Tiny Alligators by Erika Price
When Lila’s fuck-buddy moved out of their shared two - bedroom flat above the Sunbeam Bakery, she immediately put up a Craigslist ad and called the local alternative paper. The first potential tenant was a middle-aged Russian guy with high boots and a lazy eye, who rejected her as roundly and openly as she did him. The second was an impossibly taut and pert divorcee with a high-maintenance marmoset that would require, Lila was told, the entire guest bathroom. The third person to call, a maddening week after the first two, was a nineteen-year-old named Rose.
When Rose appeared at the bakery’s door in a crimson coat with the hood pulled up, bald-headed, sporting a dermal piercing in the center of her chest, and holding just a small carry-on bag, Lila knew things would work. The girl signed the sublease right away. She paid the security deposit in cashed bank bonds and pulled her car around the back, ready to move in.
“Lilac and Rose, Rose and Lilac,” Lila said sarcastically, dragging her new roommate’s few boxes up the stairs. The girl did have more than a carry-on, after all, but not much. Bed sheets and scarves and little plastic tins of overpriced makeup; milk crate after milk crate of weed paraphernalia. “Pretty pink pastel ladies. You got any weed right now?” she asked.
“I can get some,” Rose said quietly from behind her. All she brought up the stairs was a wicker hamper overflowing with clothes. After she made it up the landing and into the apartment, she collapsed on Lila’s smashed futon and waited, heaving up at the posters on the ceiling while Lila finished tugging everything from the back of Rose’s Kia.
“You better fucking get some,” Lila said on her last trudge up the stairs. “If you think I’m gonna carry your shit up here for nothing, you might as well move out now.”
Rose smiled at the ceiling and played with her buttons. “Give me the security deposit then.”
“It was more of a move-in fee. Non-refundable.”
Rose pulled an ancient-looking flip phone from her coat pocket. “How about we go in on a house ounce?” Her tongue pushed at the insides of her cheeks, wandering around her mouth. “Say, split the cost 70-30?”
Lila sat on one of Rose’s boxes, a crate with little stuffed animal appendages popping out the holes. “Deal.”
Rose dialed. “I’m never taking out the garbage, just so you know,” she said.
That night, a haggard forty-year-old man showed up to their door with a big bag of weed. Rose paid for it in full and mixed a few pinches with the ripped-open contents of several Celestial Seasonings Cranapple Zinger bags in Lila’s coffeemaker. The two of them lay on the floor of Lila’s room, drinking the weed tea and talking late into the night. Mostly Lila complained about her ex-fuckbuddy and Rose listened, saying she understood, she knew that sense of loss, she got it, she’d been there.
In the morning Lila found Rose curled up on the cushioned seat by her windowsill, chewing on the ear of a stuffed rabbit from under a mound of blankets. When she woke up at 3pm, Rose took them both out for gluten-free pancakes, paying again for everything, and not minding when Lila poured a few drips of Arbor Mist into their orange juices.
It wasn’t long before Lila came to sing their names to punctuate everything. “Lilac and Rose, Rose and Lilac, pretty princess bubblegum butterfly banana boat bitches,” she’d say, sauntering from her room to the table in the kitchen, wearing the same t-shirt and boxer briefs she’d fallen asleep in the night before. She’d find Rose there, typing furiously on her netbook or else staring down at the bakery patrons on the street.
“Lilac and Rose,” Lila would say, snapping a grape off Rose’s plate or stirring an unwashed finger in her mug. “Drop-out druggie bimbo celibates.”
And Rose would pause a second to set her mug down or finish writing a sentence, then she’d respond appropriately, saying something like, “Since when are you celibate?” or “I’m not a drop-out; I never even enrolled in college.” From there, she’d resume whatever she was doing, never looking at Lila at all.
Lila worked in a Cinnabon at a pit stop ten miles down the highway, and sold beaded jewelry and violin lessons on the side. She tried to stay out of the apartment as much as she could, at first; Too many bad and good memories. She also didn’t want her younger roommate to get the wrong idea, to think they’d be ‘friends’, or that she’d be willing to mother her or something.
Lila was twenty-six and had nursed enough lost young adults, only to watch them get better and leave her. Or else spiral downward into real problems, out of her grasp. Neither was any fun. She toyed with enrolling in Community College or cosmetology school. She flirted with dating one of the older, comfortably-employed dudes she’d met at NA. She tried to ignore Rose and not ask about Rose’s problems, but there the girl was, sitting at the kitchen table every morning and night when she got home.
“What do you do all day, shave your head?” Lila asked one evening after work.
“Today? Blogging about being a cam whore,” Rose said with a grin into her screen and no eye contact.
Lila perched on a chair beside her. “Are you serious?”
“No. Do I look like I have the tits for that?”
Lila shrugged. The girl was tiny, as far as she could see through the mounds of clothes she wore. There were fresh dirty dishes in the sink but Lila never saw her eat. Her face was warmed with peach-colored blush and lavender lip gloss, but otherwise she was pale and tired-looking, a sick little elf.
“How do you pay rent?” Lila countered.
Rose rubbed at her lips, getting her fingers sticky and purple with the gloss. “Okay,” she said, as if to someone else. “Okay, I’ll tell you.”
She pivoted her laptop around and showed its screen. The web browser was directed to a charity. Saving Rose Palmer: Our Fight Against Neuroblastoma.
“You shit,” Lila said, scrolling down. There were pictures of her roommate, bald as ever and hooked up to various pieces of equipment, or in a pale blue hospital gown with her eyes and cheeks rouged in defiance. A photo of her huddled, in a sequined dress, with a half dozen other frail and hairless people in a hotel ballroom. “You absolute shit!”
Rose’s impeccably-painted eyebrows lifted. “Hm?”
Lila clicked to the blog section of the charity site. She played a video from two years prior; a young, skeletal Rose waved to the camera and said, “Hello everybody! I just wanted to thank all you guys for all the lovely gifts and donations you’ve been sending…here’s a bear that Louis M. sent me from Toronto…”
She turned it off.
“Oh,” Rose said, rolling her eyes. “I’m not faking. You think I’d be this broke, if I was faking?”
Lila leaned across the table and poked at the dock in Rose’s chest. “Seems legit…But why would you be here if you’re sick?”
“I’m in remission. Look, it says right here!”
Lila read more. Donations were now, apparently, going to other kids with neuroblastoma. There were pictures of Rose hugging tiny, alien-skulled kids, videos of Rose and a twelve-year-old having a sleepover at the Sleeping Beauty Suite at Disneyland, courtesy of MakeAWish.
“This is so fucked,” was all Lila could say.
“I manage the charity now,” Rose said. “Drum up the donations. Look, this is weird but I’m glad we had this conversation. I was kinda hoping to ask you about having some donors over next month. Just to hang out, whatever.”
“This is your job?” Lila said.
Rose shrugged and produced a roach from the pocket of her robe, and began to light it. “I’ve been dying since I was seven, what else have I learned to do?”
As promised, Rose had a few minor millionaires visit the flat the next month. Lila drank and played Go with one of them in the corner; He was some Silicon Valley asshole with widely-gauged ears that hung like labia from his head. He tried to light a clove and Lila said, “Excuse me, dickwad, my roommate has cancer. Take that shit downstairs.” They made out in the bakery doorway and he told her she reminded him of his first wife’s daughter.
Rose was never late with rent. She had groceries delivered by van once a week. Lila rarely saw her leave the kitchen table, except to host a party or to take a laborious stroll around the block at dusk. For months, things were basically amiable; Lila had to be careful not to break the Silicon Valley guy’s heart, when she dumped him, so that donations wouldn’t dry up, and she had to give up on adopting a cat because Rose was leery of feline AIDS, but all else was well. Until Christmas, when Rose’s parents showed up at the door.
They surrounded Lila and Rose’s shared TV with presents. Even Lila had a few gifts, though they knew nothing about her— Bath and Body Works supplies and mani-pedi gift certificates, mostly— and the fridge was packed with cider and spice cake. The parents sat on either side of Rose on the couch, wrapping her in a comforter and asking her about check-ups.
“Still nothing on the fMRI?” The mother said. She was all frosted hair and jingle-bell earrings. “What about the PET?”
“How’s your iron levels?” the dad said. He vacillated between looking bewildered and jauntily humming Christmas carols.
“Fine fine, it’s all on the up-and-up,” Rose said, drinking her weed.
They looked at Lila. “Are you looking after her?”
Lila ate some spice cake and poured bourbon into the cider. “Not really. I figure she’s kind of a grown ass woman.”
This comforted them. When they left, Rose promptly stood, walked to the guest bathroom, and proceeded to vomit for twenty minutes.
“Are you okay?” Lila eventually called, feeling she had to.
Rose pulled her head up from the john. She wiped a few threads of spittle from her mouth and reached for Lila’s cup. “I’m a bonsai tree,” she said, sipping. “Or one of those little alligators that only grows to the size of the aquarium you put it in, you know?”
Lila shook her head. “Nope. If you’re about to say some shit about never being challenged, or having potential, um you’re talking to the wrong person.”
“That’s not it,” Rose said. She flushed and waited for the toilet’s sounds to subside, downing the bourbon. “I mean, when you’re a kid and you’re sick, and you’re dying, it is imperative you listen to your parents. Obedience can mean life or death. So you never learn to push back. And they feel sorry for you, and so protective, so you never get to be called an asshole or punished.”
Thinking back to the charity videos, Lila said, “You have to be some kind of martyr-slash-cherub that smiles and thanks everybody.”
Lila helped her up. They walked into the kitchen and sat down. Under the warm lights outside of the bathroom, Rose looked healthier. Lila offered her some spice cake but she waved it away, disinterestedly.
“You’ve never had to be told ‘no’, you’ve never had to be told you’re being a dick. And just living…just to live is enough. To be happy and ‘strong’, whatever the fuck that means, tape a few makeup tutorials for Youtube, something that’ll get you on Ellen and make everybody ‘so inspired’, that’s all anyone asks of you.”
“You can’t be a fuck-up with cancer.”
Rose looked out the window, down onto the street. The bakery was closed for the night and would be shut down the rest of the week, for the holiday.
“I can’t get anyone to call me a bitch or a fuck-up,” she said sadly. “No matter what I do, nobody tells me to get it together. I don’t even have a high school degree, and everyone’s so ‘delighted’, so ‘proud’.”
They sat there in silence for a while. Then Lila jumped up.
“I’ve got it!” she said. “I’ve got what’ll get you thrown out of the aquarium, flushed down the toilet.”
Rose was picking a bit of vomit crust from the corner of her mouth and looking disinterested. “What?”
Lila made the videos and posted the information to her own blog (and the charity’s blog) that night. She called off work a few days later to schedule interviews with the local news, and then with HuffPo and Jezebel. She took to Facebook and Tumblr with the ‘leaked’ photos of Rose applying pale makeup and sticking a fake dock to her chest.
She replaced some of Rose’s old hospital photos with cheesier, homemade ones, clear fakes with no expensive equipment or hospital staff present. She presented phony doctors’ records, showing a clean bill of health. She directed Rose’s parents to a shrink who claimed the girl had Münchausen but nothing else. She directed Rose’s friends and donors and members of the press to a blog that had documented the girl’s farce from the start, going years back. She said Rose shaved her head every morning, and produced a razor. She proffered real photos of Rose toking joints and gumming powders.
Rose changed her name, bought a wig, pulled a last few thousand dollars from the charity, and disappeared. Lila stayed on, producing more and more confident evidence that the whole illness had been a sham, until everyone was calling the girl a monster. It was hard work, faking a putative hoax that spanned more than a decade of actual illness. But eventually even the girl’s parents came to believe it. After a while Lila kind of convinced herself, too, that Rose had been a faker; this allowed her to pretend, as the years wore on, that the girl was healthy and fine, out there somewhere drinking weed tea and scamming off older men, partying on with younger versions of Lila.
For her trouble, Lila took a small role in the charity, and later pursued a nursing assistance gig with an internal scholarship. Every dying kid and drug-addled teen she encountered by turns reminded Lila of her old roommate and of herself. She found she was good at the job— cautious, slow, and considerate. But no matter how many IVs she plunged into veins or feeding tubes she shoved down tiny throats, Lila was certain that helping Rose fake the faking of her illness remained the single most altruistic thing she had ever done.
© Erika Price 2013
Erika D. Price is a social psychologist and instructor at Loyola University in Chicago, Illinois, as well as a writer of short fiction. Her work has been published in EFiction, Forge Journal, Red Fez, decomP and others. She is a longtime fan of Liar’s League NYC’s selection of work and its podcast, and is deeply honored to be included in this month’s edition. Find out more about Erika at processproduct.tumblr.com.
Tiny Alligators was read by Samantha Jane Gurewitz for the Sickness & Health Show on 6th February 2013