Gus bent forward and braced his hands on his knees, pausing to take a few deep breaths behind a large and winding slide. He knew that he should be careful, but he was having too much fun to let a little windedness get the better of him. Besides, one had to be prepared to run in an intense game of hide-and-seek. He really had no choice. Hide-and-seek was serious business.
He watched the little boy peek in and around the equipment in search of victims, and Gus planned for his dash to home base. Well, actually to say that a little boy was searching was quite a stretch. Gus assumed it was male, because it was hard to picture a girl looking like a lizard. His name was Tonzy, and Gus had overheard him tell another child that he was a Silurian…whatever that was. He kinda looked like a big komodo dragon in clothes, but Gus didn't really care. As long as he didn't flick his tongue out and lick him across the face, Tonzy was just another little kid playing hide-and-seek. Except right now, Tonzy was the enemy.
Gus crept around the corner of the slide, waiting for just the right time to make a run for it. Tonzy saw a flash of white and spun his head around. Knowing that he'd been caught, Gus laughed and sprinted towards safety. He could hear the heavy pounding of his pursuer behind him, and he knew that it was only a matter of footsteps before he was caught. The lamp post of rescue was just ahead, and Gus was determined to win the footrace. Then, in a moment of a child genius, Gus stopped abruptly and spun away from Tonzy as he rushed by. Changing course, he ran around the confused little creature and slapped at the post as he flew by. Rather proud of himself, he did a victory dance and giggled as Tonzy growled and went off in search of another victim.
If you couldn't outrun them, outsmart them. Smarter was always better than faster. Well, most of the time. And sometimes all that mattered was who was bigger.
All of the other children were still breathing quietly in their hiding places, so Gus plopped to the ground and picked at the grass while he waited for someone to escape. Out of curiosity he put a blade in his mouth and chewed it up. Almost instantly he began sputtering and spitting. Real grass? That hardly seemed fair. He heard a small giggle behind him and turned around to see who had made it out unnoticed. What he saw was not one of his playmates. He stood and walked closer to her.
A small girl sat on the ground with her legs folded akimbo and her hands resting in her lap. Her pink hair was gathered into a ponytail and dangled from atop her head, swaying with every movement of her body. She had large grey eyes that peered over a tiny nose and red lips, and her cheeks flushed from the sudden attention. Her ears poked out and rose and fell with her smile. She wore a bright white dress trimmed in deep purple with pleats in the short skirt, and her feet were bare. Yet the most striking thing about the little girl was a silver band that encircled her head with a teardrop of tiny jewels cascading down the center of her forehead. Whenever her head moved, the unseen lightsource reflected off the gemstones and lit up her eyes. Gus couldn't make sense of that. It was marvelous.
As he got nearer he felt a change in the air, as if it were thinning and getting cooler. Suddenly he stepped through an invisible veil…almost like walking through a very quiet and very dry waterfall. The noise from the not-quite-hidden children faded and was replaced by a faint whirring, much like the sound a ceiling fan makes as it whirls air around a room. He felt very comforted by the noise. It was the kind of calming sound that you just wanted to reach out and hug. Or maybe it was the girl.
"Hi," he said quietly. "I'm Gus."
"Hello," she said, smiling.
Gus sat down in front of her and mimicked her way of sitting. He was only a bit taller than her, but she looked even smaller than she had from afar. He swept his hand through the grass and scrunched his nose up at the memory of the taste of it. "You can't eat the grass. The flowers, sure…but not the grass. Which is kinda funny since the flowers grow up through the grass. Maybe the flowers are so sweet cause they steal all the yummy goodness. What's your name?"
She watched his hand as it move back and forth on the ground. "I don't have a name."
"You don't have a name? Well, that's the silliest thing I ever heard. What do your parents call you when they need you?"
"I just hear them in my head. I don't need a name," she answered with a delicate voice to match her tininess.
"Oh. I would say that's weird, but Mimi would say I was being rude. And then I'd probably say that I wouldn't like that, and she would probably swat me on the back of my head. She does that sometimes. How old are you?"
"What do you mean?"
"What do you mean, what do I mean? I mean, how many years have you been alive? I don't think these are hard questions," he said trying not to get irritated. "And I would like to be able to call you something. Can I call you Amelia?"
"Amelia…"she whispered, mulling it over. "I like Amelia. Yes, you may call me that. And I don't know how long I've been alive. I just always have been. Yes, for as long as I can remember."
Gus thought about what she'd said. "Of course, for as long as you can remember. You wouldn't be able to remember when you weren't alive."
"Cause you weren't there to remember it. You can't remember what isn't your stuff to remember if you weren't there. That makes no sense!" he exclaimed.
"It doesn't? Don't you?"
Amelia studied his face. "How many years do you remember?"
"Only a couple, but I've been around longer than that. I'm five," he said.
"Five? Are you sure?"
"Of course I'm sure! They are my years. I think I would know, little girl," Gus answered, crossing his arms over his chest in frustration.
"I thought you were going to call me Amelia," she asked, her voice a bit higher.
"Well, that was before I knew you were going to cause so much trouble."
"I don't mean to cause trouble. I'm just trying to make sense of you."
Gus' mouth fell open and his eyes widened. "Me? You're the one who doesn't make any sense!"
"I understand me," she said with a smile.
"And I understand me!"
"So, we do have that in common," Amelia replied, still grinning.
Gus gave in and offered her a smile of her own. "I guess."
Amelia craned her neck and looked over his shoulder at the playing children. Her smile turned into a frown, and she cast her eyes downwards to her folded hands. Gus also looked behind him and saw that nearly all off the kids were now running around trying not to be caught by Tonzy. He laughed and pointed towards the tiny lizard boy. "I don't think he's ever played hide-and-seek before. He's not very good at it."
"I've never played it either," she admitted quietly.
Gus turned to face her and kicked his legs out straight in front of him, leaning back on braced arms. "Do you want to? You can. They are nice kids."
"I can't, but that's okay."
"Is it because you don't have a name? Because I gave you one, remember?"
"No, it's because they can't see me." Amelia picked at the grass, the smile gone from her eyes.
"But I can see you."
"Yes, and that's why you don't make any sense. No one has ever been able to see me," she answered.
Gus thought that was the most dreadful thing he had ever heard, and he told her as much. Amelia grinned and nodded, but her smile didn't have the same sweetness that it had before. Gus was starting to feel guilty for seeing her sitting all alone in the first place. At least she had seemed to be enjoying herself before he had shown up.
"So, do they think I'm over here talking to myself?"
She giggled, and the sound eased his guilt. "No, silly. You're in my bubble. Not even my people can see you in here."
"But I saw you in here," he said.
"You're only one who ever has." Amelia studied him once again. "But when my mother was young, she met a man once who saw into her bubble," she added quietly.
"So, no one can really see us?" Gus stood and faced the children. A girl named Ellian was looking their way, and Gus did a funny dance and stuck out his tongue. Nothing. "I like your bubble," he said as he sat back down. "I need a bubble like this at my house, even though they already act like I'm not around. What are your people?"
"Like their name?"
"Umm…yes. Like…I'm a human," Gus explained.
"We don't have a name. We just are," Amelia responded curiously. "You're not like any human I've ever seen."
"I am so! I'm just as human as…" Gus looked around to make his point and found that there was no comparison readily available. "Well, I am human. It just looks like I'm the only one."
"You're human plus."
"Plus what? I don't have any plus. I'm just plain ole human from Delaware!"
Amelia laughed again and readjusted the jewels on her head. "You're funny, Gus."
"Well…I'm human too. Human Gus," he mumbled, a bit transfixed by the shimmer of the jewels as she moved them. "What are those? Is it like a necklace for your head?"
"It keeps out the noise," she answered as she aligned them to drape just over her nose.
"What noise? Like the bubble does?"
"No, the noise of others. If I took it off, I could hear everything that you are thinking. But this lavalier keeps it all out."
"I like that word…lavalier. So, do all your people hear everybody's mind noise?" Gus asked.
"Yes, but as long as I'm wearing this, I can read like you hear…only what I am supposed to. When I become an elder, I won't need the lavalier any longer. This just helps me to learn how to read," she explained.
Gus stared even more intently at the droplets of gemstones. "Wow, I wish I had one of those. Except I guess I would have to be able to read people's minds. And I bet it's not as much fun as it sounds sometimes," he reasoned. "Do you talk? To your people?"
"No, not like you do. We don't have to."
"Then how come you can talk to me. If no one can see you and you don't talk to your family and friends, then how do you talk at all?"
Amelia motioned towards the children. "Just because they can't see me doesn't mean that I can't listen. I don't always sit in this bubble. Sometimes I like the sounds of visitors. It makes me happy," she said and laughed as the antics of the children got her attention once again.
"Visitors? Do you live here?" Gus had not seen anything that looked like homes, although it was silly to think that a whole planet existed just for the purpose of fun.
"Of course! This is my home," Amelia stood and straightened her skirt. "Let's walk around the park."
"I really shouldn't. I'm supposed to be playing with the other kids. Mimi will get me good if she comes back and I'm not here," he explained.
Amelia leaned close and whispered, "Well, she can't see you in here anyway, can she?"
"Oh. Yeah." He spun around and looked beyond the play area for a panicked Mimi. Not seeing her, he turned back to Amelia. "Just around the park?"
"Okay." Amelia clasped her hands behind her back, and they walked the perimeter of the playground. "I can't go far either. I have a job to do."
"But you're just a little kid…I think. You are a little kid, right?"
She nodded and reached up for a cherry sour dangling from a tree. "I suppose I am. But I still have a job to do. I keep out the bad things."
"The bad things?"
"I can tell who is bad and who is good, and only the good ones can come in. That's how it works," she said around the sticky goo in her mouth.
"Just you? All by yourself?" Gus thought that deciding the goodness of people was a big responsibility for such a little being.
"For this path. I let visitors through the gate, and I watch everything that happens along the path that brought you here. There are other paths to other stops, but this is my path," she said.
"So, there are other parts to your planet?" Gus couldn't imagine anything more wonderful than what he had seen already, and he wasn't even sure that he'd seen all there was to see. There was still that big rollercoaster that the Doctor refused him last time, and Mimi would almost certainly not let him near it this time either.
Amelia grabbed another handful of candy from a tree and dropped a share into Gus' hands. "Oh yes. There are many paths in our world."
Gus wiped a bit of dribble from the corner of his too-full mouth and looked at her wide-eyed. His words were thick as he spoke through the candy. "How do you get there?"
"I don't know how visitors find us or their paths. We just answer the knock at the gate. You go where you need to go, we let you in," she replied as she looked around him towards the playing children. She pointed over his shoulder. "There are your parents, now."
Gus turned around and waved, forgetting that they couldn't be seen. Though, to his and Amelia's surprise, the Doctor waved back. Amelia drew in a sharp intake of breath. "Your father can see us?"
"Oh, he's not my dad. He's a friend of Mimi. She takes care of me. I don't have any parents," Gus said.
"Gus, that's your father. And that woman is your mother. It's quite obvious," Amelia searched his face for a sign that he knew this information to be true. She could read many things on the boy's face, but his expression fell flat.
Gus studied Amelia as intently as she did him. For as smart as she was, Amelia hadn't seemed to pick up on exactly how humans worked or that families could be lots of different ways. He nodded his head slightly. "I guess they kinda are. They take care of me and love me, so they are like my parents."
He looked back at the Doctor and River, who were both now waving him forward. "I guess it's time for me to go. I'm really glad I saw you sitting in your bubble. We could probably be good friends, me and you," he said to Amelia with a big smile across his face. "I hope I get to come back soon, and maybe we can play for a little while."
Amelia returned his warm smile and reached out for his hand. She had never touched a human before. In fact, she had never touched any of her visitors, but she had seen their friendly gestures and wanted Gus to know how much she had enjoyed their talk. As she intertwined their fingers and gave his hand a squeeze, her mind filled with the life of this little boy. A rush of heat raced up her arms, shoulders and neck followed by a great chill. The jewels on her lavalier began to glow with an almost unbearable heat, and the band tightened around her head. Gus couldn't feel her physical reactions, but he could see the change in the gemstones and the anguish on her face. Amelia abruptly snatched her hand from his and was gone in a single blink of his eye. He looked all around, but she was nowhere to be found.
He began walking towards the playground, occasionally looking over his shoulder for one last glimpse. It was like she had been frightened away. But what could have scared her? Maybe someone was trying to get in who didn't belong. Yeah, that was probably it. Like she had said, she had a job to do.
Though deep inside, Gus knew that this was almost certainly not the case. Amelia had looked terrified.