Letters From The Margin

A series of correspondences from within guarded walls reveal the complications that stem from the coalescing of parenting and addiction…

by: Bonnie E. Carlson

November 20, 2018

Dear Mom,

I’m not sure when I’m going to be able to see you again, so Gramma said I should write. She says it’s way too long to drive all the way out to where you live. She doesn’t have the gas money. When I asked her what I should write about she said just tell her about your everyday life.

My everyday life is boring. School is from Monday to Friday (of course, you already know that). Third grade is totally boring. I hate math and I stink at it, but I like reading a lot. Next week we are going on a field trip to learn about dinosaurs which will be awesome. Okay, time to go. Damon is yelling for me to come out and shoot hoops before it gets too dark.

Mom, tell me about your everyday life, okay?




December 1, 2018

Dear Gabe,

It was such a wonderful surprise to hear from you! Please thank your grandma for suggesting you should write to me.

As it turns out, life in this place is pretty boring too. I’m kinda in school, just like you, Monday through Friday. I never finished high school so they make you get something called a GED in here so when you get out you can say you have a high school diploma. It’s really important to stay in school and finish high school, even if you think school’s boring. Otherwise you’ll never get a good job and won’t have any money.

Send a picture of yourself next time if you can. I haven’t seen you in six months, and I’m sure you’ve changed a lot.

Hugs and kisses,



December 10, 2018

Dear Jessa,

I’m sorry our last visit was so hard but thank goodness your social worker is willing to bring you up here for visits. It broke my heart to see you cry when it was time to leave. I wish I could be a bigger part of your life now that you’re growing up and becoming a woman. You looked so cute in your jean jacket, with your long shiny hair all wavy like you wear it. And those gorgeous blue eyes you’ve got, just like your dad’s. Your makeup looked real nice too.

Are you close to your foster mom at all? I’ve already forgotten her name. It helps for me to think that when you get cramps with your period you can at least tell her about it.

I loved hearing that you’re doing so well in school. I’m so proud of you making straight A’s. It’s hard to believe that next year you’ll be a sophomore. I was your age was when I started to run with a bad crowd, older kids, especially the guys. And my grades sucked ‘cause I hated school and blew it off all the time to hang out with kids who had already dropped out. The minute I turned 16 I was done with school though. My mom didn’t care as long as I got a job and turned some cash over to her. That’s how I ended up at Dunkin’ Donuts. Now that I’m done with my GED classes, I can start to work in here and learn something that will help me get a job when I get out. 

So, let me say it again, Jessa, I am so proud of you and keep up the good work!.




December 22, 2018

Dear Desiree,

I can’t believe that after seven months you still can’t remember my foster mom’s name. It’s Danielle. I call her Dani, just like the other kids here. She’s pretty nice but she’s busy with the two little boys and isn’t interested in hearing me bellyache about menstrual cramps. Anyhow, that’s the least of my worries.  

You know, I really don’t need to hear about how you were a screwup when you were growing up. I already knew that because you’re a fucking addict. You’ve been an addict my whole life, or have you forgotten? If it wasn’t smack, it was ice or some other shit that zonked you out. When are you going to wake up and get clean once and for all? Or are you just not interested in being an actual mom to me? 

And on the subject of my so-called father, don’t mention him again. Dad? Ha! I met him, like, once maybe, when he dropped off some stupid Christmas present when I was like 6. I just figured he was one of the older guys you were banging in high school. Another one of the lowlife assholes you hung out with. Was he the one who got you into drugs? Or was it some other jerk? Doesn’t matter, does it?

You don’t have to worry about me being like you were as a teenager. I’m nothing like you. Not at all. Of course I’m going to finish high school. Dani says I can go to college if I want to, if I keep my grades up. She told me there’s scholarships for foster kids like me. I’m going to make something of myself and you can rot in that disgusting place for all I care.


P.S. I’m only visiting because the social worker says I have to.


January 2, 2019

Dear Jessa,

I really wish you’d call me Mom. It hurts my feelings when you don’t. I’m sorry you’re so angry, but I get it. I deserve it. I know I messed up big time. I’m so sorry my mistakes have made your life and Gabe’s so hard. It sounds like Dani is a good foster mom, even if she is real busy. 

It broke my heart to have to spend Christmas in here without seeing you and Gabe. I wish I could have sent you guys something, but I just started my laundry job and didn’t have the money. Next year I’ll do better, I promise.

Do you ever get to see or talk to Gabe? He’s a good kid just like you. I still haven’t gotten to see him ‘cause where he lives with his grandma is so far away. I’ve got to talk to his social worker to get her to bring him for a visit. I miss him so much. He’s lucky she agreed to take him since she barely ever met her own grandson. She’s pretty pissed off at me too. 

Yeah, me and Billy, we messed up real bad. I know I don’t need to tell you this but I’m gonna say it anyhow. Don’t ever even think about trying fentanyl. I tried to tell him that, but he wouldn’t listen. Heroin is bad enough. It sounds like I’m making excuses again, but when that shit gets ahold a you it’s like the worst monster you could ever imagine grabs you by the throat and won’t let go.

Your letter made me realize I need to get clean once and for all. I know I tried a couple times in the past and it didn’t work, but this time I’m serious. I can’t keep doing this, hurting the people I love most, you and Gabe. Yesterday my case manager said I could get on the waiting list for treatment. When my name comes up, I’m gonna do it.

I know it’s a ways off, but I can’t wait for your next visit.

Love, Mom


January 25, 2019

Dear Desiree,

I’ll call you whatever I want. You lost the right to be called “Mom” when you chose drugs instead of being our mom. You’re gonna have to earn back the right to have me call you Mom, which means getting clean once and for all, getting out of that shithole, and actually acting like a mother to me and Gabe. I’m not taking bets on whether that’ll ever happen.

It was sad not seeing Gabe at Christmas. I FaceTimed with him on his grandma’s phone. He looked okay and showed me his presents. I could see the tree in the background. Then he started to cry and wouldn’t stop until his grandma took the phone away and said he couldn’t talk anymore. Felt like having my heart ripped out. One thing I didn’t miss though was all the stupid drama between you and Billy, two fighting like maniacs about money for presents and what to eat and other stupid crap. Then disappearing and coming back wasted, eyes all glassy, leaving me and Gabe to celebrate by ourselves. 

This year, it was real fun with Dani and the boys. We went to church and opened presents and had stockings and Dani cooked a turkey. Like normal people do.

Don’t ever tell me again that it could always be worse. Cause you know what? It just got worse. Last week Dani was diagnosed with breast cancer and now it looks like she’s going to be too sick to be a foster mother anymore — if she even recovers. Right now, she’s in the hospital getting her surgery. Tom is taking care of me and the boys, but he’s out of his mind worrying about Dani and spends every minute he can at the hospital. So that means I’m coming home after school every day, instead of going to volleyball practice, and taking care of the little guys. Helping them with homework and getting their dinner. Then I get them ready for bed and do my homework. Just like with Gabe when you and Billy went AWOL. After that I’m wiped out. Ross comes home real late, looking like crap. Then it starts all over again in the morning, getting the boys up, making sure they eat something and get ready for school. No way I’m ever having kids, that’s for sure.

I can tell you one thing though, if I survived you and Billy, I can survive this too.

Have you started that drug treatment program yet?



Feb 5, 2019

Dear Jessa,

So sorry to hear about Dani. I hope she’s home and recovering. That’s a bad break you didn’t deserve. If she can’t take foster kids anymore I’m sure they’ll figure out something else for you that’ll work. I’m sure there are other good foster homes.

My good news is that they just opened another drug treatment program in here so my name will come up sooner, probably by spring.

I love you, sweetheart, keep your chin up.



February 10, 2019

Dear Desiree,

I know I’m not supposed to have contact with you, but because of my medical issue I wanted to say a few things. First, it’s been such a joy having Jessa here with us. She’s an extraordinary girl, very mature and responsible. And she’s been so wonderful with the little boys we also have, obviously used to them because of Gabe. She’s done a great job managing the transition to a new, demanding high school. Her grades have been excellent, although I do wish she’d open up more and make some friends.

Sadly, I’m not sure we’ll be able to continue to have the three children. It depends on what the tests show. My first priority has to be my health, as I’m sure you’ll understand.

Anyway, I just wanted you to know how much I think of your daughter and hope you’ll take advantage of everything they offer in there to improve yourself so you can be the best mom to Jessa and Gabe when you get out.




February 15, 2019

Dear Mom,

Guess what? Jessa came to visit!! Our social worker drove her up to Gramma’s. She never got to meet Gramma before so that was good. She took me out to lunch at Chuck E Cheese and we ordered a pizza. Then she let me play there all afternoon. I never got to go there before and we had so much fun. But it made me so sad when she had to leave. I cried afterwards and Gramma gave me lots of hugs.

Mom, I miss you so much. I asked the social worker to take me to see you and she said yes. Can’t wait to see you!!

Love, Gabe


February 20, 2019

Dear Desiree,

Dani’s recovering really well. They think they removed all the cancer. Turns out she only had to have a lumpectomy. What a relief. For now, the boys and I are still here, but she and Ross told us they can’t be foster parents anymore, so we’ll have to go to another home. It just sucks. Homes are impossible to find because of the fucking drug epidemic in Ohio — that YOU contributed to — and I’m totally stressed out. I love living here. Dani and Ross are so great. I’ve been trying to convince them to let me stay — because I can help, and I won’t be any trouble — even if they have to return the little guys (their mom’s an addict, too). It’s gonna break my heart though, cause those kids are doing so much better after being here a year. 

Hannah, my social worker who took me to visit you back in November, told me it’s really hard to find foster homes for teenagers, even good ones that don’t cause any trouble. If I hear her say one more time how overloaded the “system” is I might punch her. 

That group home I was in for two weeks before they sent me to Dani and Ross’s house totally sucked. I don’t know which was worse, the so-called staff or the other girls. The staff yelled and threatened us all the time. Kids were constantly being put on restrictions for “infractions” of their stupid rules. Like if you didn’t do your assigned chores you couldn’t have visitors or watch TV or use your phone. Not that I’ve ever had a phone.

Most of the other girls had been arrested and used drugs, just like you. I’d never seen girls fight with each other — physically, throwing punches and scratching each other — l ike most of them did. A couple ran away just in the two weeks I was there before they could find me a home placement. I totally got it though, running away from that shithole. If I ended up back there, I swear I would too.

I’m trying not to worry too much because I have to keep up my grades. School is so different here — the kids are rich for one thing. I’ve kinda made a new girlfriend, Quinn, but no way I’m telling her about you or anything else about my past life except I have a little brother I miss. She’s figured out I’m in care though and keeps asking questions about it. I can’t dodge them forever. I keep wondering if it’s worth it. And there’s a boy that’s been really friendly, Cole, wanting to meet me for coffee at Starbucks. Dani and Ross go there all the time, but it’s ridiculously expensive. I’ve been putting him off. He’s in most of my classes so I see him all the time. He’s a good student and on the debate team. Not like those stupid jocks. But people who want to get to know you ask too many questions. My fucked up past is nobody’s business but mine.

Keep your fingers crossed that Dani and Ross will let me stay.



March 3, 2019

Dear Jessa,

I’m relieved to hear Dani’s gonna be okay. She wrote me a letter, you know. After her operation. It was all about how great you are. She called you extraordinary, as if I didn’t already know that. 

I know I’ve apologized before, but I’m gonna keep doing it until you forgive me. I’m so sorry my using for so many years made your life a nightmare. And I’m so pissed that Billy didn’t listen to me and went ahead and shot up that fentanyl. I kept telling him they might not be able to revive him, but he was so upset about getting canned at work that he wouldn’t listen. Damn, I miss that guy. Anyways, I sure hope Dani and Ross let you stay, even if the boys have to go.

I’m third on the drug program waiting list, so it shouldn’t be too long. Even though there’s all kinds of stuff floating around in here that you can get high with, I’ve stayed away from it so far.

I miss you so much. When’s your next visit?




March 20, 2019

Dear Mom,

You’re never going to believe this — it worked! All my begging paid off. Dani and Ross are letting me stay, and the boys too. She’s all healed up and the prognosis is good. I can’t tell you how relieved I am. I was terrified they’d send me back to that fucking group home. I’ve never been more relieved in my life.

I went out with Cole for coffee. He said it was a date. He’s super cute, blond hair cut short on the sides, longer and curly on top. Blue eyes, a great smile. Mostly we laughed about other kids at school and he didn’t ask too many questions. I finally told Quinn a little about my past, about where you are and why, how Billy got himself killed. Why Gabe’s where he’s at and not here with me. I figured, fuck it, if she can’t deal with it, I don’t want her as a friend. 

And you know what? She didn’t freak out, said she had some cousins in southern Ohio who’re also on drugs.

Anyhow, I hope you get into that drug program soon.

Love you,



Bonnie E. Carlson lives and writes amidst the saguaros and chollas in the Sonoran Desert. Her stories have appeared in magazines such as The Broadkill Review, Fewer Than 500, and The Normal School. Her novel, Radical Acceptance, was published in January and her short story collection, No Strangers to Pain, will come out in November.

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