Read House Rules Online

Authors: Jodi Picoult

Tags: #Fiction, #Murder, #Suspense, #Mystery & Detective, #Murder - Investigation, #General, #Literary, #Family Life, #Psychological, #Forensic sciences, #Autistic youth, #Asperger's syndrome

House Rules

BOOK: House Rules
13.3Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub




Handle with Care

Change of Heart

Nineteen Minutes

The Tenth Circle

Vanishing Acts

My Sister‘s Keeper

Second Glance

Perfect Match

Salem Falls

Plain Truth

Keeping Faith

The Pact


Picture Perfect

Harvesting the Heart

Songs of the Humpback Whale



A Novel




A Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

1230 Avenue of the Americas

New York, NY 10020

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author‘s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2010 by Jodi Picoult

I Shot the Sheriff © 1974 Fifty-Six Hope Road Music Ltd. and Odnil Music Ltd.

All rights administered by Blue Mountain Music Ltd. Copyright renewed.

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever. For information address Atria Books Subsidiary Rights Department, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020.

First Atria Books hardcover edition March 2010

ATRIA BOOKS and colophon are trademarks of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

For information about special discounts for bulk purchases, please contact Simon & Schuster Special Sales at 1-866-506-1949 or [email protected].

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Designed by Jaime Putorti

Manufactured in the United States of America

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Picoult, Jodi, 1966–

House rules : a novel / by Jodi Picoult. 1st Atria Books hardcover ed.

p. cm.

1. Asperger‘s syndrome Fiction. 2. Autistic youth Fiction. 3. Forensic sciences Fiction. 4. Murder Investigation Fiction. I. Title.

PS3566.I372H68 2010

813‘.54 dc22 2009026381

ISBN 978-0-7432-9643-4

eISBN-13: 978-1-4391-9931-2

For Nancy Friend Stuart (1949–2008)

and David Stuart


I have so many people to thank, as always:

My brilliant legal team: Jennifer Sternick and Lise Iwon; as well as Jennifer Sargent, Rory Malone, and Seth Lipschutz.

The CSIs who let me tag along: Cpl. Claire Demarais, Betty Martin, Beth Anne Zielinski, Jim Knoll, Lt. Dennis Pincince, Lt. Arthur Kershaw, Sgt. Richard Altimari, Lt.

John Blessing, Detective John Grassel, Ms. Robin Smith, Dr. Thomas Gilson, Dr. Peter Gillespie, Detective Patricia Cornell Providence Police, Ret. Trooper Robert Hathaway Connecticut State Police, Ret. Lt. Ed Downing Providence Police, Amy Duhaime, and Kim Freeland.

Katherine Yanis and her son Jacob, whose generous donation to Autism Speaks UK

inspired the name of my fictional Jacob.

Jim Taylor, who provided the computer lingo for Henry, and who keeps my website the best one I‘ve ever seen for an author.

Chief Nick Giaccone, for police procedure.

Julia Cooper, for her banking expertise.

My publishing team: Carolyn Reidy, Judith Curr, Kathleen Schmidt, Mellony Torres, Sarah Branham, Laura Stern, Gary Urda, Lisa Keim, Christine Duplessis, Michael Selleck, the sales force, and everyone else who somehow keeps finding readers who haven‘t heard of me and bullying them into getting on the bandwagon.

My editor, Emily Bestler, who actually makes me forget that this is supposed to be work, and not fun.

My publicist, Camille McDuffie, who still gets just as excited as I do over the good press.

My agent, Laura Gross, who may lose belts and BlackBerries (and provides excellent comic relief during stressful tours) but who has never lost sight of the fact that we make a phenomenal team.

My mom. We don‘t get to pick our parents, but if we did, I still would have chosen her.

My dad. Because I‘ve never thanked him formally for being so proud of me.

I spoke with numerous people who have personal experience with Asperger‘s syndrome: Linda Zicko and her son Rich, Laura Bagnall and her son Alex Linden, Jan McAdams and her son Matthew, Deb Smith and her son Dylan, Mike Norbury and his son Chris, Kathleen Kirby and her son David, Kelly Meeder and her sons Brett and Derek, Catherine McMaster, Charlotte Scott and her son James, Dr. Boyd Haley, Lesley Dexter and her son Ethan, Sue Gerber and her daughter Liza, Nancy Albinini and her son Alec, Stella Chin and her son Scott Leung, Michelle Snail, Katie Lescarbeau, Stephanie Loo, Gina Crane and Bill Kolar and their son Anthony, Becky Pekar, Suzanne Harlow and her son Brad.

A special thanks to Ronna Hochbein, a mighty fine author in her own right, who works with autistic kids and not only was a font of information for me regarding vaccines and autism but also arranged for multiple face-to-face interviews with children and their parents.

Thanks aren‘t really enough for Jess Watsky. She needs something much larger gratitude, humility, slavish devotion. As a teen with Asperger‘s, she not only allowed me to pick through her life and her mind and steal specific memories and incidents for fiction; but she also read every word of this book with lightning speed, told me what made her laugh and what needed to be fixed. She‘s the heart of this novel; I could not have created a character like Jacob without her.

And last (but never least): to Tim, Kyle, Jake, and Sammy. If you four were all I had to call my own, I‘d be the richest woman on the planet.



At first glance, she looked like a saint: Dorothea Puente rented out rooms to the elderly
and disabled in Sacramento, California, in the 1980s. But then, her boarders started to
vanish. Seven bodies were found buried in the garden, and traces of prescription sleeping
pills were found in the remains, through forensic toxicology analysis. Puente was charged
with killing her boarders so that she could take their pension checks and get herself plastic
surgery and expensive clothing, in order to maintain her image as a doyenne of
Sacramento society. She was charged with nine murders and convicted of three.

In 1998, while serving two consecutive life sentences, Puente began corresponding with a
writer named Shane Bugbee and sending him recipes, which were subsequently published
in a book called
Cooking with a Serial Killer.

Call me crazy, but I wouldn‘t touch that food with a ten-foot pole.



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

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
when he walked out on us fifteen years ago, leaving me with Jacob and Theo, his brand-new, blond baby brother.

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?

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
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
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
Jacob qualifies.

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

I am
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
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.
Whatwe got
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
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
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
the word
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.
want my house back,
Henry told me.
I want

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
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

Well, Jacob says, it‘s not a predicate, either. Shouldn‘t he

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

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
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
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.

BOOK: House Rules
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