Childhood, No Return

By: Benjamin Conlon

Childhood.jpg

On the night before his eleventh birthday, Noah lies awake. It's not because he's worried or anxious or afraid. 

He's excited. 

 And why not? There's a lot to be excited about. A map tacked to the wall above his bed details the possible locations of Blackbeard's treasure. Baseball cards line the windowsills, and glow-in-the-dark stars dot the ceiling. Shelves display collections of coins, fossils, and arrowheads. A poster on the back of the door lists all the boats lost to the Bermuda Triangle. There's a desk with drawers for graphic novels and magic tricks. On top, a model airplane is halfway completed.

There is so much to wonder about, so much to do. The baseball cards have to be organized. The plane must be finished. And he still needs to practice a magic trick before showing it to his grandfather. What's more, he just learned about a mysterious place called Oak Island, and that's given him a great deal to think about. When he finally dozes off, Noah dreams of playing for the Yankees…

 The next day brings more excitement. An eleventh birthday happens once in a lifetime, and he doesn't intend to waste it. He rushes downstairs. His mother, father, and younger brother Aidan are in the kitchen. 

“Happy Birthday!” they shout. Pancakes and waffles are piled high on the table. There are chocolate chips, syrup, and whipped cream. The breakfast is a special birthday treat, and he’s been looking forward to it for a long time. 

“Thanks!” he says, and the feast begins with gusto.

When their bellies are full, Noah and Aidan head outside. It’s a beautiful spring day, and they’ve nailed some planks to the lowest branches of a pine tree in the back yard. It’s not much of a fort, but they have big plans. Aidan is only eight, but Noah doesn’t mind hanging out with him. The boys spend the morning putting up a few more boards and take turns guessing why pine trees have so much sap. The guesses become increasingly outrageous.

After lunch, they head up to Noah’s room, and Aidan helps him add the second wing to his model airplane. It’s easier when one person holds and the other glues. Aidan gets his fingers stuck together, and they think that’s pretty funny. It’s not long before the doorbell rings. Noah’s grandparents and Uncle Mike are here for the birthday party!

Everyone heads to the living room. Noah eagerly recounts his latest adventures and projects and discoveries to the relatives. He stops mid sentence when he remembers the magic trick he’s been working on.

“Wait here, everybody,” he shouts. “I’ll be right back.”

He bounds up the stairs and returns with a top hat and deck of cards. With Aidan acting as his assistant, he demonstrates the newest illusion. The audience is impressed. They should be. Noah has been practicing for hours. He’s given the trick his undivided attention.

They all sit down for a spaghetti dinner. Afterwards, the lights dim and the cake comes out. Noah’s eyes are wide. He tries to blow out all eleven candles, but one of them keeps relighting. He tries again. No luck. Aidan laughs hysterically at his side. Finally, his father wets his fingertips and extinguishes the trick candle. 

The family settles back in the living room.

“How about the music?” Noah asks.

“Yes,” Aidan says. “What about the dancing?”

Their father rolls his eyes. “Still? You still want to do that?”

They nod.

“Alright,” he says, “I'll go get the player.” He gets up and leaves the room, secretly happy that his sons want to keep this particular tradition alive. 

“You going to sing, Grandma?” Noah asks.

“Sure am.”

His father returns with an ancient-looking record player and a single record, Disney Sing-along Favorites. Both are decades old, purchased at a yard sale years earlier. They were meant to be Yankee Swap gifts but never made it out of the house.

Noah’s dad plugs in the machine, and it spins to life. The family sings and dances to songs from Snow White, Mary Poppins, and The Jungle Book. Laughter fills the room. Noah takes it all in, absorbs everything. At last the record reaches its final track. It’s a slower song, and Noah’s can’t place it.

“What’s this one again?” he asks. “I can’t remember.”

“It’s called Toyland,” his grandfather replies. “It’s an old one.”

“Maybe we should stop for the night,” his mom says. “Someone still has to open a few presents.” 

Noah’s eyes widen again. He’d almost forgotten about the presents.  His father unplugs the record player and puts it away for another year. Noah sits down on the rug next to a pile of gifts. 

“Wow,” he says. “Which one should I open first?”

“Mine,” Aidan suggests. “Open mine.”

Noah takes the package from his bother and tears off the wrapping. It’s a pack of baseball cards. “Oh great!” he says. “Thanks, Aidan.”

Next, there’s a new glove from his mom and dad and a fingerprinting kit from his grandparents. Only Uncle Mike’s present remains. It’s a small rectangular box. Noah pulls off the paper.

“Whoa,” he whispers.

“Mike,” his mother says. “That’s too expensive.” There’s just a touch of apprehension in her voice. Her husband nods in agreement.

“Oh, don’t worry about that,” Mike says. “It’s just my old one. See? The box is open. The real gift is that I threw Noah on my family plan. I’ll foot the bill for a while.”

“That’s very generous. But isn’t he a little young—”

“Not at all,” Mike says. “Don’t you want to be able to get in touch with him?”

“I guess…” 

“Thanks, Uncle Mike,” Noah says. He stares down at the white box on the carpet. iPhone 7. He can’t believe it. His parents both have smartphones, so do a lot of kids at school. He’s pretty excited. He barely notices when his grandparents get up to leave. 

“Bye, Noah,” they say. “Happy Birthday.”

“Noah,” his mother says. “Your grandparents are leaving.”

“Oh,” he says absentmindedly, “Bye.”

“Bye, Noah,” his uncle says. “Enjoy.”

___ 

A year later, on the morning of his twelfth birthday, Noah’s room looks very much the same. The boy under the covers looks similar too, and yet, there’s something different. He’s been awake for quite a while now, but hasn’t gotten out of bed. The room is dim, but Noah’s face is illuminated. The iPhone in his right hand is open to YouTube, and he’s watching a video exposing the secrets behind David Blaine’s magic tricks. They all seem so simple now. It’s hard to believe he used to think this magic stuff was cool. 

The model airplane on his desk is still unfinished, and the baseball cards are in the same order as last year. He never got around to organizing them.

That’s not to say he hasn’t been busy. Soon after his eleventh birthday, Noah downloaded his first social media app. His parents were wary of Facebook. They had used that platform themselves, and some of the content didn’t seem appropriate for an eleven-year-old. Instead, Noah got Instagram. “That one’s only for pictures,” he said. A few weeks later he downloaded Snapchat, just to “stay connected” to the kids at school. Everyone has Instagram and Snapchat. Noah has been working hard to build up his followers. In just under a year, he’s taken nearly four thousand pictures. Many have been posted. 

When the Youtube video is over, he hears his mother calling him down for breakfast. 

“Be right there,” he shouts.

Noah considers posting a birthday selfie, but after taking one, notices the Bermuda Triangle poster in the background and reconsiders. Probably best not to let people see that. No one posts about that kind of thing. Noah remembers looking up the Bermuda Triangle right after receiving his phone. Turns out all those disappearing ships just ran into rocks. Not so mysterious after all. He shakes his head, again wondering why he ever thought something like that was cool.

He goes downstairs and just like last year, the table is covered with pancakes and waffles. 

“Happy birthday!” his family shouts. 

Noah is about to say “Thanks,” but at that very moment, his phone buzzes. It’s someone from school wishing him a happy birthday on a group text. The others chime in. He sends back a smiling emoji and sits down for breakfast. He takes a plate stacked with pancakes and is about to start eating when he thinks of a better idea.

He opens his phone and records himself drizzling syrup onto the pile. It doesn’t come out quite right the first time, so he gets some new pancakes and tries again. That’s better. He sends it out to the group. Aidan asks Noah what he wants to do on his birthday, but the phone keeps buzzing, so it takes him a while to answer.

They decide to go outside, just like last year. Aidan wants to work on the fort but Noah’s not particularly interested. He posted a picture of the fort early last year, and it didn’t get much attention. That’s when he realized he was too old for forts. Nevertheless, he agrees to go down to the pine trees and hang out with his brother for a while. Except, it’s not quite the same. The phone keeps buzzing, and Noah keeps looking at it. Aidan thinks back to last year and remembers how much fun they had trying to guess why pine trees have so much sap. This year, Noah Googles the answer. It’s better that way. Now the boys don’t have to wonder anymore.

When Noah’s grandparents arrive with Uncle Mike, the first thing they ask for is a magic trick. Instead, Noah shows them the video explaining David Blaine’s act. He’s able to send it right from his phone to the television. Then he shows off some other videos he’s been enjoying. A lot of them show people falling off bikes or tumbling down ski slopes. A few have some questionable language.

“Do you think you should be watching this kind of stuff?” Noah’s grandfather asks.

“Oh sure,” Noah says. “It’s funny.” He barely notices the bad language anymore. Besides, he’s heard worse. Before he goes to bed each night, Noah puts on his headphones and watches whatever he wants. His mom set up an account for him with strict parental controls, but Noah somehow forgot the password. He made a new account instead. No parental controls. He’s been meaning to tell his mom.

Noah records Aidan bringing out the cake after dinner. The trick candles are okay, but Instagram allows him to add all kinds of digital fireworks and explosions to the video. He’s so concerned with getting it online that he barely remembers blowing out the candles. That’s okay. He has the edited video. It’s even better than the real thing.

After dinner, the family retires to the living room. Noah doesn’t bring up singing and dancing this year, but Aidan is still interested. Their father gets out the old record player, but before he can fire it up, music starts playing from somewhere else.

“We don’t need that anymore, Dad,” Noah says. “I can send music to the television from my phone!”

 The songs are newer, and his grandparents don’t know the words. There are advertisements after each one, and the living room doesn’t have quite the same feel, but the sound quality is perfect. Noah’s mom is alarmed by some of the advertisements that seem to be directed towards Noah, but maybe that’s how these streaming systems work. It’s just the cost of free music.

Noah doesn’t dance this year, but he takes a lot of videos of his family members and makes sure to filter and post them quickly. Some of the videos might be considered kind of embarrassing, but Noah knows embarrassing videos get lots of views. 

The presents aren’t quite as exciting this year. Both of his grandparents have gotten him things that would be better for a younger kid. Uncle Mike’s gift is another year of cell phone payments. That’s good news. 

At this point, Noah is ready for everyone to leave. He has lots of notifications to catch up on, and the kids on his group text are talking about a Netflix program called 13 Reasons Why. It sounds intense. He doesn’t have Netflix but should be able to find highlights on YouTube. He heads upstairs early, climbs into bed and unlocks his phone. 

Downstairs, his parents start cleaning up. Neither one speaks, but both are wondering the same thing: how did Noah grow up so fast? It seems like just last year he was a child and now, suddenly…not. They knew it would happen. They went through the same transition themselves. But was it so swift, so hurried? The things he’s interested in, the things he seems to know…where did it all come from? Maybe it’s always been this way. Maybe things have always changed this quickly.

Noah’s father picks up the unused record player, ready to put it away, but then stops. He wonders if it still works. He plugs it in. The needle picks up just where it left off last year. 

Toyland, toy land

Little girl and boy land

While you dwell within it

You are ever happy there

Childhood’s joy land

Mystic merry toy land

Once you pass its borders

You can never return again… 

The song drifts softly through the house. But upstairs, Noah, with his headphones in, doesn’t hear a word.


Benjamin Conlon is a public school teacher and author of The Slingshot’s Secreta middle school mystery for anyone trying to find old-fashioned adventure in the digital age. Benjamin grew up in New England and spent much of his childhood exploring the woods surrounding his hometown. After college, he began teaching elementary school. He wrote The Slingshot’s Secret as a reminder that even in a world filled with technology, adventure abounds.  

Check out these other wonderful stories by Ben:

Emma: A Teen Untethered

Middle School Misfortunes Then and Now, One Teacher’s Take


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