It’s the discovery of the naked child in their camp that sets Haints Stay in motion. In the following scenes the killers, Brooke and Sugar, wake to find Bird asleep between them. In some ways Haints Stay is about parenting in the surreal world Colin Winnette creates in the novel. Here we see what kind of tough-love parents Brooke and Sugar could have potentially been. There are also hints in this scene that Sugar is suffering from morning sickness due to his pregnancy. What I love the most in this section is the kind of hardscrabble wisdom that comes at the end when Brooke teaches Bird to hunt: “You’re going to feel a certain kind of pride, a sense of accomplishment. But you’re also going to feel uneasy with that, as if there’s something wrong with it. There isn’t. It’s as natural as breathing. That guilt is all fear, anyway. Fear that one day you’re going to be on the receiving end of a blow, and the sudden wish that no one had to do that kind of thing ever…”
BROOKE’S HAND WAS OCCUPIED by a foreign object. He felt it before opening his eyes to greet the day, which had rose up around them like a warm fog. Here they were, back in the woods again and holding one another as they had always done on cold nights. But Sugar felt different to him that morning. Smaller, thinner. Cleaner. Brooke felt a bone protruding, sharper than those he knew to be Sugar’s. He spoke a few casual sounds and received no answer and opened his eyes to reveal a young boy, hardly a hair on his body, sleeping between Brooke and his brother as heavily as a dead horse.
His brother did not stir.
“Sugar, there’s a boy here.”
Sugar rolled slightly but did not rise.
“Sugar,” said Brooke, and this time the boy was rocked casually in place before opening his eyes to discover the two men at his flank.
“Who are you?” said the boy.
“I’d like to ask the same question, and add a ‘How did you get here and between us?’” said Brooke. He rose and dusted himself, examined the woods around them for a set of eyes or ears or a broken nose. The woods were silent but for the small birds plunging into the pine needles gathered at the base of each enormous tree. They were utterly alone, the two brothers and their stranger.
“I don’t know,” said the boy. He said it plainly and without fright. He seemed as comfortable as the leaves around them.
“You don’t know which?” said Brooke. He kicked Sugar, finally, to wake him.
“It’s horse shit,” said Sugar, unsteadily, his eyes still shut.
“It’s an escape,” said Brooke. “You’re hiding out?”
Again, the boy said, “I don’t know.”
“Well,” said Sugar, “who are you?” He was up finally, watching the boy, puzzling out how slow he might actually be, or how capable a liar.
“Who are you?” said the boy. He put his hands to his face, rubbed, coughed. He brought his hands down and examined the two men. “You’re going to hurt me?”
“Let’s assume no one is going to hurt anyone,” said Brooke. “I’m Brooke. This is my brother Sugar. We’re killers by trade and we’re hiding in the woods after a rout of sorts.”
“Killers,” said Sugar, “hiding out.” He was waking up, pacing again and looking between the trees.
The boy seemed weak, a little slow. Incapable of harm, or at least uninterested.
“Who… who did you kill?”
“Which time?” said Sugar.
“Stop it, Sugar.” Brooke poured something black from a leather pouch into a tin cup. He handed it to the boy, “My brother is trying to scare you.”
“Why?” asked the boy.
“Because you’re wrong not to be frightened of two men sleeping in the woods,” said Sugar. “Especially these two men.”
“When you say you don’t know where you came from or who you are,” said Brooke, “what exactly do you mean? Where were you yesterday? Where were you an hour ago?”
“I don’t know.”
“Everyone comes from somewhere,” said Sugar. “Where are your clothes? What have you got in your pockets?”
“I don’t have anything,” said the boy. He was nude and empty-handed. There was nothing in the piles about them that did not belong to Sugar and Brooke, that they had not bedded down with the night before. The boy had nothing to him but his person.
“There’s meat on your bones,” said Sugar. He cracked the bones in his fingers, one by one, then his neck and back. He rose and stood before the boy. “You’ve eaten recently enough. You don’t look ill or wounded.”
The boy nodded slowly. “I don’t feel ill or wounded.”
“Hm,” said Sugar. He leaned forward slightly and set his hand to his waist. He turned and walked into the woods around them and after a few moments his figure disappeared into the mist. They could hear him crushing leaves and cracking twigs with his boots. They could hear faintly the sound of his breathing.
“What’s he doing?” said the boy. “Where’s he gone?”
“Don’t mind it,” said Brooke.
“Are you going to hurt me?”
“I don’t think so,” said Brooke. “If you tell us why you’re here. If you can tell us why we shouldn’t. You can tell the truth, boy. Are you a scout? A young gunslinger trying an impoverished angle? Did you grow up on a perfectly normal farm with perfectly simple parents who were very casual people and did not bother much with towns or neighbors? Were you looking to get out and see the world? Or did your people torture you and send you running into the night?”
“I haven’t done anything,” said the boy. He was crying without whimpering or whining, letting the tears roll from the corners of his eyes in crooked lines down to his mouth. “What’s he doing?”
“Don’t worry about him,” said Brooke.
“Where’s he gone?”
“He’s ill,” said Brooke. “We’re not doctors. We don’t like them. It will stop eventually.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Neither do I. He’s my brother. It’s always been this way.”
“What’s your name?”
“Brooke. Now yours.”
The boy examined his palms.
“I don’t know,” said the boy. “I don’t know anything.”
“Where were you before?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you remember?”
“What do you mean?”
“What do you remember about where you were before? What do you picture in your head when you think about elsewhere?”
“I picture you and… Sugar?”
“You and Sugar. That’s all I know. And some voices.”
“What are they saying?”
“I can’t tell. It’s just sounds. From a distance.”
“You don’t remember anything else?”
The boy shook his head.
“Your mother? Your father? What you had for breakfast yesterday?”
The boy was silent a moment. He examined his palms.
“Can I… can I see your hands?” said the boy.
“Where are these words coming from then? What you’re saying? Who taught you to speak and speak like us?”
The boy shrugged. He was crying again.
Brooke put out his palms. They were caked in dirt, a little blood in the deeper wrinkles, which had run from a small crack in the skin between his knuckles. The boy slid his hands under his legs, palms down and pressing into the dirt.
“What’d you get?” said Brooke.
“What business is it of yours?”
“Are you sick?” said the boy.
“No,” said Sugar.
“Are you hurt?”
“You’re a curious little egg, aren’t you? We’re done with this. You need to get along anyhow. Back to nowhere.”
“Sugar,” said Brooke.
“And if someone comes looking for us tonight, tomorrow, or any day after this, for that matter,” Sugar leaned in, “we’re going to know where he came from. Whether or not you actually said something, we’ve got to act on what we know, pursue reason and statistical likelihood above all else—so we’re going to find you and the people who matter most to you. Did we explain what it is we do for a living, son? Did we make it clear enough? We’ll go right to work on you, and anyone who knows your name.”
“Sugar,” said Brooke.
“We’ll erase you. Any trace of you.”
“Sugar,” said Brooke.
The boy was crying openly, his palms still buried beneath his thighs. He was flexing his fingers and digging into the leaves beneath him, loosing small rocks and the end of a buried twig.
“I’m telling the truth,” said Sugar.
“You’ve scared him, Sugar. Now leave him alone,” said Brooke.
Finally the boy brought his hands to his face, tried to turn away from them. Sugar snapped him up by the wrists and held out his arms as if the boy were pleading. The boy stared up at him but said nothing.
“Sugar, let him go,” said Brooke, and Sugar held out the boy’s palms to Brooke and pointed with his chin. The palms were blank, staring back at them. Smooth as stones.
“Have you ever caught anything before?” said Brooke.
The boy was on his belly at Brooke’s side and they were watching two deer hoof their way crosswise up a steep and sudden incline only a mile or so from where the men had been camped that morning.
“I don’t know,” said the boy.
“Let’s say you haven’t,” said Brooke. “You’re going to feel a certain kind of pride, a sense of accomplishment. But you’re also going to feel uneasy with that, as if there’s something wrong with it. There isn’t. It’s as natural as breathing. That guilt is all fear, anyway. Fear that one day you’re going to be on the receiving end of a blow, and the sudden wish that no one had to do that kind of thing ever. You can rid yourself of all that if you just accept what’s coming to you in the general sense, and work to prevent it in the immediate sense. No matter what you let live you’re going to die and it’s just as likely it will be of a rock falling on your head or getting a bad cough as it is that someone will decide they want you gone. So accept it now and move on.”
“Okay,” said the boy.
“Are you ready?” said Brooke.
“I think so,” said the boy.
“We’ll wait then,” said Brooke.
The deer worked their way up the steep incline without struggle. As they neared the top, the boy said, “I don’t think your brother likes me.”
“He doesn’t trust you,” said Brooke.
“He’s no reason to.”
“Okay,” said the boy.
Brooke watched him a moment. Then the boy said, “I’m ready,” and they rose up and loosed their stones from their slings.
The boy missed entirely, but Brooke’s stone made contact with the larger of the two and when the creature stumbled, stunned, a few feet down the incline, Brooke took off. He collapsed onto the stunned animal, gripped its jaw, its shoulder, twisted and snapped some hidden, necessary part. Everything about the deer went still, then it kicked, shuttered, and went still again.
“We’ll eat,” said Brooke.
“I won’t eat it,” said the boy.
Brooke was sawing the skin from the kill, its legs spread and tied to two separate trees. Brooke shrugged and placed the knife beneath a long length of flesh.
“Then you’ll die,” said Brooke.