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House Rules

A Novel
By Jodi Picoult

Read an Excerpt

Emma

Everywhere I look, there are signs of a struggle. The mail has been scattered all over the kitchen floor; the stools are overturned. The phone has been knocked off its pedestal, its battery pack hanging loose from an umbilicus of wires. There’s one single faint footprint at the threshold of the living room, pointing toward the dead body of my son, Jacob.

He is sprawled like a starfish in front of the fireplace. Blood covers his temple and his hands. For a moment, I can’t move, can’t breathe.

Suddenly, he sits up. “Mom,” Jacob says, “you’re not even trying.

This is not real, I remind myself, and I watch him lie back down in the exact same position—on his back, his legs twisted to the left.

“Um, there was a fight,” I say.

Jacob’s mouth barely moves. “And . . . ?”

“You were hit in the head.” I get down on my knees, like he’s told me to do a hundred times, and notice the crystal clock that usually sits on the mantel now peeking out from beneath the couch. I gingerly pick it up and see blood on the corner. With my pinkie, I touch the liquid and then taste it.

“Oh, Jacob, don’t tell me you used up all my corn syrup again—”

“Mom! Focus!”

I sink down on the couch, cradling the clock in my hands. “Robbers came in, and you fought them off.” Jacob sits up and sighs. The food dye and corn syrup mixture has matted his dark hair; his eyes are shining, even though they won’t meet mine. “Do you honestly believe I’d execute the same crime scene twice?”

He unfolds a fist, and for the first time I see a tuft of corn silk hair. Jacob’s father is a towhead—or at least he was when he walked out on us fifteen years ago, leaving me with Jacob and Theo, his brand-new, blond baby brother.

Theo killed you?”

“Seriously, Mom, a kindergartner could have solved this case,” Jacob says, jumping to his feet. Fake blood drips down the side of his face, but he doesn’t notice; when he is intensely focused on crime scene analysis,

I think a nuclear bomb could detonate beside him and he’d never flinch.

He walks toward the footprint at the edge of the carpet and points. Now, at second glance, I notice the waffle tread of the Vans skateboarding sneakers that Theo saved up to buy for months, and the latter half of the company logo—NS—burned into the rubber sole. “There was a confrontation in the kitchen,” Jacob explains. “It ended with the phone being thrown in defense, and me being chased into the living room, where Theo clocked me.”

At that, I have to smile a little. “Where did you hear that term?”

CrimeBusters, episode forty-three.”

“Well, just so you know—it means to punch someone. Not hit them with an actual clock.”

Jacob blinks at me, expressionless. He lives in a literal world; it’s one of the hallmarks of his diagnosis. Years ago, when we were moving to Vermont, he asked what it was like. Lots of green, I said, and rolling hills.

At that, he burst into tears. Won’t they hurt us? he said.

“But what’s the motive?” I ask, and on cue, Theo thunders down the stairs.

“Where’s the freak?” he yells.

“Theo, you will not call your brother—”

“How about I stop calling him a freak when he stops stealing things out of my room?” I have instinctively stepped between him and his brother, although Jacob is a head taller than both of us.

“I didn’t steal anything from your room,” Jacob says.

“Oh, really? What about my sneakers?”

“They were in the mudroom,” Jacob qualifies.

“Retard,” Theo says under his breath, and I see a flash of fire in Jacob’s eyes.

“I am not retarded,” he growls, and he lunges for his brother.

I hold him off with an outstretched arm. “Jacob,” I say, “you shouldn’t take anything that belongs to Theo without asking for his permission. And Theo, I don’t want to hear that word come out of your mouth again, or I’m going to take your sneakers and throw them out with the trash. Do I make myself clear?”

“I’m outta here,” Theo mutters, and he stomps toward the mudroom.

A moment later I hear the door slam.

I follow Jacob into the kitchen and watch him back into a corner.

“What we got here,” Jacob mutters, his voice a sudden drawl, “is . . . failure to communicate.” He crouches down, hugging his knees.

When he cannot find the words for how he feels, he borrows someone else’s. These come from Cool Hand Luke; Jacob remembers the dialogue from every movie he’s ever seen.

I’ve met so many parents of kids who are on the low end of the autism spectrum, kids who are diametrically opposed to Jacob, with his Asperger’s. They tell me I’m lucky to have a son who’s so verbal, who is blisteringly intelligent, who can take apart the broken microwave and have it working again an hour later. They think there is no greater hell than having a son who is locked in his own world, unaware that there’s a wider one to explore. But try having a son who is locked in his own world and still wants to make a connection. A son who tries to be like everyone else but truly doesn’t know how.

I reach out to comfort him but stop myself—a light touch can set Jacob off. He doesn’t like handshakes or pats on the back or someone ruffling his hair. “Jacob,” I begin, and then I realize that he isn’t sulking at all. He holds up the telephone receiver he’s been hunched over, so that I can see the smudge of black on the side. “You missed a fingerprint, too,” Jacob says cheerfully. “No offense, but you would make a lousy crime scene investigator.” He rips a sheet of paper towel off the roll, dampens it in the sink. “Don’t worry, I’ll clean up all the blood.”

“You never did tell me Theo’s motive for killing you.”

“Oh.” Jacob glances over his shoulder, a wicked grin spreading across his face. “I stole his sneakers.”

In my mind, Asperger’s is a label to describe not the traits Jacob has but rather the ones he lost. It was sometime around two years old when he began to drop words, to stop making eye contact, to avoid connections with people. He couldn’t hear us, or he didn’t want to. One day I looked at him, lying on the floor beside a Tonka truck. He was spinning its wheels, his face only inches away, and I thought, Where have you gone?

I made excuses for his behavior: the reason he huddled in the bottom of the grocery cart every time we went shopping was that it was cold in the supermarket. The tags I had to cut out of his clothing were unusually scratchy. When he could not seem to connect with any children at his preschool, I organized a no-holds-barred birthday party for him, complete with water balloons and Pin the Tail on the Donkey. About a half hour into the celebration, I suddenly realized that Jacob was missing. I was six months pregnant and hysterical—other parents began to search the yard, the street, the house. I was the one who found him, sitting in the basement, repeatedly inserting and ejecting a VCR tape.

When he was diagnosed, I burst into tears. Remember, this was back in 1995; the only experience I’d had with autism was Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. According to the psychiatrist we first met, Jacob suffered from an impairment in social communication and behavior, without the language deficit that was a hallmark of other forms of autism. It wasn’t until years later that we even heard the word Asperger’s—it just wasn’t on anyone’s diagnostic radar yet. But by then, I’d had Theo, and Henry— my ex—had moved out. He was a computer programmer who worked at home and couldn’t stand the tantrums Jacob would throw when the slightest thing set him off: a bright light in the bathroom, the sound of the UPS truck coming down the gravel driveway, the texture of his breakfast cereal. By then, I’d completely devoted myself to Jacob’s early intervention therapists—a parade of people who would come to our house intent on dragging him out of his own little world. I want my house back, Henry told me. I want you back.

But I had already noticed how, with the behavioral therapy and speech therapy, Jacob had begun to communicate again. I could see the improvement. Given that, there wasn’t even a choice to make.

The night Henry left, Jacob and I sat at the kitchen table and played a game. I made a face, and he tried to guess which emotion went with it. I smiled, even though I was crying, and waited for Jacob to tell me I was happy.

Henry lives with his new family in the Silicon Valley. He works for Apple and he rarely speaks to the boys, although he sends a check faithfully every month for child support. But then again, Henry was always good with organization. And numbers. His ability to memorize a New York Times article and quote it verbatim—which had seemed so academically sexy when we were dating—wasn’t all that different from the way Jacob could memorize the entire TV schedule by the time he was six. It wasn’t until years after Henry was gone that I diagnosed him with a dash of Asperger’s, too.

There’s a lot of fuss about whether or not Asperger’s is on the autism spectrum, but to be honest, it doesn’t matter. It’s a term we use to get Jacob the accommodations he needs in school, not a label to explain who he is. If you met him now, the first thing you’d notice is that he might have forgotten to change his shirt from yesterday or to brush his hair. If you talk to him, you’ll have to be the one to start the conversation. He won’t look you in the eye. And if you pause to speak to someone else for a brief moment, you might turn back to find that Jacob’s left the room.

Saturdays, Jacob and I go food shopping. It’s part of his routine, which means we rarely stray from it. Anything new has to be introduced early on and prepared for—whether that’s a dentist appointment or a vacation or a transfer student joining his math class midyear. I knew that he’d have his faux crime scene completely cleaned up before eleven o’clock, because that’s when the Free Sample Lady sets up her table in the front of the Townsend Food Co-op. She recognizes Jacob by sight now and usually gives him two mini egg rolls or bruschetta rounds or whatever else she’s plying that week.

Theo’s not back, so I’ve left him a note—although he knows the schedule as well as I do. By the time I grab my coat and purse, Jacob is already sitting in the backseat. He likes it there, because he can spread out. He doesn’t have a driver’s license, although we argue about it regularly, since he’s eighteen and was eligible to get his license two years ago. He knows all the mechanical workings of a traffic light, and could probably take one apart and put it back together, but I am not entirely convinced that in a situation where there were several other cars zooming by in different directions, he’d be able to remember whether to stop or go at any given intersection.

“What do you have left for homework?” I ask, as we pull out of the driveway.

“Stupid English.”

“English isn’t stupid,” I say.

“Well, my English teacher is.” He makes a face. “Mr. Franklin assigned an essay about our favorite subject, and I wanted to write about lunch, but he won’t let me.”

“Why not?”

“He says lunch isn’t a subject.”

I glance at him. “It isn’t.

“Well,” Jacob says, “it’s not a predicate, either. Shouldn’t he know that?”

I stifle a smile. Jacob’s literal reading of the world can be, depending on the circumstances, either very funny or very frustrating. In the rearview mirror, I see him press his thumb against the car window. “It’s too cold for fingerprints,” I say offhandedly—a fact he’s taught me.

“But do you know why?”

“Um.” I look at him. “Evidence breaks down when it’s below freezing?”

“Cold constricts the sweat pores,” Jacob says, “so excretions are reduced, and that means matter won’t stick to the surface and leave a latent print on the glass.”

“That was my second guess,” I joke.

I used to call him my little genius, because even when he was small he’d spew forth an explanation like that one. I remember once, when he was four, he was reading the sign for a doctor’s office when the postman walked by. The guy couldn’t stop staring, but then again, it’s not every day you hear a preschooler pronounce the word gastroenterology, clear as a bell.

I pull into the parking lot. I ignore a perfectly good parking spot because

it happens to be next to a shiny orange car, and Jacob doesn’t like the color orange. I can feel him draw in his breath and hold it until we drive past. We get out of the car, and Jacob runs for a cart; then we walk inside.

The spot that the Free Sample Lady usually occupies is empty.

“Jacob,” I say immediately, “it’s not a big deal.”

He looks at his watch. “It’s eleven-fifteen. She comes at eleven and leaves at twelve.”

“Something must have happened.”

“Bunion surgery,” calls an employee, who is stacking packages of carrots within earshot. “She’ll be back in four weeks.”

Jacob’s hand begins to flap against his leg. I glance around the store, mentally calculating whether it would cause more of a scene to try to get Jacob out of here before the stimming turns into a full-blown breakdown or whether I can talk him through this. “You know how Mrs. Pinham had to leave school for three weeks when she got shingles, and she couldn’t tell you beforehand? This is the same thing.”

“But it’s eleven-fifteen,” Jacob says.

“Mrs. Pinham got better, right? And everything went back to normal.”

By now, the carrot man is staring at us. And why shouldn’t he? Jacob looks like a totally normal young man. He’s clearly intelligent. But having his day disrupted probably makes him feel the same way I would if I was suddenly told to bungee off the top of the Sears Tower.

When a low growl rips through Jacob’s throat, I know we are past the point of no return. He backs away from me, into a shelf full of pickle jars and relishes. A few bottles fall to the floor, and the breaking glass sends him over the edge. Suddenly Jacob is screaming—one high, keening note that is the soundtrack of my life. He moves blindly, striking out at me when I reach for him.

It is only thirty seconds, but thirty seconds can last forever when you are the center of everyone’s scrutiny; when you are wrestling your sixfoot- tall son down to the linoleum floor and pinning him with your full body weight, the only kind of pressure that can soothe him. I press my

lips close to his ear. “I shot the sheriff,” I sing. “But I didn’t shoot no deputy . . .”

Since he was little, those Bob Marley lyrics have soothed him. There were times I played that song twenty-four hours a day just to keep him calm; even Theo knew all the verses before he was three. Sure enough, the tension seeps out of Jacob’s muscles, and his arms go limp at his sides. A single tear streaks from the corner of his eye. “I shot the sheriff,” he whispers, “but I swear it was in self-defense.”

I put my hands on either side of his face and force him to meet my eyes. “Okay now?”

He hesitates, as if he is taking a serious inventory. “Yes.”

I sit up, inadvertently kneeling in the puddle of pickle juice. Jacob sits up, too, and hugs his knees to his chest.

A crowd has gathered around us. In addition to the carrot man, the manager of the store, several shoppers, and twin girls with matching constellations of freckles on their cheeks are all staring down at Jacob with that curious mix of horror and pity that follows us like a dog nipping at our heels. Jacob wouldn’t hurt a fly, literally or figuratively—

I’ve seen him cup his hands around a spider during a three-hour car ride so that, at our destination, he could set it free outside. But if you are a stranger and you see a tall, muscular man knocking over displays, you don’t look at him and assume he’s frustrated. You think he’s violent.

“He’s autistic,” I snap. “Do you have any questions?”

I’ve found that anger works best. It’s the electric shock they need to tear their gaze away from the train wreck. As if nothing’s happened, the shoppers go back to sifting through the navel oranges and bagging their bell peppers. The two little girls dart down the dairy aisle. The carrot man and the manager do not make eye contact, and that suits me just fine. I know how to handle their morbid curiosity; it’s their kindness that might break me.

Jacob shuffles along behind me as I push the cart. His hand is still twitching faintly at his side, but he’s holding it together. My biggest hope for Jacob is that moments like this won’t happen.

My biggest fear: that they will, and I won’t always be there to keep people from thinking the worst of him.

Copyright © 2010 by Jodi Picoult

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