C.A. Sanders is one of my favorite fantasy authors. I have read both of his full length books, Song of Simon and Watchmage of Old New York. I was fascinated by his offering in the anthology Twisted Tales. More of a horror story than a fantasy, Skully explores the delightful relationships of childhood when bullies rule the neighborhood and friendships are often based on who’s in charge.
Skully is a game I had never heard of before reading this story, in spite of the fact I grew up in a neighborhood close to the setting of this story. Perhaps it is a boy’s game since the characters in this creepy tale are all boys.
The narrator, Jimbo, is telling the reader about his friend Wallace and why he is “like that”. Obviously Jimbo is an adult now and he is addressing Wallace’s nephew. That’s a great teaser to start off a story. I immediately wondered what the words “like that” meant.
As the story progresses, Jimbo relates the events of a day in the life of these five boys and the introduction of a new boy in the neighborhood known only as “the kid”. Wallace is a bully, a braggart, the annoying kid who rules the neighborhood with a loud mouth and a tough exterior. Taller and older than the other boys he naturally assumes the position of boss and refers to himself as “Killa Dilla” as he knocks the other players out of the game of Skully, expertly bending the rules to maintain his position of leader. Just about the time I decided Wallace needed a good whipping the new boy showed up. Yellow haired and with strange blue eyes he latches on to Jimbo. However it isn’t long before he wants to join in the game.
The nameless kid offers up a blue Ring Pop as his contribution to the pot they play for. This is akin to laying down a dollar in a penny game. Claiming he has never played Skully before, it is no surprise when he loses. Like a pool shark he raises the odds. He proposes the next loser has to be the winner’s slave for the day. One by one the boys are knocked out of the game until the new kid and Jimbo are the only two left. Without tossing in a spoiler I will say the losers are not in good shape at this point. But Jimbo is prepared to raise the stakes even higher. This is a type of winner take all plan to rescue his friends.
By this point in the story I had put aside any annoyance I had with Wallace and his belligerence. I was completely focused on this strange new player and whether or not Jimbo, a less than skilled Skully player, could save the day.
This is a story that will appeal to any kid who grew up with a group of friends, who always had that one friend who thought he was the top dog, and who realizes the friends you have as a child are more loyal than the friends you gather around you as an adult. Insults can be traded, jokes played on one another, and bickering is allowed when you are a kid. This is the playground where we learn about life. Sanders captures this magical time and throws in an anomaly, a dark player who plays by very different rules. The question is posed: can the average kid be the hero? When the odds are not in his favor, can he overcome the seemingly undefeatable adversary and be the champion?
By building a quiet tension and redirecting the focus of attention from Wallace to the nameless boy, Sanders lulls his reader into a comfortable tale before dropping the hammer. Suddenly the bully isn’t the problem, the problem is this unidentified threat who has slithered into their midst and manipulated innocent boys into a trap that eased rather than snapped closed. The author’s ability to get into the mindset of a kid is a rare talent.
When I finished this story, I was left with the words “oh heck no” on my lips. And for a moment that feeling of nostalgia I had at the beginning of the story was buried beneath a sensation of relief that my childhood was well behind me. I may never look at children in the playground quite the same way.