The Karma Killer
You reap what you sow.
Newton's law of universal gravitation states that every particle attracts every other particle in the universe with a force that is directly proportional to the product of their masses. Karma acts similarly in that your experiences are directly proportional to the experiences you put out in the world. Karma transcends the present. It follows you through lifetimes. It is a natural law, and like gravity, it doesn’t cease to exist if you don’t believe in it. Gravity keeps your feet on the ground, the moon in orbit, and the planets moving around the sun. Karma shares this omnipotent quality. Karma keeps you honest. It carries out cause and effect in its own time, and what you reap, you will sow.
We live in the present, but it is a difficult place for many. Karmic debts are continuously being disbursed in many forms. Some will experience poverty while others have great wealth. Some will be sickly, while others can’t seem to catch a cold. Some will offer kindness to those who’d showed them a similar kindness in another life. Some will die at the hands of those they’d wronged in a shared past.
Karma goes both ways. It is a perfect accounting system that none can avoid, and like gravity, it is a constant. It works through people unconsciously participating in its greater plan.
No karmic debt ever goes unpaid, but sometimes it needs a nudge.
Karma has a champion.
Having never seen action, Peter thought he’d avoid the punishing effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, but in hindsight, as a peacekeeper in a foreign land, that reality shouldn’t have been far from his mind.
Stationed in Kandahar province in August of 2021, he and his fellow soldiers were ordered to fall back to the airport where embassy and military personnel were being flown out of Afghanistan. The threat Peter was asked to secure was not the encroaching Taliban forces but the citizens who, in fits of despair over their newly won government, begged to be put on planes and evacuated along with the fleeing military personnel and ambassadors who had helped win back their country.
The scene was one of continuous chaos - day and night for many days. Peter stood watch where only chain-link fencing kept people at bay after bombs crumbled the tall cement walls days before. Pleas from the growing crowds to let their children through tugged at his conscience. Hateful cries against the escaping forces leaving them to their fates were soul-crushing. Their voices cracked with anguish under the weight of another Taliban rule. It reminded Peter of the third panel in Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights. Chaos. Hell. And he had perpetrated that hell for those people: Pointing rifles and shouting for them to step back. All he wanted to do was help them, but he was a soldier put in a position he hadn’t imagined. He relied on his training to steady his nerves. In the moment, it worked. It’s what happens after that isn’t easily discussed.
Often children were pushed to the front of the terminals to appeal to the soldier’s morality. Peter had befriended three of them with what little of the native Pashto he spoke. He had given them candies and water during the calmer moments. When, on that fateful day, a suicide bomber entered the airport, Peter watched those three children become engulfed in the explosion. Rifles fired by frightened soldiers threw hot lead at the crowd who were caught up in a focused charge through the terminal and onto the tarmac in a desperate attempt to escape the chaos and board the military aircraft already moving down the runway. Peter, too, fired on the unfortunate masses – his training overriding his better judgment. His vision had narrowed, and the blood in his ears thumped, thumped, thumped against his temples as he instinctively backed away from the stampeding hoard. The smell of the detonated explosive and the charred flesh of the innocents permeated his senses. He felt sick to his stomach. It was at that moment he experienced real anxiety for the first time.
His magazine emptied into the air, trying to alter the hoard’s trajectory, but the people were not deterred. They fell over the dead, and they fell over the living. They clambered for purchase over one another. The screaming filled Peter’s awareness, distorting everyone and everything. He watched helplessly as hundreds stormed the airfield and even leaped onto the landing gear. The aircraft did not falter. A line of bodies on the tarmac followed where the great wheels had run them over. Blood ran like a river collecting in a reservoir where the edge of the runway dipped slightly to the right. The scene was grotesque, and again Peter thought of Bosch’s absurd painting.
But that was last year, and Peter vows to get better this year. Several months out of the service, he reconnected with his past love of reading and became store manager of a small but popular bookstore in the Cornerstone Village district of Detroit. He’d chosen a new city a thousand miles removed from his hometown to separate himself from anything that might trigger his PTSD. Peter is something of a recluse. He feels he’s lost his knack for developing interpersonal relationships and has trouble trusting people. Besides, who would want to be with a damaged Vet like him? Peter is content, interacting with enough people daily that he is comfortable being alone in the evenings when he is not at the bookstore. He enjoys the occasional conversation featuring reading lists and favorite books but tries not to go beyond those topics. He never speaks of his time overseas unless it is at one of his veteran-sanctioned counseling sessions. At night Peter finds himself back in Kandahar, firing his rifle at civilians. Sometimes he is the civilian being fired upon. Sometimes he is the birdman devouring a human leg in the third panel of Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights. PTSD haunts his sleep. It shadows him every second of the day, emerging in his most vulnerable moments. The counseling helps, but it doesn’t seem like enough. Maybe nothing ever will be.
After a troubling session with Group, Peter makes his way home, where he rents a two-bedroom apartment above the bookstore he manages. It is an excellent pairing for Peter. He often enters the store during his sleepless nights to read some obscure tome until morning. The potent smell of so many books brings him peace and presence, while reading gives his mind something to focus on. On June 7th, 2022, a young woman enters the bookstore. She seems out of place in Cornerstone Village, but Peter welcomes her patronage. She is lovely, whereas Cornerstone Village is, well, not.
“Hi,” the woman looks in her mid-to-late-twenties, Peter guesses. Maybe two years his junior. Her stoic expression does nothing to compliment her tiny features. The high-set, messy bun holding her dirty-blonde hair in place adds a sense of resolve flattering her conservative outfit. “I’m Clare,” she announces. “Hello, Clare,” Peter replies with his customary smile that raises the right side of his face. “I’m Peter.”
“I’m here for the book,” she continues, seemingly uninterested in his name. She reads the confusion on his face. “I’m Clare? Clare Hastings?” Her eyes locked on Peter’s, shifting left to his computer screen as if insisting he finds her there.
Peter thinks her pretty in that mousey, bookish way. He concedes the nonverbal signal, nodding and stepping to his right to pull up the order screen. “Miss Hastings, yes, your book is in,” Peter bends down to find the package under the counter. The book is called The Many Lives of Mr. Jones. “A curious title,” he says.
“It’s about his past lives.” She says curtly, taking the book from Peter. “Is there a receipt?” Peter looks at the screen again and asks, “would you like that printed or emailed?”
“Printed, please.” Peter does so and hands the receipt to Miss Hastings. “Do you have any other books like this on the shelves?” She glances to her left, where four tall, dark wooden racks create five eight-foot aisles filled with books.
“About past lives? No, I don’t think we do.” Peter has a relationship with all the books in the shop. If he hasn’t already read them, he knows what he’s ordered. “I’ve never read a book on that topic. It sounds fascinating.”
“You should look it up. There are lots of books on people coming back.” The woman stands stock still with the new book flat against her small chest, arms crossing over it.
“From the dead?” Peter teases, finding it strangely easy to talk to this woman.
“From the – no, no,” Peter catches the whisper of a smile play across her painted lips. “Well, in a way, I guess that’s an apt description. But not like a zombie. You die and then come back as another life.”
“Like the soul reanimating and so on.”
“Right, exactly like that. I’ve been mesmerized by the genre for years.” Peter hadn’t expected Clare to open up like this but is enjoying the sound of her voice, husky but feminine. “So much so that I’ve participated in past life regression.” She notes Peter’s confusion and continues. “It’s where you’re hypnotized and asked to relive some of your past lives. It’s utterly intriguing. The regressionist even records your session so you can listen to it again and again.”
“Hypnotized? That’s – is it easy to be hypnotized?”
“She knew I would be easy to put under on account of my imaginative nature. A creative mind is an accepting one.” Clare seems surprised at herself for running on like this, and Peter thinks he experiences a genuine smile from her. “It’s used as therapy on some people. They say the lives you live when regressing assist in your present somehow. I haven’t gone so far as to benefit from that angle, but it works from what I’ve researched. I suggest it to everyone I meet.”
“Does that include me?” Peter asks playfully.
“Of course, we’ve only just met.” Clare moves her hips and tilts her torso slightly in a mock curtsy. “Thank you for ordering the book. I’ll certainly be back.” She spins on her heels and moves toward the antique glass door.
“Would you give me the number of the, uh, regressionist you used?” The question forms before he can truly process it. “I think I can see myself trying that.” Clare turns again, walks back to the counter, lays her book down, and removes a scrap piece of paper from her bag. Peter hands her a pen, and she jotted down an email. He notices her perfume’s sweet yet subtle scent as she leans in.
“Send her a note. Her name is Theresa Clement. I’m sure she won’t remember me, so it will do you no good to mention my name. It won’t get you a discount or anything.” She retrieves her book and studies Peter’s expression, nods, and turns.
“Thanks?” Peter calls after her, and the bells over the door ring as Clare passes through the threshold. Peter’s attention falls to the note. Clare’s handwriting is pretty and neat. He types the address into his email client. The PTSD has become a nagging issue of late, and he feels at his wits’ end with conventional therapy. Perhaps the road less traveled will offer results?