An ON TIME Excerpt: “Delicate Equilibrium” by Chris Stanley

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Enjoy an excerpt from Chris Stanley’s “Delicate Equilibrium” featured in our newest anthology ON TIME.

Thomas ends the call and smiles. He can’t help it. The walls of his study are decorated with certificates of academic achievement, but he doesn’t need to pretend any longer. He’s finished with social sciences and all the meagre, hard-fought gains. Parapsychology, previously the specialism of fools, is where he’s going to make his name. And the world will never be the same.

The framed certificates, connected by dusty cobwebs, are the only decorations on the plain white walls of his study. No photos of family holidays or charcoal sketches of favourite pets brighten the room. The bookcase bulges with textbooks and self-help manuals. The floor is stacked with academic journals. On the sideboard, cardboard boxes overflow with unsorted paperwork, everything from supermarket receipts to the menu from his last meal out with Elizabeth—the one where he nearly proposed.

Someday, he’ll sort out the clutter and reclaim his study, but not today. Today, he has more important things to do.

The phone call was an invitation for him to present the findings of his latest study to an international panel of scientists in two weeks’ time. He can’t believe they said yes. The board shared smirks and sideways glances when he presented his summary. Maybe, they felt pressured to invite him because of his credentials, probably curious to see just how far the once-respected professor has drifted from reality. He doesn’t care either way. After the summit, his name will be forever engraved in the history books. And that’s more than he’s ever wanted.

He wishes his mother was still alive, so he could tell her the news. She rolled her eyes when he couldn’t decide what to study at university or which offer to accept. The moment he landed a job, she evicted him from the house because she feared he’d never leave without a shove. At various times, she accused him of being helpless, useless, and indecisive—yet she was the one who spent her life chasing ghosts and never captured more than a few smudged photographs. Now, he’s proven conclusively that ghosts exist, and she’s not around to see it. 

He’s about to pour himself a celebratory drink when his assistant, Amy, tumbles into the room. She wipes a streak of rain-dampened hair from her forehead. “Sir, I’ve been trying to call you.”

“What is it?”

“You have to come now, sir. Something’s happened.”

Thomas follows Amy down the stairs to the moonlit parking lot. From the passenger seat of her three-door hatchback, on a journey he’s made many times before, he watches street lights flashing past in the rain and remembers the first time he visited the castle. 

***

By the time Thomas was nine years old, his mother’s hair was already grey. Not the fragile, silvery grey that creeps onto most aging heads—his mother’s unkempt bob was the colour of gunmetal. It fell like a curtain around her camera as she took photos of the crumbling stone walls, low archways, and narrow windows of the castle.

While she worked, she explained how ghosts sometimes appear on film that can’t be seen with the naked eye. Thomas didn’t like this. The idea that a ghost might be standing right next to him, its skeletal fingers curled around his throat, made his skin prickle. His mother brushed the hair from her eyes and told him not to be so silly.

Thinking he’d be safer, Thomas went to play on the grass outside the castle walls, launching into a string of clumsy cartwheels before collapsing into a satisfied heap.

The temperature dropped without warning, a gentle breeze nipping his neck like the first kiss of freshly fallen snow. The path up to the castle was busy with grown-ups fanning their faces and children dripping ice cream down their tops. Thomas shivered.

Why did no one else look cold?

He saw a man walking slowly along the outside edge of the castle wall, his long brown robes swaying above the grass, his hands held together in front of him. He was clutching something—a wooden cross, maybe? It was hard for Thomas to be sure because the man seemed hazy and incomplete, as though viewed through dirty glass. Thomas’s mum called down from the battlements, and he looked up in time for her to take a photo. When he looked back, the man in the long brown robes was gone.

Maybe things would have turned out differently if he’d told his mother about the ghost. She might have laughed and accused him of daydreaming or making things up. Over time, he could have moved on. But he never said a word. He was afraid she’d be jealous, that she’d start to see him as competition. He feared her silence and worried she’d leave him behind next time she went on one of her trips, abandoning him with some distant, boring aunt. So he locked his secret in his heart and only unpacked it at night, when the ghost—surely that of a medieval monk—would creep into his imagination, lurking in the corner of his bedroom, impossibly tall, its head pressed awkwardly against the ceiling. 

In his dreams, the cross in the monk’s hands was made of human bones, and the cuffs of his robe were stained black with dried blood. Thomas never saw the monk’s face, which was hidden in the folds of his hood, but he could feel the monk watching him, waiting for him to wake up. So Thomas stayed perfectly still, eyes closed, needing to pee but not daring to move, trying not to breathe, absolutely certain his life was about to be taken from him. 

Weeks passed in this manner. Every night, Thomas held on until he thought his bladder was going to burst. Then he’d scurry for the bedroom door, the landing, the toilet, never looking around, too afraid to check for an elongated shadow lurking in the corner of his room. After he’d flushed the toilet, he’d return to his bedroom and peer into the darkness. The room was always empty.

Somehow, that made things worse.

Eventually, his fear of the ghost subsided. When he thought back to his visit to the castle, it wasn’t the robed figure that haunted his thoughts; it was the rapid change in temperature. Thomas was willing to accept that his eyes might have been mistaken about the monk, but only a significant cooling could have made the water condense on his breath. A decade later, halfway through his first term at King’s College in Cambridge, he asked some of the other students about it.

“It could have been an underground stream,” said one boy, whose name Thomas has since forgotten. “Or maybe the spot had been in shadow until moments before? The sudden cold might have made you more susceptible to your mother’s suggestion of a ghost.”

“Or,” said another boy, “maybe the fear you experienced when you saw the ghost gave you goose bumps, which your brain misinterpreted as cold.”

They were both wrong, but Thomas kept his own theory to himself. 

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Christopher Stanley lives on a hill in England with three sons who share a birthday but aren’t triplets. He is the author of numerous prize-winning flash fictions, the darkest of which can be found spreading misery and mayhem in his debut collection, The Lamppost Huggers and Other Wretched Tales (The Arcanist, June 2020). He’s also the author of the horror novelette, The Forest is Hungry (Demain Publishing, April 2019).

ON TIME is out now. Get your copy at AmazonBarnes & NobleKobo, or the exclusive hardback at transmundanepress.com.

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