After years of learning how to manage her bipolar disorder, Emily Firestone finally has it under control. Even better, her life is coming together: she’s got a great job, her own place, and a boyfriend, Paolo, who adores her. So when Paolo suggests a weekend sailing trip, Emily agrees—wine, water, and the man she loves? What could be better? But when Emily wakes the morning after they set sail, the boat is still adrift…and Paolo is gone.
A strong swimmer, there’s no way Paolo drowned, but Emily is at a loss for any other explanation. Where else could he have gone? And why? As the hours and days pass by, each moment marking Paolo’s disappearance, Emily’s hard-won stability begins to slip.
But when Emily uncovers evidence suggesting Paolo was murdered, the investigation throws her mania into overdrive, even as she becomes a person of interest in her own personal tragedy. To clear her name, Emily must find the truth—but can she hold onto her own sanity in the process?
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Paolo’s black hair was everywhere in the wind, whipping against the Wayfarer sunglasses he always wore. He’d confessed once that he thought they made him look famous, or—unable to find the word in English—“Hollywood.” Later, when I’d teased him about being “Mr. Hollywood,” he’d frowned and acted sullen, so I’d dropped it. But the memory still made me grin. He drove with one hand on the wheel of his Jeep and the other on my leg all the way to the lake. It was the first weekend of October but warm enough to still be summer.
“I’m suspicious of you,” he said.
I couldn’t see his eyes behind the dark gray lenses.
“You’re … what do you call it? Fidgety. You’re hiding something,” he teased, his voice barely audible over the wind rushing in. “What are you smiling about over there?”
I shook my head, turned up the radio just as the Allman Brothers came on.
“Wait, this is ‘Ramblin’ Man,’ right?” He sounded pleased to have remembered. “That last song was about Bob Seger’s erection.” He had been in the country for less than two years but picked things up quickly.
The engine growled.
“Emily, you’re going to love this marina. Perfect boats. Crisp white sails. Tight. Everything. Tight,” he said, his thumb and forefinger pinched, lips pursed.
I laughed out loud and rolled my eyes, and he caught me doing it.
“I thought you were past trying to impress me,” I said. “A long time ago.” Early on, I’d scrubbed the honey out of my voice, trying to act tough. A year into the relationship, I’d let that go.
He shook his head, smiled. “Oh, okay, Dr. Firestone.” He was nearly finished with a doctorate himself but liked to tease me about being a psychologist. As if evaluating him was my intent. He raised his palms mock-defensively. “So, I like nice things. It’s not my worst quality.”
“It might be, actually.”
He considered the notion a second longer than I expected.
“What’s mine?” I asked, playfully.
“You’re stubborn,” he said. “And you think you can do anything.”
“Then it’s that you think you can do anything. That’s your worst,” he concluded. “That opens the door for all the others.”
It stung, but I wasn’t about to let the day be anything but fun. He seemed relaxed in a way I hadn’t seen in weeks. If he was going to drag me out on the open water, we were not going to be in a fight.
With him, love was like speeding in the Jeep with the doors off. The rest of the world rushed by as a blur, but he remained in focus even as I imagined tumbling onto the pavement. When I hit the ground, all I could break was my heart, right?
I picked up my phone. No cell service. I tried the Internet, reloading the page a few times. Nothing. No messages.
“How much farther?” I asked.
“What are you looking at there?” he replied instead of answering. “The helpless children of Tennessee will survive without you for one night, I promise.”
“Hold on. How is the biggest workaholic I know picking on me for wanting to check email?” I squeezed his shoulder.
Paolo winked in response.
“It’s … going well in the lab?” I asked after a beat, my hand moving from his shoulder to the small curls above his ear. “You haven’t even talked about work this week.”
“Going great,” he said. “I left work behind for the weekend.”
Grinning, I made my eyes look startled. “You’re not going to check at all? No one last thing to send to Dr. Silver? No questions that can’t wait till morning?”
He glanced at me, smiling. He shifted gears, sending the Jeep’s engine to a lower octave.
“All weekend? Even if, what’s his name? The guy who glares at you?”
“Even if Matt sets the lab on fire?”
“Even then, no.”
Really, I was only half feigning surprise. Paolo’s principle investigator, Jay Silver, was known for his devotion to research. He seemed to know no boundaries between work hours and personal time, sometimes ringing Paolo’s phone with questions or ideas before the sun had risen—a habit Paolo defended, urging me to understand the pressures of grant funding, publishing, NIH grants. I’d questioned Silver’s calling at such odd hours until realizing that Paolo didn’t seem to mind. And who was I, really, to lecture anyone about moderation and balance?
When Paolo quieted, I assumed he was troubled by the pressures of his work. Then again, if I let myself think about what Paolo had taught me about epidemics, I’d lie awake at night, too. He’d said that it wasn’t a matter of if a pandemic would strike, but when, and that because of globalization an outbreak anywhere could mean an outbreak everywhere. Half the country’s hospitals would run out of beds within three weeks in the event of a serious outbreak.
On average, an H1-N24 outbreak occurred every two years—a time frame that seemed to fuel their pursuit of creating a vaccine.
Paolo had said soberly that everyone in the lab had a plan for where to go if an outbreak started. All I could do was bug out my eyes in terror. I could never tell if he fully sensed my discomfort when he talked about epidemiology—if he noticed me flinching or my toes curling, or a dampness in my eyes when he described the potential spread of the virus that had killed my father, who was famous among certain researchers for being the first American known to have contracted H1-N24 and died from it. The CDC in Atlanta had held on to his body for two full weeks when he was brought back to the States.
I pushed his silhouette from my mind and focused on the road we were rushing over, and on the round, purple flowers passing by, blurred by our speed.
When Paolo worked late, I thought about how his research would save lives—save kids from the gaping absence of losing a parent. It was what I focused on when Paolo hadn’t texted me back for hours. “Well, here’s to freedom,” I said, toasting with an invisible champagne flute.
He flashed a quick thumbs-up. “We’re almost there.”
It looked like we were almost nowhere. Every so often, a mailbox marked a clay driveway spilling from opaque brush.
The Jeep jolted and I folded my hands on my stomach to cap the nausea rising inside me, leaning back in the seat. I inhaled slowly through my nose, holding the breath for two beats until my lungs became uncomfortably full—the same relaxation strategy I taught my patients. It must have been love, I thought, that had made me agree to spend the night on a sailboat on the largest lake in Tennessee.
I reached between us for his ever-present stainless-steel water bottle. Paolo put his hand over mine, then touched his throat. “Don’t drink after me. Throat’s sore.”
“Really,” he said. “As your personal microbiologist, I insist.”
I put my hand over my heart. “My own? Really? My own personal? I like that.”
We passed the remains of a house. Crumbling brick painted white. The roof had collapsed as if stepped on from above. Black rings of ash or paint, I couldn’t tell which, circled the windows.
“We’re really almost there?” I raised my phone toward the sky. Still nothing.
“You really think I don’t know the way,” he said with a grin. He covered his uncorrected teeth, making him seem all the more mischievous.
I guess everyone is insecure about something.
From the corner of my eye, I could see the metal case that contained his camera equipment.
“You’ve shot here before, right?”
He put his eyes back on the road, downshifting as we took a serpentine curve. “Last fall.” A sudden dip in the road took me by surprise. When it straightened, he said, “Colors all reflected on the lake, like a mirror. One side real, the other like a painting of it, like tiny brushstrokes.”
He never sounded more excited than when he talked about photography. I pictured him with his camera around his neck the previous year, his first autumn in the States. Red and gold in every direction around him, infinitely. The innocence in his eyes, the childlike wonder.
The road narrowed further, the Jeep’s tires crunching gravel on the right side. We passed the sign for the marina. In the parking lot, he slowed to a stop, and my stomach had the feeling of having ridden roller coasters all day, like a part of me was still flying.
But he was already out of the Jeep. “Coming?”
“Just got a little carsick,” I said. “Give me two minutes.”
“I’ll get the boat, okay? I’ll be right back.”
A trail led through the woods to the marina. Paolo literally skipped. I went around to the front of the Jeep and threw up, then dug through my purse for gum. My hand passed over the prescription bottle I’d brought, just in case.
Not yet, I thought. At least get to the boat first.
In the lazy buzz of late-afternoon insects, I collected myself.
Paolo seemed almost giddy when he came back. “Better?” he asked.
I shook my head.
He found a tube of sunscreen. “Turn around,” he said. He slid the straps of my tank top down my arms. The sun was hot on my skin, and the cool sunscreen made me shiver. His hands were soft as he rubbed them up and down my shoulders; the sensation took me out of my head. My stomach eased.
“You’re beautiful,” he told me.
I turned my head. “I’ve already agreed to go. You know that, right?”
He laughed playfully as his fingertips brushed my shoulders.
He picked up the cooler, and I took the backpack with our other things. Limestone poked against the bottoms of my sandals along the rocky path. His shoulders bowed under the weight of the sloshing cooler as he said something that sounded like “All of this was once under water.”
All of this.
Suddenly I wanted him to tell me one of his stories about him and his brothers to distract me and normalize what we were doing. I pictured their smiles and tan shoulders as they waded with reedy fishing poles in Argentina. A part of me looked forward to Paolo having a chance to show off, to let me further into his life, even if at the year mark I was still the only one talking about partnering and life.
When I’m focused on something, I’m bad at knowing the difference between what I want and what should be. Falling in love gave me a sense of letting go, of relenting. The danger in that loss of control only deepened the passion. The notion that loving him was a terrible idea dimmed as time wore on, but giving myself to him seemed truly foolish. How could I not notice he seemed preoccupied, even in our most intimate moments? Sometimes after we had finished making love, he would check his phone and then disappear into another room, leaving me alone. I never saw his eyes follow another woman out the door, but something sinister like jealousy nagged at me, knowing deep down that his heart wasn’t entirely mine.
Sweat ran onto my lips. I could taste sunscreen. When my sandals touched the wood of a deck, the sun reflected off the water like ten thousand tea lights. Paolo pointed at the sailboat he’d rented, and I nodded. He took my hand and tugged, turning back when he felt my resistance.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, voice gentle now, aware. “You’re still carsick?”
His fingers wove through mine, his eyes the color of Easter chocolate.
“I’m okay. It’s just going to take me a second.”
“Just a little ways out. Really.”
“We can come back in if I don’t feel right?”
He laughed. “Please. Why would you not feel right? You won’t get carsick on a boat.”
He sounded so light and sure. I was not about to act like a child.
“We’ll fish tonight, snap a few photos, enjoy the sunset, wake up together. Romantic.” He put his hands together, as if it had been decided just in that moment. He started down the dock again. “We’re not going to Cuba, I promise. This perfect place—I want to share it.”
I wanted it, too. He gestured toward the sapphire horizon, extended his hand to help me onto the dock. I thought I might throw up again but drew in a deep breath and squared my shoulders.
Across the wobbly line of boats, bearded fishing guides blew smoke as they shared a joke about my body language. I could hear the chatter of birds as sun-brittle boards creaked beneath my feet. We loaded our things onto the boat. Around the lake, the pines looked the way they do on vintage postcards—stately, wise—though the shore was too far away to clearly make out. The sailboat itself was more spacious than I’d expected, with a sturdy fiberglass deck and navy-colored cushions. In the center was an opening through which I could see the shadowy corner of a bed sheet.
“See, it’s beautiful,” Paolo said encouragingly.
I hated my vulnerability even as I longed for him to accept the irrational part of me. “I like looking at it as much as anyone else. It’s getting near it that I don’t like,” I said. I shut my eyes over the wave of unease.
“Hey,” his voice light as air, “it’s okay. Tomorrow we’ll go back to Nashville. Go hiking, whatever you want.” He put a hand over his heart. “Promise.”
He turned my shoulder, pointing me to the place where I imagined the sun would rise.
I glanced at the guides, the blue haze of smoke around them. I twisted my ring finger.
“If you hate it, we’ll come right back. I won’t take us anywhere near where the sharks are.”
That made me laugh. “Really,” I said. “I was sort of hoping for a shark encounter.”
“Well, you’ll just have to keep waiting, in that case. I’m going to sign out. Be right back,” he called, striding to the rental counter. “No sharks on this trip.” His teeth flashed in the late-afternoon sun.
When he was out of sight, I stepped onto the white deck top and spit over the side. I told myself that sailing is smooth, that a little alcohol would ease the gnawing in my stomach, distract me from my sense of helplessness. I grabbed two life jackets off the rack and dipped into the cabin, which looked comfortable but smelled like a rustic campground. Sticky wood paneling lined the walls. The mattress felt like a tile floor. Through the porthole, I glimpsed Paolo waving to the guides. I imagined us setting off, then anchored together at sunset. My heart felt like a flag whipped by the wind.
Up top, I checked my phone. Still no service. My mind started to wander, but I centered it. Fear of being on the open water, and more specifically of the helpless feeling I associated with it, wouldn’t limit me.
I helped people beat their fears; I could surely help myself. Structure the time, focus on other things, stay busy. Sip wine. I flipped open the cooler and ran my hand through the ice around our chardonnay. I glanced at the time. Technically, drinking wouldn’t approach legitimacy for another thirty minutes, but this being a Saturday, I started digging around for plastic cups. My fingertips found the glass cylinder, pulled it out, gripped the top and twisted. The tiny fireworks of a seal breaking.
I washed down an Ativan with a quick, cool sip, then poured some for Paolo, too.
When he came back, my feet were propped on the rail as I swirled what remained of the wine I’d poured for myself, the inside of my mouth both stinging and numb. I wore a skipper’s hat that I’d found hanging in the cabin, and a life vest. He clicked his tongue, shook his head, and smiled, like he could tell I’d taken the pill. Maybe it was obvious.
His face was smooth as he leaned over to kiss me. “Feeling better?”
“I’m working on it.”
At the far end of the dock, a kingfisher sat stoic atop a pylon. Along the seawall, a handful of wrens peered impatiently at the ripples. They seemed to sense the contents of the yellow bait bucket as Paolo lowered it into the boat.
I sipped the cold chardonnay and looked down at the panicked cloud of silvery fish, fighting an urge to pour them overboard. I tried handing Paolo a life jacket, but he made a puzzled face and waved it away.
“Are you planning on falling in?” he asked.
“Safety first,” I told him.
He laughed. “That’s not something you say.” He knelt and began clearing a space in the cabin for his camera gear.
He’d taught me a few basics with the camera the year before, mainly so I could take shots of his softball team, but I’d spent most of the game snapping photos of his friend Cal’s daughter, Olivia, who usually sat beside me on the bleachers while Paolo and her dad played ball.
“When I win the Powerball,” Paolo called over now, “I’ll be a famous wildlife photographer.”
He said this every Saturday.
Then he turned the boat key, and the tiny engine began to cough. “Just to get away from the dock,” he said. “Then it’s all wind.” He revved the throttle on the way out of the marina.
Moving felt better. Anticipation is the worst part of fear.
When we cleared the other boats, he cut the trolling motor and raised the mainsail. “My brothers would have teased me for using that engine at all.”
He took a sip of wine from what I’d poured him, tilted his head back to the sun, and swallowed, throat bobbing like a bird consuming fish. “You’re good, now? Right, Emily?” Em-ih-lee. “If anything happens—which it won’t—we’ll swim back in. You can see the shore—look. Worst-case scenario, I lose these sunglasses. Not you.”
“I don’t really swim.” My voice sounded whiny as I said it. It was as close to an admission as I was going to come—even with him, showing certain vulnerabilities felt impossible. Without the life jacket, I would sink like a stone in the water.
He made an incredulous face. “You mean, at all?”
“At all. It’s not something I’m proud of. I worked summers, then started playing soccer. Everything was soccer.”
“Nothing at, like, a friend’s pool?”
I shook my head. My friends didn’t have pools, aside from public ones at apartment complexes.
“Or at the country club?” He covered his mouth and smiled.
“I’ll never understand your fascination with country clubs. Waiting tables in a clubhouse was the closest I ever got to the pool.”
He pushed again. “I thought they made everyone learn swimming in America.” He touched his fingertips, reciting a list. “Golf, tennis, swimming …”
“I had one or two swim lessons when I was really little but hated every second. Though I did date a lifeguard in eleventh grade,” I announced, only because he was asking for it. I folded my arms and added impishly, “But he wasn’t that interested in giving me swim lessons.”
Paolo clenched his jaw, the slow burn of a wound beginning, and returned his attention to the horizon.
I’d made peace with knowing that Paolo hadn’t just appeared the night I’d met him. I wanted to hear his exes’ names and their stories, despite the raw rub of listening. I was the kind of person who liked walking through the grass with bare feet, even if it meant getting scratched or stung occasionally. Paolo, on the other hand, found the mention of my exes intolerable.
Waves pushed against the side of the boat. My toes gripped my sandals as I stood. I uncrossed my arms and put a hand on his shoulder as a way of apologizing. He rubbed his cheek against my hand to say that we were okay, but his eyes stayed focused ahead. I sank into a warm plastic cushion and adjusted my new hat. When I glanced back, I noticed how quickly the pier had shrunk away.
Being on the lake smelled something like I imagined a cloud might smell—the opposite of dusty. The air told my body to fill my lungs, and my body did.
The boat rose and fell, rose and fell. I took off my tank top and let my skin absorb the sun. My eyes closed, but nausea found me instantly, and they sprung open again. As we slowed, I felt my toes uncurl. The breath I’d been holding finally escaped.
When I looked back to shore, I could barely make out the dock. The umbrellas at the campground looked like blue beetle shells dug into the stony sand.
Paolo took his camera case from the cabin and opened it, revealing a cushioned tray of black instruments. “I want to get these trees,” he said, nodding at the shoreline.
I looked over my shoulder. The shoreline was a jagged, sandy line, and the boat was rocking. “The trees? Won’t the boat moving kind of—”
“The light’s just perfect right now.” He knelt to steady himself and adjusted the lens. The camera clicked in his hands; there was no sound in the world like it.
“I was thinking,” he said after a moment, “does being bipolar have anything to do with it? You not swimming?” He always lowered his voice when he said bipolar, like it was a secret.
“Being bipolar just means I get a lot done,” I told him.
“Seriously,” he said. He squinted and scanned the shoreline with the camera once more.
I finished the wine in my cup, then reached to pour myself more. “I’ll tell you a story. The way you say that word bipolarmakes me picture my grandmother on my dad’s side, who tried to kill herself just about every summer, usually by throwing herself in the Cumberland River. When I was maybe ten, my grandfather answered a phone call and said, ‘Yes, yes, okay, okay.’ Then he set the receiver down hard and told me Grandma Jane needed our help. He grabbed some frayed rope from his shed and a couple of pastel pool noodles, and we sped in his Buick down to where I could see her wading, waist deep through the current.”
Paolo clicked and adjusted, eyes still on the shoreline. He paused. “I’m still listening,” he assured me.
“He tied a knot around the bumper, then put the rope through his belt loops. He tucked a noodle under each arm and told me that, if they both went under, to shift the car into reverse and step on the gas.”
Paolo shook his head. “You were ten?”
“If that. I could barely see over the dash. Then he strode down the boat ramp into the water, calling her name. When he put his arms around her, she tried to wiggle away. I was positive they would both drown. She beat on his chest and kicked at the air as he carried her to the car, but when she saw me, she stopped like a switch had flipped. My grandmother smiled and kind of shrugged as she wrung out her hair and asked me if I could believe what an ever-loving mess she’d made. Then my grandfather put aside the pool noodles and the rope and told me to not worry about the seat getting wet. Ten minutes later, ice cream was dripping down our hands at Bobby’s Dairy Dip. So, when you ask me about having bipolar disorder, I don’t mean to brush it off, but I’m nothing like she was. I’m just busy. Focused.”
Paolo looked like he was trying to keep his eyes on me, but they kept getting pulled back to the images on his camera. The story was a little more intimate than I guessed he’d expected, and his posture was rigid and upright. “You think that’s why you don’t like the water? Because you couldn’t go in after your grandmother?”
“Yes and no.” If only it were that simple. “Her wading in the river didn’t help, but my fear wasn’t made in one place. I mean, my one swim instructor held my head under water until I started to panic. But I think I was afraid even before then.” My hand dropped onto my chest as I searched for a way to describe the feeling. “When I’m in water, I’m powerless. I feel pulled down.”
Engulfed, I’d almost said. Or immersed, like I’m surrounded by feelings I can’t control.
I realized my pulse was racing. “Let’s talk about something else. You get so serious about stuff like that. I’m fine, and she was fine. She lived to a happy, kooky old age.”
But I’d intentionally left my own terror out of the story—springing off the soft carpet of my grandparents’ house when the call came, seeing the water’s surface as a mirror that reflected a second grandma. The apron tied behind her back carried in the current while her peroxide hair blew around her head like a blonde tornado. When my grandfather extended his hand, she’d cried out in a voice that sounded nothing like her. In the stillness after her shrieking subsided, I’d heard the car engine and the wind rustling the oak branches, maybe a barge horn from somewhere. On the drive home, my grandma sang along with the crackly radio as the sky dimmed to a color for which there was no name.
I touched my chest, my hand cold from holding the cup. “And my bipolar isn’t even that bad, …
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