Big thanks to the publisher for having me as part of the blog tour for You Can Go Your Own Way by Eric Smith!
|Pub Date: 11-2-21|
YA - Contemporary
With so much going on in his life, the pinball arcade is the only place where Adam Stillwater can feel at peace. It's also the only thing left he has to remember his dad by, and he'll do whatever it takes to stop Philadelphia's newest tech mogul from turning it into a lifeless gaming café. Whitney Mitchell's life is going downhill. Her parents split up, her boyfriend dumped her, and now she has to spend her senior year running the social media for her father's chain of gaming café's-- which mainly just means she's throwing insults back and forth with the decrepit pinball arcade across town. When a massive snowstorm hits stranding Adam and Whitney together, the tension between them begins to melt, leaving something else in its place. But what happens when the storm stops?
This sounds like a cute contemporary that'll be perfect to add to any winter TBR's. You can check out an excerpt below!
“The playfield is truly the heart of every pinball machine. All of the player’s goals are right there, splayed out in front of them. And like life, it’s up to you to find a way to reach them, with the tools you’re presented. In this case, it’s a ball.”—THE ART AND ZEN OF PINBALL REPAIR BY JAMES WATTS
The sound of collective screaming and a massive crash shake my entire workshop, and I almost stab myself with a piping-hot soldering iron.
“Adam!” my mom yells from inside the arcade. If another pack of junior high kids from the nearby Hillman Academy “accidentally” flip over a machine trying to get it to tilt, I am going to lose it. I grip the iron, the cracked brown leather wrapped around the metal handle squeaking a little against my skin, and shake my head, trying to refocus. Maybe I can finish this before it’s time to pick up that custom piece—
And another crash rattles the walls. A few parts tumble off my shelves, tiny intricate pieces of metal and glass, bits of copper wire, all clinking against my table.
I attempt to catch a few of the electronic pieces, trying not to burn myself with the iron in my other hand, and then a hammer falls off the perforated wall of tools in front of me. It collides with a small cardboard box full of pinball playfield lightbulbs, and I wince at the small crack and pop sounds.
“Goddammit,” I grumble out. I toss the soldering iron aside and try to clean up the mess. At least those lightbulbs are like, ten bucks a dozen on arcade wholesale websites. But pinball machines have a lot of lights.
“Adam!” This time it’s Chris. “Dude, where are you?”
I’m about to bolt from the workshop when I remember Mom is out there. I reach for the latest read I promised her I’d finish—We Built This Gritty by Kevin Michaels, a book on launching small businesses by an entrepreneur here in Philly that one of her colleagues is teaching at the county college—and immediately yank my hand back. The soldering iron had gone right in between the pages when I tossed it, and the book is already smoking. I pull the iron out and set it aside and flap the book around wildly, little wisps pooling up from inside the bright orange book. I flip it open.
It’s burnt right down the middle. Great. Something tells me she won’t be able to trade this back in at the campus store.
I glance over at The Beast and give the forever-in-progress Philadelphia-themed home-brewed pinball machine a pat, the glass still off the surface, wires and various parts splayed out over the playfield. My well-worn copy of The Art and Zen of Pinball Repair by James Watts sits smack in the middle of everything. I’ve still got a way to go before I can try playing Dad’s unfinished machine again, but if anyone is gonna get me there, it’s Watts. If I could just get a free chunk of time in between the studying and the arcade and the—
An array of swears echoes from inside the arcade, snapping me back.
Right. Chris. Mom. Chaos. Potentially broken and nearly irreplaceable machines worth thousands of dollars.
I unplug the soldering iron and place it in its little stand, like a quill pen in an inkwell. I wedge the now-toasty book under my arm and take a few steps to pick up some speed, to get a little force, and I push my shoulder against the dark red wooden workshop door. I push, gritting my teeth. The splintering surface presses into my arm, stinging with the pressure, until finally, the wood squeals against the frame, shrunken in and wedged together due to the sharp Philadelphia winter.
The whole workshop is like that, really, casting a major contrast to the polished, well-kept-despite-its-years pinball arcade. The cracked workshop table that is way more rickety than it has any right to be, tools showing their age with hinges that refuse to move and metal pieces falling off shrinking wood and weak plastic handles, vintage pinball parts that maybe still work, a concrete floor with a surface that’s chipping away, revealing dirt and dust, lightbulbs I don’t even remotely trust. My sad excuse for a drafting table sits off to the end of the workshop, and I’ve never really used it, preferring to fuss with plans right on the messy workshop table, next to all of Dad’s scribbles.
We could clean it up, have this room match the rest of the arcade. But I love it. It reminds me of him.
The door swings open suddenly and hits the wall inside the arcade with a loud bang.
And it is absolute chaos here.
A bunch of little kids are rushing outside, and I see a couple of adults gathering coats and their small children, who are likely about to join the exodus. The afternoon light that’s pouring in from the wide-open front door and the large plate-glass windows lining the wall make me wince. The glare hurts only slightly less than the idea of customers hustling out of here on a Saturday, easily our best, and only, solid day during the wintertime off-season. Especially now, at the end of the year, with so few days left before we close for the New Year holiday.
People don’t come to pinball arcades in the winter. Well. Maybe they do, but not when your arcade is located near all the tourist stuff in Old City, all the college students are away on break, and you don’t serve any alcohol. No tourists, no college kids, no booze, no pinball. It’s a neighborhood for expensive restaurants and niche boutiques, old-timey candy shops and artisan pour-over coffee. Not an arcade with a poor excuse for a snack bar inside that mostly serves soda, chips, and reheated chicken tenders and fries.
If it wasn’t for the upcoming Old City Winter Festival, I’m not sure we’d be able to keep the lights on come January. And there’s a businessman out in West Philadelphia who would very much like to see that happen, and there’s no way I’m going to let him do that. I’ve eaten way too many burnt chicken tenders that were “well, these are still kinda good, Adam” according to my mom, but not good enough for the customers. I’ve paid my dues.
“Mom!” I shout, looking to the back of the arcade. “Chris, what is—”
But then I see it.
On the other side of the arcade, my mom has her hands on her hips and is glaring intently at a handful of college guys who are sheepishly milling about near one of the windows. And Chris is trying to lift up a machine that’s currently knocked over, the glass that would normally be covering the playfield shattered across the floor. Another machine is tilted, leaning against a support beam, and looks okay from here. But judging by the angle and the amount of force it would have taken to get it off the legs in the first place, I’m betting we’re going to have some dents on the light box (the back of the machine that juts up over the area where you actually play, and displays the score and art).
“What the hell?” I snap, kicking the workshop door closed and storming across the arcade. My thick black boots squeak loud against the worn, polished hardwood floor, all the imperfections of the ancient Philadelphia wooden boards permanently glossed in place. A few more guys, these ones my age, weave around me, fiddling on their phones and oblivious. Bits of glass crunch under my feet, and I glance down at a bumper, red and black and looking like one of those crushed lantern fly bugs that litter the city sidewalks.
“What happened?” I ask, tossing my burnt book onto the floor. I nudge the tilted machine upright and then bend down to help Chris, who is straining to move the machine on the floor. I manage to wedge my fingers under the side, carefully tapping the metal, trying to avoid any extra glass, and lift. Chris lets out a groan and I grit my teeth as we push the machine upright, and it nearly topples back over the other way, but Mom reaches out and stops it.
“They happened.” Mom nods back at the guys who are standing about awkwardly. “Any updates there?” She points at one of them, and that’s when I realize they’re all sort of keeping an eye on one vaguely familiar-looking dude in the middle, who is fussing with his phone.
“Just a second,” he grumbles out, and he flicks his head to the side, his emo black bangs moving out of his eyes. I can’t help but squint at him, trying to place his face. Half his head is shaved, and he has this sort of Fall Out Boy look that would be cool, if he and his pals hadn’t clearly destroyed a pinball machine in my family’s arcade. A splash of anxiety hits me in the chest as I realize I don’t know what game has been totaled, and I turn to look at the machine.
I exhale, relieved that it’s not one of the more popular or rare games in the arcade. But still, it’s a machine from the ’80s. One of the first games in the industry to use the popular Squawk & Talk soundboard, a piece of technology that is wildly expensive to replace, since it isn’t made anymore. That’s the sort of pinball trivia both Chris and my mom tend to shush when I start rambling too much, telling me “that should be a tweet,” which translates to “shut up” in the nicest way possible. I’m almost positive that’s the reason they pushed me to get the arcade on social media—to have a place to share those musings.
The machine didn’t deserve this, even if that awful movie maybe did.
I run my hand along the side of the other machine that was just bumped into, leaning on one of the wooden beams that are scattered throughout the arcade, you know, holding the building up. It’s the Terminator 2: Judgment Day machine, and thankfully, it looks undamaged. A little dented along the light box, as I suspected, but the glass and everything else seems fine. It’s a popular one with the Millennial crowd, and I’m relieved.
“How much is it going to cost to fix?” the familiar guy with the hair asks. He must catch me staring at him, ’cause his eyes flit over to mine, irritated, and I look away, focusing back on the machine.
I pluck at some of the glass on the surface, nudging around some of the broken obstacles on the playfield, and feel a sharp sting in my hand. I quickly pull away and spot a thin line of red trailing along my palm.
I glance up, and my mom, Chris, and Emo Hair are all staring at me expectantly.
“What?” I ask, focusing back down at the machine and then back at all of them.
“The cost,” my mom presses. “That machine. How much do you think it’ll cost to fix all of this?” She gestures at the floor and shakes her head, her mouth a thin line. All that brewing frustration that she’s trying to bury down. Kids mess with the machines often, and we’ve certainly had a few hiccups like this before, but I’ve never seen her looking this wildly angry. I didn’t even think she liked that machine.
“Oh.” I swallow and clear my throat. “I don’t know. It depends on how bad the damage is?” I scan the playfield and then the side of the machine, which has a sizable dent in the steel that I can probably hammer out. But the shattered glass, the pieces, and who knows what’s going on inside it. I think back to Watts’s The Art and Zen of Pinball Repair, my holy tome, written by my hero.
“If you think it’s broken, it is. And if you think it’s going to be cheap to replace, it’s not.”
I stare at the broken glass.
“You know what, how’s a thousand dollars?” the familiar guy holding the phone asks. He looks around at his dude friends, their faces awash in expressions that are essentially shrugs, each nodding at him. “Everyone Venmo me two hundred after this or I’ll kick your asses.”
Some of the guys laugh while the rest break out their phones.
“Why?” scoffs one of them. “You’re the one with the money.”
Emo Hair snorts out a laugh and shakes his head, and glances back up from his screen. The fact that all of them are so relaxed about that much money irks me. The arcade is barely scraping by these days, and it’s no wonder other businesses have been sniffing around the building this year, leaving painfully awkward notes and emails for Mom. I’ve seen a few of them, here and there. The worst ones come under the guise of pretending to be supportive. Do you need anything? We’re here for you. Just checking in. And then in the same breath, bringing up property values and plummeting interest in arcades.
And despite frequent requests to stop mailing us, a local real estate developer loves sending us physical mail about the benefits of selling real estate in Old City now, and they’re always addressed to Dad. Assholes.
“What’s your Venmo?” he asks, looking at my mom and then at me. My mom and I exchange a look. He huffs. “How about PayPal? Apple Pay?”
“I mean…we could take a check?” My mom shrugs, wincing. One of the bros groans like this has somehow physically wounded him, and before I can say anything, my mom snaps a finger at the guy. “Hey, you five are the ones who broke this machine. If I want you to go get that thousand dollars in a burlap sack full of coins at the bank down the road, you’ll get it.”
“Sorry, ma’am,” one of them mutters.
“Just Venmo it to me,” Chris says, pulling out his phone. “I’ll hit the bank when I run out to pick up sidewalk salt for the snow, and get it taken care of, Mrs. Stillwater.” He glances at my mom and shakes his head at me. I know that look. He’s about to force another freaking app on me, and I don’t think I’ll be able to talk about pinball on Venmo. It was bad enough when he tricked me into joining Pinterest, convincing me it was a pinball thing.
He steps over to the pack of guys, and they’re all looking at one another and their phones and his, and I really shouldn’t be surprised that he knows how to handle this. Him and his apps. I wish he’d just run the social media for the arcade, but he says it wouldn’t sound “genuine” or something. If typos make someone sound genuine, I am very genuine.
A year behind me at Central, a junior, Chris has this whole Adam Driver look about him. Same sharp cheekbones and bits of facial hair, only a little shorter and with thin square glasses, and as geeky as you can get without actually being in a Star Wars movie. My best friend since I was eight, and our only employee in the off-season, as everyone is either a college student heading home for the break or a fellow local high schooler who has no interest in working over the winter.
He nods at the guys, looking at his phone.
“All right, I got it,” he says and then turns to us. The bros stand there for a beat.
“You can leave,” my mom snaps and points toward the door.
“Right, right,” the familiar guy says and gestures for the rest of his pack to follow. They amble out of the shop, their feet crunching the glass on the floor in a way that makes me feel like it’s on purpose. I take a step forward, but Chris reaches his arm out, his hand pressing against my chest.
I glance up at him, and he just shakes his head.
I huff and bend down to sift through the glass and pieces of machine, while my mom disappears into the back office. There are some bumpers on the ground, and a few small white flags, little targets meant to be knocked down for bonus plays, are scattered about like baby teeth. The glass, though, that really bothers me. A good sheet of playfield glass can go for a little over a hundred dollars, and while I know that’s not technically a lot of money in the grand scheme of things…we don’t have that much to spare these days.
Jorge over at NextFab, the makerspace that Chris practically lives in when he isn’t here, has been great at helping me replace some parts, as well as teaching me how to build some of my own, which is way more helpful than YouTube tutorials. But a whole sheet of glass? Bumpers with intricate circuitry and copper coils? That’s not something easily 3D printed, especially when he keeps doing it for free. And I don’t know how much of that I can manage in my workshop. Or afford, for that matter.
I look around the dirty playfield for the remaining flags but…dammit, they are nowhere to be found. At least the back glass, the lit-up artwork on the back of the machine, isn’t damaged. Flash is still there, looking dead ahead at me, alongside Dale and the…ugh, wildly racist Ming the Merciless.
Maybe the machine did deserve this.
Chris squats down next to me.
“Want me to grab the broom?” he asks, picking at a broken bumper.
I look back to my hand. The line in my palm is ugly but clean. I flex my hand a little, and the cut widens, and I see just how far up and down my hand it goes. I wonder if I’ll need stitches or if it’ll scar.
“Sure.” I clear my throat and both of us stand up. I glance toward the arcade’s exit, the place now empty, as Chris walks over to the snack bar. “Must be nice,” I say, “being able to drop that much money without thinking about it.”
“Yeah, well, not like his dad isn’t good for it.”
“His dad?” I ask, peering over. Chris is behind the bar, some paper towels already scattered out in front of him, a broom in one hand. Heat lamps keeping fries and onion rings warm tint his face a reddish orange for a moment before he ducks back out.
“Well, yeah?” He shrugs, walking over. He places the paper towels in my hands and nods at the cut. “Apply pressure.” He starts sweeping, moving bits of glass and broken parts into a small pile. “I swear, one more incident like this, and that is what’s gonna make me finally try to get a job at the makerspace. Or a coffee shop…” He looks up at me as I stare at him. “What? You know I can’t work in here forever, bro.”
“What do you mean what? I know that part.” I laugh. “Who is his dad? You’re just gonna leave the story hanging there?”
He nearly drops the broom but reaches out to grab the handle.
“Are you serious?” he scoffs. I shrug and he shakes his head. “Adam, that was Nick. That’s why I thought you were so mad, looking like you were about to charge after him and his goons.” I shrug again. “Jesus, Adam. Nick Mitchell.”
The stress on that last name.
It sends a shock through my entire system, and I turn to look at the exit, as though he and his friends might still be there. I tighten my hand into a fist, and the pain from the cut sears through my palm, lighting me up through my forearm. And I swear, for a moment I can feel it in my head, bouncing around like a pinball against bumpers.
Whitney Mitchell’s brother.
And also the oldest son of the man trying to buy my father’s arcade from my mother, with plans to make it into another one of his eSports cafés. He’s been poking around all year, like a vulture circling over something that might just die any minute. But this place still has a little life in it. A little fight in it.
And dammit, so do I.
You can find more info about the book here!