THE GOLDEN RULE • by Cezarija Abartis

In school, Natalie studied Macbeth, and she had read Crime and Punishment during summer vacation. She had always been imaginative and enclosed. She talked to the voices inside her head: Be smarter. “I’m trying.” Get organized. “I’ll clean my room.” Work hard. “Must try harder.”

Natalie loved her dog, Harriet. Their neighbor beat his dog. The dog’s name was Whiner, and Natalie brought him dog treats when Mr. Rose went to his job at Miller’s Pharmacy. His wife had died a year ago, and Natalie felt sorry for him then.

Natalie knocked on the neighbor’s door. She pulled the coat collar up around her neck because of the cold. “Mr. Rose, do you know the Golden Rule? I’m sure a man with your education knows you should treat people and creatures as you expect to be treated yourself. This is a rule in all religions through all the world. And yet you keep Whiner chained up in freezing weather.” But she had not really spoken this except to the clanging voice inside her head. She looked at the snow piles on the boulevard. The meteorologist reported a blizzard was coming. The air was wet and beginning to fill with swirling flakes. She stooped down in front of Whiner and hefted his cold chain as he watched her. Whiner was a large golden-brown cocker spaniel, and one of his eyes was swollen shut, from when Mr. Rose beat him. Natalie squeezed her eyes shut and rubbed the tears away. She climbed the porch stairs of her own house.

She told a friend, Connor, a tall eighth-grader, about Mr. Rose’s wrong behavior. Connor was two years older because he had been kept back a grade, and Natalie had skipped a grade. Connor’s eyes got big and he bit his lower lip. He said she should tell her parents. She told her parents, but they shrugged sympathetically. “What can we do?”

This was like the time Mrs. Keith accused her of cheating on the social studies test and made her take another test. Natalie scored a perfect hundred on that one too. Or like the time Mr. Sikkink kept her after school and ordered her to write an essay starting with “I will be on time.” She sat there for an hour thinking about what should follow that opening until finally he yelled at her to leave. Or like the time that the older girl tried to bully Natalie into giving her lunch money, and Natalie punched her in the mouth.

Yesterday, Natalie heard Mr. Rose shout at Whiner, “You’re like my wife.” Whiner whimpered as he stumbled over his chain, the snow falling around him and on his golden coat. “I’ll kill you if you don’t stop barking.”

The judge inside her head decreed Mr. Rose guilty. Her dog Harriet demanded that she carry out the sentence. “What is the sentence?” she asked the judge. You’ll find out soon.

In her class on social studies, she did a report on Dian Fossey. After class, Connor told her that he agreed with the voices in her head and that he would help her. They talked about fairness and justice. He loved his dog, Danny.

They climbed over the snowbanks and through a cellar window into Mr. Rose’s house. They crept up the stairs and through the house, invisible as mice. They found him in the bright kitchen stirring a dish of dog food. The voice told her to hit him with a skillet. He looked surprised as he turned, his little eyes like pebbles. She lifted the skillet and smashed him in the shoulder once and then into his head. Thwack thwack. He slipped to the floor. They tied him to a chair. She took a spoonful of the dog food he had been stirring and forced it into his mouth. His pebble eyes opened and he swallowed. She put another spoonful of dog food into his loose mouth. Connor pinched his nose while she spooned more dog food into his gaping mouth.

“We’re kinder to you than you are to Whiner,” she said. “We don’t tie you up outside. We give you dog food to eat. Don’t beat Whiner.”

“No,” he shouted. “No.” He shook his head back and forth. She forced another spoon of the dog food between his teeth. He spat it out. “I put strychnine in it.” His face twitched and his body spasmed. Flecks of spittle and mucus appeared on his lips. He vomited. Natalie and Connor stared at the pink and beige dog food in the white bowl. The voice told them to leave and unchain Whiner. The snow swirled around them — fat, plump flakes, filling up all the spaces, shadowing all of them white.

Cezarija AbartisNice Girls and Other Stories was published by New Rivers Press. Her stories have appeared in Grey Sparrow Review, Ghoti, Everyday Genius, Slushpile Magazine, Word Riot, Twilight Zone Magazine, Manoa, Story Quarterly, and New York Tyrant (which also gave her story The Lidano Fiction Award). Recently she completed a novel, a thriller. She teaches at St. Cloud State University.

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