as published by Jolene Haley on Spooky Showcase
It was their last day together, so of course they spent it at the beach. Henny’s family was moving. Packed and loaded, the truck departed first thing the next morning. After sixteen years of growing up with each other, the neighbors, classmates, and best friends would be separated.
Henny and Michelin were a familiar, if odd, pair on the summer shores of Cargo Bay. Henny was tall, angular, and despite daily exposure to the Carolina sunshine, exceedingly pink. Michelin was shorter, rounder, and with or without direct sun, much darker. They sported matching lime green bikinis, Michelin’s unavoidably more revealing.
In the final hours of their shared proximity, they mused on how they’d taken their time together for granted.
“I wish we could’ve…” Michelin began.
“I know,” Henny answered.
“If only we’d have…” she offered.
“Uh-huh,” her friend mumbled.
Michelin started to say, “We never got to…”
Henny’s shoulders slumped. “Nope.”
“It’s going to be okay,” Michelin said, working hard to affect her oft-merry manner. “We’ll still see each other! You’re only two hours away by train. Even closer when one of us gets a car
“I know,” Henny replied begrudgingly. Her long bare feet dragged through the churning surf; the circling sand prickling at her ankles.
They walked the beach as they had so many summer days before. It was comforting in the way that breathing comes or night falls.
Avoiding a mis-thrown Frisbee, Michelin laughed and asked if Henny remembered that disc golf tournament they’d entered two summers before. “What an epic tragedy that was!” she said. “We sucked.”
Henny merely nodded and they continued walking.
“School will be weird, that’s for sure,” Michelin stated.
“And what are we going to do about our mutual crush on Dax Truitt? I mean, it’s obvious that I win by default, whether he gives me the time of day or not…”
A thin smile curled one side of Henny’s mouth.
Michelin pushed a fist against her friend’s shoulder. “Come on, I know you’re gonna miss Dax.” She paused, then continued, nodding emphatically. “I’ll send you pics. Every day. Make sure you always have your phone handy.” Both girls automatically reached for the bright plastic phone carriers strung around their necks.
They walked along the shore, in and out of the waning tide, sometimes leaving footprints; other times a trail of sucking sand holes that were quickly refilled.
Uncomfortable with the impending distance and expanding quiet, Michelin found little solace in the surrounding noises. Moms yelling at children from the shore, friends heckling friends in the surf, and the constant call of gulls heard over the crashing waves did little to assuage her mood.
“Hard to believe you fit your whole house in that truck!” she exclaimed. “Do you think you could live in one…?” She pondered aloud how convenient it would be to live in a moving truck. “Bed, books, dresser—it’s all in there!”
“Uh,” Henny interjected with disgust, “no bathroom.”
“So, you make pit stops at the gas station every now and then.” She moved ahead of her friend, circling around and walking backwards to face her. “And you’d have to make arrangements for showers. Like maybe five times a week…at my house.”
Henny refused to meet Michelin’s smiling gaze.
They continued on, further than usual, circumstances dictating the trek.
The beach crowd waned as the daylight faded. Henny rubbed her hands up and down her arms, soothing the eruption of goose bumps and wishing she had a cover-up.
“Getting cool,” Michelin said. “Should have brought our cover-ups,” she added in sync with her friend’s thought. “Oh, Henny,” she cried, “I’m going to mi—”
“Don’t,” Henny said, her voice cracking with emotion.
“But it’s true!” Michelin matched her squeak. “What am I going to do without y—”
The girls felt an unsettling whoosh when the beach beneath their bare feet gave way and they fell straight down, landing with a thud and squelch. Their feet hit solid ground and their bodies bent to sitting positions on squishy, soft seats, their phone cases bouncing against their chests.
Henny released a short scream.
“What the hell?” Michelin barked beside her.
The hole above closed up leaving them in complete darkness. A shower of sand sprinkled their heads and bodies. Henny shook her short blonde hair, causing Michelin to wince from the friendly fire. She dusted her face and shoulders and spit to the side.
A blazing row of lights sliced through the space, causing the girls to recoil.
“Welcome!” a friendly voice boomed.
Blinded by the brilliance, it took the girls’ eyes a moment to adjust. When they did, Henny stared in frightened disbelief as Michelin fumbled her phone out of the waterproof carrier.
The being who greeted them was unlike anything they’d ever been prepared to encounter. A man-sized, bubble-headed, many-eyed sea concoction sat beside Henny and across from Michelin. Its grey gelatinous form was slouched in a throne of sorts fashioned from huge clam shells. It appeared to be smiling, a lipless semi-circle among the many blinking eyes.
“Hello!” the creature began, “and welcome to Seas the Day!, a game show featuring yours truly.” A brief burst of applause echoed in the small chamber. The host lifted its fins upward then made a cutting motion and the clapping stopped. “You may call me Walter.”
Holding up her cell, fingers fumbling for the camera app, Michelin said, “What the—?”
“Ha, ha, no, it’s Walter,” the creature corrected. “Wal-ter. And, no photos please.”
The phone jerked out of her grip as if yanked by an invisible rope. Henny’s cord snapped and her phone also sailed into the shadows.
“Hey!” Michelin called. “Give me back my phone!”
“Feeling naked, are we?” it said mockingly. “I hear humans are digitally evolving…soon the technology will be in you.” It paused, then announced in a professional radio voice, “Welcome to today’s episode of Seas the Day! There will be questions…and prizes!” It turned to the left side of the girls and winked a multitude of eyes in that direction. “Am I right?” It bent forward awkwardly as it asked, “Do we have the best prizes or what?”
Its mouth, a gill-ruffled chasm that nearly bisected what must be its head, opened broadly. It was definitely smiling.
“As I said, welcome girls!” The creature twisted its face to look at something it held in fin-like fingers.
“Are those…note cards?” Michelin asked.
“Why yes!” It shuffled through them. “Ah, ha, you must be Michelin?”
“And you,” it turned to face Henny, “must be Henrietta—”
“Nobody calls her that,” Michelin interrupted.
The creature shot a glance to their left, transparent lids sliding up and down the many eyes. “Darryl,” it said in a chastising tone, “what have I told you about the research? If you can’t even get a name right, how am I supposed to trust you with the important issues?”
This time, the girls turned to look where the creature was staring. Henny gasped. Michelin asked, “Is that a fish? With a camera?”
Returning to the guests, Walter laughed jovially and said, “Why yes, of course. How else would we be able to reach millions of viewers?”
“What do you mean, ‘millions of viewers’?” Michelin asked. “I’ve never heard of this show and I watch a ton of television. My dad works for Dish Network so we get, like, everything.”
“We cater to private subscribers,” the thing replied dismissively.
Returning her attention to Darryl, Michelin said, “But, there’s no water.”
Ignoring her, Walter gazed at Henny and once again broke into that show-host grin. “Now, miss, what do you prefer to be called?”
“She goes by Henny,” Michelin stated.
“Good. Henny,” it said, full attention on the frightened blonde. “Nice to have you. I hear you’re moving soon.”
Wide-eyed, Henny nodded.
“Can you speak up, dear? We have quite a few audio followers who don’t have the vision capable of seeing your acknowledgement.”
She ducked involuntarily as a boom mic appeared above her. “Uh-huh,” Henny mumbled.
“After,” it checked the notes again, “Wow, sixteen years? That’s like two hundred and fifty-six years in fish time!”
Henny simply bobbed her head, eyes welling with tears to the sound of canned laughter.
“Look,” it sighed dramatically, “we just want to get to know you before the game begins, okay? Our audience enjoys a little topside entertainment. I’m going to ask you some questions and all you have to do is answer. Pretend you’re talking to your friend.” It checked the name on the card and confirmed, “Michelin. Right. Easy as pie.” The creature looked beseechingly at her, which was quite unnerving considering the multitude of eyes. “That’s a thing you dirtwalkers say, right?”
Henny nodded, heavy tears spilling from her now closed lids.
The host sighed again, rested its many fins in its generous lap, and shot a look to Darryl. “Can we cut?” it asked. The creature bowed its bubble head, each eye closing simultaneously. The lids all shot up at the same time as its attention focused on Michelin. “You,” it snapped, “trade places with your mute friend.”
Michelin and Henny both began to rise, only to find neither could. The surface upon which they sat, the squishy chairs, were actually inverted tentacles jutting from the wall. Their movements were restricted, their bare thighs attached by suction cups.
Walter made a throat clearing sound. The cups released with multiple puck-puck-puck sounds and both girls shot up into standing positions.
“I am not sitting down on that thing,” Michelin said, rubbing the circles from the backs of her legs. “Let’s go.” She grabbed her friend’s hand and turned to leave. There was nowhere to go. They were in a small cavern about nine feet cubed constructed of four walls with lots of shadows but no obvious exit. In the glare of the studio lights, Michelin did a complete sweep of the space. She peered at a cluster of fish in various sizes and shapes and scariness that hovered at the back of the room, opposite Walter. Miscellaneous equipment and wires hung from the walls and suspended from the ceiling.
“How is this possible?”
The host chuckled. “Many millennia of experience. We have this show down to a science. We sample technology from the air-breathers and adapt it to meet our needs. Underwater entertainment is huge. There’s quite the niche market for anything featuring dry-whores. As you can imagine, our patrons get bored with their everyday viewing options.”
“I’m sorry, did you just call us dry-whores?” Michelin placed a hand on her hip and jutted her chin. “How would you like it if I called you a blinking, bubble-headed, sea freak?”
There was motion from behind them but the host waved it away. It was smiling so big, the ripples of comb-like filaments seemed to be applauding.
“Please,” it said, motioning, “take a seat. My viewers are going to love you!”
Michelin stood firm. “I will not sit on that butt sucker.”
“Of course.” With a pectoral fin, it flipped the tentacles over, revealing a slick, burgundy-mottled skin. “Watch yourself, it may be a bit slippery. We do the sucker side for your benefit,” it added.
Michelin sat. She wiggled her bikinied bottom until she seemed confident in her position, then she gave Henny the okay to sit, too.
“Hello and welcome!” the host greeted. “Please tell me about yourself, Michelin—how about we start with that name?”
Turning away from the wagging gill fibers, Michelin faced the camera. She squinted.
“Don’t do that,” the mugging host said without moving its mouth.
Staring into the lens, she said, “My name is Michelin. A contraction of Michelle and Lynn, and yes, spelled like the tire company.” With a gesture, she referenced her dark skin and pooled belly at her waist, “But also like the star ratings guide.” Looking back at Walter, she added with a head sway, “and I am—All. Five. Stars.”
Henny added a snap of her fingers in testament.
Focusing past the equipment, Michelin gazed to where the camera fish floated and said, “But I assume you already knew that, right Darryl?”
“Excellent,” the host said. “We are so happy you could join us today, this day especially. We hear tonight ends an era.”
Both Michelin and Henny nodded.
“Sixteen years, that’s a lifetime!” Its bulbous face flattened in angle of the camera and added, “Literally, right?”
The girls continued to nod. Henny’s chest hitched with a squelched cry.
“All righty, then,” it said. “What are we waiting for? Let’s Seas the Day!”
Canned laughter filled the room. The lights began running along the track of bulbs and then flashed on and off. Startled, Michelin and Henny hugged each other as Walter rose up behind a newly revealed podium and exclaimed, “Let’s play!”
Sprouting atop a sturdy stalk of seaweed, buzzers appeared before Michelin and Henny. They, too, stood.
Tapping the stack of cards on the lectern, Walter said, “Here’re the rules…I ask a question and the first one to buzz in with the correct answer wins the points.” It turned to indicate an exposed scoreboard behind it. “Whoever has the most points at the end of the round wins!”
“What kind of questions?” Michelin asked.
“I want to go,” Henny mumbled.
“First question,” the host shouted enthusiastically. “In the first grade, who put the inverted thumb tacks on Mrs. Barnes chair?”
Michelin smacked the button and shouted, “Henny!”
Henny looked at her, eyes wide, mouth ajar. “You said you’d never tell!”
Michelin shrugged. “Sorry.”
“Great job, Michelin. You get the points.” A jingle of bells rang as the scoreboard read 100. “Next question! Who broke the neighbor’s cement goose while trying to steal it from the front stoop?”
Again, Michelin pressed the buzzer. “Trick question! Henny and I both did. It was much heavier than we thought it would be. We didn’t mean to break it.”
“Points to you for getting it right.” The board again jangled as a 200 appeared. “And,” the creature leaned toward the players conspiratorially, “bonus points for calling us on the misdirection.” The tally grew to 250.
“I want to go,” Henny said, arms crossed.
“Come on, Henny, this is kind of fun.” Michelin’s hand hovered above the game button, at the ready. “I’m having fun.”
“You get so competitive,” Henny responded.
“Is that why we always do what you want to do?” Michelin asked snidely.
“I just want to go home.”
The host held the cards up to his mouth, shielding the comments from the girls, as it whispered to the viewing audience, “And which home would that be? Hmmm.”
Visibly wounded, on the verge of a breakdown, Henny placed her hand over the button. “Fine.”
“Third question,” the host announced. “Are we ready?”
The girls shot each other concentrated looks.
“When questioned by the stunning specimen named Dax Truitt if he should ask out her friend, who said, and I quote, “No, she doesn’t like you like that.”
The dam holding back Henny’s tears burst.
Michelin’s face pinched.
“You…did…not…” Henny stuttered awash with fury.
“What do you care? You’re moving anyway.”
“No answer? I need an answer, girls,” the host interrupted.
An angry silence filled the tiny space.
“No points then. On to our fourth and final question in this round!”
The girls glared at each other, hands hovering like quiz cobras, ready to strike.
“Who cheated so the other would be held back, costing them their opportunity at advanced placement?”
Neither hand moved.
“Henny?” Michelin asked, looking disappointedly at her friend.
“Is that your final answer?” Walter asked.
Ignoring the host, game forgotten, Michelin repeated the question.
Henny shrugged. “What? It wasn’t fair that you placed ahead of me.”
“Wasn’t fair? I worked my butt off. I earned that spot!”
Henny withdrew her hand, her entire body sagged.
Over the sound of the scoreboard racking more points, Walter said, “That brings us to our final question! Michelin, you are in the lead! If you can correctly guess how your best friend in the whole wide world sabotaged your education, you win!”
Michelin stared at her BFF with more disdain than she’d greeted the bubble-headed, many-eyed, sea freak. A spark lit up her eyes. She depressed the button. “You switched essays, didn’t you?” Button still engaged, she shouted over the drone. “I think I knew it at the time but I didn’t want to believe my best friend would purposely tank me.”
“Please release the buzzer.”
She complied. The silence seemed to echo.
“And now, now you’re leaving me?” Michelin’s voice wilted.
“I didn’t know we were moving when I…did what I did.” Henny fell hard to the smooth skinned seat. She drew her arms around her torso, hugging herself and began to softly cry. “I didn’t want you in different classes. I’m nothing without you!”
Michelin came around and engulfed her sobbing friend in an embrace. “Why would you say that? You are amazing, Henny! I don’t know who I would be without you.” She choked on her own sob. “I should have encouraged Dax to ask you out. I’m sorry.”
“So sweet,” the enthusiastic host interjected, wiping a faux tear.
Michelin looked hard at Walter. “What is wrong with you? We only had a few hours left together and you wasted it trying to pit us against each other.” She turned an evil eye toward the camera. “You must be really desperate for programming if you think this is entertainment. Shame on you.”
“Can we go now?” Henny asked in a broken voice.
“Wait!” Michelin said, sitting straighter. “What about the prize?”
“The prize, my dears,” the smarmy host said, “is your renewed friendship.”
The girls stared in confusion.
“But,” Michelin challenged, “we were fine before your stupid quiz show. And we’re fine now. Affirmation of our friendship is a given, not a prize. Where,” she said harshly, “is the prize?”
The host gave them a sideways glance and offered, “How about parting gifts?” The girls watched as their cell phone cases came into view. Moving at this slower pace, they noticed the lanyards were carried by slim silver fish. “Or, should I say, de-parting gifts?” Walter asked as the fish darted upwards, straight through the sand ceiling. “A little something for the grieving parents to discover,” it whispered, all eyes facing upwards and fins folded as if in prayer.
“What did you say?” Michelin demanded.
“Let’s go!” Henny begged, tugging her friend’s hand.
Michelin stomped with a bare foot, not making nearly the impression she intended on the packed sand flooring. “We earned a prize. We deserve a prize. Where,” she paused for emphasis, “is the prize?”
With a cackle of laughter, Walter declared, “You are the prize!” It nodded to the back of the room and the lights grew dim. Suddenly the smooth seats they rested on squirmed beneath their bottoms as the tentacles turned and wrapped around them. The sand wall from where they emerged dissolved and the bulging body of a giant octopus was revealed. Raucous applause was the last thing the clutching friends heard before the pulsating maw opened wide enough to swallow them.
With a multi-wink to the camera, Walter said, “Fans and followers, do we have the best prizes or what?” The ecstatic host tapped his fins against his grinning gill ruffle as if blowing kisses. “See you next week on Seas the Day!”