‘Oh my God, I’m late,’ Melinda Wallis said, springing out of bed as her tired eyes glanced at the digital clock on her bedside table. Last night she’d stayed up until 3:30 a.m., studying for her Clinical Pharmacology exam in three days’ time.

Still a little groggy from sleep, she clumsily moved around the room while her brain worked out what to do first. She hurried into the bathroom and caught a glimpse of her reflection in the mirror.

‘Shit, shit, shit.’

She reached for her makeup bag and started powdering her face.

Melinda was twenty-three years old and according to an article she’d read in a glossy magazine a few days ago, a little overweight for her height – she was only five foot four. Her long brown hair was always tied back into a ponytail, even when she went to bed, and she would never go outside without at least plastering her face with foundation to hide her acne-riddled cheeks. Instead of brushing her teeth, she quickly squirted a blob of toothpaste into her mouth just to get rid of the night taste.

Back in the room, she found her clothes neatly folded on a chair by her study desk – a white blouse, stockings, a knee-length white skirt and white flat-soled shoes. She got dressed in record time and sprinted out of the small guest- house in the direction of the main building.

Melinda was attending the third year of her Bachelor of Science in Nursing and Caretaking degree at UCLA, and every weekend, to fulfill her job-experience curriculum, she worked as an in-house private nurse. For the past fourteen weekends she’d been working for Mr. Derek Nicholson in Cheviot Hills, West Los Angeles.

Just two weeks before she was hired, Mr. Nicholson was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. The tumor was already the size of a plum stone and it was eating away at him fast. Walking was too painful, sometimes he needed the help of breathing apparatus, and he spoke only in a barely audible voice. Despite his daughters’ pleas, he declined to start chemotherapy treatment. He refused to spend days locked inside a hospital room and chose to spend the time he had left in his own house.

Melinda unlocked the front door and stepped into the spacious entry lobby before rushing through the large but sparsely decorated living room. Mr. Nicholson’s bedroom was located on the first floor. As always, the house was eerily quiet in the morning.

Derek Nicholson lived alone. His wife had passed away two years ago, and though his daughters came to visit him every day, they had their own lives to attend to.

‘I’m sorry I’m late,’ Melinda called from downstairs. She checked her watch again. She was exactly forty-three minutes late. ‘Shit!’ she murmured under her breath. ‘Derek, are you awake?’ she called, crossing to the staircase and taking the steps two by two.

Derek Nicholson had asked her on her first weekend at the house to call him by his first name. He didn’t like the formality of ‘Mr. Nicholson’.

As Melinda approached his bedroom door, she caught a noseful of a strong, sickening smell coming from inside.

Oh, damn, she thought. It was obviously too late for his first bathroom break.

‘OK, let’s get you cleaned up first . . .’ she said, opening the door, ‘. . . and then I’ll get you your breakf—’

Her whole body went rigid, her eyes widened in horror and the air was sucked out of her lungs as if she had been suddenly propelled into outer space. She felt the contents of her stomach shoot up into her mouth and she vomited right there by the door.

‘God in heaven!’ Those were the words Melinda had intended to say as she moved her trembling lips, but no sound came from them. Her legs began to give way under her, the world began to spin, and she held on to the door- frame with both hands to steady herself. That was when her horrified green eyes caught a glimpse of the far wall. It took her brain a moment to understand what she was seeing, but as it did, primal fear and panic rose inside her heart like a thunderstorm.

© Chris Carter 2011