Orange and Yellow, by Rothko

Submitted into Contest #185 in response to: Set all or part of your story in a jam-packed storage unit.... view prompt


Sad Fiction

This story contains themes or mentions of physical violence, gore, or abuse.

Harry thought it would have been a lot easier to steal from his Stepdad, since he was dead.  But they had to get into the unit at StoragePro first.  

“No.” The guard said.

“We‘re his stepsons,” Harry pleaded. “Look, we have the key and everything.”  He held up a key with the StoragePro logo.

The guard buzzed them into the entrance. “What unit?” He looked them up and down, sensing something was off. 

“Number 222.” Harry said.

“It is awfully late to be going into your unit-.” The guard looked at the mismatched pair of men, one dark and brooding, the other, light complexioned with a smile.  When he didn’t get an answer, waved them past, glowering.  “Have a good night.”  

“See I told you Craig, " Harry’s sour face cracked with a faint smile.  “Easy, peasy. Mom let me know his stuff was stored here, and I ‘borrowed’ the key a while back.”  

Harry had to get into his Stepdad's storage unit and take what was rightfully his. Since he had been fired from M&B Electrical last month for exploding at a rude customer, he was short on cash and didn’t know how he was going to make rent. Getting a job was easy, he had experience and was good with hands. Keeping a job was something else, co-workers, customers, really just people,  rubbed him the wrong way.  This was his chance. And there was only one person who could help him with this project, now clearly outlined, a plan which had appeared to him like he had been working on it his whole life, which maybe he had.  Only Craig would understand the importance, the righteousness of this effort. His little brother who he hadn’t talked to for over a year.

 “Come on, we can hang out.” Harry had said on the phone yesterday. “Stepdad is dead. He can’t get us anymore.” Harry knew Craig would do it, he had always been able to talk him into his schemes. 

“What are we looking for again?” Craig asked as they walked down several long hallways looking for number 222.

“Stepdad’s paintings are in there, and they are worth a lot of money. He loved that damn Rothko…”  Harry looked back at his brother and slowed his walk to match his deliberate pace, the old frustration starting to rise up in him. He never understood Craig, his fanny pack, his annoying happiness.  He gritted his teeth to control his temper. Craig was all he had left, they couldn't get in a fight. Craig limped along, his club foot slowed him down but did not stop him. “-Roth, what?” 

 “Mark Rothko!” Harry grunted.  “You remember, he kept it in his study? It was yellow and orange squares.”

“If I was in Stepdad’s study I was not looking at any paintings.” Craig said, his voice low and serious. “He’s dead, and I do not want anything to do with him, or his rock paintings.  I do not want to even think about him again.”  Craig said. “I’m only here because you said you needed me…”

“The Rothko, Craig! Stepdad talked all the time about how valuable it was!” Harry grabbed Craig’s arm. “This is our chance to start over, erase everything and move to the Bahamas, or Argentina, or I don’t know, Florida!  This is our chance to make a new life!”

“What's wrong with your life now?” Craig said. 

“Here it is.” Harry said, putting the key in the lock, jiggling and pulling on the lock. “They must have changed the lock, Damn!”  After a few minutes of trying, Harry threw the key down, it bounced off the concrete floor and down the brightly lit corridor.  

“Are you sure this is the right number?” Craig asked. He had both hands on his fanny pack, his head to the side. “Let me have a go-”

Harry tracked down the key and gave it Craig.  He opened the lock easily.  

“Maybe you were trying too hard.”  

Harry reached down to grab the handle and pulled up the garage door of the unit, the metallic clacking opening a door into their past, but the door wouldn’t stay open, he kept pushing it up but it wouldn’t stay.  “Do you have anything in your stupid bag to help?”

Craig unzipped his fanny pack. “Some more keys, a screwdriver, matches, a-”

“Screwdriver!” Harry stuck it in the door track and pried it in place.  The 10 foot wide opening was full, floor to ceiling, with junk.  Boxes and furniture, wooden chairs, statues and racks of hanging clothes. 

 “What we find in there is going to change our life, Craig.” Harry gave Craig a one-armed hug. “We are looking for paintings, they will probably be wrapped in paper, or maybe in a box. And grab anything else that looks like it might be valuable.  This is our inheritance, you know we earned it.” The two looked at the wall of items, hesitant on where to start, how to begin.

 “I recognize that chair.” Craig said.  Harry pulled it out slowly, cracking the spell, and several boxes shifted and spilled out into the hallway.  They began pulling items out, filling the hallway with old furniture and boxes.  

“Harry, It’s been more than 10 years, why do you think even he still has the paintings?” Craig sat down in one of the chairs. He leaned back, and folded his arms.” I don’t know about this…”

“He would never sell those paintings- and they should be ours.” Harry said.  “Come help me move this.” Together they pulled and shoved a heavy bust of a two faced man out into the corridor. 

Craig moved further in and pulled out a tall lamp.

“Hey, I remember this!” Craig slowly walked out.  “Remember, it was in the room with the TV? It still has the crack you put in it.” As he lifted it up to show Harry, it hit the rolled up garage door, the screwdriver fell, and the door slid down with a loud roar before crashing down with a bang. 

“Harry, Harry let me out!” Craig yelled out. “There is no light in here!”

“Oh man!” Harry laughed. I should leave you in there.”   Harry bent down to pull up the handle but it didn’t budge.  The door was jammed in its tracks with the force of the closing.

Harry looked around for something to use for leverage, but seeing nothing, kicked the door, hard, over and over. Kicking against the the anxiety and fear of the memories of his Stepdad. 

“OK. I almost got it, almost-”

The door slid up, and Craig leapt out, launched from a spring, his shoulder hitting a carefully balanced tower of boxes, upending them, books crashed down around him, energizing him further like they were electric shocks, his spasmodic jerks launching the books everywhere. 

“Get me out of here!” Craig jumped awkwardly on scattered books through the open doorway of the unit and pulled himself into the hallway.

“Oh, I am done. This is not worth it.”  Craig’s face was red. “I had flashbacks of when he used to lock me in the closet. Stepdad was a terrible person, and we are done with him.  What are we doing here?”

“Hello?” Harry and Craig both jumped at the voice.  The security guard was there next to them, his hand on his walkie talkie like it was a gun.  “I heard some noises- you all OK?” He looked suspiciously at the strewn items. 

“I checked and this unit is scheduled to be emptied tomorrow, sold to an auction house. Are you part of that group?”

“Yah,” Harry’s mind racing- “we are organizing everything, for the move…”

The guard tilted his head. “OK, I'll be at the front."

Harry moved a large bookcase halfway out of the doorway, blocking the door from falling again and walked back in.  

“Craig, I think you found something!” Harry lifted up a securely taped cardboard box, partially hidden behind the spilled books. Harry moved a desk out of the way and began pulling the taped box out, kicking various items out of the way as he moved toward the door. In another small open box, mostly empty, a gray shape caught his eye. A small model plane was there, on top of books and pennants from his old room at Stepdad’s house so many years ago. He leaned the large box to the side to pick up the gray model airplane. Touching it brought a flashback of putting it together with model glue, the glue getting everywhere, sticking his fingers together, strings of glue from the small pieces. The model was rough and irregular from his poor efforts at the small connections.  When he remembered the pieces that stuck to the table, that would not come up no matter how he scraped them, an image came to him, bright and clear, his Stepdad’s face, filled with cold rage at the damage to his dining room table.  And then the whipping, the electrical cord on his back and bare legs, the pain-

Harry’s fingers let the model airplane go, gently, watching it fall onto the hard concrete floor. The plastic plane bounced, a small wheel broke off the landing gear, but the rest of it was intact, solid with so much model glue covering it.  The unbreakable airplane triggered his unbreakable memories, rising up in him in a rage. He picked it up by one wing and turning, all in one motion, hurled it as hard as he could, spinning it at a bare spot on the back wall of the unit. All his pent up anger and frustration went into the throw, and the airplane took flight, spinning tightly, a F-14 Tomcat he remembered, hurtling through the air at supersonic speed back into the past to carpet bomb his memories, back in time to that house in Berkeley when he was scared all the time, anxious and weak. Harry wanted to fly back  to tell his younger self to wake up, to fight back, tell someone! 

The airplane hit the wall, crashing, exploding in a spray of plastic bits and broken dreams and broken lives. 

Out in the hall, Craig helped open the large box, labeled ‘Special’. Inside were three wrapped canvases in wood frames. Craig opened the first, pulled back the old newspapers and thick tape. The picture was of two muddy rectangles of color, yellow over orange. 

“Is this it?” Craig held it up, his head bent to one side. “I do remember this, it is ugly.”

“Oh my god, I didn't think we would find it.” Harry breathed out.  “I don’t get it either, but who cares, if people will pay big money for it!”

His chance at redemption was in front of him, money, real money for the first time in his life.  Where would he go? He has lived in this same  town his whole life, trapped by circumstance, and fear of going out on his own.  Where could he reinvent himself? Las Vegas popped in his mind. The glitz and lights he has seen on TV and movies. Yes, he’ll go to Las Vegas and be a ‘High roller’. He imagined the staff, 'yes, sir', and 'right away sir'. He would be somebody, he would be important.

“Mark Rothko, Orange and Yellow, 1956.” Craig said, looking at the back of the painting.

“Yup.” Harry’s face was wide with a huge smile, he would look good in a tuxedo.  "Wait, how did you know all that?”

“It’s on the back. Right here- on this price tag, $49.99.”

Harry’s face fell. “A price tag? No, no no. He said it was real-” He took the painting from Craig to examine it, saw the printed paper and his legs felt weak, like they couldn’t hold him up any more, he sat down. His dreams of riches, and being more than just a nobody, floated away in clouds of yellow and orange.

‘What is this- are these worth anything?” Craig had his head in the bottom of the box. “ It is an envelope of photos.”

Harry stared at the fake-Rothko.  “Maybe, grab them.”  A thought tickled at the back of Harry’s memory, an uncomfortable feeling at the word ‘photos’.

-”No, don’t touch those!” Harry said sharply, dropping the Rothko to turn toward Craig.

Craig was kneeling on the floor to get at the bottom of the box.

“They're stuck…” He pulled up the envelope, and the back ripped, the photos spilled into the harsh light of the corridor. The old polaroid's color had faded,  but Harry could see the pictures as Craig picked them up, his hands shaking and his jaw slack.  A young boy, pre-pubescent, was pictured in a variety of poses, in a women’s too-large dress in one, in women’s underwear in another. In most, the boy was naked, his face neutral, staring with large eyes into the camera. 

“I had no idea…” Craig said, holding the photos, shuffling quickly through the few remaining in the torn envelope. “...I didn’t know.” Craig’s eyes hesitated before moving up to meet Harry’s, Craig’s eyes teared up while Harry’s face was neutral, matching his expression from so many years ago. 

“Just give me the pictures.”

“How could he do this to you…” Craig looked back down at the photos, roughly collecting them into one pile, staring at them  “Stepdad, he didn't make me…”

“Hell no he didn’t!” Harry shouted. “Just give them to me.” Harry reached out and ripped the collection of photos out of Craig’s hand.  

“That was the agreement. I would do -this-, other things, and he wouldn’t touch you- wouldn’t…” Harry’s hands were jittery, the torn envelope would no longer hold the photos, they caught on the edges, would not go back into the darkness, as if they refused to be hidden again.

“Damn.” Harry said, squeezing the photos in his fist, shame shrinking him down,  back into a little boy in the dark room at night, afraid of what his Stepdad would do next.. 

“I am so sorry Craig.”  Harry said, his eyes glued to the floor, looking anywhere but at his brother.  “I was older, I should have protected you more, I should have told someone, I was just so scared all of the time-”

“It wasn't your fault Harry, it wasn’t your fault- you did what you could-” Craig said.

“I did nothing!” Warm hot tears rolled down Harry’s cheeks, he squeezed his eyes shut to stop the itching, he rubbed his sleeve across his face. “You were the one who finally told Dad and his girlfriend.”

“We were beaten so often by then, I forgot we weren’t supposed to talk about it. It was the night I forgot to take the trash out, and Stepdad beat me for it. And then when I was trying to get over the shock of it, he beat me again because it had been a minute and I had not moved.” Craig squeezed his fists shut.  “Remember that day, after I told Dad, and the social services lady came to the house? She asked us to tell her every time he beat us, and she pulled that little notebook out?” Craig paused, looked at the debris scattered around them, memories exposed for the first time.  

“You told her she needed a bigger notebook!” Craig let out a short laugh. “Every now and then I remember a time I didn’t tell that lady, a beating she did not write down in her book. Still to this day I'll think of a situation and then say- ‘you forgot to tell her that one.’ I still remember Harry. Stepdad scarred us both, scarred us deep. They don’t show, but are still there, still affecting us. But Harry, it is not your fault.” 

“How did you do it, how did you move on?” Harry asked. “Because I can’t, there is too much…”

“You can’t keep it inside Harry. You have to let go.  Maybe because people can see -my leg, they give me more of a break.” He looked down. “So they take me as I am.”  Still kneeling, he was surrounded by the paintings, loose piles of books and clothes, the torn paper and cardboard boxes, all flowing out of the door like an open wound.

“I know what we need do.”

Harry looked at the painting again and then at the crumpled pictures still in his hand. 

His shoulders fell, he breathed out. “Yes, let’s do it. Come on, if they are coming in the morning we don't have much time.”

They found a back door to avoid the security guard and propped it open.   It took them almost two hours, and they still had to leave the larger furniture in the unit, too big to move easily. They focused on what they remembered, the dining room table and chairs, the paintings and the broken lamp. They dragged it all out into the parking lot. Piled up high, it was a memorial to their Stepdad, still living on in the lives of his step sons. 

Craig unzipped his pack, and pulled out the matches. “Do you think this will help?”

Harry lit the envelope holding the polaroids, and watched them slowly burn in his hand.  He tossed the flaming torch on top of some thin cardboard. 

“I don’t know, but it is a start.  The bonfire started slowly, they stayed to watch until they were sure it would catch.

Then they left, the brightening of the morning sunrise turned the orange and yellow sky in front of them blue, while the bonfire, small in the rearview mirror, sparkled for several blocks before they turned off towards a new life. 

February 17, 2023 18:39

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Wally Schmidt
19:38 Feb 24, 2023

Way to tell a story! The story itself is horrific, but the way it is told is masterful. So many twists and turns and details to create the magic that makes up your writing. Impossible to love this story and impossible not to.


Marty B
00:32 Feb 25, 2023

Thanks! I appreciate your good words.


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Delbert Griffith
09:36 Feb 23, 2023

A great story about suffering and, ultimately, healing. This is a tough topic to write about, certainly, but you handled it with grace and skill. Nicely done, Marty.


Marty B
18:33 Feb 23, 2023

I appreciate you Delbert!


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Zack Powell
07:37 Feb 23, 2023

One of your best, Marty. Had my attention from the very first sentence. Great hook, and this took some unexpected turns and didn't end where I was thinking it would. I like that. Thought this might go the Crime or Thriller route from the opening, but you turned this into a story about transformation and growing from the past, and that's infinitely better. Great character development of both brothers, Harry in particular. To go from a shyster, a conman, to a broken individual haunted by his past in just a few thousand words is no small feat. ...


Marty B
23:13 Feb 23, 2023

You made my day! I truly appreciate your kind words. That was my favorite line too.


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Viga Boland
23:47 Feb 21, 2023

Absolutely marvellous…and as an abuse victim, how easily I can relate to both Craig and Harry, Bravo. A couple of verb tense issues but hey, only an old schoolie like me notices such things. Didn’t take away from a great plot and believable characters. So glad I read this. Thank you for writing it.


Marty B
00:35 Feb 22, 2023

Thanks for catching my typos - there are always more! So sorry to hear you suffered abuse. Its impacts linger on-


Viga Boland
00:57 Feb 22, 2023

You bet. But at 77, I’ve had lots of years to heal, thanks to a loving husband and my two daughters. Besides, it’s hard to drive forward by looking in the rear view mirror.


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Jack Kimball
23:29 Feb 21, 2023

What I gained was at first thinking the MC was just some scumbag and then realizing he had his reasons. That smart aleck kid at the grocery store may have his reasons also. You never know what another person has going on, or has been through. Great job Marty! ( I thought they wouldn't be able to get the door open after it slammed shut...)


Marty B
00:37 Feb 22, 2023

We think alike- I had them stuck inside the door, and a few other precarious situations, but I had to get them out relatively quickly or would not ever get to the ending!


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Martin Ross
02:06 Feb 18, 2023

You captured perfectly the destruction some people can leave in others' lives, often with conscious malice. I hope profoundly Harry and Craig find catharsis and a new beginning, though I know so many people who've moved on from the horror but have a dark spot or a lingering anger that limits their ultimate emotional potential. As one of several stepdads in our extended family, I've seen how mental or emotional bullying or abuse can destroy spirit or hope. Very powerful story, and I love the symmetry in the beginning and conclusion.


Marty B
00:38 Feb 22, 2023

Thanks! and thank You for being a supportive Stepdad, your positive impact is felt far and wide even though it doesn't always get acknowledged.


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Wendy Kaminski
01:45 Feb 18, 2023

I like that it ended with them still getting a new life, Marty - satisfying! The tie-in between the departing sky and the painting was nice. I looked it up - it sold for $86mil! I, too, hope to be stupidly rich one day... - “Maybe you were trying too hard.” I felt this line sparkled in the moment: it really speaks to Harry's need to get closure in any way/somehow, vs. Craig's existentialism - "hurtling through the air at supersonic speed back into the past to carpet bomb his memories" - nice phrasing! Thanks for sharing this story; it had...


Marty B
00:39 Feb 22, 2023

Thanks! I need satisfyingly positive endings or I would go nuts!


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Lily Finch
20:21 Feb 17, 2023

Marty B, Such a sad story that ends with hope. Sick bastards that abuse their kids - whether biological or not - who are gifts to them. The only job adults have when kids are involved is to be a role model. Great story about a terrible subject. LF6.


Marty B
21:05 Feb 17, 2023

Agreed! This one took a dark turn for sure. But when you go looking in the nooks and crannies from the past, you never know what you might find. Thanks!


Lily Finch
21:09 Feb 17, 2023

That's for sure. But that poor boy! Even though it's a story, still. LF6.


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