"Claudia! You have to come inside! Claudia!"
Claudia slams her big old History book shut and hugs it close to her chest. She pulls her feet under her and scoots further up the branch, hiding her tiny, frail form in the thick curtains of multicoloured trees.
"Claud!" Shane is calling her. He looks annoyed. He probably knows he'll be in trouble if he didn't find her.
Claudia sees him passing by below, and holds her breath, her teeth clamping down on her bottom lip to hold in a giggle. Her heart flutters crazily with adrenaline. This is what it's about.
Shane stops directly under her branch, glancing around but not in her direction. She hears him swear before he turns around and storms back towards the farmhouse.
Claudia becomes overwhelmed with the excitement, and throws her head back, letting the laughter come out in long, silent peals. The thrill of rebellion, of hiding, of being in control... This is new to Claudia. She feels as though she could throw herself from this branch and fly to the sun.
And then her chest constricts.
"Shane," she gasps, but her voice is little more than a wheeze. The History book slipsrom her grasp as she clutches her chest. Her heart is slowing down, as though failing to keep up its job... As though she is a weak, sick, old lady crawling desperately towards Death's door -
"Shane!" she tries to cry again, but it's no good. Trembling, she lets out a final, heavy, noisy breath before the ground below rushes up to meet her and she blacks out.
Shane has just kicked his boots off when he hears the thump. He spins and sprints all in the one movement, tearing across the unkempt back lawn in his socks.
"Claudia!" he cries, collapsing onto the ground next to the girl who has landed on her back, her twisted, deformed back.
"Oh, Claud," he gasps, brushing aside her mass of wiry grey hair. "Claud, say something."
His sister tilts her head in his direction, her eyelids flip open. Her giant green eyes have faded to a brownish-grey, and bulge out far over her sunken cheeks. Her greyish skin had crumpled around her eyes and mouth and neck, highlighting every bone in her face and hands.
"Stay with me, Claud, it's gonna be okay," Shane promises, although he is paralyzed with the anxiety that this could be the last time... He searches those sick, sad eyes for his lively, happy sister.
"You found me, Shane. Now you hide and... I'll seek," Claudia whispers half-heartedly before dropping back to unconsciousness.
Using care not to snap her fragile body like a twig, Shane lifts her to his shoulder, as he has done before. As he takes her to the farmhouse, he is filled with sadness and anger.
Sadness that their family hasn't the means to free Claudia - his sweet, caring, undeserving sister - of this disgusting sickness.
And anger that no one is willing to help them.