The night after Kevin disappears, Sam shows up on Alan’s doorstep just as Alan’s phone rings. Sam’s bike lies heaped on the lawn, and the boy is breathing hard, shaking and exhausted. For a moment, all Alan can do is stare.
It’s five miles from the Flynn residence to Alan’s house.
“Hey, kiddo,” he says, opening the door wider so Sam can come inside. By the time he gets the door closed and locked, Sam is clinging to him so hard Alan nearly trips.
“Hey,” Alan says, extricating himself to kneel down at Sam’s height. Sam clings to him again, just as hard as before, wrapping small arms around Alan’s neck and burying his face in Alan’s shoulder.
Sam mumbles something into his shirt, but Alan can’t decipher most of it. All he can make out clearly is, “He promised,” and his heart fractures at the pain in Sam’s muffled voice.
He can’t fix this. He hasn’t the first clue how to start. He doesn’t know where Kevin is; all he knows is that Kevin would never have broken a promise to Sam. He’d never have taken off without a word, without checking in, without leaving a note for Alan to stumble across at the office.
But Alan’s desk this morning was spotless. Kevin hasn’t called, hasn’t paged him, hasn’t done a single damn thing to get in touch. Kevin can be distractible, but never like this. Never if it meant flaking on a promise and crushing Sam. Whatever his other faults, Kevin Flynn has always put Sam first.
Sam. Jesus, what’s Alan going to do about Sam? The kid is sobbing now, and Alan’s never felt so inadequate in his life.
Across the hall in the living room, Alan’s phone rings again; and rather than let go of the boy crying into his shirt, he hoists Sam into his arms. Sam’s too big to carry this way, but that’s not going to stop Alan today. Sam’s crying goes quiet as Alan answers the phone—like he’s listening—like he’s hoping just as much as Alan that it’s Kevin on the line.
It’s not Kevin. It’s Dotty Flynn calling in a panic, because Sam has run off, and they don’t know where he’s gone, and has Alan seen him—
“He’s here,” Alan interrupts. “He’s with me. I’ll look after him.” Sam hiccups, fingers fisting in Alan’s shirt. When Alan hangs up the phone, he expects the noisy tears to resume.
But Sam is quiet now. He clings limply, as though exhaustion and upset have hollowed him out and left him with barely enough energy to keep his eyes open.
Alan sets him on the couch; he’s both surprised and relieved when Sam lets go of him and then curls quietly into one corner.
“Here.” Alan hands him a box of tissues, conveniently near at hand. “If I get you some juice will you try to drink it?”
Sam nods mutely and clings to the blue pillow that lives at the end of the couch.
Alan passes the hall mirror on his way to the kitchen. He looks shell-shocked and numb. His shirt is a soaked wreck on one side; there will be no salvaging it. He doesn’t care.
He hurries in the kitchen, unwilling to leave Sam unattended any longer than necessary. The fridge swings heavily shut, and Alan’s hand is steady (more or less) as he carries a glass of apple juice back down the hall. He’s halfway across the living room when the doorbell rings, drawing both his and Sam’s attention with a jolt.
It must be Kevin. Sam’s grandparents won’t be rushing to collect him after Alan’s reassurance, and even if they were they wouldn’t have arrived so quickly. Alan forces himself not to rush to the couch, and he manages not to spill the juice as he sets it on the end table.
“Wait here, Sam.”
And though Sam’s eyes widen and follow him, across the room and into the hall—until Alan has moved around the corner and out of sight—Sam stays obediently put.
Alan’s heart is a ruckus of foolish hope when he puts his hand on the knob, so of course he’s startled when he opens the door and sees not Kevin’s face but his own. It takes his rational brain a moment to catch up, and only belatedly does he realize:
“Mr. Stetson.” Alan’s not sure what to make of Lee Stetson’s presence on his doorstep. They’ve met twice? Three times? Alan honestly doesn’t remember, and it matters little enough now.
“Is Sam here?”
“Yes,” Alan says, though he admits it grudgingly. He knows little about this man beyond the fact that he clearly means a great deal to Kevin. Considering the circumstances, and the unannounced visit, that’s not really enough to go on.
“Can I see him?” Stetson asks, looking strangely hesitant.
“I’m not sure that’s a good idea right now.” Lord knows Sam’s had enough upset for one night. He’s finally calmed down, and Alan is leery of doing anything to set him off again.
But Stetson says, “Please,” in a voice so quietly desperate that he can’t refuse.
“Come in,” he says with a tired sigh.
They’ve barely rounded the corner into the living room before Sam is hurtling off the couch.
“Lee!” He moves so fast Alan’s sure someone is going to fall over, but Stetson is quick and sharp, and in the span of a blink he’s got Sam wrapped in his arms—lifting him and hushing him, and not for a second complaining about the fact that Sam’s white-knuckled grip must be making it difficult to breathe.
“He promised,” Sam is repeating. “Lee, he promised.” Over and over again, like it’s the only thing Sam can think, let alone say. Lee hums noncommittally and hugs him, and says nothing at all, until long minutes later when Sam finally falls silent.
“Sam, look at me,” Stetson says into the subsequent quiet. Alan watches with curiosity, feeling like an intruder in his own home. Sam raises his head from Stetson’s shoulder and looks him in the eye, and only then does Stetson continue, “I’ll find him. I swear.”
And quick as that, relief softens the tight fear in Sam’s face. He obviously believes Stetson, easily and instantly. Alan is furious, every protective instinct screaming at him to interfere before Sam’s heart can break all over again. But he holds his tongue.
He keeps quiet until Sam falls asleep, and then he leads Stetson to the door, still seething.
“You shouldn’t make promises you might not be able to keep,” he says in a low voice. But instead of chagrin, Stetson locks him with a terrifying look. There’s steel in his eyes, and startling ferocity.
“I have every intention of keeping my promise.”
Then Stetson disappears into the night, leaving Alan to realize with a start that he almost believes it himself.