Writing prompt #55

Write a story that either starts or ends with someone asking, “Can you keep a secret?”

“Can You Keep a Secret”    by clcronan 2020

“Can You Keep a Secret?!” the scream echoed off the walls off the empty corridor. The corridor was dimly lit, and looked worn and tired. One hundred years of chaos and sadness branded into too many layers of paint. A sad, faded, filthy, soft green paint was uppermost, and was 31 years old now.


“This will be your office. Keep the door closed and locked. Always. Here is your key. Obviously it will take some time for you to do something with this mess, so your first patient isn’t scheduled until Monday.” The warden flicked a mouse turd off of the top of a pile off dusty books. “Welcome aboard,“ he said in a flat, sarcastic tone, and he left without even a handshake.

The young recruit was hired fresh out of college. She was warned to mute her appearance for her own safety, so contrary to her personal standards, her reflection in the dirty window was quite dowdy. “All the better for a day of cleaning,” she assured herself, with a smile. The well stocked custodial cart was all the help she’d have to perform the transformation of this dump into her office, but she had a vision.

The corridors were all getting a fresh coat of paint. The smell wafting in under the door, and the sounds of a job getting done, inspired her. Over the course of two and a half days she created a space that was crisp and professional, balanced with safe and comfortable. She sat in her new office chair, facing the window, sipping a cup a tea, and feeling proud. She was ready. On Monday morning she would begin to help real people with real troubles find a way to recover and carry on. She had set this goal so many years ago and reaching it felt like the pinnacle of her own recovery.


“Dr. Reisman, After three years on the job here, I would have expected you to have learned more about the value of confidentiality. Your political aspirations are of no interest to, nor should they have any impact on, the people we serve here at this hospital. You shall cease and desist with exposing them to the inquiries of the outside world for the sake of your own ambitions.” The warden spoke slowly and through clenched teeth. His appearance was anything but professional. In the three years she had worked here he had aged enough for it to have been ten.

“Mr. Wilson, while I share your concern for our residents, I am afraid your understanding of my ambitions is greatly mistaken. And you have no reason to question my understanding of the value of confidentiality, for I have kept your secrets as well as theirs throughout my time here.” Dr.Reisman gestured to the chair in front of her desk. “Now that you are here I would appreciate the opportunity to clarify a number of issues. Won’t you sit down?”

The warden, Mr. Wilson, took great offense to the invitation to sit in front of her for what he deemed an interrogation. “This is not a discussion, madam, it is a reminder to you to know your place. Given your recent antics I had to ask, Can you keep a secret?” His seething anger was barely contained as he stormed out, slamming the door shut behind him.

Dr. Reisman fully understood the reason for his visit. She had been taking it upon herself to drum up interest in, and funding for this neglected asylum. The spotlight would surely put his underhanded dealings under scrutiny. But her career had turned from a dream of helping the downtrodden to covering for back door dealings. Truly guilty, truly evil people were being housed here to keep them out of the prison system. And the warden had his palm generously greased for every “patient” that didn’t stand trial for “reasons of insanity.” Meanwhile, those with a genuine need for help were left in overpopulated dormitories, using inadequate bathroom facilities, and being served food that wasn’t fit for a dog. The heating system was always breaking down, and the laundry was certainly the culprit for the constant coughs and fevers and odors that underscored life as a resident here. And every department was grossly understaffed with people who were grossly under trained. 

Then there was the question of the stories that were told to her in confidence when a patient would lie on her therapy couch and reveal the abuse they had suffered at the hands of those who were here to help them. She had once taken it upon herself to go and speak to the surgeon. She had come to understand he was doing all his procedures without novocaine or anesthesia. When she inquired about a patient who would suddenly stop coming to appointments, staff would blithely respond, “Didn’t you know he had a lobotomy last week. He doesn’t need you anymore.”

The surgeon had laughed her out of the surgery, saying, “Ok, Lady, you bring me supplies and staff and an appropriate facility and I promise to do better.”


Dr. Reisman sat in her car outside the Senators office feeling more a sense of obligation and redundancy than hope. She’d been at this for fifteen years now, and had not made any noticeable difference in the lives of the people she served. The asylum was in worse shape instead of better because it had not had the funding for necessary upkeep. The Senator, who knew her well by now, had rushed by her in the hall, brushing her off with another ‘more urgent matter’ as he always did. His secretary, ever the gossip, unintentionally cut her to the core by opening their conversation with the question, “Can you keep a secret?” Then she babbled something about the Senator actually running out for a tryst, and then going golfing. Secrets were going to be the death of her, she was sure.


She had prescribed enough Thorazine in the last 25 years to buy fancy houses for every executive at that drug company, she was ashamed to admit, even to herself. When the drug hit the market it was touted as ‘the penicillin of psych meds.’ She had seen with her own eyes how effective it was in decreasing the frequency and severity of seizures, how it had the power to calm a raging psychopath, and helped the catatonic be more lucid. Then it was discovered that it was very effective at inducing a near comatose state, and that made it easier to run a ward of desperate souls pleading for basic comforts. She had been forced by the management of the institution to write prescriptions as freely as if she were dispensing cough drops. She grew apathetic as the years wore on. She sat behind her desk with one of these magic pills in her hand wondering if it might be just the thing to help her find her passions again. To pull her up out of this lethargy that had her fading into the pealing paint on all the walls of this forsaken place. No one need ever know, after all, she could keep a secret.


She listened to her heels clicking against the crumbled pavement as she approached the front door. She finally had a reason to hold her head up high. She could see a light at the end of a very long tunnel. She had followed the lead of Mr. Hungerford up at Laconia State and gotten the parents and loved ones involved. Her one voice fell on deaf ears, but their combined voices began to get the attention this place had always needed. She could see the warden watching her from his office window. She knew he hated her. He had tried to stop her for nearly 30 years. She was finally making headway, and he seethed openly. His ‘friends’ wanted her taken care of.

As she mounted to top stair, two very large orderlies grabbed her and manhandled her straight to his office. She protested all the way there about her ability to find her way on her own. When they stepped inside, Mr. Wilson appeared more repulsive than ever before. His eyes were glinting with the power of evil over good. His sneer belied his intentions as vengeful. “My good Dr. Reisman, we’ve been waiting for you. I have a court order here for your indefinite detention.”

Confusion, shock and fear made her stop resisting the orderlies and focus on what the devil was saying. “It has come to our attention that you have been practicing psychiatry here while under the influence of drugs. We simply cannot have it. Our poor, poor clients deserve better, wouldn’t you say so?” He nodded at the orderlies and they dragged her, kicking and screaming down to the confinement ward. Down to the room at the end. The rubber room. They wrestled her into a straight jacket and removed her shoes, her jewelry and her eyeglasses. They tossed her unceremoniously into the cell, and locked the door. She thrashed herself upright and screamed through the tiny window about injustice and morals and powerful friends, but when she saw the warden standing at the end of the darkened hallway, laughing, she lost hope, and started laughing herself. Her futile purpose, her lost career, her broken spirit, her ironic situation. All for that sake of secrets. She cackled, “Can you keep a secret?” Then she screamed that haunting question louder and louder trying to reach through the halls, through the wards, through to the outside world. And it struck her. The outside is crazier than the inside. She turned away from the window, but caught, from the corner of her eye, Warden Wilson, gloating at the end of the hallway still, and she screamed once more, directly at him, “Can you keep a secret?!”

August 21, 2020 20:20

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