I need to make him promise that he’ll keep his mouth shut.
“Look, you don’t need to be late for your next appointment,” I tell Mom. “I can walk down to Angela’s and pick up the hive cream.”
She hesitates before digging inside her scrubs pocket and handing me some money. “All right. Ask her if she’ll give it to you for a free cupping session in exchange. Sometimes she’ll barter.”
“Honor among healers?”
“Something like that. Take an antihistamine when you get home, and let me check on you later, okay?”
“I mean it. Don’t make me have to take you to Sacred Heart.”
“Not those monsters,” I say dramatically. “Conventional medicine is for chumps.”
She pokes a tickling finger into my side, making me laugh. “Watch your hives, young lady.”
I assure her that I will.
After we part ways, I backtrack down the sidewalk to cross the street, passing Lennon’s car. Then I head toward the business on the corner.
Reptile Isle is one of the oldest reptile shops in California. The brick shop front is covered in an enormous rainforest mural, complete with lizards and turtles and snakes, oh my. I walk past giant pieces of driftwood and tropical plants flanking its recessed entrance and push open the door.
Inside, my eyes adjust to diffuse light as the thick, musky scent of substrate and snake fills my nostrils. Hundreds of tanks and terrariums line the walls, their UV lights and heat lamps creating a warm atmosphere. Most of the reptiles here are for sale, but the people who own the shop also have a breeding program in the back, and they do a lot of educational outreach.
A large checkout counter sits near the entrance, but Lennon’s not running the register, so I glance around the expansive shop and try to spot him. Under wooden beams that crisscross a large, open ceiling, I wind around aisles stacked with plastic caves, plant replicas, and endless reptilian supplies: tank thermostats, feeding dishes, lizard hammocks. In the center of the store, inside a massive habitat cage, the skeleton of an old tree stands, its bare branches decked with tiny wooden platforms. Tropical plants hang from the cage’s ceiling and flowering vines creep up its screened walls.
This is where I spot Lennon.
He’s standing inside the cage with a giant green iguana draped around his shoulders.
“Her name is Maria,” Lennon is telling a child standing on the outside of the cage with her nose pressed to the screen. “She’s from Costa Rica.”
“How old is she?” the girl asks.
“She’s five years old,” Lennon says.
“That’s how old you are,” the mother reminds her.
The girl seems suitably impressed. “This is where she lives?”
“She has the entire cage to herself,” Lennon confirms. “She’s almost four feet long, so she needs a lot of space to roam around. Want to see her tail?”
He ducks low on the other side of the screen to give her a peek.
Eyes wide, the little girl is both fascinated and wary. “Will she bite?”
“If she’s scared,” Lennon says, coaxing the big lizard from his shoulders to a platform above, where it crawls beneath a potted tropical plant. “She only likes to be handled by a few special friends. It takes her a long time to trust people enough to let them get close to her. But she doesn’t mind if you admire her from out there.”
“Can I have her for a pet?”
Lennon pretends to think about this. “She needs a lot of space, and we’d be sad if we couldn’t see her every day. If you like lizards, a better pet would a green anole or a leopard gecko. They are pretty easy to take care of, if your mom is willing to buy live insects. . . .” He glances at the mother, who shakes her head firmly. Lennon quickly says, “Or, you could just come here to visit Maria.”
The girl considers this thoughtfully while the mother gives Lennon an enthusiastic thumbs-up. His face relaxes into a warm smile. I haven’t seen him smile like that in a long time. It’s sweet and boyish. Unexpectedly, a hollow ache wells up inside my chest.
Stop being ridiculous, I tell myself.
I wrestle unwanted emotions down, packing them away as the mother thanks him and leads her daughter toward the turtle area of the store. When Lennon is alone, I approach the cage with trepidation.
“Hey,” I say.
He swings around and spots me. His head jerks back in surprise, and he glances around, as if hidden cameras might appear, more wary than the little girl was about the possibility of an iguana bite. “What’s up?”
“I was on my way back from lunch and saw your car,” I say, as if this is a totally normal thing, me stopping by. As though I haven’t refused to walk on this side of the street for months to avoid accidentally bumping into him.
He shifts into a defensive stance, arms crossing chest. “Sure you aren’t here to serve me with an arrest warrant for trespassing?”
I wince inwardly. “My dad is—”
Lennon snorts. “So that’s what we’re calling it.”
“Look, you’d be stressed too, if the business you built was going to hell because all your clients were scurrying away faster than rats on a sinking ship.”
He makes a low, thoughtful noise, and the sound rumbles through the screen, scattering my thoughts and doing strange, unwanted things to the inside of my chest. It’s the feeling you get when a large truck trundles down the road. You can’t see it, but you can feel it, and that makes you leery for no logical reason.
“That’s wrong, actually,” he points out. “The original phrase was, ‘When a building is about to fall down, all the mice desert it.’?”
“Yeah? Well, you better actually hope that doesn’t happen, seeing how we’re all stuck in the same building,” I say, suddenly irritated with his know-it-all factoids. “If we fall down, the rubble might bury your shop. And then where would all the neighborhood perverts buy their butt plugs?”
“Gee, I don’t know.” He braces his hands on the wooden frame of the habitat and leans down until his face is at my level, pressing his forehead against the screen between us. A clean, sunny scent wafts from his clothes, one that’s painfully familiar. The scent of Lennon. “Maybe they’ll go to the same store where your dad buys the sticks that are stuck up his ass. I think it’s next to Adulterers Are Us.”
Fury bubble ups. “You . . . ,” I start, and then realize how loud I’m being. I lean closer to the screen and lower my voice. “You cannot tell anyone about that photo book.”
“I think anyone with a working bullshit meter already knows he’s a scumbag.”
“My mom doesn’t!” I shout-whisper at his stupid face.
Sharp eyes lock with mine. He makes a small noise. “You didn’t give her the package.”
“Because it will break up their marriage,” I whisper. “I can’t do that to my mom. It would kill her.”
Lennon doesn’t respond. Just studies my eyes.
“You cannot say anything to my mom,” I plead. “And until I figure out what to do, you need to tell your moms to keep quiet about it too.”
“I can’t control what they say to your mom. If you recall, they were once all friends. Come to think of it, so were the two of us, before you decided moving up the social ladder was more important.”