Maxine quietly slipped through the door of her classroom, carefully balancing a box of Valentine’s Day chocolates and gifts. She spotted her sister Chloe carrying a stack of papers out of her classroom, and managed a small wave. Chloe came over and opened the school door leading out to the staff parking lot.
“That’s quite a haul,” Chloe commented appreciatively, eyeing the box of goodies.
Maxine grinned. “I know. It’s the one day of the year that I get more goodies than Theresa. And you know, some of these cards are hand-written—which is saying something considering my students are three and four years old.”
“That is impressive.” Chloe checked her watch. “And I’m guessing it’s naptime?”
“Yup. Theresa let me slip out to put these in my car. One less load I have to carry after school. Your kids in gym?”
“Yep! One blissful hour of peace and quiet.” Chloe opened the trunk of her sister’s car for her. She spotted an aluminum balloon in the box and grimaced. “I’m sorry I couldn’t take your extended care shift for you today. Liam had these reservations at the steakhouse for two months.”
Maxine shrugged nonchalantly as she plunked the box in her trunk. “Don’t worry about it. It’s your first Valentine’s Day together. You should enjoy it. Get two steaks. And a bloomin’ onion.”
She grinned as they headed back inside the school. “So, what about you? What are you going to do tonight after work?”
“Same thing everyone does after and eleven-hour workday: crash on the couch.”
“That’s it? You’re not doing anything special tonight?”
“I’m going to take advantage of the house being empty to watch the 1977 Lord of the Rings cartoon with Sam. Does that count?”
Chloe gave her sister an estranged look. “Really? That stupid cartoon is the best you got?”
“Hey, don’t diss my Lord of the Rings!” Maxine laughed. “You’re going to be off eating steak with your boyfriend, and it’s not like I’m forcing anyone to ‘suffer’ through it.”
“What about Mom and Dad?”
“Chloe, it’s Valentine’s Day. They’re going out tonight, too.”
“What about Hailey and Claire? Are they coming over?”
“No. Claire is out of town on a business trip, and Hailey is going out with Josh. And before you ask, Zoey is going out with Logan, and Brook is going out with Carter. Everyone is going their separate ways, and I’m going to be at home eating way too much chocolate.” The sisters paused outside of Maxine’s classroom door. Maxine had one hand on the knob, looking suddenly exhausted.
Chloe looked at her younger sister guiltily. “So, you’re really going to be alone tonight?”
Maxine managed a playfully smile. “What? Doesn’t Sam count?”
“Then I guess that’s what I get for being single. I’ll be fine, Chloe. Enjoy your date with Liam. I’ve got to get back to class. See you tomorrow.” Maxine quickly slipped into her darkened classroom before her sister kept her longer.
The rest of the day dragged by. Maxine tried not to let her impending loneliness weigh her down as she passed out pink cupcakes to the children left in the school’s extended care. The sun set, and she received one or two cards more from grateful parents picking up their children. The clock struck six, and Maxine and the other extended care workers happily punched their timecards and went to their homes.
Maxine parked her car in the empty driveway and honked a four-beat rhythm. Sam came tumbling out the dog door, brown ears flopping, tongue lolling, and tail wagging as he ran down the steps to greet her. She opened her door and let her large puppy crawl onto her lap and cover her face with slobber, and she thoroughly enjoyed the loving attention.
“That’s my good boy, Samwise,” she cooed at her puppy as she ruffled his floppy ears. “Are you ready for dinner? Yes? Let’s get my goodies and we’ll go inside and eat. Come on, Sam!” She gently pushed her dog off her lap and gathered her things, carefully juggling her lunchbox and gifts as she unlocked the front door.
Since her salary wasn’t quite enough to allow her to live on her own, Maxine had been living with her parents since she’d graduated from college. Sam had been a Christmas present, and he had been the perfect sweet-tempered companion for her since Chloe started dating. With silence echoing through the empty house, Maxine was reminded how thankful she was to have such a devoted pet.
There was a note from her mother on their kitchen table, letting her know that there was spaghetti and cake in the fridge for her. Samwise followed her around the kitchen as she heated her dinner then laid at her feet when she turned on her movie and sat down to eat. The spaghetti was delicious, but the cake was better. When she had finished both, she placed her empty plate on the floor for Samwise to enjoy, and then took it to the kitchen to be watched and sanitized. She went back to the couch to finish her movie and picked up her puppy and put him beside her. Sam yawned and rested his head on her lap as she opened her phone to update her social media.
Maxine checked Facebook first, grinning at all the messages her friends had posted on her wall. She made sure that she liked and commented on every single one. Then she opened Instagram, smiling forlornly as she scrolled through the pictures of her siblings and friends’ dates. There was Chloe and Liam with their bloomin’ onion and steak. Zoey and Logan were at some fancy Italian restaurant showing off their oozing chocolate desserts, while Carter and Brook were posing in front of some romantic movie poster. Hailey and Josh were playing laser tag, and Claire was posting sunset pictures of the Washington Monument. Even her mother was posting pictures of her and her father together with their imperial crab cakes. The pictures made the house seem emptier.
“You know, Sam,” Maxine told her dog, “I usually prefer being alone, so I thought I’d be okay. I have you with me, after all. But right now, I honestly wish someone was here with me.”
Sam licked her arm and yawned again.
She put her hand on his head and scratched behind his ears. “I’m glad they’re having a good time, though.” She snuggled against her puppy and turned the movie up louder, trying to drown out the roaring silence.
It was the first time she had ever been alone on her birthday.