The Keeper of Secrets

by Paul Teese

I have a secret to tell. You must never tell anyone else. No one. Ever.

James held up the velvety flap of Sam’s ear and brought his lips close to the convoluted folds underneath that channeled deep into darkness. It seemed a safe place to deposit secrets. After all, Sam was a dog. It was unlikely he would ever tell anyone. Still, James felt certain that his beagle understood every word he said. Why else, when James started to whisper, would Sam stand taut, his tail frozen in mid-wag? And why, when he stopped, would Sam turn his head and give him a look so suited for that particular secret?

When it all started, Sam was not much more than a puppy, likely to go bounding off at any second. So when James had a secret to share, which was quite often, he would sit cross-legged, lure the inquisitive dog over, hold him around the torso with one arm and use his free hand to raise the flap and safely unburden himself.

For a time, James tried to put good secrets in one ear and bad secrets in the other. It was too complicated. For one thing, it was hard to pick an ear for some secrets. And there were others that might change. You’d have to recheck them and have a second look after some time had passed. Maybe they’d been put in the wrong ear at first.

Take the time James lost the ring.

As it happened, James’ parents loved to read. They had their noses in books all the time, and they liked to read to their son too. Mostly their selections were apt. Starting from Dr. Seuss with little James on their lap, they generally picked age appropriate material. But they’d been a bit premature with Lord of the Rings. It was understandable. Each of them, as teenagers, had enjoyed the epic trilogy. It had even been a topic of conversation on their very first date when they met at college. No wonder when James came along, they looked forward to reading it to him. It was almost homage. After all, James might not even be here if not for Tolkien.

James was wide-eyed at their theatrical style of reading. Sometimes, they would lower the book and deliver dialogue in character looking straight at him. These dramatic turns made the story come to life, and over the years they read him the books, he came so much under their thrall that he would often act out scenes in playtime. Sam was a supporting character in all his adventures, only fitting since he was named for Samwise Gamgee, companion to the trilogy’s protagonist. But one day things went a bit too far.

I have a secret to tell, I took the ring!

James let the ear flap drop and held his hand out for Sam to see. On his left forefinger was a huge ring, too big for him. It slid up and down and tipped from side to side, so that he had to make a fist to keep it on. Sam took a look at it, licked James’ hand once, then turned away as if in dismay.

His parents knew that James searched for props to serve in his imaginary games. They would often discover him rummaging in the garage, in the basement or in the attic. They didn’t mind. But he was forbidden to enter their bedroom unless invited.

But that particular morning, he’d snuck in anyway to poke around. He’d stumbled on a little wooden box in the back of his dad’s sock drawer. It held an odd collection of small items. But there, among so many useless things, was the best prop ever, a hidden ring.

Precocious as he was, James had come to believe that some things couldn’t be asked for and given, they had to be found and taken, otherwise it wasn’t the same. He picked up the ring, held it in his hand and turned it over and over again. Something inside him stirred. He didn’t want to put it back. He wanted to keep it. Clutching the ring, he dashed out of the room looking for Sam. They needed to embark on some exciting journey immediately.

Sam was in the backyard scratching at the ground and digging holes. It was his beagle nature. To James, it seemed a random and ineffective way to find an adventure. James had done better. He sat down cross-legged, called the dog over and showed off his find.

The rest of the day was lost to imagination. They played together for hours, acting out scenes and exhibiting all the finest virtues. Frequently as they played, James would put the ring in his pocket for safe keeping, only to take it out again later when called for. He reminded Sam that he couldn’t be seen wearing the ring at supper. It had to be hidden before then. His parents mustn’t know he’d entered their bedroom. By supper time, he was exhausted, sprawled out on the lawn, half-dozing in a reverie.

That evening, standing in pajamas in front of the bathroom sink, his sudsy toothbrush in hand, he got a severe jolt. He wasn’t sure where the ring was. Throughout the afternoon, he’d considered several clever hiding places, like inside a finger of his baseball mitt, but he never settled on any given one. Now he couldn’t precisely remember the last time he’d taken the ring off. Maybe it was still in his pocket. He rushed to the bedroom to check, but no, it wasn’t there. He wracked his brain, but he simply had no idea where it was.

Sam often kept watch at the foot of the bed. But that night he jumped right up and lay next to his young master as if sensing there might be a secret forthcoming. In the middle of the night, James could hold it in no longer. He poured out his shame and regret.

Sam, are you awake? I have a terrible secret. I lost the ring!

When James was finished, Sam squirmed, craning his neck toward his distraught friend. James felt a wet nose and warm breath against his ear. He was sure he was being consoled. Sam gave him a long look as if to see if James had got the message.

Over the next few days, James cringed whenever one of his parents entered a room. He was afraid they might have found the ring themselves or else discovered it was missing. He even reentered their bedroom to check if the ring might have been returned to its box, replaced without a reprimand. In the hope he might be the first one to find the ring, James postponed any admission to his parents. It would be a mistake to bring it to their attention if they hadn’t even noticed the ring was gone. As time passed, James worried less and less until he mostly forgot about it. No one ever spoke of it again, including, of course, Sam.

Years later, James was at college studying creative writing. One evening, shortly before spring break, he got a phone call from his parents. Sam was quite ill. They wondered if the time had come to put him down. What did James think? They talked it over and agreed to wait until James was home for break. He would be there at the end. They would bury Sam in the backyard.

When Sam was euthanized and they’d returned from the vet, James, now as strong as his father, offered to dig the grave. He went out back to look for a spot. As he surveyed the yard, memories of all their adventures began to flood back. Sam had been a faithful companion at a time when James’ youthful imagination was burgeoning. His vocation of creative writing had its roots in their play together. Stories had become his stock in trade.

Shovel in hand, James settled on a scrape in the back corner of the yard, a place where Sam had often dug holes himself. When the grave was ready, the three of them brought out their pet, wrapped in a blanket, and placed him in the grave. They weren’t a sentimental family. There was no contrived ritual. They just lingered for a moment, shed a few quiet tears, and reaffirmed that they’d done the right thing to bury Sam where he used to play.

His parents went back in, leaving James to fill in the grave. He was mostly done shifting the dirt, when the tip of his shovel made an odd clink. He had struck something. He saw a glint, stooped and brushed away soil. To his amazement, it was the ring lost so long ago. It had stayed hidden for the lifetime of his keeper of secrets, to resurface only now. He wiped it clean, held it in the palm of his hand, turned it over, and at last put it on. Now it fit.

How had it got there? He’d never know for sure, and maybe it didn’t matter. But here it all was again, Sam at his side as a great new story took shape. And hadn’t it always been that way? James sat down cross-legged next to the grave, leaned over, saw a puppy and whispered in its ear.

Sam, are you awake? I have something to tell you.

Paul Teese was born and raised on Long Island. He attended Gettysburg College where he majored in Business Administration. Over his varied work life, he has been a tennis instructor, an officer in the USAF, a federal bureaucrat, an ecological researcher, an instructor at a university, the director of a small non-profit, and a candidate for public office. Along the way, he took a few years off to live on a commune where he learned to milk cows and weave hammocks. Now retired, he has recently taken up creative writing and is working on his first novel, The Flora of Heaven. He lives with his wife in a quiet village in rural upper Bucks County.