Fiction by Mark Leidner
magine, by Matthew Reed. Copyright the artist. Courtesy the artist.

Last year I hosted a private contest open only to fiction writers I know. The goal was to see who could write the worst short story possible. Submissions had to be under 2500 words, the winner would get $0.00, and they would have to allow me to publish their story anonymously.

This story that follows actually came in second place out of the twenty or so submissions I received. I had hoped to share the first-place winner, but the writer didn’t get back to me when I asked for final edits and final permission to publish it. And I’m not mad at them, for the record. I just hope they are doing ok and I know everyone is busy, etc, etc. And this second-place story is certainly bad enough to do a good job representing the contest, as it is one of the worst stories I personally have ever read.

On behalf of myself and the anonymous author whose story is below, thank you to Joseph Grantham, editor of R&R, for agreeing to take a risk and publish the results of the contest. And now without further ado, here is the 2024 winner (by default) of the Annual Worst Short Story Contest, entitled, “The Greatest Pleasure of Fiction.”

Mark Leidner


The greatest pleasure of fiction is watching a character you don’t like get their comeuppance, and the more violent and absurd that comeuppance, the better.

In all the great stories, I would argue, there’s always at least one scene where someone who absolutely sucks gets completely fucked up by a bewildering twist of fate.

It can’t be overstated how critical it is that the person who suffers is bad, and the worse they are, the more gratifying their comeuppance becomes.

If you write a story where a good, nice person suffers a painful and humiliating demise due to forces beyond their comprehension, you’ll have made an unethical contribution to literature by adding to the nihilism of our era.

You’ll also have marked yourself out as a writer of sub-par literature.

For literature to be great, it needs to be ethical, and that means it needs to have a cogent moral order in which, if goodness is not rewarded, at least evil is punished — and the more brutal and hilarious that punishment, the better.

Even if you don’t care about ethics, making you a psychopath, there’s still marketing to consider.

People would rather read about someone who is greedy or pompous getting a horrific terminal illness, than, say, someone who is charming and charitable and self-effacing.

So that is why the person in the following narrative is the former rather than the latter.

To prepare yourself for the narrative, please picture a dickhead who completely deserves everything that’s about to happen to him, and he’s holding a hotdog and about to take a bite.

Now, to truly begin the story, imagine that a tiny asteroid has just knocked that hotdog out of his hand.

If you need more context to picture what’s going on, the person I’m talking about is a man.

Where is this man?

He’s standing on the prow of a yacht — his yacht — which he paid for with his own money, and in addition to the hotdog that he had in his hand that the tiny asteroid just knocked out, he’s got a beer in his other hand.

As for some backstory, he was alone on the yacht, just admiring the view of the ocean horizon and some little islands off in the distance, and the time of day for this story is right around sunset.

The hotdog that he would’ve eaten just now, if not for the sudden asteroid strike, was nothing fancy — just the perfectly smooth, skinny, bleached-flesh kind you might buy in a 24-pack at WalMart.

It would’ve been the cheapest processed meat product you can buy, offering scant nourishment once you factored in all the saturated fats, nitrates, and other chemicals associated with its processing.

But the guy whose hand it is no longer in wouldn’t have cared about that.

He has never once considered his own diet or nutrition, nor has he ever cared about the environment, nor has he once ever cared about the lives of the hogs whose rendered body parts he was about to eat.

His only care, vis-à-vis this hotdog, was the bite he was just denied by the errant asteroid.

That’s why he finds the asteroid knocking the hotdog out of his hand extremely upsetting and confusing.

And that’s why his reaction — looking around in bewilderment, frowning at the empty spot between his fingers where the meat and bread no longer is, and looking increasingly exasperated — is uproariously entertaining.

If necessary, take another moment to truly picture this situation and reflect on how amusing it is before moving on.

Now we can begin really ramping up the tension in this narrative as a kind of reward for those maximum-intelligence readers who have read this far, and, if you like, a secret punishment for those who were too impatient, short-sighted, or simply non-intelligent enough to continue reading this far.

So, just when this clearly unlikeable guy is the most frustrated because he won’t get to eat the hotdog he wanted to eat while looking at the ocean on his yacht because an asteroid knocked it out of his hand, a second asteroid knocks the can of beer out of his other hand.

So, yeah.

That happens.

And the can of beer is just a can of plain light beer from one of the big corporate brands. There’s nothing good or unique or interesting about it. It’s just the same piss that people drank in the 1970s, except maybe even more watered down than it was back then.

Yet, once again, this guy smugly doesn’t even give a crap about how bad of a beer he was about to enjoy.

If you asked him he would tell you he loves this brand of beer but he wouldn’t be able to say why, and he definitely wouldn’t understand you if you tried to explain why there are better beers out there.

If you notice, we’re not making this guy a serial killer or an out-and-out Nazi or anything.

We’re keeping him slightly more relatable than that while keeping him as cringey as possible. This is because as a species we tend to hate people more if they are unlike us while also being at least glancingly familiar to us than if they were utterly and completely alien.

It’s called the narcissism of small differences, and it maximizes our hatred while also putting in a fairly high floor of how far our relatability toward a character can fall.

If we make him too unrelatable, then readers won’t even care about him enough to take pleasure in his demise. Making someone too-rich-for-his-own-good and aesthetically repellant to boot is a great way to thread this needle.

Back to the story:

Just like with the hotdog, the target of our scorn is infuriated when his beer is knocked out of his hand by a very small asteroid zipping out of the sky so fast he doesn’t even have time to process what just happened.

In fact, he only processes what has happened after he looks down and sees the can of beer floating in the water below the yacht, leaking watery beer into the cerulean sea...

Here, he sees that the beer is leaking not only out of the mouth of the beer can but also out of two other holes that are the entry and exit wounds of the miniscule meteorite.

He’s only just beginning to piece together what occurred when a third asteroid then knocks off his faded New England Patriots ballcap, which I forgot to mention he was wearing.

(If you like the New England Patriots, then substitute in whatever your least favorite NFL team is so you won’t start to sympathize with this guy at the wrong moment. I actually don’t mind the Patriots but I have him wearing a Patriots hat because I feel like most people hate them because of all the championships they’ve won in the past 20 years (6)).

I also forgot to mention that there’s an assault rifle strapped to this guy’s back — the kind of high-magazine weapon that is so overpowered that there’s no conceivable use for it except killing other people — which a fourth asteroid knocks off his back, spinning the weapon through the air above the sloshing waves, then splashing it into the sea, where over the course of the next several minutes it plummets to the ocean floor in surreal silence.

A fifth asteroid incinerates a New England Patriots belt buckle that was holding up his oversized cargo shorts, which I also neglected to mention he was wearing.

(As an aside, I didn’t really “forget” to mention any of these things; I’m just following a rule of fictional craft I read once that says never describe anything before it’s actually relevant.

The glut of fiction these days wastes tons of time describing a person’s clothing and facial expressions and the decor of the room they’re in and things like that when these things are often completely irrelevant to the story, or, if they are relevant, they are described so far in advance of their relevance that they feel irrelevant when they are described. By the time they do become relevant, the reader has either forgotten about them or, worse, feels manipulated, perceiving the descriptions issued in advance of their relevance as an all too contrived set up for some so-called “payoff” they only hollowly experience.)

In any case, when the fifth asteroid incinerates his hateable belt buckle, his oversized shorts fall to his ankles, revealing not only that the underwear he is wearing is dirty, but confirming that there’s nothing impressive at all about his physique south of the equator.

This physically ugly man has weird-looking thighs, a beer gut from drinking tons of cheap beer, and maybe even some aesthetically regrettable tattoos along his waistline, like a Christian cross turned sideways with a trigger where the axes of the cross intersect, making the cross into a gun, as if to celebrate violence done in the name of that religion.

There are a few other tattoos of that ilk, although the tattoos you picture don’t have to include that one specifically; you can just fill in what the tattoo is of with whatever tattoo you might hate the most so that the story will resonate with you on a personal level. (Just don’t imagine a tattoo so horrific that you no longer care at all what happens in the story!)

A sixth tiny, pebble-sized asteroid strikes the top button of this man’s shirt and destroys that top button, immediately causing his shirt to blow open.

Very subtly, the sun starts to give him a sunburn in the V-shaped section of his chest that the top button’s removal has revealed.

If this was the last asteroid to hit him and he just stood there for the next few hours, he’d end his day with a massively painful V-shaped sunburn in that area. As bad as a bad sunburn is, however, it would be a million times more preferable to him than what happens next.

In the next three seconds, the seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth, and eleventh asteroids destroy each subsequent button going down his shirt, one after the other in rapid succession, the result of this is that his whole dress shirt pops out into the air — held to his body like a sail by the tightly buttoned buttons of his cuffs.

Asteroids twelve and thirteen, however, destroy the buttons on the cuffs, respectively, and, with the assistance of the violently swelling wind, his shirt is blown entirely off his body.

The wind, which has suddenly reached 75 miles per hour, now tears his shirt away so violently, the shirt resembles a bird with something horribly wrong with it, flying away as fast as any bird has ever flown.

(I actually did forget to mention that it was a white shirt — I’m not sure what you were picturing.)

This ugly-bird-like shirt is joined in the sky by hundreds of real birds all fleeing the area.

A fourteenth asteroid clocks the man in the side of the head, knocking him over the yacht railing.

His shirtless form plunges into the sea where his shorts, around his ankles, get tangled on the yacht’s propeller as the yacht moves forward, and — this is the best part of the story in my opinion — the propeller swirls him around and around 100% underwater numerous times, almost drowning him before he is able to kick free of the aesthetically unappealing clothing.

The man’s shirtless, pantsless, sockless, and shoeless body bobs to the surface gasping for air.

His eyes are bugging wide and there is blood spewing from his head where the fourteenth asteroid struck.

Asteroids fifteen through one thousand pierce the water around him like bullets of boiling metal, hurting his body and face and limbs enough to elicit a series of watery cries, although the pain and trauma stops just short of killing him outright.

(It’s slightly better literature we’ll be making if we draw this guy’s suffering out for a few more seconds before killing him, no?)

Asteroid one thousand and one, half a mile wide and seven miles long, touches down on the same spot of boiling sea where he is naked and panickedly treading water.

This insanely large meteorite instantaneously incinerates him, the yacht, and everything else within a ten thousand-mile radius, sending fiery mantle all the way up into the atmosphere to rain back down on everyone outside that radius, ruining Earth for most, if not all, living things for tens of thousands of years.

Before he dies, though, the character we’re punishing does have several moments where he can see the big asteroid coming, and it causes him to question — emotionally, painfully — everything he ever believed or stood for.

This is the ultimate humiliation because deep self-reflection is the one thing he’s never done, and the first time you question your beliefs and values, it can be agony because you’re not used to it.

(By the way, the genre of this short story is far, far-future science fiction. I wanted to hold back on revealing the genre so that when it became apparent what genre it was, it would feel like a tea-kettling-whistling epiphany rather than me just pandering to the expectations of readers who only read that type of thing.)

The person we all hate is finally dead, and so is everyone else on Earth.

Luckily for the continuation of the human race, there are millions of people already living in space stations, in habitats on the moon, and in habitats on Mars who will go on to spread humanity throughout the solar system and, eventually, back to Earth, once the atmosphere settles back down enough for people to live there.

The story’s twist is that it takes place so far into the future that it’s unexpected that this man resembles a typical rich, assault-rifle-loving asshole who could’ve been alive anytime between 1975 and 2024.

It’s a rich twist because most people would’ve expected the culture to change by the time it gets far enough into the future where people have colonized the solar system. That’s what makes the twist dark and gives this story a kind of edgy glamor.

In conclusion, we can all have an ethical chuckle at the expense of this fictitious human being crafted perfectly for that purpose.

We can also be made productively uncomfortable by the truth expressed that the choices and beliefs of those we abhor — not because they are unrecognizable to us but because they are a mix of the horrific and the familiar — will be around with us even after all of our technology has leveled up and many generations have elapsed.

The last scene in this story is some kid on Mars, in their Martian backyard, with a super-powered telescope the likes of which they will have hundreds of thousands of years in the future. The kid is looking at the asteroids falling to Earth, and the telescope is so powerful that they were able to see the man we read about up close and all that was happening to him. This kid is the character that the reader identifies with.

Mark Leidner

Mark Leidner is the author of the short story collection Under the Sea (Tyrant Books, 2018) and the movie Empathy, Inc. (2018). Mark is also author of three books of poetry: Returning the Sword to the Stone (Fonograf, 2021), Beauty Was the Case that They Gave Me (Factory Hollow, 2011), and The Angel in the Dream of Our Hangover (Sator, 2011). Originally from Georgia, he lives in California. markleidner.substack.com

Matthew Reed

Matthew Reed is a multi-disciplinary artist from Asheville North Carolina. Find more of his work at tvbeaches.com.