Lizzie was having a horrible, awful, loathsome day. She would have tacked on more adjectives to that description, but her brain wouldn’t cooperate. How does one get fired from a job waiting tables at a second rate restaurant? Apparently arguing with a customer was a surefire way to lose your job. Even more so when the customer was a man of wealth and you were just a girl. At first, Lizzie was proud that she had been fired. She now had an excuse to sleep in every day. Then, as she got closer and closer to her apartment, the feeling of pride retracted, leaving something hollow in its wake. What would she tell Virgil? His science experiments hadn’t been bringing in enough money to support them. Even with her barely minimum wage job they had been able to afford rent. What would happen to them if they couldn’t pay?
Shaking herself out of her thoughts, Lizzie unlocked the apartment door.
“Virgil, I’m home!”
“In the kitchen!”
Ah yes, the kitchen. The small room with even smaller appliances and one big table for eating. Lizzie had a brief moment of absolute terror as she remembered how Virgil once decided to try his hand at baking.
It’s just chemistry, he had said with a grin as he baked a fork into the loaf of banana bread. It came out burnt and metallic tasting. Fortunately, Virgil was not using any appliances. Unfortunately, he was talking to a strange man.
“Who’s this?” Lizzie asked, setting her bag down and sitting at the table next to her brother.
“My name is Colonel Norman Turner.” The man held out his hand to shake, “You and your brother have caused quite a stir with some of the higher-ups, Ms. Fleming. We have a project we’d like your help with.”
“A project?” Lizzie frowned, “What kind of project?”
Instead of answering, Colonel Turner pulled out a deck of cards.
“Do you mind if we do the card test? I’d like to see if you’re really as good as they say.”
Lizzie sighed heavily. Every time someone heard about her abilities, they’d be there with a deck of cards in hand. She stepped out of the room, “Whenever you’re ready, Colonel Turner.”
He barely had time to tell her to go before she blurted out, “It’s the Queen of Hearts.”
Normally people would be satisfied with fifteen cards. Colonel Turner made her go through all fifty-two.
“I told you she was good.” Virgil said with a confident smirk. Lizzie sat back down at the table. She wasn’t going to lie, it was good to see the surprised expression on Colonel Turner’s face.
“We’ve never had anyone manage to get all fifty-two cards correct.” He said, “Mr. and Ms. Fleming, I’d like to offer the chance of a lifetime. We’d like to make a machine that can bring spirits into the physical plane.”
“Why would you want to disrupt the spiritual world like that?” Lizzie made a face.
“For living history. Can you imagine the untold stories we could discover? Of course, we’ll send the spirits back, but the United States government would like to learn more about the past from a primary source. It’s all for the betterment of the world.”
Virgil turned to Lizzie with pleading eyes and she sighed.
“How much money are we talking about here?”
It turned out, money wasn’t the only benefit of the job. Lizzie and Virgil were moved into a better apartment, and of course they met Greg. He was the mechanic who would help with the schematics of the machine, and like Virgil his inventions had caught the eye of the government. The three of them traveled from haunted location to haunted location to get a better read of Lizzie’s abilities so they could build something to amplify them.
“Sometimes I wonder how we got to this point.” Virgil complained as he set up a cot in the living room of the most recent haunted location.
“What, hunting for ghosts so I can speak to them or working for the government?” Lizzie tilted her head, “Because either way we’re getting a free vacation.”
“More like sleeping on a cot in an abandoned house while my sister makes eyes at the mechanic.” He grumbled. Greg laughed. Lizzie liked his laugh. Virgil scoffed and put his pillow over his head. It was a much better life than any of them had prior to the project, lovingly dubbed Project Songbird by Virgil. His reasoning was that the project revolved around Lizzie, so giving it her nickname was only right. Greg constantly was tinkering with some piece of the amplifier, fine tuning each one to Lizzie and her abilities. Slowly but surely, they fell in love, and one day they put the project on hold to get married. Life continued as normal, until Lizzie found something that threw another wrench into their plans.
“You’re pregnant?” Virgil dropped his coffee mug. It shattered on the lab floor, sending a cascade of scalding brown across the freshly cleaned white floors.
“That’s incredible!” Greg grabbed Lizzie by the shoulders, “I’m going to be a dad?”
Lizzie nodded, “You’re going to be a dad.”
While Greg celebrated, Virgil started to pace, “What will the Enhancer do to the fetus? We’re going to be putting an incredible amount of stress on your mind and body.”
“I hadn’t thought about that.” Greg turned to Lizzie with a questioning look, and she waved him off.
“I’ll be fine. Besides, it’s not like we’ll be doing anything more than a few tests before I give birth. Nine months isn’t that long, the government can’t wait.”
“Try telling that to the government.” Virgil mumbled, picking up the shattered remains of his mug. The pop-up lab had been built under the remains of a ghost town, abandoned by all but those who had died and were left behind. It was the perfect place to test the Enhancer, despite the negative energies Lizzie couldn’t shake off. It was fine, though. Everything was going to be fine.
Then the amount of arguments started increasing as Virgil insisted they put off testing the Enhancer until Lizzie had given birth and was back to full strength and Greg countered with all the safety measures he was installing. Lizzie often had to shut these arguments down before her brother and husband could come to blows over her protection. She knew what she was doing, and she knew her unborn child was just as strong as she was. They could survive a few tests. The lab had to be moved due to the concentration of malicious spirits that had gathered, and Lizzie performed the first test in a theater known for ghosts that whispered lines to struggling actors on stage. Virgil and Greg ran around the theater, interviewing every spirit that had appeared as Lizzie focused her power through the headset of the Enhancer. Once the last spirit was recorded, she thanked them and let them go back to their afterlives.
“I told you nothing bad would happen.” She said with a grin, taking the headset off and hooking it back up to the rest of the Enhancer.
“For now.” Virgil warned, “We don’t know what will happen if we keep using it.”
They kept using the Enhancer, and absolutely nothing went wrong.
Lizzie gave birth to a healthy baby girl, and Greg spent an hour crying about it into Virgil’s arms.
“What’s wrong with your husband?” Virgil yelled, promptly getting shushed by every nurse on the floor. Lizzie laughed, shifting her hold on her daughter.
“He’s just a little overwhelmed. You saw how excited he was about this.”
Virgil scoffed, and Lizzie leaned in to kiss her daughter’s head.
“Dana, I want you to meet Uncle Virgil. He’s a bit prickly at first, but if anything ever happens to Dad and I, he’ll take care of you.”
“But nothing is going to happen because we’re going to be very careful with Project Songbird from here on out.” Greg added. Lizzie rolled her eyes but didn’t argue. She knew it was just nerves, that once they took Dana home and started work on Project Songbird again everything would go back to normal. She counted the days until her discharge, and when it came she practically forced the others to let her back into the project as if she hadn’t just had a baby. All was fine at first. They spent days recalibrating the Enhancer, Dana sitting in a play-pen set up in the corner of the lab while Lizzie and Greg worked. Then Colonel Turner came back and demanded they start working on a larger scale.
“You’ve had plenty of time to test the machine.” He said, “We’re not paying you to play with scrap metal and raise a kid, we’re paying you to mold the future.”
Lizzie knew they couldn’t afford to take care of Dana without this job, which is why it was her decision to turn the Enhancer up all the way and go along with the plans. After all, she only wanted the best for her daughter.
When the smoke cleared, Virgil was left with the child. He was left with his niece, when all he wanted was his sister back. He watched paramedics load her burned out corpse into a body bag, next to the one containing her husband.
“You’re in shock.” They told him. Well he could’ve told them that. He just watched his sister- who had taken care of him since their parents died- burn from the inside out because of a stupid machine that he had designed and built, it was all his fault. If he hadn’t gone along with Turner’s plans she-
Dana gurgled and he shook himself out of his spiraling thoughts. She reached up with a pudgy fist, mouth open in a toothless smile.
“What kind of infant are you?” He asked, “Your parents are dead, and you’re smiling. They blew up and you’re not crying.”
Dana laughed, and the sound only reminded Virgil that Lizzie would never laugh again. If he could have, he would’ve left Dana there and then, but then Colonel Turner came back.
“I’m sorry for your loss.” He offered somewhat awkwardly. Virgil gave a hum of acknowledgement, worried that if he opened his mouth he’d say something he would regret.
“The daughter, do we know if she has the same skills as her mother yet?” Turner asked, business as usual.
Virgil shrugged, “It’s too soon to tell.”
Colonel Turner leaned over the crib in Virgil’s apartment, “We identified a blast of energy as the Enhancer blew. In your opinion, what’s the likelihood of her being able to finish her mother’s work?”
“First hand accounts of the past aren’t that important.” Virgil snapped. Colonel Turner gave him a strange look.
“You’re a smart man, surely you’ve figured it out by now? Think about it, we could have soldiers who could be brought back over and over again. An infinite army of people willing to lay down their lives for our country because they know that it’s not the end of the line.”
Of course the government wanted soldiers. Virgil should’ve known the whole “bettering the world” thing was a lie. He wondered if Lizzie and Greg- no, too soon. Don’t think about them.
“Get out.” He ordered. Turner tried to protest, but Virgil pointed at the door, trembling with rage.
Colonel Turner tipped his hat and left the apartment without another word, shutting the door behind him. Virgil knew he’d be back. Turner wouldn’t take no for an answer. Dana made a noise, and Virgil leaned over the crib. If she had, in fact, inherited Lizzie’s abilities, the energy from the Enhancer could have made her stronger.
“Project Songbird.” Virgil ran a hand over his face in exhaustion, “My magnum opus in the form of a child with no teeth who insists on trying to eat everything.”
Dana reached out for him again, fist clenching and unclenching as she whined. He reached out and took her hand in his.
“I can’t take care of you. I’m sorry. You’re too much like her.”
The you’re too important for someone like me went unspoken.
It was raining the day Virgil dropped Dana at the orphanage’s doorstep. He tucked a letter with her name into the basket and knocked on the door, and without a word of goodbye, he turned and left. He didn’t stop until he reached the park, sitting down on a bench and letting the rain seep through his thin jacket as he tried to figure out what was next.
Project Songbird was through, and so was Virgil Fleming.
One day a man known only as the Regent would stand in the rain to watch Lady Dana, psychic of Grove Street take the bait that would bring their lives crashing back together.
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Ooh...good story, very fun to read! "The you’re too important for someone like me went unspoken." - Loved this.
Thank you for reading! I was a bit worried that no one would find this since reedsy has changed the way they're doing things, but I'm glad you enjoyed! Virgil really blames himself for Lizzie and Greg's deaths, which leads him to do some less than legal things that result in the plot of "To Go Beyond". So even if the Enhancer exploding wasn't his fault, it's his fault that the rest of the story is playing out the way it is.