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You are born today; all is without form.
You are the world, the world is you. When you hunger, the world hungers. When you cry, the world is sad.
Slats of sunlight peek through Venetian blinds, printed in thick bars upon the floor. Dustmotes float through watery shafts of light, flare into brilliance. You long to catch one between your palms... but all around you are the wooden bars of a lullaby prison.
Hope-bereft, you flop onto the blankie-covered floor of your cell, crying at the futility. Mother comes to comfort you and pat your back, but she is the only one who ever does… in this strange jail, this place of bright lights and cold, there is no father.
The boundaries become clearer.
You are three today.
"God bless Mommy, me, and Daddy in Heaven."
Mother is pleased with your diligent prayers.
"God's always listening, son," she tells you, tucking you in. "God always hears. Always sees. He made a beautiful place for us to live, and watches over us with great care. All day, every day."
She sings softly:
"Safe beneath your covers, son,
Safe in the Panopticon
Overseen by eyes that love
Guardian angels up above..."
You close your eyes, drift away...
A few hours later, you wake and hear her punching keys on a typewriter, flicking a lighter open.
Mommy wants to be a writer.
When you move your arms and legs, it no longer shocks you to see the rest of the world stand still. Inanimate and animate are now as different as black and white.
The boundaries are sharp and defined. You are your own.
You turn around sometimes, hearing Daddy’s voice behind you. “Everything is going to be all right, son.” But he’s not there.
The voice is imagined, guessed at; it’s a voice you’ve never heard. Whoever he was, wherever he went, he went before he could say goodbye or even hello. Off to Heaven, you conclude. You’ve prayed to him a thousand times.
You run: the earth rattles, you feel eternally in the state of falling down. You giggle with pure delight, roll around in the rich, sweet scent of grass, squeal-laughing, for no reason other than being happy.
What justification do you need? The sun is bright! The grass is green! Why shouldn't you be the merriest boy alive?
You are nine. The boundaries become walls- higher, darker, thicker.
Mother has smoked a pack a day since you were born. Sucking Marlboros as she waited to pick you up from daycare... adjourning to the garage when she cried.
The hospital room is cold, like the halls. The lemon scent that hangs over-thick in the corridors is so fake it stings- you know they use lemon to cover bedpan smell. Pine is for vomit. And the sweet scent of grass- well, that’s for blood. You’ve learned the flavors that paint the air so well, a gorgeous grassy meadow would make you hurl.
Everything beautiful is just a shadow of something ugly.
Without nicotine steadily flowing, it would be hard to raise a boy alone. Did you put your mother here?
She lies on sterile white sheets. Threads of plastic snake up into her nostrils and her veins, rigging her up to contraptions, machines you can't identify.
Her hair lies in fried mats beneath her head. Her skin is sallow, parchment-yellow. There's nothing the dentists can do with her teeth but pull them out.
"Sing to me, son..." she whispers. "A lullaby..."
You nod, begin:
"Safe beneath your covers, Mom,
Safe in the Panopticon-"
"No!" she breaks in, her voice a violent wheeze. A meter beside you begins to beep with harder rhythm. A mottled, bony claw clutches at your sleeve.
"Please, son... another song..." she whispers. The claw loosens. "... I'll Fly Away."
"I'll fly away, fly away, Oh Glory,
I'll fly away, fly away, in the morning
When I die, Hallelujah, by and by,
I’ll fly away, fly away..."
"Son..." she breathes hoarsely.
"What?" Kneeling by her side. "I'm here, Mom."
"The song... it's... you... He is... watching..." she rolls malevolent eyes towards the fluorescent lights on the ceiling, not seeing the ceiling, staring through to heaven. "This is the Panopticon..."
"All the world’s a prison… and your life is… already... written..." she coughs.
"I don't understand, Mom..."
"Destiny is… is written, like on… stone tablets…” she wheezes a laugh, “all it took me was a typewriter… there are… no choices..." her eyes close.
Her sigh is weighted with finality. "Oh, to Hell with it… let it die with me... you’ll figure it out soon enough…"
The beeping meter stops. All you hear is steady dial-tone.
You turn around, thinking you feel Dad's hand on your shoulder, hear his soft voice telling you everything is all right. But when you look, there is no father.
There never has been.
You are sixteen. The boundaries are high and impenetrable.
You are surprised to see that your arms still respond when you answer questions timidly in class.
You receive glares from people.
There are a thousand miles between you and them. Brick wall. You couldn't reach them with a mining drill.
There were once no barriers at all, yet now they surround you on every side, closing, little by little, squeezing oxygen from your lungs, optimism from your soul.
You step outside into a brilliant warm day, but do not feel the sun, or the wind that rattles boughs overhead. Clinically numb, you sleepwalk home to adopted parents and drunken yells.
Your name has changed... all memory of your mother dies with the title that she gave you.
Is it possible for someone to fade? Like a photo, crumpled and forgotten in washed jeans? Could it be that you don’t exist anymore? Are you gone, like she is, like your name is, like your father is? Could you have fallen from the face of the earth?
You are twenty. You sit in a cubicle. Boundaries are everywhere.
The walls are strange; once you hated them. Then, you grew accustomed to them. Now... God, how you need them.
It takes all your effort to coerce your legs into swinging over the side of the bed each morning. As always, you turn your head to the other side and see... no one. There is no one else in your small apartment. No one else in your bed. No one else in your life.
Hard as you try, you can’t remember the last time you prayed.
You walk to the buzzing curb in late November chill.
Steam pours from you with every breath, like the steam gushing from manholes embedded in the concrete. You hail a cab.
A female voice beside you hails one, too.
Nothing good ever comes from something that sounds so sweet, yet still, you look to it.
... and for the first time in two decades, the walls come crashing down. You see your soul in her eyes. You see yourself, somehow not here, but standing over there. No boundaries. No barriers. Union. One and the same.
You are rolling in sweet grass, clapping dustmotes, the happiest man on earth.
You split the cab.
"The bookstore, please."
"Really? Me too!" you lie, and discretely text Robbie at the office:
"I'm sick. Please excuse."
With no shyness, no anxiety, you begin to ask questions, joke, talk. For the first time in your life, it's easy.
You leaf through fresh pages together. Novels you agreed on during the ride, authors you knew she'd like. Ecstatically, you inform her that you like them, too.
You're even more ecstatic when you realize you're not lying.
She gushes over Jay McInerney. You timidly promote Thomas Wolfe.
The words are just words, the banter meaningless, the jokes mandatory. You're hypnotized by the silk sheets of her ebon hair, draping her shoulders in black sheen, framing her fair angelic face. Her Arctic diamond-chip eyes, frosted with angel feathers, hard and opaque- not windows to the soul, rather windows out: she peers from inside her mind and into yours, seeing your heart, knowing it, understanding it. Accepting it. Loving you.
The boundaries have melted. There are no walls. No borders. Just Father's hand on your shoulder. “Everything’s going to be all right, son.”
Anything could happen today.
You wake up, look beside you.
Someone is there. Though it has been nearly nine months, this still seems a wholly new phenomenon.
Her breath comes in soft coos. You wipe loose strands of hair from her cheek, stare at her face... like a child, in blissful peace, eyes closed, lips smiling faintly. Trust. Her gorgeous hair in a tangled pool beneath her head, her chest rising and falling in gentle rhythm.
Her eyelids flutter and part. She smiles wider.
"Good morning," she whispers.
"Good morning," you echo softly.
"If we were married… it would be like this every morning," she smiles.
And just like that, the walls come crashing back up.
After just a few days, she has forgotten the remark completely.
Prison lurks everywhere; her eyes seem to have changed from diamond-blue to iron-cage gray. You should’ve known. Everything beautiful is just a shadow of something ugly… every promise of freedom is just bait on a hook. Even the sweet scent of grass is just a mask for the sickening metal smell of blood.
To ease your mind, she buys you a book.
She doesn't understand why you're shocked.
"Why didn't anyone tell me?" you murmur to yourself. You see, printed across the spine of the book, your old name. Not the lie name, the fake name that foster parents branded you with long ago.
Your mother's dream came true.
“Tell you what?” the sweetheart asks, “Do you know that person?”
“Honestly,” you murmur, “I really don’t…”
The book is called Panopticon.
The first page is occupied solely by this:
A prison so constructed that an inspector may see his prisoners at all times, without being seen himself.
The walls... Earth. God's prison. Panopticon.
Mother said: “He built a beautiful place for us to live in. He watches over us with great care.” A few years later, she said: “All the world’s a prison. Destiny is written.”
"What is this?" you demand frantically.
You realize with a pang of guilt that you're scaring her when she offers in a small voice: "Read the back."
From the day the curtain fell on childhood, Percy Ophone has felt "the walls" growing up around him.
Isolated from those around him, he knows only the solace of the printed page, the comfort of a mother's old lullaby. As he puts it: "I couldn't reach the world with a mining drill."
All this changes when he meets Sadie, a childish but sultry girl, who pounces on Percy and makes it her mission to free him from the encumbering inhibitions that have plagued him all his life.
But breaking a man free from prison is a great feat- with dire consequences.
A tale that shifts seamlessly between the darkly comedic and disturbingly harrowing, The Panopticon is a novel destined to change your life and broaden your perspective... no matter who you are!
She's worrying about you. Right now, she's in your kitchen, staring in her empty coffee cup.
You're pacing in your room, the door locked, the book clenched in your shaking hands. You have not been able to sit still, not been able to put it down, for four hours.
"Percy paced the floor restlessly, wondering how his story would end. Sadie sat crying in the pantry.
"'Mother knows... Sadie knows... God knows...' he mumbled to himself, punctuating his incomplete sentences with flagrant and erratic hand gestures.
"Throughout his life, he had felt the barriers around him, constricting him, squeezing him. He had felt the eyes. The eyes of whom? Angels?
"Hardly! If his life was heaven-blessed, how did it come to this?"
The book begins, slowly, to make sense.
"Honey, open the door!" she pleads. "Honey, it's just a book! A book!"
"No, it's not," you insist quietly. Your eyes are fixed maliciously on the printed words, your face twitching, writhing with hate. "It's not."
The last page.
"How had Sadie known him so well? Could simple intuition account for the ease with which she read him? Mimicked his taste in literature and films? Laughed at horrible jokes?
"When the walls had separated him from all the world, why had they not separated him from Sadie?
"Because she was a plant. Because she was the Final Solution, the ball and chain...
"Now Percy knew what this place was. The Panopticon. All his life, he had been directed, herded from one cell to another. God was its owner, his mother, its warden. In the eyes of every camera, Percy saw his father. And Sadie... Sadie, the guard, another architect of his strangulation.
"Percy took firmer hold of the knife and burst into the kitchen. He saw her there. He did not hesitate."
You open the bedroom door, slowly.
She is waiting for you.
"Honey? Are you all right?"
"The story..." you murmur, and realize the book is still in your grip, trembling. "Everything in it is true. My life... my life has been spent in prison..."
She nods, understanding, her eyes wide with fear and sorrow. "You've told me about that," she says.
You have told her about the "walls"... about your father, on long nights when you lay next to each other, confessing this or that.
"I thought you would free me..." you frown, brows creased, eyes on the floor.
"Have I changed anything?"
"You were in on it... you have been all along. You, my mother, my father... God... my life has been surrounded by the covers of this book. Every day is another page. It was all... scripted. Even the things that haven't happened yet."
She gulps. She bites her lip, wondering if she ought to ask her next question. "How does the story end?"
"The boy kills the girl."
She nods, expecting it. Could she have known?
"You believe in it, don't you? It's become your Bible."
"I honestly haven't put much stock in the Bible lately," you reply numbly.
"You know what I mean..." she whispers.
"Don't you see?" she asks, shaking her head at you slowly, sadly. "Don't you see it's just another set of walls? She can write the beginning, your father can write the middle, God Himself could throw in a few chapters... but only you write the end."
"The book," she says, striding to you and taking it from your hands, "is just a book. The walls are up here," she says, tapping your temples with the gentle tips of her fingers. "The ending is up here. Mother and Father... they're up here, too."
"Come with me."
You step outside into a brilliant warm day, but do not feel the sun, or the wind that rattles boughs overhead. Clinically numb, you sleepwalk down the buzzing streets.
You have fallen from the face of the earth.
Until she takes your hand... and you suddenly see that something has changed.
The book is just a book... the walls are in your mind...
You hear a young boy giggle with delight, squeal-laughing, for no reason other than being happy.
The rich, sweet scent of grass. You cannot remember where you sensed these things before... but they seem so real, so right. All the pain they carry with them is only proof that you’ve lived.
What justification does he need to laugh? The sun is bright! The grass is green! Name one reason why he shouldn't be the merriest boy alive?
You hear the voice, a voice you've heard before when no one is with you. You turn to it...
And this time… this time, someone is there.
"Everything's going to be all right," she says.
You are born today. The world is without form.
And whatever form the world does take, you know you will survive. Because the sun is bright. The grass is green. And most importantly, because she told you so.
Your mother thought it would be a tragedy. Perhaps even God agreed.
But it was you who held the pen, and a girl who directed its flowing strikes across the page... all the way to a happy ending.
You walk with her, singing softly:
I'll fly away, fly away, oh glory,
I'll fly away, fly away, in the morning...