“I know you said you don’t need it, but please take this cooler,” Karen said as she held up the red and white cooler. It was a traveling cooler Karen had used for over twenty years. Each time the Johnson family traveled, Karen would pack the cooler with snacks and put it on the back seat. It was usually loaded with just the right mix of fruits, chocolate, candy, and at least one bag of trail mix for her husband. Now, all of her children were grown, and Karen was trying her best to pass the cooler tradition to her youngest child. Madyson knew her Mom’s goal, but she was determined to not take the faded cooler with brown smudges on the corners and a handle that popped loose occasionally.
“Mom, I don’t want that Goliath-sized cooler taking up more space in my backseat,” Madyson said as she gave a slight glance toward the back seat and then looked back at her mother. Madyson curved corners of her lips into the sweet smile that made her mom melt.
“You have nothing back there!” She peeked into the backseat one more time, “Please take it with you. I made your favorites: one with ham, Swiss cheese, and avocado and the other peanut butter with honey- Miss Bees Honey, to be exact. Ben, I even made bologna and cheese for you. I fried the bologna, so the edges are crisp just the way you like them. Please take it.” She tried to shove the small cooler through the driver’s window.
This was just like Madyson’s mother. Karen Johnson was always over prepared, and she had a possible solution for any problem. Karen also believed in saving money. After raising three kids and taking museum and water park trips every summer, it was natural for her to pack a backpack anytime anyone in the family was traveling. Even when Karen's grandchildren came to visit, she was sure to pack snacks for their ride home. But this was not a family trip, and they certainly were not going to any museums or waterparks, so Madyson did not see a need for it. Still, it seemed her mother was nearly pleading for her to take the cooler.
"Let me do this. We will take one sandwich each and one bottle of water. How is that? Our goal is to stop and eat along the way. We want to check out roadside stands and local favorites. Louisiana and Mississippi have some of the best food in the South. Then, we must stop in Georgia to eat at some of those restaurants owned by the stars! How can we do that if you load us up with enough food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner? We can eat the sandwiches now since it's getting close to lunch, and then we will stop later on. How's that?" She decided to meet her mom in the middle. If Madyson took the cooler, her mom would add blankets, first aid kits, extra sets of clothes, and all kinds of things she did not need. They would also be delayed for at least another hour.
Karen reached into the cooler and pulled out the sandwiches and water. "Okay, take these two. Call me every few hours. Washington, D.C. is a long drive from here, and I just want to know that you guys are okay." Their eyes locked for a minute. Madyson's mother did this every time she took a trip. Madyson laid her forehead in her hand and shook it from left to right. "Mom, why are you acting like that is not the norm for us? How many times a day do we normally talk? I call you between almost every class," she laughed. Karen closed the door and leaned on the driver's side window. "I know, but I can't believe you are going so far away alone. I can still change my plans and go with you. Your dad will be okay. He probably wants a break anyway."
"Mom, I'm not alone. Ben and I are taking this trip together. We are young adults; it's time, Mom. Besides, I've taken a few girls' trips, so this is not my first time traveling without you! I know D.C. furthest I've gone without you but, it is not as far as it seems, okay?" she said.
Karen Johnson took a deep breath and then looked at her youngest child. She looked at Madyson's hair, which was in small box braids that had been pulled to the top of her head and wrapped into a bun; then, she looked into Madyson's eyes. "Okay, okay. I'm just not prepared for you to become a woman. I need my little girl who is still hanging on my pants leg everywhere I go," she said as if she wished Madyson could return to her childhood. "Ma, now you know I am always your little girl. It's Daddy who wants me to grow up and get out of his wallet," Madyson laughed. "I'll tell you what- when we get back, you can treat me to a mani-
pedi and lunch at my favorite spot, and I will tell you everything about the trip. How's that?"
The twosome fell out laughing. "Aren't you the best daughter ever?" Karen replied. "But I gladly accept your offer, and I am going to hold you to it as soon as you get back." Karen and Madyson heard a soft rumble and a sudden stop. Karen raised her head and looked over the hood of Madyson's car; Madyson looked out of her passenger window. Ben had just parked his car in front of the last door of the garage. He was getting his suitcase from the trunk. For a minute, he struggled to get the enormous leather case from the chest. Ben pulled the brown hunk, and the brown hung pulled back. He gave it one final jerk, and the bag came up out of the trunk before dragging Ben to the ground. He slammed the trunk shut and looked up to see two sets of eyes staring at him.
"What did I do?" He asked. He began dragging his suitcase to the car. It had no wheels, so it made a loud noise as he got closer.
"I have told him to order new luggage a thousand times. I knew I should've gotten him a new suitcase the other day," Madyson whispered to her mother. To Ben, she said, "Nothing. I was telling Mom not to worry about us." Ben laughed, "Oh, yeah. Mama Karen, you have known me since I was a little boy. You know I will protect Madyson; look at these muscles." He flexed his arms, which were in decent shape even though he was not very big. There was a noticeable gap in his tee-shirt sleeve, which made his flex seem a little mightier than it needed to be.
"Well, you get the point. She's in good hands," Ben laughed. Madyson shook her head from side to side. "Anyway, Mom," Madyson continued, "We will be fine. We have cell phones, roadside assistance, a tire changing kit, and sandwiches. Dad checked the tire pressure and the fluids this morning after you reminded him about five times last night. Thanks to you were are very prepared."
Karen leaned in to kiss her daughter. "What would any of you do without me?" She laughed and then looked over at Ben. "And I know. Your mom and I already had our morning coffee talk. We both know you are the responsible one; it is this one who worries me. Out of all of my children, she gave me the most gray hairs." Karen patted the top of her head. "Noooo," Madyson chimed in, "being old when you had me gave you gray hairs. Don't blame that
on me!" They started laughing.
"Okay, your dad and I will be waiting to hear from you. He tried his best to take a half-day at the plant, but his crew was not meeting the deadline. He wants his last six months on this job to be strong, so he needed to stay. Dad said to tell you he loves you, and he put some extra money in the glove compartment." "That's my daddy!" Madyson smiled. She started the car, "Okay, Mom, we won't make it to our half-way point before dark if we keep chatting with you. I will call you in two hours. I love you." She blew a kiss.
"I love you, too, Baby Girl. Remember, don't look too much like a tourist, or people will target
you. And don't stop in small towns if you don't have to. Everywhere isn't friendly in the South," Karen replied. "I got it. I got it all, Mom," Madyson said. Madyson put her shades on and turned her head to the side, so her cheek turned upward. Mrs. Johnson leaned in and planted a kiss right under Madyson's cheekbone. Madyson started the engine and swiftly backed her shiny black Honda out of the driveway. Ben already had his headphones on, and he was bobbing to what she assumed was some old school hip-hop or J. Cole. He loved J. Cole. Ben followed him on every social media page, and he had been to three J. Cole concerts. He had even let his hair grow out for a little while, and then he got dreads claiming he was doing it because it was the style. Ben was never a guy of high fashion, and he certainly never did anything because it was the trend.
"He's like the Tupac of our generation," he had told Madyson when he went to his first J. Cole
concert. "He's not a rapper; he is a philosopher. He talks about life and culture. It's not about a new dance or selling drugs and any fake street stuff like that. He is trying to get us to understand some things about culture, society, and the struggles of black life. His beats bring you in, but his lyrics speak to your struggle. "Listen to him." Madyson laughed. "Your struggle? Ben, you're from the Height Hills. Your biggest struggle is which pair of Jordan's to wear today," she said.
"That used to be my struggle, college girl. I, well, my parents were putting up $200 a pair to see me in the flyest kicks. I was out here yelling, 'Support black businesses,' but wasn't supporting my own empire. After I spent two hundred dollars on somebody else's gear, I couldn't do it anymore. I took that same two hundred a month and started putting it in a savings account. I've got no regrets about the way I see that money grow. Shit, I want Jordan money too, and I can't get it if I'm spending it. I'd prefer to invest it in some work boots so I can keep doing these electrical jobs," he said. Ben had done well for himself despite his parents' disappointment that he had not gone to a four-year college. When he got his license as an electrician, he started taking contract jobs across the country.
When they learned that Ben was making almost as much money as his dad and living nearly
free when traveling for work, they saw his profession and their son a little differently. For a while, Ben had an upscale apartment, but he was gone so much that he asked his parents if he could move into the room over the garage and pay rent when he came home so he could save more money. They loved their son and agreed to the deal, insisting that he did not pay rent. They didn't use the room over the garage very often, so they moved his old bed out there and moved his dad's man cave to his old bedroom in the house. Ben insisted on paying his parents, but his checks were rejected. So, he usually just put the money directly on his little brother's college tuition by calling the university. He was proud of his little brother, and they had a close relationship. When Ben's brother went off to college, Ben made sure he was home to help pack his things and drop him off at the university. Though they were three years apart in age, they got along very well. Ben's brother sometimes traveled with him during the summer and holiday breaks from school. "My brother got an extra scholarship this semester, so he didn't have a balance. I'm so proud of that dude; staying on top of his grades is really paying off." He had a small grin on his face, which was rare for someone who was always serious. "Can we swing by the ATM, and I will put money in my mom's account?" he asked.
"Why do you insist on paying your parents, especially after they asked you not to? You don't even stay that long?" Madyson said. Ben replied, "I moved back out of convenience and to save some more money. My parents don't have to let me stay. Besides, I'm a grown man. A man pays even if no one asks him to." "Still the boy I grew up with," Madyson jokingly said as she used one of her hands to pull her bun loose on the top of her head. The tiny braids cascaded downward, landing between her back and the driver's seat.
"A man," he said back forcefully. "I know you have enjoyed the playboys on campus, but every
male doesn't have to be thirty to grow up. And we don't have to run through a bunch of women to sow our oats before deciding to do what's right. Some of us do the right thing, regardless." Madyson looked at Ben. "Is this what you are doing the whole trip? Being woke and conscious and a strong black man for twenty hours? I'm just asking for myself because I want to have fun." Ben rolled his eyes and let a grin ease across his face. Madyson was always his reminder to take it easy and enjoy himself. "Na'll, I promise to relax. I plan to splurge a little bit. I even brought my big wallet."
Madyson grabbed her chest and deeply inhaled as if she was appalled. "You brought the big wallet? Lord, help us! You might spend a hundred dollars at the mall! You might even let me shop at my favorite high-end store in peace since I saved my last four student worker checks for this trip. Maybe you will be twenty-two instead of forty-two this weekend!" They both started laughing. Ben got her message; he was going to relax during this trip. "Maybe," he said sarcastically, "I will do the best I can." "Well, if I see anything I think will look fly on you, I will say that J. Cole or Tupac made it. I'll check the label to see if it came from the Motherland," she laughed. "At least you know what moves me," Ben joked back.
Ben and Madyson had grown up down the street from each other. They had played together as children, and they knew nearly everything about each other. The most important thing they knew is that they were nothing alike. Madyson had struggled to stay on the honor roll her entire life, while Ben had coasted through his classes and taken honors and advanced courses for college credits. Madyson loved the arts and had been a dancer since she was four years old. She was talented, too. She was on the performance team and traveled with the dance troupe for a few years until she said competing kept her too busy. Madyson kept taking dance classes throughout high school but only a few times a week for fun. Ben was a computer nerd and historian who made a B in eighth grade P.E. because he could not learn to two-step. He enjoyed watching sports but had never played any. Instead, he spent his time reading or gaming with his friends and his little brother.
Madyson thought the world was a melting pot, and she was fully convinced that America belonged to men and women who worked hard. All it took was the dedication to overcome challenges and be successful in a country where freedom was a right. She knew there were some problems in society, but she preferred to surround herself with her diverse group of friends who "saw no color." They only believed in red- the color of blood when it hit the air. When discussions about race and culture cameup, Madyson often said, "When love is in the air, it overpowers all hate." Her friends loved art festivals and pop music. They paid little attention to mainstream news, even giving the side-eye to social injustice issues. Their ideal solution was for everyone to look at each other on the inside, no matter how unrealistic the idea was. For Madyson and her friends, it was easier to avoid uncomfortable conversations and dealing with problems that happened right in their own community and school. That was where Ben and Madyson shared the most significant difference. Ben believed that America
had disenfranchised every race except for the white race.
He spent his free time reading up on his ancestry and history, telling Madyson that there was so much to learn about the 350 years America leaves out of textbooks. Each year, Ben scored perfectly on the history state exam multiple-choice questions. The one thing that cost him points was his essay response. Instead of providing a textbook response, Ben used that section to write his rebuttal to the questions. His history teachers tried to get him to understand the importance of doing what the state wanted on the written part of the test.
Ben told one teacher, "I cannot be true to a system that is not true to me. I, therefore, choose only to be true to myself and my culture."
He once got defensive when a stranger attempted to compliment him by saying he was "woke." He told the guy that the only one who had been sleeping was America; black people had been unfairly misinformed. This mentality was often the wedge that separated and challenged Madyson and Ben's friendship. Ben's aggressive pro-black attitude was sometimes offensive to her. Though Ben claimed that pro-black did not mean he was anti-white, she felt uncomfortable when he brought up race issues, especially when her friends were around. So, she stopped inviting him to gatherings and social events unless it was a family affair.
It wasn't that she didn't value their friendship; he made it hard for her to be around people who saw the world as she did. She did think Ben was a bit aggressive, but she also knew that he was passionate, and he had a good heart. Her other friends asked why she still hung out with him, and she never felt comfortable telling the truth, so she said she was kind to him because he needed someone, too. However, the reality was that Ben had always been her protector. All of Madyson's life, he had looked out for her like a brother. During her sophomore year of high school, they went to a house party. The DeLaughter twins, Erin
and Aaron, had begged their parents to let them stay home alone while they went out of town for the weekend. However, Erin and Aaron were seniors now, and they convinced their parents that they were technically adults since they were eighteen. Their parents fell for it, and the twins sent one text two-hours after their parents were gone. By ten o'clock that night, the house was filled with nearly every student from the school and several college students. The mansion was a one-story, 6,000 square foot California-style house with a red stucco roof. They had a heated pool and a jacuzzi with towering palm trees hanging over it in the back yard.
Cindy, one of Madyson's best friends, sent the text to her. She swore Madyson would have the night of her life. The DeLaughter twins were known across the city, and everybody wanted to be seen with them. Madyson's parents had a comfortable lifestyle, but the DeLaughter family had generational oil money, which came with popularity and power. A party with the DeLaughter twins sparked Madyson's interest. Cindy's statement proved to have quite some truth; they knew the night would be different as soon as they pulled up in front of the mansion. There were cars down the long driveway and outside of the iron fence. Music blasted from the house, and bright flashing lights were visible from the street. The electric energy could be felt before Madyson and Cindy made it to the front door. Madyson didn't hold back; she followed Cindy's lead. Madyson had always been easy to persuade, so she only needed a little friendly encouragement to take the three-shot challenge. "I've never drunk before," she told Cindy.
"That's the great part, Madyson! It's going to be even more fun. I promise you, your party life will go to another level." The sea of cream-colored faces jeered as Madyson contemplated whether to take the shot. "It's vodka. Don't be scared, Madyson. It's a baby drink for newbies," Cindy coached as the crowd looked on. Cindy was a gorgeous blonde-haired, brown-eyed white girl that the girls envied, and boys
loved. Cindy was most popular for being pretty because she could care less about being perceived as anything else. She was nice; she was just shallow. Her parents' money kept her in a nice car and top-of-the-line clothes. Her parents didn't have DeLaughter money, but they were well off.
She and Madyson had become friends in elementary school, long before Cindy knew the value of being pretty or understood that her dad was successful. They had remained friends because they liked so many of the same things, even though Cindy's lifestyle was much faster and a lot freer than Madyson's. Cindy was the opposite of Ben and one of the first people to tell Madyson that he was too "weird" for them.
Rock music was blaring, and the dim lights in the house now seemed brighter, almost like spotlights shining on Madyson. She was on stage, and the show was just beginning. Some people were dancing, but most of them were in the kitchen, packed around the giant island, egging Madyson on. They were cheering as if she were a quarterback at a national championship game. Even though Ben's eyes told her she should not do it, the adrenaline of the crowd was much powerful than Ben's cold stare. Madyson closed her eyes and squeezed the shot glass tightly, hoping to erase the sight of Ben's judgmental face. She put the shot cup to her lips and leaned her head back. The crowd went wild. The music got louder, and the group was going crazy. She took a huge swallow and felt a fiery burn as the alcohol crawled down her throat.
Madyson brought her head forward and expected to see Ben leaning against the wall, but he was gone. Her friends weren't, though; they were cheering her on to take another shot. So, she did. And she didn't stop there. Madyson spent the night taking shots and playing drinking games. Cindy had been drinking with her, but when Cindy's boyfriend interrupted the duo's party, she left. Madyson stumbled about the room, and the crowd was still hyping her up to take another shot. However, it wasn't as much fun without Cindy, so she babysat a mixed drink for a little while and giggled with some girls she had seen at school. Even though they didn't know each other well, they managed to find plenty to giggle about until Madyson became bored and needed to pee. She stumbled across the room, trying to find the bathroom. She got up too quickly and instantly felt the effects of six shots and two cups of a random punch they mixed up in a trashcan. The room started spinning; Madyson's body was tingling, and her legs felt too heavy to pick up. She kept trying to move, but it felt as if bricks
were tied to her feet. She leaned against the wall, and it became her safe spot. Just as Madyson gave up on any hopes of trying to move, she felt her body being lifted. She felt a bright light shining in her face. For a moment, she thought she had reached a spiritual realm; maybe God was calling her home. She realized that God probably wasn't wearing cologne, and she wasn't sure if God would be massaging her butt.
"Wherrrreee..." she moaned as her body floated in the arms of the stranger.
"Shhhhh," he said, "I'm taking you down the hall to sleep this off."
"Wheeerrreeee...." Madyson grunted again. The voice laughed softly. "To the room to lay down. Everything's going to be fine. I guess you had too much fun tonight. Just relax; I've got you." Madyson could hear other voices, but she was not sure who they were. Her head was too heavy to lift it and see. Maybe they are disciples, she thought to herself. Madyson let her body go limp in the stranger's arms. She had no idea who was holding her, but she was so drunk she could not find the strength to argue. She had no energy in her to fight, and she
was sure she would vomit at any minute. Sleep (or unconsciousness-she was not sure) was just starting to settle in when her body suddenly jolted.
"Where the hell are ya'll taking her?" she heard someone ask. "Man, what are you talking about? To the room to lie down. She's drunk," her savior said. "You are damned right, and you know she is. So why are you and Rico taking her to the room?" "Man, look, Ben, I'm not here for this tonight. I'm just trying to be a good friend to Madyson. Why don't you and your gangsta crew get out of here before we have a problem?" Madyson's hero said; he
"Heck na'll. We ain't going nowhere until you put Madyson down. I'll take her home; we live near each other anyway. I know about your track record, Kade. You find the drunkest one at the party and act like you are trying to help them; then, you knock 'em down. And I guess you brought a little audience to watch or maybe try to participate. Well, it's not happening tonight; we will all beat your behind." Two of Ben's friends had arrived at the party, and they were standing behind him like bodyguards. Everyone knew Ben was not the type to fight, but his friends would not hesitate to handle any situation on his behalf.
"You heard him," one of Ben's friends said, "Put Madyson down." "Man, look, I'm not repeating myself. I said put her down!" Ben said. Kade huffed and then put Madyson down. She was still horribly drunk and began stumbling. Ben and his friends grabbed her and started walking toward the door. Kade looked at Rico, who had been recording the situation.
Ben turned around and walked toward Rico. He stopped and looked right at the camera, "You put out one video about her, and we will all come for your behind, too."
Jamie Mayes is a native of DeRidder, Louisiana and a citizen of Monroe, Louisiana. Jamie
has a Bachelor of Arts in English with minors in Communication Studies and African
American Studies from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She has a
Master of Art in Teaching from the University of Louisiana at Monroe and an Education
Specialist degree in Instructional Leadership from Northcentral University.
For twelve years, Jamie was an English and Creative Writing educator in the public-
school system, where she shared her passion for literature and education with her students.
For the past ten years she has also traveled about sharing hope and inspiration through
writing workshops and public speaking engagements. Jamie is the author of six published books, including a cookbook co-authored with her son, Lee. Jamie believes that writing is a healing and teaching mechanism that can empower humanity. Through writing and speaking, Jamie has found her joy and ability to impact others' lives positively.
The once cocooned worm inside of me is now a beautiful butterfly that has been set free.