“You stand accused before a court of your peers. How do you plead?”
“Not guilty, your Honor.”
Marlena could feel dozens of eyes on her, likely millions more behind the glass window of the news cameras, but she did not notice them. Her attention was fixed on the man who stood across the room, the man who lied so well that she was certain he had been in this exact situation before.
And yet, here they were.
Hardly a month had passed without a new trial broadcasted in the papers. When she saw the first news screening, the one that started it all, she had wept for hours. For the first time in a long time, she didn’t feel entirely alone.
Now she felt empty, her emotions displayed across America on a flat-screen TV.
“The prosecution may call its first witness.”
“The People call Marlena Hobbs to the stand,” the lawyer replied. At the sound of her name, Marlena stood and walked to the wooden bench.
Time slowed to an unbearable pace as her lawyer gathered his notes. She would not let her eyes stray towards the man sitting across the room. Instead, she kept her gaze focused on the sound of shuffling papers, the light footsteps as her lawyer approached the bench.
“Have you seen this man before?” He pointed where she didn’t want to look.
“Yes,” she replied. The man’s sunken eyes stared back at her from across the room, his face unreadable aside from a slight twinge in his jaw. The grey stubble jumped with each grinding motion.
Her lawyer nodded. “Could you please share with the court the details of your relationship?”
“We met while I was interviewing for my last job.”
“And would you say that you’ve developed a close working relationship with Mr. Roth during your time at Kaplan and Associates?”
“No, we hardly ever saw each other.”
Minutes blurred as Marlena answered question after question. All the while, the man’s jaw clenched, only softening when his own lawyer rose.
“Now, Ms. Hobbs,” the public defender started. “As you’ve previously stated, the alleged assault happened on Mr. Roth’s property, is that correct?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“And how is it, exactly, that you happened to be at his private residence, if you claim the two of you never shared any kind of past relationship?”
Marlena’s stomach tightened at the transparent accusation.
“I was at our office holiday party. All of my coworkers were there too.”
“Interesting. And yet, none of them noticed any disturbance? Certainly, if an entire office full of people were in attendance, someonewould have noticed that you and my client were both missing from the party.”
The room buzzed. Clicking from the camera honed on Marlena’s face, whispers from an agitated crowd. She only heard static in her ears.
“We weren’t gone for long,” she replied through gritted teeth.
“There are also no police or hospital records from the night of the alleged incident. Can you provide the court with some insight as to why that is?”
Despite the lawyer’s mockery, the courtroom appeared divided. Not physically, perhaps, but the incredulous faces lost in a sea of onlookers shared apparent discontent. Of the lawyer’s questioning or her allegations, she wasn’t entirely sure.
She could not ascertain who they believed.
“It didn’t cross my mind,” Marlena began. The lawyer scoffed. “I was in shock, I just wanted to go home. And then when I did think of it, I was too afraid.”
“So, you’re too afraid to go to the police, but not of a publicly televised trial?”
And then he began to laugh. Just a chuckle, barely more than a choke of bloated air, but a gesture of amusement nonetheless.
“Your Honor.” Marlena’s lawyer stood, his hands flying in wild bewilderment.
“It’s alright, Your Honor, I have no further questions at this time.”
Time seemed to slow, and witnesses trickled out of the rickety courtroom. Marlena did not stand, she sat and waited until her lawyer came to escort her out. They both knew that her trial had not ended, not as they left the shelter of those four walls and cascaded into a violent crowd of newspaper journalists.
“Can you give a comment on your current relationship with Mr. Roth?”
“Marlena, could you tell us what your hopes were for bringing this case to trial?”
“Would you care to respond to comments suggesting that your allegations against Mr. Roth are false?”
Barely a moment passed before questions were shouted across the overcrowded courtroom steps, each one more abhorrent than the last. Without pause, Marlena’s attorney ushered her towards a nearby idled car.
Though their faces disappeared in the rearview mirror, she couldn’t help fixating on those burning questions and the accusations that attached to them.
As the car neared her graveled driveway, she could already spot flashes of lights. More journalists, waiting for their moment to strike. Even at home, she was not safe, she was not free.
With her head down, she made it across the threshold and into the cold darkness of her home. After a warm bath and a glass of wine, she reasonably did what most individuals facing the public eye would do: she scoured the internet for information. Of the trial, of what the nation believed would come of Mr. Roth’s fate.
However, what she found was disturbing, though not altogether surprising. Images of her own face littered the home screen of dozens of publications. Some were forgiving, but many were tagged with scathing headlines. And though she tried to resist the temptation to read further, logic ultimately lost to blind, hateful curiosity.
Of them all, one article stood apart. The caption read, “navigating through this new digital world filled with immediate gratification and grotesque self-indulgence, begs the ultimate question: why are young women suddenly airing their dirty laundry in public?”
An unmistakable close-up of Marlena’s blood-drained face lay below, enticing all readers with the oldest of click-baits, for here she was not a victim. She was simply the girl who cried rape, and millions of viewers sat idly behind their computer screens, believing that their opinions mattered.
The computer creaked from the sudden force of its face slamming shut.
Resisting the temptation seemed more reasonable now, though still proved to be a challenge. With each passing second, a choir of dings sounded to remind her that she was always accessible, always reachable.
She reached to grab her phone. Her finger hovered over the side button, intending to shut it off, but an incoming stream of notifications caught her attention.
They were messages. Mostly through social media, some through email, and even a text or two. She did not want to read them, but a preview showed with little consideration for whether she wanted to see.
“How can we live in a world where our body of law doesn’t protect the victimized? We believe you, Marlena!”
“As if she would subject herself to national scrutiny as….what? A joke? No one would do that to themselves.”
“The same thing happened with my boss two years ago. I was afraid and didn’t know what to do, so I never reported him. Now, I wonder if he’s done the same to another girl. Thank you for speaking out. I know first-hand how hard it is.”
Tears spattered the screen, blurring the remaining posts from view. These women, they did not need to know her to believe her. They simply had faith.
While some thought the trial a farce, here were hundreds more who unapologetically shared their support. And for all the talk of what young women do or don’t do, thesewere the people who stood behind her, not the aging hypocrisy that hide behind a CEO’s desk. No, they were men and women her age, who maybe were victimized or knew someone who had been.
That’s what her generation did, Marlena realized. They believed. They fought to make their voices heard, to prevent more harm and hate.
And they would change the world.