I was fifteen when I first encountered Chip.
He had a proper name, sure, the one his parents and siblings referred to him by. But he preferred Chip. He was a small guy with a bright mop of ginger hair and a knack for bad jokes. Despite his family life he was always upbeat and cheery, almost constantly smiling that toothy grin of his.
We probably never would have met if it was not for the fact we both shared a love of exploring the local forest just outside of town. The remoteness of the Scottish Highlands was all around us, and though we lived in the same town our home lives were as different as could be. I lived in the upper half of town, all three-storey houses with added conservatories and expensive 4WD motors parked outside. Chip lived down in the bottom half of town; cramped council estates and grungy blocks of flats. Our education was just as diverse. I attended an All Boys Academy down south; Chip occasionally attended the local High School.
But we loved that damn forest, and so friends we were. Even a few weeks after we first encountered each other we’d be spending pretty much all day exploring that place, discovering its hidden locations, its secrets. I thought this kid was a great laugh, someone I could get along with far better than any of the boys at the Academy. We had the same weird sense of humour, liked the same books, watched the same TV shows. For a kid like myself, who had spent his summer holidays largely in the company of himself and dreading the return of schooling at the end of it all, Chip was a god-send.
It was roughly a day before the summer holidays finally came to an end when Chip first told me about his home life and we discovered the old mill in the clearing, hidden in the forest.
It was also when we first saw him.
The mill had likely been the hub of some logging operation, but that was a long time ago. It was an abandoned two-storey building crafted from the pine trees that were abundant in this area, sat in the centre of a large clearing. Old logging equipment was still strewn about the site, abandoned by whoever had constructed this place. Despite the neglect the structure was still remarkably intact and sturdy. It had been built to last, and lasted it had.
We found it in the morning when trying to trace our way back to a pond we’d found a week before. The plan was to spend our last day of freedom fishing, but that all changed when we found the mill. We decided to explore this weird new place, but Chip went on to suggest something even better; camping out overnight inside the mill.
I think the prospect of getting away from home for the night enticed us both; when we met back up later that afternoon we were packing sleeping bags and supplies. My parents seemed relieved that I’d actually decided the company of other human beings was worth keeping, so they were happy to let me camp out that night. This expressed relief made me curious for the first time about Chip’s family, about whom he so rarely spoke. I asked him what his parents thought of him spending the night camping in the woods.
In response, he just showed me the bruises all up his arms.
Chip’s dad was a drinker, a man who blew the family’s income in the local and on cheap whisky. He was also a man in possession of a serious temper that only got worse when he drank. Which was all the time. Now I knew why Chip liked to spend so much time away from home.
Naturally I was horrified, but Chip seemed to take it in his stride; he flashed me that toothy grin of his and told me not to worry about it, that it was camping time. As we set up our sleeping bags on the second floor of the mill the shock of what my friend had just so casually told me niggled in the back of my mind. But soon I forgot about it and focused on the matter at hand. This was our last day of summer holidays, after all; best to make the most of it.
We examined the tools and equipment lying about the site, trying to figure out what they had been used for. We found a collection of old hard hats and decided to have a headbutting battle with them. Remarkably neither us of gained concussions; those hats were sturdy things.
Finally as the night began to set in we built a fire on the bottom floor and ate the sandwiches my parents had sent me along with. We chatted for hours before we finally decided to call it a night. I was feeling pretty damn good about life as I drifted off to sleep.
But when Chip shook me awake, the look on his face told me something was very, very wrong.
He placed a finger to his lips before pointing to the window with the broken blinds nearby. I moved as quietly as I could over to it with him, though the floorboards gave out ominous creaks like gunshots amidst the sudden silence of the forest.
That was another hint that there was something wrong. Even at night this place was never quiet.
Together we peered over the edge of the window. The light from the dying embers below could barely make the clearing visible, never mind the trees that surrounded it. There wasn’t even the moon to offer some meagre light-source. My eyes adjusted to the absence of light and scanned about the place, but I couldn’t figure out what had got Chip so riled up. “What am I looking for?” I recall asking quietly. I figured he’d seen an animal of some sort. His hand stretched out to point into the darkness, and beside me he whispered nervously, “There, mate. Look closer.”
When I followed the direction he was pointing, I understood why he was so scared.
On the edge of the clearing, almost completely nestled in darkness, was someone standing and watching our mill. Tall and perfectly still, he could almost have passed for some strange branch or tree if the light wasn’t occasionally and briefly bouncing off his form. At this distance I couldn’t make out details, but I knew whoever he was he was watching. My heart began to pound in my chest, so hard it was painful.
The moon emerged overhead, casting a hazy light through the clearing, and I realised the man was facing the window, looking straight up at the pair of us. Fear stole away my voice, even though I so desperately wanted to scream.
For I could have sworn the man had no eyes. Instead there were roses growing from his face.
The moon was swallowed up again by cloud and we lost sight of the figure in the forest, but the terror of his presence lingered; Chip and I remained huddled together downstairs near to the fire, desperately coaxing the flames back to life in order to hold back the darkness. The place had changed in my mind now; no longer was it wonderful, full of mysteries and discoveries. It was dark and ominous now, every branch and tree appearing as some terrifying entity in my mind’s eye.
When the sun finally appeared through the haze of branches we decided to make a run for civilisation, moving as fast as our legs would carry us. I later explained it away as sleep deprivation coupled with terror, but I felt eyes on me the whole way back.
Like the forest was watching me hungrily.
The parting of ways for the school term between Chip and myself was an awkward, tense affair; I was due to leave for boarding school that day, but we were both still reeling from what we’d seen in the forest. My mind was in turmoil, I had no idea how to respond to the situation, and neither did Chip. So we simply avoided talking about it as we said goodbye; I told him I’d write, he told me to get back soon and cracked a joke about the weird stuff that goes on at all boys boarding schools.
That term passed rather quickly; I managed to find myself a few friends in and amongst my fellow students and the work kept my mind occupied. Away from home, away from that forest, I began to rationalise what I had seen. A hiker, perhaps. Plenty of people use the forest, after all. As for the roses, I figured that low-light and lack of sleep had a lot to say for that strange sight.
None the less, I was still uneasy about the whole thing. I found myself avoiding forested areas and felt my pulse rise whenever I was around flowers. However irrational I thought myself something had changed, and no words or mind-tricks would alter that.
Though I had promised to write to Chip during term, I kept finding reasons to avoid doing so. Yet even on the rare occasions when I did try it ended with crumpled up letters that would forever remain half-written and myself sitting frustrated and angry. I was desperate to talk to Chip about what we had seen that night in the forest, but doubts had taken root and flowered into full-blown insecurities; what if I had just imagined it all? What if Chip had rationalised it away far better than I had? He would think me mad. At one point I attempted to write just a simple thing; the usual ‘hello, how is life, how is school’ platitudes, but even that faltered, rose stems choking the flowers of my words.
Term dragged on and I began to dread returning home. In dark dreams I found myself being hunted through a twisted forest by something I never saw but knew was out to get me. As the term came to an end I contemplated asking to stay with relatives, but knew this would just arouse unwanted questions.
My first night back was the hardest; I found myself staring out my bedroom window for hours, unable to sleep, watching that old forest for any signs of movement or life. Sleep didn’t take me until the early hours of the morning, when the sun had already risen up beyond the tree canopy.
When I finally staggered down stairs sometime close to afternoon my mother informed me that Chip had been by and had left a note. Curious as to what my friend had to say I took it up to my room and opened it:
“Meet me at the Hiker’s Trail entrance at 7pm. I need your help. – CHIP”
Short and to the point; very unlike Chip. Concern for my friend began to bloom, and continued to expand for the rest of the day until I made my way to the start of the Hiker’s Walk trail that wound through the forest. Though I feared straying so close to the place of my nightmares, my mind was resolved on the matter.
I waited there in the near-darkness for several hours, the small beam from my flashlight like the beam from a lighthouse in a sea of darkness. I jumped at every noise and imagined eyes watching me from the black.
Yet Chip never showed. Nor did he show the next night, when I returned.
Concern had grown to worry, now; I thought of phoning Chip’s house only to realise I never got his home number. I visited all his usual hangouts to find no sign of him. After a day of fruitless searching I had all but given up hope of finding him and was contemplating stopping by his home or even going to the police. But I decided to visit the spot he had arranged to meet me one final time.
For the first twenty minutes it looked like it was going to be another no-show as darkness began to settle. Yet just as I was preparing to go home I spotted a flashlight approaching from up the road. Surprise turned to hope as I moved toward it, hoping that I was finally going to see my friend again.
It was Chip alright, but not as I remembered him. That all-but permanent smile was gone, replaced with dejection and hopelessness. His face was a swollen mass of purple bruises and cuts, his lip split at the centre. Similar injuries covered his arms, and he was lugging a heavy-looking backpack along with him.
“Jesus, Chip, what the hell happened to you?” “My dad,” he explained simply. That was all he needed to say. Chip’s old man had finally gone off the rails and done his son some serious damage. I’d seen Chip injured before but this was different. This was vicious.
Common decency filtered through the shock of seeing my friend in such a state; I urged him to come back with me to my parents’ home, where we could get him cleaned up and call the police. He just shook his head. “He’ll just find me again. I have to get out. Leave town.” I spent the next five minutes desperately trying to get him to re-consider, but there was nothing I could say; Chip had made his mind up, and that was that.
“But where will you go?!” I all but yelled. His response was once again simple, matter-of-fact; he raised his free arm and pointed into the woods.
“The old mill. I’ll hide out there for the night and then move on in the morning.” That was when the fear really gripped; my mind raced back to that night, to the man lurking in the gloom of the forest almost out of eyesight. I knew we were both thinking the same thing, but I had no idea what to say. For months I’d been wanting to talk to Chip about what we had seen in that mill, but now it had finally come up I had no idea what to say. After stammering for a moment I managed to blurt out, “What about what we saw that night? The man in the forest?”
Chip’s indifference scared me. He just shrugged and slung his backpack on again. “I dunno what we saw that night, mate,” he informed me, wincing as his lip parted once again with a fresh flow of blood, “Could have been anything. But they’re probably looking for me by now, and that mill is somewhere only you and I know about.” He started to walk away from me, leaving me standing there with more questions and worries than I could ever hope to utter. Before setting off down the path he turned to speak one final time. “Come find me in the morning before I leave. It’d be good to catch up with you properly, mate.” With that he was gone; I watched helplessly as the beam from his flashlight was swallowed by the forest, like some vast predator’s jaws closing around its prey.
That was not the last time I saw Chip.
But it’s the way I prefer to remember him.
I started towards home with no idea of how I would deal with this situation.
My friend had just wandered off into the dark, alone, to hide in a secluded mill, and I hadn’t stopped him. I berated myself for not going after him, but the thought of taking off into that old forest filled me with dread. Besides, Chip had every reason to run away; his dad had gone too far.
Yet he was out there alone, and the man we saw that night several months ago could be waiting for him.
The thought of what I had to do filled me with terror, but I realised then that I couldn’t live with myself if I left it like this. Cursing under my breath I turned and started back to the hiker’s path, my flashlight the only source of light for miles.
To my last breath I will remember that trek into the forest. The sound of old pine and twigs crunching beneath my feet, deafening amidst the unnatural silence of the trees around me. The shadows that seemed to loom towards me, leaving my heart thumping and my chest heaving. My mind played tricks on me, conjuring unseen horrors stalking, mocking this little teenage fool who decided to go romping off into the woods after his traumatised friend.
I was beyond civilisation at that point, truly lost to nature’s whims. I wanted so desperately to leave that place, but I had chosen my fate.
There was no turning back.
Time and distance ceased to mean anything amongst those terrible trees; soon I was running blindly, any sense of direction or hope long since lost. I was panicking, unable to think straight; I knew something in the darkness was watching.
Just as I was convinced I was going to remain lost forever I made out a light though the trees. Small and insignificant in amongst the vast darkness but at that moment the greatest thing I had ever set eyes upon. With the last of my strength I charged towards it, tripping over roots and fallen branches.
And when it came fully into view, that sense of hope, the idea of the light at the end of the tunnel was snatched from me.
It was the mill. I was back where it had all begun.
Seeing that place was almost too much for me, but the light spilling from the upstairs window told me that Chip must be inside. I yelled his name, desperate to hear the sound of another human being, to know that I wasn’t alone. But no answer came. I started for the doorway, calling out his name. Still nothing. Perhaps he had passed out, I hoped, exhausted after everything he had been through.
The interior of the mill was different from last time. Nature had reclaimed what had once belonged to it, vines and ivy snaking up the walls, moss and mould covering the floors. All was silent in that place. No birds, no animals; the only noise was the sound of my feet on the creaking floorboards. Already I could tell something was amiss; the very air seemed… wrong, the smell of rot and neglect overwhelming my nostrils.
And something else. Something that I had never smelled before at that point, and that I pray I will never smell again.
Slowly I moved up the rotting staircase to the second floor, calling out Chip’s name, sounding so small and insignificant even to my ears. Dread filled me as I imagined what could await me on that floor, grasping amidst the gloom for the mouldy banister.
The first thing I beheld was Chip’s bag and flashlight, flung hap-hazard against the wall. The bag had split open, scattering Chip’s possessions across the floor. The beam from my flashlight panned to the right, illuminating the scene inch by inch. I could see skids and scrape-marks across the floorboards. Chip had been here; it looked like he’d been fighting against something, fighting for his life.
That was when I saw the blood.
There was just a little at first, pooling near a thick clump of vines with vicious thorns growing out of them. Yet as the flashlight beam followed the vines the blood-flow grew thicker, the vines heavier. I was on that floor now, drifting through the rooms and following the macabre trail to it’s source. I wanted so desperately to run, but the need to find my friend overpowered my survival instincts. The vines were huge now. The thorns protruding from them were vast, vicious things, curling like scythes.
In the last room of the second floor, I found my friend. My flashlight lit up one of his legs first, showing the vines snaking up around it, then his chest where the vines had tightened. I could see the places where barbs had pierced clothing and flesh. Chip had been caught after a long struggle and bound; the vines stretched out to keep his arms locked in place, blood still flowing from the places his skin had been sliced.
Finally, I overcame my revulsion and shone the flashlight upon Chip’s head.
The silent scream locked upon my friend’s face will haunt me for the rest of my days. It was a look of utter helplessness and horror, of wordless agony and terror. The vines had spread up this far as well, now just two small tendrils that reached into his mouth. I barely held the contents of my stomach, till I saw the final fate Chip had suffered and fell, retching, to my knees.
The two vines had re-emerged, forcing their way out of Chip’s eye-sockets.
And then they had flowered. Two red roses bloomed where Chip’s eyes should have been.
For how long I lay there I do not know. All rational thought was gone; I was a quivering wreck barely clinging to sanity. Slowly I started to drag myself out of the room, not looking back.
Then I heard the creak of footsteps downstairs, and was lost to screaming terror.
They found me three days later, almost dead from hypothermia and ranting about thorns and monsters with no eyes. The doctors discovered rose thorns in my skin all across my arms and legs. It took another day to make me lucid enough to tell the police about what had happened.
Chip’s body was never found. Neither was the mill we discovered together. The mill never existed at all; no record was ever found of a logging operation inside the forest, nor any construction of a logging mill in a fifty-mile radius.
I was in hospital for weeks, nursed back to sanity by doctors plus a whole battery of psychotherapists. Despite their efforts I could recall nothing of the period between finding Chip’s body and being found in the woods days later. Amnesia, they told me, apparently very common in trauma victims; the mind blocking out memories too painful to deal with.
As soon as I was discharged I left town, went to stay with relatives across country as my parents fretted over what to do with a mentally-damaged son.
I have not returned since, nor will I if ever I can help it.
For I know that there is a man waiting for me in the forest that surrounds that town. He is the man who took my best friend, and who almost took me.
He has no eyes. Only roses.