The Price of Air
The van roared through the mud-and-brick village and past the ghost mines, ignoring the dust-stained faces of striking laborers, both old and young, who remained defiant in their picket line. The miners hurled makeshift roofs, safety ropes and clumps of dirt at the passing vehicle, which only flew over the head of the heavily armed security guards. Soon, the sound of a warning shot and the distinctive smell of chemically-treated water would cause the workers to run in all directions, leaving a trail of sandy storm of panic, anger and desperation.
Despite the wailing of the siren accompanied by the monotonous grumbling of the SeaSong, a machine played over and over that mimicked the sound of the ocean and drowned out the sound of other things, Faye could hear the distant screams of her fellow laborers. It was a muted, almost indiscernible thing－the screaming－but Faye knew all too well what a hasty dispersal was like. She sat on the dirt floor of the communal bedroom and rocked her little sister, Mara, who was coughing the sickness out of her lungs.
“Ssssshhhh. There, there. Easy now,” Faye comforted her five-year old sister. The two of them were linked in an embrace, their version of supplication to the gods of battered lungs. The little girl continued to wheeze and, slowly, painfully slowly, when her airways had cleared up a bit, went on another frenzied bout of coughs.
In their village, living meant having a mortgage on your lungs. As soon as they were born, their first inhalation was that of air and all the invisible things that came with it: the toxic vapors, the particulate matter, the profound heaviness. Since the mining corporation had set foot on this village, the locals tried a myriad of methods to keep the invisible sickness at bay, from homemade air purifiers to bandanas soaked in diluted vinegar. None of these worked, of course, but it made the laborers feel like they were not completely losing. It was but the whim of fate and genetic predisposition that determined when and how grave the affliction would be. Some lived into their graying years, until one innocent afternoon when their respiratory tract would choke like a flood-saturated engine. Others, lived to their primes, only to be engulfed in dyspnoea and delirium brought about by the cancer that had been eating away at them. Many, like Mara, were simply born with the disease.
Mara’s body spasmed some more until she finally vomited out a huge gray-green dollop of goo. The little girl fell back to their mattress, exhausted. Faye rose and headed to the dirty kitchen outside. At the sound of the tap water hitting the kettle, Mara shouted from the bedroom, “C-contaminated!”
“Again?!” Faye snapped.
“They announced it last night, during your shift.”
“Don’t worry, Ate. It’s only for 24 hours. I stored a gallon and placed it under the sink. Maybe we can boil from there, too?”
“What will I ever do without you!” Faye shouted
Mara chuckled weakly then added, “Ate, I think they need you at the site.”
“Then let them need me,” Faye said.
Faye poured the hot water into a metal cup and added in a few herbs to ease Mara’s coughing. She headed back to their room and watched her sister gingerly sip the bitter concoction. The bedroom should overlook the four main mining sites, linked underground by a network of tunnels. But the heavy curtains they had draped to protect their sleeping quarters from air particles also ensured that the room was in an almost permanent state of darkness. The rumbling of the SeaSong faltered for a bit, but it was enough for Faye to hear the distinctive bursts of consecutive gunfire. Those weren’t just warning shots.
“I’m fine here, Ate. I swear. But please be careful when you go back there.” Mara pleaded.
Faye ruffled her little sister’s hair then decided against wearing a protective scarf. It was the same anyway, and hiding her face wouldn’t help her at a time like this. Faye went out and walked to the picket line. As soon as the workers caught sight of her, they beamed and cheered. The mood immediately lifted, and the crowd gave way to let her through to the front, the section reserved for the most fervent protesters. And when Faye approached these protesters and asked them to retreat for the day, so that they could regroup and have enough strength for tomorrow, they followed her command. They did so because the order came from the lone survivor of the deadly collapse that had instigated the strike. The collapse that took away 19 lives, including Faye and Mara’s parents.
The cave-in was accompanied by yet another deadly typhoon, causing the mine site to be inundated with mud water and poisonous fumes. Later investigations would reveal that a series of cloud-to-ground lightning strikes hit the mine entrance and a methane well that had been previously drilled. The search and rescue mission went on for two days, and by then everyone had accepted that it would be more of a retrieval operation. And yet, on the third day, the unconscious body of Faye was found sheltered in an emergency safety hole, beside her were three empty portable air packs. A few feet away from her were the bodies of her parents covered in muck. Had the rescuers arrived a minute or two later, then Faye would have been no different from them. With odds like that, it was but expected when everyone in the village started treating her like some sort of a revolutionary leader, an icon, a messiah. But Faye was not any of those, far from it.
And so the men and women dispersed for the day: the armed private security stopped firing and kept their weapons, while the striking laborers retreated to finishing up their tasks in exchange of a day’s wage. The mining site, which had never experienced a lull before, hummed back to life.
After the great flooding that swallowed two-thirds of the country, the mountains became the last haven for the remaining survivors. It was the world that Faye had always known, but the elders talked about the sea that was once blue and gentle and giving. A body of water that was so different from the towering black monstrosity that engulfed entire coastal towns, staking claim to both land and lives. The only reminder of that horror now was the SeaSong being played over and over, but people knew better than go down the mountains, even if it meant living in the village that gave their lungs no respite.
The village clambered up the barren slope of one of the mountains among parallel ranges. Beneath the arid earth, hundreds of pipelines and tunnels built five decades ago snaked through; while an array of silos, smokestacks, storehouses and workers’ dormitories stood above ground. Day after day, the workers dug, extracted and segregated natural resources, yet they never knew to what end. Faye was only sixteen. Half of her life she had already surrendered to the mining village, and whatever the village had given in return was as ephemeral and soluble as the years that she could never bring back.
“No casualties today,” Lian reported as she approached Faye.
Faye flipped through her tattered notepad. She had known Lian all her life—from digging their first rat-hole mines at eight, to mastering the different kinds of ores, to negotiating the terms of their newly formed union. Lian lost her father to a cave-in when they were twelve, so she needed to work extra shifts for her family to afford the rent in the dormitory.
“Are you sure? Not even a bruise? A twisted ankle maybe?”
As Faye and Lian continued going over the notes, two men in identical all-black clothing approached. The girls recognized one of them as Caloy, a former head miner. Caloy lowered his visor, as if that would shield him from the piercing glares of his former co-workers.
“Won’t you look who’s here!” Lian exclaimed. “Guess an asshole still looks like an asshole no matter how hard he cleans up.”
“I’m only doing my job, Lian.”
“What brings you here?” Faye asked, before Lian could come up with another retort.
“I have a message from Mr. Villareal.”
“From the big boss himself?” Lian asked. “Guess we’ve struck a chord now, Faye, eh?”
Caloy could only shrug.
“As far as I know, Mr. Villareal isn’t too keen on being a part of the negotiating team.” Faye replied. “We will only to talk to them about our terms and no one else.”
“Look, you and I, we’re the same—”
Faye chuckled, “No we’re not.”
“Sure. I’m not here to contest that anyway. But let me tell you this: Mr. Villareal always gets what he wants. If he wants to talk to you then, trust me, that’s gonna happen one way or another.”
The girls remained silent. Caloy went on and pointed at the dirt road where the vans were parked. “Go down that road tomorrow before sunup. A ride will be waiting for you. That’s all I have to say.”
Caloy put on his face mask to signal the end of the conversation, then proceeded to wipe his dusty hands clean, as though ridding himself of the dirt. He turned without another word and headed to the van.
The sky was still gray when Faye and Lian went out of the dormitory and made their wordless way to the agreed pickup place. Faye barely slept a wink that night, her anxious mind oscillating between the forthcoming meeting with Mr. Villareal and Mara’s pitiful coughing.
Caloy was already there when they showed up, holding the van door open and signaling for them to walk faster. They went down the steep terrain, and it took about forty-five minutes of driving until the last of the village establishments was finally out sight. While the village stood isolated on top of a mountain, everything that they needed was already there: the plaza lined with plastic ornamental trees for public congregations, shops and grocery stores that allowed the workers to pay in scrip, a shabbily built clinic, and even a modest place of worship for the few religious workers. After the great flooding and they found themselves trapped on a barren mountain, the first settlers in what would then become the mining village were just thankful when Mr. Villareal showed up one day and helped them make sense of the place.
The van pulled to a stop. Instead of a bulk of a building that they had expected, they were brought to a vast open field where a vehicle that they had never seen before caused a tiny dust storm where it stood. It was the latest model of a city airbus, one with tilt-rotors that allowed it to fly as both aircraft or helicopter.
Faye and Lian followed Caloy into the airbus and clambered cautiously inside. Two other men in immaculate suits assisted them and made sure they were comfortably seated and safely fastened in their reclining chairs. A voice announced that they were about to takeoff. The airbus smoothly ascended, and slowly the gray and brown mining village grew smaller and smaller until it was but a dot. An overwhelming sensation took over Faye, the whole world that she had known since birth suddenly swallowed by the immensity of this view from the top. And for the first time she saw it all completely: so jagged and violent, cocooned in the thick blood-orange layer of haze that was beneath them.
As the airbus started to make its descent, Faye noticed that the smog which enveloped their side of the mountain range was nonexistent there. The air was clear enough for Faye to count no more than eight mansions, each with sparkling roof tiles, sprawling lawns and pristine pools. Faye was rendered speechless by the foreignness of it all.
“Faye…Faye?! Are you okay?” Lian’s worried face was but a few inches away from her.
Faye did not realize that she had been shaking. Her ratty notebook containing her carefully compiled negotiating terms was clasped tightly in her damp, quivering hands.
“We’re here. Do you need a moment?”
Faye only shook her head.
The two girls stepped out of the airbus, and walked on a cobbled path that divided a finely manicured lawn. Never in their lives had they seen anything so green and so clean. And the air—it was empty. None of that familiar dusty thickness, none of that rotten smell that was like a mixture of sulfur and phosphorous and sewage. It carried nothing. Faye breathed in greedy lungfuls until she felt lightheaded. For a brief moment, she entertained the thought of finding a way to bottle up some air so Mara could enjoy it too.
A maid appeared by the main entrance. “This way, Miss Faye, Miss Lian.”
They were ushered into an expansive living space that breathed luxury: intricately patterned wallcovering and panels, gold leaf lighting against soft blue, custom sofas in luscious fabric, and a gallery-like backdrop showcasing antiques and photos of what appeared to be various mining villages.
“Please, make yourselves comfortable,” a voice suddenly said.
It was Mr. Villareal, stepping in from the veranda.
Faye and Helen settled on the couple of wing chairs facing the coffee table. Mr. Villareal sat across them and in this closeness, Faye noticed some sort of incongruity about the man. If she remembered correctly, Mr. Villareal should be in his late eighties now. The skin on his face was taut, especially across the forehead, yet what was visible from his arms down to his hand was wrinkled, as though belonging to a different man. His hair, full and jet-black, had soft curls slightly tucked back. He had an easy smile, but his eyes projected nothing but cunning and aggression.
“Finally, I get to meet the girls who are creating quite a ruckus in my 41A7 site.” Mr. Villareal let out an exaggerated sigh.
It was the first time that they ever heard their place being referred to as the 41A7. Mr. Villareal snapped his fingers and soon another maid appeared bearing a tray with all sorts of snacks and refreshments for the guests. But what really caught Faye’s eyes was the tall glass of ice water, clear and bubbling. She picked up the glass with great care and drank from it without prompting, almost forgetting the reason why they were there. Mr. Villareal eyed her hungry gulps and had to clear his throat to get back Faye’s attention.
“As I was saying,” the old man continued, “I have an offer to make.”
Faye reddened at the sudden impulse for the drink that took over her. She wiped the corners of her mouth with her sleeves and mentally reanchored her thoughts.
“This is all unnecessary, then,” Faye replied. “You could’ve just channeled that to your negotiating team.”
“You misunderstand me. I have an offer to make to you two. No one else.”
Faye was caught off-guard so she turned to Lian, who seemed to have missed the entire conversation. She was caught awestruck in her chair, gazing longingly at her glass of iced water, but never taking a sip from it.
At their silence, Mr. Villareal continued. “I am a very busy man, so I’ll lay it all down for you. What you’re demanding for your co-workers is just impossible. Is that unfair? Why, yes, of course. But a world that is fair is a world without a 41A7 site in the first place. And I admit, that is a much better world than this. Unfortunately for you, you live in this world, this ugly world. The world where I get to run 41A7.”
Mr. Villareal waved and the maid came over and handed Faye and Lian each a folder containing stapled papers.
“Those are your contracts,” he continued. “Your families’ accumulated debts in the 41A7 shops paid for, plus two years worth of salary in full to each of you. Straightaway and confidential, of course, as soon as you convince your coworkers to end the strike.”
Faye stared at the papers in her hand, her notebook full of terms forgotten on her lap. She turned to Lian who was captivated, already caught in the mental arithmetic of what that sum of money could bring her. It could buy them time, healing and ease. A lifetime of chasing any one of these, and here in an instant was a quick fix. But Faye also saw how her dear friend would never agree to this deal, this betrayal. Or, perhaps, she would but she would not be able to live with that decision for the rest of her life.
Faye slapped the paper on the table. “This is a waste of time. Come on, Lian. It’s time to go.”
The two girls strode off to the main entrance, Caloy and two other escorts tailing behind them.
Outside, Lian started sobbing. “I’m so sorry,” she said, tear-streaked and trembling. “I would never, Faye. Never. I was just…overwhelmed. You understand that, right?”
“It’s okay, it’s okay.” Faye replied, comforting her friend.
As they were about to enter the airbus, Faye cursed. “I left my notebook!” Faye said. “You go ahead, I’ll go back and out again. Give me a minute.”
Mr. Villareal remained unmoved when Faye returned.
“I want a place here,” Faye said, gathering her notes.
“I know,” the old man nodded.
“I want a place for me and my sister here.” Faye cleared her throat. “We will work to pay for our stay. And you will send my sister to your best doctors or specialists to rid her of that illness.”
Mr. Villareal smiled, “It’s a done deal.”
“Have Caloy send a statement from your end saying that we were being hostile and our terms terribly lopsided. We will fight back some more. Then cut our water supply short. Give me a week and I will persuade them that we can’t hold out anymore. They’ll agree with me.”
“Of course,” Mr. Villareal replied. “You are their messiah, after all.”
“Exactly a day after that, you will have someone come for my sister and me to bring us here, and we will never have to go back to the mining village ever again.”
“Let’s shake on that.” Mr. Villareal extended his hand, “I knew you were the smart one.”
Faye shook his hand. It felt cold and frail, as if the hand of someone long dead.
The sun was already high up in the sky when Faye and Lian made the long walk back to the mining village. The entire ride from the airbus to the van felt like an eternity of tensed silence. Dizziness took over Faye, the bitter-sour taste of bile prominent in her mouth. The SeaSong drowned the sound of her heaving and the pebbles crunching under her heavy footfalls. She held up her hand to stop Lian from walking further.
Just as she was about to say something, Faye fell to the ground and wretched and vomited. Lian rushed to her friend’s side and started to rub Faye’s back for comfort.
Faye wiped her mouth, her eyes bright with tears. “I’m so sorry, Lian.”
“It’s okay, it’s okay.” Lian replied, embracing her tightly.
Sigrid Marianne Gayangos was born and raised in Zamboanga City. Her works have appeared or are forthcoming in Fantasy: Fiction for Young Adults, Maximum Volume: Best New Philippine Fiction 3, Philippine Speculative Fiction 12, Likhaan Journal 13, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, OMBAK Southeast Asia’s Weird Fiction Journal, and The Best Small Fictions 2019, among other publications. Currently based in Dumaguete City, she divides her time between training a bunch of mathletes and finishing her first collection of short stories.