Part 1: The Call “Oh, my god,” said Jen, pulling her car to the side of the neighborhood street and adjusting her phone in her hand. “Holy shit. James.” And after a pause, “What happened?” “They’re not sure. Well, they do know it was an overdose. Some kind of opiate that she had been prescribed. But she took a shitload of them at once, apparently, so no one’s sure whether it was intentional or not.”Jen took this in, blinking rapidly. Intentional. Fuck. “How did you find out? Did you, like, know her family?””We sort of kept in touch after we all came back. About a month ago, I met her for dinner in Chicago – I was up there for work. I guess her cousin went through her phone and contacted the people in her recent messages. She called me a couple hours ago.””Jesus Christ, I would not want that job.””No kidding. It was about an hour ago, and I’ve just been kind of sitting here, not knowing what to do. You’re the first person I’ve called.””God, James. I’m so sorry.” Jen wasn’t crying. Her heart was pounding and her hands shaking a little bit, but her eyes were dry and still blinking. “I’ll talk to Benjamin – don’t worry about calling him. Do you want me to call Charlie for you?””No, it’s okay, I’ll talk to Charlie. It’ll actually be good to catch up with him, as fucked up as that sounds.””Not at all. It’s good to hear from you, actually. When I saw your name on my phone, I thought you might be in town or something, wanting to get drinks.” She laughed awkwardly. “Yeah. I wish I was calling under different circumstances. Any other circumstances. I’ll let you know what I hear about the funeral arrangements, and maybe we can all get together for drinks before, like the world’s most depressing pregame.” Jen laughed, in earnest this time. She imagined them all together again around a table, laughing like no time had passed since they’d last seen each other. Then she remembered the absence of Gillian in that picture, and for a moment, couldn’t catch her breath. She said quickly, “Thank you for calling me, James. I’m glad I didn’t have to find out on, like Facebook, or whatever. Let me know if you need anything, or just want to talk later.” “Thanks, Jen. Will do.” “I love you, James.” Jen had always had this sweet, sort of naive habit of telling her friends that she loved them. Especially when she had been drinking. “I love you, too, Jen.” ***Jen’s head lay on Benjamin’s lap, as the tears that wouldn’t come earlier spilled out, unchecked. “It’s just like – fuck – we should’ve kept up with her, made sure that she was okay. If we hadn’t been so amazingly self-involved, maybe…” The next part of her sentence was cut off by her sobs. “Jen, you know that you can’t blame yourself for these things,” Benjamin said, obviously shaken by the news, but remaining stoic. Jen continued to sob for the next several minutes, as her husband stroked her hair. Many conversations and even some fights in their long relationship had taught him that his wife didn’t need his placating words in these moments, no matter how comforting he thought they might be. After Jen’s crying had subsided into the occasional gentle whimper, Benjamin asked, quietly, “Did you and James talk about our agreement at all?” “What?” Jen murmured genuinely confused. “Agreement?” “Yeah, I mean, I know we had all been drinking that night. But you remember. After Untersberg. When we all, you know, talked about when the first one of us died.” “Oh God,” said Jen, sitting up and wiping her face with a hand. “I had completely forgotten about that.” “Yeah, I know, I mean at the time, I sort of wrote it off as just drunken bravado or whatever, but Gillian actually got really insistent there at the end. Do you remember? She got like that look on her face when she was really serious about something and made us swear. I mean, we did this like hand-holding shit, it was like a cult initiation or something,” he said, chuckling. “God, she’s weird.” Jen laughed. “Was. Fuck,” she corrected, tearing up again. “It’s just, I don’t know, it seemed like she really wanted it. I had rarely seen her that serious about anything,” he said. “Except for maybe, like, the downfall of the patriarchy. But we did, I mean, we did promise each other.” “What about her family?” Jen asked, “Isn’t it kind of like their decision what to do?” “Yeah, I mean, of course we would respect the family’s wishes. Of course. But I’m just saying, maybe we should bring it up. To James and Charlie at least. I just really, really think it’s what Gilly would have wanted.” He was starting to tear up himself. “Okay,” said Jen, agreeing. “I’ll give him a call tomorrow.” ***The Agreement: Part one”You motherfuckers,” Charlie said, dramatically sprawling himself out in the small Salzburg restaurant’s interior booth, “are lucky I’m so committed to the maintenance my girlish figure. Or I would’ve left your asses flat at mile one.” “Well you’ve got some work to do before bikini season, babe,” said James, easing his body into the booth next to James with only , “As we almost had to carry that flat ass up to reach the summit,” miming slapping Charlie’s butt. “Oh, bullshit.” said Charlie. “You think you carry the team James-y, but we all know it’s my indomitable spirit that inspires us to summit these mountains.” “You’ve certainly mastered ‘summiting’ some things, but they aren’t mountains,” James retorted, air humping the wall next to him. “Weak,” dismissed Charlie, with an eye-roll. “And needlessly crude.” Just then, Gillian returned from the restroom, lips already parted with the excitement of a good story. “Guys, oh my god. So some guy was in the women’s when I went in. Clearly drunk as hell. I walk in, and he just looks at me for a second before muttering something in German. Then, I swear to god, this guy just starts pissing in the fucking sink.” “Ah, the nefarious zinkpinkler,” said Benjamin. “An Austrian legend.” “Is that a thing here?” asked Jen, incredulous. Then, “there’s no way that’s a thing.” Gillian’s eyes were glowing as she effortlessly swung into her seat next to Benjamin. The rest of them looked as if they had just been through several of the rougher settings on a washing machine that had spit them out in the small Salzburg restaurant booth after their 12 hour hike up one of Untersberg’s more treacherous trails. The hike seemed to have invigorated Gillian rather than exhaust her, and she was almost vibrating with energy as she finished her story. “So I was like, ‘okay dude,’ and I went into the stall furthest from, like, his dick.” “Did you catch a glimpse of the zinkpinkler’s pinkler?” asked James. “Legend has it that it’s actually just a very convincing-looking watering can.” “What? Gross. No,” said Gillian. “The exertion from the hike has really put a damper on James’ normally exemplary joke-making. Difficult to be both mentally and physically fit,” said Charlie. James took a sip of his beer and laughed. “Okay, so anyway,” said Gillian, attempting to steer their attention back to her tale. “I come out of the stall and I’m like, fuck, right, because I have to wash my hands, but this dude is still peeing in the sink. Like the stream is unbroken.” She says, her gesture making a straight line across the table. “Oh my god,” said Jen. “How is that even physically possible.” “You’d be surprised,” said James, “at how much liquid your body can retain when you’ve really been putting the Stiegls away. I think my piss stream was up to 72 seconds after we met those Indian students on their exchange trip and we had to share our profound pride in American culture by getting out a fucking beer bong.””I still can’t believe you brought a beer bong to Europe, Charlie,” said Benjamin.”At least they’re learning some kind of cultural appreciation whilst studying abroad,” said Charlie. “Lord knows us Americans don’t give a fuck enough to learn about theirs.””Hey,” protested Jen, lifting her sleeve to reveal a sloppily drawn henna tattoo across her wrist and hand. “I at least had the decency to partake in the sacred art of henna.””It looks like our zinkpinkler took a shit on your wrist and then drew a flower in it,” said Benjamin.”You’re not…wrong,” laughed Jen, looking somewhat distraught at the thick mess of ink on her wrist.”Oh my god guys, so anyway,” Gillian continued, “I walk out and, I’m like ‘excuse me? Could I get past you to the soap dispenser?’ To, you know, wash my hands. Like the expected thing to do in a bathroom. And this guy turns, looks me in the eye, shakes the piss off his dick, and says, in perfect English, ‘Fuck you.'” Gillian continues, “This man, pissing in the sink of a women’s restroom, tells me to go fuck myself. It was glorious,” she finishes, leaning back. “Absolutely the most absurd experience I’ve ever had.””You should really write this shit down,” says Benjamin. “With all the random nonsense that happens to you. You should write a book. A life and times.””You know any kind of autobiography I produce is going to be just a weird amalgamation unpublishable nonsense. Like feminism meets nihilism meets fucking, like, musical theatre.””Ah, the illustrious Gilly, a lady of many layers,” said James.”Like an onion, but better at making men cry,” said Charlie, as he gestured at their waitress. “Let’s do a round of beers for the table,” he told her, in perfect German. “It’s on me,” turning back to the others.***They met on a rainy day in September. It had been almost five years since they’d last seen each other. Jen and Benjamin walked in holding hands, Jen’s small form almost disappearing into Benjamin’s raincoat. James got up from the booth in the Irish pub they’d selected because of its proximity to the funeral home and greeted them warmly. Charlie looked thin, almost fragile.”It’s amazing to see you guys,” said James, hugging both of them. “Unfortunate that it’s not under happier circumstances.”They all acknowledged this grimly.”Hi, Charlie,” said Jen, sliding into the booth, “What have you been up to these past couple years? I feel like I barely even see you post anything on Facebook!” “Yeah,” said Charlie, “I try to leave my social media presence to the imagination, unlike some of my more esteemed literary colleagues” he said, breaking into a small smile. “But I’ve been okay. Back in the Atlanta area, been freelancing a little bit. Some political stuff. You’d be surprised, but there’s a modest following there now for my leftist ditherings. All those yuppies migrating south. Good for business.” He chuckled.There was a small, but noticeable silence as they remembered, to varying degrees, Charlie referring to his hometown outside of Atlanta as “the racist asshole of America” and his diatribes about “no self-respecting author making a career below the Mason-Dixon line, any southern writing is just pandering to the barely literate.” The question of whether he had moved back in with his homophobic family hung in the air, unasked.Ben broke it with, “James, I hear you’ve been doing really exciting stuff. Playing with the Boston Symphony?””I think Jen may have exaggerated a bit,” said James. “I subbed one time at the symphony. The 3rd bassist had the shits or something. Most days I’m laboring away in an office building, reading over the contracts for obscenely wealthy real estate companies.””James Masterson, of all people, I would not have pegged you as an office guy.” said Ben.”Times change, as do the increasing urgency of paying off student loan debts.” he said. “Or, in my case, deferring them with a law degree, then paying them off in painfully small increments.””I feel you there,” said Benjamin. “I just finished up my art history masters program, and fuck, higher education is such a racket.””But you’ve got a gig in a museum now, right? That’s gotta be pretty cushy,” said James.”Yeah, yeah, I’ve been incredibly lucky to have any kind of success in my field,” said Benjamin. “No one’s particularly thrilled for your career prospects when you’ve got a degree in art history.””What about you, Jen?” asked Charlie, “Still wooing the masses with your Mozart sonatas?” “Well,” laughed Jen. “More like the toddler crowd,” she continued. “Once we had the kids, I started part-time at a studio that teaches group piano lessons. It’s… a lot of crafts,” she said. “Crafts?” Charlie asked, “in a piano studio?” “Well, they’re like, four and five-year-olds,” she Jen. “It’s sort of an early years musical experience thing.” “But you’re still wowing them with your classical chops, right?” “Well, yeah. And singing little songs about the finger numbers. Making treble clefs out of pipe cleaners. That sort of thing.” “Oh,” said Charlie. “Sounds cute. Fuck, I can’t believe you guys have, like, children. That’s so weird. Sorry, but like, that’s weird.” Jen and Benjamin looked at each other and kind of chuckled. “Yeah, it’s weird for us, too,” said Benjamin. “Two little humans that we’re responsible for running around. It’s crazy to, like, look for the adult in the room to handle the situation and then realize that it’s you.” Jen laughed, agreeing, and the others joined in. “Alright,” said James. “It looks like we should start thinking about heading that way. Sorry to break things up, I wish we had more time to catch up.” “This is going to suck,” said Charlie, after a pause.They all agreed.***The Agreement: part two “We actually have to agree to this,” said Gillian, urgently. “Like swear on it. Or else it won’t happen, and we’ll all just get old and boring as fuck and forget about it. Forget about us.” “You planning on dying in the near future, Gilly?” asked James. “Or are you just smitten with the idea of cremation? I, for one, would like a viking funeral. Put my corpse on a ship and set me ablaze as I drift into the open sea. That’s a sexy way to go.” “I’m hearing what you’re saying, Gill,” said Benjamin. “And I’m not opposed. Of all the places I’ve ever been in my short and meaningless life, the top of that mountain was the most beautiful. There are worse places to be laid to eternal rest.” “Yeah, but think about it, we’ll be like 80 fucking years old at that point,” said Charlie. “We’ve likely spent the majority of our 401ks, granted we get shitty enough jobs to have one of those, migrating to a Floridian resort with nude beaches exclusively for the aged. We won’t be able to afford the flight back here, let alone have the physical ability to climb a fucking steep-ass hill.” “That’s one way to describe a mountain,” laughed Jen, visibly intoxicated. “Look, I’m just saying,” said Gillian said, dismissing their reservations. That we’ve all come here from fucked up places and fucked up families and fucked up situations.,” she continued, “And this has been an escape for us, maybe one of the best we’ve ever had. Am I wrong?” She looked at the others, one by one. They nodded, wordlessly. “Finding you like-minded assholes has been damn near the happiest I’ve ever been in my life. And I mean that,” said Gillian, slurring her words slightly, but no less adamant. “And I’m just saying that I want to honor that in my death. I think we all should. Plus, it’d be a damn good excuse to get together once we all have to go back to the states in a week and a half.” They all looked pained at the idea of having to return to normalcy after their semester long stint in the breathtaking beauty of central Europe. “Okay, okay,” said James. “If we’re going to actually do this, we need to lay down some ground rules. For our older selves. Our older selves like rules, I can sense that.” “Okay, yeah,” said Gillian, all business now that she could sense that she was winning them over, “So when one of us dies, we’ll have to have some system of contacting the others.” “Well, yeah, obviously, we’ve already exchanged phone numbers and all that,” said Jen. “But we’ve got to make sure it’s current,” said Gillian. “People change shit all the time, addresses, phone numbers. We have to make sure we can always contact each other.” “Okay,” said Benjamin. “That’ll be easy enough. I’ll create a google messenger that will connect to our profiles, that will automatically update whenever something changes.” “Great,” said Gillian. “That’s step one. So, when the time comes and one of dies,” she continued, “the remaining members of the group will get together,” she said. “‘Remaining members.’ That’s morbid,” said Jen. “I know,” said Gillian, “But it is what it is. So anyway, the remaining members will get together.” “Is there a specific place where we should meet for the post-mortem?” asked Charlie, a bit proud of his pun. “Not necessarily, at first,” continued Gillian. “Not in the states. Who knows where we’ll all be and not much has meaning to us there. But, after that, after the funeral and everything. Then we’ll have to come over here again. And find somewhere to meet near Untersberg.” “What about right here?” said Jen, reservation cast aside. “We’ll all remember it because that’s where we came up with the idea.” “Okay, yeah, right here,” said Benjamin. “That’s a good idea.” Jen smiled shyly. “The zinkpinkler’s palace,” said Charlie. “A fitting place for extended funeral proceedings.” “It’s not another funeral,” insisted Gillian,”it’s a place to meet before we make the hike again. We’ll have to have a place to gather, make a plan, decide who’s going to carry the urn and shit.” “Tag out,” said James. “Death freaks me the fuck out.” “So James is a pussy, and he won’t carry our ashes. That’s fine,” said Gillian. “We’ll have to figure it out, amongst ourselves. Here.” “Any guesses,” asked Charlie, “about who goes first? Mine is James.” “Oh, fuck off,” said James, a little agitated. “Oh yeah, James is going first,” said Charlie. “In a tragic boating accident. In his late 30’s, James becomes a successful stock broker. He buys a speed boat to impress his boss, and incidentally sexy love interest. He goes for an impressive ski run, and just as he jumps the wake of the boat, the rope line entangles with the yacht of another wildly successful stock broker. Both perish in the accident.” “That’s weirdly specific,” said Benjamin. “It’s a gift,” said Charlie. “It doesn’t matter who dies first!” insists Gillian. “So we meet here. And we do the hike, again, and it’s important that it’s exactly the same trail. We’re not gonna pansey out and take the Level 2 hike, or, God forbid, the fucking trolley.” They all groan in agreement. “So we do the hike, and get the to the top. And we scatter the ashes of whoever is it is right where we were today, right at the highest point. And once we do that, we head back down.” “And then what,” said Charlie, “wait for the next person to die?” “No, we go back to our regular boring ass lives,” says Gillian. “And we remember that what we had here was special, we remember that we had something worth living for. And hope that that’s enough.” she trails off. “Your nihilism is showing,” said James. “I think it’s beautiful,” said Jen, swerving a bit to the side, as Benjamin catches her elbow. “I’m in,” says Benjamin. “I’ll do it.” “Okay, fuck it,” said Charlie. “My 80 year old self will be in far better shape than your straight asses anyway. The gays age impeccably.” James laughs, “And by that, you mean I’ll have to carry your sad, saggy 80 year old ass up the mountain. I’ll take that bet.” “So you’re in, then, Charlie and James,” said Gillian. “And I take it you, too, Jen and Benjamin?” “Yeah, of course, I was in from the start,” said Benjamin. “Yep! I love you guys” hiccuped Jen. “So that’s it then. When one of us dies. We’ll meet back here, then scatter that person’s ashes at the top of Untersberg. We’ll, of course, need to solidify that promise in a handshake.””You want to hold hands with all of us?” Charlie says, “how adorable.””No, I’m serious,” said Gillian, looking as determined as she’d been all night. “Grab hands.” “Well this is challenging my idea of heterosexuality just a bit,” said James, playfully grabbing Charlie and Gillian’s hands. Benjamin and Jen followed suit, creating an unbroken circle in their tiny corner of the world.”Promise,” said Gillian earnestly, “That we’ll do this. No excuses. No bullshit. We’ll do it.”Each of them nodded, squeezing the hand of the person next to them.”It’s settled then,” said Gillian, releasing the hands of James and Benjamin and leaning back in her seat, closing her eyes. “You’re one adamant son of a bitch,” said James. “We might be scattered across the US, but you’ll hold us together with your inhuman willpower.”Gillian just smiled, as she rested her head on the back of the booth, already drifting off into her thoughts, where none of them could follow.