. The Palisades
It was just past six-thirty in the morning. The air held a dense haze, laden with the pervasive scent of burnt wood. Nelly had wandered the night through charred neighbourhoods, wonderstruck by the devastation.
The Faulkner family estate was located in an emerging area known as the Palisades, which had been to the north of the fire, separated from the blaze by a stretch of undeveloped land that acted as a firebreak; unless the wind shifted her neighbourhood was likely safe from the flames.
“Mother is dead. I saw her burn,” Nelly said to the first member of the staff she encountered upon entering her house. It was a boy of about eighteen, one of the cooks by the name of Fred Perkins if she remembered correctly. He was illiterate and from the wrong side of the Telford but nevertheless she found those backwards glances he cast her intriguing. Her one criticism was that he never seemed to meet her eye when she stared at him.
“Sweet Builder!” The cook appeared horrified by her statement. “Mrs. Faulkner is—”
“Dead.” Nelly finished the sentence for him. “Where is father? He should have been there.”
The cook seemed nervous. “He was out all night on account of the fire….” The cook seemed to choke back his words.
“What’s wrong with you?” Nelly looked at him very directly.
“I just can’t believe your mother is… you know,” he lowered his voice, “dead.”
“Where is father?” Nelly repeated.
“Well, when he got back just a short while ago he went up to his chamber and….” The cook’s hesitation was enough, father was with the maid again— the one mother had fired. He had brought her here. How stupid was he? Nelly knew exactly what was going on, she had spied them together often, taking advantage of those occasions when mother was visiting her relatives out on the Fells.
As silent as a spirit Nelly had stood for hours outside father’s bedchamber listening; peeking through the keyhole. It was disgusting, what she saw. It put her in mind of the rutting pigs she’d watch to pass the hours while visiting grandfather’s farm— except the rutting pigs were faster and quieter about their business. So, father wanted a playmate— no matter, Nelly knew what she needed to do to make sure father stayed focused on the family.
“Is he alone?” Nelly asked. She had to be certain.
“Poor lady lost her home,” said the cook. “I believe he put her in the big guest room at the end of the hall.” The cook paused. He looked uncomfortable. Nelly knew she had that effect on people but because it didn’t bother her she never tried to do anything about it.
”Listen,” the cook continued. “Your father gave me two silvers to keep watch for him. I’m to go tell him as soon as anyone comes. I’ll go tell him you are here.”
“Don’t bother,” said Nelly. She went over to the counter and took one of the kitchen knives from beside the cutting board and tested its weight. Her right hand had been burned to the point of blistering, requiring she hold the knife in her left. No matter, she was ambidextrous.