Gil read about the magic paintbrush at school. It was a story for an assignment, and he had the choice of either that or a story about a girl who loved horses. Of course he chose the paintbrush. The protagonist(which was one of seven words he had to use when writing the assignment) was a poor but virtuous boy, who only wanted to help his family. Halfway through the paintbrush was stolen by an evil emperor, who only used it for selfish reasons and ended up drowning in gold coins. The paintbrush went back to the boy, who only made humble, charitable wishes to help his family from then on.
Gil wished for that brush so hard. He knew the fairytale rules. He could make it work. He knew exactly who he would use it for. Miss Kelly down at the diner, who sometimes let him sneak food off of unbussed tables, she needed a man who wouldn’t leave bruises on her upper arms so she had to wear long sleeves in the summer. Mrs. Harvey, who used to babysit for him when he was little, her cat had died and she needed a new one. He thought, just a flash, about using it for himself. Only a flash, and it was gone just as quickly. Best to work up to the magic with some good deeds, so the paintbrush knew he was serious.
Of course, how could you tell a paintbrush was magic? In the stories they were usually old and shabby, and most folks didn’t give them a second look. Well, that would apply to most of the brushes in the art classroom, most of them barely had any bristles left. Gil slipped in to try them out, but none felt magical to him. He knew he would feel the magic as soon as the brush hit his fingertips. He had a sudden idea. Vic’s pawn shop, over by the payday loan place, probably carried brushes. And magical things always came from old trinket stores, didn’t they?
Gil had a ten left over from the last time he’d raided Pop’s wallet (the only way he got anything to eat) and so he skipped lunch and held onto the bill. He’d become so practiced he barely felt hunger pangs. Instead he stayed inside the library, doing homework.
He left the back way when school was out, running right to the shop. Old man Vic gave him a puzzled look when he asked to see the art supplies, but obliged. There was a broken easel and something called a mahl stick, along with an assortment of brushes. Most were old boar-bristle horrors or refugees from sumi-e sets, but there was one, a handsome specimen with a dark wood handle, that Gil just knew had to be the one. Vic gave him an odd look when he asked just to hold it. The brush fit his hand like it’d been made for it.
Vic looked over his specs. “That there’s a Sable round. Sable’s an antelope, son, and I hear they’re nigh-on extinct.”
That cinched it. Magic things were usually made of rare stuff. He had to have it.
“Now that there’s a nice one, son, I’ll have to ask how much you’ve got.”
Gil held up his crumpled bill. Vic frowned.
“I can tell that’s a lot to you, but…well, maybe when you get your birthday money.”
Gil felt the bottom drop out of his stomach. “I don’t get birthday money.”
“Not even from your granny?”
“What about your Pop?”
“Gave me a scratch ticket once. He’d already scratched it.” Gil’s heart was hammering in his ears. He had to have the brush. He could always take…no. Stealing would turn the magic against him.
Vic gave a pitying look at his ripped jeans, his shirt with with so many puckered mends. “Now, that brush has been there a long while, as far as they go. I might consider letting you have it on condition, you understand? If you come by after school every once in a while and straighten up in here, you’ve got a deal.”
Gil clutched the brush and nodded so fast he thought his head would fall off. He signed an X to a contract the old man gave him and left, hand curled tight around the brush in his pocket.
The first stop was Miss Kelly, who was coming off her shift. He called, “Miss Kelly, come see what I got for you.”
Miss Kelly pushed open the back door of the diner, threw her hand over her mouth, and laughed. Gil had painted her a man on the concrete opposite the door. He didn’t know what her ideal man looked like, so he went off those romance novels he always saw her reading. Thick muscles, hair trailing in the wind, that kind of thing.
“Ain’t you just precious?” she gave him a sloppy kiss just above his eyebrow. “I gotta go now, Nate’s waiting for me and Nate don’t like to wait.”
The door slammed shut and Gil was left alone in the alleyway.
Mrs. Harvey was watching her soaps when Gil came in.
“Joseph, that you? Did your mama tell you to bring those smokes?”
“Nah, Mrs. H, it’s Gil.”
She turned her watery eyes to him. “Dill?”
“No, Gil.” He gave up. “I made something for you. Remember Mr. Muffin?”
“Muffin? He’s up on the shelf.” The old woman gestured to a bookshelf that held the jars of the cremains of her various pets.
“I made a cat for you. There.” He pointed to the wall above her dining table. He’d done the cat in marmalade-orange, poised as if he were just about to spring down.
Mrs. Harvey squinted. “Muffin? Why’d you let him up there? Git down, cat!”
Gil felt his smile slip away. “It’s a painting, Mrs. H. I made it for you, so you wouldn’t be so sad.”
The old woman grunted, flicking her attention back to the television as if Gil were a fly she’d shooed away. “Rick’s just found out Kaylee slept with his twin brother,” she said conspiratorially to no one in particular, “he’s going to duel him to the death now, you just see.”
Gil nodded dutifully. “Bye, Mrs. H.” He kissed her fuzzy cheek.
The sun was sinking as he walked, the sky turning dark as wine with blazing orange highlights. He imagined painting the sky, a new canvas every night. If only he’d been given a life where he could do nothing but paint. He squeezed the brush in his pocket and felt the solid wood. Please, he thought. As he neared the trailer where he lived, Gil’s stomach dropped again. His father’s truck was in the car port, hours early. He’d been counting on getting home before Pop was done at the bar and stashing the brush somewhere, but that hope was now gone.
Gil’s father was slung sideways on the couch, beer in hand, watching wrestling. He grunted as he heard the screen door open. By way of greeting he said, “turn out your pockets.”
If only Gil had been thinking clearly, he might have tucked the brush somewhere like the band of his underwear, or turned out everything in his pockets but the brush, but instead he fumbled awkwardly, which just made it obvious he was hiding something. Pop heaved himself off the couch and yanked Gil’s pockets out. The brush clattered to the floor. Pop picked it up and eyed it like it was a switchblade. “The hell is this?”
Gil’s mouth was dry. “On loan from school. If I lose it we have to pay damages.”
Pop squinted one eye. “Who told you you could just bring this shit home, hmm? You think I have the money to pay every time your dumb ass breaks something?” His other hand gripped his studded leather belt. “Well?”
Gil had two options. He could stay silent, take the beating, and just hope that his father didn’t break the brush out of spite. Or he could dash out the door again, making his father forget the brush in sheer rage at his defiance and earning him an even worse beating.
Gil did neither. Instead he kicked out and nailed his father between the legs. Pop gasped and doubled over, dropping the brush. Gil grabbed it up and ran.
There were several places around the trailer park Gil liked to hide when his father was in a mood. None of them seemed adequate at this point. Despite every instinct in his body screaming at him to run, instead Gil dropped to his hands and knees and squeezed beneath the trailer. He felt the screen door slam open so hard it bounced, and his father’s footsteps pound the trailer porch like an executioner’s drum. Pop bellowed Gil’s name and took off into the dark. Gil waited a good long while before creeping back into the trailer. There was a poster in his room that covered a hole his father had punched in the wall, this was where he kept his paint stash. Gripping the bottles and pots and the magic brush, Gil ran. While he ran, he pleaded. Not with his father, not with God, but the brush.
“Please,” he said as the breath shuddered in his chest, “please, I know it’s selfish to ask, but could you use your magic for me? Just this once?”
He ran until he had no breath left. The night was cold and made his sweat even colder. His skinny, malnourished frame somehow reached the old auto factory before he collapsed. How he managed to sleep at all was a wonder, but he woke up with the sun bearing down on him and his father calling his name. Gil rolled over and looked down from his perch near some old chimney stacks on the roof. Pop stood in the middle of the factory yard.
“There you are, boy.” He smiled. It was a mean smile. “A man should not have to chase his own son up and down half the town. Where’s your respect?”
He did not have his studded leather belt in hand. No, Pop carried a ball peen hammer from work, which he slapped into his palm.
“I always told you,” he drawled as he stepped closer, “you have to give respect to get respect. How’s about you show me some respect right now and git down here without me having to chase you no more?”
Gil stayed silent, watching from his perch.
“No? All right then.” Pop scratched the gravel with his foot like a bull ready to charge. “I’ll huff. And I’ll puff. And I’ll blow your house in.”
Pop set off at top speed from halfway across the yard. He’d been a fit man in his youth, and he could still go fast when he wanted to. He was going very fast when ran headfirst into the brick wall Gil had painted to look like an open door.