by Haley Thielen
Runestone, volume 8
Runestone, volume 8
by Haley Thielen
At 8:05 p.m., in the parking lot of Hardy Hardware, Kevin and Ashley make out in the back seat of a red Ford pick-up while the Berlin firetrucks blaze past the wooden welcome sign that reads, “Not that Berlin.”
Ashley asks Kevin, “What was that noise?”
Kevin asks, “What noise?”
At 8:30, Ashley is a virgin no more.
At 8:42 p.m., Mr. Larson finds his red Ford pick-up truck missing from his driveway. Standing in the glow of his porch light he yells, “Goddamn sonofabitch!”
At 8:45 p.m., Barret and Bryce are trying to light a joint behind the dumpster of Bip’s Diner. After hearing the roar of the sirens Bryce yells, “They’re onto us!”
At 8:50 p.m., Lydia McNeil rides her brother’s Schwinn down Main Street to find out what all the hullabaloo is about. She peddles towards the glow that has illuminated the night sky in flecks of yellow and orange. After pedaling past the one lone Ford pick-up truck in the parking lot of Hardy Hardware, she comes to a stop around a crowd that has formed around the St. Agnes Immaculate Conception Catholic Church of Berlin. The church is now ablaze with a roaring fire; the lights of the firetrucks and police cars dance among the flames.
Lydia turns her head to see Police Chief Aldon Warren getting out of his squad car and planting his army boots onto the ground. The fire ebbs in the reflection of his aviators while his oversized gut casts a crescent moon onto the pavement below. A fireman approaches Chief Warren and says, “The fire’s contained.”
Chief Warren, unable to see through his dark aviators, turns to Lydia and says, “Someone’s going to pay.”
At 9:00 p.m., flakes of pew hymnals rain down from the sky around Lydia and Chief Warren. The wooden head of Jesus Christ falls to the floor inside the St. Agnes Immaculate Conception Catholic Church of Berlin at 9:04.
At 9:13 p.m., Sam is watching American Bandstand when his little sister Lydia bursts through the front door.
“They’re onto you!” she yells.
“Who?” he asks.
No new family has moved to Berlin in over a century. The wooden welcome sign that has always read, population 300, now has a number four crudely tacked onto it. The McNeil family moved to Berlin after Mr. McNeil, a bright young teacher with hopes and dreams, received an incentive to teach the young minds of Berlin a brand-new subject, Social Studies. Sam and Lydia McNeil stick out from their peers. It could be that their eyes shine a little brighter. Or it could be Sam’s exotic red hair.
At 9:16 p.m., Sam asks his sister what the hell she’s talking about. Lydia plops herself onto the couch, stares at the TV and says, “The church is on fire. They think you did it.”
At 9:17 p.m., Sam says, “Damn.”
Mrs. McNeil, who has the obsession of labeling everything in her life, can hear her children talking in the living room, however, she is too busy organizing her spice cabinet to hear what they are saying. She slides her fingers across the alphabetized spices and finds a gap between the letters N and P.
At 9:18 p.m. Mrs. McNeil asks, “Who took my oregano?”
“What should we name the town?” the settlers of Berlin asked in the middle of the century. The settlers of Berlin had crossed oceans and mountains and ended up in the middle of the world. They looked upon the flat land with no trees, no water, and dust that kicks up with the slightest gust of wind and said, “This isn’t too bad.”
What is bad is the curse. Those who are born here never leave. And if anyone should leave Berlin, they always come back.
At 9:30 p.m., Mrs. McNeil goes into the living room and tells Lydia it’s time for bed. Lydia gets up from the couch. As she passes her mother she says, “Sam set the church on fire.”
“Sam!” Mrs. McNeil gasps.
“I did not!”
Mr. McNeil walks in from the kitchen with a cookie stuffed in his mouth and muffles, “Did you guys hear about the fire?”
Mrs. McNeil follows the crumbs from his cookie as they fall to the floor. She scrunches her face at her husband who she has labeled a BIG OAF because he puts his SOCKS in the INTIMATES drawer. “Yes, we heard about the fire.”
“Sam did it,” Lydia says, hanging from the stair banister.
Mr. McNeil begins to choke on his cookie at 9:31.
The town of Berlin had sat unnamed for years. The new settlers, starting their new lives in this new place, wanted to get it right. One night the mayor conducted a meeting at the town hall asking for suggestions. The townhall, full of simple farmers and grocers and butchers put their collective minds together to finally name the town. One chimed in, “We don’t want to attract any riff raff.” Another said, “Think of a place that would keep people away.”
And that’s when someone said, “I know! How about Berlin?”
At 9:35 p.m., Sam charges into his sister’s room, “Why’d you tell them I lit that church on fire? You know I didn’t.”
“I know,” Lydia says, trying to find her copy of The Outsiders on a bookshelf her mother had just rearranged according to the Russian alphabet. After finding it, she sits on her bed and opens it. Without looking up she says, “But there was a certain frog in my bed the other night. And I do wonder how it got there.”
At 10:00 p.m., Mr. and Mrs. McNeil are getting ready for bed. In rolled curlers Mrs. McNeil asks, “What are we going to do about Sam?”
“Maybe he’s upset about moving,” Mr. McNeil says. “We did uproot him from the only home he has ever known.”
“He was trouble there, too. Remember what he did in second grade?”
At 10:02, Mr. McNeil says, “Oh, yeah…”
In Berlin, meat can be raffled, eggs can be pickled, and Jell-O is a salad. There’s Walleye, and fish fries, and bingo night at The American Legion, where bands play concertinas and sing in fake southern accents.
At Bip’s Diner, the elderly statesmen convene over coffee and cream, bacon and eggs, sausage and apple pie. Mrs. Gunderson and Mrs. Durndle, look out the Diner’s window, keeping a watchful eye of the town while dishing the dirt of Berlin.
There’s one parade during the Fourth of July where the sky lights up red, white, and blue. Children walk barefoot on hot pavement, cheeks painted with American flags. Chief Aldon Warren leads the parade, like his father and his father before him.
There’s Sal’s Bar located across from St. Agnes Immaculate Conception Catholic Church of Berlin, filled with the men of the town who only drink beer made by real Americans like: Lagunitas and Widmer Hefeweizen.
There’s Joe’s Barber Shop, one gas station, and one tackle shop. And a cemetery, which holds the remains of the former townsfolk of Berlin. It sits in the middle of the town, each headstone keeping an eye on their kin.
And every summer, St. Agnes Immaculate Conception Catholic Church of Berlin holds a church bazaar where elderly ladies in sun visors elbow each other at the cake walk for the chance to win brownies and Bundt cake.
Everything is here. The only time one ventures outside of Berlin is to get something exotic for a new recipe, like fresh oranges, for example.
At 8:30 am, Sam rides his Schwinn past the cornfields of Berlin, pedaling towards the Berlin Public School that serves grades K-12. He thinks about last night as he passes wooden signs that are painted with verses from the Hail Mary Prayer.
Hail Mary, Full of Grace.
I didn’t do anything!
The Lord is with thee.
Everyone here is a bozo.
Blessed art thou among women…
Why’d we have to move to this stupid town?
… And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
When the McNeil’s first pulled into Berlin in their Aerostar, Sam let out a deep sigh. With his red curls reflected in the window, he looked out as they drove down Main Street. As they passed Joe’s Barber Shop, Joe followed the van with his eyes, causing him to nick the ear of Mr. Larson. As they passed Bip’s Diner, the patrons inside left their meals and pressed their faces against the glass. Mrs. Gunderson, holding a plate of half eaten key-lime pie, studied this new family with the red-headed boy and a girl whose nose was in a book and said, “Would you look at that?”
As they drove down Hollow Avenue, the new street which held their new home, Sam watched as neighbors peeked out of closed blinds. As they passed Mr. Hoover, he began to water his plastic lawn flamingo, leaving his Begonias thirsty from inattentiveness.
“I hate it here,” Sam said.
When they pulled into the driveway of their new home Mr. McNeil said, “It’ll be fun guys. Just think of it as an adventure.”
And so, the McNeil’s began to unload their old lives into this new house, dragging boxes from their van to-and-fro. Mrs. McNeil promptly took to labeling their mailbox with laminated letters: MCNEIL.
Just ten minutes into their new adventure, Police Chief Aldon Warren pulled into the crunchy gravel driveway. Seeing the sheriff’s car Mrs. McNeil shouts, “Sam, for Pete sake, we just got here!”
Mr. McNeil shook the hand of Chief Warren and introduced his children, Sam and Lydia. Chief Warren, in his dark aviators, turned to Lydia and nodded, “Sam.” He then turned to Sam and nods, “Lydia.”
Mrs. McNeil saw her son’s face begin to contort with amusement, which she promptly swatted away.
Chief Warren told the McNeil’s, “I don’t think we ever had any new folk move into our town.”
“We’re originally from St. Paul,” Mr. McNeil said.
“The big city!” Chief Warren exclaimed. He then narrowed his eyes and asked, “What would city folk like you want to do in a town like Berlin?”
“I got a job at the high school teaching social studies,” Mr. McNeil said.
“Hmm,” Chief Warren chewed his lips, “What’s social studies?”
At 9:00 a.m., Sam wades through the sea of brown and blonde heads in the gymnasium of the Berlin Public School. He finds an open spot in the bleachers next to Nathanial Clemens. Nathanial, who knew how to drive a tractor at the age of six, leans away from Sam. The small gymnasium is buzzing with the sixty high school students of the Berlin Public School.
The office secretary of the Berlin High School and the parish secretary at St. Agnes Immaculate Conception Catholic Church of Berlin, Mrs. Durndle, approaches a podium that’s been placed on the gym floor. Mrs. Durndle is an ancient Galapagos Tortoise of a woman; her glasses magnify her eyes and her withered voice floats through the gymnasium. “A great injustice has been perpetrated on our town,” she says, her large pearl necklace clanging against the podium. “Who could do such a thing? Someone so heinous? Someone so wicked? Someone so,” she pauses, “Someone so un-American,” she says looking directly at Sam.
Sam grins, turning to Nathanial he asks, “Do you have any matches?”
Back when Sam was entering second grade, he knew his times tables and his target vocabulary words. However, during spelling tests he’d arrange the words into crude sentences like: my TEACHER is an ENORMOUS MAMMAL.
If anything happened, there was Sam. Classroom snake on the loose? Sam. Flooded bathrooms? Sam. During parent teacher conferences his teacher, Mrs. Lemon, with her pursed lips labeled Sam as TROUBLE, this label has followed him since.
On the first day Sam arrived at the Berlin Public School, he sat down in his algebra class next to a new classmate. This new classmate, Ashley, looked at Sam with wide eyes and said, “I’ve never seen red hair before. I thought only mermaids had red hair.”
He turned to her and said, “It’s a genetic mutation. I was born near Chernobyl.”
And she asked, “What’s a chair-noble?”
At 11:00 am Mr. Larson bursts into Chief Warren’s office. Chief Warren quickly hides the salad he is eating under his desk. “You can’t just run in here like that!”
“Listen, my truck was stolen last night.”
“Are you aware of what else happened last night, Mr. Larson?”
Mr. Larson, with his arms crossed, is aware of what happened last night but he just doesn’t give a hoot, “Some snot-nosed kid in my truck. Taking her for a joy ride. Not caring if they burn her brakes.”
“I’ll look into it,” Chief Warren says.
Mr. Larson looks directly at Chief Warren and says, “I love her, sir.”
At 11:02 Chief Warren says, “…Mhm…”
At 11:15 am there is a knock on the door of the McNeil house. Mrs. McNeil answers the door to find Mrs. Gunderson holding a wrapped meat and cheese tray.
“Hello,” Mrs. McNeil says.
“Hi neighbor,” Mrs. Gunderson says with a grin. “I’d thought I’d give you a meat and cheese tray during this troubled time.”
“What troubled time?”
Mrs. McNeil stares at Mrs. Gunderson with her arms crossed.
At 3:30 p.m., Sam walks into the kitchen to find his parents sitting at the table. The blinds are closed, just the overhead light casts a yellow glow through the room. There is one plate with one chocolate-chip cookie and one glass of white milk in the empty spot.
“Sit down, son,” Mr. McNeil gestures to the empty seat.
Sam sits down and begins dunking the cookie in the glass of milk. He maintains eye contact with his parents, he asks with a mouth full of cookie, “What?”
“We’ve been meaning to ask you,” Mrs. McNeil fiddles with her apron strings. “We’ve been meaning to ask you if,”
“Did you set the church on fire?” Mr. McNeil asks.
“Now why would I do that?” Sam says.
“You do a lot of things,” Mrs. McNeil says.
“Yeah, I do. But what else am I supposed to do? I have no friends. There’s nothing to do here. It’s mind numbing!”
“But don’t you want to go to college?” Mr. McNeil asks. “The path you’re on won’t take you there.”
“What if I don’t want to go to college. What if I don’t want to get a job, slaving away, making some bozo richer?”
“Now, you take that language back, mister,” Mrs. McNeil says. “Do you want to be stuck here for the rest of your life? If you don’t behave, you will be.”
Mr. McNeil whispers to his wife, “Honey, the people here are a little simple, but it’s not that bad.”
She replies, “At least you have something to do! I’m stuck here all day. Even if I wanted a job, what would I do? Butcher a cow? Grow some corn? Knit?”
At 4:20 p.m., Chief Aldon Warren looks upon Kevin and Ashley while swinging his police baton. The Berlin Interrogation room had sat unused for decades until tonight. Chief Warren asks, “You two were out last night. Last night was when the fire occurred. What do you have to say about that?”
“It wasn’t me!” Kevin blurts.
Chief Warren snaps his head to Ashley, his aviators making it impossible to see in the dark room. “Then where were you last night?”
“Making out with Ash in the parking lot of Hardy Hardware.”
“Kevin!” Ashley shouts.
“Kevin?” Chief Warren chews the name on his lips. “Kevin, Kevin, Kevin. You play football?”
“Hmm,” Chief Warren chews his lips once more before saying, “You’re free to go.”
Kevin gets up from his seat, his cleats clomping down the hallway.
“Ashley,” Chief Warren says. “Did you see anyone else last night, despite your, uh, position?”
At 5:00 p.m. Mrs. McNeil tells Lydia to put her book down and eat her supper. The McNeil family eat their goulash in silence. The only sound is the smacking of lips, which is interrupted by a ringing doorbell. Mrs. McNeil excuses herself from the dinner table and answers the door. She finds Chief Warren, taking up the entire frame.
“Sam needs to come with me,” he says.
“But, you don’t understand,” Mrs. McNeil says to Chief Warren. “We’re good people. We cut up our plastic soda rings.”
“It’s fine, Mom,” Sam says while slinging his backpack over his shoulder. Sam pauses at the door. He looks back at his parents then back at Chief Warren, then he crunches down the gravel driveway and into the squad car. And he doesn’t look back.
A piece of goulash falls from Mr. McNeil’s open mouth at 5:05.
At 5:06 p.m., Sam rides in the back of Chief Warren’s squad car, he looks out the window and watches as they drive past Bip’s diner and Joe’s Barber shop. And as they pass St. Agnes Immaculate Conception Catholic Church of Berlin, which has been charred to ashes, Sam thinks, I can’t wait to get out of here.
At 5:20 p.m., Barret, Bryce, and Sam sit in the Berlin Police Department Interrogation Room. Chief Warren smacks his police baton on the palm of his hand while the metal crunch of cuffs and army boots echoes through the room.
“So,” he says, smacking his baton on his palm, “I have a burned church.”
“I have you three who were seen near the scene of the crime.”
“One of you…”
“… is going to pay.”
Chief Warren points his baton at Barret and Bryce who are shaking with fear, “Where were you two nimrods last night?”
Barret and Bryce snap their heads towards Sam. Sam gives them a big old grin. “He,” Bryce says, his voice cracking. “He sold us,” his voice lowers to a whisper, “Weed.”
Sam takes out a small Ziploc bag from his pocket and puts in on the table.
Chief Warren goes to inspect it, but jerks his hand away as if the bag might scald his skin.
At 5:30 p.m., Sam busts out laughing. A roaring laugh that bounces around the room and in the faces of Chief Warren and Barret and Bryce.
“Now what’s so funny, mister?” Chief Warren asks. “You’re on a bad path, son.”
But this makes Sam laugh harder.
“Is he high?” Barret whispers to Bryce.
Sam brings his laugh down to an amused chuckle. He unzips his backpack and takes out his mother’s missing bottle of oregano.
“You lied!” Barret and Bryce yell in unison.
At 6:00 p.m., Sam walks into his family home. His parents rush towards him. “What happened?” Mrs. McNeil asks.
Sam, while walking up the stairs, and without making eye contact says, “They got me for murder.”
“Sam!” Mrs. McNeil gasps. At 6:01, Mrs. McNeil says, “Oh.”
At 6:30 p.m., a fireman bursts into Chief Warren’s office. Chief Warren shoves the banana he is eating in his desk drawer. “For Pete’s sake, people need to stop rushing in here like that!”
“Sorry sir, but we found the cause of the fire,” the fireman says.
“It was the new electric organ. It had faulty wiring.”
“That’s good news, I guess.”
Mr. Larson then runs into Chief Warren’s office, “What about my truck, Chief!”
Chief Aldon Warren looks at the fireman then at Mr. Larson. He then begins to sob, “I’ve always wanted to arrest somebody.”
At 6:33 the fireman says, “…Mhm…”
“Don’t talk to that McNeil boy, he’s trouble,” parents told their children after the St. Agnes Immaculate Conception Catholic Church of Berlin burned down.
Before the fire, the town folk of Berlin saw the same people with the same thoughts day after day, week after week, year after year. The only change being the corn that grew and leaves that changed and died with winter.
After the fire, the town folk of Berlin continued their daily lives scarred by the feeling of change. Nothing would be the same, they thought.
But it was.
The corn still grew. Leaves still fell down in spirals which were raked into giant piles that the townsfolk lit on fire. The only change remained unseen. Now, when the townsfolk of Berlin passed by their neighbors, they looked at each other’s backside with squinting eyes.
Sam was the one who received the most looks. He was now surrounded by football games, tailgates, prom dates, and chocolate shakes. However, Sam did what Sam does. He sat on the opponent’s side during football games, and changed the prom music to death metal.
When graduation day came, he sat in a sweaty gymnasium with his sixty classmates. “Those around you are the ones who’ve shaped you,” the Principal said. “The future of Berlin is in your hands.” His classmates cried. Sam did not. After throwing his pointy hat in the air he went home, packed his bags.
At 10:45 a.m., a Mitsubishi is causing the patrons of Bip’s Diner to press their faces against the glass. “That car is different,” Mrs. Gunderson says, holding a slice of blueberry cobbler. The car rolls past Joe’s Barber Shop and the bait and tackle shop. It rolls past the cemetery which has grown with more headstones. The car passes Mr. Larson washing his red Ford pick-up in the parking lot of Hardy Hardware. Chief Aldon Warren, standing outside the Berlin Police Station, follows the car as it passes and yells, “Lydia!”
“Really?” Sam says as he rolls down Main Street in his Mitsubishi. Sam passes the welcome sign which still reads, population 304. He drives past St. Agnes Immaculate Conception Catholic Church of Berlin the 2nd, past the endless cornfields, past the makeshift Hail Mary Prayer signs, and up to the Berlin Public School.
Walking through the hallway, he straightens out a tie he swore he’d never wear. His newly polished shoes echo through the empty halls. What am I doing here? he thinks. He enters the principal’s office and sees Mrs. Durndle who is still the secretary at 101 years old, typing slowly with her ancient fingers. She looks at Sam and says he can go in. As he passes her, she narrows her eyes.
Sam enters the empty principal’s office. There’s a fake potted fern and a stack of yearbooks sitting on a shelf. Sam uses his finger to find the year he graduated. Opening it, he finds the class superlatives. He studies the black and white faces staring back at him. Kevin was
voted most likely to be in the NFL, and Ashley an NFL cheerleader. But they married right after high school. Kevin is now a gym teacher, and Ashley a housewife to their four children. Barret and Bryce were voted the most adventurous. Now, they work at a dairy farm. He looks at the students that were voted as world travelers, musicians, and actors. They’re all still here in Berlin. They’ve never left. His eyes snap to who was voted most likely to go to prison. It was Sam.
He puts the yearbook away. The only sound in the room is a ticking clock. The silence is interrupted when the Principal walks into the room. The Principal introduces Sam to the Superintendent, “This is our new junior high school social studies teacher, Mr. McNeil,” he says at 11:15 a.m.
St. Cloud State University
Hailey Thielen graduated from St. Cloud State University in December 2021 with a B.S. in Mass Communications and a minor in creative writing. Her work has been published in her university’s literary journal, Upper Mississippi Harvest. Much of her writing draws influence from her midwestern upbringing and her ability to find humor in the strangest of places.