Alice smiles and it is sharp at the corners, and John wants to raise a hand and press it to the curve of her jaw to see if it would bite into his skin, prise it apart and leave him dripping red down his wrist.
“John,” she says, “I’d best be on my way,” and he keeps his hand in his pocket by force of will, he hangs heavy weights on it in his mind, and she kisses him at the corner of his mouth and he can feel the sting of it days later, when her crimson lipstick is long gone.
John comes home and finds postcard after postcard on the mat - sharks in the Gulf Stream, cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde, the Pacific Ocean under an over-saturated sunset. He reads every card twice, maybe three times; the first time he reads the text, and the second he reads between the lines. I had a margarita today; the rim of the cup was frosted with salt. You’d like it. (The salt reminded me of blood and the lime reminded me of the sourness in my mouth as I screamed at you about gratitude over a crackling line.) The Very Large Array is magnificent, though outdated. I think you would like it. (It has sentimental value to me in some strange way, like the spring of a gun in a pot of ashes, like a certain Detective Chief Inspector.) The third time he reads, he lets his eyes blur as he skims the lines; her handwriting turns to black spiders on the page and then to a black wash of ink.
He keeps the cards, hidden in his freezer behind the frozen peas. One day it’ll probably come back to bite him; until then, he knows that Alice is safe with her sharks.
“You’re bored, John,” Alice says, over the phone this time. “I don’t suppose you’ve taken up Russian roulette again?”
John doesn’t ask her how she knows; he’s sure she has her ways, and he doesn’t want to hear about them.
“No,” he says, “I’ve been keeping Ripley on his toes and trying not to scare Grey too much; how about you?”
“Grey,” Alice says, “would that be Erin Grey?”
“How’ve you been keeping?” John says. He’s sure Grey wouldn’t appreciate the fact that Alice is interested in her wellbeing. He’s also not entirely sure that Alice is interested in her wellbeing to begin with.
“Perfectly well,” Alice says sharply; he’s annoyed her. “How’s your loyal puppy, grown into a wolf yet?”
“Still as loyal as ever,” John says, rubbing the back of his neck with his spare hand. “Still as wolfish as ever. You can’t have him.”
“Pity,” Alice says. “He’d make a lovely pet.”
So, in the end, what it comes down to is John getting a knife across the ribs from another fanatic with an agenda; he patches it up and goes home as always to his dingy flat with the flaking paint, and he opens the door to a cruel red smile and closes it, and when he turns around the smile has gone soft at the edges.
“You’ve hurt yourself again, John,” Alice says, and she seems to love saying his name, as much as such a thing is possible. “Look,” she says, pointing to the red stain just now seeping through his white shirt.
What it comes down to is Alice threading a needle against the flicker of the yellow flourescent strip and kneeling by John’s side as he gets blood on the sofa and stitching him back together with the steady hands of a doctor; what it comes down to is this: she could take him apart as easily, easier, maybe, than she could put him back together, and what it comes down to is this: she is here, sewing him back up, instead of dancing with her beloved jagged-tooth sharks, instead of climbing through thin high-altitude air to a Nevada observatory, and John grits his teeth against the pain and looks down to see the stars glimmering in the black of her eyes, the carmine of her smile, the flame of her hair.
“Done,” she says, tying a knot, and then doubling the thread back to tie another. “Was there anything else I could do for you?”
Everything and nothing, her postcard would say, if he were her and words were ink. He looks at her, unguarded, and waits to see what she will read.