Papa comes home with a large white canvas and a brown paper bag filled with paints and brushes. He closes the cabin door behind him, shutting out the flurries, and shakes the snow from his hair.
“Use these,” he says. “We’ll get back to her this way.”
Mitchell steps away from the window and looks inside the bag. Inside, the brushes are golden and soft, and the canvas as white as the milky plains that surround them.
“What will I do with them?” he asks.
Papa kneels by his son, looking him in the eyes.
“Paint,” he says.
Mitchell’s first attempts are dreadful things. Splotches and swirls, smeared across the paper like a baby’s bib. But Papa nods approvingly. “Good,” he says, and Mitchell continues.
After that it’s not so bad. A snowy hill with a single tree, three figures standing beneath.
“Us?” Papa asks. Mitchell nods.
“And Mama,” he says.
“Soon,” Papa says.
In the evenings, they eat their supper at the kitchen table. Outside, the wind rattles the windows. The snow is always loud. Always cold.
“Tell me about her,” Mitchell says.
Papa sighs and sets his spoon down.
“What do you want to know?” he asks. “What do you not already know?”
Mitchell thinks carefully. “What if we can’t get back to her?” he finally asks. “What if I can’t do what she did?”
Papa looks up at the window, and the snow’s howling fills the silence.
“You will,” he says. “I know you can.”
They do not discuss it further.
Months pass, and Mitchell paints his first portal.
It happens without thinking. One moment he is sitting next to Papa, detailing the final strokes of a lily pond. The next, he is standing on the banks, and the snow is gone. Startled, a heron lifts into the air and pounds away. Dragonflies whizz between the cattails, and the frogs croak cheerfully. The water is still.
Then Papa arrives, beaming, crying.
“You did it,” he says, taking Mitchell by the shoulders. “I knew you could.”
Mitchell nods, not quite understanding, but amazed.
“What do we do now?” he asks finally.
“Now,” Papa says. “Now we find your Mother.”
They find a village nearby, and spend the night in a hostel. In the morning, Papa finds a shop and brings back canvas, paint, brushes, and a charcoal pencil.
“Always keep this with you,” he says, and puts the pencil in Mitchell’s pocket. “You never know when you might need it.”
Mitchell sits on the floor, cross-legged, a canvas before him.
“All right,” Papa says, leaning back on the bed, his eyes closed. “Now I will tell you the last painting your mother painted — where she went.”
He describes a place.
Years pass. Mitchell and Papa travel the world, and beyond. Slipping the bonds of reality until it is all but wholly erased. Escaping through a thousand scenes.
Every night, Papa closes his eyes and describes the same scene for Mitchell, the last place his Mother went. And Mitchell paints. They slip inside a hundred different portals, all slightly different in texture, or feel. None quite right. Inside every one Papa looks around, then sadly shakes his head.
“No,” he says, and they try again. Telling and painting. Traveling. Searching.
And Papa tells Mitchell about his Mother.
“She didn’t mean to leave us,” he says. “She fell through accidentally, when I was away. But I memorized the painting. Every detail, which is the one I tell you every night. One day, we will follow her there. See her again.”
“And you couldn’t keep it?” Mitchell asks hopefully, fighting back tears.
“They fade,” Papa says. “Disappear. I had only enough time to memorize it.”
He takes Mitchell’s shoulder in one hand, and he can’t help but notice that his son is no longer a boy. His shoulder is thick, his face rugged, and beneath the strokes of his brush, he has become more than just a painter.
He has become an artist.
“She’ll be so proud of you,” he says. “When we see her.”
Mitchell nods, and paints the same scene again, trying to get every detail right.
And one night, he does.
They fall through into Papa’s scene, and Mitchell finds himself staring at a world he knows, yet has never actually seen… until now. The house by the lake, beneath the shadow of the mountain. An eagle soars overhead, and the pines stand all around, whispering to one another as they watch.
On the porch, a woman sits.
Papa’s eyes crease like pinched sheets, and he stumbles forward through the grass. Mitchell notices his father is not as young as he once was.
Mitchell follows, and the woman, his mother, stands as Papa tackles her in a consuming embrace.
They stand there for a long time, hugging, laughing, crying, smiling. Making up for lost time. Mama is old like Papa, and Mitchell thinks about all the years they missed together.
And he has to ask.
“Why did you leave us?” he asks.
“Did your father never tell you?” she says.
“Tell me what?”
Then, nearly ashamed, Papa explains: she never left them. It was the other way around. Mitchell’s scribble when he was so young, before he could remember, before any of them knew his magic. The cabin drawing, surrounded by blank paper. A single, isolated house drawn in black. How he and Papa fell through together, when Mama was away.
“I didn’t want to tell you,” Papa says. “But there was nothing you could have done, and I didn’t want you to live thinking—”
“That it was my fault?” Mitchell says.
“No,” says Mama, and she kneels by her son. “It’s not what took you away. It’s what brought you back.”
Mitchell is quiet for a long time. Then he takes out his charcoal pencil, the one Papa gave him, and does what he’s always done, standing between his parents.
Drawing the three of them together.
JT Gill’s work has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Perihelion Science Fiction, previously in Every Day Fiction, and The Molotov Cocktail, where he won the 2015 Flash Fool Contest.