In this week’s episode of Alice Isn’t Dead, the narrator encounters some rather odd road signs.
The road signs don’t come into play right away, however. Instead, she takes a moment at the beginning to extol the virtues of cruise control:
You know what I love more than anything else? Cruise control. I love cruise control more than I love most of my family members. And sorry to all aunts and uncles and cousins, you are great people. That cramp in your ankle from holding the gas pedal at the angle just so is the devil. And cruise control is the host of Heaven banishing it away. It is the kind word in a strange country, the rain after a drought.
She encounters a road sign that just has the word “fart” written on it (much to my delight, as I am apparently a 12-year-old boy), and spends a moment wondering why a lot of the billboards she’s seen aren’t particularly clear as to what’s being advertised, leading into the theme song.
After the theme song, the narrator notes that she’s on the way from Florida to Atlanta, and that the way is long, boring, and dotted with billboards:
It’s a long way from Florida to Atlanta. And it is a desolate way. The landscape is constructed of billboards. There are no natural features, but the side of the road is a constant chatter, a one-sided conversation. Lots of anti-evolution stuff.
All the truck stops being advertised have names like The Jade Palace or The Chinese Fan. Real racist fonts, too. Oh, God, and all of them with pictures of scantily-clad women and stuff about massages.
Ugh, this is the grossest stretch of road I have ever driven.
Lord, get me to Atlanta.
The narrator then reveals that she’s been looking through Alice’s laptop. She briefly wonders if this would be considered an invasion of Alice’s privacy, since if Alice were dead, it would just be considered something that needed to be done. However, since Alice isn’t dead, the narrator is a little conflicted. She notes that Alice is “a missing persons case, and everything you ever touched is evidence.”
She reminisces about when she and Alice would send each other emails, and how, for a time, Alice referred to her as “Chanterelle” in those emails. (This becomes very important later.) The first email that the narrator reads is about a business trip that Alice took.
“Hey, Chanterelle, just checked in. Sammy and some of the others were going out, but I’m tired. You have to know when to say no, like I always say. Hotel is way better than any place we can afford. I wish you were with me. Luxury vacation, but no. Sales conference. Who has a sales conference in a hotel this fancy? Diamond pattern on the duvet is kind of nice. Maybe we should look into that for home.”
Goes on for paragraphs. Entire paragraphs.
The narrator notes how the emails they wrote to each other used to be long, but then began to get shorter as time went on. She reads an email regarding another business trip that Alice took to Orlando. This is cut off by a horn honking and the narrator shouting in surprise. She explains that she had been reading these emails while driving, and how bored she is on this trip. She then relates a fairly amusing anecdote about how she saw another driver driving with his feet while playing a guitar.
She then passes by a billboard, black text on a white background, that says “Bernard Hamilton.” She then muses on viral advertising and how most of the billboards are pretty old:
That billboard is just someone’s name. “BERNARD HAMILTON.” It looks like the last one, the one that said “HUNGRY?” Black text, white background.
Am I supposed to Google the name? I hate viral marketing like that. I’m not gonna do it.
The ads on most of these billboards seem ancient – advertising local events that happened in 2005, fire sales for stores that have been torn down and buried and covered over in pitch and turf and concrete. A lot of them are just phone numbers and a message letting you know that the billboard is available for rent. That has to be pretty cheap on this stretch, right? Wonder how much it would cost to put up some of my own? Couldn’t be any less stupid a way to reach out than my endless transmission to a woman who isn’t listening, who clearly doesn’t even know I’m here. Dig a hole and shout into it.
She then states that she probably should stop for coffee or food at some point.
The narrator then goes on to talk about how she’s been doing some digging, and how some of the things in Alice’s emails aren’t adding up. She’s found that Alice has actually been receiving a second salary from an unknown source, deposited directly to her savings account.
The narrator stops by the side of the road for a moment to read another email from Alice:
“Chanterelle, checking into the Hampton Inn. Now this is more my speed. None of that fancy stuff, and they have mediocre coffee for free in the lobby.
“Conference is tomorrow, so I have a day to explore everything that Simi Valley has to offer. Which is…well, I don’t know. It’s right outside my hotel door, so I don’t have to go far (already a plus). There’s the Reagan Library that I can spend a satisfactory five minutes thinking about never visiting, lots of hills and rocks that look like the backdrop in an old western (mainly ‘cause they were).
The narrator notices a discrepancy here, a “question mark in the bullshit,” as she puts it. There is no Hampton inn in Simi Valley.
She passes by another billboard, this one with the name “Sylvia Parker” written on it, in the same black letters on a white background. She states that it looks new, and calls it creepy before wondering who is paying for these billboards.
All right, you’ve got my curiosity, mystery billboard person. Nothing I can do with it, just drive along thinking on it, but it’s there. Good job! I’m wondering “why?” about your ads now.
I think driving a road like this makes you ask the question “why?” over and over for all sorts of reasons. Mainly a quiet, despairing “why?” aimed solely at yourself, unanswerable except by your actions.
The then passes a billboard for a place called “Decadent Dogs,” which she supposes is a dog grooming parlor, before passing an honest-to-god plantation.
She then goes on to talk about how she looked up weather data for the trip to Orlando that Alice wrote about in one of her emails. Alice had mentioned that it was hot while she was in Orlando, but according to the data, they were actually in the middle of a cold snap, where the highs were in the fifties.
Little lies all through your emails to me. Everything not adding up to everything else, again and again. And all of them small and easy to dismiss on their own. And when you were home, I didn’t feel lies from you at all. You were an open, honest presence. I didn’t feel secrets!
Was I a fool?
Maybe. But I don’t think so. I think the you on the road wasn’t the you that was home. When it was just the two of us at home – and I want you to think about this, Alice, I want you to remember. When it was just the two of us, it wasn’t like being alone, but it also wasn’t like being with another person. It was something in between. It was all the benefits of being alone, with none of the downsides.
She goes on to state that she thinks Alice had a good reason to lie to her, so didn’t feel that she was sneaking around, and wonders where exactly Alice was going on these trips.
The narrator then passes by another billboard in the same style as the previous two. This one reads “Tracy Drummond.” She finally gives in and googles her name, but doesn’t like what she finds.
Tracy Drummond is in a list of other names including the ones that she had seen previously. They were all found dead with bite marks on their necks and shoulders, that appeared to come from human teeth, the victims of a serial killer that the media refers to as “the hungry man.” Of course, the narrator refers to him by a different name.
The Thistle Man.
They’re victims of the Thistle Man, Alice. Every one of those names, every one of those billboards. I think I see another one. It’s a little distant, so it could be –
No, it is. White background, black text. “NED FLYNN.” I don’t even need to look it up. I know. Dead, somewhere. A big bite out of him.
The Thistle Man has left me a trail, has told me who he is. He is the hungry man, and he won’t stop eating. He wants me to know. He left me these billboards as a message. Those names. Dots on a map. Last known whereabouts.
The narrator notices another billboard, and pulls over to investigate. When she comes back to the radio, she’s crying, and is having difficulty forming a coherent sentence. She manages to finally state what the billboard says: “CHANTERELLE. MISS YOU. GO HOME.”
She comes to the conclusion that the Thistle Man has not left this billboards for here, but that they were placed by Alice herself:
Go home, why? Hmm? Because I’m not safe? You think I’m safe anywhere? You think you can keep me safe? You think safety is an option that’s available to me? I haven’t been safe since I was born into this country, this angry, seething, stupid, could-be-so-much-more-than-it-is country! And you’re gonna keep me safe?
Or because I would get in the way? Or because you don’t want me to look for you, and I should respect your feelings? And, Alice, you’re right, I should.
But you have to know when to say no, just like you said.
The narrator also found out where the extra salary that Alice was getting had come from by digging a little deeper into the laptop: Bay and Creek Shipping. AKA the company that the narrator is currently working for. She wonders why Alice felt that she had to lie to her about that, and if it was worth destroying the relationship that they had.
The narrator then notices a shape lying near the billboard:
There’s something lying by the side of the road, under the billboard you left me. A pile of clothes, or…no, that’s a human shape. Oh, it can’t be a victim of the Thistle man, the hungry man. That would be too neat. There’s no way he could…
The shape is moving. It’s getting up. Okay, I need to get out of here, I need to start driving.
It’s standing and I can’t do it, I can’t drive away! Because here’s the gamble I have no choice but to accept: what if it’s an innocent person and she needs my help? And I drove away? I’d rather bet wrong one way than the other, I guess. Maybe that makes me a fool after all.
The figure’s standing. It’s turning…I’m staying…it’s…it’s a teenage girl. I…
What is she doing by the side of the highway like this? There are far worse things than men circling these roads.
She’s coming over to my truck.
Hey! Hey, are you okay?
And this is where the episode, rather abruptly, cuts off.
That is one hell of a cliffhanger. I really want to know exactly who the girl at the end is, and what she has to do with the story. Of course, since this is a biweekly podcast, we more than likely won’t find out until the 17th.
Well, there really isn’t anything more to do about that than wait, I suppose.