Use code DAD23 for 20% off + Free shipping on $45+ Shop Now!
The One Good Thing
Formats and Prices
- ebook $9.99 $11.99 CAD
- Trade Paperback $14.99 $16.50 CAD
This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around March 12, 2013. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
Also available from:
As Halley and her children Ty and Alice struggle with their grief, Nathan’s spiritual legacy lives on. A Facebook page appears, where countless stories about Nathan’s selfless acts are shared. But among them is one that stands out, from a woman who says that Nathan saved her life. Neither Halley nor her children have ever heard of Madeline Zuckerman. But soon Halley discovers years of e-mails from this woman to her husband on his computer that refer to “our little girl.” How could her husband have kept the secret of this other child for their entire marriage? Why had he lied to her? Was he not the man she thought he was?
Only thirteen-year-old Alice maintains unwavering faith in her father. She knows there’s an explanation. When she sets out to find Madeline and learn the truth, she will start to unravel the complex story of The One Good Thing Nathan Steen did that had the greatest impact of all.
Table of Contents
In accordance with the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, the scanning, uploading, and electronic sharing of any part of this book without the permission of the publisher constitute unlawful piracy and theft of the author's intellectual property. If you would like to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), prior written permission must be obtained by contacting the publisher at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you for your support of the author's rights.
Is there a difference between being secretive and keeping a secret? I've always thought so. The former smacks of deception and deceit, while the latter is more about trust and confidences. Still, I doubt my wife would appreciate such semantics if she knew who I received an e-mail from today.
They say everything's big here in Texas. If my secret were the measuring stick, I guess I'd have to agree.
"Did you use all your pebbles today, dear?" Halley asks from the other side of our bedroom.
To anyone's ears but mine and my kids', that question would be nonsensical. "Yeah," I tell her as I undo my tie and the top button on my dress shirt. "But nothing really worth mentioning. Just a few small things here and there, but I did at least manage to get all of them from one pocket to the other, unlike yesterday."
I reach into my right pants pocket and pull out six tiny stones, each of them a slightly different shade of red. I cup them in the palm of my hand and shake them gently as I mentally rehearse the events of the day, then I drop them in a small dish on the dresser and continue getting ready for bed.
"Oh, c'mon," Halley prods. "Don't be so modest. You know I love to hear."
Yes, I know. And you know I love to tease. "What's it worth to you? A kiss?"
She gives a mocking laugh. "How about no kiss if you don't at least share the highlights."
"Fine," I say with a chuckle. "Let's see… I took Martin out to lunch and had a good talk with him. Did I tell you he lost his job last month? His wife is out of work too, so he's been pretty down. If nothing else, I think he really appreciated getting out of the house. I also gave him a couple of job leads, so hopefully something will pan out soon." I pause to pull my pajama top over my head.
Halley is putting on her pajamas too. "Keep going," she urges.
"Okay, umm… I gave the waitress a very healthy tip—probably too healthy, come to think of it. Her service wasn't all that great, but she looked like she could use the money. Then there were some very minor things at work. An intern who failed the bar exam and needed some cheering up, a legal secretary who was having fits with her computer and needed assistance, little things like that. And lastly, I dropped off take-out at Dave and Theresa's on the way home."
"Oh, and here I thought you volunteered to get Chinese tonight just so I wouldn't have to cook."
"That can be number seven," I say, winking at her. "I really feel bad for Theresa, though. With her health being the way it is, I wish they'd let us do more."
I take a quick peek at my profile in the mirror. Am I getting a gut? I try to suck it in, but it won't go all the way. Probably too many hours sitting in the courtroom, too few hours in the gym. Oh well, there are more important things in life than one's physique. Halley approaches from behind and wraps her arms around my expanding waistline. "You're a good man, Nathan Steen. You and your funny little stones. The world needs more men like you."
"The world needs funny men with little stones?"
She lets go and pokes me in the side. "That's not what I said."
With a quick tug I pull her back and give her a peck on the cheek. "Enough about me. How was your day? You were quiet at dinner."
"Was I? Well, maybe the kids had so much to tell you that I didn't want to interrupt."
"No, it was more than that. I can tell when something's on your mind. Did something happen at the store today?"
She lets out a long sigh and flops backward on the bed. "Am I that transparent?"
"After all these years, you're an open book to me. Let's hear it." She probably thinks I'm an open book too, and I guess I am. Only my book is missing some chapters that she doesn't know about.
"Well… there was this customer—"
"Oh, wait," I interrupt, "let me guess. Someone died and needed flowers for the funeral, and you became emotionally involved. Am I right?"
Halley picks up a small pillow near her head and hurls it at me, hitting me in the knee. "Not just anyone died. He was young and had kids. Younger than you. He had a heart attack, completely out of the blue. His poor wife doesn't have anyone to help her make the funeral arrangements, so she came in all by herself over lunch. Can you imagine? She had to leave the kids at a baby-sitter just so she could come see me about a casket arrangement."
I pick up the pillow, walk it to the bed, and hand it back to Halley, then I lay down next to her on top of the comforter. For a second or two I don't say a word. I just stare at her in admiration. "Dare I ask if you gave her a discount?"
With a little giggle she says, "Fifty percent. She basically got everything below cost."
"Such a bleeding heart." Before she can object I add, "Which is what makes you so incredible. Probably too tenderhearted to be a successful florist, but I love you all the more for it." I bend down and give her another quick kiss.
"Isn't it sad, though? That poor family. All I could think of when she told me her story was that life is so fragile. What if you or I die, Nathan? What then? It makes me queasy just thinking about it. Speaking of which, when was the last time you had your blood pressure checked? Or a physical exam of any kind?"
"Are you calling me fat?"
She pokes me in the side again. "No, I'm calling you perfect, but I'd like a second opinion. Preferably from a doctor. I'm going to call first thing tomorrow and make an appointment for you. I can't have you dying on me."
"Oh please, I'm as healthy as an ox. Anyway, when God says my time is up, my time is up."
"All the same, you're going in for a checkup. Soon. Whatever it takes to keep you around."
"For you, fine. But I promise, I'm not going anywhere."
Halley interlocks her hand with mine and squeezes it hard. "Good. Because without you, I'm not much of anything."
"That's not true, and you know it. But imagine me without you. I'd just be some crazy guy with a pocketful of rocks."
She closes her eyes and whispers, "You're a crazy guy with a pocketful of rocks with or without me, dear."
I laugh, but don't say anything in response. It's getting late and I'm tired. It's been a long day, and now it's time for the conversation to give way to a good night's sleep. She's right, though: I've been carrying the pebbles in my pockets since long before I met Halley, and if anything ever happens to her, I'll be carrying them long after she's gone.
Until the stones are smooth or the day I die. That's the promise I made, and sooner or later, I'm bound to make good on it.
Thinking about that promise, my thoughts rewind thirty-two years, pausing finally on a gangly, disheveled, and sometimes smelly outcast who was as smart as she was awkward: Maddy McFadden, the least-liked person in middle school.
Long ago, when we were still dating, I told Halley the basic story of why I'd been carrying those little rocks in my pockets every day since seventh grade. I'd feared that she wouldn't understand, or that she'd think me nuttier than a jar of cashews. Instead, thankfully, she found it endearing, in a quirky sort of way. I didn't tell her everything, though. I omitted some details that probably don't matter in the grand scheme of things, along with other details that probably matter a lot.
It's true what they say—the devil is in the details.
But if I told Halley about Maddy now? If she knew that Maddy still keeps in contact? If I told her what she e-mailed me about today? No, that wouldn't go over well. Anyway, there are things I can never tell. A promise is a promise.
Halley rolls over and drapes an arm over my chest, which jolts me back to the present. "You're staring at the ceiling, hon," she says. "What's on your mind?"
"Nothing," I reply. "Just thinking about how busy my day is tomorrow." I lean over and give her a final kiss good night, then I turn off the light on the nightstand and close my eyes.
There is a familiar sensation in the pit of my stomach as I start to drift off. It's the same feeling I always get when I pause to think about my past. As the feeling grows, I can almost hear my father—the pastor—preaching to me as a kid. "Honesty isn't just the best policy, Nathan, it's the only policy."
Is it? Is there no other policy? Is everything black-and-white like that, or are there sometimes instances where nobler motives justify certain shades of gray? I honestly don't know. Maybe my dad was right. Maybe that's why I never told him what happened. And maybe that's why my stomach still aches when I think about it, because the truth literally hurts. And the truth is that the best thing I ever did—the one good thing that really mattered—was a lie.
Sticks and Stones… and Steens
Remember who you are.
Long before I crawl into the front seat of my dad's car, I know that he won't drop me off at school without also dropping that age-old advice. It's part of his fatherly routine—his thing, so to speak. He's offered those same parting words every single day before school for as long as I've been attending. If you're counting, which I am, that's precisely seven years, two months, and nineteen days.
Dad is a classic creature of habit. I love that about him—love that he is predictable; love that I can guess what he will do from one moment to the next; love that he has his little mantras that he lives by and that he won't let you forget, like "remember who you are," or "don't sweat the small stuff," or "we're all just rolling stones," and his personal favorite, "one good thing leads to another." That predictability fosters trust—trust that I can depend on him when I'm sweating the small stuff, because talking through the small stuff helps me know that I can turn to him when I need help sorting through the big stuff.
Lately, my life has been nothing but big stuff. Or at least big to me, but then, I'm not that big of a girl, so maybe it's just a matter of perspective.
Size-wise, I'm thirteen going on nine, maybe ten. I'm easily the smallest girl in my class. I say "girl," because there's a boy in my grade who is smaller, but he and both of his parents are little people. I don't like to use the word "midget," because that's not PC, but because that's what he is, being small for him is apparently cool. For me? It makes me a target.
As Dad's car pulls into the school parking lot, I tilt my forehead against the cool glass of the window, staring at a group of kids with trench coats, nose rings, and their hair dyed the same jet black. Seeing them makes me wonder what new thrills seventh grade will present me with today. Every day there seems to be something. Drama, mostly, and cutting remarks. I already know which people I should avoid, but it won't matter because they'll probably find me anyway. They always do.
I still remember my first day of kindergarten. The giant yellow school bus rolled to a stop in front of our home as Mom made a final adjustment to my ponytail.
"There. You're a princess," she said. "And you're going to act like a princess at school, right?"
"Good. I'll be right here waiting when the bus comes home, okay?"
I nodded and gave her leg a pint-sized hug.
Then Dad stepped closer, all smiles, and said the magic words. "Alice, you're going to do great things, I can tell. Just remember who you are." He paused, then asked, "Who are you?"
"I'm Alice, silly," I told him with a giggle.
He smiled all the more, then bent and gave me a kiss on the forehead. "Yes, sweet thing. You're Alice. But you're also much more than that."
"Even more than that, pumpkin. But the bus driver is waiting, so we'll talk about it later. Now you go have fun at school and be the best Alice Steen you can be."
We did talk later. Multiple times in fact, but it was several years before we had a conversation that finally stuck. We were running late that day on account of my older brother, Ty, not being able to find a clean pair of underwear, so Dad offered to drop us off at school on his way to work.
"Hey Ty," Dad said as he prepared to get out of the car in front of the middle school.
"I know," Ty droned. "Remember who you are."
"Exactly. Remember who you are."
I half expected my brother to come up with one of his usual flippant, teenage remarks, but instead he just smiled and said, "I will, Dad."
Once Ty was gone I scrambled over the seat to sit up front the rest of the way to the elementary school. "Dad? Tell me again what you mean when you say that."
Dad's mind was already on something else. "When I say what, hon?"
" 'Remember who you are.' "
"Ah. Well… who are you?"
"You know who I am."
"I know I do. But do you?"
He glanced down at me while we sat waiting for a group of kids to cross an intersection. "Then tell me."
"Well…" I replied thoughtfully. "I'm Alice. I'm a third-grader. I like to dance and draw. I'm your only daughter. And I'm your smartest and favoritest child."
He let out a little chuckle. "You're on the right track, Al. Anything else?"
"I dunno… I'm pretty?"
"Of course you are. But this is about much more than that. You see, it's not just a matter of who you are right now, but how knowing who you are can help you become who you want to be later on."
"I wanna be rich," I stated matter-of-factly.
He rolled his eyes at me, but they were still twinkling. His eyes always have a little twinkle in them when he talks to me, like he's happy about what he's looking at. "Waaaay off target, sweetie. Listen, you said it yourself, you're my only daughter, right? Mine and Mommy's. What does that mean?"
"That you guys should have another baby."
"Not even close. Try again."
"Uh… I dunno. That I kinda look like you guys?"
"More like your mom, I hope. But you're getting warmer. Not only do you kinda look like us, you are like us, in more ways than you know. There is a part of us inside of you. You are our daughter, which means you have…?"
"Cold sores? Mom says if I get them when I'm older, it's because of you."
Dad shook his head and laughed. "Maybe you really are my smartest and favoritest child. But I meant potential, Al. Not that you're not great already, but if you try real hard, you can be even better. And I don't mean you should try to be just like me. That'd be aiming low. Inside you is an infinite ability to do good, so when I say 'remember who you are,' what I mean is to not forget how much potential you have, and then do your very best to live up to that each and every day." He paused briefly, then added, "Does that make any sense to you?"
By then we were nearly at the elementary school. "Yeah, I think so," I told him. "Thanks, Dad."
Thirty seconds later we pulled to a complete stop along the curb in the drop-off area, but I wasn't quite ready to get out. "Dad? Did you want to be like your dad when you were younger?"
The smile on his face faded a little. "I did." He hesitated just a second, like he was thinking of something long forgotten. "Did you know he used to tell me the very same thing before school? 'Remember who you are, Nathan. And make us proud.' "
"Did you? Make him proud?"
He sighed through his nose. "Most of the time, sweetie."
"How come we hardly ever get to see him?" Me and Ty, and sometimes even my mom, had been asking that question for years.
"Grandpa Steen is a busy man."
"That's what you always say."
"And it's always the truth. A pastor's job is twenty-four-seven. Now, it's time for you to get going. Have a great day, pumpkin."
"And?" I coaxed.
He smiled again and ruffled my hair. "And remember who you are."
"I will, Daddy. Love you."
"You okay?" Dad asks as the car pulls up in front of the middle school.
I pull my head out of third-grade memories and look at him. "I'm fine. Just looking forward to another day in my glamorous seventh-grade life."
"Anything I can do to help?"
"Anything besides that?"
"Nah. I'll survive. I always do."
His mouth curls into a little frown. "Should I talk to the principal again? There's got to be something he can do."
"No!" I snap. "The last time you talked to him, kids who got in trouble found out what you said, and it only made things worse for me. I just need to get through this on my own."
For several seconds he stares at me, then his frown slowly bends upward. "Do you know how proud I am of you?"
I roll my eyes, just a little. "I gotta go. The bell is gonna ring."
"All right. I'll see you tonight, after Ty's game. Love you, Al."
"I love you, too." I climb out of the car and start walking away. But something doesn't feel right. I pause after a few steps and turn around.
Dad is already rolling down his window. "Alice…"
"I know, Dad."
He yells it anyway. "Remember who you are!"
What a goofball. Some eighth-graders are watching, and I'm sure I'm turning red, but I can't help but smile. "I will."
When Dad is gone, my smile dissolves. It's been forever since I've wanted to smile at school. Okay, so it's only been a little over a year, but it feels like a stinking eternity. Last year, near the start of sixth grade, Ashley Simmons—my next-door neighbor, former best friend, and the girl every boy dreams of kissing—decided I wasn't good for her image. You know how it is. I'm short and smart, she's tall and pretty, and I think she finally concluded that she couldn't float in the cool crowd with me as an anchor. I mean, she didn't come right out and say it or anything, that's just my hypothesis. Rather than just saying she didn't like me anymore or didn't want to hang out, she started ignoring me, which, in my opinion, is way worse. That, alone, would have been fine. But during PE one day, when we were changing into our gym clothes, she took it a step further.
"Oh! My! Gosh!" Ashley shouted. "Alice, isn't that the training bra you picked out in fifth grade?"
I froze. "What…? Oh… no. I mean… I don't think so."
"Yes, don't you remember? I was with you when your mom helped you pick it out." She let out a cackle that reminded me of a witch. "You thought the ladybugs were so cool." Without looking down, I knew that there were ladybugs on my chest. I tried to ignore her as I pulled my school-issue T-shirt over my head, but Ashley wasn't done. "What size are you anyway, A negative?"
"She belongs in grade school," one of her new friends said.
"Yeah," said another, "until she grows up."
"Maybe she needs a magic cookie to help her grow," Ashley said with a giggle. "Like Alice in Wonderland." When she realized what she'd just said, she started laughing her brains out. "Alice in Wonderland! We've got our very own little Alice in Wonderland!"
The other girls started repeating it, between fits of giddy hysteria.
I didn't think it was all that funny, or even clever, but it didn't matter. The cool kids were laughing themselves silly, which meant I was in trouble. Sure enough, by lunchtime I had a new nickname. People I'd never even spoken to before were stopping me in the halls saying things like, "You must be Alice in Wonderland—I can tell because you look lost." And of course, "Hey little girl, where's your Cheshire cat?" One boy even asked if he could see my little ladybugs.
The next day I was standing at my locker, waiting for the morning bell to ring, when I saw Ashley coming down the hallway, tailed closely by a pack of her new gal-pals. "Here, Alice," she said sweetly. "I made this for you." She was holding a small paper plate covered with tinfoil. When I peeled back the aluminum, there was a single cookie in the center of the plate, with frosting letters that spelled Eat Me!
Since then I've become a perpetual joke. It's amazing the things kids will say when teachers aren't listening. Oh, and of course I get a magic Eat Me cookie about once a month from some new bully who wants to keep the laughs going.
But I still have to go to school. So, with a long breath, I square my shoulders and push through the front doors to face another day. Thankfully, it's Friday. If I can just bear the next eight hours, then I'll have all weekend to lick my wounds, cry on my parents' shoulders, and prepare for next week.
"Hey, looking for the White Rabbit?" someone calls as I'm walking down the hall. Then, "Are you lost, little girl? The elementary school is down the street."
Just remember who you are, I tell myself as I continue walking, and everything will be okay.
I have a knack for being right about things. I'm just smart that way. But this time, I'm wrong. Everything will not be okay. By the end of the day the social injustices of seventh grade will be nothing more than a tiny blip on the radar of my concerns.
Dad is right: I shouldn't sweat the small stuff. Heck, I shouldn't even sweat the big stuff. I should save all my sweat to form tears when the gigantic stuff comes and shatters the world.
The senior table, as it's called, sits in a spot that's elevated slightly above the rest of the tables in the cafeteria. Not a lot higher—only three feet or so—but high enough that we who have earned the right to sit there can easily see everything going on at the underclassmen tables.
"Dude, I think that group of freshman chicks is checking us out," says Dillon.
Dillon always thinks girls are looking at him. They rarely are. I don't even know which girls he's talking about, but it doesn't matter. "Maybe you should go get their numbers," I deadpan.
"No, Dill. They're freshmen." Dillon doesn't let many people call him Dill, because it's too easy a jump from there to Dill-weed, his unofficial moniker back in eighth grade. But he lets me, because I've always called him that, and we've been friends forever.
"Yeah, but they're hot."
I finally bother following his gaze. Okay, so he has a point—a couple of them are cute. And they do seem to be watching us. When they see they've got my attention, they start to giggle. Then one of them waves.
"Dude, she waved at me!"
I don't have the heart to tell Dillon she wasn't waving at him. I don't remember the girl's name—Angie? Angela? Agnes?—but I recognize her, and I can tell she recognizes me. Earlier this week she tripped going up the stairs between classes, so I stopped to help her pick up her things.
Once she got over the embarrassment of tripping, she asked, "You're the quarterback, right? Ty Steen."
Yeah, that's me. That's what people know me for—being the quarterback. Not for getting good grades. Not for being a good guy. Just for being a good quarterback, and even then they're only happy when I win.
Once she was sure who she was talking to, she got embarrassed all over again, even more than she'd been from tripping in front of everybody. "Thanks for helping." She paused, glanced at me. "Why did you?"
Angelica. Yeah, that's her name. Angelica's question was interesting to me, and not in a good way. Well, not the question so much as not having a decent answer. The only thing I could think of was, "because it's what my dad would do," which would have sounded totally lame, so instead I simply said, "Why not?" Then I handed her the stack of papers I'd gathered and walked off.
But since then I keep thinking about that question. Why did I stop to help?
"You should wave back," I tell Dillon.
"No, Dill. They're still freshmen." I pause to look around at the crowded cafeteria. It's kind of like looking at my mom's patch of wildflowers behind the house—if you just gloss over it from a distance, everything is picture-perfect. But if you focus on the details, you soon start to notice weeds cropping up here and there, or flowers that appear broken or out of place.
I narrow my gaze.
At a table to my right a kid is sitting all alone; his demeanor is almost like he doesn't want to be noticed by anybody. At the table next to him, a boy named Marshal, whom I happen to know because he's one of only two sophomores who starts on the varsity football team, is teasing a much smaller boy about his cowboy hat. Marshal finally swipes the hat right off the kid's head and tosses it to a girl a few seats down, who quickly tosses it to another boy who puts it on his own head and runs off and stuffs it in a garbage can. The hat's owner looks like he wants to cry. All the way on the other side of the cafeteria I see a girl with pink hair flipping the bird to a small collection of cheerleaders who have obviously said something to get her riled. And in the middle of the lunchtime gathering I spot a boy from my Physics class—Mark something or other—harmlessly punching numbers into his calculator, until some jerk in a Che Guevara T-shirt walks by and fists him in the back of the head for no apparent reason. Mark pretends nothing happened until the assailant is gone, then he rubs the back of his head and winces in pain.
Weeds and broken flowers. The cafeteria is crawling with them.
"Why so quiet all of a sudden?" Dillon asks.
" 'Bout what?"
Good question. I'm not even sure I know what I'm thinking, and even if I do, there's no good way to explain it to Dill, because he has no idea what it's like to be Nathan Steen's son. So I ask a question instead. "You think that if I loaded my fries up with ketchup and launched them at someone, it would start a food fight?"
"Dude, don't even think about it."
"Because you could get suspended! And we need you at the game tonight."
"So. We have a backup. Jim's been on fire in practice lately."
"But he's not you, Ty."
"But maybe he—. Forget it."
Now I wish I hadn't opened my big mouth.
"C'mon," he prods. "Spill."
I can tell Dillon's not going to give up until I give him a satisfactory answer, so I toss him something to chew on. Not the whole skeleton, just a bone. "Well, I was just thinking, what if Jim wants to be the starting quarterback more than me? What if my heart's not really in it?"
"Shut up, dude. You're scaring me."
- "Inspirational and heartwarming, Milne's newest work weaves his familiar feel-good tone into an enjoyable story about friendship, love, and family that is sure to please fans and newcomers alike."—Booklist
- "Milne's latest is a touching story about a legacy of love. Although the plot is a simple one, it will resonate with readers looking to reach outside themselves and spread kindness to others."—RT Book Reviews
"The One Good Thing by Kevin Alan Milne is everything that a novel should be. It is uplifting, inspiring and entertaining. The story draws readers in from page one and holds them captive to the end."
- "The magic of Kevin Milne's books is that they make you stop wishing the world was a better place and inspire you to actually get up and go make it one. The One Good Thing is exactly that kind of book."—Jason Wright, New York Times bestselling author of The Wednesday Letters
- "Stirring and dramatic, Milne's work echoes that of Nicholas Sparks in its focus on love, commitment, faith, and the ultimate heartbreak of being human."—Booklist on The Final Note
"Kevin Alan Milne's The Final Note is a beautiful soliloquy on the power of love. The opening Prelude forcefully grabs you--you find yourself immersed in Ethan's rage against the perpetrator of his wife's catastrophic outcome. . . . "
—Aisle B, Review
- On Sale
- Mar 12, 2013
- Page Count
- 352 pages
- Center Street