Creature

1

The alarm went off with a soft buzz, and Mark Tanner lazily reached over to turn it off. He wasn’t asleep—hadn’t been for at least ten minutes. Rather, he’d been lying awake in bed, gazing out his window at the gulls wheeling slowly over San Francisco Bay. Now, as the alarm fell silent but Mark still made no move to get up, the big golden retriever that lay next to the bed stretched, got to his feet, nuzzled gently at the boy’s neck, lapped at his cheek. Finally, Mark threw the covers back and sat up.

“Okay, Chivas,” he said softly, taking the dog’s big head in his hands and scratching him roughly behind the ears. “I know what time it is, and I know I have to get up, and I know I have to go to school. But just because I know it doesn’t mean I have to like it!”

Chivas’s lips seemed to twist into an almost human grin and his tail thumped heavily on the floor. As Mark stood up, he heard his mother calling from the hall.

“Breakfast in ten minutes. And no bathrobes at the table!”

Mark rolled his eyes at Chivas, who once more wagged his tail. Then the boy stripped off his pajamas, tossed them into the corner of his room, and pulled on a clean pair of underwear. He went to his closet and, ignoring the clothes his mother had purchased for him only two days earlier, fished a pair of worn jeans out of the pile of dirty clothes that covered the closet floor. He pulled them on, and as he did almost every morning, glumly surveyed his image in the mirror inside the closet door.

And, as always, he told himself that it wasn’t his fault he was so much smaller than everyone else. The rheumatic fever that had kept him in bed for almost a year when he was seven seemed to have stopped his growth at the five-foot mark.

Sixteen years old, and barely over five feet tall.

And not only that, but with a narrow chest and thin arms.

Wiry.

That’s what his mother always told him he was, but he knew it wasn’t true—he wasn’t wiry at all, he was just plain skinny.

Skinny, and short.

His mother always told him it didn’t matter, but Mark knew it did—he could see it in his father’s eyes every time Blake Tanner looked at him.

Or looked down on him, which was not only the way Mark always felt, but was the absolute physical truth as well, for his father was six-feet-four and had been that tall since he was Mark’s age. In case his father forgot to mention it—and it seemed to Mark he never did—the proof was all over the house, especially in the den, where the walls were covered with pictures of Blake Tanner in his football uniforms—first in high school, then in college—and well-polished trophies gleamed in a glass display case.

Most Valuable Player three years in high school and two in college.

All-Conference Quarterback his senior year in high school, again repeated in college.

As Mark pulled on a long-sleeved denim shirt and shoved his feet into his sneakers, he could picture the trophies lined up in the case and see the empty shelf at the top, which his father always said was being saved for Mark’s own trophies. Except, as both he and his father very well knew, he wasn’t going to win any silver cups.

The deep secret—the secret he’d never told his father but suspected his mother knew—was that he didn’t care. Though he’d done his best to get interested in football, had even spent all