The Secret Keeper – Pauline Yates

The Secret Keeper – Pauline Yates

June 2021

Keeping a secret is dangerous. Secrets mess with emotions and can cause illness from depression, anxiety, and stress. The darker the secret, the heavier the burden; it can shorten your life by years. Even Demigods, like Mother and me, need to be cautious when keeping a secret. We’re gifted with powers to balance emotions, but if we reveal a secret, we’ll suffer its burden. It’s crucial we stay strong, because we help battle the gods who draw their power from misery and suffering.

Like Hades. He doesn’t mind if a person troubled by a secret dies young. He draws his power from the souls of the dead. And in his realm, the bearer suffers their burden three times worse. But we have Harpocrates, the god of silence, on our side. He uses hope to encourage a bearer to reveal their secret and clear their conscience. To deliver hope, he needs a Secret Keeper, and now I’m sixteen, that’s what I’m about to become.

“Repeat after me,” Mother says. “Listen without—”

“—judgment and heal the harm,” I say, not needing her help. I’ve committed these vows to heart. “Bind the secret with a Keeper’s charm. If by fault I break the faith, suffer the burden the thorns keep safe.”

Mother slips a charming binding ring onto my finger. The gold band, engraved with a pattern of linked roses, is the token of a Secret Keeper.

“How much hope do you give?” she asks.

“Only enough to ease their pain; too much hope is a secret’s gain.” Giving too much hope can make the bearer believe that keeping their secret won’t cause them harm.

“And how much burden do you take?” Mother says, her voice low like a brewing storm.

I sigh, wishing Mother weren’t so melodramatic. I know what to do. But she expects an answer. “Only enough that hope shines through. Though it harms, they need the burden, too.” Removing all the burden takes away the incentive to reveal the secret. That defeats our purpose.

Mother smiles. “Balancing emotions is tricky, but your charm will help.”

I raise my hand to the rising sun and admire the ring. The charm curls from the band and weaves around my fingers like a glittering ribbon of light. Feeling its power makes me giddy with excitement.

Now I can heal using a true god’s power. Until now, I’ve only ever had demigod powers to work with. That power allows me to grow herbs from nothing to make the remedies we sell to the local townsfolk. We’re the talk around town because of their potency, but we hide our true identity. Mother ‘has a green thumb’. I’m ‘the homeschooled girl’. Receiving the charm makes me feel like I’ve graduated.

Lowering my hand, I touch the charm with my finger. It shapes into a glittering rose, Harpocrates’ symbol. He created the charm, but I fuel its strength by imagining where I find hope. All Secret Keepers have their preference. For me, hope is in a sunrise, in a rainbow, in seedlings bursting through the soil. Hope is also in my desire to be the best Keeper Harpocrates has ever had.

“The ability to heal the harm caused by a secret is a rare and wondrous gift,” Mother says. “However, Harpocrates does not give this charm freely. You are now his servant, as I am, and my mother before me. Harpocrates uses his power to keep hope alive in the world and expects you to do the same. Without hope, the world would fall under the influence of those gods who favor darkness and despair.”

She opens her hand, revealing her ring. Years of use make it appear fluid, like a circle of lava. Her charm curls from the band and takes the shape of a burnished gold rose, similar to mine. Mother blows on it. The rose dissolves into a spray of mist that fills the air with a mixture of sweet and pungent perfume.

Turning her hand, the bitter perfume overpowers the sweet. “Polemos draws his power from conflict,” she says. “Oizys, misery. Dolos, pain.” She tilts her hand again and the sweet perfume overpowers the bitter. “Hestia, compassion, Eros, love, and of course, Harpocrates, hope. There cannot be light without dark, but, tipped out of balance, chaos will ensue.” With a flick of her hand, the scents collide. They splatter on the ground like splashes of water.

“Do you think we make a difference?” I ask, tilting my hand so my charm dances on my finger. “We’re only demigods. What good is our strength in a battle for power between the gods?”

“You’re stronger than you think. The strength of all Secret Keepers runs in your blood. Collectively, we are Harpocrates’ most powerful allies. Just be mindful of your vows and replace the burden you remove with hope. You don’t want to leave a person feeling as dark and empty as the day Hades stole Persephone from this world.”

“Does a burdened soul give Hades extra power?”

“No, but he benefits by receiving a soul quicker. A burden left unattended leads to premature death,” Mother says. “Otherwise, he has no interest in warring for power. It’s why he lets Persephone return for half the year. But don’t dismiss him. Now that you channel Harpocrates’ power, Hades will watch to see if you stay true to your vows. He’s never broken an oath, and values the laws of morality over everything.”

It’s a value I share. Secret Keepers heal, they don’t harm. Breaking my vow would also desecrate the moral law of our kind.

I glance across the gardens at the many roses that grow between the herbs. All were grown by Mother to keep the secrets she heard. Each sprouts thorns glistening with the secret’s burden—guilt, sorrow, remorse. In all our history, no Secret Keeper has ever broken her vows. Suffering any of those emotions would be a deserved punishment. Revealing a secret breaks trust. Breaking trust would destroy hope, and we’re tasked with keeping hope alive.

But I needn’t worry. Even without history on my side, I’ll enjoy showing Hades how committed to my vows I can be.

With the commitment ceremony complete, I revert to my daily chores. Weeding the garden. Growing more herbs to replace those we’ve used. We’re out of dried lavender, so I fetch my gardening clippers. As I snip the stems, my charm grows brighter. It draws hope from my thoughts about lavender’s healing qualities.

Customers arrive throughout the day. Some seek a herbal remedy. Others request a pot of living herbs to grow in their gardens. All wander through the gardens while Mother prepares their purchase. All ask the same question on their return.

“Are the roses for sale?”

I’ve lost count of the number of times I say no because of Mother’s fondness for the flowers. I smooth over their disappointment by revealing it’s why I share the flower’s name. I don’t mind the interruptions. Before I became a Secret Keeper, I’d try to guess if a customer had a secret, to no avail. Now that I have Harpocrates’ charm, it changes everything.

“Should we hear all secrets?” I ask, after selling a girl my age a jar of comfrey for her mother’s arthritis. I’m worried I missed the chance to hear my first secret. The charm grew warm in my hand and my mind filled with an image of the girl kissing a boy.

“Only if you want to,” Mother says as she ties a string around the lavender stems to hang them in the kitchen. “Happy secrets can still cause worry, spoiling a surprise, for example. But those secrets get revealed in due course, so we rarely bother. It’s the dark secrets that need our help the most.” She glances out the front door. “Your chance to learn the difference has arrived.”

A woman in her early twenties approaches the house. Her face is pale and the dark circles beneath her eyes suggest something is amiss. My charm curls into my hand, but no images suggesting a secret fill my mind.

“How do you know she has a dark secret?” I ask, wondering how Mother can detect what I can’t.

“A lifetime of practice,” she says. “Now, always try to coax out their secret first. Offering them someone to confide in works as well as the charm.”

“Yes, Mother.”

“If they won’t tell, which many don’t, use the charm. But remember, dark secrets are not pleasant.”

“Yes, Mother.”

I hurry from the house. Her warning fills my stomach with fluttering butterflies. Mustering my bravest smile, I approach the woman. “Hello. I’m Rose. Can I help you?”

“Hi. I’m Miranda. But everyone calls me Mim.” She fidgets with the cuff of her sleeve and looks toward the gardens. “Your roses are beautiful. I admired them from the road.” She hesitates, then turns her attention to the herbs. “Would you have a herbal remedy to help with forgetfulness? It’s for my mother,” she adds. “She has Alzheimer’s.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. How bad is she?”

Mim sighs. “Stage seven. She’s in a nursing home and not expected to live much longer. We’re trying to keep her comfortable.”

“That must be difficult.” I motion her to a table and chairs set up on the porch.

“I have to remind my mother who I am every day,” Mim admits, walking with me to the porch. “It’s hard.”

The butterflies in my stomach close their wings and settle. It appears Mim is just exhausted from caring for a dying parent.

“Gingko will help your mother,” I say, pulling out a chair and encouraging Mim to sit. “It’s wonderful for helping with memory problems. And chamomile for you, to help you cope. Would you like to try some chamomile tea while I prepare a remedy for your mother?”

“That would be lovely,” Mim says, sinking into the chair.

I hurry inside to boil the kettle, but Mother stands with a steaming pot of tea, already made.

“An infusion of chamomile,” she whispers, handing me the pot. “I couldn’t help overhearing. I’ll prepare the gingko. You heal Mim.”

“She doesn’t have a secret,” I whisper. “She’s exhausted from caring for her mother.”

Mother raises an eyebrow. “Are you sure? What does your charm tell you?”

I glance at my ring. The charm dances along the band, making the ring glow like fire. Frowning at my ineptitude, I grab a cup from the kitchen bench and return to Mim.

“Mother will prepare the gingko, but what about you?” I ask, pouring the tea and sitting in the chair opposite her. “You said ‘we’, before. Do you have other family members that can help?”

“Only my brother,” Mim says, taking the cup of chamomile. “He’s not around at the moment. He works away.” She gulps her tea, her face turning bright red.

I don’t need the charm to know she is lying. I wonder if Mim’s secret involves her brother. Though itching to use my charm, I follow Mother’s advice and offer Mim someone she can confide in.

Looking toward the roses, I sigh. “I love our roses, too. Do you know the story about Aphrodite’s son? He gave Harpocrates a rose in return for keeping his mother’s indiscretions secret.” I pause. “I learned that in my Greek Mythology lessons.”

“I didn’t know that,” Mim says, lowering her cup.

“It’s only a myth, of course. But Aphrodite’s son was lucky he found a confidant in Harpocrates. Imagine going through life having to keep something to yourself. It would place so much burden on your conscience.”

Mim’s cheeks flush redder. “It would be horrible, I suppose.”

“Worse than horrible. If you don’t clear your conscience in life, you’ll suffer the burden three times worse in death.”

“You do?” Mim asks, shifting uncomfortably.

“Yes.” I sigh again, then clasp my hands and rest them on the table. “But a conscience is easy to clear. Confiding in another person will lift the burden.” I pause because Mim looks mortified. “I suppose revealing a secret can be difficult.”

“Impossibly difficult,” Mim mutters, clenching her hands around her cup.

I reach across the table and place my hand over hers. “If you need to, you can confide in me. I’m a healer, which is the same as a doctor, so anything you say is confidential.”

Mim’s mouth parts as though she’s about to accept my offer and spill her secret. But then she shakes her head. “Nothing’s wrong,” she says. “I appreciate the help, but I’m just worried about my mother.”

“Of course you are,” I say. “Keep in mind what I said, though. There’s more truth in myth than we realize.”

I’m not disappointed I couldn’t coax out her secret. That’s why Harpocrates gave us the charm. Mim keeps her secret buried for a reason. But she’s so overwhelmed by dark emotions, she can’t see the damage keeping a secret does to her. What she needs now is hope, to help her see that she doesn’t have to suffer alone and in silence.

“It must be difficult caring for your mother on your own,” I say, squeezing her hand. As though sensing it’s time to go to work, the charm jumps from the ring. It shapes into a ribbon of light and winds around our hands, binding us together as one. Mim can’t see the charm; it’s invisible to her. But it exudes hope’s calm confidence, and the subtle effect helps Mim relax.

“It’s hard,” Mim says, squeezing my hand in return. “I show her photos to help jog her memory. Sometimes they work. I also play her favorite music…”

While Mim talks about her mother, the charm fades through her skin to go in search of her secret. In what feels like an eyeblink, an image filters into my mind; Mim and a man who could be her twin. The charm has found the secret, but as Mother warned, it’s not pleasant—

Mim’s brother died two weeks ago, but Mim keeps his death secret. Her mother asks about him every day, and every day Mim says he’ll see her tomorrow. Mim thinks it would be better if her mother died hoping to see her son than grieving his death. She hasn’t even told the nursing home staff. She doesn’t want anyone telling her mother the truth. But pretending her brother is still alive prevents her from mourning. And guilt about the lie to her mother tears her apart.

It takes all my strength not to react to the secret and keep listening to Mim talk about her mother. I wasn’t prepared to hear a secret so sad. Squeezing back tears, I trust the charm to know how much burden to remove and how much hope to give. In my distressed state, I’d mess it up.

The charm skims across Mim’s conscience. It removes a layer of grief and guilt then replaces them with the hope I conjured when picking the lavender. It gives just enough hope to balance Mim’s emotions, and already Mim’s tense grip on my hand relaxes. Then the charm carries the burden it removed to me, and curls back into the ring.

It didn’t look like a lot, but the grief and guilt hit my heart with a heavy thud. Easing my hand from Mim’s, I clasp my hands, drawing comfort from the warmth in the ring. Mim stops talking and heaves a sigh. Then she picks up her cup and finishes her tea.

“This is lovely,” she says. “What did you say it was?”

“Chamomile,” I say, forcing a smile.

I’m pleased with her lightened mood. Hope shines in her eyes and her troubled expression fades. She doesn’t know that I heard her secret, or that the charm removed some of her burdens. But the hope she received should help her consider whether it’s worth keeping her secret. What she decides to do is up to her, but at least now she’s not blind to her choices.

The layer of dark emotions throbs through my veins. Needing to trap it in thorns, I stand to fetch the gingko so I can send Mim on her way. Mother steps onto the porch holding two paper packets.

“Chamomile tea for you, and gingko for your mother,” she says, handing Mim the packets. “The instructions are in the bags. I’m sorry to hear about your mother. The gingko will help make her last days more pleasurable. Be sure to look after yourself, too.”

“I will,” Mim says, standing and taking the packets. “Thank you, Rose. The tea has made me feel better already.” She hesitates. “I liked your story about the roses. It’s given me a lot to think about.” Then she hurries from the porch, clutching the packets to her chest.

I’m relieved the hope is working, but I’m more grateful for her swift departure. Clutching at the ache in my heart, I hurry to the garden.

Finding space in a garden where none of Mother’s roses grow, I crouch and sow Mim’s secret into the soil. The ground around my fingers glows the same golden color as the charm. The emotions I took from Mim leach out, leaving me dizzy with relief. Pulling my hands from the soil, I roll back onto my heels and watch the secret grow.

A stem pushes through the soil. Tall and slender, it sprouts long thorns, green with guilt. Grief glistens like dewdrops on the tips. Standing, I cup my hands around the rose that blooms at the top. Red petals release a heavy scent that makes me think of funerals and death.

Stepping back, I study the rose. I’m elated that my first time hearing a secret proceeded exactly as expected, but I’m also uneasy.

Mim’s secret was not pleasant, and I may hear darker secrets than hers. Though I trapped Mim’s emotions in thorns, I underestimated the impact those emotions had on me. I hope I haven’t also underestimated the strength needed to stay true to my vows.

Later in the day, I kneel beside Mother and help harvest evening primrose before the light fades. I drop more seed pods than I collect because I’m distracted by an image of Hades laughing at me for thinking it’s easy to keep a secret.

“Mother? Have you ever heard a secret that is so bad, you don’t have the strength to keep it?”

“Find the strength,” Mother says. “Otherwise you’ll destroy the hope you gave and suffer the secret’s burden.”

I glance around the garden. In the dying light, the thorns on Mim’s rose appear to weep. But a rose growing behind hers draws my attention. It’s grown in that spot longer than I’ve been alive. The red petals reek with an intoxicating perfume. The stem is thick and covered in large mottled-red thorns that speak of something nasty. I shudder to think what burden they trap and wonder where Mother finds the strength to keep the secret.

I’m about to ask when the rose wilts and the petals turn gray.

“Mother,” I gasp, my heart leaping into my throat. “That rose died.”

Mother stands and walks over to the rose. “Hope shines a light on choice, but sometimes that’s still not enough to stop a secret going to the grave.”

Scrambling to my feet, I follow. I’ve seen roses die before, but it hits harder now that I’m a Secret Keeper. Death doesn’t release us from our vows. We’re still bound to keep the secret. And we can still suffer the burden.

A milky-white mist rises from the ground in front of me. Mother grabs my arm and pulls me away. The mist takes the shape of a translucent figure; the ghost of an old man. My charm must enhance my sight. I’ve seen ghosts before, too, but never with such clarity. I didn’t realize the depth of three-fold suffering.

The man’s eyes sink into his skull and his mouth hangs open as though dragged down by weights. He reaches for the rose, but the thorns stab holes in his fingers. His face contorts as though feeling actual pain. Turning to Mother, he stretches his arms toward her.

“I’ve heard your secret,” Mother says. “Hope showed you choices and you made yours. Accept your fate and go. I will not help you in death.” She waves the ghost away. The mist disperses, but leaves a chill in the air.

“They’re drawn here by the scent of their rose,” Mother says. Pulling out the entire rose plant, she tosses it onto the mulch pile. “They forget that the cause of their misery in death is that they didn’t clear their conscience in life. But don’t let a ghost’s suffering tempt you to hear their secret again. Emotions in a soul can’t be balanced like in a conscience. If you try to remove some burden, you’ll end up taking the lot and have to fill the soul with hope. That would allow the soul to be reborn, and Hades would lose his servant. He would demand the Keeper’s soul to compensate, and Harpocrates would oblige. He values our servitude, but would strip your power to conjure hope to avoid a war with Hades.

Mother’s words are as chilling as the cold left by the ghost. I thought Harpocrates would protect his servants, since we pledged our loyalty to him. To learn he’d strip my powers in favor of keeping good relations with Hades leaves a sour taste in my mouth. I wonder if we’re nothing more than pawns in a power game between the gods.

I fall asleep resenting my commitment to a god who will not protect my allegiance and wake to pouring rain. My resentful thoughts must anger Harpocrates; the rain doesn’t ease for three days. If he is showing me what a world without hope looks like, he paints the picture well. I stare in dismay at our wrecked gardens. Then I see the woman.

Fighting the wind to hold an umbrella over her head, she sloshes through the puddles at our front gate. Hurrying outside, I welcome her onto the porch. It’s Mrs. Peterson, the elegant yet tight-lipped town mayor’s wife. When she steps onto the porch, she sniffs back a sneeze.

Mother appears in the doorway behind me. “Good gracious,” she says, taking the umbrella from Mrs. Peterson and shaking it dry. “It’s no time to be out in this weather, Mrs. Peterson. Rose, boil the kettle. A pot of tea is in order.”

Hurrying inside, I light the burner and set the kettle to boil. Mother and Mrs. Peterson sit at the kitchen table.

“My daughter, Rose,” Mother says, introducing me.

“Rose, like the flowers,” Mrs. Peterson says, placing her purse on the table and extending her hand. “And just as beautiful.”

Blushing at the compliment, I shake her hand. My charm dances around my fingers, alerting me to what I should have guessed from her sniffles. Mrs. Peterson has a secret.

“How is your husband?” Mother asks. “Worn out from running the town, I imagine?”

“His work is his life, and he’ll not hear otherwise,” Mrs. Peterson says. “But the reason for my intrusion…” Her nose wrinkles, then she sneezes into her hands.

I fetch a box of tissues from the cupboard and slide it across the table. Mrs. Peterson plucks out a tissue and blows her nose. “Thank you, dear,” she says. “Such dismal weather. As I was saying, my intrusion—”

“It’s no intrusion,” Mother says. “Rose? The tea?”

I fetch the kettle and make a pot of herbal tea. When I return to the table, my charm jumps into my hand. It weaves around my fingers as though trying to get my attention. Mrs. Peterson’s secret must be bad for my charm to react with such intensity.

“I was driving past and saw your roses,” Mrs. Peterson says. “I’d like to buy a bunch. My husband likes a well-presented office. Our usual supplier’s flowers are lackluster by comparison.”

“The roses aren’t for sale,” I say, giving my usual response.

Mrs. Peterson purses her lips. “If it’s a question of money, my husband will pay well.”

I glance at Mother, wondering if she detects the tinge of desperation in Mrs. Peterson’s tone like I do. Mother keeps her eyes on Mrs. Peterson, but deep grooves form on her brow.

“I can spare a bunch,” Mother says. “But I’ll accept no payment. There’s as much grace in giving as there is in receiving. Rose, would you go to the garden, please? There’s a rosebush among the chamomile that could do with a prune.”

Frowning, I glance out the kitchen window. There aren’t any rosebushes among the chamomile. Maybe Mother wants me to use my demigod power to grow a bunch of roses. I never have, but it would be the same as growing herbs. I leave the kitchen, but stop at the front door, realizing why Mother asks me to go outside.

She’s going to hear Mrs. Peterson’s secret. If I’ve angered Harpocrates, I should hear the secret and prove I’m committed to his cause. I don’t want to live in a world without hope. I was angry earlier because I don’t want to be disposable.

“Mother,” I say, turning around. “Could you point out the rosebush? I’m not sure which one you mean.”

When Mother joins me in the doorway, I lower my voice to a whisper. “Let me hear her secret.”

Mother frowns. “I’d rather you didn’t. I don’t like the feeling I get from Mrs. Peterson.”

“Please, Mother. I know she might have a terrible secret, but I can help her, I know I can.”

Mother sighs. “Very well.” She looks back at Mrs. Peterson. “I’ll return in a moment. Rose will keep you company while you wait.”

When Mother goes outside, I hurry back to the kitchen and sit at the table. Mrs. Peterson smiles with indifference and gazes about our kitchen. I wonder how I’ll engage her in conversation, when it’s clear she has no interest in talking to a teenager.

“I love the color of your dress-suit,” I say. “The blue is the same shade as a periwinkle flower.” I don’t know why I thought of that flower when there are so many others to choose from. The periwinkle is also called the ‘flower of death’. The vines were used in wreaths for dead children.

“It’s my favorite,” Mrs. Peterson says, “but its wool-blend is a poor choice of wardrobe in our current weather.”

The umbrella didn’t stop the rain soaking her clothes. Her dress-suit gives off a damp animal smell. The rain ruined her makeup, too. It’s splotchy in places, especially around her left cheek. Wondering why she applied so much makeup during wet weather, I stand and fetch a towel so she can pat herself dry.

“Appearances must be important to your husband if he sends you out for flowers in dismal weather,” I say, handing her the towel.

Mrs. Peterson flinches. “When you live in the public eye, appearance is a necessity, not a luxury.” She pats her neck dry, then sips her tea. “The tea is delicious. Peppermint?”

“Yes. Infused with ginger. For your sniffles. I’m sorry to sound rude. I sense something troubles you. It helps to talk, did you know?”

She lowers the cup to the table. “You’ll find out, young Rose, that even if you had someone to talk to, some things can’t be helped.”

“I imagine it would be difficult to find someone to trust when you live in the public eye,” I say, sliding into my seat. “But you can talk to me. I can keep a secret.”

“Can you now?” she says. “What on earth makes you think I have a secret?”

“I sense it. I also feel it troubles you.”

She gives me a tired smile. “You’re a strange, sweet child, and I appreciate the sentiment. If you must know, it’s a demanding job meeting my husband’s expectations. I’ll say no more on the matter, but I trust you’ll never repeat this conversation.”

“You can trust me,” I say. “But if you don’t confide in somebody, the burden your secret causes you now will haunt you three times worse in death.”

“There’s more to fear in life than in death, young Rose,” she says, ruefully. “If being haunted is the price I’ll pay for holding my tongue, then so be it.”

She returns to gazing about the kitchen, dismissing me completely. I wonder if I’ve wrecked the opportunity to cast my charm by being too forward. I need to hold her hand, but doubt she’ll welcome the consoling gesture. But her manicured fingernails gives me an idea.

“I’ve never applied nail polish,” I say, “but if I did, what color would you recommend?”

Extending my arm across the table, I offer my hand. Mrs. Peterson looks down her nose at my fingers, but then takes my hand in hers and studies my nails.

“Nothing too bold,” she says, tilting my hand from side to side. “I prefer pale pinks or pearl, or there’s a lovely shade of ivory I’ve used…”

She prattles on about the best color for teenage girls, remarks on my ring, picks at my nails and advises how best to shape them. While she talks, my charm wraps around our hands, binding us as one. Then it goes in search of her secret. It feels like forever, but in less than a second, images fill my mind. The charm has found the secret, but it’s so shocking, I nearly jerk my hand away—

She’s not the happily married wife of the hardworking town mayor. She’s the victim of a cruel and calculating narcissist. Her self-esteem has suffered because of his controlling and abusive behavior, and years of verbal and physical abuse have left her a broken woman. With her sense of self-worth corrupted, she’s lost view of a life away from her husband. She believes that what she endures behind closed doors is her lot in life.

To learn she’s a victim of marital abuse staggers me. It explains the other images that fill my mind. She applies extra makeup to cover a bruise on her cheek. She cowers before her enraged husband because the color of her dress didn’t match his tie. Her desperate need to find roses is born from a need to keep her husband happy; protection against his abuse.

I fuel the charm with hope drawn from an image of a blue sky after a clearing storm. The charm whips around Mrs. Peterson’s conscience. It removes a thick layer of hopelessness and replaces it with hope. Then it carries the hopelessness back to me.

“If you need more advice,” Mrs. Peterson says, releasing my hand, “my nail technician has a shop near to the town hall. Mention that I sent you.” She picks up her cup, pauses, then drinks the rest of her tea. When she lowers her cup, her sniffles have dried and her eyes shine with hope.

“Such an extraordinary taste,” she says, smacking her lips with pleasure. “It’s left me wonderfully clear-headed. I must take some with me.”

“Of course.” Going to the kitchen bench, I fill a paper packet with a mixture of dried ginger and peppermint leaves. Mrs. Peterson’s hopelessness affects my usual care when preparing herbal tea, and I spill leaves on the bench.

Clenching my fingers, I take a deep breath and draw on my charm’s power to help keep my emotions balanced. I don’t know how Mrs. Peterson managed for so long, living without hope. Praying I gave her enough, I fold the packet and return to the table.

Mother arrives, holding a bunch of red and white roses that fill the kitchen with a heavenly scent. Feeling the hopelessness creep over me again, I catch Mother’s eye and signal my desperate need to leave.

“Your roses,” Mother says, her tone clipped.

Mrs. Peterson picks up her purse and stands. “Wonderful. And the tea?”

I hand her the packet. “A gift,” I say when she opens her purse to pay.

Mrs. Peterson closes her purse and takes the packet. She looks me in the eye, as though reminding me never to repeat our conversation, then turns toward the door.

Mother escorts her out. “The rain has eased,” she says, “but mind your speed while driving. The road into town is slippery when wet.”

As soon as Mrs. Peterson leaves, I push past Mother and run to the garden. Dropping to my knees, I sow Mrs. Peterson’s secret into the mud. The flooded soil reflects the charm’s golden glow. When all Mrs. Peterson’s hopelessness has drained out of me, I roll back on my heels and watch the secret grow.

A stem pushes through the ground, tall and thick with long thorns that droop as though they’ve lost the will to live. The rosebud that blooms at the top unfurls blood-red petals, with perfume so heavy it gets caught in my throat.

Standing, I stare at the rose. I’m supposed to listen without judgment, but I can’t ignore what I heard. Mrs. Peterson faces more harm if she doesn’t reveal her secret. The hope helped clear her mind, but will it be enough to encourage her to seek help?

I toss and turn all night, unable to get Mrs. Peterson off my mind. Thinking about her bruised cheek makes me lie awake with worry. Even if I broke my vows and revealed the secret for her, it wouldn’t help. I’d destroy the hope I gave her, and she needs all the hope she can get.

Needing a slap of cold night air to clear my gloomy thoughts, I slip out of bed and go outside. The rain has stopped and the heavy clouds part, letting moonlight stream over the gardens. Taking a deep breath, I search the night shadows for Mrs. Peterson’s rose. It’s bathed a milky-white glow from the moon, but the light shifts as though moved by the wind. Wondering what causes that effect, I walk toward the rose. When I get closer, my heart stops.

It’s not moving moonlight. It’s the ghost of Mrs. Peterson. She hovers next to her wilted rose that’s gray from death. Gone is the elegant woman who sat at our kitchen table. An unnatural force squishes her features, making her look like a lump of melted wax.

I stare at her, frozen in fright. How could I miss the signs that foretold her death? I compared the color of her dress-suit to the ‘flower of death’. Mother warned her about the slippery roads. Did she have a car accident while driving home? Whatever happened, despite the hope I gave her, she didn’t reveal her secret. She can’t have, because she suffers her burden in death.

Three-fold hopelessness pours like black ink from her hollow eye sockets. Her mouth yawns wide, expelling the choking scent of her rose. Nothing I envisioned comes close to what stands before me. But what if I’m to blame? What if, in my haste to cast the charm, I didn’t give her enough hope?

“I’m sorry,” I whisper, creeping toward her. “I don’t know what happened, but you don’t deserve to suffer in death when you suffered so much in life. I can help you. I can fix this.”

Her soul now belongs to Hades, but I can still hear her secret and fill her soul with hope. It means Hades may lose his servant. And he’ll demand my soul to compensate. But if I’m responsible for Mrs. Peterson’s death, that’s a consequence I’m willing to accept.

I think about all the things that give me hope and fuel the charm with so much power it shines like two suns. Then I reach for Mrs. Peterson’s hands. Her fingers find mine, icy tendrils that numb my skin. A strange blue light flows into my charm, turning its golden light a frosty turquoise. With increased power, the charm whips around our hands, binding us as one.

Mrs. Peterson tilts my hand and pokes at my fingernails. Though distracted by the icy pricks on my fingers, I urge the charm to find her secret again. Powered by the blue light, it works faster than usual. In a split second, the secret I heard when sitting in the kitchen with Mrs. Peterson fills my mind again.

This time, the images are so lifelike they make me think I’m experiencing them. When her husband strikes her cheek, I flinch as though struck. But then a different image appears, a new secret—

Still alive but soaked from the rain, Mrs. Peterson walks up a spiral staircase. She clutches Mother’s roses to her chest like a shield. Mr. Peterson stands on the top step, his face a furious shade of red. When she shows him the roses, he knocks them from her hands. Then he shouts that a wife who appears in public looking like a drowned rat will embarrass him.

Encouraged by the hope, Mrs. Peterson scoffs at his expectations. She says if he wishes to remain married, she’ll decide if her appearance is appropriate.

Mr. Peterson strikes her face with a backhand that knocks her down the stairs. Her head hits the bottom step with a crack—

The flow of images ends as quick as her life did. Numb with shock, I try to fathom what I saw. Instead, I see Mr. Peterson again, but his features are fuzzy, like I’m looking through a transparent veil. I can see enough to know he’s talking on the telephone. Hear enough to know what he said. Slipped on the steps. A tragic accident. Then the image fades.

The blood drains from my face, making me feel as cold as Mrs. Peterson. I can’t see her eyes, but I can sense her somber stare. The truth about her death burns through the charm, and screeches of “liar” and “murderer” ring in my ears. It’s Mrs. Peterson screaming, though her mouth is shut. Again she’s been silenced, this time forever. But her husband can’t silence me.

Determined to end her suffering, I urge my charm to remove all the burden. It’s like scraping away layers of sludge, but, powered by the blue light, the charm collects it all. Then it delivers hope so pure, the brightness hurts my eyes. But I’m not prepared when my charm returns with the burden.

Triple the amount of hopelessness drags me to the pits of despair, draining my will to live. But my determination to see her husband punished for her murder anchors me to life. Pulling my hands from Mrs. Peterson, I stumble backward to escape the lure of death.

Filled with hope, Mrs. Peterson’s grotesque features melt away. She appears as she did when she sat at our table, elegant, spirits lifted, and taking pleasure in sipping our tea. Then she fades, like mist dispersing in a breeze.


Mother’s voice drives the deadness from my limbs. Dropping to my knees, I dig into the mud and bury both of Mrs. Peterson’s secrets. The ground around my fingers glows turquoise, my charm’s new color. Two stems burst through the soil. They weave around each other like climbing vines, sprouting long black thorns that droop with three-fold hopelessness. Above my head, a rose blooms at the top of each stem. The petals on each are an unearthly frosty blue.

“Rose? What happened?”

The shock in Mother’s voice sends tears streaming down my cheeks. “She’s dead. Mrs. Peterson is dead.”

Mother crouches beside me, her hand flying to her throat. “When? How?”

I claw my fingers into the mud, wanting to scream Mrs. Peterson’s secrets into the night. Instead, I imagine Hades again, his expression smug, as though expecting me to break my vows. But if I do, I’ll break Mrs. Peterson’s trust and destroy the hope I gave her. That would be like killing her again.

Mother’s words about finding the strength whisper through my mind, and I realize where my strength lies. Wiping my eyes, I clamber to my feet. “Mrs. Peterson didn’t deserve to suffer in death. I heard her secret again, removed her burden and filled her soul with hope.”

“And condemned yours.” Standing, Mother grabs my elbow and pulls me away from the two roses. “What were you thinking, child? If Mrs. Peterson chooses rebirth, Hades will demand your soul to compensate. I warned you of this. Harpocrates will strip your ability to conjure hope to avoid a war with Hades.”

Without hope, I’ll lose my will to live and hand my soul to Hades by taking my own life. Even revealing Mrs. Peterson’s secret wouldn’t help. I’d destroy her hope and prevent her from being reborn, but Hades would still get my soul. I’d suffer the three-fold hopelessness I trapped in the thorns and I wouldn’t survive that. But I can save my soul another way. There’s something Hades and I have in common.

“Hades won’t come for me,” I say. “He values upholding vows above everything. And Mrs. Peterson can’t be reborn because we are bound as one. While I live in this world, she’ll stay in the underworld.” In Elysium, where pure souls get sent.

I fiddle with my ring. The blue light that changed the charm’s color has also turned the gold band a deep shade of turquoise. I’ve guessed the source of the blue light’s power, but I don’t think either god expected this. “Harpocrates could strip my powers so I can’t conjure hope, but while I keep Mrs. Peterson’s secret, I’ll always have hope. Look.” I hold out my hand and tease my charm from the ring. It jumps into my hand, a flickering bluish-gold flame.

“It’s drawing hope from Mrs. Peterson,” I say, “but that hope contains Hades’ power, which is why it’s so strong. Harpocrates would be a fool to abandon me now. With hope this powerful, we could win every battle against darkness and despair.”

Mother doesn’t look happy, but I’ve never been more certain. Like all the Secret Keepers before me, Mother included, my strength lies in the commitment to my vows. It means Mr. Peterson will escape punishment in this world, but he won’t escape Hades.

I have to listen without judgment, but in the underworld, Hades’ judges don’t. When they judge Mr. Peterson’ soul with the secret he keeps, they’ll send him straight to Tartarus. I can’t imagine a better punishment for a man who killed his wife.

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