Red Flags

It was past midday when he made his way down the front porch steps. He squinted at the bleak sunlight. It had been around a year since it happened, and since then, he could swear the sun had lost some of its brightness. Despite everything, he carried his own light within his smile, which constantly danced upon his playful lips. He couldn't help but notice that the white paint was flaking on the picket fence and his smile flickered on his mouth for a moment. Before he could think anything of it, he realized he was behind schedule because of the little stop he makes here almost every morning.

He stuck the keys into the ignition and the engine of his old mail truck roared to life. As the hulking vehicle crawled down the street, he gazed out the window at his handiwork; at the little red flags which stood up from the mailboxes. Today, there were a lot. It seemed like every mailbox on this street’s flag stood up in the air.

All except for one.

One house on the street didn't need to see its flag to know it had mail. Oh no, this house ‒ this woman ‒ had her mail delivered to her personally.

Mrs. Caplin had once been a strong, stout woman. But that was before it happened. Whenever she saw his truck wheeze its way to the foot of her yard, she would always come out to greet him with fresh cookies and juice. She tended her lawn well back then, and her already-white hair was even more bleached by the bright sunlight. He would stop to talk to her for a while on those days.

Then, it happened. It was June, but the sun decided not to peek out through the clouds and it rained so heavily that he debated whether or not he should’ve built himself an arc. The engine of his truck puttered like the rain that fell upon its metal roof. As he cruised down the desolate street, he became aware of a grimy figure laying upon the road before his headlights. A nervous smile teased his lips as he slipped hesitantly out his door and approached the forlorn silhouette. It was Mrs. Caplin!

“Is that you, Asher?” She called out to him. Their every conversation from then onwards would begin with these words whenever he would enter her house to read her letters to her.

“Of course, ma’am,” He replied as he struggled to get her back on her feet.

Since that day in June, she never left her house ‒ let alone her bed. So Asher made it his duty to read her mail to her whenever she got any.

The next destination on his route was an address that he had never heard of before ‒ which was odd since the town of Bellmoral was so small that all its residents knew it inside and out. Asher was no exception. As he drove, he noticed more people who seemed to be faceless since their white coats took up their identities. His jaundiced and faded map directed him down a road that Bellmoralians hardly ever took since it took them too close to the town’s limits.

Asher swallowed nervously as he approached the only structure that vaguely resembled a residence on the street. The gate, which loomed over him, was covered in ivy, aside from the bronze handle which protruded from beneath the leaves. He placed his hand on the cool metal and pushed the gate open.

He stepped through the gate and into a dank and dimly lit corridor. The sun had never shone here. He anxiously glanced back towards the mysterious door that he had entered from. A stark metal door labelled Asher Daft stared back at him. His brow furrowed and his smile dissolved into a confused frown as he hesitantly walked back towards the door. He pushed the door open revealing a small, Spartan room. The single, barren bed wore crisp white sheets and held his collection of his crossword puzzle books from home. The cement walls cradled a small picture of his grandparents and himself as a child.

He turned from the room and rushed back into the hall. But stopped when he saw a folder sitting in a basket on the wall. A folder that was also labelled with his name sat up in its bed like the red flags on the town’s mailboxes. With shaking hands, he carefully opened it.

The first page consisted of his profile; Name: Asher Daft, Age: 35, Height: 5’8’’, Weight: 150 lbs, Hair Colour: Dark brown, Eye Colour: Light blue, Ethnicity: Caucasian, Diagnosis: Depressed and Delusional. Tears sprung to his eyes and he hastily flipped the page, but what he found only worsened his worry. Doctor’s Note: Mr. Asher is truly a remarkable case. His mind seems to reside within the delusion that he is a mail man in a fictional town called “Bellmoral”. Since any prescription seemed to have no effect on him, the old method of hypnosis has been used to help surface his repressed memories. Various sessions have revealed that his mother committed suicide after having a miscarriage and, Mr. Daft, at the age of seven, had found her. His father began drinking out of grief. When Mr. Daft came to school with bruises on his body, he was taken away from home by Children’s Aid and sent to live with his grandparents. He remembers nothing of his life before going to live with his ‒

“Hey! What are you doing over there?” White coats charged down the hallway at him. “What do you think you’re doing? Put that down!” Asher’s gaze darted around the hallway. He had to get away, he thought as his limbs struggled against the white coats. He thrashed around until he felt a sharp pain in his side. His entire body went limp.

He awoke in the little bed inside the room ‒ his room. Someone knocked loudly at the metal door. “Daft, wakey-wakey!” A gruff voice called. “You decent?”

“Yes,” Asher sat up and tried, in vain, to fix his bedhead. “You can come in.” The door creaked open and another white coat stepped into the room.

“You ready to make your rounds?” The white coat said.

“My rounds?” Asher said confusedly. “Are you letting me out? I have to get back to Bellmoral, everyone’s going to be upset that I'm so far behind schedule now. And I don’t really remember where I parked my ‒”

“I've left your cart just outside the door.” The white coat barked impatiently.

“My cart?” Asher’s brow furrowed with confusion.

“Yes,” The white coat replied. “Your mail cart. You deliver the other patients’ mail. Been doing it, like, since you first got here.” Asher could not make any sense of this. His confusion obviously translated into his expression because the white coat scoffed and retreated down the hall. “The damn guy acts like he just got here…”

Asher stood up and looked down at himself. His mail man uniform had been replaced with a pair of blue pyjamas. Although he had never seen them before, he felt comfortable in them as if he had been wearing them for years; he marvelled at this as he walked out the door. He took the handles of the cart ‒ his cart ‒ and began to push it down the hall.

The baskets, like the one outside of his own door, lacked red flags. While this may have bothered him if he were roving around Bellmoral in his mail truck, today it did not. His mind swam with other red flags.

As he made his way down the hallway, he noticed that the numbers on the doors were identical to those in his town. In fact, when he glanced into the windows, the faces of Bellmoralians greeted him.

He could not believe it. There was no way that his entire town was only an illusion. He had to find out, and there was only one way to know for sure. He grasped a thick stack of letters in his hand and headed to room number 87, Mrs. Caplin’s house number.

“Is that you, Asher?” A shaky voice called from the bed in a dimly lit room. The door was unlocked, so he walked freely into the room.

“Of course, ma’am.” The sight of her brought tears to Asher’s eyes. It was the same woman. The same woman he saw every day. Only now, her vacant eyes were sunken in her skull. Straps running across the bed restrained her frail figure. Asher had to leave the room for a moment to compose himself. On a paper he spotted in the basket beside her door, he spied the words: Name: Bertha Caplin, Age: Unknown, Diagnosis: Schizophrenic. Doctors Note: Due to Caplin’s last manic episode in June, she must now be strapped to a bed or chair at all times to prevent outbursts. Sedation during nights is recommended to ‒

“Are you going to read my letters to me?” Her voice called from within.

“Certainly,” he answered and re-entered her room. He finally understood why all of them were here. The streets of Bellmoral were lined with the red flags sticking up from mailboxes and the hallways of this place were lined with Bellmoralians. They were all red flags. Each and every one of them.