The Girl Scout
The Girl Scout was the first to encounter a sentient sinkhole. They became so common that it’s nearly impossible nowadays to imagine our lives without them and all that they led to. But this is the first full accounting of her initial contact, which has gone largely ignored. She was upstaged by Art Wheeler’s encounter just four months later. (When a television actor dies—even if he’s third-tier—everyone takes note.)
You’re likely not surprised that the first sentient sinkhole started as a very small crack—this became standard. The crack formed at the edge of the pavement across and down a bit from the Girl Scout’s house on Apple Road, which ended in a cul-de-sac and was rarely travelled because it led nowhere. (Her parents were proud of the cul-de-sac because it was a safe place to raise a child, but the Girl Scout would one day tell a boyfriend that raising a child on a road that actually leads somewhere holds a certain unquantifiable psychological importance that shouldn’t be underestimated.) The crack was the size that could host a dandelion, given the right circumstances. But the Girl Scout decided it looked like a mouth—a crooked smile, in fact—and so she fed it.
This was her first mistake.
She fed it a rock of crumbled tar. And this makes no sense because feeding tar to tar is a form of cannibalism. Forced cannibalism, in this case.
It’s hard to say whether this was the start of it all. If she hadn’t fed the crack, maybe it wouldn’t have grown. Maybe it was some sort of test sinkhole and, finding us inhospitable, it would have given up. Maybe many people before the Girl Scout had ignored these small cracks and they all just faded.
If sentient sinkholes hadn’t become a thing, she’d have forgotten about this moment. It might have only bubbled up as metaphor one day when, say, realizing her first marriage was over while talking on her cell phone standing in the middle of the produce aisle of a major grocery-store chain—the words like a crumbled rock of tar falling down a crack rising up in her mind to pinpoint some sense of lonesomeness.
After all, it wasn’t memorable in and of itself.
This is all moot because she did feed it. The tarry rock tumbled just a little out of view, and, at first, nothing happened. There was no surprise in it. The Girl Scout wanted surprises. She had the vague idea that there were things that she was being purposefully shielded from, understandings about how the world operated, and she wanted to be let in on these surprising things.
And then there was another moment when she could have forgotten about it and she didn’t because, well, as fate would have it, her hermit crab died. It was summer and her parents had bought it for her at a boardwalk at a Delaware beach. The hermit crab was probably bound to die. So many sea creatures were exposed to nuclear waste around this time that it likely had a small cancerous knot in its intestines upon the point of sale. (We’re not outing any specific nuclear plant here; suffice it to say, that most of the deadliest plants had not yet been accused of anything, publicly.)
The Girl Scout blamed herself for the death because there was no one else to blame. Her mother and father hadn’t wanted to buy the damn thing anyway. They’d fought about it in front of the little booth inside of the boardwalk amusements.
Her father was the one who gave in. He always gave in because he wanted the Girl Scout to like him. “It’ll occupy her at least,” her father said, as if her need for stimulation were insatiable.
The Girl Scout’s mother hated her own mother so held no illusions about being liked. She finally conceded, “It’ll die and then we can teach her what death is.” She was practical. Then she added in a whisper, “It’ll help pave the way for your mother’s death.”
The Girl Scout wasn’t supposed to hear that, but her mother’s whispers were loud because her hearing had dimmed as a result of concerts she’d attended in high school during a hard rock phase.
The mother’s point was valid. The Girl Scout’s grandmother, on her father’s side, had been half-paralyzed by a stroke for a few years and was confined to a wheelchair. The Girl Scout didn’t remember her grandmother pre-stroke. She only knew her with this half-smile, half-frown, half-gestures, all aspects of a half-life of half-perception. “Look left,” the nursing-home attendants always told her. But she didn’t understand that there was anything on her left. If the Girl Scout shifted to her grandmother’s left, she would disappear from her grandmother’s perception completely. The world, for her grandmother, ended abruptly. The right—the world. The left—the dark void. The Girl Scout liked to move between the world and the dark void of her grandmother’s perception. It wasn’t a game as much as it was a power trip, a way to live and die and live again.
When the Girl Scout lifted the hermit crab’s shell one morning, the crab’s dead body slipped out, naked and vulnerable. A death-scented puff was released into the Girl Scout’s bedroom. She picked up the hermit crab, walked down to the kitchen, and rolled it in a paper towel. She was going to bury it under the bushes in the back yard.
But then as she passed by her parents sitting at the kitchen table, thumbing through their phones with their mouths tightly pursed, she thought of the crack in the street, its mouth. She decided she’d bury the hermit crab there.
She walked to the crack and was surprised to find that it was no longer a crooked smile. It was an angry ragged mouth. It frightened her. She wiped her sweaty palms on the skirt of her Girl Scout uniform—she wore it as often as possible because it made her feel powerful—and dropped the paper-towel-wrapped hermit crab into the mouth.
And then she ran home.
But the mouth grew overnight and, even before she was out of bed, she fucking knew it had.
The next morning was a Sunday and she ran downstairs and out into her front yard. From there, she could see the crack. It was more like a gaping hole. When she got closer, she could see that it had one sloping inner wall and a few jagged jutting ledge-like parts but, most of all, it held darkness.
A wide-open mouth. It was hungry.
The Girl Scout didn’t curse as a rule, but she muttered, “Shit and damn it. Shit and damn it. Shit and damn it.”
She was terrified and thrilled by the mouth’s desire. It wanted and it wasn’t afraid to want.
Still, she was a good Girl Scout and so she was torn. She had the irresistible desire to feed the mouth—if nothing else than just to see what would happen. But she was pretty sure she should report it to her Troop Leader, Emma P.’s mother, a.k.a. Mrs. P.
Mrs. P’s real gifts were in crafts and cookie sales, neither of which interested the Girl Scout much. She was more of a survivalist than DIY crafter and, though she couldn’t yet express it intellectually, she harbored deep-seated Communist leanings that made her wary of cookie-sale consumerism and being used for slave labor in a corporate capitalistic structure under the guise of female empowerment. When she questioned some of the Girl Scout’s principles and effectiveness, Mrs. P’s eyes would go watery and she’d bring up that woman who, because of her Girl Scout training, helped people in Africa make ovens out of tinfoil.
As the Girl Scout thought it through, she decided that Mrs. P wouldn’t be of much use in this situation. She was kind of crappy when it came to badges in Trailblazing and Woodworking and Archery. All of which seemed essential now.
The Girl Scout did seize on one thing, however. The make-your-own-badge badge. Each Girl Scout was allowed to design her own badge once per year.
The Girl Scout decided that this would be her badge, a kind of exploration badge.
To this end, the Girl Scout went to the neighbor’s and picked up their cat, Pierre, who’d been sunning himself on the driveway. He was a fat lazy older cat who occasionally crouched and leapt in the yard but mostly just glared out at the street from under the bushes and spray-peed on the car tires of out-of-town guests.
The thing about Pierre was that he came with a bell already around his neck.
The Girl Scout found a long piece of rope in the garage, which she’d organized earlier that summer. It was much more rope than she thought she needed. She attached the rope to Pierre’s leash with a bowline knot, which is known in Scouting corners as the king of knots. It’s often used in rescues.
Not that she thought she’d need to rescue the cat. This was a mission just to gather information like how deep the hole was.
Pierre was heavy and hot and she was sweaty. His fur stuck to her arm in a way she didn’t care for. His bell was muffled against the crook of her elbow.
Once she got to the edge of the mouth, she said, “Let’s do this.”
Pierre didn’t seem to want to do much of anything at first. But she kept nudging him toward the hole and eventually he nosed closer and gazed down into it. His bell tinkled. He became engaged. The end of his tail flicked like he was electrically charged.
“Go on,” the Girl Scout urged him, holding onto the rope.
And without a backward glance, he padded down the steep slope of the hole. Pebbles gave beneath his paws and the Girl Scout listened to them rattle down and down and down.
She got scared then and tugged on the rope. “Wait,” she said. “Abort mission!”
But Pierre was intent on going forward. He pressed on. He seemed to come to a bend and she could only see his tail. She got down on her knees. “Pierre!”
She heard a hiss and then its echo.
“Abort mission!” she shouted again and gave another tug.
But then it was like Pierre tugged back, but it wasn’t just a tug. It was such a hard jerk that the Girl Scout lost her balance, flew forward, and landed on her chest. As she started to skid, she hugged the pavement, spider-like. More rocks of tar tumbled down. And, gripping the rope, she crawled backward, inch by inch.
When she was, once again, sitting securely on the street, she pulled on the rope. It was slack. Hand over hand, she whipped it up as fast as she could. But when she got to the end, the collar dangled limply, its bell dinging its hollow little dings.
She walked back to her house, untied the collar from the rope, coiled it neatly, and put it back in the garage. She then walked to her bedroom and hid Pierre’s collar in a shoebox filled with old Valentines in the back of her closet.
She didn’t take off her shoes, but she got in bed and stared up at the plastic glow-in-the-dark stars which she’d stuck up there as accurately as possible, positioned to reflect the day of her birth. It had been her mother’s idea.
She tried to console herself with thoughts like: Pierre was old so it wasn’t as bad as it would have been if he’d been young, right? He’d lived a long life. His owners, the Gerwins, had two other cats. Two to spare. So they probably wouldn’t be too upset. The Girl Scout herself was an only child and it felt like a burden sometimes, all that pressure—like being the star of a one-woman show with no understudy. “That kind of pressure can bring on a disease,” she said aloud, as a way to comfort herself with victimhood.
But then, hearing her own selfish, petty voice, she sat up. She wasn’t a victim. She wasn’t just her parents’ overwrought only child. She wasn’t a cat killer—Pierre might still be alive, awaiting search and rescue. She wasn’t a sniveling civilian.
She was a Girl Scout.
And she was going to get a badge of her own design.
She looked out her window to assess the hole, to size up the enemy, as it were. And it seemed so much bigger from this vantage point. So very much bigger.
That was when she saw the Banks’ boy riding along on his dirt bike. She hated the Banks’ boy.
He’d said that her green uniform and wide down-turned mouth made her look like a frog. She was a frowner. Both of her parents pointed this out from time to time.
But it was too late to warn the Banks’ boy. That was the truth. Hand to God.
He was flying on that dirt bike. And, with the glare of the late afternoon sun, he must have misread the hole as a shadow cast by an enormous tree in full foliage. Because he rode along and then lost contact with the road. He seemed to have the instinct to pull his handlebars away from the hole as if he could avoid being swallowed by backing up. But gravity didn’t allow that kind of thing.
There was a light clatter, some banging. A dwindling cry.
There one second. Gone the next.
The Banks’ boy was probably done for.
But just in case he and Pierre were down there, still breathing, the Girl Scout had no time to lose.
She ran downstairs, passing her parents, who were shouting about whether one should follow cooking instructions on a package or improvise, and back out to the garage. She pulled the rope from its properly marked hook and ran to the tree next to the hole and not far from the neighbor’s mailbox. She tied a knot around the tree trunk and a corresponding knot around her own waist.
She was scared, of course. But she could hear Mrs. P’s voice saying, “Do you think that woman in Africa trying to make ovens out of tinfoil wasn’t scared? She was. And that’s what made her so brave!”
The Girl Scout moved slowly at first but then she scrambled. Her sneakers sliding in a rhythm.
“Pierre!” she called out. “Banks! Are you down here?”
There were no sounds except her sneakers and the ticking of the rocks and their echoes. She went deeper and it was harder to see. Darkness seemed to swell up from below.
“Banks! Pierre! Please respond if you can hear my voice!”
Her foot struck something. A ledge.
She stopped there and caught her breath. When she leaned against the hole’s wall, it shifted and groaned. She reached out to steady herself, and her hand struck something in the darkness. Something tough but rubbery and, when hit, it moved and then started ticking and whirring. She opened her hand wide and felt the nubbiness of a thick wheel. A dirt-bike wheel. It stopped spinning.
She patted around. “Banks?” she said. “Banksy?” That’s what his mother called him at the community pool when he was slow to get out for adult swim.
But the Banks boy wasn’t on the ledge, dead or alive.
She found the ledge’s sharp edge.
He was down there. She knew it. And he was dead.
“Did you eat him?” she shouted.
Her voice reverberated a bit and then there was no sound.
She felt lonesome. Very lonesome. She rubbed her hands on her dirty knees. Both were skinned and tender from bruises. One was wet with blood. She felt like she could die here. She wondered if maybe that was what life was. Opportunities for death.
She wanted something then, very much, but she couldn’t name it. She ran her fingers lightly along the wall. It was rough and pocked. She’d read a biography on Helen Keller and was sure she could read the wall if she knew brail. Something here wanted to talk to her, wanted to express something.
She pressed her cheek against the wall. It was soft, as if covered in a light dusting of moss. She whispered this time, “Did you eat Banks? And Pierre?”
Her cheek felt warm suddenly and she thought that, for a split second, she remembered what it was like to be a sleepy baby resting on her mother’s breast. She knew that the hole had intentions. It was alive. Maybe it didn’t have a heartbeat but it had fears and needs and wants, like the Girl Scout herself.
She also knew that the hole was dangerous. A killer. She thought, my friend, the killer.
And then the sinkhole told her things. Told isn’t the right word, exactly. The sinkhole didn’t speak to her using words. It was more that she understood a succession of things in short order. She knew that she would fall in and out of love. Despite what culture said about lasting relationships, her parents’ fighting was typical, and their marriage wouldn’t last. She understood that sex was a metaphor for the fleeting nature of joy. She knew what sex entailed, suddenly, as if someone had sat her down with a slideshow. She understood that she was genetically predisposed to have a stroke, like her grandmother. She knew that people were capable of grotesque inhuman cruelty to others and to themselves. The inhumanity of humanity was a dark secret, but she had definitely glimpsed this darkness—on playgrounds and in cafeterias and in the world of adults and in herself—and refused to accept it.
“Shit and damn it,” she whispered.
Still, the sinkhole seemed to be telling her that, despite all of this, she should live as fully as possible.
She was thankful but, at the same time, wished she knew none of this. She felt clammy and sick, as if she’d eaten too much cotton candy and it was clotting, pale and pink and airy, in her stomach. She had to get out. She looked up and saw only a dim light at the top of the hole. Dusk.
“I’d still really like to find Pierre and Banks,” she whispers to the hole. If the badge were predicated on some kind of search and rescue, she’d fail without the cat or the boy.
For a long moment, it had no response.
And then, finally, it seemed to tell her that death was random, for the most part, and unpredictable and that nothing truly lasts.
The Girl Scout felt a whirl of panic and dread. She knew it was the truth, that everything that the sinkhole told her was true. And this was what she’d wanted. And it terrified her.
She called out, “Pierre! Banks! Seriously, if you could just show up that would be really great! Pierre? Banks!”
Just as she was about to give up, the side of the hole gave at her back. It was expanding. She scooted away from the edge of the ledge. The hole yawed open so wide that it actually let in a little more of the dying light in the sky.
And then she heard something terrible. Tires screeching, whipping around a corner. Bass pumping. The Warton’s teenage daughter was coming home from her job at the Y, as she always did at this hour, three days per week. How could the Girl Scout have forgotten to chart out this kind of impending calamity? The Wharton’s daughter was a terrible driver. It was rumored that she smoked weed. And she had bad taste in music, according to the Girl Scout’s mother—all pop with no sense of the legends who came before. The Girl Scout pushed her back up against the rocky wall.
The Warton’s daughter must have seen the hole because there was a momentary screech of brakes before she hit air. The Girl Scout saw the underbelly of the car as it arched overhead. The headlights toured the bumpy inner lining of the sinkhole so brightly it almost seemed to shine like a gullet. (Later, the Girl Scout would remember this detail and think: the Wharton’s teenaged daughter had turned on the headlights, even though it was only dusk—as a good driver would.) And then the car nosedived directly into the deepest part of the hole.
There was no way the teenager could have survived that. No way at all.
The Girl Scout was frantic. She found her footing on the ledge and tightened the rope. She began to pull herself back up.
Sirens whined in the distance. Someone up above must have called it in. The sky was growing dark. People were gathering. She could hear voices from above but they echoed from below. It was disorienting. Was she headed toward the voices? Away from them?
“Pierre!” she cried. “Banks!” It was hard to call out because she was crying and she lost her voice when she cried.
She heard her mother’s voice. “Is that you?”
“It’s me!” she said.
She felt like she was rising then. The rope that she’d fitted around her waist rode up under her armpits. She was being lifted. She kept clawing and digging her sneakers in as best she could.
Her father shouted to what sounded like a small group of neighbors. “It’s her! She’s coming up!”
And the sky was a heavy blue. Many neighbors and her parents were pulling her up, hand over hand on the rope, quickly, like they did at the annual block party’s tug-of-war, as they did when one team was giving up.
Her parents’ faces were awash with joy and fear. They cried with relief. They pulled her to their chests hungrily.
“You’re here!” they said. “You’re alive!”
“I’m here and alive,” the Girl Scout said.
But it only felt partially true. She was kind of here and kind of alive—like all of us.
“It’s like you were dead and came back to life!” her parents said, in various ways.
“Sure,” she said.
She got her picture in the local newspaper. Some geologist-types blocked the road and dug around. And, for a while, her parents didn’t fight at all. They seemed grateful and happy and very alive. But, honestly, it only lasted for about three weeks and so, in the end, the Girl Scout learned that nothing really lasts, just like the sinkhole had told her.
She tried to get Mrs. P to give her a badge in that—impermanence.
Mrs. P acted like she had no idea what the Girl Scout was talking about.
But Mrs. P, all watery-eyed, did understand. Of course she did.
Oh, and the hole.
It sealed up on its own, almost overnight, but then it gaped in a new spot where it eventually swallowed Art Wheeler, the star of Make It Work. But, see, Wheeler, as we all know, posted a live-stream of him inside of the sinkhole. People thought he was high—talking about all this shit he was learning about himself and life—and when he fell to his death, people thought it was drug-related.
But then the sinkhole became transitory. It clearly had a mind of its own, deep down there somewhere. And account after account—of those who survived or live-streamed, that is—backed up Wheeler’s transcendent experience.
Transcendent isn’t the right word because it gives the impression that people were happy about the whole thing. They weren’t. They generally reacted like the Girl Scout had—shaken, terrified. Some kind of lost it.
Still, some who’d been down into the holes tried to go back. The sinkholes, however, only spoke to survivors once. This was so well established in every sinkhole survivor support group that the Girl Scout attended throughout college and her early twenties that she never tried to go back. (The Girl Scout spent much of college and her early twenties in the semi-circles of plastic chairs reserved for sinkhole survivor support groups.)
It was bigger than support groups though. Clearly, the sinkholes—there were many by this point—were part of some kind of network. The Earth eventually could open up at anytime and eat whatever it wanted. Worst of all, the sinkholes were impossible to predict. Sometimes a smile would appear and fade. Sometimes they seemed voracious. Most agreed that the sinkholes seemed to be motivated from a kind of vengefulness. But others staunchly believed it was ridiculous to anthropomorphize geological instability. Scientists of various sorts tried to track the sinkholes and locate a singular neural map, the Earth’s ganglia—to couch it in terms humans understand.
The Girl Scout was certain that the sinkholes were part of a living organism, one that wanted not to eat us. Or not solely to eat us. Not to punish. Or not solely to punish us. But to connect. Maybe just to connect us to our true selves. She’d say this—at her office job or at a party—but it always came out stilted and pretentious so she stopped.
The sinkholes started appearing all over the world at an alarming rate. It was still improbable, statistically speaking, what with there being billions of humans on the planet, that one would be swallowed by a sinkhole, but the randomness caused chronic anxiety. Support groups popped up everywhere.
Powerlessness made us desire power. It was all so intolerable that many nations elected dictators. And, of course, the dictators who were the most effective played upon people’s fears of powerlessness, creating a vicious cycle. Were the sinkholes a message from God? Were they an environmental crisis caused by human greed—drilling for oil, fracking, mining, etc. The wars that followed were brutal and bloody, the death tolls staggering.
As if trying to keep pace with human hostility, the sinkholes surged for a time, coming stronger and faster, whole city blocks of skyscrapers, a few mountain ranges.
The Girl Scout lived through a short and brutal war herself and was overwhelmed by the escalation. Approaching middle age, she could barely remember the courage of her childhood. Post-war, trying to live fully, as the sinkhole had told her, despite the inhumanity of humanity, she got married and divorced in her late twenties and then did so again the following decade.
In her mid-forties, the enormous sinkholes stopped sealing back up. They just yawned open, exhausted and slack.
One night, the Girl Scout whispered to her new lover that she knew why the sinkholes stopped sealing up. “The Earth wants the wounds to show, for the scars to be part of this inexpressible something.” She had scars from the war—two long ones on an upper arm and one across her brow. She didn’t talk about them. She no longer thought about what the sinkholes had told her or about the sinkholes’ possible desire to connect us to our true selves. She wanted to know what the sinkholes had to say about its deepest self. She was sure it had to do with betrayal—she’d suffered many personal betrayals. “What if the sinkholes are trying to tell us about ourselves in the hope that, if we truly know ourselves with some truthfulness, only then can we start to accept ourselves? If we accept ourselves, we can accept others. And if we accept others, we can stop our communal self-loathing long enough to want to save the planet we live on and therefore each other.”
Her lover had never been in a sinkhole himself but he had survived the same war that she had. “I think they’re fuckers.” He had a ragged voice. “And we’re fuckers.”
“That doesn’t mean you disagree with me,” she said.
“I know,” he said.
“They aren’t sealing back up,” she said, “because they want us to remember. They’re archiving our loss.” She imagined the sinkholes as strange museums, dedicated to preserving … what? And then she remembered the last thing that the sinkhole had conveyed to her, the transient nature of life, that nothing truly lasts. “They’re monuments to impermanence.” She thought of herself on the day she first encountered the sinkhole—kneeling at the edge of it in her dirty Girl Scout uniform, holding the rope that she’d tied to the leash of neighbor’s cat, how the rope went slack. She’d secured it with the king of knots. What was it called again? And then the term came to her. “A bowline knot,” she whispered to herself.
Her lover died a few years later because of the lingering effects of a wartime nerve-agent exposure.
By the time the Girl Scout was an old woman, the sinkholes had given up. They just simply stopped. This struck her as the saddest part of the whole apocalyptic mess, this giving up on the human race.
Eventually, she had a stroke of her own. It was no surprise because the sinkhole had warned her of her predisposition.
With the help of an attendant, she was propped in her motorized wheelchair and escorted around the grounds of her government-regulated nursing home, a lone building on a spot of green surrounded by some jagged pits of nothingness.
When the attendant wandered off to smoke—nearly everyone was smoking again—she was left on the cement patio. Once she was certain that he wasn’t looking, she set her directional joystick in one direction. The motorized wheelchair would spin and spin. As she turned her small circle, her perception limited by her stroke, she saw only a dark shifting void, and she would remember what it was like to be a little girl inside of a sinkhole and the abject beauty of being known by someone—or something—willing to tell you the truth