Greatest Female Adventurer Number One: Junko Tabei GREATEST FEMALE ADVENTURER NUMBER ONE: JUNKO TABEI, WHO NOT ONLY WAS THE FIRST WOMAN TO REACH THE SUMMIT OF MOUNT EVEREST, BUT THE FIRST WOMAN TO CLIMB THE HIGHEST PEAKS OF ALL SEVEN CONTINENTS.
Mom pulls the car over, wheel bumping against the curb. For the first time in over three hours, she cuts the engine. “We’re here.”
I watched the trees fly by as we drove, waiting for the moment the forest broke to reveal the small but lively town I envisioned Stone Creek to be. But the winding route the GPS led us down has consisted of small auto shops, rickety and abandoned buildings, apartments with broken shutters, and a whole lot of nothing else. I kept searching for the perfect photo op, the perfect image to send Sophie to make her wish she’d decided to spend April break here with me, like we’d originally planned. But every picture I took was nothing but a blur of green trees, and it wasn’t like she’d bothered texting me anyway.
With the car finally stopped, I stir like I’m waking from a dream. Maybe, somehow, this little patch of civilization in the middle of the woods will be infinitely more interesting than the last hundred miles proved to be. I lean over my eight-year-old brother, Griffin, despite his whines and protests, and press my nose against the car window. Beyond the fog of my breath is a small, weather-beaten wooden building. The red paint of its front door is chipped, and a rusty sign swings overhead: MEGGIE’S CUP.
“Who’s Meggie?” I ask. “His long-lost lover? Estranged wife?”
Mom shoots me a glare through the rearview mirror. “Be nice. Jeff is being very kind by letting you stay with him while I’m at the conference.”
“Yeah,” Oliver, my thirteen-year-old brother, grumbles from where he’s slumped in the front seat. “Too kind.”
Mom sighs, eyes flickering back toward me. All I can offer her is a shrug because, for once, my older brother isn’t overreacting. “It is pretty weird.”
“It’s not weird,” Mom snaps, pushing her car door open. “It’s what family does: help each other out in times of need.”
I’d never thought of Mom’s cousin Jeff as family. He’s never been more than another Christmas card on the mantel. And not the nice kind with glitter, pop-up snowmen, and long scribbled notes about how their year went. His always had some Hallmark one-liner like “Season’s Greetings,” followed by his name—printed, not signed.
I’m also not so sure about the whole “helping family in need” thing. I glance at Griffin, who’s chugging the last of the soda I begged Mom to buy me at the last rest stop. Then Oliver, who’s still pretending to listen to Spotify even though we lost service over thirty minutes ago.
I noticed we lost service right away. I was refreshing Sophie’s feed over and over again for photos of her April break. At the top, with over fifty likes, was the photo of her posing outside of Busch Gardens with our seventh-grade classmates Veronica and Chloe, wearing matching heart-shaped glasses. Her nose was already burning, a red splotch over her giant grin. When we hang out—used to hang out—I was always the one to remember sunscreen. Veronica and Chloe don’t burn like we do, so by the end of her trip, she’s going to be a giant, neon-red raisin.
Not that I care. Because I don’t. Because my vacation is going to be better. No matter how quiet and remote and weird and mosquito-infested the town oh-so-cleverly tilted “Stone Creek” turns out to be, I’m going to make sure Sophie wishes she’d chosen to spend break here, with me, rather than with those other girls on a trip only one of us was invited to.
The future of the Walsh-Higgins Adventure Agency depends on it. Sophie Higgins is half the agency, after all. Always has been since we first cofounded our adventure duo back in first grade, when we found our first copy of 100 of the World’s Greatest Female Adventurers at the elementary school library. We decided we’d be adventurers One Hundred One and One Hundred Two: so brave and daring and courageous that no matter what happened—from my parents’ divorce in first grade, to her mother’s chemo in fourth—the world could never forget us. We searched for adventures in our suburban town in Massachusetts, and when they ran out, we’d make up adventures of our own—always moving, always exploring, always in brave pursuit of the truth.
Long before Veronica and Chloe came along and invited her to join them on their fancy April break trip. Back when it was just us.
I climb over Griffin to get out of the car, ignoring his shouts of protest as I wedge myself past him and onto the sidewalk. Mom is either too tired to deal with us or doesn’t notice, head bent into the trunk as she reaches for our luggage. I stretch in front of the café, muscles aching from the three-hour drive from Massachusetts to Vermont. As I look up and down the deserted street, everything looks the same: old, weather-worn buildings with musty windows and overgrown lawns, with no more than two cars parked out front.
Oliver appears beside me, back leaning against the car. “Who would ever choose to live out here?”
He doesn’t look at me as he asks, as if the question was for the humid air around us. I resist the urge to stomp hard on his foot to get him to acknowledge me. I’ve considered it a few times at school, when he passes in the hall with his eighth-grade friends and ducks his blond head as though I’m just another laminated poster on the wall.
But I always grit my teeth and steady my heel against the tiles, because no matter what Oliver thinks about me now—that I’m annoying, or embarrassing, or whatever he’s made up as an excuse to ignore me—he’ll have to take me seriously once Sophie and I are world-renowned adventurers. She may not be here now, but I’ll make sure our stay in Stone Creek is chock-full of history-making escapades. Otherwise, she’ll have been right in choosing Veronica and Chloe and Busch Gardens over me. And Oliver will keep turning up his nose each time he sees me—until I achieve something great and finally prove him wrong.
“We’ll make it fun,” I say with determination.
Step one: survey the area. Being a great adventurer means knowing where to look. Sophie and I learned that early, since our suburban town doesn’t exactly lend itself to adventure naturally. We have to create our own missions, just like the women from 100 of the World’s Greatest Female Adventurers. No one invited Bessie Coleman to be the first-ever African American pilot. She had to move all the way to France to learn how to fly, and it’s that kind of stubborn determination and love for adventure that makes history.
I squint against the afternoon sun, toward the half-lit store signs and splintery signposts down the road. I scan the shop names, reading them aloud under my breath. “?‘Meggie’s 24/7-ish Diner’… ‘Meggie’s Food ’N’ Fuel’…” Then Stone Creek Library, which seems normal enough. Until it’s followed by Meggie’s Realty.
I cup my hand over my eyes. There’s no way I’m reading these right. And yet there they are—all worn down, their walls speckled with graffiti and parking lots cratering with potholes. I almost take out my phone to snap a photo, but it’s too soon to text Sophie, and I don’t have service anyway. “I guess Meggie was everyone’s long-lost lover,” I joke.
But whoever Meggie is, she must have been pretty incredible to get all these shops named after her. I don’t recognize her name from my book, but a flare of excitement rises in my chest at the thought of discovering who she is.
Oliver rolls his eyes. “There’s no way everyone was in love with the same girl. Some people don’t even…”
His voice trails off, and he kicks a piece of gravel loose with the toe of his sneaker.
I continue to study the signs, straining to read the name of what looks like a pet shop at the end of the street. “Don’t even what?”
Oliver shakes his head and stands upright. “She probably helped found this town, like, a million years ago. It’s not that interesting.”
I think it is, but arguing that won’t convince him. I’m just glad I brought the Walsh-Higgins Adventure Agency business cards when I packed. Even if Sophie’s not with me for this week’s adventure, if I can show her what she’s missing out on, we can work together on the next one. And all the ones after that.
“Come on,” Mom calls, standing by the trunk surrounded by our suitcases. “Help me wheel these inside.”
We grab our respective suitcases and drag them across the uneven sidewalk. “Are we staying in Jeff’s café?” I ask.
Now, that would be an adventure.
“No, we’re just leaving your things here until Jeff closes shop and can take you to his place.” My chest falls. “We’re interrupting his workday, but he’s being very understanding so I don’t miss my flight to Chicago.”
As though summoned by her words, the bell hanging from the café door jingles and a man climbs down to the front step. He wears a faded flannel shirt rolled up to his elbows, thick jeans worn white at the knees, and a baseball cap pulled a bit too far over his forehead, its off-white bill pointing out toward the street. Mom mentioned he was about her age, but with speckles of gray in his stubble and a few tired lines beneath his eyes, he looks older than her. And older than Dad looked the last time I saw him, when he dropped off presents on Christmas before he headed back to his apartment in New York.
Jeff’s skin looks dry from one too many sunburns, and though he stands tall in the doorway, his shoulders are angled at an uncertain slump and his eyes flicker quickly between us, like he’s not sure where to look, or what he’s looking at.
Mom makes the first move, stepping forward with her arms extended. “Jeff, it’s so good to see you!” She gathers him in a stiff embrace, not fully touching as they softly pat each other’s backs. “It’s been too long.”
Long enough for me to barely remember the last time I saw her cousin Jeff. We used to travel up to Maine and Vermont to visit Mom’s family, back when Griffin was in diapers and Oliver wasn’t too cool to be my playmate. I never thought much about why we stopped visiting, or what happened to Mom’s cousins and uncles and aunts and their kids.
It didn’t start until a few years after Dad left. It was like Mom was running on overdrive for the first years after the divorce, determined to ensure our family still felt complete, as if Dad had never been there in the first place. The way he left—packing all his things neatly in a duffel bag, agreeing to a few weekends with us a month before kissing us goodbye at the bus station—it really did feel like it had been just the four of us all along. Mom, working overtime and weekends. Me, distracting Griffin with games and playing the role of homework police. Oliver, keeping tabs to make sure I followed Mom’s laundry list of rules and didn’t fall out of line. But eventually, it was as if her fuel ran out, and suddenly she was running on fumes. Relying on Oliver more to manage us. Exhausted by the smallest things I’d do, like trekking sand into the house after an adventure with Sophie on the beach. That’s when she started to spend more time on Facebook, hunting down relatives like Jeff and reminiscing over Messenger into the late hours of the evening.
I wondered why we ever stopped talking to them, expecting some deep family secret, some dramatic explanation that could fuel my next adventure with Sophie. “I just got so busy with you kids,” Mom would say when I asked, and I’d feel that pang again, because without knowing it, I’d done something wrong. Taken her attention, her time, her energy. Consumed the world around her until there was nothing by the time Dad moved on to his next life, leaving her trapped in a bubble with us.
With me. And so far, I haven’t accomplished anything great enough for the me part of it to be good enough to make up for everything else Mom’s gone through.
Mom releases Jeff and steps aside so we’re standing, staring at him, in plain view.
He clears his throat, loud and clanky like a garbage disposal.
“Hey, kids,” he says, words slow. “I’m Jeff. And this is Malt.” He crooks his neck toward the shop. “Hey, Malt! Come here.”
A tiny white dog scampers past his boots, wagging his stubby tail in response to the call. Griffin kneels down and scratches behind his floppy ears. A pink tongue dangles happily from the dog’s mouth.
Oliver’s upper lip curls. “Malt… the Maltese?”
Jeff nods matter-of-factly. “Yep.”
A giant grin sweeps across my face. “I love it.”
“Of course you do,” Oliver mumbles, and I jab him quickly with my elbow.
Jeff wiggles the doorknob back and forth in his hand. We all stand, looking at one another as though waiting for a sign of what to say next.
Jeff inhales a steading breath. “Well, no use hovering by the stairs. Let’s get you and your things inside.”
Mom leads the way up to the door and we follow, suitcase wheels smacking against the stone steps. Malt scampers through between my legs, and I’m greeted by thick, humid air and the overwhelming smell of burnt coffee. Sweat immediately beads at the back of my neck, and I imagine that Sophie is about to board a water ride. My stomach does an angry somersault and I shake the thought away, taking in my new surroundings.
I haven’t been to many coffee shops—Mom doesn’t even give me tea without supervision—but there’s a café in our town where Sophie and I would go sometimes after soccer practice for smoothies and almond croissants. The walls were decorated with antique clocks and splatter paintings, and there was a shelf in the back dedicated to a take-a-book-leave-a-book program.
But Jeff’s café is unlike anything I’ve seen before. It’s small—almost too small for all five of us and Jeff’s dog to stand comfortably between the mismatched tables and chairs. But, more important, every inch of the three walls facing the front counter is decorated with nothing but framed newspaper clippings. All sizes, black and white or color. Front page all the way down to a clipping of just a few paragraphs by the edge of an ad. The headlines stare at me in big, bold print, as though calling to be read, desperate to be heard.
TWENTY-THREE-YEAR-OLD MEGGIE RILEY LAST SEEN IN STONE CREEK WOODS
FAMILY OFFERS $100,000 REWARD FOR MISSING DAUGHTER
SUSPECT RELEASED IN CASE OF MISSING WOMAN FAMOUS FOR DISCOVERING THE “STONE CREEK TREASURE”
There are too many to read—at least this fast—but one name stands out in all of them: Meggie Riley.
As in the Meggie of Meggie’s Cup, Meggie’s 24/7-ish Diner, Meggie’s Food ’N’ Fuel, and probably every other business in Stone Creek.
Sophie and I once spent an entire sleepover watching terrible Bigfoot documentaries on her laptop, ducking under the covers each time we heard her parents come upstairs. We’d joke about towns built around old myths, wonder how many tourists really came each year that justified every motel and pizza joint being named after him. We’d laugh at how boring it would be for the Walsh-Higgins Adventure Agency to have only one local adventure to pursue.
Right now, as I’m surrounded by Meggie Riley, “boring” is the last word I’d use. I’m not sure what other word I would, so I just crane my neck and stare, jaw loose, at the articles plastering the room like a strange wallpaper. But something flutters in my chest, and I know right away that I need to find out.
Especially because of that third headline. “Discover” is a code word for adventuring. And when you’re famous for making a discovery, that usually means you’re a legend, like the women in my book. But I’ve never heard of Meggie Riley or the Stone Creek Treasure, which could mean the headline is misleading.
Or that I, too, am on the cusp of a great discovery.
“It’s safe, I promise,” Mom says, fast, like she was prepared for this moment. “This whole thing with the disappearance was almost twenty years ago, and there hasn’t been any major crime since.”
“Tell that to Anne Thornton,” Jeff grumbles, as if we know who she is. “Woman’s called the police every time I’ve had to raise my coffee prices.”
“The family still lives in town,” Mom says to us, low and serious like a confession, “but Jeff says they’re very nice people, and they keep to themselves, and I hope you’ll respect their privacy. They’ve gone through an enormous amount of pain over the years, and the way people sensationalize their tragedy surely hasn’t helped.”
Oliver and I exchange a silent glance. For some reason, he decides to voice our thoughts out loud. “Isn’t this café sensationalizing it?”
Mom gapes like a fish about to blow a bubble. But Jeff looks indifferent, like he’s gotten this question a million times before. “They love that we sensationalized it,” he says with a wave of his hand. “They basically invented this”—he gestures to the decor—“themselves. They’re the ones who advertised that insanely high reward and attracted every Nancy Drew and Hardy Boy in the Northeast to this town.”
“Which I can understand,” Mom says, fiddling with the strap of her purse. “They’d do anything to get back their little girl.”
I scan the walls, studying the photos of Meggie. Most are photos of her as an adult, tight blond curls puffing around her head and a spattering of brown freckles over the bridge of her nose. In some she’s posing with a graying man who must be her father, both wearing suits. My stomach sinks, thinking that whatever she discovered was probably just some boring old invention that made her family a ton of money.
That is, until I spot one article featuring an image of her as a girl. I can tell it’s still Meggie from her tightly coiled blond hair and spattering of light-brown freckles. But in some ways, she looks like a totally different person. As a girl, she has a wide, sweeping grin, different from the stern, flat look she has in the business photos with her dad. Her shoulders are sunburned, her tank top stained with dirt and sand. Band-Aids cover scuffs on her elbows, similar to the ones I always have to slap on after collecting scratches on an adventure.
There are photos from after her disappearance too: a mother and father with thick bags under their eyes, speaking to a reporter. Heads bent down as they rush from the police station to a car. Tears lining her sisters’ cheeks as they beg readers to come forward with any clues. I watch the years pass in the photos. Years of perseverance, of hope. All because they wanted her back so badly.
In the photos of her as a kid, she doesn’t look too different from me—other than her chunky headband and the outdated jeans that flare below her knees, that is. But she has to have something special—be something special—for an entire town to care this deeply about rescuing her.
I wonder what it is. If, through these snapshots, I too could learn it. I stare at the frames and posters, eyes wide as gumballs. “What’s the Stone Creek Treasure? And do they have any leads on where she went?” I ask, my voice getting louder with each word. “Do you have any theories?”
Mom has a way of calling my name that makes me shut up fast. I’ve often wished it worked the same on Griffin.
“Just curious,” I say, much quieter this time.
Jeff shrugs in response. “Folk around here all have their theories. I’ve heard everything and anything you could imagine over the years.” The first hint of a smile appears at the corner of his mouth. “At this point, I’d welcome any new ones.”
Mom shoots him a glare that’s like the silent version of her “Finley.”
Griffin doesn’t seem to notice. “Aliens!”
Jeff shakes his head. “Heard it.”
Griffin considers. “Aliens… in a flying pirate ship!”
I smile. This would have been perfect for the Walsh-Higgins Adventure Agency. My back pocket bulges with our business cards. I can almost feel them stirring, wanting to fly out and into Jeff’s hands. He could tell me all the facts the locals and tourists collected over the years, and I’d develop a gutsy action plan to finally turn their investigation into a real rescue mission. I’d video Sophie and share my plan to confront the kidnapper and save Meggie from wherever they’ve been hiding her for nearly two decades. Sophie would convince her mom to drive her up here from Busch Gardens. Together, we’d be like Greatest Female Adventurer Number Forty-Six, Admiral Michelle Howard, who led a rescue mission for a captain captured by real-life pirates. We’d be local heroes, with our names printed right next to Meggie’s on the store signs, and—in its next reprint—awarded the labels “Greatest Female Adventurers Numbers One Hundred One and One Hundred Two.”
Everyone would have to take me seriously then.
“This is super creepy,” Oliver says. His arms are crossed over his chest, and his eyebrows furrow as he studies the newspaper clippings.
My stomach drops. Who am I kidding? If I sent a photo of this place to Sophie, she’d probably react the same way. And even if she felt even the slightest pull in her chest, drawing her back to the adventure agency, the second she showed my message to Chloe or Veronica, they’d talk it right out of her.
My cheeks burn. It’s as if I can hear them laughing at me, clear, as though they were standing here in the room. Clear, as though I was back in the cafeteria, barely fitting on the end of our bench as Chloe and Veronica swallowed the space around me. As Sophie forgot I was there.
Maybe I’d prefer she laughed at me. At least then I’d know she still noticed me at all.
Mom swats Oliver’s arm. “Don’t be rude. Jeff is being extremely generous by letting you stay here.”
Jeff scratches the back of his head and glances to the side. Either he’s regretting his generosity or he is bad at accepting thanks. Considering how empty his tip jar is, I hope it’s the latter.
“Generous enough to let me raid the pastry case?” Griffin asks, eyes wide and hopeful.
Mom opens her mouth to object, but Jeff almost looks relieved. “Go ahead, kid.” He nods his head so the bill of his cap points toward the case. “Half that crap is stale anyway.”
Mom shoots him her classic Mom Glare. I’ve been on the receiving end of that one before and can’t help a sympathetic shudder.
“Junk,” he says as Griffin peels around the counter. “Half that junk is stale.”
Griffin whips open the case and grabs two cinnamon buns in one greedy palm. Oliver rolls his eyes toward me. “Great, now he’s going to be sugar high, too.”
Mom and Jeff stand, awkwardly shifting and opening and closing their mouths like they’re not sure what comes next. It reminds me of the first few times Dad called after he left. How I’d mentally beg Oliver to get off the phone, just to clam up once he finally gave me my turn.
“I’ve got it from here, Em,” Jeff says, shoulders raised in a way that makes it look like he’s definitely not got it. I know Oliver’s thinking the same thing by the way he stares holes into Mom’s back, as though begging her not to go.
I, on the other hand, am ready for what comes next. While she hovers in the center of the shop, eyes scanning the three of us one by one as though she’s mentally herding us like sheep, I’m counting down the seconds until it’s just us and Cousin Jeff. The fact that he’s letting Griffin dig into his third cinnamon roll in sixty seconds means he has no idea what he’s in for. Which means I can get away with anything once Mom’s gone.
Like reopening the Walsh-Higgins Adventure Agency for its first solo mission.
Mom inhales a steadying breath, then extends her arms like wings. Her fingers bend back and forth, ushering us toward her. “Come here, kids.”
Griffin barrels into her open arms, wrapping his sticky fingers around her skirt. Oliver lingers, eyes fixed on the frame behind Mom’s head. I move toward her, pushing him into her arms with me.
We tangle together, Griffin’s short hair scratching my cheek, Mom’s chin digging into my scalp, and Oliver’s arms pressed stiffly against my side. Just before I close my eyes, I catch Jeff watching us, eyes focused and lips parted. I can’t imagine there’s anything interesting about this awkward mess of a group hug, and can’t help but wonder how—in a town as interesting as this—Jeff manages to bore himself into thinking we’re the most interesting thing in this shop.
I’m ready to pull away as soon as I can, get on to my new adventure. But my fingers clasp around the fabric of her shirt and I huddle closer, taking in the lavender scent of her perfume.
“Okay, we get it, we’ll miss you too,” Oliver grumbles against Mom’s shoulder. “But it’s way too hot in here for long hugs.”
Something furry brushes my ankle. “And I think Malt is getting jealous.”
Mom kisses the tops of our heads, oldest to youngest so Oliver doesn’t have time to object. “Okay. But promise me you won’t give Jeff any trouble.”
“If you don’t want to cause him trouble, you’ll take both of them with you,” Oliver whispers, as though seriously hopeful she’ll say yes.
I wrap my arms around Griffin’s shoulders so he’s standing snuggled in front of me. “You can go, Oliver. We’re staying.”
“Ollie can’t go!” Griffin whines, stirring in my arms. “He’s going to take me hiking in the woods! We’re going to catch salamanders and build a tree fort.”
He twists around, glancing up at me so his icing-glazed mouth comes into full, horrifying view. “And I guess you can come too, Finley.”
I shove him away. “Thanks for the afterthought, Griffin.”
Mom turns to Jeff, looking ready to thank him again. He glances between her and the door, and she tightens her lips. She turns to go, and the air in the room shifts as though ready to settle into its next scene: Griffin running back around the counter, Jeff leaning down to scratch Malt behind the ears, me edging toward the wall, closer to the newspaper clippings. But just as she moves toward the door, car keys already in her hand, I see her turn and hear her murmur to Oliver: “Take care of them, okay?”
Oliver’s arms go tense at his sides. But I know all Mom sees is his nod and smile. “I will.”
With a jingle of the cowbell dangling from the shop door, she’s gone.
Mom doesn’t know that I overhear everything—that it’s part of my job as cofounder of the Walsh-Higgins Adventure Agency. Always knowing what’s going on—from which teacher is hiding a pop quiz we need to uncover like a missing treasure, to which classmate is willing to gamble their lunch money in a kickball match—is part of being Finley Walsh. But she always acts like I don’t hear anything, don’t see anything. Like I’m some kid who can’t handle the truth. Can’t even handle myself.
As if her saying “Your dad is just busy” will stop me from hearing their late-night arguments on the phone about canceled visits and missed holidays. As if saying “You don’t need to worry” will mean I won’t notice the way she flinches when the cashier rings up the cost for my new clothes. As if “You can do anything you set your mind to, honey” could ever be words I’ll believe, when it’s Oliver she always goes to when she needs something real.
His eyes catch mine and I look away, staring hard at the newspaper clipping as though it’s the most interesting thing I’ve seen in my life. Which, to be fair, it probably is.
MISSING WOMAN is the core phrase connecting all the clippings, but I’m drawn to the ones that talk about her as a girl, that version of her that seems so similar to me. Most of the articles use her younger photos next to the ones from when she disappeared as an adult, with just a vague mention of the “Stone Creek Treasure.” But one of them—an older article, yellowed with age but well-preserved, with a frame—details the discovery of the Stone Creek Treasure, long before her disappearance.
12-YEAR-OLD MEGGIE RILEY UNCOVERS “STONE CREEK TREASURE”
Meggie Riley, the oldest of Robert and Maria Riley’s three daughters, said she was “in search of adventure” when she set out into the Stone Creek Woods with four classmates last Saturday. As the weather worsened, fallen branches and rising water from the creek obstructed the children’s paths. Meggie continued to lead her classmates forward, toward the northern end of the Stone Creek Woods.
This area, referred to by locals as a “dense no-man’s-land,” is one parents tell their children to avoid—including the Rileys. Whether afraid of consequences from their parents, the storm, or the woods itself, four of the children decided to turn back. Meggie, however, continued forward and made an independent discovery that would change her family forever.
With the rain loosening the soil, Meggie was able to dig and uncover a series of high-value antiques that had been buried decades before. Despite the worsening weather, Meggie worked through the storm to retrieve the items, which would later be appraised and valued at tens of thousands of dollars.
I stop there, because Oliver’s reading over my shoulder now, eyebrows pinched together so there’s a small wrinkle over his nose. “So everyone’s obsessed with her because she dug some trash out of a mud pile as a kid?”
I stomp on his foot and he lets out a quiet yelp. “You’re reading it wrong on purpose,” I say. Because how could that be what he gets out of the article? What I’m reading paints the image of a young adventurer, just like me and Sophie, but one who went on to make a real discovery. Who ran into the unforgiving wilderness and forged ahead even when all of her classmates turned back to safety.
“That trash was worth thousands,” I say, gesturing to the article. “It’s obvious her dad and her were super successful. I’m sure all that money helped. I bet her friends regret not following her into the woods. They could have been rich too.”
Oliver would have been one of those four kids who turned back—if he came in the first place, that is. I want him to agree that those kids made a mistake by ignoring Meggie’s call to adventure. That they should have followed her into the woods that day, just like Sophie should have chosen Stone Creek—chosen me—over Busch Gardens.
But, as usual, he barely looks at me and just shrugs. “She’s just lucky a tree didn’t fall on her, or she didn’t end up sunk in the mud with all those antiques,” he says. “And if everyone was angry enough that she got the money instead of them, it could have put a target on her back.”
He gestures to one of the other headlines before walking away: VALIDITY OF RUNAWAY NOTE ALLEGEDLY LEFT BY VICTIM BROUGHT INTO QUESTION.
In the reflection in the glass, I see my mouth hang in awe. If Meggie left a runaway note, she may be missing because she doesn’t want to be found. Looking at the photos of her as a kid compared to the one of her and her father in the office, I can see how much happier she was outside, on the brink of adventure. I imagine she escaped the dull day-to-day office life and ran off into the wilderness to go out in the world and experience it—scary and dangerous and risky and fun—just like I want to do someday.
If I found her, I’d be meeting a real-life adventurer, just like the women in my book, but even better—because she became great when she was my age. That means that if I found her, she could teach me how to be great, even as I am now.
But that’s not all: as much as I love the idea of a restless Meggie escaping her white-collar life for one of adventure, there’s the possibility the runaway note is fake, too. If it is a fake, that means her kidnapper could have forged it to distract the detectives.
If Meggie isn’t a runaway, that means she was taken by someone and needs to be rescued. And if I found her, not only would I be able to meet a famous explorer, but I’d be a hero, too. Then Sophie would definitely want to rejoin the adventure agency—to be like Meggie, not like the kids who left her behind. And maybe Mom would take me more seriously too, the way Stone Creek looks up to Meggie.
I scan the headlines, hungrily searching for more information on this real-life adventurer who was here, in the same town I’m in now. One of the framed papers, hung back in the corner of the café, has a giant headline that consumes almost half the front page: FOUL PLAY SUSPECTED OF FAMILY IN CASE OF MISSING WOMAN.
I blink up at the headline, lips parting in shock. What family would put out an enormous, sensational reward for a missing girl they didn’t want anyone to find? And how bonkers must this case be for even the parents to be suspects? Parents who still live here, in this town, searching for her to this day?
The buzzing questions in my head scatter when Jeff clears his throat and Malt releases a high-pitched bark in response. I whip around, so fast my ponytail slaps the frame and sends it swinging on its hook. I’m already sucking in a deep breath, ready to shout out a hundred excuses or say, “No, I wasn’t reading that,” when I realize he’s not looking at me—or any of us, for that matter. His gaze is fixed on the ground, where his boots tap anxiously against the dusty floorboards.
“Sorry I can’t bring you kids to the house to settle in quite yet,” he says slowly, as though finding his words as he goes. “As soon as the shop closes up for the day, I’ll take you over.”
Now that Mom’s gone, it suddenly seems quiet in here. Griffin stands, midbite, and Oliver’s thumbs are frozen half an inch above his phone screen. I can hear the old building settling, as though it’s holding its breath too. Jeff works his jaw, like he’s begging the right words to find their way out.
I wonder how long he’s been out here, alone. I wonder—if I can’t fix things with Sophie—if I’ll be alone long enough to lose my words too.
“But feel free to make yourself at home, or step outside if you want. I just need to unload some shipments in the back, but”—he taps the counter, gesturing toward a small bell by the cashier—“ring if you need me.”
It comes out sounding more like a question than a statement. I exchange a glance with Oliver. He bites his lower lip.
“Um, thanks,” he says.
Jeff nods, almost as though reassuring himself, then trudges around the counter and toward the back room. The swinging door sways behind him like a waving hand.
Griffin leaps up onto the seat behind the counter and slaps his palms onto its wooden surface. “I run the shop now! Welcome to Café Le Griffin!”
Oliver rolls his eyes. “God help every customer in this town.”
A bickering match ensues between the two of them, Malt dashing across the empty space between them like a tennis ball being served back and forth over a net. I take my chance to turn back to the newspaper clipping, but with the sound of their rising voices, it’s hard to focus on the words. They’re scrambled, letters mixed in my vision like mismatched Scrabble pieces.
I blink hard, over and over, to regain focus. Instead, I just get bleary eyes.
Sophie wouldn’t get overwhelmed like this. She was always focused. Always attentive. While I decided on our missions and barreled in, full speed ahead, she was my brains. She was the thought behind it. She was half the job.
Without her, I’m not whole.
“It’s not a good business practice to eat all your product,” Oliver is saying.
Griffin lets out a dramatic scoff. “And it’s that kind of attitude that will drive away customers.”
“Finley,” he calls, singsong, “will you be my first customer so I can prove a point to Ollie?”
That stirring feeling returns to my pocket. I reach in and pull out the stack of business cards, crisp, glossy, and perfect, just like Sophie and I hoped for when her dad finally agreed to order them. I run my finger over the edges, the pointed ends flipping over the pad of my thumb.
A bad idea takes root in my mind. I turn around, already smiling despite myself.
Griffin’s eyes light up. “Oh, I’m totally about to win this fight.”
“Forget watching his coffee shop,” I say slowly, to hide the rising excitement—and nerves—from my voice. “Forget stale pastries.”
Griffin gasps. Even Malt stops, ears up at attention.
I swallow. I can’t stop now. Adventurers never give up before the mission begins.
“I have a proposition.”
Oliver shakes his head and turns back to his phone. “I’m out.”
I gape at him, nostrils flaring. “You haven’t even heard it yet!”
His head keeps swaying, blond locks shaking at his ears. “If it’s your idea, I’m out.”
I clamp my mouth shut to keep my jaw from trembling. He remains bent over his phone, though I can tell he’s not scrolling by the way his eyes remain fixed ahead in one place. Like in the car, he’s pretending not to listen while still totally listening. Which means I still have a chance to win him over.
I straighten up and stomp toward the counter.
“Maybe you’ll consider it, then.” I slap a business card onto the surface and slide it, facedown, toward Griffin, all official-like. He glances over his right, then left shoulder, then flips the corner like he’s about to read a winning card during a game of blackjack.
“Our mission is to find the missing explorer,” I say, spinning my finger to point to the café’s three decorated walls. “And our prize is never-ending glory.”
The kind even Sophie, Veronica, and Chloe can’t ignore.
Griffin’s eyes light up like little fires. “Oh, I’m in.”
Oliver stomps toward us, so heavily that the frames tremble on the wall. “Okay, fine, what is this?” I toss a card his way, and he snatches it as it flutters toward the ground. His brow goes tight. “Walsh-Higgins Adventure Agency?”
I grab a pen from Jeff’s jar by the cashier. “Cross it out. We’re rebranding.”
I scribble on one of my copies and hold it up for them to see.
Oliver’s face remains flat. “Walsh-Walsh-Walsh? I can barely say that without getting tongue-tied.”
“And don’t forget Malt!” Griffin says, doodling a cartoon dog in the corner of the card.
Oliver’s mouth is open, ready to muster some objection Mom’s trained him to give. Some brilliant, oh-so-mature reason why we shouldn’t have fun this break, why we should stay inside and help Jeff with the shop. A reason why I should keep still and quiet so I don’t cause trouble. Don’t bother anyone.
So no one has to notice me at all.
Griffin looks up at him, eager and hopeful. The second Oliver says no, he’ll move on to the first chance at shenanigans that come next. But right now I have him on my side, for once. And if I use my supersonic-hearing powers for evil, just this one time, I can keep it that way.
“We’re pursuing this, one way or another,” I say. “You can either join us and make sure we don’t get into too much trouble, or…”
I glance at the doorway, where Mom said her secret goodbye to him. His mouth falls shut; a quick surge of guilt floods my chest. But I’m not asking him to do a bad thing. I’m asking him to be brave—like Nellie Bly, who risked her safety and sanity to go undercover at the Blackwell’s Island asylum to write her famous exposé. Part of what makes a great adventurer is having guts and a passion to uncover hidden truths—the kind everyone else is too afraid to pursue.
Besides, a mission with good intentions is a win for everyone. The fame and glory are a nice icing on the top—in Bly’s case, her reputation after the exposé earned her the ability to be one of the first international female travelers.
And I never ask Oliver for anything, anyway. Not when I’ve waited outside alone while Sophie, Veronica, and Chloe huddle close so there’s never quite enough room for a fourth. Not when I’ve got my head ducked, sniffling quietly in my locker, and I notice him walk by, know he sees me, even though he pretends he doesn’t.
But my chest still feels hot and unsteady as I watch his guard fall and he nods in surrender. Maybe because I know how it can be when Mom expects too much—like when she makes me help Griffin scrub mud off his shoes after a hyper run through the rain, or makes me review his long division workbook when, really, I’m the last person on the planet who should ever be helping anyone with long division.
Mostly, though, I wish he’d just say yes to the adventure. Wish he wasn’t another person I had to convince to come along.
“Okay,” he says in defeat. I muster a grin, as though this is what winning should feel like. “I’ll help. But only to make sure you two don’t get yourselves killed.”
I extend my hand for a shake. “Fair enough, sir.”
He rolls his eyes but accepts my hand in his.
“So,” Griffin says, running his hand over the round curve of his chin with melodramatic flair, “where do we start?”
Everyone’s eyes are fixed on me. Even Malt is staring up at me, tail wagging in anticipation. The adventure agency is back. And I’m still its leader.
Future Greatest Female Adventurer One Hundred One, Finley Walsh, has just begun her greatest mission to date.