The Serial Killer's Astronaut Daughter
By Damien Angelica Walters
6 January 2014
They teach you a lot of things in school, in training. One thing that's missing: What To Do When Your Father's a Serial Killer.
Harrison is quoting from Aliens again, something about hell and express elevators. It was funny the first time. After ten months? Not so much.
And we aren't traveling down to anywhere; we're orbiting about 220 miles above Earth on this space station. No xenomorphs, no artificial humans, no acid for blood.
Barring any unforeseen circumstances, I'll make my return trip to Earth in two months and get back in time for my father's execution.
Picture this: four days ago. A broadcast from the station. Your basic hello, how are ya, this is what we're working on now kind of thing. The folks back on Earth love it.
Harrison, Wallace, and I have the handheld camera floating with us in the corridor outside one of the service modules. The plan is to show the kids how we do maintenance work here in microgravity. Usually the press isn't involved, but the Russians unveiled a new research project into changes in bacterial virulence before the camera switched to us. By now, half the chairs are empty; our crew isn't the celebrity type.
On a different station we might be. People still love to watch astronauts play instruments or pranks, random shit like that. This space station is owned by a private company, though, and for supposed confidentiality reasons, the public isn’t given unlimited access. No song and dance routines or selfies or status updates on social media allowed.
In some ways, it's better this way; we can do our jobs without having to perform for the masses. But the company isn’t fooling anyone. They do it so they can control the public's interest. I have to admit, so far it's working.
A reporter, short and blonde with a cruel twist in her smile, raises her hand, is picked by the Earth-side moderator. (I know the smile. I know the type. Perfect lawn, perfect house, perfect happy fucking family, all the while spreading venom like it's goddamn hummus on a pita.)
"Is the news about your father affecting your work in any way?" she says.
Camera cut to the confusion on my face. I'm thinking she has me mixed up with Harrison. His father's in the hospital with heart trouble, but Harrison is a six-foot black man and I'm a five-foot, six-inch white girl.
"I mean, it must be a shock," she continues, "to know that Mark Coyne, killer of twelve women, is your father."
The pressroom erupts in chaos—shouts, flashing lights, waving arms. Cut to my face again. Confusion. A hint of anger. The broadcast cuts to the moderator who is asking for the next question. While that happens, I head out of the corridor, out of camera view, with Harrison and Wallace both looking at me with twin expressions of what-the-fuckery.
Film at eleven, right?
The first marriage proposal is a gem: I FEEL like I know you 4EVER. Your eyes, the smile, plz say yes. I know you're daddy will luv ME.
I delete it. Proper usage of the apostrophe is hard, but still. The second proposal, written in a far more eloquent manner (and he promises me a lifetime of happiness and love and undying devotion), comes a week later, followed less than twenty-four hours later with the third and fourth. Of those two, the less said the better.
Great, now I have groupies. Like father, like daughter?
(Yes, serial killer groupies exist. Don't bother looking that shit up; it'll make your head spin.)
I don't even know how the fuck they got my email address. I know nothing's really private if you look hard enough, but shit. . . .
The folks at the top have been curiously silent, save for one missive I received an hour after the reporter dropped her bomb telling me that under no circumstances was I to participate in any other planned broadcasts and that further instructions would be forthcoming. Basically, shut your mouth and keep working.
Typical. Still, it makes me uneasy. I know it's only been a week, but I expected a slew of messages. I guess the company has more important things to worry about. I hope so anyway.
The reporter who broke the story about my father sent me an email after the broadcast. She says she held onto the information for three months, but he was going to go public if she didn't. I'm guessing she planned it that way so she can say she didn't intend to fuck me over career-wise.
(I got that from Harrison, by the way. I hope I conveyed the correct inflection. Yes, I know it's from Alien, not Aliens. Harrison is an equal opportunity quoter. And yes, I’m thinking about Alien again. The one character just says “right” over and over and over again. Annoying. It’s even more annoying when Harrison does it. And he does. All the time.
Don't get me wrong. I like the movies. Seriously, what's not to like? Ripley is a badass female character who takes on a monster alien and kicks its ass. In space. And in the second film, there are two badass females. Even if Vasquez, the marine, doesn't get to survive. At least she goes out on her own terms and with a hell of a bang, too.)
And no, the reporter didn't apologize for blindsiding me with the intel.
Here's the skinny: my mother dated my father. Briefly. They never broke up, he just vanished. She found out she was pregnant, and, obviously, decided to keep me. Ten years later, he got caught.
I never knew my father, never knew who he was or anything about him. I have my mother's last name. My mother says she didn't know, didn't match up the face from her memory to the one in the news reports, and he used a fake name when they dated. She found out the same day, the same way, I did.
Apparently the reporter, who's writing a book, tracked my father's backstory down after he fessed up on some of his aliases. Bam. Hello, birth certificate. My mother used his name, in case I ever wanted to track him down.
After the thousandth emailed apology, I told my mom to stop. It wasn't her fault. She's lucky she didn't end up as one of his victims, but they were all blonde and very young. My mom had dark hair and wasn't quite so young. Maybe he just wanted to try and act normal for a while. Maybe he was hiding. Maybe it doesn't matter.
Twelve dead women, all with families and loved ones, and the media has decided to focus on me. No, it doesn't make sense, but it makes a hell of a headline, so they say. Most people don't remember the names of the victims anyway.
And somewhere in the middle of this whole mess, the press is having a field day. I've become the serial killer's astronaut daughter. I don't know who the hell she is, but she isn't me.
My official title is Technical Mission Specialist, a space mechanic, if you will, but Harrison, Wallace, and I call ourselves cumscrubs, on account of the special grease we have to use up here.
Crass nickname aside, I've been a regular on this station for the past ten years. Usually it's twelve months up, six back, but I've had shorter stints in both places. It sounds cheesy, I know, but they recruited me after my high school science fair. I'm reliable, I play well with others (mostly), and I do my fucking job.
On this mission, we're here with the Commander, the Flight Engineer, a couple Science Officers, and a few Russian Cosmonauts, including a doctor. Wallace, Harrison, and I try to stay out of everyone's way while we make sure all systems are in the green. The others stay out of our way, too.
Wallace and I are running diagnostics on the interior of a docking module; Harrison running the same outside. (Don't tell the bosses, but we rock-paper-scissored for it.)
I pause, wipe a scrim of sweat from my brow, and tip my head in Wallace's direction. "Did you see the latest? They're painting me as some Jezebel with sociopathy in her veins. Wondering if I'm safe to be here with all of you, or if that shit is genetic and I'm one step away from snapping and killing all of you. I'm being crucified for something I didn't do, for someone I'm not."
"Why are you even watching that shit?"
"How can I not?"
"My advice to you," Wallace says, "is to stay quiet and dignified. Let it blow over. Two months and we're out. The novelty will wear off."
"Quiet and dignified? Are you fucking serious? I'm an astronaut, not a fucking Barbie doll. Would you stay quiet and dignified if you were going through the same thing? And do you really think things will be better once we're back? That'll make this shit look like a picnic."
He doesn't answer. It doesn't surprise me, though. Don't rock the boat—that's Wallace's way of doing things.
Another news broadcast, this one solely Earthbound: him, the blonde reporter, a room in the prison—cinderblock walls, metal table bolted to the floor, shackles around his ankles, handcuffs on his wrists.
She says, "Would you like to talk to your daughter?"
He smiles a fucking Cheshire cat grin. Pity it doesn't reach into his eyes. (The genetic gods are cruel bastards 'cause my eyes look a lot like his.) "I would, very much so."
I bite the inside of my cheek so hard I taste blood. "Fucker." I exhale the word.
I hear Harrison's voice in the corridor outside the module and turn off the vidscreen fast.
I stare into the mirror for a long time. My eyes. His eyes. Mine don't look so cold, so dead; at least I don't think so. I look at the palms of my hands, move my fingers. Weird. I never noticed that hands look a lot like facehuggers, the nasty spider-like progenitors of the alien. Yeah, that’s another reference to the movies. I can’t help it, though; Harrison plays them all the motherfucking time, and they stick in your head.
The facehuggers gave life, although not birth, to the alien, but the only similarity between the two was the acid blood in their veins. (Think human head-sized creepy crawler versus a huge monster with a nightmarish double mouth.) I know his DNA is inside me, but there's even less of a similarity between our life forms. I've never thought of hurting anyone. I mean, yeah, I've been pissed off enough to want to punch someone in the face, but not like . . . that, like him.
A few more marriage proposals, emails from people asking me how it feels to be his daughter, another message from the blonde reporter (I delete that without even reading), a quick note from my mom, asking if I'm okay. I look down at my grimy hands, my coveralls smeared with grease. Yeah, it looks about like you think it would.
Then I see the email with the Department of Corrections address. It sits in my inbox, daring me to open it. Delete it, I tell myself. Have the IT folks block the address.
He asks how I'm doing, what I'm doing, tells me he sees a lot of himself in me. I run my tongue around the still sore spot in my cheek. At the end, he adds a P.S. Tell your mother I said hello. No comments about who, what, where he is.
I didn't even know prisoners on Death Row were allowed email. Then again, somebody like him, the cops probably want him to have access, then they can take a peek whenever they like to see if he's saying anything that might help. I can't imagine what that would be; they're just going to kill him in a couple months, case closed. Hell, maybe no one, not even the cops, gives a shit what he's saying for that very reason.
I've read the details of his crimes, bad enough, and imagine there's plenty worse they haven't leaked to the public. I have a feeling the reporter will include all the juicy details in her book. People love reading about shit like that the same way they love slowing down when they pass an accident.
I don't say a word to the guys about the email. Harrison, Wallace, and I have been working together a long time and we shoot the shit about everything. But this email? No fucking way.
I stab the delete button hard; if he emails me again, I won't read it.
When Wallace pulls me into the communications mod, Harrison is already there, his face grave. "Sit down, okay?" he says.
I see his face, paused on the screen. (Strange, I always thought I looked like my mother, but in this frozen shot, I can see a lot of myself and I fucking hate it.) "What the hell, guys. This isn't funny."
I glare at Wallace. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't you ask me why I was even watching this shit? So what gives?"
He has the decency to look embarrassed before he holds up one hand. "I know, but you need to see this."
The blonde reporter is there, sitting by his side. He looks to her. She nods. He gives a hesitant half-smile, looks right into the camera.
"I've had an epiphany and I've decided to be completely honest for the first time in my life. I owe this to my daughter, working up on the space station. She really is an amazing woman." He pauses to clear his throat and look down at his lap. "I want to come clean about the . . . about some other victims I haven’t talked to anyone about yet. But on one condition: I'll give the information to my daughter when she returns to Earth."
A sharp intake of breath—mine. "Motherfucker," I whisper.
A strange numbness spreads through my limbs. It isn't bad enough that he's got the press thinking we were some sort of family? That he was involved? Now he wants to tell me about the women he killed? Uh-uh. No way. Is this some kind of payback for not responding to his email?
Wallace puts a hand on my shoulder. Harrison does the same on the other side.
"That's some real pretty shit," Harrison says.
"Why the fuck would he want to tell me? I'm not a cop."
They both just shake their heads.
"I'm not talking to him about anything," I say. "This is all so fucked up. It's ridiculous."
Harrison exhales through his nose. "Yeah, yeah it is."
Along with the proposals, the people wanting to be my friend or offering prayers to support me in my time of need or telling me to kill myself before I hurt anyone, there are a slew of messages from the media, all wanting interviews; all wanting to know what I'm going to do. What. The. Fuck?
And the worst?
The messages from families of missing women that fit his preferred type. They're all begging me to help them: our only daughter, Patty; our sister, Evie; my best friend, Tilda.
I can't fucking help them. I can't.
Another message comes in from the top. Brief and to the point: No contact whatsoever with Mark Coyne. As if I needed the reminder, as if I'd want to talk to him about anything at all, let alone his crimes.
Not sure if you're keeping up with the latest celebrity broadcasts, but you and I are the biggest stars right now. Maybe in an alternate universe, I could've helped your Mom raise you, could be sitting with her right now watching all the reports about you. I hope you write. I'd like to get to know you before it's too late.
No comment about wanting to tell me about other dead women.
My eyes flick back to the Dear Daughter again and again.
I run into the Commander in between the laboratory modules. She smiles but not before I see the pity in her eyes. I don't smile back. Fuck her and her pity.
I head over to the Russian side of the station, flick the side of my neck the way they showed me. They grin, hand over the vodka. It burns like a bastard on the way down, but I don't cough or sputter. They laugh, give me a high-five.
"Your father. Durak, yes?" one says.
"Means like dumb-ass," another says.
The others laugh. Another high-five. Another swig of vodka all around.
I've been reading about your schooling, your training, everything. I'm really proud of all your accomplishments. Hey, maybe you could contact your Mom for me, ask her to respond to my messages? Maybe the three of us could do an interview together? Elise Paulson, she's the reporter who's writing the book about me, would be willing to put everything together. Just let me know, okay?
I'm trying to loosen a bolt that refuses, no matter how much lube I smear around it. "Come on, motherfucker," I yell, wielding the wrench like it's a sword. I attempt to anyway; the microgravity turns the movement into some weird underwater ballet-like thing. Under different circumstances, it would probably be funny as hell, but Harrison doesn't laugh. He puts his hand on my arm, takes the wrench, and steeples his fingers beneath his chin.
"What's going on?"
"Nothing, I can't get this fucking bolt loose, that's all. I think the threads are stripped."
"Not what I'm talking about and you know it."
"You mean other than the shit about having a serial killer for a father? Or that he wants to talk to me about his kills?"
"Is that it?"
I stare down at my hands for a long time. "No. He keeps emailing me."
"What the fuck?"
"I know, right? And get this, he opens the emails with Dear Daughter. Fucking ridiculous. No, I'm not answering the emails, if that's what you're asking."
"But you're reading them." No question in his words, but it's there in his eyes.
"We have IT guys for a reason. They can block that shit."
"This is what he wants, you know?"
"What do you mean?" I wipe my nose with the back of my hand, leaving a smear of grease. Shit smells like the ass-end of a man who hasn't showered in a month, maybe two.
"You know I studied a bit of psychology, right?"
"They're all manipulative bastards. He's trying to fuck with your head, and it's working." He adds the last bit in a soft voice so out of sync with his usual cockiness, I can't help but laugh—one quick bark.
"I just want this shit to go away," I say. "It's like a bad reality show: Daddy Issues in Space."
His turn to laugh. "But he ain't your Daddy, little girl, just some guy who provided a bit of squirt." He picks up the tube of grease, lets a little out to float in the air. I bat the glob away.
"But true. He's behind bars. You being his kid makes for drama and he's milking it for all it's worth. What else has a man waiting to die got to do, especially a man like him?"
"Sitting up here, saying nothing while the media goes nuts is making me crazy."
"So don't say nothing."
"Harrison, you know I can't do anything without their approval. Besides, I don't even know what I'd say. I just hate letting it go, you know?"
"What are they going to do, come up here and get you?"
"No, but I'm already under contract to come back in another year. I can't do anything to fuck that up."
He hands me back the wrench.
"So you're not afraid of me at all? Maybe worried that I'll go sociopath on your ass and kill you with this thing?"
He laughs. "Right. Get back to work, grunt."
"You don't think I should talk to him about the other victims, do you?"
"You don't even have to ask me that to know my answer," he says, his voice serious.
Downtime on the station: watching Sigourney Weaver take out a bunch of aliens with some kick-ass weaponry. The screen is tiny, the sound shit, but it's better than nothing.
From Harrison: "She's the best damn character ever. Hardcore tough."
From Wallace, accompanied with a punch on the arm: "Like you."
Me: "And they still put in a scene with her in her underwear."
Harrison snorts. "It doesn't take anything away. Shit, it's just underwear."
Right. I've got grime under my nails that will never come out and I like it that way. Know why? Because it says I'm real, I have a fucking purpose. I'm not somebody's tits and ass on display like a window mannequin. They did that shit to the baddest fictional woman in the universe. Hell, they even did it to the female marines in the second movie, but that's sort of forgivable because the guys were in their skivvies, too.
You won't catch me in my underwear; I sleep in my fucking coveralls.
In microgravity, it doesn't matter if you sleep upside down or sideways; it's all the same. I'm in my sleeping pod, staring at the dark of my eyelids, but sleep refuses to come. I creep out, float like a ghost down the corridor to the commo mod. Bad idea, I know.
It's one of the late-night shows. An expert is talking about someone being a liability, about the press being too much for any PR firm to handle, about the likelihood of contracts not being renewed. It takes a few minutes before the reality sets in. They're talking about me.
I float back to my sleeping pod. Pretend not to care. Pretend to sleep. They can't possibly terminate me over this, can they? It's not like that man had a hand in raising me, and I haven't been talking to him.
A few years back, a pissed off ex-girlfriend of one of the Flight Commanders released a sex tape. Tame stuff, really, but the media went crazy. Know what happened to him?
Nothing. When the press died down, he was already on the station orbiting Mars. His contract has been renewed without a hitch ever since. Men are forgiven for their transgressions; women crucified for theirs even if theirs don't belong to them.
Film at motherfucking eleven.
So how much time does it take to readjust to being back on Earth? Just wondering when I can plan on talking to you. I want to talk to you about a lot of stuff, not just the stuff I mentioned on television, but normal dad-daughter stuff.
I pause outside the commo mod when I hear the tinny sound of a broadcast.
"Has she responded at all?"
"No, she hasn't. I've done all I can." His voice is properly contrite.
"Will you consider talking to anyone else?"
"I just don't know. I just don't. I guess in some ways this felt like a way for me to atone to the victims and their families, to my daughter, to everyone."
"Is it true that your lawyers are filing for a stay of execution based on the potential new information?"
"I really can't comment on that."
The news flips to a legal expert, weighing in on the chances for a stay. Apparently, it looks pretty good.
When I come out of the toilet, the Commander is there. I step aside, thinking she has to use the shitter, but she touches my arm instead. I pull away but the microgravity kills any shot of it being a yank. Yes, we all fucking float up here, Mr. King.
"We're doing a broadcast on Friday," she says in a soft voice. "If you wanted a few minutes with the camera, we'd all be okay with it."
I bark back a laugh.
"Do the boys up top know about this?"
She smiles. "No, and they don't need to until after the fact."
We stand there, just looking at each other.
"You've gotten a raw deal. We all know it, but you need to take control."
Another laugh from me, but it sounds pretty damn close to a sob, too close to one for comfort.
"Look, I've had to put up with a lot of shit to get where I am. I've had to keep my mouth closed more times than I can count, and I regret it. You have a chance to show them you won't just do what we've always done."
"Women, especially women in male-dominated fields."
I bite my tongue. I doubt any other woman has a clue what I'm going through. A serial killer dad definitely qualifies as a unique situation.
"And don't think I'm just throwing you out to the wolves. I'll support you in any way I can."
I find that hard to believe. Why the hell would she sacrifice her career for someone like me? "I'm not exactly feminist spokeswoman material, you know."
"And why not? Why not you?"
"I'll think about it, okay?"
She nods. "Good."
Her gaze holds mine for a little while before she heads back the way she came. Maybe the situation really doesn't matter at all, but fuck, I'm a mechanic, not anyone important or influential.
Another email from him comes in. I delete it without reading, then empty my trash folder so I can't change my mind.
Harrison and I are sitting at the kitchen table with lasagna in foil packs—it's tastier than it sounds—when I clear my throat.
"Do you know about the broadcast?"
He nods. "You going to do it?"
"I don't know. I mean, maybe. Either way, I'm pretty sure I'm fucking done because of him and the media. Never mind that they recruited me. Never mind that I've been coming up here for ten years. Hell, I've spent more time here than down there."
"So, you going to sit around and mope? You've been quiet, hoping this will all blow over, right? And it hasn't, so you need to protect your ass. Saying nothing makes you look—"
"You've never been the shut up and stay that way type, you know? I get why you've been quiet, job on the line and all that, but this is your life, not anyone else's. You're a badass astronaut, woman. Shut that shit down. Shut it down hard. Be like Ripley."
I grin around a mouthful of lasagna. "Be like Ripley?"
"Damn straight. Fuck the boys at the top. They're trying to protect the company, but this isn't about them. It's about you. Ripley wouldn't take any shit and you don't have to either. What are they gonna do? Come up here and smack your hand?"
"If I do this, though, they'll never send me back up here."
"You never know. They might surprise you."
"It is so fucking unfair. I'm damn good at what I do."
"We all know that."
On Thursday, Harrison, Wallace, and I rock-paper-scissors for the last trip outside. I win. (I know they made their choices a split-second after I made mine. Long enough, you know? They're good guys that way.)
After I check and tighten all the bolts that need it, I look over my shoulder. Earth. Home. I wish like hell I could stay here for another twelve months, because then he'd probably be dead and some other drama would take over the news.
I look over my other shoulder, out into the deep dark of space, my gloved hand on the locking clip that holds me to the station. No matter what, this is as peaceful as it's going to get.
I stay outside as long as possible, too long, but neither Harrison nor Wallace give me any kind of grief about it.
Harrison grins when I come floating down the corridor. I can hear the Commander's voice as she talks to the Earthbound.
If I were a man, none of this would matter. They'd brush it under the rug, say whatever, he had no hand in the raising of said child and boom, media shitstorm over.
If I do this, my entire career could very well be over. If I don't do this, my entire career could very well be over. I didn't ask for any of it, but fuck it. I'm not staying quiet and dignified. I'm not keeping my mouth shut.
When the Commander finishes, Harrison swings the camera in my direction. I won't ever tell him, but Ripley's never been my favorite badass character. If you watch the way Vasquez walks around in her underwear, you can tell she really doesn't give a fuck and, right now, it seems better to channel her instead.
I take a deep breath.