“Did you get it?” Tobi asked, though he already knew the answer just by the look on Jimwel’s face.
“Three baggies, one for each of us,” the younger boy said.
“Your mother won’t notice?” Greg asked.
“I fudged the numbers on her records,” Jimwel said. “Even if she notices, by then it’ll be too late. Do you want them or not?”
Even though Tobi and Greg had been friends first, ever since Jimwel had turned their duo into a trio, they had unspokenly gone along with whatever scheme he was dreaming up. Sure, Jimwel was younger, but he had something neither of them—or anyone they knew for that matter– had, and it wasn’t that his mother owned and ran one of the bigger sari-sari stores in the neighborhood, although that helped. It was because he was interesting.
It seemed like Jimwel was born moving, like there was a spring wound up inside him that was steadily coming undone. He was always running along the narrow passageways that passed for footpaths in their neighborhood that should be considered a slum, really, except its residents were too proud to call it that, sometimes running from someone but mostly, Tobi suspected, running from himself. In a life where every day bled into the next one, Jimwel seemed like the only thing in motion, and though they didn’t know the words for how they felt, Greg and Tobi were fascinated. Jimwel was always wanting to do things, but that’s not what made him different. Everybody wants to do something, especially if it involves money or opportunities they didn’t have. Boys like Tobi and Greg, like most people, actually, took what life gave them and tried to make the best of it. They were taught to keep their head down, to stay in their lane, to not want things above their station.
This didn’t seem to content Jimwel, who most of the neighborhood kids thought already had a better start than they did by virtue of his marginally wealthier parents, so they didn’t understand why he was so restless, so driven to do things, even if what he usually ended up doing was annoy people. There was a sadness inside him, one that he constantly tried to distract himself from. Tobi didn’t understand it. How could you be so sad when you had so much?
The boys examined the knuckle-sized baggies Jimwel had acquired. They were the corners of white sandwich bags filled with something then tied and cut. Tobi turned it around in his hands, palms trembling, mind racing between surprise and fascination. This is it, he thought, and then, Is this it?
Greg was examining his bag, bringing it up close, touching it to his cheek. This was a thick sandwich bag. The kind used by rich people to make sandwiches. It felt luxurious in his hands, the plastic thicker than the thin transparent ones they were used to that broke apart at the slightest snag. It felt slippery and strong, but with a bit of give. He thought he could see something inside it if he squinted hard enough, a dark dot that floated in the liquid or air that gave the bag its malleable, squishy shape.
Jimwel held it with both hands and just stared at it, almost unblinking, almost unbreathing, not knowing he was holding his breath until he let it all out in one strong sigh, a sound that snapped the other boys out of their own worlds.
Here’s another strange thing about Jimwel: he may be able to get his two friends to follow his lead a lot of the time, which resulted in trouble more often than not, but he was also conscious to make sure that he could get them out of it. He could also be generous, because it was the closest he got to knowing what it would be like to have siblings.
Tobi, the eldest of six, and Greg, the youngest of four, found it extremely puzzling, but didn’t complain. To them, Jimwel lived the perfect life. Well-off parents and no siblings.
But despite his generosity, Jimwel could be slightly spoiled so sometimes, what he shared, he tried to take back (especially if either of his friends looked like they were enjoying too much), and that always ended in a tussle. It annoyed his friends but he loved it; he had seen his friends fight with their siblings and wanted to experience that, too.
This time, though. This time, it wasn’t a toy or candy or a snack. This time it was serious. It was also the first time Jimwel had stolen something, and by extension, the others understood, they had stolen as well.
One each: there was no other way to go about it. He could have taken just one baggie for himself; just one was risky enough. Even though he didn’t have the means to articulate it, he loved his friends, these two inseparable boys who let him join their unit and went along with his schemes, who ran the length of the neighborhood with him even though they could never keep up; nobody could keep up. They were important to him so they got one each, too.
“You sure your mom won’t notice?” This time, it was Tobi who asked.
“Of course she will, eventually,” Jimwel said. “But what’s she going to do by then?”
“She could call the police. She could make our parents pay for it,” Greg said. “We don’t have that kind of money, especially now that nanay’s had to stop working.”
“The police?” Jimwel snorted.
Everyone chucked at that. No one ever called the police. It was too much trouble. In their neighborhood, people liked to resolve problems among themselves.
“You know we don’t have that kind of money either,” Tobi said quietly.
“She won’t know you’re involved, obviously,” Jimwel said. “If you don’t want it, just say so,” he added, but the hungry look on his friends’ faces and the way they unconsciously clutched at their baggies betrayed their words.
“Thought so,” he smirked.
They were hiding in a crawl space underneath a pile of discarded lumber in an alley beside Jimwel’s house, one of the few hidden spaces in their cramped neighborhood small enough to keep adults out but big enough for three scrawny boys to squeeze into. The light from Jimwel’s house allowed them to see inside, even though it was mostly shadow.
Greg made to make the sign of the cross but Tobi batted his hand away; there was no place for that here.
Tobi’s mother was religious. She went to Mass every morning before she went to work as a mall cashier and made sure that her husband and children were in church every Sunday, but Tobi was fast losing faith in a deity that wouldn’t let them have anything, wouldn’t give them a break, even though he couldn’t admit it to himself yet. He was constantly frustrated with Greg, who clung to religion like a life raft, hoping with the hope of someone with nothing to lose, that his unwavering faith would make sense one day, that his devotion would result in one or more miracles: a home of their own, money for school and bills, his mother fully healed. Tobi and Greg rarely fought, but this was one of the topics they had agreed to disagree on.
Tobi did not know how Jimwel felt about religion but figured that he had the luxury to go either way. He pressed the bag gently, feeling the contents shift underneath his fingers, malleable like liquid but lightweight like air. He thought he could see a form inside, a dark speck, darker than their dim surroundings. He was sure that he could take the bag into the darkest room he could find and the speck inside would be darker.
“I’m surprised Tita doesn’t keep this under lock and key,” he said.
“She does,” Jimwel replied.
If Tobi and Greg didn’t think Jimwel was serious before, they were convinced now. Their friend was, despite his restlessness, for all intents and purposes, generally a “good boy.” Sure, he’d taken the odd candy or chips from his mother’s store without listing them down, but he’d never actively taken anything hidden or expensive before, at least not to their knowledge.
Tobi took a deep breath. His hands were trembling so much he was afraid he would accidentally rip the plastic bag before it was time. He was awash with emotion: fear and excitement and other things he could not name, and beneath that, the familiar flame of anger, small and barely channeled but present, the spark that drew his small body forward, the thing that kept him going every day.
“How do we do this?” Greg asked.
Jimwel had seen his mother tell people how to do it, though he had never seen her use one of the things herself.
“You just open it,” he said. “Open it and make a wish.”
This is how the sale of baggie gods started: An antignero in Quezon fell in love with and managed to woo an enkanto, who told him a secret. He could coerce and contain (temporarily, because these beings can rarely be contained without their consent) elementals — of wood, water, earth, and fire—and enchant them so that they would agree to grant one wish when released. The wishes could be anything, big or small, as long as it did not involve taking a life or bringing the dead back. But each wish would always come at a price unknown to the wisher and to be determined by the elemental. In exchange, it’s said that the antingero offered silence forever, his mouth not only sewn shut but covered over, lips replaced with skin, smooth and unpuckered, ensuring that he never uttered a word, sang a song, or breathed a sigh ever again.
But this antingero did not need words. If you can make someone from another world fall in love with you and share their secrets, you can do anything. With the help of his otherworldly lover, that antingero, that unnamed accidental priest, set to work convincing and containing (only temporarily, because these beings could never be contained without their consent) elementals grown weak or bored in tiny plastic baggies, convincing them that they could name their price in exchange for a boon. He first sold the baggies for cheap to friends and neighbors at first (because these things are an exchange, and even antingeros have to make a living), until word spread and demand grew, and he was able to name his price.
His goods traveled from Quezon to all around Luzon, even reaching Manila, sold in the backstreets, in dark corners, underneath stairs, outside churches, and yes, in the sari-sari stores (if you knew who to ask), the price growing exponentially larger the farther it traveled, eventually reaching three small boys hunkered inside a space underneath piles of rotting wood, three boys with trembling hands and open hearts, each one forced to choose their most cherished wish from a long list of wants and wishes, forced to pick the one that meant the most at that specific time, in that exact place.
They could never afford to buy things in bulk (Jimwel wasn’t Jimwel’s mother), and faith was one of them (no matter how much Greg tried).
Tobi went first. He tore open his bag, long thin fingers pushing into the sturdy plastic and pulling it apart feeling the material give, then rip, until a hole appeared, small at first but easily getting bigger he further he pulled it apart.
He thought he could see the dark spot, first through the plastic, then through the fingernail-sized hole, but by the time he had ripped the plastic bag in half, there was nothing.
Greg was about to say something but Tobi shushed him. He could feel it in his chest, a warmth that also gave off a chill, blooming from where his heart was and radiating outward until it reached every point of his body. He hadn’t seen anything but he knew something had been inside that bag, that he had set it free, and that it had taken his wish with it.
“Wow,” Greg breathed.
He had felt it, too.
Greg looked at Jimwel, who shook his head: Greg was next.
Greg took his time, gently fiddling with the knot that held the bag shut. His mother was very frugal and she passed this trait onto her four children. Tobi knew Greg would be taking the bag home after so it could have a second life as a container for some mundane household thing instead of a sleeping spirit.
“Hurry up,” Jimwel said, always impatient, but Greg ignored him. He was a boy who took his time.
The knot was tight but it was no match for Greg’s deft fingers, trained by his mother’s seeming life mission to keep every plastic container for reuse. It finally came undone, the bag opening, Greg helping it along.
This time, the boys thought they saw a small puff of smoke rise up and dissipate, but that could have just been a trick of the light.
Greg was silent but he had closed his eyes and Tobi thought he could see sparks beginning from a point above Greg’s head raining down on his friend. Greg’s mouth, which had been set in a concentrated frown all this time, began to stretch until he was smiling—truly smiling. And then he began to laugh.
“Did you guys see that?” He asked.
And then it was Jimwel’s turn.
He opened it the same way Tobi did, as fast as possible. The boys would later chalk it up as a coincidence, how as soon as Jimwel had torn a hole in his baggie, all of the lights in the neighborhood blinked—just for a second, not enough to cause concern but notable enough that everyone was talking about it days after.
Nothing came after that. No heat, no sparks. For all intents and purposes, it looked as if Jimwel had opened a plastic bag filled with air. Tobi thought he heard a whisper, but he ignored it.
“Maybe it’s a dud,” Greg said.
Tobi put a hand on Jimwel’s shoulder but his friend brushed it away. The younger boy got up and ran out of their hiding place and into the dimly-lit night.
That was the last time Tobi and Greg would speak to their friend.
That was almost 20 years ago, and even though Tobi had learned not to think about it—life’s hardships are enough to keep one’s mind occupied after all—it would sometimes pop up, unbidden, unwanted, during the most inconvenient, unexpected times.
This time was different, though. This time, he called on the memory willingly.
He stared at his phone, which was open to a social media app where Greg had posted about celebrating his mother’s birthday.
Almost 20 years ago, underneath he piles of rotting wood, the thought of Greg’s mother living past that year had been impossible, and yet here she was, strong for her age, able to enjoy time with her children and grandchildren. Everyone credited her miraculous recovery to having found a charitable organization who introduced her to the right doctor and who found a way to make sure that her bills were paid or to her family’s religious devotion, and Greg had said nothing to dissuade them.
Tobi had been pulled off the street and made to participate in an impromptu game that aired live on a noontime show. He ended up winning a surprising amount of money that he used to buy a computer and internet access (after giving some of the winnings to his mother and throwing a party for the neighborhood, of course. This was the Philippines, where everyone expects a cut of someone’s good fortune, even if they didn’t contribute to it).
It was supposed to help with his and his siblings’ studies, but he started playing a popular online game, casually at first, until he was obsessed with it, much to his mother’s despair. But then he began joining leagues and winning championships, earning big money from what began as a distraction and a hobby, until he was recruited to become part of an e-games team. His mother was still dismayed but at least now she had money to comfort her, and his frequent press coverage assured her that even if she didn’t understand what her son did for a living, the rest of the world did, and celebrated him for it. He had moved from player to coach to manager and was now firmly entrenched in the industry.
One could argue that he got to where he was on his own, that he already had the skill for gaming, that all it needed was the time to be honed and developed. And yes, while that was true, the salaries of a tricycle driver and mall cashier with six mouths to feed would not have been able to afford what he had needed to get started, much less the kind he needed to truly excel.
And yes, while winning cash on a noontime show could be counted as a fluke, one could agree that the odds of that happening were pretty low.
They had paid for their boons, of course; that was part of the bargain. Tobi developed a lung infection that never went away and required regular medical attention (that he could more than pay for) and Greg lost hearing in one ear. Small prices to pay for what they got in return.
He had run out of the neighborhood and into the street, where he was hit by a passing truck.
Greg thought that it was an exaggeratedly dramatic reaction to getting a dud baggie, especially when he could always steal another one, but Tobi wasn’t so sure.
Once in a while, he would think back to the whisper that he thought he heard after Jimwel had opened his bag, after the neighborhood lights had short circuited and Jimwel had raced out of the crawl space.
It was a small voice, soft and high pitched,and it said, “Run this one last time. We will help you stop.”
And Tobi guessed they did.
He didn’t know what the price was for a boon that was essentially a price in itself—more than what was regularly paid, and in fact went against what they were assured could not be done, which was the taking of a life. Perhaps Jimwel had found a way to skirt the system, found the right words to void that part of the contract, Tobi would never know.
What he did know was that Jimwel’s parents began to do even better financially after the death of their only son, but no matter how rich they got, the grief never left their faces. He hoped that wherever Jimwel was, that he was happy, and that he could finally stop running.