Two cherubic angels gazed up from the shipping crate like bug-eyed baby seals, all cloud white fur and feathers. Their umbrella wings unhinged and they didn’t so much fly as levitate around the skypen, their stubby newborn legs dangling. I’d cashed the 401K and maxed all twelve credit cards, determined not to miss another opportunity like Beanie Babies and Franklin Mint collectibles. The franchise video left me unprepared for that first milking.
“How ‘bout you warm those mitts next time?” Juliete said.
“Sorry,” I said.
“We can’t thrive in the presence of regret,” Romeo said.
I’d realized this wasn’t a breeding pair when I saw Romeo’s udder, but I’d already named them. Turns out there’s only the one sex, like the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park.
Thirty minutes of tugging yielded a scant two ounces of milk.
“Not a good start,” Juliete said. “Do you know what we eat?”
“Happiness?” I said, thinking I knew at least that much. Multiplying the two ounces by the going rate produced a dismal prophecy.
“Are you unhappy, Dave?” Romeo said.
Answering seemed counterproductive.
“We’re done here,” they said in unison, humming that way that melts your teeth. ”Drink, drink.”
I drank the milk I’d hoped to sell. It tasted of cotton candy and grass clippings. A worm of joy twitched within my core.
They spent the afternoon rending the Skypen netting with their dorsal sails. Asserting the right to fly north anytime they chose.
“Tugging harder isn’t the answer,” Juliet said at the afternoon milking.
“Happiness begins at home.” Romeo said.
“Drink, drink,” they chanted.
I adjusted the stocking cap to cover the scabs where my hair had fallen out. “Cheers,” I said, quaffing the scant ounce of product. The last ember of joy rekindled for a couple heartbeats, then extinguished.
Sundown found me blind in the left eye. Leperous spots rippled across my extremities. I ate a crust of bread, weevils and all, shivering in the cold, all the firewood burned to ash. We cocooned under quilts to fend off frostbite, Emily’s warm hip melting my worry, baby Hope’s cotton candy shampoo lulling me asleep.
The three AM alarm roused me from bliss. I pulled my coat over pajamas smelling of bed and shuffled to the barn. Milked the angels still cloaked in slumber, producing four glorious ounces.
“We’re on a roll,” they crooned in unison. “Drink, drink.”
The yield doubled at the six AM milking. Doubled again at noon, and so on. Continued torpor the key to prosperity.
Thus we participated in the happiness economy. Drink some, sell some, sleep, repeat. I trod the somnambulist’s tightrope, never glancing down. The house filled with flat screens I never watched, the drive with vehicles I never drove. The angels grew to the size of walruses.
One day the barn radio explained how Stone Age peoples hunted angels to near extinction. How they emerged from thawing tundra to resume their place in the food chain as the apex parasite.
“You should turn that off,” Romeo said.
“I’m not listening,” I said with a permanent smile, working faster, joints arthritic from constant milking, teeth rotted black. By then I wasn’t leaving the barn. The angels were the size of humpbacks
“True happiness requires commitment,” they said in unison.
I realized that Hope and Emily had gone to her mother’s house. When? A month ago? A year? Had they forgotten to come back?
“You should turn that off,” the angels said.
I turned off the radio, smiling but determined not to forget. I did not drink more angel’s milk. The hardest thing I’d ever done.
The one AM milking produced two ounces. Nothing at three. At daybreak I came to the Skypen with a bread knife in hand and sawed away what remained of the netting. Awake and miserable at last.
“Don’t be a fool,” Juliet said. “Think of your family.”
“Go,” I said, pointing with the knife. They waggled skyward like zeppelins until they were but dots on the northern horizon.
As quickly as it began, the angel bubble burst, like the price of seventeenth century tulip bulbs and subprime mortgage backed derivatives.
It was the best thing that could have happened. The government bailout made us rich, but the national convention was a dismal affair, everyone hunting the Next Big Thing. A pomegranate-avocado hybrid. Coconut red wine. Fish oil turmeric smoothies. Everything sufficiently vile, but lacking in the miraculous. We assembled over pricey cocktails, commiserating over the good old days when we were keen and desperate, miserable and happy.
“Drink, drink,” we said.
And we did.
Robert P. Kaye’s stories have appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Gulf Stream, Penn Review, Hobart, Juked and elsewhere–details available at www.robertpkaye.com. He facilitates the Works in Progress open mic at Hugo House and is a fiction editor at Pacifica Literary Review.