When John was little, the one thing he loved most in the world were nuggets.
He didn’t know what it was about those little breaded chunks of meat, but once his ma has fried up a batch of those crispy treats and popped one into his mouth, he was hooked. His pop-pop had bought them as a treat on his fifth birthday, but lil’ John always wanted more.
Whether dipped in barbecue sauce, or eaten plain, John loved munching on that sweet savory meat. He could have nuggets for lunch, dinner, and when ma had to milk the cows early in the morning, he would sneak out the leftovers for breakfast. Punishment would follow if he got caught, but he didn’t care. The only thing that mattered were the nuggets.
One thing about nuggets though, there was no way to make them on the farm. So every week, Pop-pop would put the boy in the pickup, and drive down to the city to get a bag of them down at the Safe-mart. It was the only time John got alone with Pop-pop, so he tagged along without fuss. He never liked the city much, and it didn’t like him either. It was loud, crowded, and the people there liked talking too much.
In the city, John would put a hand to his face when somebody got near, he didn’t like them staring, but still he could hear them, whispering and sniggering all round. “Pay no attention to them John,” Pop-pop would say, and the adults would leave him alone. But it was the children who were the cruelest one.
Rat-face, freak-show, retard, just some of the names the children in this accursed city called him. They would point, laughing at his protruding teeth, his sagging left eye, and the constant dribble that went down the side of his mouth. John hated them, and he made up his mind early to never ever live in the city.
Inside the safe-mart, things were no better. The constant stares left him feeling awkward, and there was nowhere in the bright-lit aisles to hide. Pop-pop was friends with the supervisor in the store, and he would go round back with her for a little chat, leaving John to fend for himself in the frozen section. John resented his father for that, but it usually meant a dinner of MickeyD’s nuggets later, so he never complained.
But the safe-mart was also where he discovered kindness. Barrett, the butcher, has noticed the boy alone, and unlike the rest, he would beckon for him to come over, inviting him to watch him work. Barrett would talk, and John would listen. The man would sharpen his blades and chop up the meat, stacking them high on the counter, waiting for customers to pick out the choicest bits.
Sometimes, business in the store was slow, and he would cook up a little something for the boy. He knew John loved nuggets, but he wanted John to experiment. Cutting up meats into the same size chunks as nuggets, he would bread them and fry them up, offering John a little taste of everything. John liked him, and he liked the treats, they soon became fast friends.
Then one day, just like any other, Barrett was slicing up a side of beef. His knife slipped. In the blink of an eye, John watched as the blade severed the end of Barrett little finger, chopping through the bone just below the first segment. The dismembered digit flopped on the table and rolled onto the floor. John looked at it as the butcher stood there screaming bloody murder.
John had no recollection of crying then, he only remembered watching. He watched when the finger bounced and twitched on the floor, its white skin and pink flesh coated in the still-warm blood of Barrett. It called out to the boy, like a nugget. John walked over and picked it up.
“Gimme that son, I need to get it to a… what are you doing…John NO!”
Pop-pop heard the screams, and came charging back into the store, his hands swrestling with the buckle of his belt. He found his young son staring at the stricken butcher, blood stains on his little hands, and a red gob trickling down the side of his chin. John was gnawing on something, he turned around and gave his Pop-pop a happy look.
“The devil! The devil!” Barrett screamed, flailing his arms, trying to get help.
“Oh hell John…” Pop-pop quietly took his son into his arms, and fled away from the store.
News spread like wildfire. By the time they have reached home, TV reporters were already covering the story, calling John the devil’s boy. Soon, Pop-pop knew they would come for him. He got out his shotgun and loaded it up.
The angry mob got there before the police, arriving in cars and pickups that stretched up down the road. The man leading them was their pastor, and he demanded that the boy be handed over, so that the demon can be exorcised.
“But he’s an angel, my angel,” Ma had told them, pleading with the men while pop-pop shoved his gun up their faces.
“That’s up to the good Lord to decide Betsy. I told ya you and Eric were never meant to be, and now you shall know His wrath. Sister should never marry brother, that just ain’t right. Now bring out the boy so that we can do what’s right.”
Pop-pop fired shots into the air, stopping the men’s advance. “RUN BOY RUN!” Inside the house, John heard his father’s cry. “I’m warning ya, take another step forward and I’ll…”
“And you’ll what?” The pastor challenged, walking right up to the barrel of his gun. “In the name of the Father, I command you to bring out the cursed child and…”
A single shot silenced the crowd. Was it his trembling fingers or his anger, John would never know. Pop-pop had fired the shot that would change this community forever. Time stood still as the old man flew off the ground, landing back five feet away with a crunching thud. The crowd went berserk.
John ran. Out the backdoor he went, never turning back as gunshots filled the air. He heard screams, one of them sounded like his Ma. But still he did what he had promised them, he ran. Pass the barn and into rows of corn, he chanced a look back. Ma and Pop-pop were nowhere in sight.
“Where are you devil-boy?” A man in a black coat said, as men swarmed the shack, looking for the boy,
“He ain’t here!”
“Well, what are you waiting for then. Burn him out, burn everything!”
John watched as the men lit up the shack that he had lived in his entire life. The wooded panels caught easily, and soon the fire spread. It became a towering inferno.
“Throw the bodies in,” the man said. “Ain’t no police gonna bother with what happened here tonight,”
“But Remy, the woman’s still moving. Your Pa he…”
“My Pa is dead, they killed him! And I say throw them in!”
John tried to shout, but only a gurgled grunt came from out of his throat. “Mama…” It was one of the few words he knew. He stared at the man giving the orders, burning his face into memory. Then, he heard a rustling before him.
“Hey he’s here! The devil boy is here!”
John ran. This time, he didn’t stop. He ran when the men fired their guns at him, and he ran when they set fire all around him. John never stopped running.