Calling all fans of THIS IS US, because we have the literal perfect new YA novel for you. No, it doesn’t have Milo Ventimiglia’s beautiful face on it, but it does have a family that will tug at your heartstrings, character arcs that will have you cheering, and emotional lines that’ll still manage to make you laugh. We’re talking about FAR FROM THE TREE, by Robin Benway!
This sibling-focused tale starts with Grace, an only child who was adopted at birth and decides to search for her own family. Spoiler: She’s actually a middle child. She discovers that she has a younger sister Maya, who’s a snarky brunette in a house full of redheads, and an older brother Joaquin, who’s a stoic boy that’d spent seventeen years in the foster care system. Together, they go in search of their biological mother and find out what it means to be a family. Together, they will probably make you cry while reading.
Oh, and did we mention? It’s the NATIONAL BOOK AWARD WINNER 😍
It deserves all the accolades, and now you can read the first three chapters of FAR FROM THE TREE now! Already started it? Skip the excerpt to learn more and get your copy!
Grace wasn’t one of those girls who was always fantasizing about homecoming.
She knew that she’d go, though. She figured that she and her best friend Jane would get dressed together, get their hair done together. She knew that her mom would try to be cool about it and not get excited, but she’d make Grace’s dad charge the fancy, expensive camera—not the iPhone—and then she’d take pictures with Max, her boyfriend of just over a year.
He’d look great in his tux—rented, of course, because what would Max do with a tux hanging in his closet?—and she didn’t know if they’d slow dance or just talk to people or what. The thing was that she didn’t make any assumptions. She just thought it would happen, and it’d be great.
Grace thought like that about everything in her life. Homecoming was just something that she knew she’d do. She didn’t question it.
Which is why it was so surprising that she ended up spending homecoming night not in a fancy dress, not sipping out of Max’s flask and dancing with Jane and taking cheesy photos of each other, but in the maternity ward of St. Catherine’s Hospital, her feet in stirrups instead of heels, giving birth to her daughter.
It took Grace a while to figure out that she was pregnant. She used to watch those reality shows on cable TV and yell at the screen, “How did you not know you’re pregnant?!” as actors recreated the most unbelievable scenarios. Karma, Grace thought later, really bit her in the ass on that one. But her period had always been erratic, so that was no help. And she had morning sickness the same time as the flu was going around school, so that was strike number two. It wasn’t until her favorite jeans were tighter during Week Twelve (which she didn’t realize was Week Twelve at the time) that she started to suspect something was off. And it wasn’t until Week Thirteen (see earlier comment about Week Twelve) that she made her boyfriend Max drive them twenty minutes away to a store where they wouldn’t see anyone they knew so they could buy two pregnancy tests.
It turned out that pregnancy tests were expensive. So expensive, in fact, that Max had to check his bank balance on his phone while they stood in line, just to make sure that he had enough in his account.
By the time Grace realized what had happened, she was in the fifth day of her second trimester.
The baby was the size of a peach. Grace looked it up on Google.
After that day, Grace knew that she wasn’t going to keep Peach. She knew that she couldn’t. She worked part-time after school at a clothing boutique that catered primarily to women forty years older than her who called her “dear.” She wasn’t exactly earning baby-raising money.
And it wasn’t even that babies cried or smelled or spit up or anything like that. That didn’t seem terrible. It was that they needed you. Peach would need Grace in ways that she couldn’t give to her, and at night, she would sit in her room, holding her now-rounded stomach and say, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” a prayer and a penance, because Grace was the first person that Peach would ever need and Grace felt like she was already letting Peach down.
The adoption lawyer sent over a huge folder of prospective families, each of them more eager-looking than the next. Grace’s mom and she looked at them together like they were shopping in a catalog.
No one was good enough for Peach. Not the prospective dad who resembled a hamster, or the mom whose haircut hadn’t been updated since 1992. Grace nixed one family because their toddler looked like a biter, and another because they hadn’t ever traveled past Colorado. Never mind that she hadn’t even traveled past Colorado, but Peach deserved better. She deserved more. She deserved mountain climbers, international voyagers, people who searched the world for the best things because that’s what Peach was. Grace wanted intrepid explorers who mined for gold–because they were about to strike it rich.
Catalina was originally from Spain and she was fluent in both Spanish and French. She worked for an online marketing firm, but also ran a food blog and wanted to publish a cookbook someday. Daniel was a website designer who worked from home. He would be the stay-at-home parent during the first three months, which Grace thought was pretty badass. They had a Labrador retriever named Dolly who looked both affectionate and stupid.
Grace chose them.
She never felt ashamed, not with Peach inside of her. They were like a little team. They walked, slept, and ate together, and everything that Grace did affected Peach. They watched a lot of TV on her laptop and Grace told her about the shows and about Catalina and Daniel and how she would have a great home with them.
Peach was the only person Grace really talked to. All of her other friends had fallen away. Grace could see it in their eyes, their uncertainty about what to say about her rapidly-expanding stomach, their relief that it was her and not them who had gotten pregnant. Her cross-country teammates had tried to keep her updated at first, talking about meets and gossiping about other teams, but Grace couldn’t handle the way her jealousy pushed against her skin until it felt like she would explode. Even nodding silently became difficult after a while, and when she stopped responding, they stopped talking.
Sometimes when she was almost asleep, when Peach pushed up into her ribcage like it was a safe little space for her, Grace could feel her mom standing in the doorway to her room, watching her. She pretended to not know she was there, and after a while, her mom would leave.
Her dad, though. He could barely look at Grace. She knew she had disappointed him, that even though he still loved her, Grace was a different person now, and she would never been the same Grace again. He must have felt like they swapped out his daughter for a new model (“Now with baby inside!”), a Grace 2.0.
Grace knew this because she felt the same way, too.
Grace was 40 weeks and three days when homecoming rolled around. Janie had kept asking her to go, saying they could go in a group with friends or something, which was probably both the dumbest and sweetest thing she had ever said to Grace. Her words were always tinged with apology, like she knew she was saying the wrong thing but didn’t know how to stop herself. “It’ll be fun!” she texted Grace, but Grace didn’t respond.
By that point, Grace had stopped going to school in case she went into labor one day during AP Bio and traumatized everyone in the senior class. She wasn’t exactly disappointed by the new decision. She had gotten tired of feeling like a sideshow freak, people giving her so much room in the hallways that she couldn’t remember the last time anyone had touched her, even accidentally.
Peach was born at 9:03pm on homecoming night, right when Max was being crowned Homecoming King because, Grace thought bitterly, boys who get girls pregnant are heroes and girls who get pregnant are sluts. Leave it to Peach to steal Max’s thunder, though. The first thing Grace’s daughter ever did and it was genius. She was so proud. It was like Peach knew she was the heir to the throne and had arrived just to claim her tiara.
Peach came out of her like fire, like she had been set aflame. There was Pitocin and white-hot pain that seared Grace’s spine and ribs and hips into rubble. Her mother held her hand and wiped her hair back from her sweaty forehead and didn’t mind that Grace kept calling her “Mommy,” like she had when she was four years old. Peach twisted and shoved her way through her, like she knew that Grace was just a vessel for her and that her real parents, Daniel and Catalina, were waiting outside, ready to take Peach home to her real life.
Peach had places to be, people to see, and she was done with Grace.
Sometimes, when it was late at night and Grace let herself drift to that dark place in her brain, she would think that she would have been okay if only she hadn’t held Peach, if she hadn’t felt her skin and smelled the top of her head and seen that she had Max’s nose and Grace’s dark hair. But the nurse had asked Grace if she wanted to, and she ignored her mother’s worried eyes, her lip caught between her teeth. She reached out and took Peach from the nurse and she didn’t know how else to explain except to say that Peach fit, she fit into Grace’s arms like she had fit between her ribcage, nestled there soft and safe, and even though Grace’s body felt like soot and ashes, her head felt as if it had been washed clean for the first time in ten months.
Peach was perfect. Grace was not.
And Peach deserved perfect.
Catalina and Daniel didn’t call her Peach, of course. No one knew about that nickname except for Grace. And Peach. They called her Amelía Marie instead. Milly for short.
They had always said that it could be an open adoption. They wanted it to be that way, Catalina especially. Privately, Grace thought Catalina felt a little guilty that Peach was becoming her baby. “We can set up visitation,” Catalina said one day when they met in the adoption counselor’s office. “Or send you photos. Whatever makes you comfortable, Grace.”
But after Peach—Milly—was born, Grace didn’t trust herself. She couldn’t imagine seeing her again and not taking her back. Right after she was born, Grace was flying on the sort of adrenaline that she imagined only Olympic athletes could experience, and she was half-ready to jump up, tuck Peach under her arm, and run like a linebacker toward the end zone. She probably could have run a marathon with her, and what scared her was that she knew she wouldn’t have brought Peach back.
Grace didn’t remember giving Peach—Milly—over to Daniel and Catalina. One moment, her daughter was in her arms, and the next, she was gone, riding away with strangers, someone else’s daughter and lost to Grace forever.
Her body remembered, though. It had ushered Peach into the world and it mourned her when Grace got home from the hospital. She locked her bedroom door and writhed in agony, one of Peach’s receiving blankets clutched in her fist as she choked into it, sobs pressing down on her chest, her heart, crushing her from the inside. She didn’t want her mother anymore. This wasn’t a pain that she or the doctors could take away. Grace’s body twisted on the bed in a way that it hadn’t during her labor, like it was confused about where Peach had gone, and her toes curled and her hands flexed. Grace had delivered Peach, but now it felt like she had truly left her. She was untethered, floating away.
Grace stayed in her bedroom for a while. She lost track after ten days.
After two weeks of staying in the dark, she went downstairs and interrupted her parents’ breakfast. They both stared at her like they had never seen her before, and in a way, they hadn’t. Grace 3.0 (“Now with no baby!”) was here to stay.
And then she said the words that her parents had dreaded hearing for the past sixteen years, ever since the day Grace had been born. Not “I’m pregnant” or “my water broke” or “there was an accident.”
Grace went downstairs, her stomach empty, her hair wild, and she said to her parents, “I want to find my birth mother.”
Grace had always known that she was adopted. Her parents never made a secret of it. They didn’t really talk about it, either. It just was.
At the breakfast table, Grace now watched her mom reflexively screwing and unscrewing the peanut butter lid on the jar. After the third time, her dad reached over and took it from her. “We should set up a family meeting,” he said as her mom’s hands moved to her paper napkin.
The last time they had had a family meeting, Grace had told them she was pregnant. At the rate they were going, her parents would probably never have a family meeting again.
“Okay,” Grace said. “Today.”
“Tomorrow.” Her mom had finally found her voice. “I have a meeting today and we should…” She glanced at her dad. “We should get some paperwork for you. It’s in the safe.”
There had always been an explicit agreement between Grace and her parents. They would tell her everything they knew about her biological family, but only if she asked. She had been curious a few times—like when they studied DNA in freshman year biology, or that time in second grade when Alex Peterson had two moms and Grace wondered if maybe she could have two moms, too—but it was different now. Grace knew that somewhere in the world was a woman who had maybe hurt (and maybe was still hurting) like Grace was hurting now. Meeting her wouldn’t bring Peach back to Grace, or fill the cracks that were threatening to shatter her into pieces, but it would be something.
Grace needed to be tethered to someone again.
Her parents knew very little about her mother. Grace wasn’t entirely surprised. It had been a private adoption, through lawyers and courts. Her mother’s name was Melissa Taylor. Grace’s parents never met her. Melissa hadn’t wanted to meet them.
There was no picture of Melissa, or fingerprints, or note or memento, just a signed court document. The name was common enough that Grace suspected she could Google it for hours and not find anything, but it seemed like maybe Melissa had never wanted to be found. “We did send a letter to her through the lawyer,” Grace’s mother said, passing her a thin envelope. “Right after you were born, just telling her how grateful we were, but it was returned.” She didn’t need to add that last part. Grace could see the red “RETURN TO SENDER” stamp slashing across the white paper.
And just when she started to feel a new, different, though no worse, despair, that there wasn’t a woman who had wanted her, who hadn’t craved her the way Grace craved Peach, who hadn’t writhed and ached and hadn’t wanted to know anything about her, Grace’s parents said something that immediately closed the black hole that was threatening to swallow her up.
“Grace,” her father said gently, like his voice could hit a tripwire and destroy them all, “you have siblings.”
After Grace was done throwing up in the downstairs guest bathroom, she got herself a glass of water and came back to the table. The look of anxiety on her mother’s face made her twitch.
They laid out the story in careful and obviously rehearsed words: Joaquin was her brother. He had been one year old when Grace was born, and had gone into foster care just a few days after her parents brought her home. “They asked us if we wanted to foster,” Grace’s mother explained, and even now, sixteen years later, Grace could see the lines of regret that Joaquin had etched on her face. “But you were a newborn and we just, we weren’t prepared for that, for two babies. And your grandmother had just been diagnosed…”
Grace knows that part of the story. Her grandmother, Gloria Grace, the woman who Grace shared her name with, had been diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer a month before Grace had been born, and died right after Grace’s first birthday. “The best year and the worst year,” Grace’s mother described it, when she talked about it at all. Grace knew not to ask too many questions.
“Joaquin,” Grace said now, rolling the word over in her mouth. She realized that she had never known a Joaquin before, that she had never said the name before.
“We were told that he was placed with a foster family that was on track to adopt him,” her father told her. “But that’s all we know about him. We tried to keep track of him, but it’s a…complicated system.”
Grace nodded, taking it all in. If her life was a movie, this was where the reflective, orchestral music would swell. “You said siblings? Plural?”
Her mother nodded. “Right after Gloria Grace”—no one ever called her anything except that—“died, we got a phone call from the same lawyer that helped us get you. There was another baby, a girl, but we couldn’t…” She looked to Grace’s father again, someone to help her bridge the gap between words. “We couldn’t, Grace,” her mother said, her voice wavering before she cleared her throat. “She was adopted by a family about 30 minutes away. We have their information. We agreed that whenever one of you wanted to contact the other, we would let them know.”
They slid an email address across the table to her. “Her name is Maya,” her father said. “She’s fifteen. We talked to her parents last night and they talked to her. If you’d like to email her, she’s waiting to hear from you.”
That night, Grace sat in front of her laptop, the cursor blinking at her as she tried to figure out what to write to Maya.
Dear Maya, I’m your sister and
Nope. Way too familiar.
Hi Maya, my parents just told me about you and wow!
Grace wanted to punch herself in the face just reading that sentence.
Hey, Maya, what’s up? I always wanted a sister and now I have one
Grace was going to have to hire a ghostwriter.
Finally, after almost thirty minutes of typing, deleting, and typing again, she came up with something that seemed reasonable.
My name is Grace and I just recently found out that you and I have the same biological mom. My mom and dad told me about you today, and I have to admit that I’m kind of in shock, but excited, too. They said that you knew about me already, so I hope you’re not too surprised to get this email. I also don’t know if your parents told you about Joaquin. He might be our brother. It’d be nice if we could try and find him together?
My parents also said you live thirty minutes away, so maybe we could meet for coffee or something? If you’d like to get to know me, I’d like to get to know you. No pressure, though. I know this has the potential to be super weird.
Hope to hear from you soon,
She read it three times and then hit “send.”
All she could do was wait.
When Maya was a little girl, her favorite movie was the Disney version of Alice in Wonderland. She loved the idea of falling down a rabbit hole, of plummeting into something that she wasn’t expecting, and of course, the idea that a small white rabbit could wear a tiny waistcoat and glasses.
But her absolute favorite scene was the part when Alice grew too big to fit inside the White Rabbit’s house. Her legs and arms went out the windows, shattering the glass, and her head crashed through the roof, while people yelled and screamed all around her. (Maya liked the drama of it , she had to admit.) At one point, Alice sneezed, and the roof blew clean off the house.
Maya loved that part. She used to make her parents rewind it over and over again, laughing herself sick at the idea that a roof could just go and resettle itself.
Now, when her parents would fight and the walls on her house felt too small and she wished she could smash the glass windows and escape, the idea of a house blowing apart didn’t seem so funny.
Maya didn’t really remember a time when her parents weren’t fighting. When she and her sister Lauren were younger, it was done behind closed doors, muffled voices and tight smiles the next morning at breakfast. Over the years, though, the quiet words became raised, then came the shouting, and finally screaming.
The screaming was the worst, shrill and high-pitched, the kind of noise that made you want to cover your ears and scream right back.
Or run and hide.
Maya and Lauren chose the latter. Maya was thirteen months older than Lauren so she felt responsible, she would jump for the remote and turn up the TV volume until it was too hard to tell what was louder, who wanted to win the noise battle more. “Would you turn down that TV?” her dad had yelled more than once, and it felt so unfair. They had only turned it up because he was too loud in the first place.
Maya and Lauren were fifteen and fourteen now.
The fights were louder than ever.
The fights were all the time.
You’re always working! You’re always working and you don’t—
For you! For the girls! For our family! Jesus Christ, you want everything and yet when I try to give it you—
Maya was old enough to understand that a lot of those angry words had to do with the wine: a glass before dinner, two or three during dinner, and a fifth sloshed into the glass when Maya’s dad was away on business. Maya never saw the evidence laying empty in the recycling bin, and the pantry shelves always seemed to be stocked with uncorked bottles, and she wondered who her mom was hiding the evidence from: her daughters, her husband, or herself.
Then again, she would have let her mother drink three bottles a night if it kept her calm, complacent. Even, Jesus Christ, sleepy.
But the wine only served to rev her parents up like cars before a race, gunning at each other until someone waved a flag and vroom! they were off. Maya and Lauren had learned to be out of the way by then, safely stashed away upstairs in their bedrooms, or at a friend’s, or even just saying they were at a friend’s and then hiding in the backyard until the coast was clear. It wasn’t that their parents’ fights got violent or anything like that; words could shatter harder than a glass breaking against a wall, hurt more than a fist plowing through teeth.
It was easy to follow their pattern. Maya was fairly certain she could even write out their dialogue for them. Once the yelling began it was always about fifteen minutes until her mother accused her father of having an affair. Maya didn’t know if it was true or not, and honestly, she didn’t even really care that much. Let him, if it made him happy. Maya suspected that her mother would be thrilled if it were true. Like she’d finally win a race she’d been running for decades.
Would it kill you to be home before eight o’clock at night? Really? Would it?
Oh, well, remind me again who wanted to redo the kitchen? Do you think that just pays for itself?
A knock at her door made her look up. She half-expected it to be Claire. She had been dating Claire for five months, and her arms were a place safer and better than all the backyard hideouts in the world. Claire was security. Claire, Maya was somewhat horrified to admit, felt like home.
It was Lauren at the door instead. “Hey,” she said when Maya opened it. “Can I hang out with you for a bit?”
“Sure,” Maya said.
At some point, and Maya wasn’t sure when, their conversations had gone from riotous giggles to whispered secrets to short sentences, and then just one- or two-word responses. The 13-month difference between them had spread them apart like a gulf, growing only wider with each passing month.
Maya had always known she was adopted. In a family of redheads, that fact was pretty obvious. At night when she was little, in order to get Maya to sleep, her mom would tell the story of how they had brought her home from the hospital. She heard it a thousand times, of course, but she always wanted it told again. Her mom was a good storyteller (she had been a radio DJ in college) and she’d always ham it up and do these big exaggerated gestures about how scared they were to put Maya in the carseat for the first time, and how Maya’s parents pretty much bought every single bottle of hand sanitizer that Costco had.
But Maya’s favorite part was always the ending. “And then,” her mom would say, pulling the covers up over her and smoothing the blankets down, “you came home with us. Where you belong.”
At first, it hadn’t seemed to matter that Maya was adopted and Lauren wasn’t. They were sisters and that was that. But then other kids had explained it to her.
Other kids could be real assholes.
“They probably wouldn’t have gotten you if Lauren had been born first,” Maya’s third grade best friend, Emily Whitmore, had explained to her one day at lunch. “Lauren’s biological”—she said the word like someone had just taught it to her—“and you’re not. That’s just facts.” Maya could still remember Emily’s face as she explained the “facts” to her, could still remember the sharp, cutting way she wanted to put her eight-year-old fist right through Emily’s smug little mug. Emily had been super into honesty that year, which was probably why she didn’t have many friends now that they were sophomores in high school. (Her face was still smug, though. And Maya still wanted to punch it.)
But Emily had been right about one thing: Three months after her parents brought Maya home from the hospital, their mother had discovered that she was pregnant with Lauren. They had tried for almost ten years to have at least one baby, and now they were blessed with two.
Well, blessed wasn’t always the word that Maya would have used.
“Which one of you was adopted?” People would sometimes say to her and Lauren, and both girls would just blink at them. At first, they hadn’t understood the joke, but Maya caught on a lot quicker than Lauren. She had to. She was the only one who stood out, the only one who wasn’t pale with freckles and amber-colored red hair, a dark brunette stain in every single family photo that lined the stairs.
When their parents were fighting, Maya sometimes imagined torching their entire house. She always thought she’d spray the most gasoline on those family portraits on the stairs.
By the time she was five, Maya got that she was different. When she was “Star of the Week” in kindergarten, all of the kids had asked questions about why she was adopted, where her “real mommy” was, if she had been given away because she was bad. Not one of them asked anything about her pet turtle, Scooch, or her favorite blanket that her Great-Grandma Nonie had knitted for her. She had cried afterwards. She hadn’t been able to explain why.
She loved her parents, though, with a desperation that sometimes scared her.
Sometimes she would dream about the ones who gave her away, and she’d wake up running from faceless brown-haired people, their arms reaching out for her, Maya sweating from the effort it took to escape. Her parents—minus the wine, the fighting, the suffocating adultness of kitchen renovations and mortgage payments—were good people. Very good people. And they loved her deeply and wholly. But Maya always noticed that the books they read about child-rearing were about adopted kids, not biological ones. They spent so much time trying to normalize her life that Maya sometimes felt like she was anything but normal.
“Yeah,” she told Lauren now, then cleared a space off her bed for her. “What are you doing?”
“Math homework,” Lauren said. Lauren was terrible at math, at least compared to Maya. They were only a year apart in school, but Maya was three years ahead in math classes. “What are you doing?”
Maya just waved in the general direction of her laptop. “Essay.”
To be fair, Maya was working on an essay. It was just that she wasn’t working it right then. She had been working on it for a week and it had been due three days ago. She knew her teacher would give her a pass, though. Teachers loved Maya. She could wrap them around her fingers and by the time she was done, she had extra credit points without even having to do the work. And besides, it wasn’t like the world was waiting with bated breath to read yet another essay about the importance of characterization in Spoon River Anthology.
Instead, she was chatting with Claire.
Claire had been a new student at their school last September. Maya could still remember her walking up the front lawn, backpack slung over one shoulder instead of both, like how everyone else on campus wore it.
Maya liked her immediately.
She liked that her nail polish was always, always chipped, but her hair never had a split end. She liked that Claire’s socks never matched, but she had the best shoes. (Maya coveted her Doc Martens and cursed the fact that her feet were two sizes bigger than Claire’s.)
She loved the way Claire’s hand felt in hers, how her skin could sometimes feel like the softest, most electric thing that Maya had ever touched. She loved Claire’s laugh (it was deep and, quite frankly, sounded like a goose being murdered) and Claire’s mouth and the way Claire would pat her hair like she was something sweet and precious.
Maya loved the way that she had spent her entire life trying to figure out where she fit, only to have Claire snap right in place next to her, like they had been waiting their whole lives to find one another.
Maya’s parents, because they weren’t antiquated dinosaurs, didn’t care that she was gay. Or, more to the point, they weren’t just fine with it. They were proud. Her dad even put a rainbow sticker on his car, which scandalized the neighborhood for a bit until Maya gently explained that a rainbow sticker on your car usually meant that you were gay, and maybe the neighbors were getting the wrong idea?
But still, it was a sweet gesture. They gave money to PFLAG and she and her dad ran a 10K together. Maya had all the support she needed in that particular arena, and she was grateful for it. She just wished sometimes that her parents would pay attention to their own relationship, rather than focusing on hers.
Another door slammed and Lauren jumped. Not too much, but enough for Maya to notice.
Do you even care about seeing your daughters?
How dare you say something like that to me!
You didn’t even ask Maya about—!
Both girls looked at each other. “Did you get anything from that girl yet?” Lauren asked after a beat.
Maya shook her head. “Nope.”
The night before, Maya’s parents had sat her down—the first time in months that she had seen them together at home when they weren’t at each other’s throats—and they had told her about a girl named Grace. She was Maya’s half-sister, who lived with her parents thirty minutes away. For the first time ever, it seemed, Grace had asked about her biological family. There was a boy, too, a supposed half-brother named Joaquin, but no one seemed to know where he was anymore, like a set of keys someone had misplaced. “Is it okay if we give Grace your email address?” her father asked.
Maya had just shrugged. “Sure, okay.”
It wasn’t okay, not really, but she didn’t really trust her parents to be strong for her anymore. They could barely keep it together around each other—what sort of energy did they have left over for her? She had no desire to cry in front of them, or ask questions, or give them even the smallest glimpse into her brain. She didn’t trust them with her thoughts, not when they acted like two bulls in a china shop. She would have to keep herself at a remove—safe from that sort of damage.
Last night, she had woken up from a horrible nightmare: the tall, dark-haired people were reaching out for her, trying to pull her through the window of her bedroom, and she had woken up gasping, her hands shaking so bad that she couldn’t even text Claire on her phone. She wasn’t sure what had been scarier: the strangers trying to spirit her away or the fact that she wasn’t sure she wanted them to fail.
She never fell back to sleep.
You know Maya. She won’t tell you things, you have to ask her! She’s not like Lauren! If you spent any time with them—!
It wasn’t like Maya was thrilled she was adopted, but in times like that, she was sort of glad that these people weren’t biologically related to her. (Sucks to be you, Laur, she would sometimes think when the fights got too loud, too close.) It was easier to imagine a world of possibilities, a world where literally anyone could be related to her. But then, sometimes, that would just make the world seem too big and Maya would start to feel untethered, like she could float away, and she’d reach for Claire’s hand and hang on tight, shocking herself back down to earth.
“Do you think they’re going to get a divorce?” Lauren had asked her a few months ago, after their dad had stormed out of the house and their mom hadn’t even come to check on them. The girls had slept in the same bed that night, something they hadn’t done since they were little.
“Don’t be stupid,” Maya had said, but then the thought kept her awake all night. If her parents split up, who would they pick? Lauren was biological, just like Emily Whitmore had pointed out. Maya wasn’t.
It was a ridiculous idea, obviously.
That night, after everyone had drifted back upstairs, after Lauren had gone back to her room and shut the door behind her and Maya had texted with Claire way past when she was supposed to be off her phone (my parents are totally getting a divorce lol) and no one came to stop her, Maya lay awake in bed.
Everything seemed more terrible at 3am, that was just a fact.
Her phone suddenly dinged, an email notification, and she opened it. She read somewhere that for every minute you spent on your phone in bed, you lost an hour of sleep. She had thought that was bullshit, but now it seemed possible.
Sister? the email header read.
It wasn’t from Lauren.
Maya opened it up.
Joaquin always liked early mornings best.
He liked the pink sky that slowly turned yellow and then blue on clear mornings. When it wasn’t clear, he liked the fog that folded into the city like a blanket, curling itself over the hills and freeways, so thick that sometimes Joaquin could touch it.
He liked the quiet of those mornings, how he could skateboard down the street without worrying about dodging slow tourists or toddlers making a sudden break from their parents. He liked being alone without anyone around him. The aloneness felt more like his choice that way. It was easier than feeling alone while surrounded by people, which is how he always seemed to feel once the rest of the world started to wake up, before reality settled in and the fog blanket was melted away by the sun.
Joaquin leaned his body to the left as he careened down the hill toward the art festival. The wheels on his board were new, a “just because” gift from his eighteenth set of foster parents.
Mark and Linda were good people, had been his fosters for almost two years, and Joaquin liked them. Linda had taught him how to drive on their ancient minivan, ignoring the small dent that Joaquin put in the back passenger door; Mark had taken him to six baseball games last summer, where they sat next to each other and watched the games in silence, nodding in agreement whenever the ump made the right call. “Nice to see a dad and son at the game together,” one older man had said to them at the end of one game, and when Mark had grinned and hooked his arm around Joaquin’s shoulders, Joaquin flushed so deeply that he felt almost feverish.
He knew some basics about his early life, but not too many things. He had gone into foster care when he was one, put there by his mother. He knew her name was Melissa and his birth certificated listed her as Caucasian, but that had been about ten social workers ago, and Melissa’s parental rights had long been severed. She had never shown up for any visitations when he was a baby. Sometimes Joaquin wondered if he had been the worst baby in the world if his own mother didn’t even want to come to see him.
He didn’t know anything about his bio dad, other than that he had been Latino. There wasn’t a name listed on his birth certificate, but Joaquin only had to look in the mirror to know that his mysterious father hadn’t been white. “You look Mexican,” one foster brother had told him after Joaquin had to explain that he didn’t know where he was from. No one had ever said anything to argue against it, so that was that. Joaquin was Mexican.
As far as foster parents and foster homes went, they had been good and bad. There had been the foster mom who once lost her temper and whacked Joaquin in the back of the head with a wooden hairbrush, making him feel like one of those cartoon characters who literally saw stars; the elderly couple who, for reasons that Joaquin never understood, would tape his left hand shut, forcing him to use his right (it didn’t work, Joaquin was still a lefty); a foster dad who liked to squeeze Joaquin by the back of the neck, literally grinding his vertabrae together in a way that Joaquin could never fully forget; the parents who kept the fosters’ food on a separate pantry shelf, the generic store brands lined up right below the brand name cereals for the biological kids.
But then there had also been Juanita, the foster mom who stroked his hair and called him “cariño” when he had the stomach flu one winter; Evelyn, who organized water balloon fights in the backyard one summer and used to sing Joaquin a song at night about three little chicks who curled up under their mother’s wing and fell asleep; and Rick, the foster dad who once bought Joaquin an entire set of oil pastels because he thought that he was “pretty goddamn talented.” (Six months later, after Rick had too much to drink and got into a fistfight with the next door neighbor, Joaquin had been forced to leave that foster home and his pastels behind. He still wasn’t quite over losing them.)
Mark and Linda were the latest foster parents, and they wanted to adopt Joaquin.
They had asked him last night, when he was sitting at the kitchen table putting his new wheels on his board. They sat down across from him, holding hands, and Joaquin knew immediately that they were asking him to leave. It had happened seventeen times before, so he knew the signs well. There would be excuses, apologies, maybe even tears (never Joaquin’s), but it always ended the same way: Joaquin putting his few things in a trash bag and waiting for his social worker to pick him up and take him somewhere new. (Once, a social worker had brought him an actual suitcase, but that had gotten ruined at the next home when two of the other kids got into a fight. Joaquin preferred the trash bags. That way, he had nothing to lose.)
“Joaquin,” Linda had started to say, but Joaquin interrupted her. He liked Linda and he didn’t want one of his last memories of her to be full of quivering excuses and weak reassurances.
“No, it’s okay,” he said. “I get it, it’s okay. Just—is it because of the car door? Because I could fix it.” Joaquin wasn’t sure how he could do that—his job at the art festival wasn’t exactly making him into a millionaire, and he had zero idea of how to fix a car dent himself, but hey, wasn’t that what YouTube was for?
“Wait, what?” Linda said, and Mark had scooted his chair closer to Joaquin’s, which made Joaquin sit back a bit. “Don’t worry about the car, sweetheart, that’s not what we want to talk to you about.”
Joaquin rarely felt off-kilter. He had gotten good at predicting what people would do, how they would react, and when he couldn’t predict their behavior, he knew how to provoke it instead. The therapist Mark and Linda made him see had called it a defense mechanism, and Joaquin thought that sounded exactly like something that someone who never needed a defense mechanism would say.
But Linda wasn’t saying the lines in the script that Joaquin had come to know by heart.
Mark leaned forward then, putting his hand on Joaquin’s forearm and squeezing a little. That didn’t bother Joaquin—he knew Mark would never hurt him, and even if he tried, Joaquin had three inches and about thirty pounds on him, so it would be a fast fight. Instead, he couldn’t help but feel like Mark was trying to keep him steady. “Buddy,” Mark said. “Your m—Linda and I wanted to talk you about something important. If it’s all right with you, and you’re okay with it, we’d like to adopt you.”
Linda’s eyes were shiny as she nodded along with Mark’s words. “We love you so much, Joaquin,” she said. “You…you feel like our son, we can’t imagine not making it permanent.”
The buzzing in Joaquin’s head almost made him dizzy and when he looked down at the skateboard wheels in his hands, he realized that he couldn’t feel them. He had only felt like this once before, when Mark and Linda had (casually, oh so very casually) told him that he could call them Mom and Dad if he wanted. “Only if you want to, of course,” Linda had said, and even though she had been turned away from Joaquin at the time, he could still hear the tremble in her voice.
“Your call, buddy,” Mark had added from the kitchen island, where he had been staring at his laptop. Joaquin noticed that he wasn’t clicking through websites, though, just scrolling up and down on the same page.
“’Kay,” Joaquin had said, and pretended to ignore their disappointed faces that night at dinner when he called her Linda, like nothing had happened that morning.
Joaquin had never called anyone Mom or Dad. It was either first names or, in some of the stricter homes, Mr. and Mrs. Somebody or Other. There were no grandparents, no tíos or tías or cousins like other foster kids sometimes had.
And the truth was that he wanted to call Linda and Mark Mom and Dad. He wanted it so bad that he could feel the unspoken words sear his throat. It would be so easy to just say it, to make them happy, to finally be the kid with a mom and dad who kept him.
They weren’t just words, though. Joaquin knew, in a way that he knew every true thing, that if he spoke those two words, they would reshape him. If those words ever left his mouth, he would need to be able to say them for the rest of his life, and he had learned the hard way that people could change, that they could say one thing and do another. He didn’t think Mark and Linda would do that to him, but he didn’t want to find out, either. He had once accidentally called his second grade teacher “Mom” one afternoon during their math lesson, and the embarrassment had been so sharp and acute that it still burned hot when he thought about it all these years later.
But that had been just an accident. To call Linda and Mark “Mom and Dad” on purpose would mean that Joaquin’s heart would form into something much more fragile, something impossible to put back together if it broke, and he could not—would not—do that to himself again. He still hadn’t managed to pick up all the pieces after last time, one or two holes remained in his heart, letting the cold air in.
But now Mark and Linda wanted to adopt him, and Joaquin felt the skateboard wheels rumble under his feet as he took a hard right past the library. Mark and Linda would be his mom and dad whether he called them that or not. He knew they couldn’t have children (“Barren as a brick!” Linda had once said in that super-cheerful way that people do to hide their worst pain), and Joaquin wondered if he was their last chance to finally get what they wanted, if he was just a means to an end.
The library had a sign for a “Mommy & Daddy & Me Storytime!” on one of its windows as he sailed by.
Joaquin had long gotten over not having parents. He wasn’t as dumb as he had been when he was little, when he tried to be charming and funny like those kids he saw on sitcoms, the ones with the stupid laugh tracks and the parents who just sighed when their children did something idiotic like drive a car through their kitchen wall. He moved foster homes so many times when he was five years old that he went to three different kindergartens, which meant he managed to dodge that brutal “Star of the Week” bullet, where kids talked about their homes and families and pets, all the things that Joaquin was already painfully aware that he lacked.
Once, in tenth grade, Joaquin had to write an essay in his English class about where he would go if he could travel back in time. He wrote that he’d go back to see the dinosaurs, which was probably the biggest lie he’d ever told in his life. If Joaquin could go back in time, of course, he’d go find his twelve-year-old self and shake him until his teeth rattled and hiss, “You are fucking everything up.” That’s when he had been really bad, when he would give in to the fury that bubbled up under his skin. He would writhe and scream and howl until the monster retreated, satiated for the time being, leaving Joaquin wrung out and exhausted, beyond comfort, beyond punishment. No one wanted a kid like that, Joaquin knew now, and they especially didn’t want one who wet the bed nearly every night.
By the time Joaquin turned eight, he knew the game. His straight baby teeth had given way to buck teeth and gaps, his chubby cheeks had thinned into his approaching adolescence. He wasn’t baby-cute anymore, and it was a hard and fast rule that prospective parents wanted babies.
He understood that there probably wouldn’t be anyone at his parent/teacher conferences at school, listening as the teacher told them what a good artist he was. There was no one to take a picture of him standing under the blue ribbon that someone had pinned to his drawing at the school’s art fair in fourth grade, or drive him to that one birthday party across town in fifth. Some of his foster parents had tried, of course, but it wasn’t like there was a ton of money or time to go around, and Joaquin had long ago figured out that if he didn’t expect people to be there, then he wouldn’t be disappointed when they didn’t show up.
He still had that blue ribbon, though. He kept it buried at the back of his sock drawer, its edges frayed from the eighteen months that Joaquin had slept with it under his pillow.
He hadn’t had that many strokes of good luck in his life, but Joaquin knew he had dodged a bullet by not having any siblings. He had seen what that had done to other kids, how hard they fought to stay together and how destroyed they were when they were inevitably pulled apart. He had seen the older brothers try desperately to be adopted by families who only wanted younger sisters; he had seen older sisters wrenched away from younger brothers because there wasn’t enough room for three kids in a foster home, and social services sometimes separated siblings by gender. It was hard enough for Joaquin to keep himself together, keep his heart and mind above water in a tide that wanted only to drown him. He could never have kept someone else afloat, too. He was glad he didn’t have to, that he was untethered, even if he sometimes suspected that without that tether, he could just float away and no one would even know he was gone, that no one would ever look for him again.
Mark and Linda would probably look for him, Joaquin realized as the arts center came into view, as the sun broke through the clouds. But they would not adopt him, he had decided.
Joaquin had been adopted once before.
And he was never going to let it happen again.
About Far From the Tree
Being the middle child has its ups and downs.
But for Grace, an only child who was adopted at birth, discovering that she is a middle child is a different ride altogether. After putting her own baby up for adoption, she goes looking for her biological family, including—
Maya, her loudmouthed younger bio sister, who has a lot to say about their newfound family ties. Having grown up the snarky brunette in a house full of chipper redheads, she’s quick to search for traces of herself among these not-quite-strangers. And when her adopted family’s long-buried problems begin to explode to the surface, Maya can’t help but wonder where exactly it is that she belongs.
And Joaquin, their stoic older bio brother, who has no interest in bonding over their shared biological mother. After seventeen years in the foster care system, he’s learned that there are no heroes, and secrets and fears are best kept close to the vest, where they can’t hurt anyone but him.
What do you think so far about FAR FROM THE TREE? Are you ready for Grace, Maya, and Joaquin to be your next Pearson crew? Let us know in the comments below!