I first heard about the gigantic world-destroying machine under Lake Geneva when my friend Kate came to the door with a bottle of Lindauer Fraise. It was 11 in the morning—a bit earlier than we usually started. At least on a Tuesday.
“We can drink this before the planet explodes tonight!” Kate said.
Even though the world was ending, Kate had found time to straighten her hair. It was like a black silk scarf in the shape of a bob. She had silver bangles all the way up each arm, and they chimed against the bottle as she held it out to me.
I took the wine and said: “What? First I’ve heard of it.” This was true, but then I didn’t hear about anything. I didn’t read or watch the news. It gave me anxiety. Clearly the news didn’t care about my anxiety, because here I was anyway, thrown into a breaking story.
I let Kate into the hall, and we went upstairs. I lived on K’ Road, in a flat above two sex shops with women in leopard negligees and big frosted hair on their signs. Drawings, not photographs: I don’t think they knew how to put photos on signs when the shops opened. My building always had burnt-out bulbs in the stairway. When the sun hit the door from the right angle, the peephole cast a picture of the street into the darkness, golden upside-down people and dogs and cars gliding along the wall. It wasn’t happening that day, though.
Inside, we sat down on the sagging couch in the living room. I’d bought it off Trade Me for 10 dollars and found mouse droppings under the cushions as soon as I got it home. I still gave the seller five stars, it felt mean not to. “What were you talking about before?” I asked Kate.
“There’s a new particle accelerator,” she said. We worked out almost immediately that we didn’t know what a particle accelerator was. So we filled our polka dot plastic wine flutes and went on the internet and found a video of a physicist rapping about how the world was definitely not going to explode or be sucked into a freshly born black hole when the Large Hadron Collider began firing subatomic particles at each other at 8am Geneva time, which was 8pm in Auckland.
Hearing a physicist rap about how the world wasn’t going to end made us see how close it might be.
“We need a plan,” I said. I topped Kate up, pouring until the wine fizzed over the rim of the glass and ran down her hand.
“Yup,” she said, licking the hollow between her thumb and index finger.
We started by waking up my flatmate Leon. He was still asleep—he’d worked late. We opened the door without knocking and pulled back the pinned-up sheet over the window. Leon was lying on a mattress on the floor, only his head and right shoulder with its tiny arrow tattoo poking out above the duvet. He sat up.
“What are you ladies doing?” he said, rubbing his eyes and looking at his alarm clock. It flashed 12:00, over and over again. “It’s still early.”
“Don’t know if you’ve heard, but the world is exploding tonight,” said Kate.
“Drink this!” I said, putting a pink tumbler in Leon’s hand. The flat never had enough glasses, so his didn’t match ours.
“You know what?” said Leon, taking a sip. “That’s really good news. I have an early shift tomorrow.”
We made a list of what we wanted to do on our last day on earth. Drugs were a top priority—preferably ecstasy, we needed connection and good vibes to stretch out over the many hours of deep and meaningfuls we had ahead of us. Weed was a possible alternative, but we might get paranoid. Ketamine was a wild card. “Do we really want to mix k-holes with black holes? On K’ Road?” said Leon. Kate and I laughed.
We called a few people and couldn’t get hold of anything at such short notice on a Tuesday. Instead, we went to the dairy across the overbridge from the flat to get party pills. The man behind the counter shook his head when he saw Kate and me come in, and when we asked for the pills he said: “Party, party—it’s all you do. Party girls.”
Kate smiled and pointed. Her nail was long and emerald green with a diamante on the end. The man thought Kate was showing off her manicure until she jabbed towards the cigarettes.
“Twenty-five Marlboro Reds,” she said.
He slid the two small boxes across the counter, one pink and psychedelic, one red and white and crisp-looking. He was still shaking his head while we paid. Leon yelled, “Can we go?” from outside, where he was smoking on a bench under a straggly municipal cabbage tree.
We went back to the flat, opened a new bottle of wine, and swallowed the party pills like ibuprofen.
An hour later we’d finished a third bottle, and our hearts were pounding. The couch and the chairs and our bodies had fuzzy edges, like the rainbow static when the TV broadcast stops. Good night, Kiwi. When we spoke, it was in a rush—mostly gossip. We were watching music videos while we drank, and sometimes these took the conversation deeper. A Paramore video came on and Kate sighed, “Everyone in Twilight has such great eyebrows.”
“At least we got to watch Twilight before we died,” I said.
But the wine was running out, and I didn’t want to spend all day at the flat. I leaned back into the couch cushions. “Maybe we should get Corey to take us to the beach.”
“You are such an idiot,” said Leon.
None of my friends liked Corey. She was younger than us. She didn’t care about gossip. She was so intense that she was in a grunge band. I, on the other hand, was completely in love with her, ever since Corey’s friend had started a magazine and put a random photo of her on the back cover with her name written across the bottom in a sans serif
C O R E Y
as though she was Cher or Prince, instead of a sulky 21-year-old from Parnell with a blunt fringe. I sent 1,750 of the 2,000 texts on my phone plan to Corey every month, but I’d never told her I was in love with her. Hadron Day might be my last chance.
“I do not want to hang out with Corey,” said Leon. “She’s such a buzzkill.”
“She can get her mum’s car. It always has a full tank. Her mum’s paranoid, she thinks a volcano will erupt, or there’ll be an earthquake, and they’ll need to leave Auckland,” I said. “We can go to Cheltenham. It’s such a nice day. We don’t want to be stuck inside.”
“Sounds good. I want a swim,” yawned Kate. She rubbed at the frog stamp on her wrist.
Leon shrugged. “Whatever.”
When I texted, Corey was keen. She wasn’t working, and she didn’t like being alone with her thoughts. We needed more supplies, so she agreed to pick us up at the supermarket. When we came out, she’d parked her mum’s VW on the yellow lines by the entrance and was beeping the horn. A security guard watched from nearby, on the edge of doing something but not quite there yet.
I got in the front seat. I thought the others would rather be in the back than talk to Corey, even though the car was small.
“Oh hey babes,” I said, cringing as I heard myself.
I was glad there was bad traffic on the way to the Shore. It meant I could really look as we drove past the villas with their white wooden fences, their wisteria and their roses, their doors open to show a glimpse of hallway—a Turkish rug on floorboards like a glazed donut. I opened the window and rested my arm on the car door, half in and half out. I caught an occasional waft of perfume on the air. I imagined a shiny homeowner with suspiciously pillowy lips and white trousers who’d just gone inside to kick off her silver flatform sneakers and dig her toes into the pile of the rug. While we were in traffic I let myself feel as if Corey and I were the sort of people who sat in a driver’s seat and a passenger seat for reasons other than boredom and potential apocalypse. The sort of people who held hands across the gearbox. A couple.
Kate and Leon were drinking in the back, and once we got to the harbour bridge—gridlock again—Kate leaned forward and tapped Corey on the shoulder. “Did you hear about Hadron?” she asked.
“Nah,” said Corey. She looked at Kate in the mirror. “What’s that?”
“A black hole machine. It’ll suck the whole world in when it switches on tonight.” Kate had listened carefully to the physics rap and drawn her own conclusions.
I breathed in until exhaust fumes seared my nostrils. I looked across at Corey.
“That doesn’t sound true,” she said after she’d changed lanes. It was cute: she couldn’t drive and talk at the same time.
“Anyway,” Corey said once we were back in traffic. “There are worse things than the world ending.”
“Only you could be so emo,” said Leon.
Corey took her hand off the steering wheel to give him the finger, and the car swerved towards a motorbike.
When we got to the beach, it was two o’clock. I hadn’t been drinking fast enough. I had a headache, I felt like I was going to be sick, and I was freaking out. At first Hadron had given the day a purpose while also being a joke. Now, on the beach, my mind could be right there with me, pecking at the sand, looking at the grizzled pōhutukawa and the baby breakers and the dead volcano in the distance, and then suddenly it would soar high above me and try to work out things about the universe, black holes, and whether physicists were reliable. The whole time, I was calculating in my thoughts. It probably won’t happen, quickly followed by, but what if it does? This was how my brain usually worked, and now it had laid a new egg. The Large Hadron Collider there in the nest, right next to a plane crash, toxic shock syndrome, and a massive aneurysm.
Kate had a hip flask of vodka, so I drank that mixed with juice instead of wine. I bit into a dolmade and couldn’t finish it. I drank some more. Kate and Leon had brought their togs, and they stood up to wriggle into their suits under their towels, laughing when the odd band of skin they didn’t mean to show popped out. It was high tide, no sand between the water and the grass bank where Corey and I sat, so when they got in they were swimming right below us.
I didn’t like to swim, but I wished I did when I watched them.
Corey took a joint out of her pouch, put it in her mouth, and drew it out. The paper was yellow with little neon pineapples. “Thought we should celebrate. The end of the world! Woo!”
I took the joint when Corey passed it, dragged too deeply, coughed too much. I was going to do it. To tell her. But smoking a joint, even a tropical-print one, was a bad move. Not only could I not make my declaration, I also couldn’t think of anything to say at all. The longer I couldn’t the worse it got, the weirder it felt not to speak.
I didn’t know how much time had passed. The pineapple joint was half finished, and Corey had stubbed it out to save the rest for later. I lay back on the grass and closed my eyes, then opened them when my head started spinning. Repeated.
I heard two beeps one after the other, exactly the same in tone, and fumbled for my little heavy phone. I was lying down again, and it almost dropped onto my head as I waited for my eyes to adjust and see the message.
It was from Corey. We looked at each other and smiled.
Kate and Leon got out of the water.
Just before eight, we sat in a circle. We’d decided to use Leon’s old digital watch for a 10-second countdown: our phones were no good for ceremony. The sun was still high in the sky, and the beach had people on it now. Not a weekend crowd, but enough picnics and cricket games that it was poignant. I thought about the scene in Terminator 2 when Sarah Connor is at the playground and Skynet activates and kids become ashes, just at the moment when the chain-link goes limp at the top of a swing’s arc.
I moved so that I was sitting cross-legged.
When Kate started counting, “10, 9. . .”, everyone was wasted. Corey was still talking loudly to Leon. Nothing important—she was just trying to win him over because she knew he didn’t like her. I shushed them.
“8, 7. . .”
“Oh my God,” said Corey. “What’s up with you? It’s not real. We don’t need to be quiet. Nothing’s going to happen.”
Kate went on: “6, 5, 4. . .”
“You don’t know that,” I said.
“3, 2. . .”
“I do,” said Corey.
She stood up, brushing the grass from her jeans just as Kate yelled: “1. . .Hadron!” We hadn’t worked out what we’d say at the end of the countdown. I was impressed at Kate’s initiative.
I stood up too, looking out to Rangitoto, and there it was. It was happening. A black velvet punch through the blue. It hung just above the rim of the volcano, growing bigger, shimmering, getting ready to open out onto something. I squinted at it, my eyelids flickered, and I saw—
Nothing. The hole had disappeared. All there was where it had been were those electric zigzags that everyone sees when they stare into a bright sky.
“See,” said Corey. “Nothing happened.”
“Nothing happened yet,” I said.
Corey rolled her eyes. I looked at Kate and Leon. They’d already started to pack up, stumbling a little as they collected the rubbish and stuffed it into a New World bag. Leon tied the handles and left the bag at the bottom of a bin overflowing with ice cream wrappers and beer bottles. A seagull pulled the thin plastic apart, flying off with my half-eaten dolmade.
“Should we go to the movies?” asked Corey. “I have more weed. I think Twilight’s playing in Takapuna at nine. I haven’t seen it.”
“I’d watch it again,” said Leon.
“Yeah,” said Kate. She turned to me. “Coming?”
“I think I’ll stay a bit longer,” I said.
I was still scanning the horizon, still hoping for it.
For my own black hole.
Just a little one.