Alpha Moore hesitated as she crept through the kitchen. Her focus sharpened, and she homed in on the back door. Beyond it she could sense pure evil. She took a shuddering breath, thrust back the dark curtain of hair that had swung across her face, eased open the door and peered outside into the gloom, dreading what she was about to find.
She blinked in surprise: the only person she could see was little Bruce Pilkington in his Batman pyjamas, his cheeks chubby and his curls dancing in the breeze. He was balancing on his toes in the dull light of the courtyard, rooting around inside an enormous wheelie bin meant for rubbish. He gave a childish giggle as he began fiddling with the bin bags, then drew one out from the overflowing pile. He extracted yesterday's newspaper from the bag and balled up the sheets before stuffing them into the large bin on wheels.
She scrunched up her eyes, peering intently at the young boy. What the hell is he doing? Next Bruce pulled a tin from its hiding place. Goose bumps ran up her arms as she read the label – lighter fluid. He poured the contents over the newspaper, placed the tin on the courtyard wall and took a box of matches from his pocket.
Her stomach lurched as he glanced back at the house. Suddenly she knew exactly why she’d been driven to follow him out here. His thoughts were flashing through her mind in a series of images filled with fire and the stink of burning flesh. Once this bin was alight he was going to wheel it into the utility room, where it would smoulder, fuelled by the laundry. It would send noxious plastic-ridden smoke up the stairs and into sleeping lungs, and it would follow this up with fatal bursts of flames.
She raked at her eyes, digging her fingers painfully into the sockets but the visions of the monster Bruce was growing into wouldn’t go away. No! No way! I can’t do it again. But she had to, because no one else could stop him. Not permanently.
Bruce struck the match and gazed at it, waiting for the flames to lick his fingers. As he stood there, entranced, she leapt into the courtyard, girding her courage to do battle for the first time in three years. She saw his eyes flicker towards her but the flame drew him back. She blew out the match, grabbed the matchbox and threw it. With horror she saw it hit the tin of lighter fluid, which slipped from the wall, spraying drops onto her sleeve. Desperate to tear the shirt from her body, she forced herself instead to slide her thoughts into his brainwaves.
The tissue-like barrier that was the outer edge of Bruce’s thoughts thinned, then gave way completely as she pushed through it into his mind. Her skin tingled briefly as the torn edges of the protective layer brushed over her, then the barrier sealed up behind her and she was enclosed in another world: a world controlled by Bruce - the inside of his mind. Her vision blurred as her eyes adjusted to this new landscape. It was dark in here – dark and squishy. Yuck! Hot black mud was squelching up between her toes. Why don’t my shoes ever come with me into their heads?
Ahead of her lay a long corridor with dark tunnels branching out on either side. All of it was awash with muck that swirled and boiled, filled with all his pain and pleasure.
She stepped forwards gingerly, almost falling as she sank into mud up to her ankles. Her feet slurped as she ploughed through the mire, peering into every tunnel in search of a glimmer of human kindness. All around her Bruce’s thoughts were popping out of the muck with disgusting burps.
Mud splattered onto Alpha’s chest as a fat bubble popped, issuing a long, harsh whisper. ‘Buuurrrn,’ it seemed to say. She felt its heat like an open flame.
Another burst of muck formed a hillock in the distance, before collapsing into waves that rippled towards her. ‘Killlll,’ they sighed.
Alpha steadied herself as the sickening waves washed past her. Their hot, slimy substance smelled of fresh-dead meat. I’d hate to live in this dump of a mind.
The next bubble told her he’d retrieved the matchbox. She hurried on into the darkest corner of his mind where the mud was churning wildly. Her heart fluttered as he lit another match.
Instantly she began pouring words and images into his mind: ‘Toss that match and you’ll be arrested.’ (Bruce’s shoulders twitched as she filled his thoughts with visions of police wrenching his arms behind his back.) ‘You’ll be put on trial.’ (She created a steel-cold judge sentencing him to life imprisonment.) ‘They’ll keep you locked up.’ (A cell encircled Bruce’s brain. He fingered imaginary bars and backed away from the brutish man she painted as his cellmate.)
With any ordinary boy these projections would have been enough to turn him, but a thrill of gratification slid through Bruce instead. The match went out - he struggled to light another with burnt fingers.
The mud gushed up around Alpha, dragging her down into it. She fell to one knee, and only managed to pull free with a huge effort. With a sob of regret she rushed back the way she’d come, moving as quickly as she dared through the rippling swamp. Got to get out before he sets me alight.
Halfway towards the exit point she stopped and turned, reluctantly facing the bubbling cesspool she’d run from. Can’t give up now. She squared her shoulders. I’ll try another way.
These were Bruce’s immediate thoughts and emotions but, to the left and slightly to the rear, if his brain was anything like normal people’s, she would find his memory zone. That would give her clues about his reasons. She turned into one of the tunnels leading in that direction and began to plough her way up it. The tunnel twisted unexpectedly, but before she could turn back another mud-filled wave forced her on. She found herself at the edge of Bruce’s recollection centre. A misty haze separated her from his earliest memory of his own birth.
Stuff it, I haven’t got time for baby years, she thought, knowing that at any moment Bruce would succeed in lighting another match.
But then the memory grabbed her full attention as she saw baby Bruce struggle for air, his umbilical cord caught round his neck, starving his body of oxygen. He was dying before he’d had a chance to live. Suddenly there were bright lights; the cord was unwrapped, and the infant Bruce was gasping for breath.
And now she knew how to stop him. His near death in infancy had given her that.
She waded back through Bruce’s mind towards the darkest part of his brain, wanting to run but knowing that those muddy waves would mean her death if they knocked her down. When she reached the churning muck in his centre of hatred she leaned over and pressed her hands into it. She could feel the mud writhing beneath her fingers like serpents just below the surface twisting together in battle. She fought to get a grip on this essence while currents of the thick, slimy substance battered at her legs bringing her to her knees. The mud rose up to her chin but still she pressed down. At the same time she sent forth words and images, filling Bruce with the belief that, if he set a fire again or deliberately harmed anyone, his lungs would collapse. Very simply, he would suffocate from the inside out. He would again become the baby he once been, struggling for air as his umbilical cord choked him to dead.
Bruce rasped out a cough, then dropped the box of matches and stumbled back inside.
Alpha felt his head empty of thought now that she had sliced away his pleasure. Got you!
Exhausted and dizzy from the mind-changing, she dragged herself towards the exit from his brain, grateful that at least walking wasn’t so hard now: the rolling muck had disappeared along with Bruce’s evil desires.
She wanted nothing more than to leave his mind (still running on autopilot) to get back into her own body that was patiently waiting for her in the courtyard. As she tore through the tissue barrier at the edge of Bruce’s brain her senses prickled in warning: the touch sent a new fear rippling through her. She pulled herself back into Bruce’s mind in alarm. What’s that out there?