The Fourth Suit – Neil Patrick Harris

Ridley Larsen’s life was a locomotive barreling toward an unknown destination. The events of the past summer made her feel like she was moving through a dark tunnel, one filled with smoke and the occasional screaming whistle, and if she came upon a sharp curve, she feared she might come completely off the tracks. On this particular morning in early October, Ridley was traveling with a woman her mother had hired to take over Ridley’s homeschooling, Ms. Parkly, and the reason she was thinking about her life as a locomotive was because she and Ms. Parkly were literally riding in a train. The wheels of Ridley’s chair were strapped to a spot beside one of the windows, and the outside world whizzed by, the foliage of early autumn blurring with the crisp and slanted morning light. Her teacher sat in the row in front of her. Facing backward, the woman was focused on Ridley’s splayed hands. “Do it again! Again!” Ms. Parkly squeaked with excitement. Ridley was performing a magic trick for her teacher. “Watch closely now,” she said, amused that Ms. Parkly sounded like an amazed little kid visiting Mr. Vernon’s old magic shop. Ridley held out her hands, empty palms facing upward.

She curled her fingers into fists. “Pick a hand.” Ms. Parkly pointed to Ridley’s left. Ridley covered her left fist with her right hand and then gave them both a rough shake. When she opened her left hand again, a small illustration of the word nope had appeared, printed onto her palm. Ms. Parkly laughed. “Wrong choice,” said Ridley, now opening her right hand to reveal a small silver screw in her palm. Ms.

Parkly offered quiet, excited applause. Ridley smiled, an odd sensation given the way she’d felt the past several months. After the disaster at the Mineral Wells Talent Show, and the destruction of Vernon’s Magic Shop, pieces of Ridley’s life felt like they’d been transformed as well: her town, of course; her relationships with her closest friends; her beliefs about how life should be. About how she should be. Calm? Tough? More trusting? Or someone who always trusts her gut? Ridley wondered what her friends would prefer, especially after the way she’d treated them lately —insisting on her own way, barreling forward without a thought for everyone’s safety. Still, she’d had the best of intentions. Didn’t her friends know that? (Ah, a good question. Have you ever felt uncertain about who you are? About the real you? I know I have. Come to think of it, I’ve never revealed who I am… so perhaps I should stop asking questions!) “I don’t know how you do it, Ridley,” Ms. Parkly said.

“You impress me.” Ridley shrugged. “If I had a nickel for every time someone said that, I’d be rich.” Then she chuckled. “But probably cranky from all the bags of loose change lying around.” Ridley’s mother had hired Helena Parkly to be Ridley’s homeschool teacher at the beginning of September, just before Ridley’s father had left on one of his long sales trips. The teacher was a thin woman, slightly taller than Mrs. Larsen. Other than her strawberry-blond bob, Ms. Parkly dressed like someone twenty years older than she actually was—often in a buttoned-up blouse and a scratchy wool jacket and skirt that draped just past her knees.

When Ridley had first met her teacher, she’d thought the woman looked professional and intelligent. But she also knew that looks could be deceiving. For one thing, the woman was extremely clumsy, constantly knocking things over or tripping. And very easily distracted by Ridley’s simplest magic tricks. One of the first things that Ms. Parkly had done after learning about Ridley’s knack for invention was to sign her up for a regional young inventors’ fair in nearby Bell’s Landing, where the two were traveling now. If it had been a ploy to win Ridley’s favor, it had worked. After years of tinkering and imagining impressive machines with little to show for it, Ridley was finally going to prove to herself that her hobby was worthwhile. Useful. Her project was about transforming shared spaces so that anyone could navigate them with ease.

After brainstorming for many hours with her father before he’d left on his latest trip, Ridley had developed a manual crank system that would allow her to move up and down the stairs in their house without having to leave her chair. Ropes, pulleys, wheels, and cogs would temporarily tilt the steps into a ramp formation. Along with a display board that described the mechanics of the device, Ridley had brought along a miniature proof-of-concept model, both of which were packed into the bag lying on the floor beside Ridley’s chair. “Will you teach me that trick?” Ms. Parkly asked hopefully. “How’d you do it?” “I should probably start thinking about my invention presentation,” Ridley answered pointedly. She was most definitely not going to reveal the mechanics of her trick to someone she’d only known a month, no matter what the teacher had done for her. Ms. Parkly smiled. “Ah, you’re right.

I’m distracting you.” “It’s fine. I just need to get back to work.” Ridley pulled her notebook from the compartment in the armrest of her chair and flipped it open. She focused on the pages until she saw Ms. Parkly turn to sit back down, though the teacher first had to disentangle the cuff of her blouse from a loose screw sticking out of her seat. “Oof!” Ms. Parkly said as her sleeve came loose and she landed with a whump! She let out a strange little giggle, and for the second time that morning, Ridley found herself unexpectedly smiling. With its cobblestone streets and century-old architecture, Bell’s Landing had a similar charm to Ridley’s hometown, though it was much larger. The buildings were taller, the parks wider.

The theaters seated more people. The smokestacks and engines of multiple factories produced products even faster. The stores had more departments and sold a wider variety of goods. Instead of a resort on a nearby rise, like the Grand Oak back home, Bell’s Landing had Bell College, which was located in the flatlands beside the winding river that connected this city to Mineral Wells. The structures that formed Bell College were built of granite and marble and, in a most impressive illusion, the buildings appeared to be held up by vines of ivy that were just starting to turn a reddish hue in the early October shift of sunlight. After they’d stopped for lunch, Ridley and Ms. Parkly made their way to the college’s front gate— a black wrought-iron monstrosity decorated with blackbirds, which gave off an aura more of intimidation than of education. It took a lot to intimidate Ridley, though, so she wheeled quickly through the college’s entrance, her bag in her lap. One would never have guessed that her heart was a steam engine pounding in her chest. Ms.

Parkly followed rather wide-eyed behind her. Across the quad, Hampshire Hall was a great gray structure, with tall windows, a red-slate roof, and an impossibly large staircase leading up to a front door. “Follow me,” Ridley said. “And watch out for that.” She pointed at a potted plant someone had knocked onto the bluestone path. Ms. Parkly nodded her thanks, though Ridley still heard a quiet “Ouch!” and the tinkle of broken pottery as she sped to the side of the hall. There she found a door that was level with the lawn. She released a clasp on the underside of her chair’s armrest and grabbed the hook apparatus that she’d attached for moments like this. Pulling on one end of it, Ridley felt the hook arm extend and click into place.

She swung it toward the door and seized the handle. Moving her thumb along the switch at the arm’s base, she tightened the hook, twisted her wrist, and pulled. The door swung outward. Ridley inched her chair forward and caught the door with her footrest, propping it open. She then released the hook device, reattached it to the underside of the chair’s arm, and turned to Ms. Parkly. “In we go,” she said. “Why, thank you,” her teacher replied, giving that strange little giggle again and stumbling slightly as she moved past Ridley. After blindly navigating the snaking halls inside Hampshire Hall for several minutes, Ridley encountered some kids who were carrying strange-looking gadgets. “This way,” she told her teacher.

Ridley followed the kids to a giant classroom, inside of which many tables were arranged in rows. A line had formed at a desk just inside the door, and three adults in stiff tweed suits sat behind it, waving participants forward. Ms. Parkly started to say, “I’ll just check us i—” But Ridley shook her head sharply, hurrying forward. “Ridley Larsen, here for the inventors’ fair.” She tried to sound cool and collected, though her nerves were buzzing. One of the tweed-suited adults handed her a slip of paper with a number on it. “Welcome. Your spot is in the row closest to the windows. Can’t miss it.

” “Thank yooo-oou,” Ms. Parkly said in an odd singsong voice, bumping into the registration table as she passed, causing a loud screech as its legs scraped the marble floor. The tweed-suited people grimaced. “Soooor-ry!” she said again, smoothing her skirt and hurrying after Ridley, who was already well ahead. They passed by other participants. Glancing at their poster boards, Ridley noticed a variety of project titles: THE AUTOMATIC PAGE TURNER , THE EASY RAKE WITH ATTACHED LEAF-COLLECTION BAG , THE REMOTE-CONTROL LIGHT SWITCH, THE LOST MARBLE LOCATOR. She wasn’t sure what some of them were, but it was possible one of them would blow her invention right out of the water. “Are you as nervous as I am?” Ms. Parkly asked. The little laugh again.

“I’m fine!” Ridley answered, much louder than she’d meant to. Her teacher’s odd mannerisms were getting to her. She tried to fix it with a wide grin, but then worried that might make it worse, so she made her face go blank, which she was sure only made her look like a creep. “Good!” Ms. Parkly replied, pink faced. “Me too! I’m actually not nervous at all. I don’t even know why I said that.” “It’s all right,” Ridley said quietly. The steam engine in her chest went ka- chunk-ka-chunkka-chunk. Maybe it would help to just admit it.

“I actually am a tiny bit anxious.” She plopped the large bag atop the table and zipped it open. Within seconds, she’d removed her poster board and propped it up for all to see. The red title at the top stood out: THE TRANSFORMING STAIRCASE. Below were the various blueprints and diagrams that Ridley had put together, as well as drawings of the finished product and a detailed description. Ridley then laid out the pieces of her miniature staircase model and reached to the rear of her chair for her portable toolbox to begin putting it together. Ms. Parkly hovered nearby. “Can I help?” “Don’t touch that,” Ridley said, shifting a chisel away from her teacher’s accident-prone hands. She then picked up a fine-pointed screwdriver to attach some small cogs to the model’s rubber bands.

“Maybe you could go find me a cup of water,” she suggested without looking up. “Will you be all right by yourself?” That made Ridley look up. “Of course I’ll be fine by myself.” She couldn’t stop her face from twisting into a sneer. “Ah. Well. Then I’ll be back in a jiff.” Ms. Parkly walked away quickly. Replaying her words in her head, Ridley felt suddenly guilty.

She’d have to spend the entire train ride back to Mineral Wells doing magic tricks to smooth things over. She had let her quick temper (and her nerves) take over once again. Across the aisle, a group of young participants was setting up their own table. They were working together to arrange something they’d named THE GARDEN OF THE FUTURE. They had a lush green diorama filled with miniature plants and trees. Each member of the group unveiled a special tool and propped it against the table. One looked like a modified hand trowel with some sort of electric panel stuck to the short shaft. Another was a divot-making device—its head a toothy, spinning mechanism that looked like it could punch out pieces of earth. A third looked like an ordinary shovel… until a member of the group flipped a switch and it began vibrating. Perhaps to help a digger get through hard-packed earth.

The group laughed at something, and Ridley was struck with a memory of her own friends—her magicians club. She was suddenly jealous of the young inventors who had one another for support and warmth and chatter, when all she had was a klutzy, overly enthusiastic teacher. For the first time that morning, Ridley wished Theo, Leila, Carter, and the twins could be here with her, to cheer her on. (And who wouldn’t? Even after the friends’ recent, shall we say, bumps in the road, I assure you that the Misfits were wishing they could be with Ridley to cheer her on too.) Someone at the corner of her vision was staring. Ridley looked down the long aisle to find an older woman standing with her shoulders slumped, her arms hanging limply, her lips parted slightly as if she was about to speak but had forgotten what she’d wanted to say. Her gray hair was short and curled, and she wore cat-eye glasses and a purple-and-pink-polka-dotted dress. After a moment, Ridley recognized her: It was Mrs. Maloney, a librarian in Mineral Wells. She’d also been one of the judges of the talent show at the end of the summer.

Mrs. Maloney shivered, her head twitching slightly. She started toward Ridley. Her lips were moving, but Ridley couldn’t make out what she was saying. Her steps were deliberate, one foot before the other, so that her hips swayed back and forth, back and forth, hypnotically. The librarian grabbed the shovel from the table across from Ridley’s project, then slowly turned around. “What are you doing?” Ridley asked sharply. “Put that down!” The woman’s glassy eyes bulged, bloodshot and watery, full of fear and also… determination? Ridley could finally hear what she was whispering to herself. It sent chills across her scalp. “What have I done? What have I done?” The librarian raised the shovel.

Ridley flipped a trigger in the arm of her chair. “What have I done?” Ridley’s wheels spun, and she shot backward, just as Mrs. Maloney lumbered toward the table holding her staircase project. “Stop!” Ridley shouted, seeing what was about to happen. “Nooooo!” The woman swung the shovel down. Ridley’s wooden model splintered.


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