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Between the Shelves: Excerpts From Notes On the Bag Game by Bryan Miller

Between the Shelves is a showcase of Archive of the Odd stories outside of the main zine.

The following story is by the fantastic Bryan Miller. Bryan Miller is a Minneapolis-based writer who grew up in a family of undertakers and went on to become a newspaper editor and standup comedian. The scary stuff: more than a dozen published horror and crime stories, including on The Drabblecast, in Shadowy Natures and The Monsters We Forgot, and other journals and anthologies. The funny stuff: standup as seen on The CBS Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson and Dry Bar Comedy and heard on Sirius/XM Radio. New jokes and stories via @realbryanmiller on Twitter.

Author’s Note: The Bag Game is real. A friend told me about this game/ritual their father participated in during his college days, but stopped after a terrible experience he refused to explain further. I was very taken with the concept and, of course, I couldn’t stop wondering what that horrible final experience was — so I made one up, which is one of fiction’s great conveniences. 

The format of the story is lifted, lovingly, from David Foster Wallace’s “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men.” I liked the challenge of inferring the unwritten questions from the interview subjects’ dialogue, and the convergence of form and function with the subject of the story. The reader, like the interviewer and all the other characters, is trying to fill in those missing pieces. The story, to me, is about the struggle of making sense of life with incomplete information, and the ways people react to that ultimate unknowability. 

Warnings for this story: Derealization, drug use, death


Interview #2

Andrea Tonkins, 52, real-estate agent, Greensboro, SC

Date: 5/11/22

Q

Andrea Tonkins: No. No, I am not going to talk about the Bag Game.

Q

Tonkins: I don’t care who you are. Don’t ever call me again.

***

Interview #7

Michael Sullivan, 54, CFO of Allyn Medical, Chicago, IL

Date: 5/24/22

Michael Sullivan: My assistant told me you wanted to speak to me. And I’m sure he also explained that my time is very limited. So go ahead.

Q

Sullivan: Oh, Christ. I thought I was done with this. Let me guess, you’ve heard a bunch of crazy stories about me. Who did you talk to? Deacon? Andrea, probably?

Q

Sullivan: And did you believe what they said? It’s pretty incredible.

Q

Sullivan: I guess that’s your prerogative. But you — wait, is this on the record? Who are you doing this interview for?

Q

Sullivan: If you’re not a journalist, why do you care about any of this?

Q

Sullivan: Oh, yeah, Mark. What a tragedy. I can certainly understand why his parents want to know more. Although I’m not sure what more you can find out that the police didn’t. But I guess you’d know better than I would. Everything I know about private investigators is from TV.

***

Interview #4

Deacon Hughes, 55, inmate, Marion IL

Date: 5/16/22

Q

Deacon Hughes: So you wanna know about the Bag Game, like, in general? Or are you just wanting me to tell you what went down the last time we played it? Because I’ve told it before. Bunch of times. My story doesn’t change. Never has.

Q

Hughes: Alright, so like, the Bag Game was this thing we came up with in college. We didn’t invent it. Mark or Rosa cribbed it from Alastair Crowley or Jack Parsons or one of those dudes. From some book they found.

We had this group, a bunch of us. Not like an official school club-type club. Just some friends. We had…similar interests, kinda. Mark and Andrea, they were into the spiritualism shit. Way into it. Rosa too, ‘cause her parents fucked her up with all that Catholicism. Jiang was Mark’s roommate. They’d been doing it a little while before they brought me in. None of them knew anybody else who could get them the drugs and me, well, obviously. I’d see Mark and Jiang at some shows off campus. I was always into in Black Metal and all that witchy Slayer shit, so I said I’d hook them up if I could join in.

On Friday nights, instead of going to a party, they’d meet up in somebody’s room and do like a séance. Ouija Board-type stuff. Mark was the one who had the idea the whole thing might work better if everyone was, y’know, elevated. Get little altered, make a little crack in the curtain between here and the Great Beyond. Open that third eye.

Q

Hughes: Acid mostly. Shrooms a couple of times. To see if the effect was different — which, brother, it is.

Q

Hughes: The first couple I did were just the séance-y type things. It was a weird vibe, but kinda cool. And I thought Andrea was hot. Then right after I joined in, Rosa — I think it was Rosa — she brought in the idea of the bag, and we started doing that. Right away it was more intense. I dunno. It’s hard to explain.

Q

Hughes: So, like, the basics are, we all gather around. Light some illicit candles. No candles allowed in the dorms, but then, no acid either, haha. We’d pick a person. Change it up each time. We’d pick one person and they would have the bag over their head. It was this scratchy burlap thing. Itchy as shit. When you had it on, if you opened your eyes, all you could make out little pinholes of candlelight, some shapes. Somebody would tie it around your neck with twine. We’re all trippin’ at this point. Whoever wore the bag, they got a bigger dose. We’d try different stuff from the seances and the books. But we’d all, like, focus our energy on the person in the bag. The idea being, instead of all of us trying to see a little something, maybe we could push one of us to see a lot. Collectively.

[An operator’s voice comes over the phone, announcing that this is a call to an inmate in an Illinois correctional facility, and there are ten minutes remaining.]

Hughes: Ain’t that a bitch. Got shit else to do and they still limit my time.

***

Interview #5

Rosa Gutierrez, 52, occupation unknown, Spain

Date: 5/19/22

Q

Rosa Gutierrez: I get why you’re skeptical. Can I ask you a question? Did you ever play with a Ouija Board when you were a kid?

Q

Gutierrez: So, when the planchette – that’s the little plastic triangle with the viewfinder — when it’s moving around, one of your friends is doing it, right? Someone is scooting it from letter to letter. Because the whole point is you want something to happen. Even if three or four people have their hands on the planchette and nobody is consciously manipulating it, it’s everyone’s subconscious desire that makes it go. The skeptic would say that’s why it’s fake. I would argue the opposite. That’s the proof. It’s the space between the collective subconsciousness and whatever lives just outside the bubble of that collective subconsciousness, that’s the space you’re inviting something into.

That’s what the drugs were for. We were trying to make all the borders porous to see what came through.

Have you ever taken hallucinogens?

Q

Gutierrez: Maybe think about it. Or, I guess after what I’m telling you, maybe don’t.

When you’re the person in the bag, of course you’re aware of everyone’s expectations. You’re “It,” so to speak. But when the bag is tied on and you’re tripping and the only light is the candles flickering through the burlap, those expectations become a kind of tide you can ride. To some strange places.

Plenty of weird things happened before the last night. During one session I described the exact road to take to Andrea’s grandmother’s house. I’d never been there before, never met the woman. But that night I could tell you where the spare key was hidden in the plastic owl on the deck stairs on the back porch, where money was stashed in a walnut jar above the kitchen sink. Which freaked Andrea out because her grandmother had died just a few weeks before that. She called her dad the next day after my night in the bag and they found $5,000 in rolled up bills hidden in the walnut jar. One time Jiang spoke Latin for three straight minutes even though he never studied it. But Mark was an altar boy as a kid, he said Jiang’s Latin was perfect.

Q

Gutierrez: … I don’t want to answer that one. Do you have many more questions?

Q

Gutierrez: Well, you must be pretty good at your job if you got this number. Which I would appreciate you keeping to yourself, by the way.

Q

Gutierrez: Right now? Spain. Let’s leave it at that. I don’t want to get any more specific.

Q

Gutierrez: No, I moved here after college. I’m Mexican, not Spanish. I’d never even been here before.

Q

Gutierrez: Because it was far away, I think. I wanted to get as far from campus as I could. Maybe that’s dumb. But after that night, and what happened to some of the others? Besides, I like living here.

I like living.

***

Andrea Tonkins: I’m hanging up now. But I’ll just say this: Don’t believe Michael. Don’t believe a word that he says.

***

Deacon Hughes: That night it was Michael’s turn to get in the bag. That’s what we called it, being in the bag. He got the heroic dose. Mark tied the twine. We lit the candles. I don’t think we did anything in particular we’d never done before. Meditating, chanting. Rosa and Mark read some spells. All tripping balls, of course.

Michael repeated some of the chants. He babbled a little. We were all pretty wobbly. He didn’t really do anything, nothing memorable. Except at some point he just seemed … different.

Q

Hughes: His posture. The way he held his hands. The way he moved his fingers. The way he positioned his legs under the table. Like, if I moved all the furniture around in your house but then I replaced everything, except nothing was quite exactly where you left it. The way you’d notice without knowing why you were noticing. It’d just be a feeling. We all had it.

Then of course we got to the end and we took off the bag and—well, you know this part.

Q

Hughes: Hell yeah, I’ll say it. I said it before plenty of times and nobody listened but I’ll say it again: he was different.

Q

Hughes: No, I don’t mean like the house. The thing I said before. Not just little details. When we took off the bag, it was an actually different person under there.

Q

Hughes: Michael was blonde and this guy had light brown hair. Michael had a little California color to his face and this guy was pale. Michael had a flat nose and this guy’s was long and with a bump at the bridge. Michael’s eyes were blue and this guy’s were greenish. I don’t mean he looked like a guy who looked like Michael but wasn’t. He was taller. He was a completely different person.

Q

Hughes: No, nobody left the room. We were all there when Mark put the bag on Michael’s head and we were all there the whole time until he took it off.

Q

Hughes: Of course we asked.

Q

Hughes: He said he was Michael.

***

Q

Michael Sullivan: It doesn’t just sound preposterous. It is preposterous. It’s literally impossible. I’m Michael Sullivan. Was before I put the bag on, was after I took it off.

***

Q

Rosa Gutierrez: We all started freaking out. I mean, what else would you do? Except Michael, he was calm. He just kept saying, ‘Guys, it’s me, it’s me.’ But it wasn’t. Someone else came out from under the bag.

Q

Gutierrez: Student ID photo, that’s a good one. We should have thought of that right then. But we were pretty high, and we were all, well, terrified. Nobody wanted to go near him.

Q

Gutierrez: This was pre-social media, there weren’t photos of anyone online unless you were famous. Or naked.

Q

Gutierrez: We talked about it over the phone. Individually, in groups. When we asked other people on campus, they didn’t know what we were talking about. He lived in a single, didn’t have a roommate. Nobody I knew in any of his classes noticed a difference. It didn’t matter, though, because the guy who said he was Michael left the next week and I never saw him back on campus again.

Q

Gutierrez: I don’t know. Somebody else should have noticed it, right? Except later on when Jiang and I looked it up — God, this was before Google, we probably used Webcrawler or something—when we looked it up, this was maybe a couple months later, Michael’s parents were dead. They’d been killed in a fire. Their whole house, all their photos, all gone.

Q

Gutierrez: A lot of things started to happen.

***

Q

Michael Sullivan: Okay, for the sake of argument, devil’s advocate, let’s say this is true. I’m not the person who put that bag on his head. If I’m a different person, who am I? And then, what, I just stepped into Michael’s life? To what end? Where did I even come from?

***

Q

Deacon Hughes: I mean obviously I’ve had a lot of time to think about it. If you can’t get your thinking done in prison, you can’t get it done anywhere.

One thing I been thinking about is, okay, we’re all high, so it must be a collective delusion? Something in our brains changed while he had the bag on, so we thought that he was different afterwards. We’re just projecting. Okay, okay, but what if it’s like that, but the other way around? What if when Michael was under the bag, something changed? Something significant. So significant that when he took the bag off, he’d changed everything around him too.

Q

Hughes: Like we were in a time and place with the real Michael when it started and when the bag came off it was us that was in a different time and place, and we were the only ones who knew it?

Q

Hughes: Like I said, I’ve had a lot of time to think about it.

Q

Hughes: Six more years. Possession. Trafficking.

Q

Hughes: Not really. I actually feel safer in here.

***

Q

Rosa Gutierrez: You’re not a journalist, but obviously you’re good at digging shit up. Have you looked into the records of the companies where Michael has worked? Their stock does great, at least for a while. But some pretty horrific shit happens too. The private jet crash that took out half the C Suite. The other company he left, not long after, the recall on the fertility drugs, the big class action suit, all those deformed babies. That apartment in Boston with the big patio porch collapse that killed a bunch of people, back in the early 2000s? He lived in that building. Wherever he goes, bad things happen.

Q

Gutierrez: I can send you the—no, actually. No. I don’t want to get any more involved. I’m done. This phone call, this is it. I hope to hell you find out what we couldn’t.

Q

Gutierrez: Because I’m on the other side of the world and I don’t think whoever or whatever is identifying himself as Michael is thinking about me at all. I hope not. And I plan to keep it that way.

***

Q

Michael Sullivan: You must mean Rosa. [laughs] I haven’t thought about her in such a long time. Where is she now?

Q

Sullivan: No, but specifically?

Q

Sullivan: Okay, fair, I guess. Although if she’s going to tell all these tales about me, you’d think I could at least — what did she tell you?

Q

Sullivan: I’m a CFO, not a researcher or a lab tech. Or a private jet pilot, for that matter. Have you ever worked at a Fortune 300 company? There are a lot of moving parts. I’m just one guy doing one job. I’m sure some bad things happened to people who work for Ford last year. Am I responsible for that, too?

I guess you could say I dabbled with superstition in college. The drugs were fun and I liked the people and the music. Doesn’t that pretty much describe everyone’s college hobby? It’s not a part of my life at all anymore. But try telling that to someone who thinks I’m not Michael Sullivan. 

Q

Sullivan: Of course, it’s tragic what happened to Mark. Jiang. To Deacon as well, in a different sense, although anybody who knew him back then might not be surprised to—

Q

Sullivan: Well, poor Jiang, that was a freak accident. I wasn’t able to attend the funeral, but I sent flowers.

As for what happened to Mark, the police contacted me — several times — of which I’m sure his parents, your clients or whatever you call them, are well aware. I don’t know why that was written on the wall behind the body, but it wasn’t my handwriting. It was Mark’s. I was at a conference in Houston for the weekend. Accounted for all three days beforehand.

Q

Sullivan: As I said, the police spoke with me several times, so, yes, I was aware that Mark had a bag on his head when they found his body.

Q

Sullivan: I have no idea why he would put the bag over his head, or why he would do any of the rest of it to himself.

Q

Sullivan: Well, I assume. Who else would have put the bag on his head?

***

Q

Deacon Hughes: So you think you might call back again? Talking about all this stuff, I dunno, it’s made me feel kinda jittery. I’d kinda rather leave it at that. But I got some other stories I could tell you, stuff that goes on here on the inside, it’ll blow your hair back.

Q

Hughes: Okay, then, well tell Mark I said hey and to call sometime. He don’t even have to send me candy bars or cigarettes.

Q

Hughes: He did what?

Q

Hughes: Aw, shit. Well, that… Fuck. I dunno.

Q

Hughes: Maybe. I doubt it. Mark wasn’t really the theatrical, symbolic type. Maybe he really thought, after he did it, he’d take the bag off and be different. That it was the only way to change. Or maybe he was just trying to get one last glimpse, so he could finally answer the question.

Q

Hughes: Hell no. If I learned anything in the last 30 years it’s to not ask so many goddamn q—

[An operator’s voice comes over the phone, announcing that time has expired on this call to an inmate in an Illinois correctional facility.]

***

Michael Sullivan: I can’t say it’s been delightful speaking with you, but I hope I helped clear up a little of this nonsense. And, please don’t take this as rude, but I hope you won’t feel the need to set up another call. As I said, my schedule is quite unforgiving.

Q

Sullivan: I sympathize with your clients wanting to know more. Mark was their son. And I’m sure this isn’t what they’re paying you for, but have you considered that maybe Mark’s problem was that he was unable to cope with the idea that something is unknowable?

I don’t mean to get philosophical, although a group of people accuse you of not being yourself, you have a tendency to do some philosophizing. It makes you wonder, how can you really be sure you are who you think you are? And, maybe even more impossible than that, how can you really know someone else is who you think they are?

I don’t mean to be didactic. But maybe it’s a question someone in your line of work should ask themselves. How comfortable are you just co-existing with incomplete information? I guess what you might call the unknowable.

Q

Sullivan: That’s certainly one perspective.

By the way, are you sure you can’t pass along Rosa’s contact information? I was planning a little European jaunt later this year.

Q

Sullivan: All over. I’ve always wanted to see Madrid.

Q

Sullivan: Didn’t you? I could have sworn you mentioned it.

Q

Sullivan: Thank you, that’ll be all.

Q

Sullivan?: That’ll be all.

Q

Q

Q

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