“Roots” by Jen Mierisch 

September 10, 1989

A cool wind whipped the cornstalks as Kevin and Stephanie parked their bicycles in the woods next to the field. Fast-moving clouds veiled the sun, painting the sky a wan yellow.

Stephanie followed Kevin through the trees, peering out at the old Sanford Drive-In. It used to be the place to hang out, according to Stephanie’s older brothers. But it had sat abandoned for most of her twelve years.

Rips and graffiti scarred the massive movie screen. Spiky weeds pushed through cracked asphalt in the deserted parking lot. On the wall of a small, decaying wooden building, a sign reading “The Snack Shack” hung askew.

The place gave Stephanie the creeps, but she wasn’t about to admit it. Kevin Campbell was the cutest boy in school.

They squeezed through a gap in the chain-link fence and trotted toward the movie screen. “So why did old man Sanford close this place, anyway?” Stephanie asked.

Kevin shrugged. “Guess nobody came anymore after they got VCRs.”

“My mom says it closed out of the blue,” Stephanie said, “ten years ago, in the middle of summer.”

“Who knows,” said Kevin. “Sanford’s a total weirdo. He, like, never leaves the farm. Like he’s got some big secret.”

The back of the screen towered above them, blotting out the sun. Kevin grasped the support scaffolding and pulled himself upward. “You coming?”

Stephanie smiled and hoisted herself up next to him. As they climbed, she watched his broad shoulders move beneath his blue T-shirt.

“Sanford’s got some big secret, huh?” she said. “Like what?”

“Well,” said Kevin, “our fields are over there across Route 20. All the neighbors know not to let their dogs roam. Dogs that get onto Sanford’s land don’t come back.”

“He hates dogs?”

“He hates everybody. Nobody likes him either. Even his wife left him, right around when he closed the drive-in.”

“Bet he murdered her.” As soon as she blurted it out, Stephanie liked it. It sounded like a cool-girl thing to say.

They were up high now. She gazed over the cornfields, a uniform gold except for two square-shaped green patches, surrounded by corn.

Kevin poked his head through a hole in the screen. “Look, I’m a cheesy monster from a 70s horror flick.”

Stephanie pushed her head through a neighboring gap. “Nooo! Please don’t eat me!” Her grin faded. A car had turned off Route 20 and was driving up the long dirt lane toward them.

“Kevin!” she whispered. “It’s a cop car.”

“Shit.” He pulled back into the shadows. “Did they see us?”

“Don’t think so.”

“I’m dead meat if my dad finds out.”

The black-and-white Ford crunched across gravel, pulling to a stop beside the dilapidated Snack Shack. Two uniformed officers, a man and a woman, approached the building and knocked.

The door creaked open to reveal a gray-haired man. Stained overalls hung off his skeletal body.

“Joseph Sanford?” asked the woman.


“You’re under arrest for illegal cultivation of cannabis.”

“What?” The old man’s voice quavered.

“Come with us, sir.”

“You don’t understand,” he protested. “I can’t leave now. Not when it’s almost time—They’ll die without me. They’ll die!”

The officers handcuffed Sanford and led him to the squad car, reciting the Miranda speech Stephanie knew from TV. After the car drove off, she looked at Kevin, and they burst out laughing.

“Old man Sandford is growing pot?” howled Kevin.

“My poor marijuana plants!” mimicked Stephanie. “They’ll shrivel up and die without me!”

Kevin shook his head. “My dad always says Sanford must have some side business to keep this farm going. Crazy old dude won’t even use pesticides.”

Stephanie’s heart raced. Almost getting arrested with Kevin Campbell? She was definitely a cool girl now. “Let’s go find the pot!” She scrambled down the scaffolding, jumping the last six feet.

They picked their way between cornstalks that grew higher than their heads.

 A sudden rustling noise made them both jump. They spun around. A few yards away, a shaggy white dog wagged its tail.

“Rocky!” yelled Kevin. “Go home!”

Stephanie giggled. “He’s your dog?”

“He must have followed us.”

They emerged into a square green field, enclosed within the corn. Fern-like plants covered the ground.

“Is that pot?” asked Kevin.

“You’re the farmer’s kid. You tell me!”

Stephanie crouched and seized one of the long, serrated fronds. The plant twitched violently. She jerked back in surprise, her fingers snapping off the frond.

The earth beneath the plant heaved upward, long leaves drooping down like hair. Stephanie and Kevin stared, open-mouthed. The dirt-mound swiveled, and the mud parted, revealing a shiny yellow eye. Its oblong pupil shrank, focusing on Stephanie.

Their shouts echoed against the movie screen as they sprinted for their bikes. Behind them, Rocky barked furiously at the ground.


September 8, 1979 (Ten years earlier)

Joe Sanford, standing behind the counter, nodded at Judy Wood as she came into the Snack Shack. Outside, parked cars glowed in the lights from the horror movie Joe had started up an hour before.

“Those boys are liable to eat me out of house and home, Joe,” said Judy. “Another two popcorns, please. How’s business been?”

“Not bad,” Sanford replied, scooping popcorn into paper buckets. “What with the spring flooding, it’s one of those years I’m glad I set aside land for the drive-in, to tide me over when the corn does poorly.”

 “My sister saw your neighbor, Mr. Campbell, downtown this week,” Judy said. “Seems he wishes he’d thought of a drive-in first.”

Sanford snorted. “Peter’s got a thousand acres and that nasty new Roundup weed killer. I reckon he’ll be fine.”

Judy smiled, handed over some cash, and gathered the buckets. “Thanks, Joe. Say hello to Marianne for us.”

An hour later, Sanford locked the Snack Shack and waved as the last cars drove away. “Bye now, Henry,” he called. “Give my best to your pop. Good seeing you, Judy. Give little Stephanie a pat on the head for me.”

A single light shone from the darkened field next to the parking lot.

Sanford frowned and strode through the cornstalks. “Hey!” he shouted. “You there! You can’t drive out that way. This is private property.”

He squinted, raising a hand against the light beaming from an enormous vehicle. Someone was coming out of it, silhouetted against the light. A woman? It had very long hair. One of those hippies, maybe. It moved slowly toward Sanford with a drunkard’s gait.

An odd sensation overcame Sanford. He could hear a sound, like branches creaking in the wind. At the same time, he saw pictures. The long-haired person still staggered in his direction, but overlaid in front of that, Sanford saw himself, happier than he had ever been. He sat on a porch swing by a mountain cabin, drink in hand, looking out at a lake full of trout on land he owned, a cool breeze blowing, his nagging wife nowhere in sight.

The hippie woman was communicating, he understood somehow, showing him these pictures. She wanted—needed—something from him. And if he did it, he would be wealthy beyond his wildest dreams.

Sanford saw his own hand, planting seeds in a field. He watched the sun rise and set, rise and set, streaking across the sky like sped-up film. Ten years. She needed him to plant those seeds and grow them for ten years.

The sounds switched from creaking to crackling, like a forest fire. The pictures showed pain, misery, Sanford’s limbs rotting and falling off, his skin melting like ice cream in the sun, and he knew what consequences would come if he refused.

The woman was a few feet away. His heart thumped as he looked at her face. Something was wrong with her pupils. Her skin, a mottled brown, appeared to be flaking off like bark from a tree. Her long hair was green, like ferns sprouting from her skull. She held out an object, a rough-hewn bowl, filled with seeds.

The sounds crescendoed, became an avalanche. The images flashed faster and faster, hammering his brain. “All right!” Sanford hollered. “I’ll do it!”


September 12, 1989

Officer Meg Martinez parked out by the road and walked in through the corn.

“Evidence,” she’d told her colleagues when she left the station. Sanford, that pathetic idiot, had begged her not to dig anything up.

Withered corn husks crunched under Martinez’s feet. She bent to retrieve something shiny from the ground. The gold band bore an inscription: Joe & Marianne, 1958. Interesting. She dropped the ring into an evidence bag.

“Gotta get a picture,” somebody whispered, a few yards away. “My brother didn’t believe me.”

Martinez’s eyes narrowed. Kids. She started to head in their direction but tripped on something. Flies buzzed over the carcass of a white dog. Its bloody ribs lay exposed, and its back legs were missing.

The girl and boy looked about twelve. They stood in a patch of green beyond the cornstalks. The girl aimed a Polaroid camera at the ground. The boy’s hand shot out and plucked a leaf from a fern.

The earth beneath the fern twitched. A brown tentacle-like object thrust its way out of the ground. The appendage was brown and ridged, like a root, and its tip divided into three wiggling, muddy fingers. Behind it, the soil bulged upward, and a head appeared. Three yellow eyes blinked open.

The root-fingers snatched at the boy’s ankle. A few feet away, another appendage broke through the soil, then another.

“Holy shit!” shrieked the girl.

The kids ran, looking back over their shoulders. They collided with Martinez and screamed bloody murder. “Whoa there,” Martinez told them, palms up in a calming gesture. “Slow down. And tell me what the heck that thing is. Some sort of prank?”

Another head emerged. Humanoid figures clawed their way out of the ground—four now, five, with leaves for hair and skin like tree bark. They staggered toward Martinez, fixing lizardlike eyes on her face.

“Miller!” she shouted into her radio. “Send backup. And bring Sanford down here immediately!”

Shoving the kids behind herself, Martinez drew her gun and fired. One of the creatures flinched but continued its forward lurch. A second bullet split one of its root-legs. Its head swiveled, watching the severed limb thump against the dirt. A fresh root slithered out from the body to take its place.

“Kids,” Martinez commanded, “run.”

The three of them raced toward the parking lot. Just as they emerged onto the cracked asphalt, a pickup truck screeched to a halt in front of them, and a man leaped out, binoculars on a strap bouncing against his chest. “Officer,” he said, nodding at Martinez.

The boy’s jaw dropped. “Dad?”

“It was my idea!” the girl blurted. “Not Kevin’s!”

Peter Campbell ignored her. He ran to the truck bed and grabbed a piece of equipment labeled Monsanto. Then he sprinted into the field, aimed the sprayer hose, and blasted.

As the chemicals made contact, the creatures’ screeches were like dry kindling, crackling in flame. Their dirt-covered bodies split and tumbled to the ground.

Two police cars pulled in, sirens blaring. Three officers and Joe Sanford hurried through the field.

Panting, Campbell backed away from the monsters.

“Christ almighty, old man,” he told Sanford. “All these years, I thought your big secret was cannabis.”

Sanford fell to his knees, trembling. “I thought they were just seeds. I… they come to me in my dreams, Peter. Every night for ten years, making me promise to keep growing their… crops.”

Campbell reached out a hand and helped him rise. “Wackiest weeds I ever did see.”

An unmarked car pulled behind the others. Martinez blinked as she recognized Sam Llewellyn from the FBI field office.

“Miss,” Llewellyn told the girl, “I’m afraid we’re going to need that camera.”

Martinez chuckled at the girl’s crestfallen face.


In the field, a small plant stirred. Dirt shifted, and a yellow eye fluttered open, watching the vehicles drive away.


Jen Mierisch writes humor, horror, and stories that are a bit of both. She lives, works, and writes just outside Chicago, Illinois, USA, with three humans, a lazy cat, a loyal dog, and an incorrigible chinchilla.

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