By TYLER DASWICK
College Contributor Network
Pete Rose was lagging behind. I turned to him. "What's wrong?"
Charlie Hustle looked up. He raised his eyebrows. "Nothing. Sorry." We kept walking.
"You said we were almost there," I said. "Almost to the center of Sports Hell."
"That's right, but there's one last thing we have to see first before we reach the Master." Pete Rose pointed ahead. "I should warn you. Those figures from before. You're going to see them now-you're going to be among them-just keep your head down and do what I say."
His words were firm. I felt a chill-something had come over my guide. He was occupied with something up ahead; that was clear. This couldn't be good. If Pete Rose was afraid to go on...
True to his words, as we walked on I saw on the outskirts of my vision the same shadowy forms begin to converge on our path. They came forth from the depths of Sports Hell until they were traveling right alongside us. I tried to look into their faces but not a single one took any recognizable form-just decayed skulls of smoke and mist. The throng swelled with the husks of our companions, and up ahead there seemed to be even more of them. Yet another crowd was gathering. We had arrived.
Pete Rose led me to the front of the masses-the watchers parted without a word-and we stood before a long table. Microphones had been spaced out evenly along its surface, and behind each of these was a plain steel chair. Behind the scene, a cloth backdrop had been raised, bearing logos for all the major sports. This was easy enough-a press conference-but who was speaking?
We made our way to the far end of the table. I was looking for the interviewees to arrive when Pete Rose tapped me on the shoulder and pointed behind us. I turned-woah. A wall-the first feature we had seen since the gates of Sports Hell-loomed over the scene. It stretched higher than I could see, but there, at the foot of the mass, were two doors-large enough to fit three Shaquille O'Neals stacked atop each other.
"That's it," said Pete Rose. "The Master is just through those doors."
"Why can't we just go?" I asked. "Leave this place already."
My guide adjusted his hat and swallowed. "He has to let us in."
"What do you mean?"
"You have to earn your way inside."
I opened my mouth to probe further, but that's when the lights came on over the conference table. Five microphones and five chairs before the crowd of watchers. The sinners arrived.
Tiger Woods, Roger Goodell, Alex Rodriguez and Barry Bonds took seats behind the mics. They didn't look at each other and they didn't look out at the crowd-just sat in silence. Four watchers came forth. Each took a post in front of a sinner and brought from beneath the table a long set of shackles. The iron clanked and clinked as one by one, the four sportsmen were bound into place. Wrists clamped. Ankles locked. Tiger and Goodell and A-Rod and Bonds couldn't move a muscle, but none of them resisted the chains anyway. They had done this before, I thought.
One chair was still empty. Where was the fifth sinner? I looked up at Pete Rose. "What about-" He was gone. I cast around, and there...there he was.
Pete Rose took the last seat behind the table. One of the shadows bound him into place. He never looked at me.
What? This didn't make any sense. Pete Rose wasn't a sinner-what was he doing? I looked around but none of the watchers reacted. I tried to take a step forward but something grabbed my shoulder and locked on. I yelled for the shadow to let go but more hands arrived and held me fast. "Pete!" He didn't look at me.
The lights dimmed and all the interviewees were obscured save for Tiger Woods. He shifted in his seat and looked downward.
"How could you betray us?" came a voice. I don't know who said it. It almost came from nowhere.
Tiger peeked out at the crowd. All the shadows swiveled toward him. "I-I'm sorry," he said. His voice was hardly a whisper.
"Not good enough," came the voice. Then-wham-a stone struck Tiger across the mouth. He spat blood onto the table in front of him and a tooth fell from his lips. Wham. Another stone smacked his shoulder. Wham. Nicked his ear. Knocked his Nike hat off. Hit his eye. The crowd threw and threw and Tiger Woods bent down and tried to put his head between his knees but the shackles were too tight and the stones struck him again and again. After a time the hail ebbed and the golfer hung limp and when he looked up his face was mashed and colored with green and purple. The lights fell.
The glare struck above Goodell. "How could you betray us?"
It took three stuttering breaths for the crowd to begin throwing again, and so it went. Right on down the table-always the same question, and always the same assessment. "Not good enough." The husks of the watchers did not hold back, and the stones hit with power and precision. Goodell was hit in the neck and his mouth gaped like a fish. A-Rod's face was battered until his eyes swelled shut and his front teeth cracked in half.
Then the light shone on Pete Rose. No.
"How could you betray us?"
My guide didn't say anything. He looked straight ahead and his body rose and fell as he breathed evenly. Silence. Everything was still.
Then I felt a shove in my back and I was thrown forward and I sprawled in the ashy dirt in front of Pete Rose. Someone else hauled me up by my shirt and something round and hard was jammed into my hand. A stone.
The voice boomed. "Not good enough."
I looked at Pete Rose. His eyes were down and away. No way. I tossed the stone into the dirt in front of me. I was not throwing anything at Charlie Hustle.
But then something smacked into my side and I staggered to my left and was shoved back in front of Pete Rose and another stone was jammed into my hand. A hand reached down and twisted my head toward the doors off and away and there was something standing there in front of them, apart from the shadows. I couldn't see who it was. I looked at Pete Rose.
"The Master," he whispered, not looking at me. "You must do it. It's the only way forward. It's the only way he'll ever see you."
"No. It's not worth it." The stone was heavy in my hand.
Pete Rose looked at me then. His eyes were sad but his hands in the shackles didn't shake. "If it means leaving this place, it's worth it," he said. "This is the way things are now. You have to do it. Please."
"You didn't do anything wrong."
Pete Rose looked at me. "This is Sports Hell, dear traveler. Everyone is here for a reason."
"Not you," I said.
Pete Rose was silent.
I hefted the stone. The watchers all turned toward me and I could hear their shallow breaths. The Master stood off in the distance and didn't move.
Then the stone left my hand and went arcing through the air and my arm whipped around in follow-through and the sound of impact against Rose's forehead came sharp and clear. My guide's head snapped back and lulled briefly before the gash just above his hairline opened and blood poured down his face. It ran in the rivets between his nose and eyes and dripped from his brows and lined his temples and clung to his chin. The other stones came but I didn't see where they hit. I think that's when I fell in the dirt.
When I opened my eyes, everyone was gone. Even the Master had disappeared. I rose to my feet and I looked for Pete Rose and he was slumped behind the table. His lap was filled with blood and his uniform was soaked through and torn. I went to him and touched his shoulder and he opened his eyes.
I think I tried to say something but I couldn't. My mouth just opened and closed and I tasted something salty and I wiped my eyes. Charlie Hustle's shackles had been unlocked and I put his arm over my shoulder and tried to lift him from the chair. His feet dragged and his mouth hung open and a rope of red saliva stretched to the ground.
I can't remember if I told him to take a step or not, but he walked eventually. The ground may as well have been the marsh of the Ball-Hogs, and Pete Rose leaned so heavily into me that I was afraid I was going to fall.
We came to the massive wooden doors. I knocked three times and without any hesitation they swung open. My guide reached up and grabbed the front of my shirt and I felt him shudder. There was no other choice.
I carried Pete Rose through the doors and into the realm of the Master of Sports Hell.
For a look back through the entirety of the trip through Sports Hell, check out the previous chapters below:
Sports Hell chapter 6: The end
Sports Hell chapter 5: Death row
Sports Hell chapter 4: The puppet masters
Sports Hell chapter 3: The choke jobs
Sports Hell chapter 2: The ball hogs
Sports Hell chapter 1: The bandwagoners
Tyler Daswick is a junior at Northwestern University. He is a huge fan of the Green Bay Packers, Indiana Jones, and writing stories about cowboys and banditos. Follow him on Twitter: @AccordingtoDazz
By TYLER DASWICK