Chapter 1: January 2, 1995
It was five after seven, and already fifteen brand new bikes completely filled the rack. Each bike was chained securely with absolute care, most with combination locks, a few necessitating a key. It is first come first serve at the bike rack, and it only houses fifteen. In a month, maybe less, most of these bikes will be parked at the fence. Different bikes, not new like these, but a few of the ones which presently occupy the fence, or even ones that have not been peddled in to school today, will occupy the rack. The first come first serve will once again serve its traditional purpose. That is, the kids who normally get to school early will park their bikes in the rack until it fills, while the other students will park as they arrive wherever a spot is open.
Just as there is nothing more evident to show it is the first day of school than the sight of brand new shoes on all the students’ feet, a full bike rack moments after the school gate opens evidences the start of the first day of school after the two week Christmas break. That’s right; there are two truths at Baxton Elementary: New Shoes to Start School, and New Bikes for Christmas.
Of course, not every child gets a new bike every year, but at least fifteen of them do. Without fail, every year, these new bike owners wake themselves up earlier than any other day they would had otherwise and peddle themselves to school. Each student makes it as far as the front gate. It is here at the front gate they sit and wait until 7:00 AM when one of the two teachers assigned Early Duty unlocks the gate and lets them in. Within moments the bike rack is filled to its capacity.
This year, like four of the last five, Mark Nelson’s Early Duty assignment rotated to coincide with the first day back from Christmas break, and sharing the job with him, Julie Green in her first post-Christmas stint. For the week preceding the Christmas holiday, Nelson and Green were assigned Late Duty, Nelson with the car riders and Green with the buses.
For both Early and Late Duty the jobs are simple enough. After the final bell, the students who ride the bus home or who are picked up after school all make their way to a covered pavilion outside. Underneath this pavilion lies a concrete slab, and it is upon this slab eight long lines are painted, each with different color paint. The bus riders, who by December had been doing this for several months now, all sit single file on whichever line color corresponds with his or her bus. The car riders sit on the opposite side of the slab. For the Late Duty teacher minding the buses, he or she watches the road for a bus to turn into the school drive, and announces the color of the poster taped to the bus as it turns in. Those students who are sitting on that color then stand up on the line and wait for the bus to stop and then board it. The teacher on car rider duty watches the carpool line. Not much different here; except, the student is not allowed to stand-up at all until his ride comes to a complete stop.
Because the gate needs to be locked behind them at the end of the day both teachers’ Late Duty assignment concludes when the last student boards the car or school bus taking him home. Although impossible to enforce, because to do so would mean leaving the student at the school by himself, the rule for car riders is that their ride must be at the school to pick them up by 04:00 PM.
The Friday before Christmas break, at 4:05 PM, however, there was still a student whose ride had not yet come. And, after watching Julie look at her watch for what seemed liked the tenth time that afternoon, Mark took the hint: Julie was antsy to leave. “Oh, get out of here,” he told her. “I’ll lock up the gate afterwards.” Julie looked up from her wristwatch, and smiled one of her big smiles. To Mark, that smile first said, Thank you, and when she held it for a split second longer it seemed to have a suggestive flair that told him, Yes, I’d love to continue to sit, and talk, and flirt with you, but today I really got to go.
“You sure you don’t mind?” she asked.
“No. It’s only Philly left,” Mark said, “and I am sure his dad will be here to pick him up in no time.”
“Not my dad,” the child corrected and Mark winced at his own mistake.
Julie smiled at Mark again, and left. It would be more than an hour before Mark was able to start his holiday. He would never see Julie Green alive again.
Early Duty normally requires opening the main gate by 7:00 AM, then standing at one end of the playground while the students are being dropped off. It is there you stand watching the children play until the first bell rings at 8:00 AM. Most days the students who walk to school or ride their bikes, peddle or walk in with only moments to spare before the ring of the first bell. These students can get away with this because they are not like the ones who ride the bus, subjected to be dropped off at school at whatever time the bus arrives.
During his first post-Christmas Early Duty assignment five years earlier, when Mark Nelson pulled his car into the school’s driveway at ten till seven - new bikes were already waiting at the front gate. Accordingly, he was forced to do a series of awkward steps he swore to himself he would never relive again. First, he had to sit in his car and wait until all the students moved their bikes to the grass so he could pull his car to the front of the gate. He then had to get out of his car, tell the students to wait, unlock the gate, get back into his car, pull through the gate, get back out of his car, re-lock the gate behind him, get back into his car, drive to his parking spot, get out of his car, walk back to the gate, and open it at 7:00 AM sharp - finally letting the students in.
All the previous days Mark had Early Duty, ten till seven was more than enough time to open the gate, leave it open, have time to park, and go stand in his spot on the playground long before the first student arrived. Never to be fooled again, every post-Christmas Early Duty since, Mark arrived at 6:30 AM which had proved to be one-hundred percent effective in stopping the need to lock the gate behind him during the time it takes to park.
This morning had been no different. Mark arrived at 06:30 AM expecting he would not see the first bike until he was well posted up in his spot on the playground. These expectations were wrong, however. There waiting at the gate when he turned in was one of the most beautiful bikes Mark had ever seen. It was a metallic blue Stingray with chrome hardware, handlebars, and wheel spokes. And although it was obstructed by the person currently on it, Mark knew without even having to see it - that the seat would be banana style and it would be jet black.
Several emotions hit Mark as he turned into the school driveway. The first: anger, at the fact a bike rider had beat him to the school. The anger quickly subsided by the second emotion: nostalgia. Mark’s brother, Mikey, had a bike just like that except, instead of metallic blue, Mikey’s had been emerald green and had a hand-break. Mark’s nostalgia was replaced by dumbfoundedness when he realized who was on the bike. Finally, he was left with embarrassment over the thought he had: It’s just way too nice, he thought. His family could never afford that.
Phillip “Philly” Suchie looked up at the silver Chevrolet Caprice as it pulled into the school driveway, and understood immediately that he needed to get his bike out of the way for Mr. Nelson to open the gate. Beep… Beep…Beep… In Philly’s heart, he hoped he could accomplish this without moving his bike all the way to the grass. Maybe to the edge of the concrete would do? For it was not only the morning dew he feared, but also the dirt flower bed which separated the edge of the concrete from where the grass began.
Philly had managed to keep his bike peddling on the pavement all morning on his way to school. He was too scared to peddle his bike in the dew out of fear he would slip and fall. He also knew if he put his bike in the wet dew and in the soft dirt it would make mud, and he never wanted to see a speck of mud or dirt on his new bike. Beep… Beep…Beep… So with absolute care, Philly got off his bike, walked it to the very edge of the concrete, parked it on its kickstand, and waited for Mr. Nelson to pull up to the gate.
Mark watched this, and it wasn’t until Philly put the bike at the absolute edge of the concrete did he get what the kid was trying to do. He doesn’t want to push it through the flower beds. Doesn’t want to get it dirty, he thought. Can’t say I blame him. I wouldn’t either. However, he knew with the sharp turn he made into the drive that the Caprice would not have sufficient space to make it through the gate as the bike currently sat.
Ninety-nine times out of one-hundred Mark would have told Philly to get the hell out of the way so he could get through the gate. This time; however, Mark backed his car up and steered it towards the other side of the drive. With this little maneuver, Mark was successful in his attempt to reposition the Caprice in a way that the gate could swing out far enough for him to pull through it, and for a nine-year-old kid to keep his Schwinn squeaky clean.
While posted up near the swings at the far side of the playground Mark thoughts waivered depending on the location he was monitoring. When looking at the bike rack, he thought: Had the damn kid even moved? And when scanning the playground, it was: Where the Hell is Ms. Green?
Focusing on the playground, Mark kept wondering when Ms. Green would finally arrive to help him with Early Duty, and was initially irked by her tardiness. You’d think after I let her leave early from Late Duty two Friday’s ago, she’d at least show up to help out on the first Monday back, he thought.
But Ms. Green was not there, and so what? Sure, it would have been nice to have, but Mark knew he didn’t need the extra teacher on duty. When standing where he was near the swings, it became a one man job. What’s more, when he told her to leave the Friday before Christmas break, he was not ‘letting her’ do anything. He did that out of his own kindness. Still, he thought, Where the Hell is Ms. Green?
Looking towards the bike rack, Mark kept asking himself: Had the damn kid even moved? He thought not. Philly had been standing at the bike rack by the new Stingray bicycle all morning.
When the bike riders arrive, they are supposed to quickly lock up their bike and immediately make their way to the playground. Mark knew he should have made Philly come to the playground shortly after he opened the gate, but figured Philly was probably waiting around until the next bike rider got to school –– making sure the bike didn’t park too close to his own – and risk scuffing it.
Seeing Philly waiting by the bike rack for the next rider, Mark let it slide, again crafting his own reason why his head: He is over there standing by it so the kids know it’s his. To Mark, Philly was showing off. But, he was showing off in a good way. Had Philly not been standing by the Stingray the kids wouldn’t have ever known it was his bike. And, Phillip Suchie deserved a bit of the fanfare that would come with owning something nice, something new, something special. To Mark’s knowledge, Philly had never experienced anything like that. So he let it go.
Sure, Philly had been a motor mouth in class, and had no trouble getting along with the other students. But it was evident; he had trouble fitting in. Be it right, wrong or whatever, for elementary students in 1995, Mark knew the superficial stuff was what mattered the most - and nine-year-old Philly lacked in those superficial things to such a degree it kept him from ever being considered cool. And being cool mattered, not just for Philly, and not just at Baxton Elementary, but for every kid, everywhere.
At Baxton, all of the cool kids wore Nike tennis shoes and Girbaud blue jeans. Until this year, Philly had neither, and even then the Nikes he wore now were not enough to satisfy the Baxton Elementary in-crowd.
Rumors can be vicious, but can often carry a little bit of truth. According to the rumors, the Nikes which presently adorned the feet of the boy who looked like he was standing guard at the bike rack were his father’s shoes. Not from when his father was a kid though, but from when his father died.
Mark believed this part of the rumor. The shoes were obviously way too large, and looked like they had been previously broken in (and walked to hell and back a hundred or so times) by a much bigger foot. And Philly’s father had died a short time ago. It was the second part of the rumor that Mark had a little trouble with. The kids were heard saying that James Suchie died with those shoes still on his feet.
On Friday, December 23, 1994, while Mark and Philly waited together for Philly’s ride to come pick him up, Mark found out much more about those oversized shoes.