In the days that followed Melody's death, no one took it harder than Swan. The others, of course, grieved with him, but they could sense that a lot had changed. He invited Winslow to stay with him since the Paradise had been heavily damaged by the fire and by the fighting. Though Winslow felt kind of odd about it, he reluctantly agreed. He could sense that the evil had left Swan for good and that he wanted to make it up to him somehow. At first, he and Swan went their separate ways, only meeting for awkwardly quiet mealtimes. Gradually, however, they began to open up to each other. They weren't quite friends, but they both knew the potential was there.
"I got my first guitar when Mother sent me to the store for food," Swan told Winslow one morning, "but I just had to go to the little store on the corner and look. That was my ritual when I went to town—looking in all the windows. This guitar that had been on sale forever had gotten marked down again and I couldn't pass it up. Oh, don't get me wrong—I didn't spend all the money on the guitar. But when she saw me coming back up the hill with it on my back and only one bag of groceries to last us an entire month, I thought she was going to kill me."
Winslow chuckled. He imagined a preteen Swan ducking a variety of household objects being thrown.
"My first piano was a gift. It had been in our family for several generations. When I came into the living room of our house and found it with a big ribbon on top, I thought I was going to explode from being so happy. I couldn't play yet, though, and my father threatened to cut my fingers off if I didn't stop making so much racket."
Now that Melody, their common bond, had disappeared, they were rebuilding their relationship over their mutual love of music. It was funny, Winslow thought, that under the veneer of richness and fame, that Swan really wasn't all that different.
"It sounds crazy," Swan sighed, putting his coffee cup in the sink, "but I still feel her presence. Little moments, you know? Like I'll go to my studio room and be playing one of the instruments and I'll feel as though she's in the chair across from me, watching me."
"It's not crazy," Winslow assured him, "I feel her, too, sometimes. She said she'd come back to check in on us."
He was still getting used to being able to talk again without Swan's voice box. It was so odd, after all this time, to hear his own voice and not the constant choking, wheezing, gurgling sound. His face still had scars, but they were far less conspicuous. Instead of the thick, heavy scarring he'd had that night, there were only a few soft, shiny pink lines. Both his eyes looked normal and his hair was growing back out from the short prison cut. Aside from the silver teeth, he could pass for normal. Swan, who was feeling very contrite about it all, had offered to pay for dental work once the holidays were over.
The phone rang. Swan picked it up while Winslow rinsed out his breakfast dishes. He didn't want the housekeeper having more work just because he was staying here.
"It's for you," Swan told him, leaving the receiver resting on the counter.
"Hey, it's Phoenix. They have the ice rink in the park repaired. I was wondering if you felt up to ice-skating."
"I'm not very good at it, but if you don't mind helping me up, I'd be glad to come."
Winslow turned to Swan.
"Phoenix wants to know if we'll go ice-skating with her."
With a knowing glint in his eye, Swan said, "Pass. I have to find out how much it costs to rebuild the Paradise."
Winslow felt himself turning pink.
He removed his hand from the mouthpiece.
"Swan says he's busy, but I can still go if you want."
"Sounds great. You know, I've been wanting to try that little coffee shop on the corner and I've never had an excuse to go in. I hear their hot chocolate is divine."
Winslow's pinkness deepened to scarlet.
"Oh…all right," he was grinning ear to ear. Swan couldn't hear exact words, but he knew a date invitation when he heard the tone. When Winslow hung the phone up, Swan gave him a congratulatory grin.
"Have a good time," he said knowingly, exiting the kitchen.
"This isn't going to be weird, is it?" Winslow asked uncomfortably, having been on Swan's bad side before.
"No, of course not. For the longest time, all she ever talked about was you. Made me jealous, actually—I knew I couldn't compete with you. Besides, I was under Lillith's influence when I asked her to marry me anyway. Melody was the one who told me that you two were meant to be together."
Winslow felt as if a powerful glow had been lit inside his chest.
"Really. She begged me to break the engagement the night she tried to heal me. I wish I had…well, you'll be together now and that's all that matters."
He disappeared up the stairs, leaving Winslow feeling euphoric and like the luckiest man in the world.
Phoenix's small white car almost blended in with the snow. Winslow thought his heart was going to pound right out of his chest. He couldn't stop smiling and neither could Phoenix. She kissed him, just a peck on the lips, but he thought he would melt into a puddle. This was the first time they'd truly been alone—no Swan, no Lillith, no risk of being discovered by people who worked at the Paradise. It was truly liberating. As promised, when the ray of sunshine hit Winslow's face, he remembered Melody.
I don't know if you can hear me, but thank you! Thank you so much, he thought warmly. It was nice to be among other people who weren't staring and frightened. As promised, he fell down a lot, but there was a lot of laughter. Soon, after he'd gotten his balance a bit better, they held hands and skated side-by-side. After a while, they were both getting tired and hungry, so they decided it was time to find some lunch. The café that Phoenix had suggested was called "Cup of Heaven" and had a coffee cup with a wing on its handle and a curlicue of steam rising up that looked like a halo. When they entered, they saw that the place was bigger than it looked on the outside. In the back was a stage. There was an art gallery as well, advertising for new artists. The smells were wonderful.
"I must have walked past here a thousand times," Winslow admitted, "and I wonder how I never noticed it."
They examined the menu together, admitting that there were a ridiculous amount of choices. There were a lot of blended drinks and flavored coffees—they eventually chose some off the seasonal list. Phoenix wanted a peppermint mocha and Winslow wanted a raspberry one. The smiling waitress took their drink orders.
"Here we go again," Phoenix laughed when they were presented with another menu.
The coffees arrived. Winslow took a sip of his.
"This thing tastes like a liquefied candy bar!" he exclaimed.
Phoenix tried hers.
"Well, we'll have to go somewhere else just to burn off all the sugar," she agreed.
"If you come back during the evening, there's an open mic night," the waitress informed them, "all you have to do is sign up with the owner, Dawn Lehr. She's right over there. And the dance floor is opened up then, too."
Dawn Lehr was a blonde-haired woman who looked to be in her mid-twenties. She wore a black newsboy cap and was casually dressed in jeans and a black tank-top. Despite being the owner, she wore and apron and was carrying dishes back into the kitchen.
"Are you Dawn Lehr?" Winslow asked when they were done eating.
"That I am," she answered, "how may I help you?"
"I was wondering…one of your coworkers was telling me about open mic night. How would I sign up for that?"
Dawn set the dishes down on an empty table and wiped her hands on her apron.
"There's a form in the art gallery over there," she pointed, "just a short little thing. Contact information and so forth. It helps us be ready for your act. If people like your stuff, then we'll consider making you a guest performer, which means you come in once a week on a set day. Open-mic is once every two weeks. My husband's the one who keeps up with who goes when."
She nodded and resumed hauling the dishes.
"There's something you don't see every day," Phoenix admitted.
"Yeah…she doesn't act like the boss at all," Winslow marveled, "I wonder what the world would be like if everybody pitched in like that."
They finished their super-sweet coffees, agreeing not to order dessert because the coffee itself could pass for dessert. On the way out, Winslow took a business card from the basket beside the cash register and stuffed it in his coat pocket. As they drove, they passed the Paradise.
"Wow…this place really took a beating," Phoenix admitted, "I've been taking the long way back because I was kind of afraid to look."
The fire had taken out a good chunk of the top floor. Lillith had done far more damage than the flames, causing a big crater to collapse at least a quarter of the big building.
"Do you see that?"
"There…right there in the ashes."
She pulled over. A dark red stain was soaking the ashes. Puzzled, they got out of the car to inspect it.
"This looks like blood," Phoenix whispered, "but whose…"
"It can't be Melody's," Winslow objected, "that happened over a week ago."
Even as they spoke, the very ashes themselves seemed to be bleeding.
"What are the two of you doing here? Visiting the ruins of my club hardly seems like a good spot for a first date," Swan said, half-joking. He stopped when he realized what they were staring at.
"What the Hell is that?" he asked, somewhat alarmed.
The ashes then began to move. The blood grew more copious, pooling on top of the ashes. Out of the center, much to their horror, rose a beating human heart. As tempted as they all were to run away screaming, they couldn't. They couldn't look away. Others began to collect there as if drawn by some invisible force. Philbin. Harold. The other Juicy Fruits. All of them had been drawn together by an unseen force this cold wintry day.
Some of the blood hardened and became bone. Before long, they were looking at a complete skeleton, a small frame with a wide pelvis. It was almost certainly female. The blood vessels formed and the blood sucked into them. Glistening reddish-pink muscles layered over the bones, followed by fat and skin. The skin was a pale, soft rosy color. The ashes that covered the body thickened and transformed from gray to white, forming a gauzy, feather-light dress that concealed its wearer in tasteful modesty. It wasn't until the face formed that they realized what was happening.
"Oh my God…" Harold gasped, "it's Melody!"
The bluish-black hair sprouted out of the scalp and his suspicions were confirmed. Before long, a perfect image of the woman they'd lost was laying on top of the ashes. None of them quite knew what to do at first. Winslow knelt beside her.
"Melody," he whispered, "are you in there?"
It sounded like a silly question, but her eyelids fluttered in response. When they were graced with the familiar warm greenish-brown, they all cheered.
"What happened? Did somebody else trick you?" Swan's voice was loaded with anger and protectiveness.
"No," she admitted, "Father sent me back."
"Because He said this was where I was supposed to be for now," she said, brushing ashes off of her dress, "He wanted me to live out a human life with all of you."
She stood and shook the rest of the ashes off.
"And it looks like we've got a lot of work to do here," she commented, pointing at the ruined Paradise.
Before she could say anything else, Harold was kissing her furiously. Her ears turned bright red, followed by her cheeks.
"I missed you, too?" she asked awkwardly, causing everyone to crack up.
"What about your health?" Winslow asked.
"Oh, He fixed that. I won't burn this one out nearly as fast as the last one. I have a human soul now, too. All the good and all the bad. I can't remember Heaven anymore, or Father's face, but it's all right. I just know I've been there and it was wonderful…and now I get to be here. This will be my home for a while."
"It may be selfish of me, but I sure am glad to see you again!" Winslow swept her up in a tight hug.
"I told you I'd be back," she whispered in his ear, "and I'm glad you finally got what you deserved."
"Because of you," he reminded her, blue eyes glowing with warmth and appreciation.
"No. Because of Him."
She pointed to the sky. Snow clouds were gathering. They all looked up and there was a shape that looked oddly human. The sun was behind it, causing it to be outlined in a glow. There was no mistaking the figure there. It dissolved in a matter of seconds, but they all saw it and knew what it was.
"Was that…?" Phoenix ventured.
"Nah, couldn't have been," Harold objected.
"Think what you want, Harold," Swan said gently, "the rest of us have seen too much to doubt."
Harold, in fact, wasn't doubting. He was starting to see the world through an entirely different lens. They all were. The proof was standing right in front of them.
"Does anybody happen to know what day it is?" Melody asked quietly.
They all looked at her expectantly.
"It's Christmas Eve," she told them, "the day before my Brother was born. Father chose this day for me to be born again. And you all have the choice of whether or not you take that gift for yourselves. You may not be given new bodies today, but will you accept new hearts instead?"