Juked began in early 1999 as a small collective of friends publishing columns and op/ed pieces. Like most projects that have had some time to grow, where and who and what we are now is almost nothing like where and who and what we were ten years ago. Since around 2004, 2005, we’ve been publishing short fiction and poetry, along with the occasional non-fiction piece, or the occasional script/screenplay. Our stories have been anthologized in collections such as W. W. Norton’s Sudden Fiction series and Dzanc Books’ Best of the Web. We publish online continuously, and put together one print issue a year. I don’t know that we fit into any sort of convenient category or label—we’ve published some pretty off-the-cuff stuff, plenty of serious stuff, stories and poems that people would consider “experimental” as well as “traditional.” Every good story has a balanced blend of the expected and the unexpected, the familiar and the unfamiliar, and we particularly love stories that surprise us while giving us something we already know.
Kyle Hemmings’ “Is There Life on Mars?” for instance, tackles familiar themes: a failed marriage, death of a loved one, a disintegrating life in which dreams crumbled into harsh realities. Yet what Kyle manages to do is provide us with arresting images and all these emotionally hot moments that feel like they could only belong to Marjorie, and not something common to everyone else. Nothing in this story felt forced, which was very difficult to do, given the uniqueness of sundogs, the delicate and often artificially-weighted subject of dementia, a delicate soul mistreated by the world. On top of this, Kyle manages to deliver a whole life, an epic feel to Marjorie, through a scant two thousand words. In doing so, Kyle gave us a story that was something entirely new, while still operating in a familiar world.
Nominated Short Story: "Is There Life on Mars?" - Kyle Hemmings
Reviewed: by Shellie Zacharia
A sense of other-worldliness fills Kyle Hemmings’ thoughtful and lyrical short story, “Is There Life on Mars?” The story is divided into four strong vignettes that follow a character, Marjorie, from childhood through old age. In each section, we have an “alien” tie-in – though the story itself is not really about extraterrestrials. For me, it’s a story about identity and mystery and the human feeling of being elsewhere or alone in the presence of others.
In the opening section, Marjorie is a young girl sitting on her father’s shoulders surveying their land. Marjorie asks her father if they are Martians. She wonders this because her mother had just gotten a book that had strange words: UFO’s, crop circles, black holes. Her mother had told Marjorie that in Texas, people saw strange sightings or lights. Where’s Texas? Marjorie asks her father. “Someplace where you could get lost and they’d never find you,” he says. He also tells Marjorie that Mars is someplace cold – “A place where you’d float forever and forget your name.”
In the next section, which jumps years, Marjorie is with her boyfriend. They have just had sex. He asks her how it felt. “Like riding a comet. Like giving birth to a star,” she says. Something, a light, distracts Marjorie and she says it’s a space ship – “she wanted to believe in something amazing.”
In the third section of the story, Marjorie is an adult – a mother and a wife. We learn that Marjorie now lives in Dallas, Texas. We find out Marjorie’s son has distanced himself from her. Her husband has also, and Marjorie suspects affairs. When Marjorie learns that her son has been killed in a car accident, she doesn’t tell her husband right away. When she finally does, she says that some higher power “absconded” with their son. Marjorie tells her husband that if there was a god, he lived in a cold climate and very far away. “He was a lonely god, an alien, and needed humans for warmth.”
In the final section of the story, Marjorie is an old woman in a nursing home. When Marjorie is asked if she knows where she is, she says she is on Mars. The nurse, “the ghost,” answers that Marjorie is in Dallas. Marjorie wonders how she got there. “By spaceship?” she asks. When the nurse shows Marjorie a picture and asks if she recognizes the girl, Marjorie says that indeed it is her, but in someone else’s shoes. The story ends with Marjorie thinking about the stillness of the world . . . “the one she was on.”
What makes this a good story is the layering of images. Hemmings weaves references to aliens and sundogs and dust devils and black holes. Readers will notice the references to warmth and coldness that play throughout the sections. And then there are the recurrences of disconnects, isolation, and lost worlds. Each section of this story holds strong on its own and as a whole it’s a sad and beautifully-told tale.
Shellie Zacharia teaches in Florida. Her stories have appeared in Hobart, Opium, Keyhole, The Pinch, Washington Square, Georgetown Review, Canteen, Juked, SmokeLong Quarterly, and elsewhere. Her story collection, Now Playing, is forthcoming from Keyhole Press. Find links to her work at her blog.
Thanks for visiting Five Star Literary Stories and reading about this short story.