I was five when my dad died. That’s when Hungy came into my life. He was my best friend.
An only child of divorced parents who grew up in the rocky outskirts of Bakersfield, I rarely knew a time in my childhood where I did not feel isolated. I was trying to find a way to cope when I created Hungy. It worked for a while, but it eventually turned into a dark nightmare that will never stop haunting me.
I was never close with my dad. He and my mom divorced shortly after I was born. He moved to Oregon, and I only saw him a few times a year. I don’t know a ton about him. He sold insurance or something, drove a motorcycle and eventually drove it into the back of a truck on a rainy morning and passed away.
Hungy kind of looked like a human thumb wrapped in a colored band-aide. He was a pink, fleshy man-thing with bulging muscles and no neck who perpetually wore a light blue pajama set and stood well over six feet tall. I think he may have been created in my brain off of that horrible Bananas In Pajamas show.
Why “Hungy?” It was his first word. I asked him what his name was over and over again and never got an answer, but then one day he finally replied with “Hungy.” I don’t think he understood what I meant, I think he had finally just figured out what the word “hungry,” meant and felt the feeling in his stomach. What exactly Hungy ate, or wanted to eat, I’m not exactly sure and would rather not think about it given the amount of lapdogs and family cats that disappeared in the neighborhood around that time.
I don’t know if I would describe Hungy as nice, but he was protective of me. I would wake up from a nightmare and see him sitting on the foot of my bed or standing just inside the open crack of the door. Or, I would get hurt on the playground, look up from the ground, and see him standing over me, offering a helping hand. He didn’t talk much, only periodic grumbling things I couldn’t understand, but he was a balancing presence and a rock in my life in a storming sea of disaster and isolation.
That started to change when my dad died. It suddenly seemed like Hungy was never not around. He would sit in the empty seat in the back of my Kindergarten class, hangout in my closet, or under my bed all day, every day and follow me around the playground.
That’s when people started to get hurt.
It first happened to my friend Devin. We were playing in a dry creek up in the hills above my house, searching for lizards and throwing rocks at the empty beer bottles we would find in the bushes. I celebrated a perfect shot at a bottle that shattered into glass shards and Devin started rough housing, tackled me to the ground. It was all in good fun, but Hungy must have been confused.
I can still see the image clear as day. Devins’ little six-year-old body flying through the air under the summer sun. The kid must have been 10-feet in the air. It sure as hell sounded like he got that high when he landed. I heard a bone snap upon impact just as I looked over and saw Hungy huffing and puffing, scowling down at Devin for a few seconds before he disappeared.
I helped Devin down to his house where he went off to the hospital to fix a broken arm. I scolded Hungy that night in my room. I tried to explain to him that Devin and I had just been playing around and that he did something really bad. He seemed to understand. He nodded his head and slunk back in the closet. I didn’t see him for a few days.
Hungy was more sheepish when he came back, but he was still a perpetual presence. He rarely left my side, even when I would tell him to go away because I got tired of him staring at me. I would still hear him fumbling around in the closet, or under the bed. I started to get worried that Hungy was more attached to me than I was him even though I dreamed him up.
The second attack came at night. My friend Bryan was the target and I never figured out why. Maybe Hungy just snapped.
I woke up to the worst screams I have ever heard in my life shrieking out of Bryan. I looked up and saw him held almost up to the ceiling by Hungy upside down, his little bare feet kicking up at the ceiling fan.
“Please Jay. Please,” Bryan pleaded with me, thinking it was me who was terrorizing him.
The horrible feeling that whatever injury Bryan was about to suffer washed over me.
“Hungy, no!” I screamed out.
Hungy dropped Bryan in an instant. It was not a good move. I watched Bryan plummet nearly 10 feet right at my bedpost. I dove in front of the post and stopped him from hitting it, but took the brunt of his momentum on the top of my skull. My lights went out.
I woke up in my room seeing stars. Bryan was shaking me, telling me something about how the boogeyman had attached him when he woke in the night to try and go to the bathroom. He was shaken up as well, but okay, and didn’t want to say anything to our parents. He didn’t think they would believe us.
I agreed with Bryan. We let it go. I shook off the hit and moved on. I started to see Hungy less and less.
We never spoke about it. We didn’t need to. I could tell Hungy got the message of dismissal I sent in the silent negative vibes I sent his way. He rarely engaged me or got into my field of vision over the next few months until I almost forgot about him.
The last image I have of Hungy was through my bedroom window. I was coming in from playing in my backyard and walked by my open window. I saw Hungy hunched over on the foot of my bed, staring down at the carpet. The look and feeling of the situation genuinely hurt my heart, but I had to keep ignoring him. I was getting too old and mature for an imaginary friend, let alone an unpredictably violent one.
I have no idea if something inside of Hungy was telling him at that moment that he would never be in my life again, but I saw it, and felt a mature emotional pain I had yet to experience at that point in my life. Seeing even a monster cry can take its toll.
Our move to Northern California came suddenly, but at a perfect time. Apparently all those weekend trips my mom had been taking to Sacramento recently were to visit a new man who had entered her life and the time had come to pull up our roots and move up to another less than appealing city in the golden state.
The move to Sacramento went smooth. I didn’t have a great life in Bakersfield. The bar of enjoyment was pretty low and I was able to scale it within a few months by building up a few soft friendships with other boys in the neighborhood and by performing just satisfactory enough in school.
It eventually became clear that I left Hungy back in the adolescence of my Bakersfield life. Maybe having a father figure combined with my maturation into a third grader, Hungy’s spontaneous outbursts of violence and my scolding combined, made it so I didn’t see a hint of Hungy once I moved into my mom’s boyfriend’s apartment on the outskirts of the lower-middle class section of the city. I always left the closet door open in case he showed up and wanted to say hi. He never did.
I stayed in Sacramento through my twenty-ninth birthday. I made it through high school, local college and a soul-sucking corporate job downtown for nearly 10 years before the opportunity to head back to Bakersfield came up.
The perfect job at just the right time landed me just a five minute drive from the house I grew up in in Bakersfield. Being back in the city where so much darkness stirred in my early life was unnerving at first, but I slowly started to ease into it. My life was still wake-shower-work-eat-work-eat-sleep, just in a different location and a different bland one-bedroom apartment.
Nothing got weird until I left Bakersfield for a couple of days.
I bumped into my first post-college girlfriend, Katie, at a bullshitty networking event I was forced to go to on a work trip to L.A. She looked somehow horrified and relieved at the same time to see me. We pulled ourselves off into a quiet corner of the room and caught up over nasty hotel conference room cocktails.
The conversation was pretty stale until Katie asked a question that made zero sense to me.
“So, did you ever actually read my emails, or did you just never respond to them?”
“I sent you them right after we broke up. I wasn’t sure if they crossed the line.”
I still had no idea what she was talking about and then a lightbulb went off in my head.
“What email did you send them to? My Yahoo or my Gmail?”
“Shit, I’m sure I sent them to your Yahoo. That’s what you always used.”
“That was right around when I switched emails. I thought I got all my emails forwarded, but I don’t think it actually worked and I had like no joke over a hundred thousand unread emails in that Yahoo so I just stopped checking them pretty quickly.”
This information made Katie squirm in her seat.
“What were they about?” I asked.
Katie pushed away the remnants of the fifth gin and tonic I had seen her drink since we started talking.
“It’s probably best if you just find them and read them. You still have that Yahoo password?”
I did. Katie declined to really answer any of the 10 follow-up questions I volleyed at her right after that question. She just kept insisting I had to read the emails first, and then we could talk before she started drunkenly talking to some other guy.
I found the emails from Katie buried underneath about a million Groupon and TravelZoo emails. It was three emails sent over the course of one night, in the midnight hour. Reading them buzzed, in the darkness of my hotel room was not the perfect setting to make me feel like someone had stuck a needle in my back and sucked all the fluid out of my spine.
Here is the first email from Katie:
I know you might not ever even open this email given what happened between us, but there is something I need to share/explain. It started as soon as we started dating. I started getting these really weird/scary calls – usually in the middle of the night. I would pick up the phone, the call would be an unknown number. I would answer, worried it was my mom or someone sick back in Phoenix, but then no one would be on the other end. I would just hear heavy breathing. It would go on for as long as I let it. This went on for about a week. I didn’t say anything to you. I didn’t want to freak you out. We had just started dating. I thought it might be a crazy ex or something.
Then it started to get scary. The calls wouldn’t stop. If I didn’t answer, I would get a 10 minute voicemail of breathing. The breathing was better than the talking that came next though. It was just random collections of negative words – bitch, slut, whore, fuck – all disconnected and muttered under the man’s breath. I stopped answering. The police traced the calls to a house in Bakersfield where an elderly couple lived. They swore up and down they weren’t making the calls. Maybe someone found a way to use their line? It went nowhere.
I didn’t tell you, but I think you could tell something was going on with me, or something was up with me. We grew apart for a little bit. It stopped.
But it got worse when it came back. I started to feel like I was being watched, followed around my place. I heard footsteps outside in the hallway of my apartment building all the time. I heard rustling in the bushes outside my bedroom window. I would notice things moved, or missing in my apartment. It seemed to be worse when you were around.
I mentioned it one time when we were at a bar and I thought I saw a man standing outside watching us as we made out, but I think you just thought it was typical girl, paranoid bullshit. I let it go until the day at the gym.
I walked through the dark parking lot of the gym after a workout and saw a giant man standing next to my car. The shadows and a jacket hood covered most of his face. It didn’t seem like he knew English, but he got words out and they were pretty clear. Stay away from you. Don’t talk to you. Get the fuck out of your life…NOW! He walked away once I agreed – disappearing into the darkness.
I listened. Not to insult what we had, but we were already kind of on the rocks and I knew we weren’t going anywhere. I slithered away. I’m sorry, but I just wanted to tell you about it now and hope you are okay.
I was pretty appalled that Katie was having such disturbing things happening to her, connected to me, and she decided to just fucking email me and be done with it. Then the apologies came from Katie.
I’m so sorry I didn’t tell you sooner, or in the right way. I hope you are okay. I really do. I really have loved our time together. I am good with grabbing drinks or dinner and talking about it.
You’re probably wondering why I don’t just call you. Well, in an anger bout, I deleted your number and now don’t have it. I might just stop by sometime. Please don’t be alarmed. Hehehehe.
The calls started again btw. They’re worse than they used to be. It’s just a man yelling over and over again – STAY, FUCK, AWAY, JAY. I told the cops again. I hope you are safe. I won’t bother you with anymore emails. Just wanted you to know.
One word kept repeating in my head over and over and over…Hungy. Had he never left my side all those years? My brain swore to me I hadn’t seen a shred of a sign of him since age seven, but it had to be him who was bothering Katie.
I didn’t bother talking anymore to Katie about the emails. She had already let me down and I figured there wasn’t much more that I could do.
I was more concerned with how Katie’s actions in breaking things off with me right when they were starting to get serious was a trend for every relationship I had ever had. Had Hungy been menacing anyone who ever got close to me without me knowing it? I had almost thought he was visible only to me, just my imaginary friend, but maybe I was wrong? Maybe Hungy was not my little secret?
There I was living by myself down the road from Hungy ground zero. I thought about fleeing back to Sacramento and staying with friends, but I couldn’t afford it. I settled back into my dank apartment at the edge of the city and tried to live without thinking about that thumb-like friend I thought I shook so many years ago.
I couldn’t sleep. I thought about calling up my other ex-girlfriends and asking them if the same thing happened. I sat in my bed thinking about buying a gun or just getting into my car and driving away to nowhere, but I had to go back to work the next day.
The days following were a malaise of insomnia, barely eating, dragging through work and trying to make sense of my life. The fact I had almost no family or close friends to rely on in my life became horribly apparent. I could call my mom, but she had her own problems with the divorce she was going through and likely wouldn’t be able to provide much help. Ironically, the reason why I invented Hungy in the first place was a sore spot when he came back into my life as an adult.
But Hungy had yet to physically appear in my life. I patiently waited for my old friend to show up and hopefully approach me with the gentle protection he had provided when I needed him in the past.
Hungy came in the night just when I was starting to think he might never show. It had been almost a month since I pulled up Katie’s emails and started thinking about him again when I woke up to hear movement coming from my closed closet.
I woke up in the near dark, my eyes locked on the thin wood of the closet which shuddered at the pace of a hurried breath.
“Hungy?” I said, half-asleep.
The door opened slowly. I still couldn’t see anything.
“Hungy?” I asked again.
The door opened all the way. It took me a few seconds to fully realize what I was looking at was Hungy. His once bright pink skin was now a pale gray, his eyes drooping, his body no longer muscular and stout, he was now slouched forward as if his head was too heavy to hold up.
“Why are you still here?”
Hungy looked up at me with glassy eyes for the slightest of moments. Then he slammed the closet door shut.
The sleepless nights had taken a toll on me at that point. Keeping my eyes open was a chore. I wanted to get up from bed, get out of my car and go back to Sacramento, but I was flat out too tired. I fell back asleep.
I felt something was wrong before I even opened my eyes. It was painfully cold even though I fell asleep to a warm September, Bakersfield night.
My eyes stung when I opened them. It felt like shampoo had trickled into them, but that couldn’t have been the case. I quickly discovered the true cause in a few seconds. There was a misty red haze floating at me in the darkness that surrounded me.
I pushed the haze away and saw a site which stung my eyes even more. Around me were cave walls. Tightly-coiled and wrinkled, the walls looked like the layered shell of an oyster. I felt the cold radiate off of the walls.
There didn’t appear to be any kind of exit. The walls went all the way down to the floor with no opening across my 360-degree view. I was trapped in the snow globe of scaly blue walls.
A noise interrupted the escape plan that was forming in my head – Hungy’s powerful, but clumsy voice.
“You forgot me,” Hungy planted the thought in my brain.
I looked around the room for Hungy. No site of him, but another sight began to form in a far corner. I watched a long, thin shape begin to materialize about 30 feet away. It was almost too dark to see, but it’s opaque white skin made it easier to spot.
I watched that opaque object grow, but ball up into a smaller form until it began to look familiar. It started to look like that old thumb I used to know, but much, much smaller and less-imposing – it looked like a baby Hungy. Almost cute.
Baby Hungy looked at me with wet eyes from across the room. We locked eyes for a moment and then he ran to me.
I started to backpedal. I didn’t want that thing anywhere near me, but I had nowhere to go. Baby Hungy got to me in just a few moments. I closed my eyes and pushed my back into the spongy wall.
I large drop of moisture fell on my nose and forced my eyes open. I looked up and saw the horribly-aged Hungy staring down at me with the biggest tears I have ever seen in my life dripping from his eyes. His jaw wobbled and he gave me the kind of remorseful, shamed look a dog gives after you discover he got into the trash while you were away.
“I’m sorry,” I pleaded as Hungy stuck his face as close to mine as possible to the point where I could smell what I thought was pink bubble gum on this breath.
Hungy didn’t speak, he just looked at me until I could pick up what he was saying without words. I created him and abandoned him. I was my own version of my mostly-deadbeat dad, it hurt him and now he was a broken piece of imagination stumbling around this drab room and only sneaking out when he could.
“I’m sorry. I did what I had to do. You were hurting people.”
Hungy’s face took on a look of confusion. I don’t think he even really knew what hurt, or pain, meant or felt.
“What you’re feeling now…you did that to people, with your actions,” I explained.
Hungy shook his head.
“But you did,” I started in again.
“I helped,” Hungy finally spoke and cut me off.
I shook my head.
“I know you tried, but you gotta let me go. I’m sorry, but I can’t do this.”
I looked around the room.
“Where are we?” I asked.
Hungy stuck out his big gorilla pointer finger and slowly reached it toward me until it connected with my forehead. It rested there hard for a few moments and the room started to dim into complete darkness.
“I’m always here,” Hungy muttered once everything went completely dark.
I woke up in my bed. The cliche would be to ask myself if “it was all a dream,” but that was not the case. That was not a dream. Hungy had somehow pulled me into my own head where he lived and breath all alone every goddamn day. I felt for him, but I couldn’t take it. I got up in the cold of the dark morning and walked over to the closet. I slammed it shut and then went back to bed.
Hungy went into hiding again after that night. Bakersfield became fruitful. Promotion. Girlfriend. Promotion. Fiancé. New Job and raise. Wife. Move to beautiful Monterey for an even better job with my wife to be closer to her family. Bliss. Not quite.
I myself was pretty shocked with what a normal life I was able to carve out despite the odds stacked against me as the son of a dead biker and a borderline unemployable woman who never fought through the trauma that haunted her own childhood. Married with a good job and a nice house and a kid on the way with a beautiful woman, pretty fantastic for a dirty boy from Bakersfield who grew up in an apartment with mice in the walls and roaches in the kitchen.
But nothing could ever be perfect for me. My mom’s psyche reached an all-time low shortly after I found out my wife was pregnant. She separated from her third husband. She quit her job and stayed in her apartment all day, every day, barely speaking, eating or doing anything but taking pills and letting her retirement savings dwindle as she struggled to pay rent each month.
My wife was due to give birth in just a few weeks when I trekked up to Sacramento to take care of my mom. My mom left me a message on my phone in the middle of the night the night before, barely able to get a single word out. I had a friend check in on her to make sure she was alive. She was, but I still needed to go up there and try to give her sanity some C.P.R.
My mom’s apartment was a nightmare. I could barely get in through the front door, it was so cluttered with junk. I almost fell apart once I got in and saw her sleeping on her filthy couch, surrounded by useless garbage and junk food wrappers.
I went to my mom to wake up her. Gave her a quick shake. She stirred and looked at me with dead eyes.
“Why’d you let this happen?” The word dribbled out of my mom’s cracked lips.
My mom reached out to me and caught my nose with her hand for a second. I got a flash of a deep blue room clouded with that same painful haze I remembered from that night with Hungy. Then it was gone. I was back in her living room with the smell of cat litter and ammonia stinging my nose.
“You let him in,” my mom mumbled.
A realization washed over me. Hungy may have jumped from my head, into my mom’s after I faced him that day back in Bakersfield. He may have gone up the road to her vulnerable brain and started to weaken her even more.
I looked down at my mom and saw someone so weak and battered that they might not make it through the week. I knew I had to do something, and I had an idea of what.
I put my hand on my mom’s head and closed my eyes. I waited for a few seconds and felt the room rise in temperature ever so slowly until I felt like I was in a low-roasting oven.
I opened my eyes and saw that same room I saw on the night with Hungy, but instead of a cool blue, it was hot red and it was far more chaotic. While my room was just me in an empty space at first, I laid eyes upon what looked to be about 50 people, and even some pets, packing the space.
The faces of the people I saw were familiar. They were all people I had known in some way or another in my life – grandparents, old family friends, a couple cousins, aunts and uncles, former mom boyfriends. These were the ghosts of my mom’s mind.
The entire room seemed to sting. I felt my skin burn like I was laying out on a beach right along the equator. My eyes watered. They were hard to keep open as I searched for two people – my mom, and Hungy.
No one in the space seemed to notice me. They were either pacing around aimlessly, or locked into deep conversations with each other. Another constant was neither my mom, or Hungy, were anywhere to be seen.
But they were there. I found that out when I felt myself get lifted off my feet by the back of my neck. I kicked and screamed as I rose into the air and shot a look down to see the disheveled Hungy using the last of his strength to raise me up the way he did my little friend Bryan all those years ago.
The one good thing my new vantage point provided was a better view of the scene, which led to me spotting my mom in the far corner of the room, lying on her side and crying. The image stung me even more than Hungy’s hands pinching the back of my neck as he ascended me into the sky of my mom’s scalded mind.
“MOM!” I screamed out.
I caught my mom’s attention, she got her head up off the ground and looked at me with tired eyes just as I felt my body rise to its highest point. I squirmed to free myself, felt my torso bend back one of Hungy’s thick fingers and then felt Hungy start to lose control of me.
I came down on the soft ground right next to Hungy. I looked over at him, a stubby, gray tongue hung out of his open mouth, his formerly bright eyes were still and dead.
I myself felt crippled. All I could do was stare into Hungy’s dying eyes. I knew the look of passing on having accompanied three beloved dogs on trips to the vet for their final shots. I watched the life drain from Hungy’s eyes.
Hungy didn’t speak. He told me his story again with his mind. He didn’t want to do what he did, but he had to live somewhere and that somewhere was my mom’s head after I kicked him out of mine.
But Hungy grew tired and aged once he found his way to my mom. The fear, anxiety, and chaos that was always swirling around her mind quickly wore him out. He made one last squeeze on my mom’s psyche to lure me to her apartment so he could try to get back into my mind. It didn’t work. Instead, my presence in my mom’s mind was the strength she needed to finally extinguish him.
Hungy was gone. All the other figures of my mom’s life stayed in the space.. I ran over to my mom. I hugged her on the ground and shut my eyes tight.
The scent of dried-out cat shit greeted me when I came back to my mom’s apartment. Never thought I would be relieved to waft in that putrid smell. The first thing I saw were my mom’s eyes fluttering with life for the first time in years.
It has been a long time now with no Hungy, but he’s always a fear that remains. Not necessarily Hungy specifically, but the idea of an imaginary friend.
You see, something troublesome happened after I got my mom back on the right track. I helped her move into a new/clean apartment and ended up taking home some of her boxes in my truck.
In the box was a journal that spanned from my mom’s childhood until just recently. I skimmed through it until I found talk about someone named “Yukon.” Turns out my mom had her own imaginary friend who was a lot like Hungy. Turns out Yukon didn’t take being phased out of my mom’s mind well either and lingered until my mom became pregnant with me.
Now the thought of passing on a volatile imaginary friend to my son never leaves my mind. Maybe he’s safe since he was grown in my wife’s womb? Either way, I can’t shake that dreaded thought whenever I look into my young son’s eyes.
I guess I’ll have to wait and see.