I’ve been searching for magic my whole life, I think.
It happened in unconscious ways when I was a child. My imagination was like an extra friend following me around, whispering in my ear, shaping what I saw. I’d search for dinosaurs behind our gold velvet couch. I’d telepathically talk to my dog Sprock and see his reactions the way I wanted to see them, like he was responding to my mental command to run across the back yard or leap atop the stack of pallets my dad had brought home from work. I’d feel cold wafts from the upstairs attic and know it was a place I didn’t want to go. There were ebbs and flows to things, energy I felt — or imagined I felt — that I thought everyone could feel.
I was drawn to these moments where imagination and reality blurred together, and I remember trying to explain it to my mom. She watched me and listened, and I felt she understood me. Looking back, I think she just liked the idea of a six-year-old being able to feel magic. But her interest encouraged me; I wanted to stand at the center of that crossroads of reality and imagination. I wanted to be a part of it. I could never have cerebralized it when I was six years old, but I’m convinced now that I was unconsciously looking for magic.
And I remember when I consciously chose to look for magic.
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I was fourteen, living in Durango, Colorado, and my parents gathered me and my siblings in the dining room. They were getting a divorce, they said. They handed the news to us like we were adults, like a statement of the facts would make us “understand,” but I don’t remember their reasons. At that age, my rational mind was a fledgling thing with little control over me, whereas my emotions were wild and strong. They galloped like terrified horses, scattering every which way at the news.
My little sister, five years younger than me, just grinned her happy little grin like nothing was wrong. I don’t think she understood what was really happening. My older brother seemed to understand just fine, but he came to a conclusion that confounded me.
“Well, it’s about time,” he said.
That was the opposite of how I felt. I didn’t think it was “about time.” I mean, I’d sat at this table countless times listening to Top 40 radio while doing my homework or playing D&D with my friends. I’d read Edgar Rice Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars and Lloyd Alexander’s The Book of Three in that bay window, which my father had installed himself. I’d been filled with a sense of permanence and contentment here, never once imagining a future that didn’t include me growing up in this house with two parents who loved each other.
“Well, I think it sucks,” I said, and that’s all I said. I got up from the table and ran to my room, imagining the house coming apart around me, all the boards becoming unstuck and floating up into the blue sky until there was just me, running down a hallway with no walls, no ceiling, and nowhere to go.
Two days after my parents dropped the bomb, I stood at the edge of a precipice looking down at the Animas River. I was so scared, and I hated it. I wanted it to stop. I wanted to charge at the fear like it was something tangible, like if I could burst through it, it would go away. I thought about the most frightening thing I could do, something worse than my parents splitting up. I wondered what it would be like to jump.
I wondered what it would be like to die.
I didn’t jump, but I still felt like I was falling. It felt like I’d leaned too far back in a chair, right where I should jerk and catch my balance, except I hadn’t, but I hadn’t hit the floor yet either. That stomach-hollowing, scalp-prickling fear just went on and on.
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I stood there at the edge of that cliff, looking across the river, past the beginnings of the little industrial park south of Durango, to the closest foothills and then to the mighty mountains beyond. A whole world. A whole scary world out there, and the reason I felt like I was falling was because I didn’t have a safety net anymore. What my brother was ready for at age sixteen — and what my little sister didn’t realize at age nine — was that our lives were over. That was what our parents had just told us, really. The magic of our family had been fractured, and it was going to simply come apart in pieces.
I wanted to die. I didn’t want to live with this constant fear, didn’t want to go back to school. Didn’t want to go home. I had nowhere to turn, and I was crawling out of my skin with a need to know what came next. Except there were no answers. There was only that distant, beautiful horizon, and I just kept staring at it.
I finally decided to go to school, decided I’d take just one step and see what happened. It couldn’t be worse than this feeling, could it? And if that one step worked out, I’d take another. I resigned myself to do…whatever happened next. One little bit at a time.
And if it all became too much, I promised I’d come back to this place. Not to jump, maybe, but to cross that bridge, walk through that industrial park, start up into those foothills and keep walking until something happened, until the Universe showed me that there was a reason for me to be alive. I’d keep walking until I found something magical, or until I died. That would be my jump instead. That would be my way through the fear — a one-finger salute to the Universe. A dare for Her to do her worst.
That was the first moment I consciously decided to search for magic. It was wrapped up in so many things — the breaking of my family foundation, my wild imagination, the cold fear of a harsh world closing in on me, and the tingling, twisting changes of puberty — but that was the first moment I made a decision to shape the future of my own life. Up to that moment, it had been my parents’ job. But obviously they didn’t know what they were doing any better than I did. There was no safety net.
I decided two things then.
First, I was going to challenge the Universe. Maybe I wouldn’t go walking into the mountains today, but I was going to step into this scary world where nothing was certain and dare it to kill me. I was going to take one step. And if I survived, I’d take another. And those single steps would be the only thing that mattered. I wouldn’t look two or ten or twenty steps down the road. Planning for the future was a fiction; my parents had shown me that. I would look only at the one step, and I wasn’t going to care about consequences, which meant I could literally do anything.
So I decided to chase the ridiculous. I would search for the magic that had tantalized me all my life. And I didn’t mean the “oh, what a magical moment” kind of magic. I wanted fireballs and dragons and telekinesis. I wanted magic that would make others open their mouths in surprise.
My second resolution was: I was never going to have kids. I wouldn’t put a child through this. I was never going to offer a safe home and then rip it away. And since I could never guarantee safety even for myself, it was best that I simply never have children.
I was alone now. I was a magic hunter.
The next sixteen years took me on many adventures. I traveled throughout the U.S. and to exotic places halfway around the world. I met good friends and best friends. I took many lovers. And with every step, I looked for that magic I craved.
I never quite found it. I never threw a fireball anywhere except in my own mind. I never moved an object across the room without touching it. I never brushed my hands along the scales of a dragon except in the pages of novels I read or novels I wrote.
In the summer of 2003, I married the love of my life. That winter, I became a father, and in the spring of 2006, we had our second child.
Up until then, I’d been a flighty adventurer prone to leaping into the wind at a moment’s notice. I’d never held a job for more than sixteen months. My default setting was to dodge and brush past danger, but this time, hands clasped with my wife, we held that safe home together. I dug in my heels and we created for our children what I had lost so long ago.
This is the story of how, when my son turned the age I had been when my life fell apart, we hiked The Colorado Trail together. It’s a story about how I found the magic I’d been looking for. An ordinary magic that had been there all along.
Todd Fahnestock is the bestselling author of “The Wishing World,” “Fairmist” and “Wildmane.” A true Gen Xer, Todd navigated his parents’ divorce and subsequent poverty when he was 14, leaping into a series of adventures that would shape him into a writer. When he’s not writing, he teaches Taekwondo, goes on morning runs with his daughter, wrestles with his son, and plays board games with his wife.