Conduit (C.C. Dowling)
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When college senior Jane Lamb dies suddenly, she discovers that the afterlife is less pearly gates and fluffy clouds and more standing in line at the DMV. But before she can spend eternity lamenting over her short, unremarkable life, she’s offered a do-over—as a Conduit, a reincarnated messenger contracted to reap souls.
Determined to do things right the second time, Jane takes the job and reincarnates as eighteen-year-old college freshman Liv Hartley. Only, the excitement for her new life doesn’t last. There are consequences to bearing the coveted infinity symbol tattoo marking her as a Conduit, and Liv quickly finds that getting a second chance doesn’t mean getting a better one. Possessive demons, stolen assignments, and a love life that’s decidedly complicated are all a far cry from the mundane existence Jane led. But with more questions piling up than bodies, there’s only one thing Liv knows for sure: life doesn’t get any easier after death.
Filled with sparkling wit, conflicted romance, and more spirit than a haunted mansion, Conduit is a fun-filled paranormal that explores the idea of regret, love, and what we would give to live twice.
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Read The First Chapter
I spent the night I died at the Tau Kappa end-of-semester blowout, downing spiked punch and making out with Billy Curtis.
Okay. Not really. I wasn’t invited to the end-of-semester blowout. But I should’ve at least had the guts to show up anyway. To try. Maybe then I’d be waking up an ex-virgin with a hangover, next to the boy I’ve had a crush on since high school. I’d rather have that regret.
That’s what haunts me. Not the last thing I saw—headlights swerving at me head-on.
Not the last thing I heard—crunching glass, screeching tires, and the weakening lub–thud of my heart.
No, what haunts me is that I’d spent my final hours on Earth—scratch that, most of my life—with my nose in a book, studying for stupid tests that would never matter. I’d always been responsible. Done the right things. Safe things.
Yet here I am. Dead.
The people with near-death experiences got it wrong. There’s no light at the end of the tunnel. There’s a lobby, like the entrance to a ritzy hotel, with level upon level of balconies that stretch on forever, ornate handrails, gaudy chandeliers, and an ethereal brightness you’d never get from natural light.
“Next!” The disembodied voice thunders from overhead speakers embedded in the walls.
The line, with more twists and turns than a crowd-control line at Disneyland, moves a few inches. I step forward. The soul in front of me doesn’t. Before I realize what’s happening, I’m standing in him.
“Sorry.” I step back and shake off the squishy, Jell-O like feel of his energy. He’s rambling again, something about him being too young to die, and if only he could have a second chance. I stuff my fingers in my ears so I don’t have to listen. Some souls just can’t accept the fact they’re dead.
That’s when I spot the balding Dean of Accounting, Professor Burstein, in his penny loafers and plaid sweater vest, stalking toward me like I cheated on a test, or took the last cookie at a student-faculty mixer.
“Mr. Burstein?” I can’t keep the surprise, and disgust, from my voice.
On Friday, he’d given us a pop-quiz on governmental tax law. If he’s dead, I’m guessing a fellow senior finally retaliated against his soapbox speeches and appearance-based grading pyramid.
“Not exactly, Ms. Lamb. My name is Marvin. I find it’s easier on transitioning souls when I appear as someone they recognize.”
I push a lock of frizzy brown hair from my eyes and stare at his gnarly sweater vest. “You can look like anyone?” My gaze moves from his stubby, fat fingers to his shock of orange hair. “I can totally give you a better suggestion.”
My mind drifts to Billy, the smoking hot varsity football player I’d had an insane crush on in high school. The same boy I followed to college. The one who never knew I existed.
As if he can read my thoughts, Marvin’s greasy skin and jelly-donut figure morph into washboard abs and SoCal-surfer looks. It’s a good thing souls don’t need to breathe, because if I were still alive, I’d be dying.
He closes the distance between us, and I swear I almost dissolve. His index finger grazes my chin and lifts, forcing my lips closed.
“Now you understand why I chose to look like your professor.” The space between us cramps with burgeoning polyester slacks strapped to an oxblood leather belt as Marvin’s waistline expands. “There’ll be fewer distractions this way.”
“Not the good kind,” I mutter.
His brow furrows. “Follow me. I have something to show you.” He turns and waddles toward the other end of the lobby, where elevator doors open and close in a constant rhythm of activity.
Stranger danger, anyone? I don’t know who this guy is, or what he wants. If he expects me to just traipse after him like a lonely puppy, he’s wrong. Crossing my arms, I tap my foot against the marble floor. “What if I don’t?”
He stops mid-stride and glances over his shoulder, not bothering to turn around. “Then you stay in line and face your fate.” He shrugs. “Doesn’t matter to me one way or the other. But sometimes, waiting can take an eternity.”
It already has.
His voice carries over the din of endless souls. “Are you coming, or not, Ms. Lamb?” He continues moving through the huge room with the grace of a man half his size. It’s impressive, considering his penguin-like gait.
I step one foot out of line, the other holding my place. “What is it you want to show me?”
He doesn’t answer. The farther away he gets, the more it feels like I’m missing the chance of an after-lifetime.
Excitement mixes with fear, making my belly flop around like a fish in a boat. Part of me wants to stay, face my judgment, find out what happens next. But there’s something about Marvin, and the mystery he offers, that intrigues me.
Follow him, the voice in my head whispers. It’s the same voice that’s sick of being left behind, looked down on, and just plain ignored. Why should death imitate life?
“Wait up, Marv!” I shove my way through the crowded room. He doesn’t wait.
“Where are we going?” I ask when I finally catch up to him.
He jabs the elevator button. “Up.”
“Better than down, I guess,” I mumble.
When the bell dings and the doors open, I step aside to let the souls out. One of them, a guy about my age, bumps into my shoulder. Instead of the soft cotton ball, stringy-taffy plushness of the souls I’m used to, he feels like the sharp edge of a metal beam.
“Watch it, one-timer.” His mismatched eyes—one dark, one hazel green—glare at me from beneath a sleek, gelled hairstyle. The rough texture of his skin, the dark shadow surrounding his being, and the solidness of his form make me think there’s something wrong with him. No one in line with me looked or felt like he does.
As he walks past, toward the double doors at the end of the elevator bay, I catch the scent of sunlight, grass, and gasoline. For a moment, it makes me miss home.
“Rude.” I rub my shoulder and face Marvin. “That hurt. Why did that hurt? And what’s a one-timer?”
“A human soul that lives only one lifetime. It hurt because he’s alive, and you’re not.”
“He’s alive? Isn’t this the afterlife? And what do you mean, one lifetime? Don’t we only get one?” That’s what my devoutly Catholic grandmother believed.
Marvin shakes his head. “Yes, Ms. Lamb. And no. Conduits get more than one. He’s currently on his fourth lifetime.”
Four lifetimes? “Why does he get four?”
“He gets six, actually,” Marvin says, like I should’ve known. “All Conduits do.”
“What’s a Conduit?”
“A messenger of the Otherworld.” Marvin rubs his stubby fingers against a roll on his chin. “Hm, maybe messenger isn’t the right word. More like agent. Representative. Intermediary.”
Thesaurus much? “Okay. I get it.” My eyes follow the Conduit as he heads toward a mountain of a man. Head and shoulders above everyone else, and twice as thick, his onyx skin absorbs the harsh glare of the fluorescent lights. “Who’s he talking to?”
My mouth pops open against the barrage of questions threatening to escape. Demon? Conduit? Six lifetimes? What in the afterlife is going on?
Marvin holds up his hand, shutting off further conversation on the topic. “I’ll explain everything when we get to my office.” We step onto the elevator, and he presses a button midway up the panel.
“Whoa. How many floors does this place have?” I stare at the tiny, unlabeled luminescent circles covering the entire elevator wall adjacent to the door. The pressed ones twinkle like stars.
“As many as it needs.”
When the doors open, we step into the hallway and head toward Marvin’s office. Tan and cream checker-pattern linoleum stretches as far as I can see. Fluorescent lights—the kind that make even the most vibrant colors look sickly green—have me guessing at the actual color of the walls, and the faint scent of ammonia and floor wax lingers in the air. I’d hate to be the person that has to clean these never-ending hallways.
The corridor of bland, repeating sameness goes on forever, twisting and curving at odd angles. I wasn’t an architecture major, but if I had to guess, I’d say the dimensions of this building shouldn’t exist.
As we round the seventh or eighth corner—I stopped counting at five—a chill crawls across my flesh. The source of my People Under the Stairs meets Exorcist terror is a doorway.
The wooden door’s in worse shape than if it had spent a century in the salty ocean after being set on fire and sandblasted. A polished brass doorknob sits dead center. Mist slithers its way across the hall from the one-inch gap at the bottom of the door, like a B-rated horror flick special effect. But unlike those movies, the scream bubbling up my throat is real.
I back against the opposite wall as the fog snakes tentacles toward my feet. My consciousness is overcome by one thought: don’t let it touch me! I’m seconds from bolting down the hall, back the way we came, when the mist disappears, scurrying under the door like a ghost recalled to the grave.
I run down the hall and straight through at least three souls to catch up with Marv. “What in the—” I stop, unsure if I can say the word hell here. “What was that?”
“It’s an infinity chamber. That’s where souls get tossed when they’re ripped from their lives ahead of schedule, or break the rules of the afterlife.”
“There’s a schedule?”
“Of course, Ms. Lamb. You don’t think we’d let life run amuck, unchecked, do you?”
We? The thought sends a chill down the spine I no longer have. “There are more of you? What about free will?”
Marvin grins. For an instant, the dull brown eyes belonging to Mr. Burstein turn black, and the nails on his stubby fingers elongate into tiny daggers. It’s almost more terrifying than the door. Almost.
I change the subject. “So, how do souls end up in the chamber, aside from dying too soon?”
“I suppose the ways one can end up there are endless.” He laughs at his own joke. I’m still too shaken to think he’s funny. “Most of the souls trapped there are one-timers who snooped too far behind the veil of the Otherworld. It’ll be your responsibility to protect our secrets if you agree to take the job.”
“Wait, this is a job interview?” I try to smooth the crinkled, ratty jeans and oversized sweatshirt I died in. There’s nothing I can do about the blood.
Makeup was never my thing. No amount seemed to help. But I do know how to twist my frizzy hair into a bun, and I have a go-to pair of slacks and a blouse at home . . . or what used to be home. Marvin should’ve warned me. I would’ve died in something different.
He eyes my clothes and my blatant, failed attempt to look decent. “I’ve seen worse. Trust me.” He turns and continues down the hall. I follow.
Just when I’m about to ask how much farther it is, he stops in front of a plain door, the kind you’d expect to see in a law office, or an accounting firm. Stenciled in gold block letters is his name:
“Numen, huh? That’s an odd name.”
“It’s the singular form of Numeni.”
“Should that mean something to me?”
“It’s what I am.”
“You’re not human?”
His laugh is humorless, just like I imagine he is. “No, Ms. Lamb. I’m not human.”
“Then, what are you?”
“I’m a Numeni.” His glare tells me I’ll lose this game of circular logic. I let it drop.
He pushes the door open and waits for me to enter. It’s nice to know chivalry isn’t dead. Or maybe it is. This is the afterlife, after all.
I walk through the door and into an exact replica of a memory from when I was twelve. I’d spent the day in my father’s office, at the insurance agency where he worked. School was out, and my mother was sick with the flu.
The furniture, straight from the sixties, had needed an update three decades ago. The large, chunky wooden desk made deep, rectangular impressions in the olive green carpet. A fake ficus plant sat in the corner, covered in dust. It always made me nervous. I’m allergic to dust. Or at least, I was.
I cringe at the sight of the metal chair with orange vinyl covering that tried—and failed—to be padding. It was the only place, other than the floor, to sit in my father’s office. After a day in that thing, my back had hurt for a week.
“No. Way!” My mouth hangs open as I turn in a circle, taking in the decor. “How could you know about my father’s old office?”
“I know everything about you.” Marvin nods to the orange chair, inviting me to sit, as he takes the far more comfortable chair behind his desk.
“If that’s true, then you know I hate this chair.”
He folds his hands across his expansive belly. “Have a seat, Ms. Lamb.”
“I’d rather stand.”
I squint my eyes and glare at him. I know what he’s trying to do. He wants to know how far he can push and how much I’ll resist. The answer is pretty far, and not much.
“Fine.” I plop onto the chair and let him win.
Reaching into a drawer, he pulls out a thin manila folder. He drops it onto his desk. It practically floats, it’s so light.
“Jane Lamb. Twenty-three. Only child of Sharon and Stanley Lamb. You were one semester away from graduating with a degree in accounting when a drunk driver ran you off the road.”
I knew I’d been in a car accident. I didn’t know the other guy was drunk. I want to be angry when he spills those details. Maybe shout and throw things . . . like this chair. Funny thing is, on this side of death, it’s not important how I arrived. Or maybe, it’s just too early to be pissed-off.
When I don’t say anything, Marv continues. “You’ve never been arrested, love cats, and have a fear of clowns.”
His glasses slide to the end of his nose. He peers over the top. “No.”
“Well, maybe they should.” I shudder at the vivid memory of my fifth birthday. The clown my dad hired thought it would be cute to hide behind the shed and “surprise” me with balloons and an air horn. I’d peed all over my brand new shoes.
“Here’s the deal, Jane. I need someone I can trust, someone who can follow directions, who isn’t going to cause trouble for me. I take my job seriously, and I want a Conduit who can do the same. That’s why I chose you.”
Chose you. The words make me squirm. No one’s ever chosen me for anything. “Y-you want me to be a Conduit? Like the guy in the lobby?”
I bite the nail on my thumb. Part of me is intrigued by the idea of six lifetimes. Six do-overs. Especially considering my life was cut so short the first time. Then again, the one life I did have was mostly awkward. I spent too much time uncomfortable in my own skin. Do I really want to do that six more times?
“You mentioned taking your job seriously. What exactly is your job?” I ask to distract myself from the internal debate I don’t have answers for.
“Think of me as middle management. The Numeni facilitate exchanges between the realm of the living and the higher-ups controlling the afterlife.”
“So you’re the dude between God and the living?”
His eyebrow quirks at the mention of God. “Not exactly. But for the purposes of this conversation, yes.”
I rip a chunk of nail and skin off my thumb. I expect it to hurt, or bleed. It doesn’t, reminding me that even though I exist, I’m not alive. I stare at my thumb. At all of my fingers, missing nails and all. The torn, jagged skin reminds me of my mother. She always said nail-biting was unattractive. I wonder who she’ll share her advice with now that I’m gone.
For a moment, a flicker of something like sadness makes me miss her. Then it dissipates, and I’m back to just being dead.
“How does it work? Becoming a Conduit?” I ask, more interested than I was a moment ago.
“You sign a contract, using your soul as collateral. In exchange, you’ll get six lifetimes. Your consciousness”—he adjusts his glasses—“or soul, if you will, is transplanted into a Hollow of our choosing on their seventeenth birthday.”
“Hollows are humans born without souls of their own. They’re vessels for Conduits, and other entities, to reenter the realm of the living. When the transplant is complete, you’ll not only acquire their body, but their memories as well. They effectively become you, and you them. We try our best to match Conduits with Hollows who share similar personality traits and preferences.”
I laugh, which seems like an inappropriate response to learning about the existence of pod people. “So, you’re telling me there are humans walking around, kids I went to school with, who have no soul?”
He nods. Suddenly, a lot of things about my childhood make tons more sense.
“We give you a year to adjust to your new life. At age eighteen, your contract starts.” He leans forward and folds his hands. “Being a Conduit is the closest any human comes to immortality on the physical plane.”
My mind skips to the books I’d read in high school about vampires and werewolves. I’d thought the idea of living forever was glamorous, even when portrayed as tedious and destructive.
“You died young.” Marvin flips open the folder. Inside are two, three pages max. I eye the other folders on his desk. It would take fifty of mine to equal one of them. “According to your file, you’ve had an unfulfilling life.”
Shame burns my stomach and scorches my cheeks. That was the problem. I’d done nothing. I’d been no one. I’d always thought that, eventually, one day, I would.
As soon as I graduate high school, I’ll take scuba lessons. Once I get my degree, I’ll travel, see the world.
Problem is, I kept stalling. I’d thought I had all the time in the world. Turns out, I only had twenty-three years. And I’d wasted every day of them. That kind of disappointment never goes away, not even after you die.
Marvin leans across the desk, catching my gaze with his. “How would you like a second chance?”
After seeing my file, my heart wants to scream yes. My mind isn’t convinced, though. “What’s the catch?”
Marvin shuts the folder. I bite at my already chewed thumbnail, waiting for his answer. “If you fail to uphold your part of the contract, your soul is destroyed. It’ll be like you never existed. No line. No judgment. Nothing.”
“Oh.” I rip a chunk of nail off my middle finger. “That’s . . . extreme.”
He comes around to my side of the desk and hefts one butt cheek against it. It moans in protest. “It’s only an issue if you break the rules. As we’ve already established, I chose you because you like to follow rules.”
He isn’t wrong. Then again, that’s why my life fits inside a single thin folder.
“You mentioned the Conduit we saw earlier had a demon. How does that work?” I ask to focus on something other than the sinking pit in my stomach gnawing at my insides like a zombie on a fresh kill.
“The contract between Malwits and their demons, and Virtues and their angels, is negotiated in addition to your Conduit contract. Celestials provide protection and guidance while you’re on Earth, and you pick up extra assignments, accruing either Karma or Mana.”
I stare at him like he’s speaking Ancient Greek. “Karma? Mana?”
“The energy source of the universe, from which demons and angels feed.”
I twist my lip and cock an eyebrow at the thought of being angel food. “So, I’d basically be a battery?”
“Yes. But look on the bright side. The human body is already a battery, nothing more than a cascading push of electrons. Your soul, on the other hand, is eternal.” He smiles like he’s satisfied with his explanation. That makes one of us.
Somehow, my nail finds its way into my mouth again. “Will I have to choose one or the other? Good or evil?”
“There’s no such thing as good and evil.” Marv studies me with Mr. Burstein’s muddy brown eyes. “And no. You don’t have to pick one or the other. You can choose to be a Neutrite, a Conduit without a Celestial.”
My shoulders, practically rubbing my earlobes, relax into a normal position. “Neutrite. I’d want to be a Neutrite.” Honestly, the thought of dealing with angels and demons scares the un-living crap out of me.
“Do we have a deal?” Marvin holds out his hand.
I stare at the creases of his sausage-like fingers. Why do I feel like he’s pressuring me? Or maybe I’m pressuring myself.
My hand twitches like it’s ready to shake, ready to make a deal that’ll change my life. Well, my death.
“What happens after six lifetimes?” I ask, trying to absorb as much information as possible so I can make an informed decision. That style of thinking made me a good accountant. It also made me a boring person.
“And what does that mean?”
“It means you’re done.Your soul gets processed like it would if you were still in line.”
“But if I live six lifetimes, isn’t that a lot of opportunity to accumulate more sin?” I say, for lack of a better term. “Isn’t it more likely I’ll go to . . . well, Hell?”
Marv’s grin is a cross between the Cheshire Cat and Dr. Evil. “There’s so little one-timers understand about the Otherworld. Which is precisely the point.”
“So, I won’t go to Hell?”
“The better a Conduit does their job, the better they’re taken care of in retirement. Incentives, Ms. Lamb. Here in the Otherworld, we believe in making things worth the trouble.”
Still doesn’t answer my question about Hell.
“What if I say no?”
“Then you get back in line. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”
Back in line? I don’t know why, but the thought of standing around, doing nothing, when I could be living again, makes me panic. I try to gulp in fresh air to steady my nerves before I remember I’m just a soul. I don’t need air. I don’t need anything. This is about what I want. A chance. Six of them.
All I have to do is exactly what I’m told. If there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s not thinking outside the box. I like boxes. They’re comfortable, predictable, defined. Maybe that’s why I’m good at math.
Marvin shoves his outstretched hand closer to mine. My own aches to take it.
“I’m immortal, Ms. Lamb. But even I don’t have forever. Do we have a deal?”
Maybe it’s fear of missing out on the chance of an after-lifetime, or a temporary moment of deranged bravery, but whatever the reason, I take his hand in mine and squeeze. “Deal.”
An idiotic grin spreads across my face when my palm touches his. I imagine this is how other people feel when they’re reckless or adventurous. It’s what I’ve been waiting to feel my whole life. Figures I’d have to be dead first.
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