the punch line. She was then forced to sit there like an idiot while Mark and the friendly guard chuckled. The love of her life, being a considerate and patient man, didn’t do that stupid thing some husbands choose to and apologize for her like she was a child, but he did offer Steven an apologetic smile. Then suddenly, all thoughts left her mind save for two. The first thought was the anticipation she felt about surprising Mark. Despite it not being his birthday, they weren't climbing fifteen days ago, and she was sure that he would love it. If all went well, they would be atop Sritt within the day, and she would spring it then. The small can of gas felt heavy in her bag, but Vanessa knew the weight to be normal, when balanced against the usual equipment mountain climbers had to haul along. It was all worth seeing the surprise on forgetful mountain loving Mark Rotstein’s face. Naturally, the second thought occupying Vanessa’s mind was the thrill of the upcoming climb. A shudder of freedom took over as she was once again beyond civilization, with nothing but a literal white mountain between them and standing higher than clouds. Slowly but surely, the two began to climb. At first with just their feet, soon hands and tools were deployed as every trick was used. Vanessa’s breath began to labor, and in a short while her husband’s followed. They said little, but neither wished for solitude. There was something oppressively frightening about the sheer physical presence of Sritt. If it were to shift but a few inches, both would plummet. There was reassurance to be found in facing this behemoth next to her husband, even if both were savoring a certain personal struggle at the same time. Vanessa chuckled and thought, that’s what best friends are for. The sound caused Mark to turn around, but she waved him onward. For a while, Vanessa’s heart had been rent asunder because she found out Mark refused to call her his best friend. It may seem like a small thing, but was more like a physical blow than anything else, because she had taken it to mean he didn’t like her as much as he liked someone else. She had tried to come closer to his hobbies, enjoyed his music, and tried her absolute best to make her best friend and lover enjoy her company to the absolute fullest. Nothing had worked, and she remembered feeling sad in bed one day, wondering if he should be with someone he truly enjoyed. She'd wished she were someone else, which is a rather bad feeling to have when one is supposed to always love oneself. If only she liked instrumental music or pasta, she’d thought. It took a patient man and a heartfelt explanation to remedy the brunette’s deep sense of inadequacy. Then again, a deep sense of inadequacy can really only be alleviated by a truly caring and patient individual. He’d told her that he isn’t able to call her his best friend because she was his favorite friend. She was his lover and his wife and the best person he knew. Moreover, he enjoyed doing the most boring things with her far more than he would enjoy doing anything with anybody else, even his best friend. “I swear,” he’d said with a laugh, almost making her cry, “I’d felt there was something wrong with your mood, but didn’t think it was this. Baby, I would rather be with you at your worst than with anybody else at their best. You’re my favorite person in the whole world, and I love you to the moon and back.” “All the way?” she’d asked, holding in a sniffle because she was a strong confidant woman, dammit. “Everyday. If we weren’t married, I’d call you my best friend, but now you’re my wife and lover, nothing less.” Him repeating that a few thousand times had worked. Just then, Mark intruded into Vanessa’s thoughts. He pointed at a bird soaring far below them. At that distance, it could have been a speck. Far below the speck were the lines of multiple lesser mountains, far too puny to conquer. Beneath those snaked a perfectly blue river amidst a green ocean, dotted by urban lakes here and there. The two were standing upright now, on a short level ledge. This far up, invincibility was something you could grasp in one hand. Mark and Vanessa were halfway towards the next stretch of vertical climb when disaster struck. One second the woman was looking at one particular part of the river, which snaked around to form the letter M, and the very next instant her red shod foot went right through ice. A crash spun her around in the air, and she had just enough time to go completely limp before a meaty thud announced her plop onto the ground. During that moment, she kept her mouth firmly shut, both to avoid the infamous tongue bite and to keep Mark from doing something stupid. Nonetheless, as she lay disoriented on cold floor, the woman heard three distinct sounds: “Vanessa!” Crash! Thud! Vanessa turned around to face the sky. A glimpse of it could be seen, a stretch of clear blue. However, that glimpse could only be seen through a hole about her size and almost circular in shape. Immediately she tried to stand, but her neck hurt. “Mark?” She called out instead. A sound came from directly behind her, and she hoped that it was a man turning onto his back and looking at the similar hole she could see across from her own. “All okay, Ven,” he said slowly but with deliberate reassurance. He had to have broken something. “You?” “Alive and well,” She answered, feeling her neck loosen up. Slowly, she put her hands on the ice beneath her whilst staying in place, just as she’d been taught. The worst you could do is step on another unstable spot and fall even further. Behind her, Mark did the same, and then the two turned. They inched slowly closer to one another, engaging in what must have been history’s slowest, most careful embrace. Then he tightened. “I’m so glad you’re okay,” he breathed into her neck, his grip almost vice like. She didn’t complain. “I love you,” she said. He assured her the sentiment was mutual. They may have said it a few times, in fact. Then the two inched around on all fours, testing the area they were within. They were in a tall icy cavern spanning about fifteen feet in most directions. Where sunlight seeped through thinner ice, it was almost white in brightness and bluish hues. Otherwise the surfaces were a darker and more sinister shade. Assured that their footing was stable enough, Mark went on to check if he was able to climb out of their entrapment. After searching around for a few seconds, however, he spun to Vanessa. “I can’t find my pick-bag,” the man proclaimed in confusion. She looked too. Indeed, there was no sign of it in the cave. “It can’t be above, can it?” asked she, worry creasing her face. What Mark called his pick-bag was full of climbing essentials from shovels to pickaxes and rope. “I don’t think so. I mean, it was all a blur, but I almost remember it skidding over… there!” He pointed to where a skid mark could just be made out, leading to what had earlier appeared to be a dark wall. Initial excitement at the wall revealing a passage to freedom was swiftly dampened, however, when Mark and Vanessa discovered the presence of an enormous void. It was so deep that they could not peer into its true bottom, but the two could make out the man’s blue bag somewhere on a precarious point, stuck in icy wall. Blue and red were his favorite colors, although he generally shied from wearing them, thought Vanessa absentmindedly as she decided there was no way for the two to go down there and retrieve their belongings. “We’re going to have to wait here.” Concluded Mark. Luckily the short frequency radio was in his second bag, and they were close enough to reach camp. True cold hadn’t started to settle yet, but the cavern was chilly enough that Mark whipped out a few thermal blankets as the both huddled against one another against a wall of ice backed by hardened rock. Disappointments are said to come in curses of three, and so it was in this situation, thought Vanessa. Their first stroke of misfortune came when she tripped and fell into that one particular stretch of ice. The second was Mark dropping his pick-bag into the hidden chasm just beyond. The black cat’s third eye, however, was when the people at camp told Mark and Vanessa they might not be able to find them for as long as ten days. “We just don’t know enough about that area!” the man had announced, urging Mark to remain calm, ration their food, and hang on tight. “We’ll get to you as soon as possible, and everything’s going to be alright!” For a few minutes, Vanessa struggled against gut wrenching guilt as Mark hugged her and told her not to be afraid. All the climbing trips they’d made with full backpacks, and they’d never needed most of the rations. Climbers took extra on purpose, usually. “It will be okay,” said Mark with a strained smile, trying to reassure his wife. “If we’re careful, we can make our food last for ten days. You have enough for seven in your bag alone!” “Honey?” asked Vanessa, crying a little bit, sure that she’d killed herself and her husband with her. “Yes, sweetie?” Instead of saying anything, Vanessa just emptied her bag onto the icy floor. Before Mark’s bewildered eyes a cylinder of helium, a lighter, balloons, signs and confetti as well as a single candle-studded muffin fell out. It had a blue wrapper, and was filled to the brim with chocolate chips. Truth be told, had it been under any other circumstances Mark would have been thrilled. “Surprise,” she whispered. A myriad of emotions flitted through his face, settling on one of pained acceptance coupled with what must have been the closest thing to a loving smile he could manage under the circumstances. “Oh, baby,” he said. That first day was the stuff of nightmares. There was truly little worse than thinking that you were the reason for another person’s misfortune. It was bad enough when that misfortune presented itself in the form of a ruined evening or an embarrassing situation, but it was entirely another when your idiocy was a string weaving their doom. That was the situation Vanessa found herself in, and she tried to keep it in as much as possible. In her misery, however, there was a companion, and he happened to ease her pain. He whispered in her ears, telling her that no one could have foreseen their dilemma. He told her of love and of dreams, of survival and happiness. He told her that the surprise was actually great and it made him happy to see she’d tried so hard to make things perfect. “Even the banners are all blue and red!” he’d exclaimed, causing her to shed hot grateful tears. The muffin now stood next to their bag, defiantly delicious looking. It was on the second day that hunger began. They had sat there quietly, conserving their energy and eating as little as possible. In order not to go insane, Mark had given her half of his journal to write in. There was little to write, but the action created a spark of creativity. As the two sat and talked about what they were going to do when they got out, Vanessa suggested with hesitation that they light one of the candles on the muffin each day. “It can be like a counter of days,” she said, and the man grinned. “It can be motivating.” She was now determined to do all she could to help save the both of them. Mark agreed, and the Muffin seemed to as well. On the fourth day, their rations ended and Vanessa’s determination began to waver. They sat in hunger and dreamt about what they could eat after leaving. Luckily, water wasn’t an issue, for the lighter could be used to melt ice. The muffin was now slightly infested with burnt candles, and a little hard. It was on the fifth that Vanessa kept apologizing to Mark over and over. Each time she did, he told her that she’d done nothing wrong, and that he was happy to be with her. “Like I said, honey. I’d rather spend time with you like this than be with anybody else. I love you.” That night, she felt so bad that Mark gave her his journal. She read by candle light from his birthday cake. Surprisingly, the sixth day was one of the most romantic she had ever experienced. She spent all of it reading through her husband’s diary. Not a bad word about her was written on the thing, not even about the time she tried to sing for him after eating some bad shrimp. Every time she was mentioned, even in passing, he added a little heart above the A. She was always my darling, never that annoying or stupid girl that she saw in the mirror. Every so often, there was a passage where he expressed concerns about her mood or happiness, and it was always on times she hadn’t told him. “You noticed,” she breathed. “I always tried to hide it… I’m so sorry, honey!” The muffin, at that point, drooped slightly. “That’s alright,” he said, “There, there. You’ve made me the happiest man alive. There’s nothing to apologize for.” The next few days were mostly a haze. A storm raged for most of them, battering them with cold and snow and depression. She barely remembered the two talking about their life together, him telling her that he was going to write a story about the situation and call it Muffin Top. Being so hazy, Vanessa laughed herself silly despite Mark not being a natural comedian. She also begged him to eat the muffin at some point, saying he deserved to survive. He’d refused and they sat watching the thing in what was akin to despair. The cold, hunger, and thirst induced by the lighter dying almost drove them insane. “I think that I have a crush on you,” she whispered at some point, and he chuckled. “I think I like you too. Maybe I can make you happy?” “Yes please!” They were the words exchanged when they first decided to become a couple, her just out of college, and he a simple intern at a newspaper. They’d repeated them at the wedding, her in white and he dressed in a top hat and blue suit. They repeated them again in that cavern, with a single muffin and a lit candle standing attendance. On the ninth day, a strange sound awoke the couple from what had seemed like a deadly nap. At first, they did not know what had filled them with hope, but then the sounds came closer. Thump, thump, they went, like a disapproving giant. Then they were there and snow dropped onto their cavern, right where their makeshift manhole was situated. “Anyone there?” A man asked. “Help,” they croaked, throats parched and eyes scarcely believing. Within a few hours, they were out and onto a helicopter. The floated away with a thwup, thwup, and Steven assured both of them that everything was going to be okay. They had left almost everything behind and were covered in blankets, holding onto each other tightly with little more force than a child could summon, but as much as they could muster. Water was given to them slowly, but both refused food. Instead, Mark and Vanessa took a bite of the slightly rotten muffin each, the one covered in burnt out candles. It was the best thing either of them had ever tasted.

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