Of course, they didn’t call it The Swedish Death Cleaning Act. “Death” wasn’t going to get any votes. But when they switched in “Patriotic” and “American,” Tada! The “Patriotic Environmental American Cleaning Enactment” passed with a bipartisan majority. Belongings were limited to twelve times your body weight or your volume — whichever was greater. To tell you the truth, I thought it was a great law. The world was overstuffed and I always loved tossing crap, empty attics, minimal decorating. But laws have unintended consequences.

It nearly killed Sheila. I’d find her in our basement with tears in her eyes, cobwebs in her frowzled fro, mumbling and hugging a box of her mother’s dusty Christmas plates. Or Nate or Natasha’s baby clothes. Or a box labeled “Grandpa’s Stuff.” When I’d lift her to carry her upstairs, I’d realize she was whispering, “Somebody’s gonna need this someday.”

She’d been struggling since the kids graduated college, stopped talking to us and moved to Portland, so I told her I’d take care of everything. “Just don’t tell me,” she said. But my natural gift for sorting and tossing abandoned me once I imagined a weepy Sheila looking over my shoulder as I worked. After a few weeks I had to admit I couldn’t do it. That’s when we started the slow slide into the criminal underworld.

Most of it was, in fact, underground: secret basements, floors and floors of storage units dug below 7-Elevens, “antique shops” built into hillsides. For all its good intentions, PEACE ran into a natural law: most people love to collect stuff. They like to fall asleep surrounded by familiar shapes and smells and memories, and wake to find it all still there. They like to store their crap in basements and attics and closets and under their beds. PEACE created a literal underworld of overstuffed caverns — as well as footprint exchanges and talk of “guberment” overreach. Why is it people forget how to pronounce the letter v as soon as they become outlaws? Sheila started doing it too! 

We met Ed on the dark web and soon Sheila and I were carting stuff nightly to Big Ed’s Secret Storage. Through Big Ed, we met Big Pete, Big Jose and Big Dimitri. They also dealt in guns, drugs and human organs, but they were a hoot — made Sheila laugh harder than she’d laughed since the kids left. Big Pete should have been a stand-up and Big Jose was always pulling pranks on her. Big Dimitri had a booming laugh that made everyone around him roar with laughter too.

Before I knew it, Sheila was packing a sidearm just like them and talking about selling a kidney. Turns out the box in the basement marked “Grandpa’s Stuff” was full of guns and a few hand grenades from WWII! 

“This was sitting in the cellar,” I asked, “when the kids were having playdates?”

Sheila shrugged. “Nothing happened. Plus, I knew somebody’d need it someday.” 

To be honest, I was appalled. I started citing statistics of increased deaths with guns in the home, but Dimitri started laughing and nobody could hear me. And Sheila was so happy! Eyes brighter. Quick to smile again. Even had her little swagger back.

But soon her all-night poker games with the Bigs turned into three-day gun runs or trips to Peru to smuggle Ayahuasca, and she started calling herself Big Sheila. It’s a slippery slope. I was losing her.

All over the country, people were fighting over what to keep and ending up in divorce court. Or force-feeding themselves and their families to gain volume and claim more stuff. The Haves bribed the Have-nots to hide their crap. Housewives and grandpas locked themselves in basements refusing to allow the PEACE Force to check their weight and volume ratios. People started hi-jacking food trucks and RVs for movable storage and flooding Social Security with requests for cards with aliases they bought on the dark web. 

“It’s time for a rebolution!” Sheila kept saying and she wasn’t alone. Seemed like everyone was shifting to the wrong side of the law and feeling righteous about it.

When she took everything and moved into The Bigs’ place in the canyon, our house echoed eerily without all our stuff to absorb the noise. An empty home is an empty life.

I sleep now with a loaded Luger under my pillow. Gunshots and police sirens wake me every ten minutes. Even the birds stay awake all night. When I hear a noise downstairs, I curl my finger around the trigger and check the house, empty room by empty room. I know the statistics say I’ll end up shooting Sheila or one of her buddies. Or the kids returning to save us by dragging us off to Portland. 

I should be storing it in a lockbox or, better yet, throwing the damn thing away. But I hate to waste stuff now. It was Sheila’s grandpa’s, for Pete’s sake! And Lord knows I’m gonna need it someday.

Jack Powers is the author of two poetry collections: Everybody’s Vaguely Familiar (2018) and Still Love (2023). His poems have appeared in The Southern Review, Salamander, The Cortland Review and elsewhere. He won the 2015 and 2012 Connecticut River Review Poetry Contests and was a finalist for the 2013 and 2014 Rattle Poetry Prizes. His flash fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Inkwell, Flash Point Science, Flash Fiction Magazine and elsewhere.

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Every Day Fiction