Science Fiction Family north carolina driverless cars gig economy teenager

A Better Gig

By Stephen S. Power
Mar 10, 2019 · 3,911 words · 15 minutes


From the author: What teenager hasn't wanted to leave their family for another? Thanks to the gig economy, Frank has a chance to find a better position.


Ten miles from the Marriott Moment on the outskirts of Durham, North Carolina, Frank hears the zipvan say, “Good morning,” and start beeping. It’s driven his family overnight from New Jersey, and now they have a couple hours to get ready for his cousin’s wedding. If everything goes as planned, Frank will be gone by then.

His stepmother, Wendy, wakes up next. He can hear her on the air mattress in back tapping her watch, probably to confirm their check-in and breakfast order. The van will have already done both, but that’s the way she is.

The mattress squeaks as she nudges Frank’s father. “Peter.”

He rolls over, kisses her and whispers, “No one’s up yet. I can snooze the van. We’ll have a few minutes.”

Mercifully, she pushes him away. “It’s Sunday,” she says. They’re bad enough on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Yesterday, while he was working through meals and midnight as he had for a week so no one would have to weave during the trip, his father and Wendy spent an hour in the bathroom. They came out showered in sweat. If Frank takes more than five minutes any day to crap, his father tells him he’s stealing money from the business.

In the hammocks swaying over Frank’s air mattress, the twins say, “Daddy, we have to poo.”

“Look out below, Frankie,” his father says. The girls laugh.

He keeps pretending to be asleep, fighting the urge to say again, “It’s Frank. Frank,” as if they’d listen.  

Wendy crawls forward and nudges his air mattress. “Come on, sleepyhead. Time to get up.” Frank doesn’t move.

“He’s faking,” Moira says.

“No,” Angela says. “He’s dreaming about his girlfriend.”

“Oh, but Angela, did she not dump him?”

“Months ago. Dumped him like a turd.” They practically scream.

“Girls,” his father says. “Let’s go, Frankie. Five minutes till we get there.” As if cued, the van repeats, “Good morning,” the beeping gets louder and the roof unblacks. Sunlight fills the van like piss fills a bucket.

Frank sits up, scowls and deflates his mattress beneath him. While he’s stowing it in a locker, his sisters drop beside him in shorts and tank tops. He looks at their identical legs and says, “I’ve seen less hair on bears.”

“Daddy!”

“Frankie.”

“You’d think for blondes you wouldn’t be so...swarthy. Who’d want to dance with that?”

“Frank,” Wendy says. “Be mature.”

He shoots her a look. She shoots one back. Wendy usually doesn’t do that, his father being in charge of personnel problems, but she’s always courting his sisters as allies because they’re “becoming women” and because his father forgives them everything, regardless of how their screw ups affect his job. Frank wishes his father would fire them all.

Considering that he’ll never see them again after today, though, why not make their last hours together pleasant? He could leave them with that. He can be mature.

Frank stands and looks down at his sisters’ little jutting chins and chests. “I’m sorry,” he says. “Once you’re shorn, plenty of boys will dance with you.”

The twins tear into him, his father scrambles into the fray, and the suspension frantically stabilizes the van.

“Look,” his father says, “we’ve got two hours to shit, shower and shave, and I don’t want to hear another nasty word out of anyone. OK? Or do you need some work to keep you busy? Who wants to log on?”

Frank looks away just in time to see down Wendy’s old t-shirt as she stows her mattress. Frank wants to say, “My real mom has bigger boobs than you.”

The van announces, “Arriving at your destination.” His father lets them go as the van glides off I-85 onto a service road, then into the bath station.

Three low, Duke blue buildings with rows of white doors surround a central hub with automated shops. As the van passes building C, Frank unblacks a smear of window with his fingers. A zipcar sits outside #1. That’s a good sign. Jolene wouldn’t have come in a van.

Theirs parks outside B7. “You’ve reached your destination,” it says.

“Is everybody decent?” Wendy says.

“Wait,” his father says and pulls off his shirt.

“No, Daddy!”

“Van, go clear,” he says.

The van becomes transparent. His father waggles his moobs at a family outside. Wendy hoots as the twins try to cover him. “You’ll get us arrested,” she says.

“Why?” his father says. “A hairless chest indicates advanced evolution.” He bounces. The sun turns him even more pale. Nipples shouldn’t cast shadows.

Frank winces and taps the side of the van. It slides open. He jumps barefoot into the cool air and mutters, “I’ll shower first.”

“Daddy!”

“He called it,” his father says. “And me and the moobs have seconds.”

“No!”

“Yes! Because you and Wendy take forever.”

Perfect. Exactly as Frank had planned.

He taps the van. “Have a very good morning,” it says. As the side closes, his father gives Wendy a look: “We could shower together at least.”

Franks drums his watch against B7’s lock pad. He can’t get away from these people fast enough.

The door clicks and opens, the lights turn on, and Frank steps into a carpeted sitting area. A dressing closet, a shower room and a toilet room are in back; to one side, a vanity with two sinks, mirrors and stools. On a small table Frank sees coffees from StarDirect and boxes from EveryApron for everyone but him, who said he wasn’t hungry. He heads for the shower, belly growling.

Before he soaps up he opens the burner app on his watch. He has an anonymous message:

> Ready.

Frank taps:

> 10m.

He washes quickly to keep his hands from shaking, then slicks back his lank black hair, mummifies himself with two large towels and returns to the sitting room.

His father, still shirtless, is eating a bacon rope while the twins slurp yogurt. They’re making weird faces at each other.

“I put your clothes in the closet,” Wendy says. “I wish you’d eat before you get dressed. We rented your suit from the nice place. I’d hate for you to get anything on it.”

Like he can’t be trusted with his own mouth. Frank ducks into the closet. His family’s outfits hang on hooks around him like bodies in a meat locker, their thin plastic sheaths reaching out, trying to cling to his hot, damp skin.

His watch throbs.

> Waiting.

Frank taps:

> Sorry. 10 more.

Frank jams himself into his clothes. The pants feel wrong, they don’t fit like jeans, and the gray dress shirt is cut too slim. When he dares to look in the mirror, though, he has to admit the dark blue suit does him some good. Of course his father and Wendy will go on about it and ruin it. He holds the knob, hold his breath and emerges.

“Hey, Frankie,” his father, “don’t you look sharp? You’re gonna kill them.”

“Very professional,” Wendy says. “You’ll make us look good.”

His sisters say nothing. They’ve probably been spoken to. So they open their mouths as if gagging on the thick white yogurt.

“Here,” Wendy says, “you should eat.” She presses him toward the table and a paper plate with half her chicken and egg scramble.

He twists away from her hand. “I’m going for a walk.”

“Your food will get cold,” Wendy says.

He shrugs and goes to the door. In the mirror on the back Frank sees her stare at his father and his father shake his head. He gets up and turns Frank around.

“You know what time we’re leaving,” he says. “Be back by then.” His father smooths Frank’s lapels with huge hands, the knuckles like walnuts. “It’s a miracle your cousin found someone to marry. We don’t want to mess it up.”

“Peter!” Wendy says.

“It’s true. He’s a horrible person. No wonder he had to mail-order a husband from Russia.”

Frank leaves, wondering what his family says about him behind his back or if they have nothing to say about him at all. That’s why he doesn’t trust what they say to his face.

 

#

 

Frank knocks at C1. A woman in a yellow suit with boobs as big as a loveseat opens the door. “Frank?” she says. “I’m Jolene. Come in, come in.”

The room’s identical to B7 except for a pleasant smell, earthy and sweet, like woods after a rain. Four people stand up, smiling.

Jolene says, “These are the Kerleys. Sarah. Kyle. Howard, their son, and Katherine, their stepdaughter.”

“Kat,” Frank says. The girl brightens.

“Yes. Kerleys, this is Frank.”

Frank gives a little wave. He knows them, of course, from their holochats. Sarah was a librarian before GoogleCurate; now she works with Kyle, weaving social platforms like Frank’s family. Howard, a few years younger than Frank, is watching eighth- through tenth-level classes, while Kat watches sixth and seventh levels except for math, where she’s excelling at fourteenth level courses. She’s the key to their family business by finding novel mathematical means of creating for clients the appearance of a large, devoted community because building a small crowd can draw a larger one.

Sarah can’t contain herself any longer. She wraps delicate arms around Frank. Her pretty summer dress smells like a rental, but her long black hair radiates strawberry. Frank relaxes into her so deeply he seems to float.

The other Kerleys envelop Frank until Jolene coughs, they giggle and the family opens like a flower.

“Are you hungry, Frank?” Sarah says. “We got you breakfast. Your favorites: a cinnamon cruller and grapefruit juice. Kat?”

Everyone sits while the girl, blonde and tan unlike the rest of the family, brings Frank an EveryApron box. He looks inside and says, “I’d eat this every morning. Thanks.”

Touched by the gesture, he keeps himself from noting that what they call a cruller down here he would call a French donut.

“Let’s begin,” Jolene says. “Frank, as a sixteen-year-old, you can declare yourself a free agent, so would you like to accept the Kerleys’ offer and change families?”

Absolutely, he thinks. He doesn’t want to seem desperate, though. “I have a few last questions.”

“Sure, sweetie,” Sarah says.

“Will I have my own room?”

“Absolutely,” Sarah says.

“John’s?”

She nods.

“Why did he quit?”

“It’s like you said about your family,” Sarah says. “It stopped being a good fit.”

Frank discovered that John had subsequently started a rival weaving business, but he doesn’t press.

“Do I have to supply my own stuff?”

“Natal rights do confer ownership over certain things,” Jolene says. “Not that suit.”

“I was going to drone it back to Maplewood along with my watch. I’d like to make a clean break.”

“That’s what I did when I was traded,” Kat says, kneeling beside Frank. “It’s for the best.”

“We do have a new watch for you,” Kyle says.

“Those aren’t the questions you really want to ask, are they?” Sarah says.

Frank shakes his head and bites the donut.

“You’re safe here,” Kat says. “We want you in our family.”

“That’s just it,” Frank says. “Why? Why would you want someone like me?”

“How can you say that?” Sarah says. “You’re smart. Hard-working. Musical. A poet.”

“And well-dressed,” Howard says. “For the moment.”

He and Frank grin until Kyle turns serious.

“Listen,” Kyle says, “I don’t know what kind of father could let his son feel worthless--”

“He’s not so bad,” Frank says.

“Well, I’ll be worthy of you,” Kyle says, “we’ll all be, then you’ll find the worth in yourself.”

Frank’s bottom lip quivers.

“You’ll learn so much too,” Howard says. “You’ll become a much better weaver than John.”

Naturally they want him for his weaving too. A family business, his father says, is only as strong as the family’s united talents. But a family, Frank thinks, is only as strong as its united members, and he’s felt a greater bond with the Kerseys in the last ten minutes than he’s felt with his family since before his mother left.

“Have you made a decision, Frank?” Jolene says.

“Yes,” he says. “I will,” and the Kerleys mob him.

After a moment Jolene says, “Would you like to go to contract now?”

Frank nods, Jolene taps her watch and the contract appears on Frank’s. He taps it, and the watch projects the document larger and legible above his wrist. He swipes to the signature page, and Jolene says, “You should read it first.”

“I read the offer draft,” Frank says.

“Not this draft.”

Kyle glares at Jolene until Frank notices. Suspicious, he opens the offer draft and creates a comparison text. It highlights two changes: the date of the contract, naturally, and the term of endearment.

“The offer was for three years,” Frank says. “It’s five here.”

“I meant to point that out,” Sarah says, rubbing his arm, “but I got so caught up in finally meeting you in person.”

“We lost a few gigs with John gone,” Kyle says. “Lost out on a few others to him. We have to demonstrate more stability. For the long-term. You understand.”

Kat looks uncomfortable. Frank wonders if they did something like this when getting her. With her skills and sweetness, she’s not the type of daughter you pick up easily in a trade.

“In five years,” Frank says, “I’ll have aged out of a lot of other situations.”

“You’ll want to re-up anyway,” Howard says.

“We already love you,” Sarah says, “And I think you already love us.”

Kyle says, “Do you want to sign with them for five more years and hope you don’t get laid off?”

“We want you, Frank,” Sarah says.

“We need you,” Kyle says.

Frank says, “Kat?”

The girl looks at Kyle, then hugs Frank. He can’t tell if she’s telling him stay or telling him goodbye.

Frank’s watch throbs. Beneath the contract, his father’s moob appears.

Kyle puts his hand over the screen. “I’m sorry,” he says. “We should’ve discussed the change before I changed the contract, not afterwards. Don’t let my one stupid mistake hurt the rest of us. Please. We’ll thrive together.”

The watch throbs again. Frank says, “I should get this.”

The Kerleys drop their hands and heads.

At the door, Jolene holds her chin up, but he can tell she knows he’s not coming back, even if Frank doesn’t know how he can return to his family.

 

 

Outside the sun pokes its thumbs into Frank’s eyes, giving him a reason to grind his tears with his fists.

His watch throbs.

“Where are you?” his father says.

Frank goes cold. There’s no sense in lying. His watch is telling his father he’s in the bath station, plus Frank’s surrounded by an acre of identical zipvans. Any of them could be theirs, letting his father watch him through the dash cam.

“I’m near B.”

“Come find me in the hub. I want to speak with you.”

“In a minute,” Frank says.

He walks in the opposite direction, crosses the service road and stands on the crushed sandstone lawn facing the highway. Cars and vans tear by in neat rows. For a moment he wishes he could fling himself into traffic, but the sensors of every vehicle within 200’ feet will have tracked him like a deer and, just in case, devised a defensive swarm. The vehicles would avoid him and each other.

A hand clasps his shoulder. He jumps. A van swerves, and the motion ripples down the traffic. It’s his father, huffing in a matching suit.

“Thinking about catching a ride?”

Frank shakes his head.

“My grandfather, when he was your age, he hitchhiked all the time. Lots of people did.”

“What’s that?”

“Hitchhiking? Really?” his father says. “It was like a zipshare. Instead of a van grouping you with people going to the same place, you’d walk along a road with your thumb out, and a driver wanting company or just wanting to be nice would pick you up. Like this.” His father steps forward and jerks his thumb at the traffic. It ripples again.

“That’s sad,” Peter says, stepping back. “No one can stop now.” He shakes Frank by the shoulder. “Guess you’re stuck with us, Frankie.”

“Mom wasn’t,” Frank whispers.

“Her term was up,” his father says.

“You could have offered a new one.”

“Why? Marriage is just another gig. We’re lucky we got Wendy so quickly to pick up the slack.”

Frank watches the traffic vanishing. It occurs to him now that Wendy was brought on very quickly. As if she’d been waiting for a place to open up.

“You have to treat her better, you know,” his father says.

“I don’t like her.”

“I don’t care. She’s part of the family now, and when you walk all over her or when you ignore her, that hurts her, which affects the business. We’re way down this month.”

“I hate the business.”

Peter clenches the back of Frank’s neck. “No business, no family. You should know that by now. How can you not see that’s why I work us so hard? Do you want to end up sleeping on rocks somewhere? Christ. You’re just like her.”

“Then I should leave too,” he says. “I’m sixteen.”

“To go where? To do what?” Peter makes Frank look at him. “To find your mommy? Grow up. She doesn’t want to be found. And someday you’ll run this family. Now let’s go.” He jerks his thumb toward their suite. “We don’t want to miss the signing ceremony. This Russian could open up a lot of new opportunities for us.”

Frank sees Jolene and the Kerleys leave C1. Their vehicles faintly chorus, “Good morning. Please enter,” and they disappear inside. The van leads the car to the service road.

“Come on, Frank,” his father says.

Frank trots up the service road to meet the van.

His father looks at his watch. “I said, Come on. What are you doing?”

Frank puts his thumb out. The van doesn’t slow. He stands in front of it. The van swerves around him, but the Kerleys can’t see him. The van’s windows are blacked. It speeds away as Jolene’s car swerves around him too. They’re quickly absorbed into the traffic on I-85.

Frank’s watch throbs:

> Sorry. I’ll keep your resume for future gigs.

Frank erases the message, then tries to yank off his watch. It won’t give. He screams at his own huge, stupid hand.

His father puts an arm around Frank’s shoulders. “I don’t know what that was about, but it’s over. Let’s go.”

“No!” he yells and runs for the highway. Traffic parts before him. When he reaches the other side he hopes the cascade of squealing tires and brakes has closed over his pursuing father. Peter hasn’t moved, though. He shakes his head, taps his watch and walks back to the room.

Frank runs through a line of withered trees, hops a fence and enters a rental development. Down a street lined with townhouses much like their own in New Jersey, a zipvan disgorges a family. After it closes, the van thinks a moment, then rolls up to Frank and stops. “Good morning,” the van says. “Please enter.” The van opens again. Frank jogs around it. The van backs after him.

Frank opens the zipapp. Because a vehicle has already been sent for him by his father, he can’t hire another.

When he tries to cross the next street the van cuts him off. “Good morning,” it says. “Please enter.” The lights flash. Frank backs onto a pea gravel yard, half-expecting the van to hop the curb to come after him. It won’t stop until he’s acquired.

He could register as a free agent, and his watch would freeze, canceling the van and cutting him off from his family, but his father was right. Where would he go? He doesn’t want to be free anyway. He wants to be held.

Another van pulls up. Wendy gets out. Her hair is up, showing off new earrings, and she’s wearing a long, sleeveless dress the same red as his tie. His mother always wore her hair down, having no earrings, and the dress is a nicer rental than Peter would have allowed her. Clearly his father’s going all out to court the Russian.

“Can I talk to you?” Wendy says.

Frank shrugs. Another discussion. He feels so popular.

“I know you don’t like me,” Wendy says. “And I understand why. I can’t replace your mother. And I don’t want to. Because the fact is, I don’t like you either. You’re a moody little shit.”

Frank’s eyes widen. “What?”

“You did great work, your father told me. You kept the business afloat after your mother left. Now, though, you’re bringing us down with your mulish attitude. You’ve got your sisters fighting. You’ve got me annoyed at your father. Your recent work has been substandard. And I won’t have that.”

“But I feel like a mule.”

“We’re all just mules, Frank. You think I like laying out your clothes? Feeding you? Being pleasant? No. I’m a professional. It’s in my contract.” She taps her watch as if she might pull it up. “Your mother’s roles were probably spelled out in hers too.”

Frank would protest if he could keep from sputtering instead.

“What frustrates me most about your attitude,” Wendy says, “is that you don’t see how lucky you are. You’ve been with this family your whole life. Your mother was around for most of it. Your father and sisters still are. You’ll have six or eight more families, though, some good, some not. Which brings me to why I’m here.”

She steps closer to Frank and tightens his tie. “Enjoy your families. Appreciate them. Learn what you can and make their businesses better. If you can’t, leave when your term is up and find a new one. Like your mother did.” She tugs the down and straight until his head tilts forward. “But during a term, commit yourself fully. Be the son you’re supposed to be. Because others are counting on you.” She lets go of the tie. “If you can’t do that for us, don’t come back.”

Wendy pats his cheek and gets into the van. “And if you’re not coming back, let your father know as soon as possible. We don’t want to be late to the wedding. Your cousin says the Russian’s family hates people who are late.” The van closes.

As it drives away, the other van says, “Good morning. Please enter.” The lights blink.

Frank can’t believe the Russian’s family traveled all the way here for the ceremony. Forget the airfare and lost hours. The Russian was leaving them to work with his new husband. Why should they bother? When Frank’s mother left, she didn’t even say goodbye, just cut off her watch and zipped away, while his father reassigned her work to himself and Frank within the hour. He wishes his family had such devotion. No wonder his father wants to schmooze them. A sentimental partner is easily gulled.

It occurs to Frank that the Russian’s family must now have an opening. Why shouldn’t he be the one to fill it? He is a good worker, he could increase their reach, and he could protect them from Americans like his father. Frank jumps into the van. He tells it to hurry. He can’t be late.

##