In middle school, she took a new name, having grown tired of the one given by her parents. She was no longer Elizabeth. Henceforth, she would call herself Caton, borrowing that name from the dust jacket of an obscure Romanian play her father kept on the bookshelf by his writing desk. The play was called God’s Mistakes, and she was certain her time as Elizabeth had been one of them.
It was a statement of imagination, not ideology. She was not rebelling against her parents so much as eliminating the constraints of such a traditional moniker. Her gender identity–not that she would have conceptualized it in the abstract at that time–had not prompted the change. She was a girl on the verge of womanhood who just so happened to prefer having a man’s name.
There was something free about becoming Caton. It allowed her to consider possibilities that felt out of reach to Elizabeth. She had always enjoyed painting, had loved the way minuscule swirls of color, when you stepped back far enough, added up to something larger, something purposeful. A name was like that, she thought. It was a small gesture that appeared meaningless until you saw the whole of a person’s life, at which point it either fit or it didn’t.
Her friends took up her chosen name, using it out of bemused acquiescence until it became so entrenched that Elizabeth felt jarring to their ears. Her teachers, used to seeing Caton written on the top of worksheets and essays, went along with the girl’s wishes and ignored the class roster. Only her parents clung to the old name, which had previously belonged to a much-beloved maternal aunt. In time, even they would occasionally slip and refer to their daughter as Caton.
She never bothered with official paperwork. It seemed unnecessary to spend good money–which she preferred to keep for art supplies–to modify her identity for people to whom she was nothing more than a faceless data point. When she applied for college scholarships or when she opened her first bank account, she was careful to use her given name. It was an irritation, but one too minor to correct.
During her junior year of college, she met a shy computer programmer who fell in love with her when she told him what she called herself. His work was full of ones and zeros, rigid structures designed to propel corporate profits. That she had chosen otherwise at twelve and stayed true to her youthful independence through force of will both charmed and frightened him. They married two years later.
By the time they had reached their forties, her husband had been promoted to Systems Vice President at a regionally successful pharmacy chain, and she was able to quit her job as an art teacher and pursue painting full time. Her husband began to talk about buying a summer home at the beach, but she, ever mindful to avoid tradition when possible, suggested they buy a small home in the mountains of western Pennsylvania instead.
She remembered a lovely, man-made lake her parents had once taken her to, and after questioning her mother and consulting the internet, she found it–Hawk Lake, just outside of a town called Bradleysburg. She and her husband found a ranch-style home with a screened-in porch overlooking the water, and she set about converting it into an artist’s retreat. She loved the crisp mountain air and the relative isolation of her rural getaway.
Then, the fires started.
(To be continued…)