A Gathering of Doorways
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by Michael Jasper
Category: Dark Fantasy/Fantasy
Description: The forest is reaching out for Gil and his wife, Melissa, but more than anything, however, the forest wants Noah, an adventurous five-year-old with a head full of tales about heroes and distant worlds. And Noah has just stepped inside the dark circle of trees . . .
eBook Publisher: Wildside Press, 2009 USA
eBookwise Release Date: June 2010
1 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [401 KB]
Reading time: 265-371 min.
"Slick salesman Gil and weary, neurotic Melissa purchased their tiny farm for a song, but the bargain came with a hidden price. Their formerly strong marriage, now strained from the stillbirth of their second child, snaps when preschooler Noah wanders into the forest. Each parent attempts a separate quest to retrieve the little boy from a bizarre parallel world of ghosts and monsters that lurks immediately beneath their property." -- Publishers Weekly
"A finely nuanced blend of fantasy and horror centering on a salesman turned organic farmer who confronts an unusual terror in the woods surrounding his land... Jasper demonstrates a sure hand in balancing his imaginative rendering of middle-class angst with the familiar supernatural ingredients of a 1980s-era horror novel." -- Booklist
A Remembrance of Dreams
This all began a while back, when Noah was just out of diapers, and I started having these fucked-up dreams. Got so I wasn't sleeping much anymore, big surprise here, thanks to my dreams of that place. I'd wake from one of them panting and dry-throated and disoriented, staring up at the ceiling until the blackness turned to blues and grays, and the world took shape again. I would listen to the whisper of my wife's breathing next to me and wait -- as I'd done ever since his birth -- for my son to stir or cry out in his bedroom down the hall, shaken from sleep by bad dreams of his own.
I didn't dare get up and risk waking Melissa, a painfully light sleeper. She'd want to know what was wrong and then probably try to come up with some sort of assessment or treatment for my insomnia. No thanks. I had enough on my plate as it was, with her and Noah, the farm and the water. The fucking polluted water.
So I'd lie there -- aching to return to that place from my dreams, that almost-familiar city -- but afraid that if I did, I'd keep searching its endless side streets and abrupt dead ends and deja-vued neighborhoods until either my car or I broke down.
The dreams always started off the same way: me driving in my old puke-green Ford Escort, two hundred thousand miles on it and still rolling, just the slightest tang of burnt oil coming from under the hood. The tired engine shuddered like an irregular heartbeat as I made my way up steep hills on tire-blackened streets four lanes wide, traffic slicing past me, all gray sedans with black-tinted windows and motorcycles with faceless helmeted riders, with the occasional out-of-place blue pickup rushing past in a burst of color and a roar of muffler.
I spent all my time squinting through the windshield at this shifting city unfolding in front of me, watching the buildings slip back out of sight when I turned my head this way or that, rearranging themselves like a kid's oversized set of blocks. I always felt like I was just two or three synaptic firings away from remembering the exact path to get to my destination. The place was a mash-up of all the cities I'd ever been to, sketchy neighborhoods right next door to grand squares and restored mansions. I had no maps. Each dream I'd go a bit deeper, but never arriving anywhere in the Undercity.
The Undercity. What the hell kind of made-up name was that?
Sometimes I'd make it to the upper reaches of the city, up impossible inclines that led to blocky unpainted houses with shuttered windows, houses built into the sheer purple rock of the mountain range that somehow cut through this sprawling metropolis. Sometimes down to the inner neighborhoods ringed with green parks and lined with pink pedestrians. At other times, I'd be stuck creeping through stop-and-go traffic in the bustling downtown, the road a valley between sharp concrete towers without windows. I could never get where I needed to go. My frustration grew, night after night, accumulating layers like a pearl, or a tumor.
I'd wake from those dreams with the smell of rot and car exhaust in my nose, body thrumming with the muscle memory of traveling by car. I'd lay there in the dark, aching to remember more, wishing I could wake Melissa, knowing I didn't dare. Our lives had been enough of a nightmare ever since Sophie.
If only I could blame all that happened that day on the damned Undercity.
* * * *
You were supposed to be watching him, Gil.
Her words created a backbeat to each step he took, his boots pounding on the sun-baked trail that lead to the forest -- the last place he wanted to go. But his son was in there; Gil knew it. His boy, Noah. And he was lost. Gil kicked at the dry, scarred ground and scrambled over blackened tree roots reaching up to trip him. Each step took him farther from the farm, but closer to Noah. Gil knew where his boy was, knew the name of the place. He just had to find it and get there.
Noah. He'd already wandered off twice this summer, a typical spacey, curious five-year-old. And Melissa was right -- Gil had been responsible. Three times now. The world turned white as the late-morning sunlight beat on Gil's bare head, the smell of dust and dead vegetation sharp in his nose.
Not even an hour ago, Noah had been sitting on his lap, squirming with impatience as he waited for Gil to continue telling him the latest story about Prince One-Eye and his band of Black Hoods. An eternity ago. Now the boy was gone. Lost.
Gil pushed through the trees, ignoring the dull jabs of pain in his bad hip as he walked, grabbing frustrated fistfuls of leaves dried by the sun. He hadn't been up here on the trails adjacent to the farm in weeks, and the lack of rain had started frying the trees already. Nothing wanted to grow this summer; even the pines looked parched.
Sometimes the forest eats you, Gil thought, sometimes you eat the forest.
Pushing his way through the trees, he let the elastic, dust-covered limbs snap back before realizing that the man walking behind him might catch one in the face.
Ray, Gil's sixty-five-year-old neighbor, was already chuffing air, sounding like he'd been running all-out with a pack of rabid dogs at his heels instead of just walking on the trail for the past fifteen minutes. Ray lifted his Bullitt-shaped head as he fiddled with the translucent cord that ran from his nose back up his shoulder and into the hissing pack of oxygen on his broad back.
Supposed to be watching him, Melissa's voice reminded Gil. He winced and picked up the pace.
Next to Ray walked his fawn-colored greyhound Bullitt, straining against his leash. Ray had shown up a few seconds after Gil had broken the news about Noah to Melissa, and Gil had been stung by her response. Twenty steps outside their farmhouse, knowing where he had to go to find Noah, he had simply detoured around the unexpected appearance of Ray in his gravel driveway. Gil had avoided the black leash attached to Ray's skittish yellow dog and figured that was it -- he was free of the old man and anyone else foolish enough to want to help.
But Ray and Bullitt had decided to follow Gil up here, and Gil didn't have the energy to tell them to back off.
"Forget calling the cops," Ray said now. He exhaled a crackly breath. "They wouldn't even... give us the time of day. Not after that... false alarm last month."
Already he was making himself part of this, Gil noticed, saying "us" instead of "you." But with Noah out there somewhere, trying to find his way back home -- can't think about that, can't think about that -- Gil figured he'd take whatever help he could get.
"Cops don't matter, Ray," he said, all confident voice and no hesitation. Fooling exactly no one. He touched the cell phone in his jeans pocket, wondering if he might have missed a call from Melissa. "Noah can't be far off, I tell ya. He's okay, probably just exploring, as usual."
Melissa's reaction still baffled him. After he'd realized Noah had slipped off, and he'd done his best to find him on his own, Gil had found her orchestrating the day's activities in the kitchen with Julio, Mariana, and Herschel. When he asked her if she'd seen Noah, she rushed toward him with this look of intense -- what? Fear? Hatred? -- on her face.
"What happened?" Her voice had a dull clang to it, like a doorframe echoing after the door it holds has been slammed. Not waiting for a response, she pushed past him on her way outside. Gil knew she wanted to have their discussion away from the hired help. Melissa hated showing that anything was wrong. Ever.
"You were supposed to be watching him, Gil," she said over her shoulder as soon as he was outside, crunching over gravel.
"He was just playing outside, on the swings," he began, moving closer to her only to be pulled up short by fresh pain in his injured hip. "He was right there..."
His words dried up when she showed him her back, once again, and put both hands to her head. He could tell without seeing her face that her eyes were clenched shut, that she'd be claiming another migraine soon. Gil wanted to grab her, turn her around and wrap her in his arms the way he used to. She was too quick to turn away from him lately. What he wanted to do was hold her and feel her heart beating as madly as his own, giving them both the strength to face this together.
But he didn't dare reach for her. Instead, he started walking away from the house, her words stinging like cold sleet thrown by the winter wind. He swallowed his anger and turned his gaze south, to the old trails leading up to the forest at the edge of their property. A heartbeat later, Ray and his dog had arrived.
Ray and Bullitt and Gil trudged over the uneven ground rising up on the last few acres of Gil's land. He had no idea who owned the forest looming ahead of them (it certainly wasn't Ray), but he needed to move faster, had to get in there sooner, even though his feet grew more heavy and his hip more sore with each stride.
"I think Noah was here," Ray said. Somehow he'd gotten ten steps ahead of Gil. "See that?"
Ray stood up straight, one hand resting on the back of his head to open up his lungs. His other hand pointed downward, at an intersecting trail. He'd dropped Bullitt's leash and was now standing on it with a booted foot to keep the jumpy dog from darting off like a pup chasing squirrels and rabbits.
In the bit of softened dirt, Gil saw the crescent shape -- so small! -- of what had to be the toe of one of Noah's sandals. The rest was obscured by a flat rock embedded into the earth.
He fought the urge to break away from Ray and plunge down the trail after his son. He could almost taste the musky air of the trees and dirt, surrounded by the stink of rot in the shaded coolness. Air so thick you could feel it on your skin, a moist jacket of guilt and decay. Gil remembered it all too well.
But he couldn't move forward. A memory had snagged him, sharper than any thorn-filled bush or low-hanging tree limb.
"Hold up a second," he mumbled. "Just hold up."
Moving like a dead man, shambling and dragging his leaden feet, Gil slid off the trail and pulled the shovel from behind the big boulder where he'd stashed it last time he was here, in the early spring.
Touching it made his head spin, just for a moment. What went down last time he was here was now coming around to snap him in the ass. The blade of the shovel looked slightly black, stained somehow. Ray could probably see it from where he stood.
Let him ask, Gil thought as he returned to the trail. If he wants to know more, I'll tell him about the squatter and how I got rid of that skinny, snooping bastard. See how he likes that.
With the shovel in hand, Gil's guts stopped roiling and churning and instead filled with ice. He knew what this feeling was. He'd experienced it countless times before in his nightmares, night after night for the past few years.
"Something is amiss," he muttered, gripping the shovel in both hands as the sun crept ever closer to its daily zenith. "Something is amiss because of the Undercity."
Gil and Noah sat perched behind the counter of the store. Gil had one heel hooked on a rung of the creaky old stool, Noah balanced on his knee. At ten a.m., the sun was already pre-heating the store's tin roof like an oven, overpowering the window AC unit next to them and the three ceiling fans whirling on high above them. Billie Holiday crooned "Blue Moon" on the radio as Gil rested a hand on his son's back and continued making up a new story to while away their lazy morning together.
Noah gazed at the fan closest to them, listening hard. This story was one of those constantly evolving tales that never truly ended. Gil just picked up from where he left off the last time, usually with help from Noah -- the boy recalled the details much better than his dad.
But as luck would have it, after not even five minutes of spinning out the latest adventure of the outlaw Prince and his secret band of Black Hoods, down in a dungeon chasing trolls, to be exact, two women from up the road walked in and interrupted them.
"Foiled again," Gil whispered, annoyed. He slid Noah down to his shin until Noah's sandals slapped the scratched and dust-tracked hardwood floor, his body all wiry little-boy muscle capped by a blonde moptop. "I'll finish this later, 'kay, bud?"
Soon as I come up with a plot twist or three, he thought, biting down on a sudden yawn trying to escape. Another sleepless night last night. Gil's eyes felt like they'd been smoothed down with fine-grit sandpaper, and he felt a not-unpleasant head rush as he got to his feet, favoring his bad hip.
"All right," Noah said, disappointed but distracted already by the various magnets on the humming dorm fridge Gil kept behind the counter. Gil could tell he was still inside the story, plotting what would happen next. With his imagination, he thought, the youngster could probably tell the stories better than me these days.
"Stay close to the store," he called as Noah turned and disappeared down one of the aisles without a sound.
Gil could still smell Noah's kid scents of baby shampoo, sweat, and dirt on his clothes, already missing his son's wriggling forty-five pounds on his knee.
"Hel-lo ladies," he called out with the best fake enthusiasm he could muster as another yawn came on. "Just got some new apricots off our trees this morning, along with the last batch of some killer cherries."
His hand on his bad hip, he threw a smile at the two thirtysomething women wandering through his store, stay-at-home moms with nothing better to do all day but shop and take aerobics classes to entertain themselves. At least these two took care of their own kids; Gil had heard that many of the housewives up there had nannies to watch their kids for them. The women were from the new neighborhood up the road -- Estate homes starting in the mid 800s! the sign along the road shouted at him whenever he drove past -- and Melissa had made him vow to be nice to all of them, reminding him that their patronage would help pay for a large chunk of the bills on the farm in the coming months.
It wasn't easy. People like them were convinced they had to eat all the forests before the forests ate them.
The screen door leading out to the fenced-in playground whined open and then slammed shut with a shot. Noah had made it outside. Gil grinned, picturing him meeting up with Mrs. Peterson's twin girls and Ms. Harrison's surly little boy, the hint of a smile on his face as he called out a "Hey" to them.
Still grinning, Gil closed his sore eyes for longer than a blink and was rewarded with a nightmare image of an endless smooth road surrounded by oversized concrete curbs that protected twin rows of twisted gray houses from a trio of night-blue pickups that were now roaring down the road at him.
His eyes snapped open when he heard the shudder of air brakes on Jones Ferry Road, barely fifty yards from the store. A sudden stab of fear passed through him, a sensation not unlike the sliver of pain still embedded in his hip months after he'd first injured it in the forest.
Remember the fence, Gil told himself. Noah knew the boundaries of the farm. Even if he did like to wander off sometimes, he knew not to leave their land. The kid was safe.
The two women chatted and walked up and down the six narrow aisles of the store, the squeaking wood floor announcing each footstep they made in their pricey cross-trainers. Gil could almost smell their sweat after their walk here to cap off their workouts at the two-story health club next to the Olympic-sized pool that now sat where a dense stand of loblolly pines, kudzu, and other bushes and weeds had once held reign.
Now, everything was dying. Even their pool had been closed, due to some issues with the water, some sort of contamination, from what Gil had heard. He just hoped it wasn't spreading to his land.
Eat the forest before it eats you.
Gil gazed at the scuffed floor, recalling the days when it was just him and Melissa, building their dream farm together, the place they'd gotten for a song from the previous owners, a pair of diehard Chapel Hill hippies.
The therapy farm. The recovery ranch.
We'd been happy then, Gil thought, in spite of the stress and hard labor. Maybe even because of it.
Once they got the place up and running, then hired some help, Gil's role went from farmer and fix-it man to shopkeeper, and now he was mainly a babysitter. No complaints, there. Beat cubicle work and corporate life any day. What killed him was how the women coming into the store always gave him that "so-sweet" look whenever they saw him with Noah, as if a father spending time with his son was cause for adulation.
Gil also caught the look given him by some of the men who saw him with Noah, a squinty look, as if he were half a man for allowing himself to sink to the level of a child's caretaker.
Half a man, Gil thought, arms prickling with goose-bumps. He shot a look at the two windows opening onto the playground. That was something else from my dreams, wasn't it? The ones about driving through an almost-familiar city, on the cusp of being utterly lost. Glimpses of half a man, someone who disappeared if you looked at him head-on.
As if on cue, the radio played more Billie -- "Strange Fruit" this time. Surrounded by crates of fresh fruits and veggies, Gil had to smile at the irony, even if technically, Billie wasn't singing about fruit at all. His goose flesh faded.
Fluttering the neck of his faded Apple Chill Street Fair T-shirt for a breeze, he squinted at a trail of dust in the last aisle and the unsprung mousetrap strategically placed under the shelving there. Time to get back to Prince One-Eye and the Black Hoods, back in the Forbidden Forest, running from tigers and hunting trolls and searching for the Humming Sword of Peace. Such heavy thoughts were the current stresses of Gil's life: he was on deadline to a five-year-old.
"Say, Gil, where these mangoes from?" called out Mrs. Peterson, pulling him back to reality. "Are they local?"
Or had it been Ms. Harrison? They always remembered his name, using it at every opportunity, like a farmer prodding a slow cow.
"From the McGinley farm just up the road," he said, turning again toward the big windows looking out onto the playground, opaque with morning light. Stifling a yawn, he put a hand to his forehead and wiped away a line of sweat. He wished it would rain soon -- over a month had slipped by without so much as a drop. Their plants and trees were going brown, dying from the heat. At least, Gil hoped drought was the cause of the crops going bad.
"Southern trees bear strange fruit," Billie sang as Gil tried to locate Noah out on the old, uneven merry-go-round or the monkey bars. Never should've put up those damn monkey bars. "Blood on the leaves and blood at the root..."
Was that another truck thundering up Jones Ferry? Those maniacs never slowed down for the curve.
"Just up the road," he repeated, looking through the window at just the right angle to see what looked like a dark blue pickup truck pulling into the gravel parking lot, and then he was running around the counter and down the aisle of granola and hemp products, sore hip screaming from the sudden call to action, booted feet drumming on the squeaking wooden floor.
"Gil?" said Mrs. Peterson or Harrison. "Are you all right?"
Gil ignored her. He could barely breathe in the hot, close air of the store.
"Noah!" he called out even as he put his hand on -- and then through -- the rusty screen of the spring-loaded door. Melissa's going to kill me for that, he thought, and then he was shouting out his son's name again. He could've sworn he saw a second, then a third blue pickup pulling into the driveway.
But when Gil stepped through the ruined door of the store and put his feet on the top step leading downward, the playground and the parking lot in front of him were empty.
Ray either didn't hear what Gil had said over the hiss of his portable oxygen tank, or he was ignoring Gil. He'd give the old guy the benefit of the doubt. Ahead of them, the dark green expanse of the forest loomed like a leafy thundercloud, replacing Gil's thoughts about the Undercity with mingled sensations of guilt and gloom.
Still gripping the stained, rusty shovel tight, he ended up walking right through an unexpected stream and soaking his boots. With Melissa's voice still repeating its ugly, condemning mantra in his skull, he looked down at the water and sniffed its sulfurous odor. The stream was no wider than a trickle of piss, but dark and thick as syrup, and it flowed north, downhill toward his farm. More bad water.
That stream hadn't been here yesterday.
Something's amiss in the Undercity...
Up here, the hard, dry ground supported only scrub brush, pines, and sun-baked, clay-stained rocks big as your head.
Thought you were watching him...
Ray trudged and splashed past Gil, oblivious to the bad water below them, though Bullitt made sure to leap over it. As if moving of its own volition, Gil's hand shot out as Ray trudged by, and Gil ended up snagging Ray's tank of oxygen.
What the hell? At the cool touch of the metal tank, Gil felt a sudden out-of-body rush of dislocation. The events of this day -- a day that had started out so peacefully, so normally -- caught up to him like an elbow to the nose.
Something was amiss? Everything was amiss. He was standing outside the forest with Ray, for shit's sake. The guy was on oxygen. With twenty-percent lung capacity, Melissa had told Gil.
"Gonna... let go of that?" Ray gasped.
With a start Gil realized the old man's nosepiece had come loose. He looked down and saw his hand still gripping Ray's slim oxygen tank, its cords dangling to the ground.
"Jesus, I'm sorry, Ray!" Gil scrambled to get Ray's breathing apparatus attached again. He ended up bumping into Ray's greyhound and getting tangled up in the leash, tottering closer to the diseased stream at their feet.Ray just laughed and took the cords and tank from Gil, leaving the younger man to get free of the leash on his own.
"You've got a pretty... healthy respect for these woods." Ray inhaled, coughed, and spat. The stuff hit the trail with a slapping sound. "So," Ray hissed, nodding at the trees without ever taking his eyes off of Gil, "what makes you think... your boy would go in there on his own?"
Because, Gil wanted to say. Because of the Undercity. Because something's amiss there.
"We don't have time to go into that now, Ray," he said instead, trying to get around Ray. He thought he saw another sandal print there amid the rocks and gnarled tree roots. "I can tell you later."
"No." Ray stepped in front of Gil until they were face-to-face. Even though Gil was six inches taller than Ray and had full use of his lungs, he felt like the smaller man here. Ray still hadn't reattached his nosepiece, and his breathing was like wind throwing hail against a tin roof every few seconds.
"No, we get this... hashed out now," Ray said, rubbing Bullitt's narrow head. He pointed off to the southeast, and through a gap in the trees Gil could see the rest of Ray's dogs. Ray had often told him that he'd lived on his place next door all his life, and how he collected former racing greyhounds the way a kid collects baseball cards, or a college kid collects debts. All of his dogs, easily three dozen of them -- brindle, fawn, white, and a couple black ones -- were racing in a wide, tightly packed circle across the short grass of his four-acre-long field. Coursing at top speed, chasing after some invisible prey, so fast they seemed to blend together as they circled and circled in ever-widening ovals.
Ray sucked in a painful breath as two of them collided and hit the ground. It took a good two seconds for their yelping to reach them, as if they were ghost dogs moving out of synch with time and space.
"I won't have that anymore," Ray said through clenched teeth. "Talk to me now or you go in there by yourself, no guide. My dogs've been going nuts like that all morning, and something's going on that I want taken care of." He looked at Gil, watery blue eyes unblinking. "Now."
"Damn it," Gil muttered. Not now, old man.
Something rustled through the forest ahead of them, and Gil fought the urge to run after it like a wild man. He needed something tangible, something he could pin down and beat into submission. He fought back the urge to pursue, but only barely.
He could hear Ray breathing next to him. Waiting.
Gil rubbed his face and stepped back, wishing he were still in the store with Noah on his knee, a story spilling from his lips. Noah's kid odor was still on his hands and shirt, while the forest was a hulking bully, arms crossed, ahead of him.
When Gil blinked, he could've sworn he saw movement inside the forest from the corner of his tired, sleep-deprived eyes. An image from his dreams -- a pale slice of a dangerously thin man's face, in profile, the trees leaning away from his presence. A partially digested fragment of memory. Yet another deal gone bad.
Herschel, one of the old men who worked on the farm with Melissa, would've had a theory or two about this. Herschel was always talking about probability and coincidences: "What are the odds of this happening? What is the likelihood of that?"
Now Gil was wondering the same damn question.
Then he blinked again and the image of the man inside the trees disappeared.
When he did, Gil knew what he had to do. He gritted his teeth, got his feet under him, and punched Ray as hard as he could in the jaw.
As Ray reeled backward, Gil pried the leash off Ray's thick wrist and threw it. Bullitt panicked at the sudden commotion and skittered off down the trail they'd just walked up, picking up speed. Ray went gasping to one knee, fumbling for his oxygen, and Gil turned on his heel, hip muttering a warning.
"Sorry, Ray," he said. "I've got to do this on my own."
He half-ran, half-walked away from his old neighbor, his knuckles aching from where he'd connected with Ray's jaw. He hadn't expected so much resistance from the old guy.
Hold on, Noah. I'm coming for you. Finally.
Gil was three steps away from the entrance to the forest, a gap formed by two oaks whose upper branches had grown together, when something slammed into the backs of both his legs. He toppled forward, bad hip screaming back to life with a vengeance. His hands sank into the cold, wet earth inside the darkness of the forest. The black dirt smelled sickly sweet, like overripe compost. Good, rich soil, he thought foolishly.
Then he turned. Towering over Gil was his neighbor, standing up straight with his thick arms folded on his chest. His lanky, fawn-colored racing dog stood next to him, and his oxygen tank sat on its side ten yards behind him, cords streaming away from it like torn guts.
Ray wasn't wheezing. For the first time since Gil had met him over six years ago, he couldn't hear the old man's tortured breathing.
"I think you forget," Ray said in a low voice, "that I've lived here a tiny bit longer than you, Gil."
Ray bent off to one side, put a finger to the side of his nose, and did a long farmer-style blow out one nostril, then the other, shooting strands of ropy snot onto the red-clay ground like an offering to the forest.
"God, I hate having that plastic tube up my nose all the time. And you punch like a girl. Let's go, Gil."
Fingers numb, Gil pulled himself up on the nearest tree trunk. He tried putting as much of his weight on his bad hip as he dared. A few feet away, resting blade-down next to a tree as neat as if he'd placed it there, sat his trusty shovel.
What were the odds of that? he thought, and nearly began laughing hysterically. He risked a quick look at Ray, the neighbor he thought he knew, and hobbled forward to grab the rough, splintery wooden handle of his shovel. It was all coming full-circle, here at the forest's edge once more.
Holding the weather-beaten shovel like a crutch, Gil took a deep breath and without another word limped into the first rank of old-growth trees at the edge of his land in search of his son, with Ray and Bullitt at his heels, and together the three of them left the rest of the world behind.