It was an unusually warm late autumn day and the conference championship was in the balance. As was an automatic bid to the Division-II football national tournament. The days leading up to the big game had met with growing anticipation. It was the game of the year, only in part because it was for the league title, but more so because it truly featured the conference's two premier teams. The Bears of Midland Tech sported an unblemished record and top-10 national ranking. That in of itself had been a surprising turn of events since they hadn't so much as sniffed the playoffs in twelve years. In contrast, the Hornets of Capital State entered the contest as the three-time defending conference champions. They were also ranked, but only eighteenth nationally, as a consequence of having endured a tie in their first game of the season.
Yes, there had been more than enough hype to go around.
But the game itself had yet to meet those expectations. Neither squad had played as if their respective stellar seasons had been anything other than an aberration. By the time the first half had expired, the 11,000-fans in attendance had become numb from having watched a putrid seventy-four yards of total offense between the two. Yet, even that would have been acceptable had the lack of offense been the result of excellent defensive play. Knowledgeable fans--football junkies--would have appreciated that. But alas, the teams had been equally inept on both sides of the ball.
Even the zealots, who came carrying standing-room-only tickets rather than opting for the better view and comfort of watching the local telecast from their own living rooms, were dumbfounded.
Indeed, a deafening "ho-hum" silence had engulfed the stadium.
Well to be truthful, you could hear the occasional shenanigans which arose from certain small groups of individuals who had managed to smuggle in alcohol and, come the morning, would undoubtedly have no recollection of this day. To them, it was only a game--a convenient excuse to party hardy.
But for the true fan, it had been a vast disappointment. For Tech supporters in particular, the first half was made just that much more insufferable because it had transpired on the home turf.
The scoreboard had shown goose eggs until 3-seconds remaining before the intermission. Until then, neither opponent had threatened to score. But with seconds left, hapless Midland fumbled on its own twenty-three yard line. Capital recovered, ran a play up the middle for two yards, called a timeout and then kicked a field goal.
The horn sounded. With heads buried despondently in their chests, players on both teams hurried off the field to their respective locker rooms--certain of the tirade they would surely suffer at the hands of their coaches.
Your half-time score: the Capital State Hornets three and the Midland Tech Bears nothing.
Joe Mourres knew the exhibition so far had not been indicative of the caliber of play the fans of either school had come to expect over the course of the season. He knew the errant and dropped passes, lackadaisical blocking, and clumsy running were a clear sign that the pressure had gotten to these young men.
They were playing on egg shells.
Still, the game was only half over. In spite of how poorly it had been played, a victory in this last game of the regular season would assure a shot at the national championship as one of the 16-teams to make the field. Yet he also knew this performance did not bode well for just how far the victor was likely to go in the tournament. A champion excelled in spite of the pressure and it had been obvious that neither the Bears nor the Hornets had learned how to deal with it.
Joe sighed. Regardless of who won, another performance such as this would mean a certain and quick exit from the national playoffs.
David Westover, a school chum and lifelong friend of Joe's, gave him a sharp pat on the back.
"They really need you out there," he said.
Joe chuckled. Clearly, his friend was reminiscing about their days at Midland, when they played on the last Bear team to earn a spot in the post-season.
That had been twelve years ago. The Bears were league champs and had made it all the way to the national championship game--NAIA at the time--where they lost in a close but high-scoring shootout. Joe Mourres was the senior quarterback, his third year as the starter; David, his reliable possession receiver.
During Joe's stint as the signal caller, Midland was the dominant offense in the land. At least on the NAIA level. As early as his junior season, speculation began in earnest as to his professional prospects. Many imagined Joe as Cincinnati's top cat. Others hoped Pittsburgh would give him the opportunity to be their man-of-steel. Such talk remained the rage for the duration of his collegiate career.
Scouts did come calling. As did agents. They told him he had all the necessary skills and leadership ability to make it in the pros. Yes, it was true he lacked the big time experience only available at the major college level, but there were many examples of small school athletes who went on to fine professional careers.
He listened to them all. Even allowed himself to be wined and dined once his eligibility was over. But only on a few occasions. Because he had no real interest in pursuing a professional career and so in the end he always declined as graciously as he could.
Sure, he had a strong and accurate arm. And he had the desire to excel. What college athlete doesn't? Joe knew neither set him apart. He also knew that, on this edition of the Bears, he was only one cog of a finely tuned machine. Everyone on offense was considered to be among the best at their position the NAIA had to offer. With no false modesty, he attributed his success to the talent around him.
But more importantly, Joe just didn't have aspirations of playing professionally. Oh, he loved the game, but he was that rare individual who thought of himself as a student first and an athlete second, even if he did play football's glamour position. An education was first and foremost in his mind. He wanted nothing more than a good job and a quiet life. So he hit the books, achieved better than average grades, and earned a degree in industrial engineering.
No, Joe Mourres was not your typical jock. Football had always been only a game to him.
Joe bought a soda from one of the roving vendors, and then he and David continued to make their way across the bleachers toward the grassy knoll which faced into the closed end of the stadium. When they reached the stairs which descended to field level, a young boy no older than ten tugged at Joe's pant leg and extended a copy of the game program.
The young lad was noticeably uncomfortable at the prospect of talking to a complete stranger. But he found the nerve after a moment.
"Can I have your autograph, Mister?" he asked.
Joe looked around and saw a man give the thumbs-up sign from where he sat a dozen or so bleachers above them.
"Put you up to this, did he?" Joe whispered into his ear as he pointed in the direction of the boy's father.
"Yes," the youngster confided. "He wants me to be a quarterback, just like you. Says you were the best."
Joe signed the program and returned it to the kid. He tried to explain that there were more important things in life, but before he could the boy ran triumphantly back to his father and handed him their prize.
Joe's celebrity had been at its peak during his senior year. Even the spotlight of a small community in West Virginia can be quite intense. He was recognized wherever he went. Even at the grocery, small crowds would gather around him. He knew this public love affair afforded him many opportunities he would not have had otherwise and that fact was not lost on him. Remaining true to his nature, he was always polite and careful not to take too much advantage of his status. Still, he had very little privacy and for someone who preferred the quiet life, all the attention and demands on his time proved frustrating.
Particularly when the limelight made it especially difficult to woo the woman of his dreams. The former Jamie Gillespie.
But to his eternal gratitude, Jamie handled the notoriety well, and accepted his marriage proposal later that same year. They were wed soon after graduation and moved out of state and into anonymity. Joe took a position with a beltway bandit--a government contractor based just outside of the nation's capital. Jamie became a federal civil servant.
They were truly happy.
When they learned Midland was finally back in position to win the conference championship after such a long dry spell, well, there was just no way that they weren't going back to Almost Heaven to see the game.
As befits its location on the old Midland Trail of colonial times, to the east of the state's capital in the rugged foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, Tech is well known for its curriculum in mining and geotechnical engineering. The school enjoyed a strong local enrollment as well as a significant student population of foreign nationals. Indeed, the institution had always prided itself for its role in helping the mining industry, and especially coal, remain modern, productive, profitable, and fully employed. Alumni statistics showed most graduates, with the notable exception of the foreign demographic, remained to earn a living in the region.
However, Joe, Jamie and David could be counted in the smallest of minorities. Born and raised in the upper Kanawha Valley, they were among the very few locals who chose to leave the area upon graduation.
Joe looked up at the scoreboard. There were five minutes remaining before the start of the second half. It had been fifteen minutes since Jamie had left for the ladies' room and she hadn't returned to the grassy knoll where they had been sitting before he and David had taken their stroll through the stands.
Joe looked around. There was still no sign of her. He placed what was left of his soda on the ground by his friend and told him he could finish off the backwash if he wanted.
"I'm not interested in your backwash, bro!" was David's exclamation as Joe went off in search of his wife.
The rest rooms were located where they had been since the stadium was built circa 1940, on the corner of the concessions next to the home bleachers and near the open end of the stadium. The refreshment stand was mobbed with folk; the crowds waiting their turn for the customary ballpark staples.
Joe made his way through the sea of humanity and managed to get the attention of an elderly woman behind the counter.
Although he did not recognize her, she addressed him knowingly.
"If you're looking for Jamie," she barked before he had an opportunity to ask, "She's up at the Bear's Den."
Joe didn't know whether to be comforted by the old lady's familiar behavior or unnerved by the unmistakable coldness in the way she looked at him. He would have thought it was just her way had that bitterness not melted clean away as she took an order from two other men--clearly good friends in spite of the fact that each wore the sweatshirt of the state's only two major college football rivals.
Where they truly played big-time college football.
When her gaze returned to Joe, it was again cold and empty.
"Suggested Jamie go there, myself," she confessed in that same gruff voice much different than the one she had used when responding to the two other gentlemen.
"After all," she added somewhat sarcastically, "Tech's favored son and daughter just can't return after so long a spell without having a walk through the den."
"For old times sake," she concluded, with a wink and a smile.
The Bear's Den, a cave carved into the face of the mountain, was located a few hundred yards beyond the stadium. Its gaping, oval mouth seemed to smile down upon the annual ritual which was college football. From its wide entrance, which was as long as the field it had overlooked since the very first game played there, a person had a fine view not only of the stadium but of the main campus and riverside community located in the valley below.
The cave had long been the institution's time-honored marketing centerpiece. Quite a mythology had evolved around it and the guardian spirit, a bear-like entity, said to reside within. Hence the cave's name and the school's mascot. The spirit of the cave was said to watch over and bless the school, its people, and the community which the institution served. As the athletic department did during Joe's school days, they often held pep rallies in the mouth of the cave. On more than a few occasions, these assemblies bordered on the occult--soliciting the blessing of the mythic denizen of the cave.
Joe remembered that once, after a rare and embarrassing loss in which he had turned the ball over a couple of times himself, he had been consoled by the Athletic Director and told that steps would be taken to ensure victory the next time Midland faced that particular opponent.
Joe thought he had meant an increased focus on fundamentals in practice or more film study. But when he pressed, he remembered the AD had simply laughed.
"Oh, leave that to me," he said and chuckled again. "Who knows? Perhaps we'll abduct the Head Coach or their star player and introduce them to the rite of the cave!" The AD walked off, still laughing to himself.
What great stories! And what ingenious publicity those stories generated! Through them the public's focus was kept squarely on the school and its football program.
Joe also remembered the many hours he and Jamie had spent in the Bear's Den. In those days, it seemed warm, as if it really did extend a blessing toward them.
Perhaps Jamie had also remembered those times, and the things they did there away from the prying eyes of adoring fans. Perhaps she knew he, too, would remember and find himself drawn there--where she would be waiting.
Joe Mourres smiled, the outward manifestation of which would only seem dim in comparison to his longing anticipation.
Joe lost himself to these pleasant thoughts, nearly forgetting he was still at the concession stand. The old lady was now catering to a member of the visiting band and was preparing a large popcorn smothered in sickening butter-flavored lard. What an ugly, frightening woman! He couldn't recall anyone from his youth who had looked like . . . like . . . well, like an evil witch.
She turned and stared at him.
Again feeling uneasy, and wanting nothing more than to get away from the old hag, Joe walked off.
The teams made their way back onto the field and prepared for the second half.
Joe found himself drawn to the Bear's Den, just as Jamie must have been. Strolling out of the crowd of spectators who for one reason or another hadn't yet returned to their seats, he headed for the cave.
The public address announcer reminded those present that the visiting Hornets would receive the kickoff.
A few moments later, Joe heard a dreadful gasp. Concerned for his wife's well-being, he once again did a three-sixty in the hope that he would see her. But she was nowhere in sight and as the sound grew louder he soon realized it came from the stadium. It was the collective astonishment of the crowd. Something exciting had occurred on the field.
"Hornet touchdown on a ninety-six yard kickoff return!" the announcer broadcasted over the public address system.
Capital was up ten to nothing. Damn! He had missed perhaps the most exciting play of the game, and certainly the most electrifying so far.
But if Jamie was up to what he hoped she was... well, it was, after all, only a game.
Joe carried on. When he reached the end of the parking lot closest to the mouth of the cave, he paused to look back over his shoulder on the off chance Jamie had grown tired of the den and was returning to the stadium.
His wife was still nowhere to be found. And the lines were now gone. The concession stand was empty, except for the same old shrew behind the counter. Was she staring at him still?
Their eyes met. Even from such a distance, he couldn't shake the unsettling feeling she provoked. Why was she so bitter? It just didn't seem rational.
Rational or not, Joe was pleased when she finally withdrew her visage. But before she did, it looked as if she had let the bitterness drain from her soul, leaving an equally troubling rueful expression in its stead.
As if Joe Mourres was someone to be pitied.
Joe climbed the five or six yards from the parking lot up to the lip of the Bear's Den. He took several steps into the cave until he was confident he was out of the woman's sight before he stopped.
It didn't have that warm feeling he had so fondly remembered.
And then he was ambushed.
Bugs--insects and arachnids--countless hordes of them.
A huge swarm of gnats engulfed him. In an instant, they found his exposed flesh. They alighted on his arms and legs. In a frenzy, they alighted in mass and bit hungrily. Joe swatted clear large swathes of his extremities only to have more alight to take the places of their smashed comrades.
The gnats were soon joined by their mosquito brethren as he made for his escape from the bug-infested cave.
Joe swatted and swatted, again and again. In short order, he was covered with blood; his own, which spilled from the crushed bodies of his assailants.
Joe Mourres howled. And as he did, the angry little beasts flew into his mouth and nose and made their way down his throat and windpipe. The sensation was like accidentally inhaling a large dose of that powdery candy which fizzed on contact with saliva. The tiny insects popped about inside him.
He fell to his knees and simultaneously coughed while disgorging the contents of his stomach. The little creatures, still alive, struggled to escape the acidic bile puddled on the cave floor.
He screamed as an electric shock shot up his leg. Not content in the knowledge its namesakes were winning the game, the culprit was a solitary cicada killer--a very large type of hornet--mercilessly lacerating his shin. He whirled to his feet, all the while trying to escape the barrage, but a squadron of angry wasps chose that moment to join the attack. Their stings sent him rolling upon the damp earth. At least one and possibly more got to his face before he managed to shield it from them.
Joe realized he had come to rest beside a large boulder near the entrance of the cave. He attempted to get to his feet again but was met with the most excruciating pain he had ever suffered. Indeed it was beyond any he had ever experienced on the grid iron. It felt like someone had amputated his foot at the ankle, without benefit of anesthetics.
He stared in horror at the contorting mass of centipedes which enveloped his foot. Thousands of poison-bearing claws, found on the first pair of legs of each, laid claim to his lower leg as if each of the creatures were raising their nation's flag on some distant moon.
A single woodland scorpion was suspended on his leg above them. The thing actually seemed to take pleasure in waving its venomous tail before sinking its barb into his flesh.
He tried to scream but discovered that he in fact hadn't stopped screaming for some time. Why hadn't anyone come to his aid? Couldn't they hear he was in agony?
Joe became aware of the tiny spiders parachuting on strands of gossamer and landing on his head. A wolf spider, every bit an inch and a half across, sunk its fangs above the knuckles of his hand. If it were possible for such a thing to grin, this one certainly did. He smashed it and smeared its guts between the top of his left hand and the palm of his right. Its razor sharp fangs ripped trails of blood through his flesh as he did.
Somehow, he managed to find the strength to get back on his feet. But he was only able to stagger a few steps before the attackers blitzed him again, sending him flailing once more to the floor of the cave.
Under full assault, he knew his struggle was now for his very survival. But by then, though, Joe was as frantic as he was disoriented. Without realizing it, he had gotten himself deeper into the cave.
And Joe knew that wasn't the place to be. Yet he could do little about it.
Joe Mourres was engulfed by the relentless horde.
Sometime later, he managed to drag himself back to the lip of the cave. The attack was over. His feet were so swollen that he knew his shoes would have to be cut off. His eyes were reduced to tiny slits between raw masses of inflamed flesh
But Joe could still see well enough to notice the two men who approached from the parking lot below. He recognized their clothing as that worn by the campus physical plant crew. They also sported dark tans as a result of a long summer and fall season working outdoors. Joe thought it odd that his mind would focus on such a trivial matter as their complexion during his trauma. Perhaps it was his mind's way of dealing with the toxins-induced shock.
Thank God, Jamie hadn't been in the cave.
Joe rolled down the embankment to the edge of the pavement. Shakily, he raised a ballooned arm to get the attention of the men. He tried to yell for help, but what came out of his mouth was little more than a whimper.
"Help," Joe pleaded. "Please, help me."
The salts of his tears burned as they trickled down across the open wounds of his soiled and disfigured face.
Slowly, methodically, the two men looked toward him. Neither seemed overly concerned.
"I need medical attention. Please . . . " Joe wanted to say more but his voice refused to leave the safe haven of his throat.
They smiled, ear to ear, in morbid unison. Close now, Joe could see no human compassion in their eyes. Indeed, they were not human at all. Their gestures were not those of men, but of devils. Their eyes were those of animals. It was only then, as they peered from above him, that he got a really good look. What he had mistaken just moments earlier as dark complexion was actually a thick mat of hair which covered their face, arms, and legs.
But of course, it wasn't hair at all. It was fur.
The one closest to Joe pointed toward the hapless, swollen creature he had become. It spoke in a guttural voice--deep and foreboding.
"You ought not have forsaken the blessings of the Guardian." It smirked so expressively, so evilly, that Joe thought its jaws must surely rip apart.
He thought himself delusional. What was he seeing? What was he hearing?
The second spoke as the other finished.
"You have broken its sacred trust."
"What is this?" Joe whimpered. He tried to inch away, but his attackers had done their task well. Joe could feel his body lapse further into shock.
"Can't you see I need help?" he gasped.
Grinning the devil's own smile, the one who spoke first gestured to a spot along the embankment not ten feet away, beckoning the former star quarterback to look.
There in a heap, half covered by the rubble fallen from the lip of the cave, was a body. It was horribly swollen like is own.
What was left of Joe Mourres' strength evaporated.
There was his Jamie. Poor Jamie. She had gone to the Bear's Den after all. In his frantic attempt to flee the rampaging insects, Joe had been unaware he had slid down the lip of the cave nearly on top of where she had come to rest.
He stare in utter disbelief. Still fixated on his beloved wife, the creatures grabbed him by the arms. Their nails (or were they claws?) bit into his bloated flesh.
But he no longer had the will to scream.
"Jamie," he moaned. "Jamie!"
"The torment you feel," the beast-men spoke in unison, "the Guardian has endured for twelve years. You were the most cherished of sons, yet you have forsaken your destiny."
"Now, retribution is required . . . and then there will only be one."
A third creature appeared. It picked up Jamie's lifeless body and carried her into the cave.
In the distance, Joe could vaguely hear another voice. It was the public address announcer. The Hornets had intercepted a Midland pass.
These were the thoughts of Joe Mourres as the beast-men dragged him up the embankment and deep into the dark abyss of the cave. He knew they would take him far beyond where he had ever explored before.
"And then there will only be one," the monsters had said.
There could be no warning David. Joe could only hope that the former wide-out wouldn't come looking for them. But he knew David would and that his friend's search would ultimately lead him to the cave.
Joe no longer felt any pain. He speculated that the anesthetizing effect of the copious amounts of venom injected into his body was perhaps the only act of mercy the Guardian would bestow upon him.
He thought of Jamie.
He thought . . . no, he knew now that the mythology--all of it--was true. Those fantastic stories to drum up community interest were not merely tall-tales. He knew, all too late, that opposing coaches and players that had beaten the Bears had also been and would continue to be abducted for an audience with the Guardian.
It was, after all, a matter of record that no team had ever beaten Midland in consecutive seasons.
Too late to save his wife or his friend, Joe Mourres knew that he had indeed been destined to play professional football. Of that there could no longer be any doubt. That had been his ordained method of service; his charge to further the prestige of the program and the school.
Joe thought of all the times he'd been in the cave, of all the things he and Jamie had done there. And of all the times the thing that dwelled back in its far reaches had been watching.
Watching it all.
Further and further into the cave they went. Somewhere ahead, its stench increasing in the stale air, the Guardian awaited him. And yet, in spite of all that had happened and all he now knew, a singular conviction arose from the pit of his soul. It grew louder and louder until Joe, in the last few moments of his life, went insane.
It's only a game!
It's only a game!
It's only a game!
At the beginning of the fourth quarter, David began searching for his friends. When a circuit of the stadium proved fruitless, he extended his search to the cave. It didn't matter, he thought, the game was a bore anyway.
Only the old witch at the refreshment stand noticed he didn't come back . . .
The clock ticked down. Midland's quarterback fell to his knees as the offensive line and the running backs formed the victory barricade around him. The horn sounded, and players and fans alike poured onto the field in jubilation.
The next day, the capital city's Sunday paper devoted the front page of its sports section to the game. And how the home-standing Midland Tech Bears seemingly arose from the dead in the final four minutes to win the right to go on to the national playoffs.
Midland lost in the NCAA Division-II semifinals to the number one seed and eventual national champion.
Nevertheless, the Guardian was pleased. More so than it had been in twelve long years.
About the Author
Jason hails from Almost Heaven, is a Knight of the Golden Horseshoe, a WVU graduate and a life member of the WVU Alumni Association. In 1991, he received a national award for his research in the field of lightweight advanced composite structural materials for aviation. Currently, he is developing clean energy hydrogen fuel cell power systems. His horror and science fiction short stories have appeared in magazines of the genre. He is writing his first novel.
Jason lives in Monongalia County with his wife and children. He enjoys time spent with his family and friends, fishing the Mountain State, and playing amateur ecologist. Every fall and winter, you can find him at Mountaineer games.
He frequently posts to the BlueGoldNews.com message boards, where you can contact him.