I’ve never told anyone this before.
I was 11 years old. My friend Adam and I were inseparable. We lived on the same street with only one house between ours, but even with that being the case, we spent most of our time traversing the woods at the end of our street, and having whatever fun we could have along the river that ran through them. It was a sweltering July day, and the previous night, Adam had slept over at my house. We had gotten up, eaten breakfast and headed out on our way.
We hiked through the woods and reached the river after about 20 minutes. We had a spot where there was a small rock collection that ran through the river to the other side that was usually our stopping point at which we’d stay for most of our time before heading back home. For whatever reason, on this particular day, Adam wanted to go further than our normal stopping point. It was broad daylight, and we knew how to keep track of ourselves so we wouldn’t get lost, so I agreed.
We got past our point and walked for about another 20 minutes. At some point we stopped and messed around for a while. We skipped rocks, jumped our way across larger rocks across the river, and climbed trees. After some time, I don’t really remember how long it was exactly, a few hours maybe, we decided to head back. As we approached our regular spot, we saw someone else sitting at the edge of the river. From a distance, it looked to be a woman, older, maybe in her 40’s. She was wearing a green dress, but it wasn’t in good condition. Even from afar, I could see spots of dirt and tears in the otherwise nice piece of clothing.
Deciding that she didn’t look like much of a threat, we continued on our way, expecting to just pass her. As we got closer, we noticed the woman had strange facial features. It looked as if one of her nostrils had been permanently closed, and when she looked at us to smile, we saw that she had one large, solitary tooth in her mouth. Resting on the ground next to her was a large burlap sack that had clothes hanging out of it, and next to that, a medium sized purple bin. As we approached her, she turned to us and smiled. We politely smiled back. She then stood up in front of us, revealing two completely webbed feet. In her hand she had a soaking piece of clothing.
”This belongs to Mr. Tannenbaum.” She said, in a piercing, old lady type voice.
Mr. Tannenbaum was the name of the man who owned the house between Adam’s and my own. Me and Adam stood there silent, not sure of how to respond.
”Three questions.” The woman said.
Adam was the first to speak up after a short, awkward silence.
”What?” He asked.
”You may ask me three questions, but only if you answer three of mine first.” She replied.
”We just want to get home, ma’am.” Adam said as politely as he could.
“Oh, it doesn’t work that way, sonny.” She said. ”You’ve seen me, now you have to participate. I’ve already shown you your neighbors clothes, so you know his time is coming soon.”
We didn’t know what she meant by this. Beginning to get scared, I considered pulling Adam and running into the woods, but the woman shot down my plans as soon as they’d entered my mind.
“There is no running away, young man. This will be over as soon as you participate. May I ask you three questions?”
Now terrified, we simply nodded our heads.
The woman placed the piece of clothing she was washing in the bin she had next to the burlap sack, and pulled another piece of clothing out of the bag, proceeding to wash it.
”For you, Adam, what is your greatest fear?”
Adam hesitated before answering.
”Um…I don’t know. I’m scared of being up high.”
”No, dear, your greatest fear. What is something that keeps you up at night?” She insisted.
”Um…sometimes I’m scared that I’ll wake up and my parents won’t be there anymore.” He said.
”Very good young man! Question two, for you Nicholas.”
I had no idea how she knew my name, I had never seen this woman before in my life. I looked at her with a face that let her know I was truly weary of her. She placed her now soaking wet piece of clothing in the bin and drew another from the bag of clothes, again washing it in the river.
”When do you think you will die?” This took me by surprise, naturally. It wasn’t a question most 11 year olds expect to get asked, myself included.
I thought for a moment.
”Hopefully when I’m really old, in my sleep.”
”Wonderful! Now my last question, is also for you, Nicholas.”
We were almost done. I nodded my head, indicating I was ready to hear her last inquiry. She again switched pieces of clothes.
”When do you think Adam here will die?” She hissed, in a more aggravated tone than she’d portrayed before.
I was visibly shaken by this point, as was my best friend. We looked at each other, giving one another a look that said we were ready to get the hell out of there.
”Hope–hopefully also when he’s very old, and in his sleep.” I managed to sputter out.
”Great! Now, I know you answered the questions as honestly and correctly as you could, but one of the answers was wrong, and I’m not going to tell you which one, and you’re not allowed to ask me as one of your questions.”
I don’t think either of us paid what she had just said to us any mind. She switched out the pieces of clothing once again.
”Do we have to ask you questions or can we just go?” Adam quickly replied.
”That’s one of your questions, dear! The answer is you must. You must now ask me two more. They can be anything you want.” She quickly snapped back.
Adam and I looked at eachother for a moment, and then I spoke up as she once again traded one piece of clothing for another, and soaked it in the river.
”What is it you’re doing here?” I asked.
”Good question, Nicholas! What I’m doing here is washing clothes of people who are going to die soon. It may seem silly, I know, but it’s my job, and I do as I’m told. Once the piece of clothing is washed, it will soon be the owner’s time.” She explained. ”One more kiddies!”
She placed the soaking wet piece of clothing she was washing in the bin and reached deep into the now nearly empty burlap sack. Then, she pulled out something that made my, and presumably Adam’s, heart drop to our stomachs. It was Adam’s favorite article of clothing, a baseball jersey from his late father’s little league days. Adam began to blurt something out, but I cut him off, telling him to not waste the last question.
”Smart boy” The woman replied as she washed the jersey.
”Why did we see you today, and not every other day we’re out here?” I asked.
”Because it was your time to see me, is the simplest answer.” The woman flatly said. ”Now, as was with yours, one of my answers to your questions was false! But I won’t tell you which one. Now run along!”
Without hesitating, Adam and I sprinted down the edge of the river to the spot in the woods we knew to go through to get home. At one point, I looked back, and the woman was no longer there. It didn’t look like she ever had been. We made it to the woods and discussed what had just happened. I tried to assure Adam that she was just a crazy old woman who probably had a similar jersey to his, and it was just a coincidence. We went straight to Adam’s house. He ran upstairs as fast as he could, ignoring his mother. He threw open his closet door and breathed a sigh of relief as he pulled his favorite jersey out of the closet.
”See?” I said. ”It was just some crazy old lady being a weirdo.”
We agreed to not tell our parents about what had happened, as we felt they wouldn’t allow us to continue playing at the river if they knew. We spent the rest of that day watching TV, playing with action figures, and running around in our backyards before each retreating into our respective houses for the night, ready to reconvene the next morning. It was truly a day I will never forget; one that I will always hold sacred, as it is the last time I saw my best friend.
That night, the man who lived between us, Mr. Tannenbaum, broke into Adam’s home, and kidnapped Adam. I learned that throughout the night, he repeatedly beat and abused Adam, until he drowned him in the river, at the very spot we had gone to that day, the one past our normal play area. After leaving his body on the side of the river, he went back to his home, and shot himself in the head. The police came to my house the next day asking where Adam might have gone, and where our regular hangout spots were. I immediately told them the river, but still didn’t mention the woman. The police found a note in Mr. Tannenbaum’s kitchen that explained what he had done and where to find Adam, so I don’t even know if my information helped the police or not.
I never saw that woman again. I’m not really sure I ever saw her in the first place. But real or not, she had a tremendous impact on my life. I still live in the same town, only a few blocks over from where I grew up a house away from my best friend. From time to time I still take a walk down the river, hoping to see the strange woman in green. I have so many questions I need to ask her.