He saw her there, sitting on a log a little way off the path by the edge of the river. All he could really see was her long, brown hair where it fell over her head as she leaned forwards, her face in her hands. Her shoulders seemed to be rhythmically moving as though she were crying but, if so, they were silent sobs. He could hear nothing. Still, something in the set of her shoulders said she was in some kind of distress.
Perhaps it was the contrast to the wonderful weather. It was mid October. The day was warm, partly sunny as piles of fluffy white clouds played hide and seek with the bright solar light. The leaves had turned, many already on the ground, many more falling in an incredible cascade of color as the slight breeze started them on their autumn journey towards the forest floor.
In the far distance he could sometimes just hear the sound of other students on the huge campus. Many on their way towards the stadium - the game with Illinois started in another hour. Many others were on their separate ways to their own diverse activities for a beautiful fall Saturday. There were also occasional sounds of distant laughter and once he thought he heard the beat of drums as, perhaps, the band warmed up for the game.
All this made the sight of the girl and her obvious distress seem more out of place. Something that didn't belong at all - or at least not to this place or this time. Chris hesitated. After all, even if she was upset about something, she might not want a stranger trying to interfere. She would probably just tell him to get lost. Or maybe even something a little stronger. He started to keep walking down the path.
On the other hand, how could he just ignore someone who was so obviously in misery? His steps slowed and he came to a lagging stop, turning to look again at the seated girl. The thought came suddenly into his head that she might be out here with the intent of killing herself. Unlikely, true, but not impossible. In a school this size there were several suicides a year. He didn't really believe that was a likely possibility but if there were even the remotest chance of preventing one, he had to try.
Chris turned from the forest path and slowly made his way over the ten or so yards towards where the girl was seated, stopping some five feet from her. The girl didn't seem to be aware of his presence at all, still lost in her own world, her shoulders still rhythmically moving. He still couldn't hear any sounds of crying but her breathing definitely indicated that she was.
For perhaps six or seven seconds he stood just watching her and then he finally cleared his throat and said, "I don't mean to intrude but you look like you might be in trouble. Is there anything I can do to help?"
The girl suddenly jumped and jerked her head around at him. She really hadn't been aware of him at all. Then, just as quickly, she turned her head back away from him, but in that second he had seen that she had definitely been crying, her eyes wet, her face a little swollen. Still looking down she gave a quick rub at her eyes and mumbled, "I'm all right." Then she managed to add, "Just a little upset. Thanks for being concerned."
She remained looking downwards and after a few seconds Chris said, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to startle you but you looked like you could maybe use some help."
Still looking away from him she replied, "I'll be all right. I just have some personal problems."
Reluctant to leave her like that, Chris hesitated a little longer, debating if he should just turn and go away and leave her alone. Once again he started to turn back towards the path and then stopped. He turned back towards the girl and said, "Look, I really don't want to intrude but sometimes it helps to talk about things - makes problems seem smaller or more easily handled. Here I am, a perfect stranger. I don't know you, you don't know me, so anything you say doesn't have to go any further. Why don't you try it - it certainly can't hurt, now can it?"
The girl wiped at her eyes once more and then slowly turned to face him. He could see her eyes were a lovely shade of brown, almost golden, although now they were rimmed with red. Her face would be very pretty, even if not classically beautiful, when the puffiness went away.
For probably twenty seconds she just looked at him and Chris managed to remain quiet, just waiting for her to make up her mind. At last she seemed to come to some decision or, maybe more correctly, became resigned. Slowly she said, "I don't really think it will help solve anything if I talk about it but I think you are probably stubborn enough to just stand there until I do. Besides, you're probably right that it won't hurt anything if I do talk about it." Then she forced a kind of smile. "Have a seat," she said, pointing to another log a couple of feet in front of her.
Chris smiled back at her and moved to sit down. "No, I'm sure it won't hurt anything. And who knows, the horse may learn to sing."
She looked totally confused at this comment. "What?"
He gave a slight chuckle. "It's a reference to an old story. I believe from ancient Babylon. It seems there was a thief who was sentenced to be executed in a most painful manner. He told the king that if given one year he could teach the king's horse to sing his favorite song. The king granted him that year stay of execution and every day the thief was seen with the horse, singing and urging the horse to do so too. One day someone stopped and asked why he kept at it and the thief replied, 'It can't hurt. A year is a long time. I may die. The king may die. And who knows, the horse may learn to sing.'"
This brought a more natural smile from the girl. "I guess you're right. I don't suppose it can make things any worse."
Chris smiled at her. "That's right. I'm Chris, by the way."
Before he could say anything else she interrupted him. "You said we'd be strangers."
"OK, but even strangers can have first names."
Again another smile. "I guess so. I'm Amber."
"Well, Amber, my pretty stranger, would you like to tell me what has you so unhappy on such a beautiful day? Or not, as you please."
He saw her make a slight face at his comment. "I'm certainly not pretty right now - or probably at any time."
With a feeling strong enough to surprise himself, Chris broke in, "Yes you are. And I'm sure most of the time you are positively lovely."
She mumbled something to herself. Chris could not tell for sure but he thought what she said was, "Bullshit."
He quickly went on, "I can see that your world has some problems right now. Why don't you tell me a little about them? And maybe a little about yourself."
"OK, I guess I can." She stopped for a few seconds, obviously in thought. "I wonder just where to begin."
"At the beginning is always a good place, "Chris replied."
She smiled again, a real one this time. "That might take a long time. Let me see. OK, I was born at a very early age."
Chris laughed. "Well, maybe not quite that early a beginning. Just tell me a little about yourself and how you came to be sitting out here all alone."
"OK, seriously. This is my first term here, but I'm a junior. I had two years at a community college back home. I guess I need to go even a little further back than that. I was raised by my mother. My father died before I was old enough to remember him. We lived on a farm when I was born, or so I've been told, but after my dad died, mom couldn't keep it up by herself. I think she sold it before I was two."
"After all the debts were paid there wasn't much left and my mom didn't have any special skills. No one in either her or dad's family had ever gone to college or even learned any trade besides farming. Mom got jobs and did OK. She was a hard worker and tried to do as good a job as she could at anything she did. We never had a lot of money but we weren't dirt poor or anything. We got by. It wasn't easy but we came up with enough money to pay for my two years at a community college. Both she and I were determined that I would never end up in the fix she had that had trapped her."
"I knew we could never come up with enough money to pay for a Bachelor's degree but I was determined to get a degree in Geological Engineering." She gave a little laugh. "Instead of digging rocks out of a farm field, I thought maybe I could get paid for finding the right rocks to dig out. Most of the other girls in my junior and senior high schools thought they might get out of where they were by either marrying someone rich or becoming a top country singer. You know, Coal Miner's Daughter sort of thing. Well, I had always had an interest in science and liked what I knew of geology. I never wanted to work as a mining engineer, but maybe work at finding good sites for mines or wells or something."
"Anyway, between working and studying I knocked myself out for those first two years of school and managed to graduate with a 4.0. It took a lot of work but it also got me a scholarship here that pays all my tuition and enough to cover most of the dorm costs."
.... There is more of this story ...