The Pop-A-Shot: a staple at carnivals, great for oversized indoor recreation rooms, hours of fun at CostCo while you wait for your parents or significant other to finish shopping.
In my house it was something different. For the sake of the story, I’m going to stick to one specific event because it’s still so vivid in my mind, I could retell it for years to come.
In the interest of getting the full shock value, let me refresh your memory on how this particular game works. Two balls, two hoops. You can play alone or in pairs. The game is electronic (yes, I said electronic, so let your mind wander) and it operates on a plug.
When plugged in and turned on, the machine is silent, no lights showing until the first ball slips through the hoop. As soon as the first ball slips through the hoop, the buzzer sounds long and loud, signaling the game has begun, and the clock starts ticking as you shoot. For every basket, the scoreboard registers your score. When time is up, an ending buzzer sounds, and the one with the most points wins.
Sounds delightful, right? The kids love the game. The adults played it often. Only downfall, it was so big we had to keep it in the basement. To the outside world, our basement was an oasis. It was fully finished and furnished with a small movie room, wine room and in-law arrangement complete with microwave, fridge and sink. Storage, workout/office space and a pool table, what more could you want?
If you could get past the feeling of always being watched, chills that ran up your back and made your neck tight, hands touching your shoulder only to turn around and no one was there, and doors slamming on their own, you were good.
I earned an Academy Award in smiling while trying not to scream for ten years in a row pretending the basement didn’t bother me at all. I didn’t want my children to be afraid. It was the perfect space for the kids to play, watch TV, or adults to unwind at the bar with a drink. Hell, we even had a party or two down there.
My husband took many naps in the downstairs bedroom as it was very quiet and much cooler than it was in the rest of the house. He also would never readily admit the house was haunted, not to me anyway. Why? I don’t know, because he had experiences in that house since day one. None the less, we all had our roles to play, and our blinders positioned just so. The basement was his personal getaway space, until the fateful day.
Picture the scene: 11 p.m.-ish, my young teen son is up in his room with the door shut, and my three girls are sleeping in my bed because they always said their rooms were haunted.
“Ha,” I told them, “there’s no one here but us, but you can sleep in here with me for tonight if you like.” I pretty much said that every day for ten years. If if they didn’t know for a fact the energy in the house was different, they sure sensed it.
I’m in bed watching television, the toddler is asleep in her princess bed next to mine, and the two girls are out cold in the middle, arms and legs wrapped around each other.
My husband was finishing watching some crime show in the basement and dozing off. He must have been getting sufficiently sleepy, because around 11:15 or so I heard the television in the basement go off. I followed suit and my television went off too.
The house was silent save my four dogs at the bottom of the bed snoring gently. Okay, I had two bulldogs, so not so gently. (We’ll talk about the crowd in my bed some other time.)
Silence, my favorite time of the day when I could take a deep breath and be alone with my thoughts, nothing expected of me. A good book or a good movie, the choice was mine and I didn’t have to share it with anyone.
I was particularly tired this night, so I took a sip of my water, and snuggled under the covers shoving the dead weight of my children to the other side of the bed so I didn’t sweat to death during the night.
The pillow was cool against my skin, the chenille blanket soft on my cheeks. Peace.
The starting buzzer of the Pop-A-Shot echoes through the house causing me to sit straight up in my bed, eyes as wide as hard boiled eggs. TIC-TIC-TIC. The timer starts running down. I slip out of bed and peek my head into the hallway to find the faint red glow of the scoreboard staining the white walls of the hallway leading downstairs an eerie crimson.
A pounding on the floor makes my stomach pinch, but I soon learn the thunder isn’t otherworldly, it’s my six-foot four husband taking the basement stairs two at a time to get out of the basement.
“What are you doing?” I ask, still standing in my bedroom doorway a good distance away from the basement stairs.
“Nothing,” he says panting, doing his best to act casual.
“Were you playing basketball?” I ask.
He looks at me, his eyes opening a little wider, and he knows what I’m really asking.
“I was asleep,” he says laughing, the look on his pale face closer to hysteria than humor.
“And it just started playing by itself?” I ask
He pauses, not really sure of his answer, searching his brain for some logical explanation as to why, no how, the game turned on by itself.
The ticking stops, pause, and the final buzzer rings long and loud in the quiet of the house. My husband and I look at each other searching for words. The red on the walls goes dark.
“I wonder who won,” I say. We both laugh, but it’s the jittery nervous kind when you can feel your pulse on the back of your tongue.
My daughter hears the commotion and steps out into the hallway to ask what’s going on. We assure her it’s nothing, and she shuffles back into my bed. My husband stands taller, and suggests I go downstairs and unplug the game. My response is colorful, and I’m grateful my daughter walked away before I replied.
We unplug the machine together without incident, the scoreboard reading 2-0 before all the lights go dark.
The game sat dormant for a long time before anyone played it again. But sure as can be, from that moment forward, the bedtime question of “honey, did you lock up the house?” was always, and I mean always, followed by, “is the pop-a-shot unplugged?”
Stay tuned for more next time about seeing and hearing things I can’t explain.