By the time Winslow reached the door, the kids had disappeared. He stood in the doorway, panting. It was only then that his mind started to truly wake up.
I'm at the Paradise…
He looked around.
And the Paradise is closed…
He looked down at himself.
I was dead…I'm still dead, right? How am I standing here? How did I get here…
He'd become more alert when he'd heard her voice. For one joyous moment, he believed that Phoenix had been singing to him. Just before his soul had fled his broken body, he had felt her love surround him along with her arms. He was excited, overjoyed, and comforted all at once. His love was coming for him!
Then, startled, he'd ended up in the dark recording studio where he'd sealed his fate by signing Swan's contract in blood. He could hear singing, but it wasn't exactly the same as Phoenix's voice. Phoenix had a very deep alto, almost like Karen Carpenter. This one's voice had a similarity, but it was a bit lighter. Then, he'd suddenly become furious.
Who dares to sing my music?
That was when he'd gotten a better look. He could see in the dark decently despite some of the windows being boarded up. After he'd finally cornered her, he'd seen her dark eyes, her lovely long hair, and her ivory skin. There were what seemed to be deliberate mistakes, however: her nose and chin were shaped differently and her figure was a little more willowy and slender than Phoenix's had been. She also seemed far too young…that was when he'd truly realized something was wrong. This could not be his Phoenix…but why had she woken him up?
The only logical explanation was that she was related to Phoenix, most likely her daughter. Others had sang his music before—he'd felt it, but he'd been so apathetic after missing his chance with her that he didn't notice. His music had been so bastardized by Swan that it wasn't recognizable as his anymore. She found a discarded music sheet written by his own hand and had sang it exactly the way it was written.
I have to find her…he thought.
The first thing he did was switch the voice transmitter on. A rough guttural grunt came out, but no words. The batteries had probably run out long ago. Sighing in frustration, he paced back and forth for a moment. He had no money. He had no stakes in the world whatsoever. He had been living on borrowed time when he'd encountered Swan. It was no different now than it was then.
How long was I gone? Am I alive now?
He peeled one of his black gloves off and pressed it against his chest. There was no heartbeat. Surely that wasn't right…he lifted the shirt and pressed in harder. The first big shock he got was when his hand encountered the wound that killed him. It had not healed. In fact, it seemed to be worse. He hurried into one of the bathrooms. The electricity still worked, but barely. He lifted his shirt up and looked in the dusty mirror. What he saw made him violently sick. The wound seemed to have festered. It took him a few minutes top stop retching though there was nothing in his stomach. He gripped the sides of the sink hard for support. When the room stopped spinning, he cautiously lifted his chrome bird mask.
His damaged face appeared in the mirror. He looked worse than he had when he'd died. Though he was blind in one eye and almost deaf in one ear, his skin had eventually returned to a rosy pink before. Now, it was a pale, waxy, lifeless gray. The scars from the broken skin were dark. His skin seemed to have withered and shrunken around the damaged bones. Frustrated, he pulled the front of the mask back down.
I have to find her, he thought, I have to get some answers as to why I'm here.
He went upstairs until he reached the roof. The air in the Paradise was humid and musty. Out here, the cool night air slid smoothly into his lungs. He winced a little at the tenderness in his still-wounded chest. It didn't actually hurt, but it felt like it should hurt. Kneeling on the edge of the building, he looked out across the landscape.
New York was just as busy, just as brightly lit as he remembered. There seemed to be many more skyscrapers and many more roads and many more cars. The city was very much awake, more so than this time of night when he'd been alive. He closed his eyes and concentrated on the sound. Someone had their music blaring and he marveled at how clear it sounded.
Wait…I'm up here and I can hear that?
He tilted his good ear towards the sound. He could vaguely make out the lyrics of the song here and there. When he locked his focus on that one sound, he could actually filter out the rest of the noise and hear it alone. Choosing a car, he gazed at it intently. Suddenly, it was if he were looking through a camera and the zoom lens had been applied. He could see the people inside the car right down to the last detail. He could see the pulse in their throat veins, even the unique patterns and colors their life forces had. He could see the number of days they would live. He blinked and his vision went back to normal.
Not a bad tradeoff, he thought, now if only I could fly…
The worst pain he'd ever felt began to burn into his back. In horror, he realized his skin felt as if it were melting away. There was an alarming grinding sound from his spine as the bones began to realign and grow. He didn't know how long it lasted, but he came back to his senses later on when the moon had risen higher. He was laying on his stomach and there was something laying spread across his back. Thankfully, it had stopped hurting. There was an odd sensitivity to it. He twitched and the thing next to him moved, startling him. Slowly, carefully, he moved again. Whatever it was, it was clearly attached. He gave it an experimental tug. A black feather came off in his hand and he stared at it for several long seconds.
I must be dreaming…
He took one glove off and ran it along the glossy black raven-like wing. It was his and it was real, all right. He could feel the delicate, yet strong bone and muscle web underneath. He looked out over the city below and couldn't help but wonder if this was what God felt when He looked down on His Creation. He beat his wings hard against the night air, but could only rise a few inches off of the roof. When the toes of his boots were no longer scraping the surface, he started to tremble with a mixture of fear and joy. It hurt…these newly formed appendages were not yet strong enough to bear his weight for long, but they were real. They were his. Swan hadn't won after all…
There was one more thing he had to test. He tried to sing. All that came out was a harsh, guttural noise that hurt his throat. Winslow made a face. This would never do… as much as it disappointed him, he knew he would have to again resort to the voice box strapped to his front. He switched it on, but nothing happened. The batteries must have been dead for a while…he would have to replace them. The question was how. He couldn't exactly waltz into a store with no money and buy them. With his chrome bird mask and huge black wings, he would attract a lot of attention. As if sensing his thoughts, he felt his wings suck back into his spine. One hand reached behind him, but felt nothing other than his back. It would be the tiniest bit easier to blend in down there without them, but not by much. Winslow looked at the glittering lights at his feet with a mixture of trepidation and nostalgia. Best to get it over with…
Meanwhile, the next morning…
Julia woke up with dry eyes and a queasy stomach. She'd hardly slept at all and kept having nightmares about the Phantom of Paradise. She wished she'd never set foot in that old decrepit club. She was going to regret it for the rest of her life. She knew it would only be a matter of time before the masked man found her again.
"You look terrible," Sarah remarked, "rough night?"
"Very," Julia admitted, chin in her hand.
"You know, I was just thinking, that Phantom guy we saw—it was probably just some crazy in a costume. You know how people are sometimes when they're high. They can convince themselves of anything."
"But how did he get in? Eli had the only key. We didn't run into anyone else in there. And one minute there was no one, the next he was just right behind me. How did he do it?"
"It's a really old building. Maybe it had a trap door there or something. Besides, I didn't think you believed in ghosts."
"I didn't—I mean, I don't. But don't you agree something really weird was going on?"
"Yeah, I do. Let's just forget about it. Let's go downstairs—I smell Dad's pancakes."
She pushed back the covers and padded downstairs in her bare feet. Julia followed, wishing that the smell of melted butter and cooking pancake batter didn't make her feel worse. She tried not to let her hand shake as she poured a glass of orange juice. Maybe it all had been a trick…not a very nice one. She ate though she had to force the food down. All too soon, it was time for her to get home. She felt very alone as she entered the empty apartment. Her father was still at work, but he would be home soon. She knew she would feel safer then.
"Goodness," she sighed, dropping onto the couch.
For some reason, that damned song was still stuck in her head. All she could remember was that one line: "And as I lived my role, I swore I'd sell my soul for one love…who'd stand by me and give me back the gift of laughter. One love who'd stand by me and-"
And what? Julia wondered, I wonder what else he wanted, who he was singing for.
She sat bolt upright when she saw a pair of eyes staring into hers.
"Oh my God! How did you get in here?"
She was up off the couch in a flash and running towards the door. She would have made it if she hadn't tripped over her suitcase. Her vision blurred for a moment when she knocked her head on the side of the desk chair. She saw a pair of black boots approaching. He was now between her and the door. She was trapped.
"P-please don't hurt me," she begged, trying to hold back frightened tears.
"I would never hurt you," the odd electronic voice said. A hand extended to help her. She saw no malice in the specter's eyes, only great suffering and sadness. Cautiously, she took it and he helped her up.
"Sit down over there," he told her, "you're bleeding."
She obeyed numbly, still overcome with shock and disbelief as he retrieved a dish towel from the kitchen. He pressed it to the wound and she hissed in pain at first.
"How did you find me?" she asked, trembling.
"You sang my song. Again."
"Your song? You mean…"
His head tilted forward in a reluctant nod.
"Swan stole it from me, along with a lot of others. It doesn't even sound like my work anymore. You're the first one to do it justice since….since her. That's why I have to ask you to stop. I don't want anyone going through what we did."
It was amazing how much pain she could hear in his artificial voice.
"You're the Paradise Phantom? How are you still alive?"
He took her hand and pressed it into his wrist. She turned pale and winced when she realized there was no pulse. She was about to ask him something else when he caught sight of something across the room. She held the towel in place while he went to investigate. It was a framed picture of her mother taken just before she'd been born. It was always sad that she died shortly after giving birth. Her father had never gotten over it and refused to date again.
"Did you know my mom? I never met her," Julia said quietly. The Phantom's fingers traced the outlines of the woman's face.
"Phoenix," he whispered.
Julia felt her blood run cold.
"My mom's name was Naomi," she corrected him gently, "I've never heard anyone call her that before."
"It could have been a stage name," he suggested.
"Dad did say he met her at a club," Julia said slowly, feeling that something big was unfolding right here, right now.
"Hey, Kid, I'm home!"
The door opened. Julia's eyes darted from where the door was opening to where the Phantom had been standing. Now, there was only empty air.
"Dad, I have a question," she said, "did anyone ever call my mom 'Phoenix'?"
"That's a name I haven't heard in a long time," he answered, "but yes, it was her stage name. Why the sudden interest?"
"Curiosity," she said warily, wondering if the Phantom had stuck around after all.
"Yes…well, the Paradise in downtown had just closed due to a horrible accident that happened there. Your mom and I met when we went to audition for a new record label since Death Records was gone. She told the producer she'd once been called 'Phoenix', but she didn't want to use that name anymore."
Julia could have sworn her heart stopped beating for a moment.
"I knew you were going to ask sooner or later, so I kept some of her things for you. It's not a pretty story, though," he admitted, "I believe she came to love me in time, but she never could love me the way she did that Winslow guy that got killed."
Winslow, Julia thought, that's his name…
"They're in a box in the back of my closet," her dad said, "if you want it, take the whole box. Nothing but a bunch of memories for me."
Julia did. As she was rifling through there, she caught sight of a picture taken during auditions. Her mother was young, smiling, and probably not much older than she herself was. She was reading off of a paper in her hands and a young, smiling guy with long wavy hair and glasses was standing beside her. Underneath was a headline:
Singer "Phoenix" nearly victim of murder plot:
both composer Winslow Leach and Producer Swan dead from alleged struggle.
"Oh my God…" Julia whispered. She didn't have to turn to know that Winslow's ghost was now right behind her again.