This time, Keisha and Alice have an uncanny encounter at a Denny’s and learn a rather disturbing truth about Thistle.
The episode opens with Keisha narrating, saying that they “encountered the ineffable at a midnight Dennys,” adding that while they weren’t seeking what they found, it looks like it was seeking them. Basically, it was late, they were hungry, and the Dennys was open: “…[A]s the official slogan of Dennys should say, ‘It’s not good, but it’s there.'”
Alice then chimes in, saying, “We entered to that smell. That Dennys smell. Like food, but less so.” She notices that there don’t seem to be any wait staff around, but that they must be open since there are customers seated throughout the restaurant. Alice and Keisha then grab some menus, then start making their way to the back of the restaurant.
Space inside the restaurant seems to be somewhat warped, however, as it takes them longer to get to the back than it should have. Alice notes, “All of the customers were staring ttraight ahead, looking seasick, like they knew something had gone wrong and were istting tight until it fixed itself.”
Keisha’s POV then kicks in, and she notices what seems to be causing the spatial distortion in the place: there is an oracle sitting at a booth in the back.
The oracle waves over to them, cheerfully telling the two to sit down with them. Keisha says that they sound “friendly but distant, like a casual greeting screamed across the Grand Canyon.” The oracle continues, telling them that they ordered some seasoned fries, but notes that it might take some time for the waiter to find their way to the table.
Keisha then says, “What could we do? We sat. I love seasoned fries.”
The opening credits happen, and we continue with Keisha, Alice, and the oracle. The oracle says that the conversation they had was nice, and that they don’t get to talk to people very often. Keisha tells them that they just started the conversation, adding, “Let’s see how nice it gets.”
The oracle replies with, “Right…we just started.”
Alice decides to get straight to the point, telling the oracle that they have a lot of questions for them. She opens with the big question: what are the Thistle Men, and where do they come from. The oracle starts off vaguely and tells them how oracles perceive time:
“All of your questions will be answered,” said the oracle. “Or already have been. Or won’t be. Those are the three possibilities.”
“You can see the future,” I said, ignoring their joke. It it was a joke.
“I interact with time differently than you. For me, everything is always happening, all at once. I am currently experiencing the future, as strongly as I am experiencing this moment, and as strongly as I am experiencing the past. At all times, I have to maintain what I have already done, so it will continue to have happened. It is exhausting. You weren’t going to ask me how I feel, but there’s answer for you.”
Alice asks the oracle again what Thistle is, to which the oracle responds, “Ah, Thistllllllllllllle” in a creepier-than-usual tone.
We switch POV to Alice, who begins to tell a rather disturbing story about a man named Hank Thompson:
Hank Thompson wasn’t taught to hate. He came to it naturally. As a teenager most of his classmates looked like him, and this seemed right to him. At the time he wouldn’t have been able to explain why it felt right, although later inlief he would develop his own logic to explain it, on based on a patchwork of bad science and bad theology. He only knew that the few classmates that weren’t like him made him furious. He did everything he could to make their lives miserable. Others in class weren’t as directly cruel, but they tolerated what Hank did and this was its own cruelty.
Hank would eventually take to following some of those not-like-him classmates around after school, to throw rocks at them and yelling insults. Alice notes that he did this becuase he liked them to be afraid: “Not only in the school or the streets, but to generally feel that there was nowhere safe.”
One day, he actually hit another student with a rock, hard enough to knock him out. Hank just left the other kid to bleed in the middle of the street. He didn’t care enough to ask about what happened to him, and in fact was downright proud of what he did. The fact that he never saw the other kid at school again does have some rather unfortunate implications, however.
Hank eventually noticed that he was going through some rather disturbing changes:
When Hank was 16 years old, he was shaving in an old mirror out in the yard and he noticed something on his cheek. A flap of skin. He poked at it, but there was no pain, just some extra skin. He ignored it, and hoped it would go away on its own.
Keisha picks up the narration, and starts talking about how she and Keisha once took a trip to Lake Placid, New York, for a friend’s wedding:
In certain parts of the country, it’s always snowing a little bit. For instance, I have never crossed the Michigan border without finding myself driving through a light dusting of snow. Even in a late spring visit once there was an unseasonable blizzard. Upstate New York isn’t quite like that, but there is a noticeable slip in temperature the closer you get to Canada. The north of the United States is such a frozen pace in my imagination that I am startled by the recognition every city in Canada is even further north.
OK, just something that I wanted to point out here: people from certain areas have a tendency to think of the northern US as some kind of permanently frozen wasteland where it’s constantly snowing. As someone who has lived almost her entire life in either North Dakota, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, I just want to say that it really isn’t. While winters here are typically harsh, summers can, in fact, get quite warm. It’s just a generalization that kind of annoys me.
But I digress.
While the two were driving to their destination, Keisha noticed something remarkable: frozen waterfalls, witch ice climbers clinging to them “[l]ike inexplicable flowers growing from the walls of ice.”
We then go back to the diner with the oracle, Keisha still narrating. The oracle comments that it would be easier to simply think of the Thistle Men as monsters, to which Keisha asks what else they would call them. The oracle nods, then tells them that they are “a feeling made manifest.” Keisha, irritated by the oracle’s vagueness, asks why they can’t “just speak plainly.”
The oracle hunched over their hands upon the table. “I am speaking as plainly as I can,” they said. “Human language is designed for those who experience time in a linear way. One second, and then another, and never repeating a second after it’s gone. It is difficult for me to adapt such language to the way I exist. I can’t remember what I’ve already told you, or what you will be told but not yet. From my point of view, you’ve already learned everything you’re ever going to learn. I just am not sure what parts are now, and what parts or later.”
Alice asks what the oracles are. The oracle looks at her and seems to be trying to forumulate a response, but the two of them are interrupted by a waiter arriving with their order of fries. He seems somewhat flustered and confused as he apologizes for the wait, since they seem to be in a part of the restaurant he didn’t even know existed, before asking if that makes any sense to them.
Keisha responds that it doesn’t, really, but tells him not to worry about it as she takes the fries. “I think the problem will solve itself.”
The waiter nodds, then walks away from the table. Keisha takes a fry and bites into it, disappointedly noting that the plate of fries has gone cold during the waiter’s search for them.
Back to Alice and the tale of Hank. Hank eventually started to notice other pockets of skin forming on his body as the years progressed.
The area around his eyes grew dark and baggy and then started to droop, exposing the pink around the bottom. The whites of his eyes were slowly tingeing yellow. He didn’t go to a doctor about this, he didn’t trust doctors because he thought most of them were secretly Jews. He thought a lot of people must secretly be Jewish and it made him boil. One side of his face started to travel towards the ground and the other drifted upwards. Looking in the mirror, he didn’t recognize the creature looking back.
Hank started trying to say his name to his reflection, but because of the deformity to his face, all that came out were nonsense syllables. Disturbed by this, he stopped looking into mirrors for a long while.
Eventually, Hank, consumed by “the feeling of hatred and the power of being feared,” decides to go that last extra step:
One night, he went one step farther and murdered a man out back of a supermarket. The killing felt natural, and it made him hungry. He started tearing into the man with his teeth, and surprised and horrified at this, he fled home.
There’s a break, and Alice picks up the story that Keisha was telling about their trip to Lake Placid. Alice notes that the hotel where they were staying overlooked the lake itself, and that Lake Placid actually freezes over completely every winter. Laughing, she says that Keisha was completely fascinated by this fact and wanted to go out walking on the lake “just because she could,” and that the concept of ice so solid that someone could drive on it was a novel idea to Keisha.
Alice, however, also notes that there is “a small element of teror to walking on ice,” because even if it seems solid, there’s always the possibility that there are patches that are considerably less so. Even so, the two do end up going dogsledding on the lake.
Keisha didn’t like any of the other winter sports, but she did like sitting in a sled looking at dogs. I don’t blame her. Looking at dogs is one of the better sports.
She sat behind me, wrapped her hands around me. I hold onto that memory. The way it felt, the way I felt.
Keisha picks up the thread of the story, with a somwhat less nostalgic memory of the time they went to a ski lodge. Keisha decided she wanted to give it a try, thinking that she might like it. However, when they got to the rental process, her anxiety started to get to her and she decides that she would not, in fact, like skiing. In particular, she notes that the staff at the lodge seemed to be a bit annoyed with her about her lack of knowledege of skiing and the gear that typically goes with skiing.
And then she put on the ski boots, or as she calls them “punishment shoes,” noting that they made walking very difficult and hurt her feet.
But still, I tried. I did what the instructor said. Later, after the lesson, Alice went up on some of the slopes on her own, and I stayed by the lodge, trudging my way up a small rise and gamely attempting to ski down it, over and over, sweat pouring down my snowsuit. Because once I decide to do something, I do it.
We go back to the Dennys. Keisha asks again about the point the oracle made about the Thistle Men being “a feeling made manifest.” The oracle points out that it’s very easy to think of people who do evil things as being something other than human, becuase
If those who commit atrocities are an entirely different species than humans, then you could never be complicit. These impulses would not exist within you. But they do. The bad is as human as the good.”
Alice asks for clarification, and the oracle tells that deeply held feelings or beliefs on the inside can make themselves manifest on the outside, which is what seems to be the case with the Thistle Men. The Thistle Men are humans that were twisted and shaped by their own hatred.
Alice cuts back in, and finishes the story of Hank Thompson.
Hank looked again in the mirror, a different mirror from the last one he had looked, in a different home. It was many years later. He wasn’t even sure he was human anymore. He was so unlike himself. Blood stained his teeth, but under the scarlet the enamel was a dull, sickly yellow. He howled at his reflection, and his voice didn’t sound like the one he once had. It sounded powerful, and big. He felt feared.
Eventually, Hank left his house, not even bothering to close the door behind him and no one around even noticing his disappearance for several weeks after. From there, he started walking, stopping whenever he felt his energy flagging to murder someone, which gave him about a week or two’s boost.
He did not question for a moment what he was doing, or what he had become. The Thistle Men. Vector H. But also still Hank Thompson.
Finally, months after his journey, he was drawn by an unrefuseable instinct to an Air Force base in southern California, and a walled compound within it. A gate opened up in those walls, opened by other creatures like him.
Hank had finally made his way home, to Thistle.
Back at the diner, Keisha and Alice make their way outside, and head out into the night. A couple of hours after getting back on the road, Keisha receives an email from Tamara, letting her know that her story’s going to be going up in a few hours.
Keisha thinks to herself in relief that it’s finally over.
Good lord, this episode was fucking creepy. The description of Hank’s changes, particularly, reminded me of a story by Stephen King that I read in high school called “Gray Matter.” Not exactly, of course, but it was one of the first things that came to mind.
What really got to me, though, is the point that the oracle made, basically about how we tend to dehumanize people who commit atrocities. How often do we hear historical figures, like Hitler or Pol Pot, or even certain figures today, described as monsters? I think the oracle was right in that acknowledging the humanity of those who commit evil acts would mean having to acknowledge those tendencies in ourselves.
And that is scary.
(Before saying goodbye, I just want to remind everyone that if you like what I do and want to give me money for it, I have multiple avenues to do so! You can donate to my Patreon, like Ken Schaefer (thanks, Dad!). Or, if you want to do a one time thing, I also have a Ko-Fi and a PayPal. Still, whether you can donate or not, thanks for reading!)