The Best Worst Thing


By Kathleen Lane

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Front door locked, kitchen door locked, living room windows closed. Nobody in the closet, nobody under the beds.

Still, Maggie is worried. Ever since she started middle school, she sees injustice and danger everywhere–on the news, in her textbooks, in her own neighborhood. Even her best friend seems to be changing.

Maggie believes it is up to her, and only her, to make everything all right. Can she come up with a plan to keep everyone safe?

The Best Worst Thing is a perceptive novel about learning the limits of what you can control, and the good–sometimes even best–things that can come of finally letting go.


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It's the night we're going to get murdered so we're sleeping on the living room floor.

Me and my sisters, Mom and Dad, all of us on the floor in front of the couch we pushed up against the wall to make room for our sleeping bags.

The murderer is walking around our neighborhood. He's walking down our street. He's down by the duck pond, hiding under the weeping willow. He's sneaking through the Dugans' yard, creeping through the Cooneys' grapes, coming to get us.

"He'll probably try to come right through that window there," Dad says, and Polly and I scream the screams Dad calls our bee-sting screams and slide our sleeping bags away from the window, as far away as we can get, until we're pushed into the couch pushed against the wall.

"Bill, stop," Mom says, "you're scaring them."

Dad was still at work when we saw it on TV, on the news that we weren't supposed to be watching because Polly's too little, but Mom went to answer the phone during Odd Squad and she was on the phone for a long time. After Odd Squad it was Judge Judy and after Judge Judy it was yellow tape around the Mini Mart. It was a body shape under a sheet. In the corner of the screen there was a picture of a man with a fat chin and his hair pulled back in a ponytail.

"What's suspect at large mean?" I asked.

"It means he's large, stupid," Tana said.

I didn't hear everything the newsman said because of Tana talking and Polly coughing, but I did hear shot and killed, I heard fled on foot. I heard Elm Avenue and my brain started singing the address song, the one Mom used to make us sing on the way to school. My name is Maggie Alder and this is where I li-ive, 845, 845, 845 Elm Av-e-nue. She turned it into a song so we could sing it to police if we got lost. So we could sing it to the fire department if we had to call 9-1-1. 9-1-1's another song she taught us. 9-1-2, that won't do. 9-1-1, let's see that thumb, and we were three thumbs-up in Mom's rearview mirror.

Elm Avenue, fled on foot. I was still working it out in my head when Tana started yelling, "He's on our street!" which made me and Polly start yelling, "He's on our street! He's on our street!" Then we were running our yells and into the kitchen. Then Mom was yelling, yelling at us for yelling. "I thought your arm got cut off!" she yelled. I don't know whose arm she meant, whose arm she was so worried about getting cut off, Polly's arm or Tana's arm, I hope my arm.

"Some guy shot the checkout lady!" Tana yelled. "At the Mini Mart! We were just there, we were there like three hours ago!" As soon as she said that, it was like I was back at the Mini Mart. It was like I could see the lady behind the counter laughing and saying, "You girls having some lunch?" while she was ringing up our candy. It was like all that licorice I ate turned into a big red snake twisting around in my stomach and I had to squeeze my eyes shut so I wouldn't see her get shot.

"Maybe we saw him!" Tana said. It kind of seemed like she was happy about it, like the time she saw Katy Perry in the grocery store, even though I don't really think she saw Katy Perry, because why would Katy Perry just be hanging out in Albertsons buying cheese puffs!

Mom said, "Oh God" and "Oh how awful." I saw her look out the window into the backyard even though she said she didn't, even though she said, "No, I think he's in jail" when I asked if she thought the murderer was in our backyard. "Oh great," Tana said like she always says when I'm worried about something or Polly's crying.

When Dad got home, Polly and I yelled, "Lock the door! Lock the door!" We made him go all around the house checking the windows and under the beds and inside the closets. I yelled for Dad to look behind the dresser and Polly yelled for Dad to look inside our pajama drawer, and that's when Mom said, "Well, I guess we're all sleeping together tonight." Dad said, "All of us in one bed?" and that's how Mom came up with the idea of sleeping bags. "It'll be like camping," she said.

Mom went downstairs to make us some dinner but Polly and I made Dad stand in our room while we got our sleeping bags out of our closet, while we got our pajamas out of our drawers and ran to our beds for pillows. "You're being such a baby," Tana said when I asked Dad to walk us downstairs, even though I only asked because Polly didn't want to go down without him. "I can't believe you're starting middle school in like two days!"

Tana left without us and Dad said he had to shower. "Come on now," he said when Polly and I wouldn't let go of his arms, "you have each other." So we got our soft stabbing parts all wrapped up in our sleep things and each other. We threw our sleeping bags down the stairs and ran like the murderer was chasing us to the bottom.

Tana was sitting at the kitchen table looking through a magazine, Mom was making us a living room picnic. We wrapped our arms around her while she stuck roast beef on bread and opened up a jar of mayonnaise. We followed her to the napkin drawer to get the napkins. We followed her into the living room to put the plate of sandwiches on the coffee table, then back into the kitchen where we squeezed up around her while she poured us some Cokes. We were a six-legged creature walking to the freezer for ice.

In the living room Polly and I sit cross-legged inside our sleeping bags and bunch them all around us until only our heads are sticking out and sometimes an arm when we need a bite of sandwich. Tana's pretending to read her magazine. I know she's pretending because she hasn't flipped a page in forever. I wish our living room window wasn't so big. I wish it wasn't so black.

"This is fun," Mom says. "We should do this more often."

"Too bad we don't get many murderers around these parts." Dad's all done with his shower, he's wearing his striped pajamas that look like one of his work shirts stretched over his whole body. He sits down in the La-Z-Boy near the big window, too close to the big window. The murderer sees Dad. The murderer shoots Dad right through the window. The window is breaking, Dad is dead. Please don't let the murderer shoot Dad, please don't let the murderer shoot Dad, I say with sleeping bag over my mouth so no one will hear, and twice to make it even.

When the neighbor's dog starts barking, Polly starts crying, so Mom sits on the couch behind us and pats Polly through her sleeping-bag puff. She says, "It's probably just another dog."

"I'll go have a look around," Dad says.

"Don't be—!" Tana yells. (I think she almost said stupid!) "He has a gun!"

"He has a gun!" Polly and I yell.

Dad grabs the mustard knife off the sandwich plate and makes a bad-guy look that's supposed to be funny, but it isn't funny because our dad, I just now for the first time realized, is a small man. Our dad is a very small man and he has skinny arms. He has skinny arms because he's old, he's much older than our friends' dads. He doesn't wear baseball hats, he doesn't drive a truck. Our dad wears button shirts and sells insurance and carves sea animals out of driftwood.

Now he's doing his pretend tough cowboy walk into the kitchen. We hear the back door open and close but there aren't any locking sounds, Dad didn't lock us in, he just left the back door open for the murderer.

Someone just coughed! Outside! Now my heart is coughing, ka-ka ka-ka in my chest. I don't know if it was Dad coughing or the murderer coughing, or maybe the murderer just heard Dad cough and now he's going to shoot him! Please don't let the murderer shoot Dad, please don't let the murderer shoot Dad.

"He's just looking around," Mom says. She says it again, even though we didn't ask, even though we know she can't see him out there in the dark.

"Are you worried? About Dad?" I know she's worried, I can tell from her voice.

"Oh great," Tana says, and Mom says, "Maggie, please. He's just looking around." Polly pulls her sleeping bag around her face until she's just a nose. "Don't worry," I whisper to her nose, "he's just looking around."

But why is he taking so long!

He's taking so long because he's dead. He's under a sheet with his face covered up. Our yard is wrapped in yellow tape. The suspect is large.

When the kitchen door opens, we are so fast out of our sleeping bags and on top of Mom, even Tana dives on Mom, only there isn't enough Mom for all our arms and legs and now the murderer is stomping through the kitchen, the murderer is coming to get us. I can tell Tana's praying even though I can't hear her. I can see her chin moving, and Tana praying means Tana's scared, and Tana scared means we're all going to die!

"Don't be scared," I whisper to Polly, "it's just Dad. It's just Dad, don't be scared. It's just Dad."

I don't let go, I don't even open my eyes, not even when Mom yells, "What on earth took you so long!" I keep holding on, I don't want to look, because what if the murderer shot Dad, what if Dad's all bloody, what if the murderer followed Dad into the house and now he's going to shoot us too! Please don't let the murderer shoot us, please don't let the murderer shoot us.

I don't let go until I hear his voice. "Chased him all the way to China," he says, and we leap off Mom and onto Dad. Tana's just standing there but Polly's hugging Dad's stomach and I'm hugging Dad's neck. I have to kiss his cheeks, I have to give them two kisses each so the murderer won't come back and get us while we're sleeping, but I can only reach one cheek and now Dad's saying, "Okay, girls," and unwrapping our arms. I have to do it, I have to kiss his other cheek!

"Maggie," Dad says when I grab his head. I don't like the way he said Maggie, he said it kind of mean, but at least I kissed both his cheeks, so now we can all go to sleep and nothing bad will happen.

We're not dead.

We're eating our Cocoa Puffs, Mom's making herself a slim shake.

Wait. "What about Dad?"

"He's fine," Mom says, "he's just at work."

"Are you sure? How do you know? Did he call you?"

"Oh great."

I wish Tana wouldn't say Oh great after every single thing I say! It's not like I want to be worried about Dad!

Mom says yes, even though I know it's not true, Dad didn't call her, Dad never calls her.

"Did they catch the guy?" Tana asks.

I didn't think about that! What if they didn't catch him! What if he's still running around shooting people! And why does Tana get to ask about the murderer and I don't get to ask about Dad? Oh great, I say, but only in my head. Next time I'm going to yell it!

"Maybe he's hiding in the bushes," Polly whispers. She's twisting her hair how she does before she puts it in her mouth.

"I guarantee you he is not hiding in our bushes," Mom says. "We'd have heard him hollering." She means from all the branches scratching him up. She means me last year when I went into the bushes looking for Polly's yellow pony.

"SlimFast should be called SlimSlow," Mom says. "But I did read somewhere that muscle weighs more than fat so maybe I'm just getting stronger." She winks at us so we know it's okay to laugh. Mom doesn't always think fat's funny.

"Can I have some?" Tana says.

It's the pink flavor, the Strawberry Supreme.

"Me too?"

"Me too?"

"You girls eat your breakfast," Mom says, so we do, but we want the SlimSlow, we want to lick the Strawberry Supreme off our lips.

There are only seven puffs left in my bowl. I need one more puff to make it even.

"You can't have the prize!" Tana yells. She tries to grab the box away but I make my hand big inside so she can't get it off my arm.

"I'm not getting the prize! I'm getting a puff!"

"Maggie," Mom says, "don't stick your hand in there, pour them out," so I pour and hope for even.

Mom sits down with us and we watch the pink go up and down her straw. Polly watches with her tongue out. Polly's tongue is always out. Unless she's eating. Unless she's talking.

"I want to lose weight too," Tana says.

"Oh no you don't. Don't you even say that. You girls are perfect just the way you are."

"So are you!" I say.

"So are you!" Polly says.

"Well," Mom says. She holds her hair clip between her lips and pulls her hair back behind her neck, getting it all neat and straight, but she always leaves some out, I feel bad for the hairs that get left out. It's the clip with the green stones, the one she got in Mexico before we were born.

"Tell us the story," Polly says. Probably it's the clip that made her think of it. Sometimes it's watermelon and sometimes it's driftwood. Sometimes it's the hungry for your touch song. They're all part of the story of Mom meeting Dad, and Mom and Dad falling in love and making us. Then came you three, that's how the story ends. Of course, we were too young to know anything is somewhere in the middle. I don't really know what that means but she says it every time.

"Let's see," Mom says with her lips still holding the clip. Her lips didn't move at all, not even a little bit. "Let's see," I whisper, trying to keep my lips still too. "Let's see," I whisper again.

When her hair's ready, she holds it together with one hand and takes her clip out of her mouth with the other. Polly and I get out of our chairs and stand behind her so we can see how she does it. She does it without looking, her fingers know how to do it all on their own. Polly pretends she has a clip and gathers her hair together. I do it too, even though I have short hair so it takes more pretending.

"Your dad was walking up the beach with his friends."

"And there you were," Polly says.

"There I was."

"Pretty as a piece of driftwood," I say.

"Well, that's what your dad said. Didn't sound like much of a compliment to me, but that was before I knew about your dad and his whittling."

"Carving," Tana says, because Dad doesn't like whittling. Dad says whittling is like thumb twiddling.

"Carving." The way Mom says it, we know the story's over. Mom doesn't always finish the story.

I don't want to go outside because of the murderer but Mom says it's going to rain later so we should get out there and run around. Also it's the last day of summer, which I wish she wouldn't have reminded me because tomorrow I have to go to middle school and I really really really don't want to.

"That man is long gone," Mom says. "He's probably halfway to Arkansas by now."

I see Ms. Olsen's map of America. I see the pork chop with the colored squares. The murderer is running over the squares on his way to Arkansas. He runs over Arkansas and Tennessee and I can't remember what comes next, and over Alabama and Florida and right into the ocean. "Help me! Help me!" he yells, so a sailor throws him a rope and pulls him onto the boat. Then the murderer gets his gun out of his pocket and shoots the sailor in the heart.

Tana won't let us hold on to her so Polly and I hold on to each other. The murderer is everywhere. He's behind the garage, he's behind that tree. He's up on the roof aiming his gun at our heads. Please don't let the murderer shoot our heads, please don't let the murderer shoot our heads.

When Gordy Morgan's dog barks, Polly and I scream, we say that dog gave us heart attacks. I don't like that dog. He has one blue eye and one white eye, he looks like a wolf, and one time when Gordy was taking him for a walk he started barking at us and Gordy said, "Good dog." He said, "Should I let you off your leash so you can eat up those girls?" and all the time we were running home, Gordy's dog was eating me up, eating up my arms and my legs, chewing up my ears.


  • "An incandescent debut. Long after you've finished The Best Worst Thing, you'll remember Kathleen Lane's brave and good-hearted Maggie and how she learns to face her fears. A writer to watch, a voice to savor, a novel to cherish."—Katherine Applegate, Newbery medal-winning author of The One and Only Ivan
  • "I loved this book. Simple, tender, and real, The Best Worst Thing is packed with heart."—Ali Benjamin, author of National Book Award Finalist The Thing About Jellyfish
  • * "Lane crafts a powerful portrait of a girl wrangling with deeply relatable concerns, which will easily resonate with readers confronting a complex and uncertain world."—Publishers Weekly, starred review
  • * "Thoughtful characterization and relatable themes make this a strong purchase."—School Library Journal, starred review
  • "Lane's prose is quietly powerful, plain yet poetic....A tender, sober portrait of a middle schooler with OCD."—Kirkus Reviews
  • "Homey first-person narration along with brief chapters, some just a headline, set a deliberate pace and keep readers engaged in Maggie's story--and don't worry, the murderer gets caught."—The Horn Book
  • "Lane writes beautifully throughout."—Booklist
  • "Students making the transition from elementary school to middle school, or grappling with feelings of being an outsider, will be able to identify with Maggie's struggles."—School Library Connection
  • "Maggie's voice, melodramatic and obsessive as it is, is clearly and consistently developed, and it grants a kind of intimacy that middle-school readers with their own set of sometimes overwhelming fears will appreciate."—The Bulletin for the Center of Children's Books

On Sale
Jun 7, 2016
Page Count
208 pages

Kathleen Lane

About the Author

Kathleen Lane lives in Portland, Oregon, where she writes, teaches, cohosts the art and literary event series SHARE, and runs the Create More, Fear Less program ( that helps young people channel anxiety into art.

Learn more about this author