Free Party, Late

By Mob

From CHM #41 November 2023

For us, it ended with three bodies, washed up in the Thames Estuary. Shame one of them was yours, Nate.

With you gone, it’s hard to know exactly how it all went wrong. Perhaps you’d say it was when we first met: me, peaking too hard, shaking, sick, leaning against a tree in Enfield Forest with psytrance blaring and lights flashing and New Year’s spinning around me; you, handing me a roll-up with a glittering smile.

“Relax,” you said, “Life’s a party.”

Jess broke, when she heard the state you were in—face flayed off, limbs like that. Said she’d go clean. Quit the Facebook groups. Deleted contacts. She reckoned it started the first time the clubs felt boring, that it was all downhill since then.

“I don’t wanna see you—” the call opened to hissing silence, just a drip-drip-drip of tears on the floor of her ratty Stamford flat. “—I just wanna forget everything.”

But I don’t.

I say it goes back older than last year. Deeper than those tunnels beneath the river. Stranger than the DMs that hooked us in.

If life’s a party, I’m coming down hard. You should see me now. Don’t sleep. Barely eat. Can’t stop searching for clues—sightings, blogs, forums—anything that can tell me where we went or what we saw. Trace the fragments stepwise till they line up in my head. I need to go back there, Nate.

I need freedom again. Need to know why it all went wrong.

I. Masks

Three pints deep and my coworkers’ words slip to white noise. Dave has a thin scar on his nose. Never asked from what. Never cared. But right now, I feel like if I worked my fingers into his flesh and just pulled, I’d get to see broken code and static in his empty skull.

Dave’s head bobs to music that died in the ‘90s, his smug grin as plastered as he is. “Feeling it?” he slurs.

I grimace back.

‘Spoons reeks of desperate escape. The beer tastes lightstruck. The punters’ din is a car crash. I don’t know why I’m here—a straight path from meeting room to pub I don’t remember consenting to.

I’m feeling things, alright, but Dave doesn’t need to hear them.

Gav’s chirpsing game is sloppy, the girls the next table over eyeballing him with undisguised contempt. Connor laughs in all the wrong places, trying to stop rocking on his stool as though we don’t know why he vanishes to the gents’ every half hour like powdered clockwork.

I can’t take this shit anymore.

“Oi, where you off to?” Dave’s jaw glitches out the words, unthinking, gaze already moved on to a passing server’s arse.

I head for the fire escape and out onto the street. Light a menthol under the arch of the pub’s back door and watch raindrops crash into the puddles with envy. I can’t tell Gav to shut the fuck up. Can’t tell Connor personality isn’t bought by the gram. Can’t punch Dave.

Might as well still be at work.

The skyline is low clouds and rain and the lights of brighter lives. City of ten million, and I’m stuck here with these twats, stuck in society’s mask, unable to tear it off.

Tonight, I leave and don’t look back. Start the search for real freedom.

And that’s the first thing you need, Nate, the first step. Not the beginning of everything, but your own personal start. A sudden realisation that you haven’t ever escaped. A blinding view of the mask you’ve always worn.

So you tug. And pick. And tease it loose.

II. Alienation

Jess dances. Sways. Pupils saucer-wide. UV wash lights her leggings neon.

It’s only been eight months since we first met in a club just like this, but it feels like decades. Time bends, melts, splashes—liquid in sweat drops and pressed bodies. Bass pounds through earplugs, shaking our chests in perfect time. Chemical empathy holds us in semi-stable orbit. We’re spinning, spinning, spinning.

I can already feel the wobble.

The crowd is too close, packed dense to boost sales. The DJ’s doing fine, but when his set ends, they might play jump up the rest of the night. My gaze catches on Jess. She’s the only reason I’m still here.

A hand on my shoulder. Jess reaches close and I move to return a kiss that never comes.

“Smoke,” she whispers. Lot of stress for one word.

Past her neck, the bouncer glares at me like it’s his waist I’m squeezing. There’s static in his eyes. Black threads of code creep outwards from his pupils like rotten inner eyelashes—punching back through flesh, stitching his mask tight. They scroll too fast to read, writhing like something alive, as filthy as he is. Polluted. Revolting.

Anger needles my ribs. We’re supposed to be away from that shit here. Cut loose from society’s strings.

Jess steers me. We skip the rear exit. Clear night. Ice cold. Two cigarettes blow thin clouds, their lit tips underlighting her face moody orange. Muted music through the wall—any lingering buzz killed by her constant pacing.

“He wouldn’t stop fucking staring. It’s bad enough when it’s just random fucking lads. Supposed to be a place to dance, not fucking hit on strangers.” Another turn, another plume. She grinds the stub down one wall and throws it to a corner. “I get enough creeps at work.”

It’s a mood. “We can go somewhere else, night’s still young.”

Pursed lips. She beckons, I hand her my lighter.

Already past one, and we both know it.

Lighter click. Yellow flare. Fresh cloud. Jess blows a smoke ring. “The vibe’s dead. Your place. Don’t wanna stay here.”

I sigh. “Sorry. Not a club next time.”

“Some place to dance,” she says.

A side-alley smoking area became my flat. But in my memories, we stayed outside, and never went back. Facebook groups replaced the clubs, events close-enough-to-legal if you squinted. Was it Whirl-y-gig first, or Wonderland?

That year passed in weed-haze and comedown Sundays. In bright, wide eyes that promised escape. And all the while, my face felt looser, the mask coming free. I stepped outside myself and the buzzing of everyone else’s empty lives seemed to fill the city. I drowned it out, any beat I could find ramped high against reality.

There was a whisper—so soft and seductive you could almost believe it—that if I just pushed further, I’d be truly free.

III. Invitation

The Northern line spits us out a mile from the forest. You’re waiting, Nate. Harem pants and that spiky backpack you always wore. Roll-up in one hand, another one behind your ear.

“Lit,” you say, and spark up.

We‘ve heard it before—laugh anyway.

It’s uphill all the way to the turning, squeezed in behind the ARMCO barriers on the bank of a motorway. Moonlight stripes through the trees. Traffic roars. Jess chats with you about your week, the weather, the music—organiser’s new, how do you find these things? You’re so reliable. Safe.

Distance lengthens. Mood falls.

The two of you walk ahead, and in the dark mirror puddles I try and catch my own eye. Look deep and see if I’m running someone else’s program. Try and spot the threads spilling from my seams.

I don’t like the way Jess walks close enough her hair brushes your coat. Don’t like the tilt of her shoulders or her silence on the train. I hate the fact I care even more.

What was I searching for in her? When did it start?

Maybe freedom isn’t big enough for two people. There’s a point where compromise becomes routine, where spontaneity becomes habit. Maybe whatever Jess is using me for and whatever I want no longer line up. Maybe I never checked to begin with.

“Yo, you there, man?” The moon’s halo steals your face.

Funny how I don’t see it as a sign.

I make some excuse, make you laugh, Jess smiles, and I stare just-too-long at her expression, trying to read deeper than her skin. Then you glance at your phone in faux-surprise, act it well enough the expression almost doesn’t seem calculated.

“What the fuck. Tried to find a new group, look at this shit.”

You thrust the screen at me, light blinding. I stand. Blink stupidly. Jess circles back, peering over my shoulder.

‘The Seeker’ has a mask as their profile—the pattern warps and bleeds, a mandala forced through dimensions it didn’t enjoy. There’s no colour, just a single white line, cutting a face from the dark. DMs open.

I’m not sure you’re ready for something this real. This free.
            Have you found the edge yet?

Lmao, the edge?
You what? I just wanna join the group, dude

Can you see the strings?

???

If you know. You know.

“Crazy, right?” You laugh again, and maybe, just for a second, the smile slips and there’s an edge there I can’t place.

I’ve not seen you scared. Not yet.

Jess joins. “Bunch of pretentious twats. Bet they’re all into weird conspiracies. Remember that cokehead at the warehouse last month?”

“Mmh, yeah, wild.” My hand moves almost by itself. I take the phone from you, staring at that white line, convoluting in the dark. I can’t see where it starts. I can’t see where it ends.

Conversation drifts. Slips. We’re moving, but I can’t tear my eyes away. They know about the threads. They understand, can explain. I need to know, I need to get in, I need to talk now.

“Did you drop early or something?” We’re in the woods and future house shakes the leaves, lit in violet and laser red. Your half-smile clashes with the bouncer over your shoulder, her hand still-outstretched for the entry fee. “Gimme my phone back,” you say, “we’re here.”

“Send me the contact, yeah?” I hold it out, but don’t let go.

There it is again.

That slip, when things don’t quite go the way you expect.

Your smile’s gone, and now you’re trying to read me better, trying to cover for the fact they wouldn’t let you in. “Why?” you ask.

“Maybe it’s one of those themed events. You know, roleplaying and that.”

The lights turn, cutting the bouncer’s face to shards of colour. She scowls. “Sixty quid for the lot of you. If you’re not entering, fuck off.”

“C’mon. Don’t wanna stand here, it’s cold.” Jess is two eyes, a hood, and a cloud of smoke.

You grin again. Hand the bouncer the money with that look as the tip. Then we’re in and Jess is looking for a dealer and you turn to me for that final check. “Maybe they’re just crazy. But sure, whatever.”

Like you, you don’t say.

But I can tell.

It’s the first time I’ve seen your strings. They poke from your lips like nematode worms, writhing off your tongue with every word. They never stop, Nate, even if you can’t see them yourself.

If you know, you know. And you don’t.

IV. Acceleration

It’s lucky work went remote, or I might’ve set Dave on fire. Ripped that thick mat of tendrils from beneath his paunch and doused him in kerosene. Once the flames lit, he’d finally be free enough to dance.

Every camera, every meeting, Dave’s strings slither from his pores—pulled tight in jagged angles, passing from the frame. Gav’s creep from his nail beds. Connor’s strain and jerk from each nostril. A parasitised network strung across the city, always there, always vibrating. Once you see the first, you can’t stop. More and more, until the fakeness of the entire city floods vision like a grey tide. You never got there, did you, Nate?

You asshole. You never had to know.

All the masks, all the other selves people string themselves to, all the stupid fucking rules and the preprogrammed behaviours. They’re tied down. Bound up. Cocooned in it.

Bad code, the lot of them.

My phone vibrates against the bathroom counter. Buzz buzz buzz and a thread sways in the air, tasting for me. I ignore it. Ignore Jess on the other end asking for the third time when we’re going out next, when we’ll see you again.

I’m working on it. This time I’ll find freedom, and you’re both coming.

In the mirror, I meet my eyes from beneath the mask. I’m so close now. The Seeker told me. Only a few threads left.

The tweezers weigh in my hand. Hard to keep it steady in the reflection. I pinch another spiral, just below my chin and tug. My skin pulls taut till the stitches of my mask are clear. Pain builds. I can feel it, deep within—the line churning in my flesh, tensing against its excision. Darkness so cold it burns. Even as tar beads from my pores with the acrid stench of burnt fuses, I rip the thread clear.

Sex has never felt this good. I’m gasping, doubled over the sink. Pitch drips from my face. I turn on the tap and flush it away, scrubbing and scrubbing and—

I’m nearly there. I’m nearly real.

There’s an event coming up, the Seeker says. Free party, starting late.

And I’m gonna be ready to join.

I’ll make sure.

V. Descent

“Are you sure we’re going the right way?” Jess’ voice hitches.

Past the end of Millwall Park, just into Island Gardens and the lights drop dead. Pollution glows orange in the London sky, but it doesn’t reach the shadows beneath the trees. Ahead, the Greenwich Foot Tunnel’s northern entrance squats at the river’s edge like an oversized conservatory, its glass dome glossy black.

You’re stiff, Nate, huddled in your hoodie, those harem pants rustling in the breeze. “Weird place for an event.”

The accusation’s faint, but now I’ve shed my mask, it’s all so clear to me.

I throw one of your own smiles back at you. “Don’t worry. We’re close.”

Your phone flashlight skitters across the red brick entrance. It’s open like a throat, the damp, neutral waft of stone floating up from that deep tunnel beneath the river. 24/7 access, the sign says, but as you stare down into the darkness, I can see you shiver.

“I dunno,” you say, “looks pretty closed to—”

“All good, I’ll take the lead then.” And I’m past you, onto the stairs.

From the corner of my eye, I catch Jess look from me to you, you to me. Catch the growing unease in the twitch of your flashlight and the distorted un-smile of your face.

It makes me grin wider, Nate. It makes me feel good.

50 feet down into the earth. The river rises above us and we’re spinning, spinning, spinning round the spiral stairs. The smell of the depths grows with each step—wet and cold—a pervasive damp that plinks and trickles from corners just out of sight.

The two of you can’t whisper that quietly.

Did he tell you which event? | No, you? | Why are there no people? | Why’s it so cold?

I’m walking ahead, so I feel it first. A giant beat. Throbbing from my chest to my stomach. Somewhere below, music flexes the walls. I stop, swaying on the step, and you nearly run into my back.

“What now?” you snap.

Jess’ sidelong glance at you makes my week. “Hey, couldn’t you just let us know where—” She reaches out a hand.

It tickles my shoulder as I step forward. Faster now.

“We’re almost there. Can’t you hear it?” I call.

If you know, you know.

I rush the last few flights, slipping on wet concrete. Light rises. Dim at first, just an off-green glimmer in the gloom. Then the hiss of striplights sounds and it’s brighter, brighter, coming, coming. Here.

There should only be one tunnel at the base of the stairs. Just the one passage, stretching 370 metres beneath the river, walked for over a hundred years.

The Seeker stands by a second.

A door with a push bar seals it shut, looking for all the world like an emergency exit. A diffuse glow spills from its edges, tumbling with colour. Back to the light, the Seeker’s mask shifts in their silhouette—black and white intertwining without beginning, without end. No threads spill from their seams. They’re the realest thing I’ve ever seen.

“Are you ready?” they ask.

Unease shuffles behind me. I can feel Jess shift hesitantly, see your recognition and fear without looking, hear those lines churn on your lips—readying something, anything to back out, to make a pathetic excuse not to step where we’ve always been going.

“Yes,” I say.

The door opens.

Freedom waits.

VI. Limit

Masks off. Pure expression. Everyone here is their truest self. Neon swirls through skin. Faces interchange—animalistic to human and everything in between. Hair, clothes, flashing pupils, and spinning, spinning, spinning. Time melts into rhythm. This time, there’s no wobble.

It’s an orgy of release. Of cutting threads. Of peeling back layers.

I lose track of you and Jess for hours, days. Space spreads. The party fills it up and I wander through the throng, always dancing, always swaying. At times the rooms are like steel-clad tunnels. At times like warehouses. The weight of the river above seems to lift away.

In the corners, figures struggle with their last strings. With scissors and knives and probing fingers, helped out by friends and onlookers. They’re imperfect, like me. Yearning to be free.

It’s so close.

Fingers clasp my shoulder.

Two forty volts to the dome. An explosion, run backward. I’m pulled out, drawn back, the moment’s gone. I spin around and Jess’ eyes are wide in terror.

“I couldn’t find you,” she blurts. “What is this place? Those people, their faces, their… What’s happening? It’s horrifying, they’re all hurting… they’re cutting…”

“They’re finding themselves. Finding freedom.” The threads strung from her joints twitch and strain. I step back. I can’t be infected with her code. Not now.

Jess stares at me like a changeling, loss etched in hollow cheeks. “They won’t let Nate leave.”

You don’t need me to remind you how that went, do you?

Why did you want to leave? Why couldn’t you see it? You should’ve stayed to the end, then none of this would’ve happened.

I tried to negotiate for you, I really did. I told them you’d see it, if you were just given the chance. That you’d spoken to the Seeker, you had the potential. The only thing they wanted—if you really couldn’t bear but leave—is that you’d leave your mask behind. As a gesture of commitment.

You shouldn’t have struggled like that, Nate. It looked like it hurt.

Looked like it hurt a lot.

You fucked everything up, and now I can’t find the traces, I can’t go back. I vouched for you, Nate. Now I can’t find the freedom I need.

So tell me, you selfish bastard:

Why’d it all go wrong?

End.

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