The Libertines trial was announced at 8 a.m. Eastern. By the time Jane’s alarm went off at 4 p.m. Pacific, the media was consumed with it. Drivers stranded with Jane on the freeway killed the time by calling in to “Share Your Five O’clock Drive with Clive” and speculating. Who was the defendant? Would the FBI catch the Vanguard in the act this time? As always, what people seemed most interested in was if it would be the last one, the one where the terrorists were finally unmasked, the great mystery of their identities solved. No one ever described the end of the Vanguard as an end to crime or terror. By this point most of the people doing the talking tacitly agreed that the celebrities put on trial deserved it. If they disagreed with the Vanguard’s methods, they kept it to themselves.
A new billboard had gone up at the hospital exit. A lonely woman watched over her sleeping angelic child. From the distance of Jane’s perspective in the car, that woman could’ve been her; straight brown hair, white skin, late twenties or early thirties, except the woman had the body of a model, cardboard flat and rail thin, while Jane had baby bearing hips accentuating her double-wide ass, a troublesome double-wide chest, and less-troubling, but equally conspicuous, oversized lips and eyes.
Traffic suddenly sped up and Jane reached her exit. She gave the billboard the finger as she took the ramp. The last thing she needed was a daily dose of motherhood guilt on her way to work. She narrowed her gaze as she narrowed her thoughts. She didn’t care about the billboard. She didn’t care about the trial. She focused on Daniel. He was bringing her dinner. It was going to be a good night.
Jane floated up to the nurse’s station and wrapped her arms around the back of Alma’s chair. “The dream of Daniel is real,” she whispered.
“I’m happy for you,” said Alma like she was the queen bitch in Mean Girls.
Jane wheeled her desk chair up beside Alma’s and fixed her with a look until Alma finally broke her gaze from the computer screen.
“I have to tell you something really crazy.”
“Go for it.” Jane didn’t pause to imagine what kind of secret could make Alma so tense. It didn’t matter just as long as they got it out in the open and declawed it, then they’d be able to talk about Daniel.
“Remember that guy I met online last month? He liked asking me questions?”
“Too many questions, I thought.”
Alma lowered her voice, glanced down the hall towards the East 7 nurse’s station like she’d been zapped into a spy thriller. “He’s in the Vanguard.”
Jane scrambled through several expressions before she managed to find words. “That’s not possible.” She gained control of her face enough to laugh. “If he is, why would he tell you that? You could report him.”
“We’ve been very honest with each other.” Alma paused. “I think he loves me.”
“But we went speed dating last week. Why didn’t you say anything?”
“I knew you’d do what you’re doing right now: looking at me like I’ve made another mistake. But I haven’t. I did what you said I should. I gave him a test. He had to prove he was telling the truth before I told him my address. Yesterday, he told me there would be a trial.”
A damp chill slid down Jane’s shoulders. “So you gave him your address?”
“He’s coming to visit.”
Don’t panic. It’s just some weird guy. Alma’s always finding the weird ones.
“What else have you told him?” asked Jane.
“Just regular stuff. What everyone talks about. We’re watching Farscape together.”
“You’ve told him about me?”
“Kind of. I mean, he knows I have friends. We haven’t really gotten that far—”
“You can’t tell him about me.”
Alma drew back. “Sure, okay. But you’re my best friend. It will be hard not to at least mention your existence.”
She’s already told him about me.
“I’m sure he’s great. I just…” Jane searched for words that sounded reasonable. “You know how I feel about the internet.”
“Yeah, I get it. But promise you’ll meet him when he comes if he’s not totally bonkers.”
Jane stared at Alma’s computer screen where she’d been scanning news coverage about the Vanguard trial. The words blurred and swirled together. It was impossible that this could have happened. And yet Jane had an overwhelming sense that yes, of course this had happened. It had only been a matter of time before they’d find her.
Alarms sounded from room six.
“Don’t freak out, okay? I’ll be right back.”
Jane barely noticed as Alma rushed away. She sat like a statue. The world rotated around her. If she moved it would fracture into a million pieces and she would be left in darkness. She could feel the Vanguard lurking beyond her vision, the darkness of home and its accompanying duties—her husband, the Family, the Church.
The anticipation of Daniel’s arrival carried Jane through her rounds. She smiled her biggest, warmest smile as she entered each patient’s room. She ignored the televisions narrating unending gossip about the trial. She focused on best-case scenarios. Alma claimed she hadn’t told her boyfriend about Jane. If the boyfriend really was in the Vanguard, he’d soon give up, move to a different nurse. Alma would be left heartbroken, but Jane would be there to comfort her. Probably he was just a weird dude of the kind that used and abused the hopes of innocent people online. Jane would make sure and ask Grace if she would keep an eye on Alma during the first meeting.
But if it is really the Vanguard, and she did talk about me….
By the time Jane had finished rounds, she had funneled her shock into a more productive fury at her family for pretending to date nurses in order to find her. They had no shame, only rules. Those rules said she belonged to them, no matter what. When she returned to the station desk, Alma held out a jittery hand. “Look at me. I’m so nervous. I guess this is love, huh? It makes a hot mess of us all.”
The idea that Alma believed herself in love with a member of the Vanguard disturbed Jane even more than the possibility that they had found her. She couldn’t tell Alma that whoever had contacted her had ulterior motives, because revealing Jane’s connection to the Vanguard meant not only revealing she was an accessory to criminal behavior, it meant the person she told would become an accomplice.
“Will you watch it with me?”
Jane looked at her friend, the woman she had watched struggle through three terrible relationships, a woman whose desire to be loved never failed to override any sense of self-preservation or obvious warning signs. Of course the Vanguard had found her. The world was a cruel, godless place that sought out and destroyed its most vulnerable people.
“We’ll watch it,” said Jane. “But if security comes by I’m totally throwing you under the bus.”
Jane loaded the streaming window on her computer because the angle of the screen made it harder to see than Alma’s screen if anyone happened to come around the corner from the west side of the floor. The Libertines’ title credits played against a flag of red, white, and blue vertical bands emblazoned with the insignia of a sandal with a sword through it like a cross. Jane felt a small flutter of nostalgia seeing it. She could smell the canvas of the flag mingle with sterilizer and floor wax. She remembered her mother sewing that flag the summer before Jane started eighth grade. It had been left unfinished when her father had died, and her mother had sequestered herself in her room. Later, Jane had finished the flag herself, a fact she kept carefully inert in the back of her brain.
The camera shifted from the flag to the defendant sitting in a bare cinderblock room with two masked Vanguard soldiers standing on either side of her. Her feathered hair was caught up in a headband, so it rose up out of her skull and spilled over the crown like a fountain. The thick lines of black makeup around her eyes had smeared. She wore a glittery tube top that barely kept her breasts in. She’d lost one of her huge hoop earrings.
In every trial there were four soldiers on camera, plus one running the camera, and one managing the livestream, and a couple standing watch for intruders. Two of the soldiers on camera were white, one was Black, and one was Asian. Two had blue eyes, two had brown. Three of them were in relatively good shape. The tallest one weighed the most. These were the personal details America knew. But Jane knew more.
Alma leaned toward the computer and pointed to the masked man standing to the left of the defendant. “That’s him, Mirt.”
“He seems nice.” Jane couldn’t think of anything less ridiculous to say. If the man Alma was dating was the real Mirt, then Alma was in love with Jane’s youngest brother, Tommy, and he was most certainly dating Alma in order to find Jane.
Jane’s husband Seth, aka Bones, was the tall masked man on the defendant’s right. Both Seth and Tommy looked nervous. Tommy tapped his fingers on the defendant’s bare shoulder. Seth made fists along the seams of his pants. Someone out of frame bumped the camera so hard it fell over. For five full seconds the stream was steel-toed boots on dusty concrete. Jane exchanged looks with Alma. Something had the Vanguard spooked.
“They’ll be fine,” said Alma with determination. “Who are they doing this time?”
Jane opened the defendant’s profile from a little box below the streaming window. “Annie Sunderland?” She was barely aware of speaking as she noticed Tommy’s eyes skittering around. Seth began to read out the charges in a voice so wired with tension even the digital alteration used to disguise his identity couldn’t conceal it. Their nervousness made Jane nervous. For a moment, she forgot they might be manipulating Alma to find her. She prayed that they would be safe.
Alma worried the black metallic orb of her tongue ring. Minutes ticked by like they were hours. Finally, she removed the ring and tucked it away in the cloth satchel where she’d already stored the rest of her contraband jewelry. “What’s wrong, do you think?”
The pop-up window for audience voting appeared as Seth explained that a guilty verdict would only be pronounced if at least ten percent more of the audience voted guilty instead of innocent. A guilty vote meant there would be a branding. All guilty defendants were branded with the Vanguard sword and sandal insignia as a reminder that their fans had found them guilty of living a lifestyle that devalued life, a kind of modern Scarlet Letter.
“Do you want to vote?” asked Jane.
“You can if you want. I won’t look.”
Along the bottom of the window the votes tallied.
“Why is it taking so long? They need to get out. The FBI could be coming.” Alma stood at Jane’s shoulder, her fingers picking at the plastic netting of the chair. Out of three and a half million voters watching the trial, 2,740,325 voted the defendant guilty.
The trial moved to the disciplinary phase.
“I can’t watch this part,” said Alma. “You text me when it’s over. Promise?”
Jane nodded. She didn’t like the disciplinary phase either, but she always watched it. She’d been taught it was important. There had to be permanent consequences, or the trial would not fulfill its purpose, the news cycle would sweep the celebrity’s shame away, they could continue their lives as usual. The brand forced them to remember.
Tommy held Sunderland by the shoulders so Seth could set the brand into the flesh of her chest just above the exposed tops of her breasts.
During the disciplinary part of a trial Jane always had to remind herself that Seth was a solider who lived his life by strict discipline and rigorous principles. It wasn’t that he liked branding people. He’d trained himself to think of it as a necessary means to his end of helping America become a better place for families. She wondered if Alma had trouble justifying Tommy’s participation in the branding. She wished they could talk about it.
Jane muted the stream so she wouldn’t have to hear Sunderland scream when the brand seared her skin. With punishment, complete, the trial ended quickly. Annie Sunderland, the blood-red sword and sandal followed by GUILTY emblazoned across her chest, sobbed into the camera as she told her fans she would do better. The FBI did not rush in guns blazing. Jane texted Alma that everything was fine.
But Jane was not fine. She felt like a tightly wound spring ready to burst apart. Trials were the most tangible reminder of where she’d come from. Each one sliced small cuts into her carefully reconstructed life, tearing holes in her belief that she could pretend her connection to them didn’t exist.
Jane texted Daniel to say she would meet him in the rec room. She had less than an hour before he would arrive. She hoped it would be enough time to re-center. She played the piano in the dark with her eyes closed. The uncurtained windows of the rec room looked east over the city into the inky blackness of the continent. Somewhere out there, Seth and Tommy and the rest of the Vanguard were packing up their gear and preparing to return home, hoping that they had done their work well and that Annie Sunderland had been set on her way to a better, more upright life. In all Jane’s years living in LA, they had never felt so close.
Rumpus original art by Briana Finegan.
Excerpted from Jane of Battery Park by Jaye Viner. Copyright © 2021 by Jaye Viner. Reprinted by permission, courtesy of Red Hen Press.