Sara Herchenroether mixed supernatural horror and crime to perfection in her debut thriller The Night Flowers. She follows two women trying to solve a gruesome cold case from the 1980s and along the twists and turns, readers discover a lot more about them as they inch closer and closer to solving the crime.
Detective Sergeant Jean Martinez and Laura MacDonald, a woman in the late stages of cancer treatment, are a formidable duo readers won’t soon forget. They shine in this atmospheric book that will have readers on the edge of their seats from page one.
The Night Flowers is out now. You can read an excerpt from the book below.
Laura MacDonald had gotten used to being naked, but this was a bit much. For the last ten minutes, she had watched as Dr. Fusaro walked back and forth along the long corridor separating two rows of beds in the surgical bay. His hard-soled shoes tapped the floor in rhythm with his staccato Italian as he chattered to himself.
Laura had wanted to call out, “I’m right here,” but didn’t. Maybe he had another patient to check on.
When Dr. Fusaro did find her, the anesthesia attending had been in the middle of introducing his team. He was standing with a resident and two surgical nurses when Dr. Fusaro entered, closing the privacy screen behind him, the metal rings screaming along the curtain rod.
“Pull down your gown please,” Dr. Fusaro said. Not so much as a nod of acknowledgment to the people who would keep her alive while he cut and sewed. The anesthesia attending stood frozen in mid-sentence.
Laura hesitated. Showing your breasts to one doctor was one thing. This was another.
The seconds it took her to untie her gown were an eternity. While she stared at the ceiling, Dr. Fusaro scrawled dashes across her chest with a thin-tipped permanent marker, pausing to take a step back, examine his work, and make a few more. The others kept their eyes on the floor. The surgeon left. Laura closed her gown without looking at the sewing pattern scribbled across her chest. The anesthesia attending lifted his eyes after she was covered.
“Sorry,” he said.
“It’s okay,” Laura said. She’d give anything to tuck herself into a ball and disappear. The anesthesia team left next, leaving Laura alone again, free to hide in the anonymity of her hospital bed, watching the surgical bay come to life.
Dr. Fusaro had been the latest in a long line of medical personnel to filter through the surgical wing of Smilow Cancer Hospital. A hospital within a hospital, Smilow was one peak within the larger Yale New Haven Hospital’s towering conglomerate downtown. All morning, Laura had wanted to open her phone, check the crime site she read, but instead found herself drawn into the rhythms and movements of the nurses and doctors. They were an army. So accustomed to their routine they moved by muscle memory, unaware of the terror their presence registered in those who sat waiting in beds.
Each group wore a uniform color-coded for their role in taking her apart before putting her back together again. First, bright-faced nurses in teal scrubs. They took your temperature, blood pressure, and oxygen level with a little finger-grip thing. Laura had never learned the word. People skills over medical skills for this group. Their job was to make sure you hadn’t eaten and to have you change. Laura had eyed the rubber-nubby-soled orange socks in a flimsy plastic bag. Single-serve. Like the ones from the roller-skating rink her mother took them to growing up. Laura remembered the time she stared at her naked toes in flip-flops, realizing her mistake. Someone pulled her over to a vending machine, where she found row after row of uniform white cotton socks, each pair in its own sealed baggie. A pair had fallen from the metal corkscrew, landing with a soft thud.
The next company were stone-faced surgical nurses in aquarium-green scrubs. Then came the anesthesia attendings in darker blue. Then the last group, sticking out in surgeons’ street clothes. Ultralight L.L. Bean jackets over dark boxy jeans. Crisp monogrammed button-downs over creased chinos and leather loafers. Northeast moneyed prep.
Her breast surgeon, Dr. Choudhry, was the last to check in with Laura before surgery. She went full Chanel. Tweed blazer, matching skirt, and double-C earrings. French luxury on a five-foot-four woman in the basement surgical wing of a cancer hospital in Connecticut. The earrings looked painful, heavy.
Dr. Choudhry was too perky for five in the morning. Too perky to carve a woman’s breasts out of her chest.
“How are you?” the surgeon said, as though this were brunch.
Once the surgeon left, Laura slipped out her phone, opened her regular crime site. There was a new post. The bodies of a woman and two children were found on this day, thirty years ago, in two steel barrels. Laura had time to read the first paragraph before her curtain slid open.
A new nurse stood before her. Hair capped, surgical mask bibbed, a cape-like scrub that billowed when she entered. Hospital superwoman.
“Sorry, I know you’ve done this a hundred times already,” she said, pushing her pink-flecked glasses up. “I promise I’m the last one. Name and date of birth?”
Impolite elsewhere, this was the standard hospital hello.
“Laura MacDonald, 8-31-83.”
The nurse did a quick double take, checking a phone pulled from a back pocket. “It’s your birthday,” she said, sliding the phone away again. “Don’t worry. It’s not TGI Fridays. We’re not going to sing. What are you here for today?”
“Bilateral mastectomy for HER2-positive breast cancer and expanders,” Laura said.
Since her diagnosis, Laura had mimicked the precise medical jargon of her doctors. She wanted to show them she got it, and more, she was no dummy. As if to say—by parroting them—Please don’t kill me. I’m as smart as you. I’m someone. In nine months of treatment, she had confused a handful of nurses, who asked if she was in the medical field herself. No, she had wanted to say. I pay attention. Wouldn’t you?
She scratched the prickly hair under her cotton cap, waiting for the nurse to finish. Laura’s treatment plan called for chemo before surgery. Called neoadjuvant chemotherapy, it allowed her oncologist to track her tumor with regular scans to see if the chemo drugs were working. Twelve rounds of easy, weekly drugs, leaving her sluggish for a day but otherwise functional. Followed by four rounds of what Laura referred to as the heavy hitters, to be administered monthly. Each left her in bed for a week. One had sent her to the emergency department. She had seen her tumor disappear in MRIs, but the trade-off was going into surgery—a seven-hour surgery—a shell of her former self. She now had a heart condition. No hair to speak of. Mirrors were intolerable, her face a ghost. Skin school-glue-white, eyebrows barely there. She hadn’t recognized herself in months.
The last nurse put out her hand, palm up as though asking Laura to dance. “We have you walk in,” the nurse said. “Research says people have more positive outcomes if they walk into their operating room.” She helped Laura get to her feet and held out her hand for Laura to hold.
There was no way Laura was holding this woman’s hand.
“Just push the IV stand,” she said.
Laura watched her orange-socked feet, convinced she would be the first person to trip on her way to the operating room, where, on her thirtieth birthday, she would lose her breasts. Her final thought, as she lay on the table counting backward from ten and not making it to seven, was of two steel barrels, hidden in the forest, waiting to be found.
When Laura woke up, she thought nothing had happened—she had closed her eyes a moment ago. Maybe they had decided she didn’t need surgery after all. Maybe she still had breasts. A violent shot of yellow bile into a flimsy plastic bedpan erased any confusion.
Afternoon light filtered through the recovery room blinds. She found the clock. Four p.m. The world had decided to keep spinning.
When she sat up in bed, her body felt wrong. Four drainage bulbs, the size of eggs, were filled with red stringy globs and bright pink liquid. These were attached to four skinny tubes pinned under her armpits like tangled Christmas lights to a thick white surgical bra. Taking a breath was like pushing against one of the thick purple elastics they used to bundle broccoli. She pulled the bra away from her skin, but the tightness remained, constricting her breathing. A row of staples, or stitches—she didn’t know which—dug into her ribs where a shelf had been attached to hold up her expanders. A flap of pectoral muscle had been cut and sewn to the shelf to hold them in place. She couldn’t feel this, exactly, but she knew that was what had happened. She had given her body to the doctors and had gotten back a different one.
Laura would have liked to sleep, but her door never stayed closed with the constant flow of doctors checking on her. She looked away when they examined her. It was during one of these vacant stares into the corner while a nurse emptied the globby fluid from her bulbs that Laura remembered the article. After the nurse left, Laura ran her fingers over the thin hospital blanket the texture of dried corn husks as she retrieved her phone from under her thigh.
Anniversary of 30-Year-Old Cold Case Prompts New Investigation
On August 31, 1983, hikers found the bodies of a young woman and two children in a remote section of the Gila National Forest in New Mexico. The hikers weren’t sure what they had found: two 55-gallon black steel barrels, hidden by brush. The top of one drum had opened to reveal a pink fitted sheet soaked in a foamy white liquid. Underneath, the skeletal remains of a woman.
The body of the adult female was in one barrel, and the two children in the other. Both were girls. The three bodies had experienced severe decomposition, but bone, teeth, and hair samples were collected. Forensics were unable to determine how long they had been left in the forest. Some experts estimated they sat undiscovered for 20 years. Detective Sergeant Jean Martinez, known throughout Sierra County for her work on major crimes, has transferred to cold cases and reopened the investigation. It is the county’s oldest cold case. A spokesperson for the Sierra County Sheriff’s Department says recent advances in DNA testing may afford new investigative avenues.
Laura read the article twice. Thirty years ago today, on the same day she had been born, a woman and two girls were found. And before they were discovered, their bodies may have been sitting there, in some forest, for another twenty years. Why hadn’t anyone found them before? Why hadn’t anyone looked for them?
Excerpted from The Night Flowers by Sara Herchenroether. Published with permission from Tin House. Copyright © 2023 by Sara Herchenroether.