Seven Tips to Enjoy Your Time in the Unreal Forest
by Van Aaron Hughes
Unreal Forest, under the silver fog of a winter dawn. That's where we waited for the school bus
in junior high.
We could hear the bus coming four to five minutes before it arrived, its ancient engine growling
like an irritable dragon. We lived on the absurdly winding road tracing the perimeter of Mercer
Island, back before you had to be filthy rich to live there, when the houses were fewer and
smaller, tucked under a dense canopy of trees. On a sunny day, we'd spot the bus on the next
curve over, before it dove back into the bend. But we didn't get many sunny days in the Pacific
Northwest. Come mid-October, mornings were too dark to see the next curve.
And most days, a feathery fog descended until you felt yourself floating in a cloud bank. We
wouldn't see the bus until it parted the mists less than fifty feet away. Within seconds, the door
opened in front of us, the bald-headed driver glaring and urging in a monotone, "Hurry up please
How I hated that spot, until I learned it wasn't real.
At the time I thought I was special: Jordan Hudson, the only person to discover the Unreal
Forest. In the years since, I've seen and read things to make me believe others have found a
similar Bubble. T.S. Eliot's "Unreal City" in London, for one. If you find a place like that, let me
give you some advice.
#1: STING LIKE A BEE
Mom had always dropped Tim and me at elementary school on the way to work, so waiting for
the bus was a new experience starting seventh grade. It upset Tim at first that "his" Jordan was
going to a different school. (He always referred to me that way: "Have you seen my Jordan?")
But the change proved harder for me.
Randy singled me out right away as the kid to pick on. An oversized eighth grader, Randy had a
five o'clock shadow at fourteen. The rest of us wanted to look old enough to get into R-rated
movies; Randy looked like he could walk into one of the Second Avenue porno theaters in
downtown Seattle. Randy wore one of those old mood rings, except his was always black.
Why me? I had never done anything to him. I wasn't as small as Trevor or as nerdy as Samantha.
But the very first day, Randy started kicking leaves in my face. Even though autumn had barely
begun and evergreens surrounded the clearing where we waited, somehow the ground was armed
with plenty of maple leaves.
Within a week, Trevor and Samantha followed Randy's lead, cackling as I ducked away from the
leaves and debris they kicked onto me. A daily assault of crimson, orange, and yellow, hurting
only my pride. Trevor's betrayal especially stung, after the hours we spent over the summer
playing Space Invaders at the Pizza Hut. Dale, future star of the high school football team, didn't
join in, but neither did he try to help, and he laughed as hard as anyone.
The only one who never laughed was Traci Bolton, the prettiest girl in the universe of NorthMercer Junior High School. That was the worst part, the sad sympathy in her brilliant blue eyes.
My three tormentors would play keep-away with my hat and books. They'd knock my folders
into a puddle (everyone at school used matching yellow Pee Chees but soon mine were all a
sodden brown), fling mudballs, or drop slugs down the back of my shirt. Two of them would
come at me while the third circled behind to trip me by stepping on the ragged hems of my bell-bottom jeans. I seldom made it to school with clean clothes.
I started eating my dessert as soon as I left the house, else Randy would take it, taunting me all
the while about my Battlestar Galactica lunch pail.
Once on the bus, everyone would act as if nothing had happened. Sometimes I'd try to get to the
stop just before the bus came, but I couldn't cut it too close. If I heard the bus before leaving
home, it meant I wouldn't make it. And Randy's gang couldn't do anything as bad as what Paw
might do if I missed the bus and wound up late for school.
I didn't tell anyone for a long time. My only close friend then was Timmy, and I didn't want him
to know his big brother could be pushed around. I figured if I told Paw, he'd mess the kid up
some -- nobody else was allowed to beat on our family -- but I didn't think that would help.
And I expected Mom to lecture me about making peace with Randy, or order me to go to the
But I was wrong. When I finally talked to Mom, she just told me, "Knock him down!"
I barely slept that night. In the morning, I headed to the bus stop early. My body shook the whole
walk down the hill, and not from the cold. I don't know why the notion of standing up to Randy
terrified me so. Fear of the unknown? I had never been in a fight, and had no idea what to expect.
But waiting alone at the stop helped settle me. An especially thick fog limited visibility to maybe
thirty feet. From under the "Big Tree," our unimaginative name for the large pine overhanging
the clearing where we boarded the bus, I could see nothing but the road emerging from the fog to
my left and disappearing back into it to my right, a row of ferns and blackberry brambles behind
me, the bottom half of the dirt embankment across the road, and tree branches filling the sky.
The forest was silent that morning, even the birds holding still, except when a Pinto cut through
the visible patch. (I told you not everyone on the Island was rich back then.) I took it as a good
omen that my favorite song at the time, Supertramp's "The Logical Song," floated from its
I walked north along the curve in the car's wake, but the mist did not recede from me the way
fog usually does. It stood its ground, until I could reach out and touch it, feeling a sticky
resistance, like cotton candy.
"If it isn't Hordan Judson!" Trevor emerged into the other side of the clearing. He always
reversed letters like that, and yet somehow I was the one they picked on. "Ready for another
amazing day at Morth Nercer Hunior Jigh?" Away from Randy, he still acted like my buddy. I
ignored him. Mom had instructed me to go only for the ringleader.
Dale stepped from the fog next, then Traci, so achingly beautiful she didn't seem real, but a
dream of the ideal girl, like Cheryl Ladd and Jaclyn Smith on Charlie's Angels.
Finally Randy and Samantha arrived, Randy in a "Mr. Bubble" t-shirt -- he never wore a coat,
even in the coldest weather. "Hey, Sonny!" he called with false amiability. A few weeks before
he had decided I looked like Sonny Bono without the mustache.
Trevor joined up with Randy and Samantha, and they approached me, kicking an avalanche of
leaves in front of them. They expected me to retreat, but I held still, until Randy bumped chests
with me. Randy stared me down, and I stared right back, deeply inhaling the pine smell of the
"Oh, you're in trig bouble!" Trevor shouted. The other five kids realized something was different
and quickly formed a circle around us at the trunk of the Big Tree. (I know I've only named six
kids total, but I am certain seven of us waited at that stop every day, even if I can't remember the
Randy put both hands on my shoulders and shoved, but not that hard. He grinned at the other
kids, and when he turned back, I punched him in the face. A lot of rage and frustration went into
that punch, and I felt his nose crunch.
Randy stared with an expression not of pain but surprise, as the blood ran down his chin and
soaked Mr. Bubble.
When the rest of us boarded the bus, Randy stayed behind. But after second period, I spotted him
in the main hall at school looking just fine, his Mr. Bubble shirt completely clean. And nobody
said a word about the fight the rest of the day.
Somehow that didn't seem strange to me. After all, Paw used to get drunk and beat up Mom all
the time, and the next day everyone always acted like nothing happened.
The following morning, I expected the others to show a little more respect, but no. Everything
was just the same, and I had to stand my ground and fight Randy all over again. And when I
mentioned the fight to Trevor later at school, he didn't know what I was talking about.
The next few weeks, Randy and I fought every day, inside that curtain of fog. Most days the bus
came before either of us did much damage. Some days I popped Randy pretty good, but he was
always fine at school, and nobody else seemed to remember we had fought.
Even though Randy had a good four inches and forty pounds on me, he never hurt me. Until one
day when I got overconfident. I danced around him and jabbed like Muhammad Ali, laughing
and calling him a fag (sorry, but that's what we said to each other back then). Randy connected
with a roundhouse swing, tearing a gash in my cheek with his mood ring. It should have had
stitches, but the school nurse just put a bandage over it.
Mom and Paw never even noticed. When I got home that afternoon, they were already in their
bedroom arguing. Tim and I knew from experience if they were full-decibel before dinnertime,
we could expect hours more yelling, punctuated by sounds of violence or lovemaking,
sometimes both. Timmy and I made our own dinner, went out and shot baskets past dark, then
listened from my room, his tears wetting my pajamas late into the night.
The next morning, I jumped Randy as soon as he appeared at the bus stop. When he tried to
backtrack he stuck to the fog, held fast in its sticky embrace, defenseless. I pummeled him,
throwing punches even after his nose broke again, painting his face with blood. When his braces
lacerated my hands, I switched to kicking him, drunk on the rush from turning the tables on him.
I imagined I was hitting Paw. The other kids cheered me at first, then fell silent, finally mumbled
at me that Randy had had enough. But I didn't stop until the bus came.
Once at school, I rushed to the eighth-grade lockers, where I spotted Randy, completely
It was that cotton candy fog. Nothing that happened inside that Bubble of fog affected anyone
but me. They didn't remember; Randy was never hurt. But I remembered. And to this day, I still
have a little white scar from Randy's mood ring.
#2: LEARN TO BE COOL
Funny thing, though. After the time Randy got stuck in the fog and I thrashed him so thoroughly,
he stopped picking on me at the bus stop. Nobody kicked leaves at me or tried to steal my
At the time, I believed I was charmed within that Bubble of fog, that it was nearly a fantasy
world for me. I could beat up Randy in there, even though in the real world he was much bigger
and stronger. At school I was awkward and unsure, but in the Bubble I could act cool with the
other kids, and they responded. And there seemed to be a residual effect. Even though the other
kids didn't remember the previous mornings, they still started treating me differently.
Looking back, I suspect things went my way inside the Bubble because I expected them to. If
you believe you're one of the cool kids, you're usually right. I felt a confidence in that clearing I
had nowhere else. Because I knew nothing I did in the Bubble carried any consequences.
Inside that Bubble in the Unreal Forest, I could do whatever I wanted. I could eat all the berries
on the blackberry bush, and they'd be back the next day. I could borrow money and keep it, and
the kid I took it from would never ask for it back, because he would still have it too. I could toss
rocks at passing cars. I could belt out a song like I was alone in the shower, and if the other kids
thought I sounded awful, so what? One day when Traci was absent, I shocked everyone by
stripping to my Fruit-of-the-Looms in the clearing (hurriedly putting my clothes back on when I
heard the bus approach). Everyone hooted and shouted, but nobody said a word about it later.
I could pay back some of what I'd received from Randy. I stole his lunch. I taped signs to his
back saying "Kick Me" or "I ♥ Disco!" I smeared mud on the back of his pants, so it looked like
he'd crapped himself. The other kids laughed like hell, except for Traci. And some days I just
walked up without preamble and punched him in the gut. I figured, as the larval form of Paw, he
always deserved it.
#3: CATCH AN ANGEL
Most importantly, in the Bubble I could talk to Traci.
Back then, talking to a pretty girl was as frightening as standing up to Randy the first time. But I
could do it in the Unreal Forest.
I had an advantage there, since Traci wouldn't remember our conversations. I trained myself to
talk with her, practicing what to say, knowing she couldn't hold it against me if I said something
dumb. I could ask her about her favorite book or movie, go check it out, then surprise her by
mentioning it the next morning. It helped that I mostly liked her tastes. Before long, we had lots
I learned simple came off best. Some days I worked up elaborate, poetic compliments; they only
made Traci frown. But saying she was beautiful always earned me a big smile. It worked even
better to skip the compliments and just talk to her.
I talked to her in the real world as well, but tried to stick to conversation rehearsed in the Bubble.
When I imagined gathering the nerve to ask her on a date -- I had never been on one, but I knew
she had -- I naturally tried it first in the Bubble.
"Traci, can I ask you something?"
"I can't stop you."
I whispered, "Behind the Big Tree? It's kind of private."
After maneuvering the trunk between us and the others, I asked, "Would you want to go out with
"I don't know," she smiled. "Would you want to ask me?"
I cleared my throat. "Traci Bolton, do you consent to go on a date with me, Jordan Hudson, this
"Why, yes, I do." She added with a sparkle in her eyes. "But I don't promise to be entertaining. I
may spend the whole time talking about ballet and eye makeup."
"Good. I have much to learn on these subjects."
She grinned, and I decided Cheryl Ladd didn't compare.
I added, "As long as we're making disclaimers, I should warn you that at some point in the
evening I may do this." And I kissed her, and she kissed me back.
I recall this clearly, because I re-enacted it in the Bubble many times. But of course, she never
remembered, so we didn't get to the date. The one time I tried the same conversation in the
locker bay at school, I just stumbled over my words until the bell rang.
But one Tuesday in the spring of eighth grade, a group of us stayed late rehearsing the school
play -- Traci played Juliet; I was a nameless servingman. ("Marry, sir, 'tis an ill cook that
cannot lick his own fingers!") I wound up walking Traci home. An evening fog settled by the
time we got to her house, and I took a chance it was a Bubble. I asked her on a date, and we
ended up kissing on her front porch, kissing longer than we ever had, for no bus was coming.
At school the next day, she asked where we were going Friday. That was when I realized she had
given me my first kiss in the real world.
#4: KNOW YOUR LIMITATIONS
Even when I felt charmed in the Bubble, I knew there were limits. I could kiss Traci behind the
Big Tree, for instance, but she wasn't about to let me feel her up. But I didn't realize how badly
the Bubble could let me down until second semester of eighth grade.
By then I was trying to figure out how to put the magic of the place to greater use. If things in
the Bubble had a residual effect on the real world, what would I most like to change in reality?
The answer was obvious.
One night, I told Paw a kid at the bus stop was bullying me. Paw said he'd come the next day
and have a little word with him. Then I snuck the butcher knife from the kitchen and left it under
the Big Tree.
The next morning, Paw and I entered the circle of fog before anyone else. Paw asked what the
bully looked like. I brandished the knife and told him he was the bully.
My plan, if you'd call it that, was to scare him with the knife -- maybe even cut him, since it
wouldn't last -- while ordering him never to hit Mom again. If the Bubble had a residual effect,
perhaps his behavior would change.
Before any of that could happen, Paw grabbed my wrist and twisted until I dropped the knife. He
swatted me to the ground, pinned me with his knee, and held the knife to my throat. He told me
calmly, "You ever threaten me again, son, I'm gonna cut you open and let the sass drain out.
You hear me?"
I could only nod, as his knee choked me. I didn't know you could do that, choke someone by the
chest instead of the neck.
Paw released me when the bus came, and I stumbled to the wide-eyed group of kids under the
Big Tree. Neither Paw nor the other kids would remember what had happened. But I did. I never
tried to use the Bubble on Paw again.
In the real world or the Unreal Forest, you just can't change people.
#5: DON'T SHOW OFF
I remember my excitement at starting ninth grade, because Tim would join me in junior high. I
had tried to tell him about the Bubble, but he didn't believe me. Now I could show him.
The first day of school we marched down the hill together, waking up the neighbors whistling
and belting out, "Hi-ho! Hi-ho! It's off to school we go!" It became Timmy's standard greeting
that year: "Hi-ho, Jordan!" We took turns shoving each other as we walked, pretending to try to
push one another into the gulley beside the road. But the one time I stumbled and nearly fell,
Timmy about jumped from his shoes scrambling to catch me.
That first morning, I made sure we got to the stop early, delighted at the unseasonably heavy fog.
As luck had it, Traci arrived next. We'd had a few dates over the summer, but innocent affairs,
since her parents kept her under close watch.
"Hey, gorgeous!" I called, pulling her close. I tried to kiss her, but without the semi-privacy of
the Big Tree she pulled away. I grabbed her roughly by the wrist. "Don't be like that," I mocked.
Without a word, Traci kicked me in the shin and took off. She was turning to look at me just as
she hit the fog barrier. It held her fast by one side. I walked over and pushed her shoulder,
embedding her in the surface of the Bubble, facing me. I grabbed the front of her blouse and
yanked until the buttons gave and it fell open.
Why did I do that? At first, I was trying to impress my little brother, but by the time her blouse
lay dangling against the mist, I had forgotten he was there.
I pressed my palm again a breast, then fumbled at the hook of her bra, as a tear ran down her face
and she whispered, "Don't."
A hand grabbed my shoulder and spun me.
Timmy was so small, even smaller than I had been in seventh grade, but he caught me by
surprise and before I knew it, had me pinned against the Big Tree.
"No!" he shouted, and started hitting me, beating my chest in a fury with both fists. He hit me
hard enough to bruise, but I was too stunned to feel it. I know most brothers fight a lot, but Tim
and I never did.
He was hysterical, screaming and sobbing at once, with tears pouring down his face and snot
hanging from his nose in long strings. He yelled at me between sobs and gasps, "No! No! That's
him! He does that! Not you! He doesn't get that other people are real. That they have feelings.
That's him! That's not you! Never, ever you!"
In that awful moment, I realized I had misidentified the kids at the bus stop. Randy wasn't the
one turning into my father.
I pulled Tim against my chest and sank to the ground. "I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry," I
mumbled, holding him against me, both of us bawling, until the mist lifted and he faded away.
I never touched Traci again, inside the Bubble or out.
I said before you can't change people. But I know that's not true, because my brother changed
me. Maybe you can change other people, just most of us suck at it. We don't know what to say
or do to cause the change we want. Even with a hundred chances, we can't get it right. Tim got it
My mother taught me that hell is a real place, and most days I still believe that. If I don't go
there, it will be thanks to Tim. And if I do, well, at least I'll have the satisfaction of knowing
But I sure hope I don't. I don't care to see Paw again.
That afternoon, Timmy wanted to know why I had ditched school. He only remembered walking
down the hill and getting on the bus.
I don't know why I thought the Bubble's rules wouldn't apply to Tim. I was disappointed I
couldn't fully share the Bubble with him, but glad he didn't remember what I had done. And it
meant I could always surprise him by doing something outrageous in the Bubble. I tried to come
up with ever more bizarre pranks, but the simple ones worked best.
One day, I took a coconut cream pie with me, telling Tim it was for a class party. Once in the
Bubble, I intentionally slipped on a slug, and managed to heave the pie into Timmy's face as I
fell. He laughed until his tears traced lines through the whipped cream.
That night, Paw got to smacking our mother around. My fault, sort of -- I had left my baseball
bat lying in the family room. When Paw tripped on it, he blamed Mom for not keeping the house
tidy. Usually he hit her in the bedroom with the door closed. But this time he laid into her right
in front of us, his face purplish-red even though he hadn't been drinking. I just froze, not
knowing what to do. But Tim stepped between them and pushed Paw away, yelling at him to
Paw picked up my bat and swung for the fences.
#6: SEE OLD FRIENDS
They gave me a week off from school, as if I could recover in a week. But in hindsight, they
were right. If they had waited for me to get over Timmy's death, I never would have finished
My first day back, I expected the other kids to behave awkwardly around me, but at the bus stop
they all acted completely normally.
Then from behind, I heard a familiar voice sing out, "Hi-ho!" I turned and saw my little brother.
He looked exactly as he had before, except for a new glow to his eyes, eyes of pearl. "Why
didn't you wait for me?" he asked. My only response was to hold him tightly as I could.
Though gone to the real world, inside the Bubble Tim still waited for the bus to take him to
I would spend every minute of my mornings with him, ignoring everyone else (but it stung that
Traci didn't seem to care I wasn't spending time with her). I carried games from home and we'd
play cards, Battleship, or chess. I brought his favorite peanut butter Rice Krispie squares. I talked
and laughed with him, savoring the moments.
I tried getting to the clearing early, but Tim wouldn't appear until the last ten minutes before the
bus came. Often I let the bus go by, persuading Tim to ditch with me, so I could stay with him
until the fog dispersed. I should have flunked out of school, but teachers cut me extra slack that
One time I told Tim he was dead in the real world. He said he didn't believe me, but I could see
how it disturbed him, so I never told him again.
I don't mean to complain. I've had a good life. I adore my wife, my son, and my daughter (and
no, I have never, ever laid a hand on them in anger). I've had plenty of great experiences and
seen some amazing things. But there is no memory in life that means half so much to me as those
last mornings with Tim.
You never know which will be the final foggy morning of the season. So every day in the spring,
before getting on the bus, I would give Timmy a bear hug under the Big Tree and whisper in his
ear, "Goodbye." And one day in April, it was.
#7: DON'T FORGET
The next year I started high school.
On Mercer Island, every kid got a car at sixteen. (I guess you did have to be rich to live there.)
So it wasn't cool to ride the bus to high school. But I did. Mom and I were on a tight budget
without Paw's salary, so I didn't have a car.
The Bubble was still there -- I could feel the cotton candy resistance when I touched it. But
funny thing, it didn't matter if it was the Bubble or just fog, with no other people around.
Sometimes I'd let the high school bus pass and wait for the junior high bus. But somewhere in
between, the Bubble would melt into ordinary fog, and Tim never appeared again.
I'll never understand how the Bubble knew which bus I was supposed to take. Hell, maybe the
driver told it.
Hurry up please it's time.
Looking back, maybe I wasn't special at all. Perhaps everyone has a memory of a certain time
and place that felt separate from the rest of the world, unconnected to all the crap you were going
through in real life.
If you had a place like that, then do something for me: stop whatever you're doing, close your
eyes, and remember it. Remember it and treasure it.
Because I think, just maybe, that was when you were in the real world.