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End Game by Maggie Su

Maggie Su is a current fiction PhD student at University of Cincinnati. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in DIAGRAM, Mid-American Review, Joyland, The Offing, The Journal, and elsewhere. She serves as a staff reader for Cincinnati Review.

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In the Porta-Potty outside of the Dodds Park soccer fields, Kaikou rested his forehead against the toilet seat. He had been throwing up without warning for a few months. He knew that if he made an appointment at the health center, the doctor would strip him naked, draw his blood, ask his favorite sex positions, and then tell him nothing was wrong. Kaikou preferred the vomiting. At the bottom of the Porta-Potty was a used Band-Aid that looked fresh, the blood still bright red. Kaikou stared at it until his breathing steadied. He felt terribly alive.

Dodds Park was on top of a hill across the street from the campus conservatory, a trek from Kaikou’s apartment on the north side of the engineering quad. He was a last-minute substitute on the Purple Parrots’ soccer team, coerced first by his ex-girlfriend Sylvia, and then by her new boyfriend, Edward. Edward’s law school friend had mono and they were desperate for a replacement.

“I’m fast, not athletic,” he’d said when Edward had cornered him in the Animal Sciences lab.

“You’re a human man,” Edward said. “You fit the bill exactly.”

Kaikou and Sylvia were both behavioral science PhD candidates and research assistants in Professor Lee’s lab, where they earned their keep cleaning up after piglets and taking rectal temperatures.

Professor Lee was a visiting scholar from Seoul and lived in the building across the street from Kaikou’s with his wife and two boys. He often brought over store-bought packages of nori and tried to get him to play tennis with him.

“You need to get some muscles on those bones,” Lee laughed one afternoon, and Kaikou raised his arm, flexed his slender biceps.

“Do you not see these guns?”

The day before the soccer game, Kaikou had been weighing the piglets for the last time, one by one. Every time Kaikou picked up a piglet, it screamed.

“Just wait till you see what we’re going to do to you on Monday,” Kaikou whispered in number fourteen’s ear, patting the piglet’s head as it writhed in his arms.

It was spring of their second year, their last semester in the lab. At the beginning of the year, Kaikou and Sylvia had assisted Lee in injecting twenty piglets with a strain of Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome, the common cold for pigs. Lee studied the effect of early life infection on brain growth, learning, and memory. Another twenty healthy piglets were kept in a separate room as a control group. Both groups would be dissected on a day affectionately referred to as “kill day,” marked with a big red X on the last day of October in their lab’s calendar. Lee often joked about creating a zombie piglet army.

“The end of an era,” said Sylvia. She was on clean-up duty that day, scrubbing out beakers gunky with brain matter.

“Don’t get nostalgic on me.”

Kaikou kept his eyes trained on the clipboard in his hand, his bright white biohazard slippers, the organic waste circling the drain.

They wouldn’t see each other much after this semester. They would both be reading for exams, collating data, typing up their findings. Maybe he would run into her at Starbucks or Murphy’s happy hour or the Animal Sciences building hallways. On the bus, he’d wear earbuds, so he’d have an excuse for not answering when she called his name.

.  .  .

By the time Kaikou stepped out of the Porta-Potty, the whole team had shown up. He watched Edward wave to Sylvia on the sidelines, but she was goofing around, doing jumping jacks and runners lunges with her thermos of coffee and Bailey’s, and didn’t notice.

Robby, the overeager business major that Edward tutored, trudged up to the bench with his beard askew, looking hungover and clinging tightly to a pink Gatorade. Yoz, inarguably the best player, tossed a soccer ball in the air and started juggling it, first with his shoulder, then his knee, then the side of his cleats. Nathan sat heavily on the grass and struggled to put his shin-guards on. During Kaikou’s first practice, Nathan had missed an easy goal, chipped the ball way over the top, and in frustration, had punched the goalpost so hard and with such terrible punching technique that he’d broken his thumb. He was Kaikou’s favorite.

“You okay?” Edward asked as Kaikou jogged over to join the rest of the team. “You were in there a long time.”

Kaikou nodded. The inside of his mouth still tasted like vomit. He grabbed the Gatorade out of Robby’s hands and took a big slug.

“Hey,” Robby said. “No backwash, dipshit.”

Kaikou gurgled the pink liquid in his mouth and spat it back on the grass.

Edward started to stretch, fitting his muscular body into neat lines. As an undergraduate, Edward had been a gymnast at the University of Illinois, a NCAA champion on the rings. When Sylvia had first started dating Edward over the summer, she had shown Kaikou videos of him during his competition days. Together they’d watched the steady set of Edward’s mouth, the pointed toe, the chalk on his hands, the way his pale body swung up, improbably, against gravity.

Kaikou hadn’t met Edward in person until the mid-semester Animal Sciences department party. The faculty and older graduate students came late and left early, leaving behind the first- and second-years who didn’t yet have kids or dissertations or DVRs filling up with historical biopics.

“She’s different from the other girls I’ve dated.”

Edward leaned against the railing of the bar, his beer, a generic pale ale, clenched tightly in his fist and sloshing over.

“No. She isn’t,” Kaikou said.

His fingers itched for a cigarette, the fifth gin and tonic had gone straight to his head, and he was acutely aware of the way his vision tilted.

“I’m serious, man. She’s special.”

Edward’s voice had gotten soft and wistful. Kaikou sighed, unclenched his hands.

“The others wanted something from me and I could give it to them. I’d go to boring work parties, cook steak dinners, go down on them for five minutes. It was fine, you know? I could do that, no problem.”

Kaikou studied Edward. He had never seen a more standard-looking man in his life. He wished he’d taken his high school drawing class more seriously, but he never figured he’d meet an Edward up close and personal.

“I knew just by looking at a woman if she’d be happy with me. Content,” Edward laughed, sputtered into his beer. “And I hated them for it.”

The crowd both inside and outside of the bar had thinned out considerably. Why wasn’t Sylvia back with her drink by now; was this what she wanted, Edward and him standing together, talking about nothing but her?

Sylvia still texted him on nights when she went out drinking. She sent him gifs of falling leaves or “I know you pretend not to give a fuck, but...” or “Let’s take a birdwatching class” and he would text her back a gif of a burger frying on a pan or “Ditto” or “Chirp, chirp.” 

Kaikou caught sight of her through the window. Edward was right about Sylvia, at least. She was laughing with the doorman, a big bearded dude that he didn’t recognize.

.  .  .

Kaikou said he’d play sweeper. After all, Edward and Yoz had their work cut out for them in the midfield. The other team’s goalie looked bored; none of the Purple Parrots had come close to the box yet. The whole team played like children, cautiously touching and retreating, playing at love.

On the other team, number fourteen, a bigger guy with a buzz cut, ended up being faster than anyone anticipated. He intercepted a pass meant for Yoz, and Edward ran backwards to help out on defense, retreating towards the half-line just as Kaikou jogged forward. The whole game Kaikou had haunted the left wing, running up and down in a straight line like the ghosts in Ms. Pac-Man. 

Fourteen dribbled the ball casually, scanning the field for an open player. Edward got in his way, leaned left and right, put on the pressure. Fourteen made a short pass to the left, but no one on his team was there. It was a mistake, an easy turnover.

“Mine,” Edward called out. He moved without hesitation, his strides fluid and coltish. His sweaty blonde hair fell over his headband and blocked his periphery. Kaikou was invisible; all Edward could see was the ball.

As Kaikou moved towards Edward, he saw his own body from afar, a machine gone awry. Edward’s calves were tensed for a kick, but Kaikou was going to reach him in time. His body had forgotten that they were on the same team.

Kaikou slide-tackled Edward from behind, his cleat hitting Edward’s ankle out from under him and then clipping the ball. He felt the plastic studs collide with bone.

I’m an idiot, Kaikou thought even as it happened, his leg extended as Edward fell through his line of sight. He saw the spectators on the sidelines, Edward’s friends, Sylvia. Between the boundary lines, goalposts, muffled conversations, and coffee cups, everyone watched the moment of quiet tearing.

.  .  .

In the hospital, Kaikou tried to lean against the wall and blend in with the mauve color, but he stayed distressingly corporeal. Sylvia sat in one of the hospital waiting chairs with her head in her hands, her face between her knees. He wanted to ask her how the view was down there.

To their right was another young couple, a brunette who cried silently and held her elbow to her chest. The boy next to her looked panicked and kept trying to hug her across the chair’s armrest, and she seemed to endure that, too.

On the way to the ambulance, Edward’s screams had turned to gasps and short exclamations that were punctuated only by Sylvia’s frantic reassurances.

“It’s okay, baby.” Whimper. “You’re so good.” Gasp. “I love you.” Muffled yell.

Edward’s pain sounded like it was at least partly in response to Sylvia’s proclamations, and Kaikou couldn’t blame him.

“Want some water?” Kaikou asked. 

Sylvia said nothing, so he turned to look for a vending machine. He’d taken off his shin guards, but was still wearing soccer cleats that rapped conspicuously against the white linoleum tile. He turned down a staircase.

The fluorescent lights and long hallways made him feel like he was back in the pig lab and he half expected to hear snorts emanating from within the rooms. He walked towards the entrance, thinking there might be a vending machine behind the first set of double doors. There wasn’t, but the outer doors opened automatically as he neared them. For a second time, he let instinct take over. He moved through the doors, onto the sidewalk, down the hill, into his apartment. He laid down on the couch he’d gotten for free on Craigslist and fell asleep.

Nathan texted him later that day. Apparently the game had gone on after the injury and the Purple Parrots had pulled out a miraculous win, Robby scoring all three goals within a fifteen-minute period.

“Justice for Edward,” he’d screamed, while trying, unsuccessfully, to rip his jersey off.

Edward had torn his ACL and was using crutches, taking pain medication, and playing Assassins’ Creed. The next day Kaikou Facebook messaged him an apology, said he wasn’t familiar with the rules of soccer, and hadn’t heard him call for the ball. 

I just want you to know, it was not malicious. Just a misunderstanding, he wrote. That I take full responsibility for. 

It’s cool, Edward wrote back.

.  .  .

Kill days usually had a violent energy about them, but their last one felt like being on an assembly line. Kaikou gave each piglet an overdose of anesthesia drugs, injected directly into the heart, then nicked the carotid artery and held the piglet’s head half off while Lee collected four vials of blood from each, labeled them, and put them in a cooler. After the blood collection, Sylvia cut neat squares in the piglet’s skulls with a small hand saw. She pried open the skull hatches with a pop of a knife and cut out a sample.

Sylvia had told Kaikou once that it felt wrong to kill the healthy piglets.

“There’s nothing the matter with them,” she’d said. “They were just in the wrong place, wrong time.”

Kaikou disagreed. For the most part, the healthy piglets had lived happy, carefree piglet lives. They got their backs scratched, snorted up chocolate milk at the end of their mazes, hadn’t been injected with viruses. But still, they died, and maybe this evened the score.

“I’ll clean up,” Kaikou said after hour six of the process. Their white biohazard suits were covered in blood; the piglet bodies had been disposed of, but they still needed to bleach everything before they left.

Lee looked at Kaikou sideways and smiled. Still dressed in his biohazard suit, Lee put his hand on top of Kaikou’s head.

“You okay?”

“Yes,” Kaikou said and turned away.

Sylvia hadn’t looked at him all day, but he didn’t mind it. This way he could pretend she didn’t know him so well, that she couldn’t open up his skull with a little sawing.

She texted him after he’d bleached the room, scrubbed away the particles of blood and bone fragments. After he’d thrown up his lunch, pepperoni pizza, in one of the biohazard trash cans. He was just about to get into the lab shower in his navy swim trunks, the same ones he’d had since he was thirteen.

You caused all that pain and then you just left, she typed. Who does that?

Kaikou read the text and laughed. He set the phone aside and, in anger, turned the hot knob on full blast, let the water hit him straight in the face.

When he started his walk home, it was just getting to be evening and lights still flickered in the windows of the big houses on the hill. It was too early for the blinds to be pulled. Kaikou stared off at those distant lights as couples walked past him, their hands in their pockets. His righteousness (What a hypocrite she was!) was gone now. He took out his phone and texted Sylvia a gif of a piglet sleeping in a teacup.