In Lieu of You

 A young girl stood on a train, feeling as though she was late for an important meeting. The higher her nerves climbed, the faster the cracked, moldy stones moved beyond the windows. Her knees groaned as she struggled to maintain balance, and her arms swung about, searching for something to grab. The metal interior bore no chairs or handlebars, and she was forced to grab hold of an indent in the wall. Around her, other passengers had already lost their grips. They were thrown with a sickening crunch against the back wall of the compartment. She blinked desperately, fighting off the foggy darkness of the tunnel. Sure enough, she could now see a small light, a square stamp shining ahead of the coal-black tracks. She could not seem to understand why she would have boarded the train in the first place. 
As bodies continued to fall past her, filling the compartment with screams and moans, she felt as though her blood was laced with ice. Rushed with a sense of urgency, she began to crawl forward, nails digging into the crooks of the panels along the wall. A wind blew through the compartment and cut against her exposed face, carrying a smell of sewage. Her feet began to lift off the ground as the train continued to lurch forward. Her muscles ached fiercely. I must be dreaming, she thought, and she was sure of it. 

An elderly man, with a wind-burned face, flew past. His fingers tugged at her shirt as he tried to stop from being added to the sharp and broken pile of bodies. Her mind churned with another thought, If I fall, I’ll never wake up. When her shirt inevitably slipped out of the old man’s hands, she watched his eyes, dried and yellowed, twitch with a strangled fear. Her scream was gagged by the power of the wind and the stench of rot. 

The light grew bigger as she fought her way to the front of the train, grabbing onto the rail that ran horizontally below the window. Blinded now, she pounded a flat palm against the glass, streaking it with sweat. She would have cried openly, if the gale had not assailed her eyes, tongue, and teeth, leaving them hard and dry. From the reflection of the glass, she could see now, the wind had spread and dried the red stains on the metal wall. A bird, dark and sleek emerged from the pile of bodies and was poking at spare soft bits. Her throat burned with liquid fire, as she watched, haunted. Please, she prayed, watching the bird’s beak, liked a red-inked quill, jab ruthlessly, don’t let me die here. The light beyond the window was upon her, nearly swallowing her wholly. She began to realize with a twist in her stomach that perhaps the light was not as innocent as she once thought. It burned her skin, blisters rising around her knuckles. Her clothes and hair began to smoke. I’ll either burn or be crushed and eaten by the crow.

‘Oh?’

A voice squawked inside her head, violent and invasive. Its cadence would have left her shivering if not for the fire on her skin. The bird watched as her feet began to lift off once more until she was parallel to the ground. 

‘And what would you do,’ the bird soared through the compartment and landed by her side, ‘to live?’ It was not impervious to the brute light, and its feathers became thin and weathered, some falling as ash. ‘What would you do for another chance at life?’

The girl panted and struggled to hold herself as her fingers slowly melted into bone. Anything, she bellowed, Anything, please. The glass in front of her started to crack, veins spreading across its expanse. Chips of glass began to swirl, like bits of snow, around her.

‘Would you rather I die in lieu of you?’

The girl’s head was muddied, and the question seemed irrational. She was a girl and the crow was just a bird. 

Of course.

Then the window shattered and her grip was lost. Just before she hit the back wall, now painted red, she watched the bird give a great flap of its wings and dive straight into the light. 

I am saved.
 
She had been dragged from sleep by a sound against her bedroom window. She awoke screaming and clawing at her back. A dense pressure rose in her chest as she continued to reel.

The paint of her room bubbled with humidity, dripping beads, and trailing coolness along the walls. A warm breath puttered low from a rusted steam radiator, shushing her shrieks. The room was choked in darkness except for the light from the single sun-turned window. The moonlight, transformed by the glass, cast a yellow film across the bed to which it sidled. Her desk and chest of drawers crowded the opposite wall and looked warped in the eerie glow.

Wiping her brow, she pressed a hand against her mouth. Her chest burned with the task of settling her breath. Steadying herself, she ran her palm against the covers that had been tossed aside. Glass.

To her right, the window had shattered. Her windowsill, as always, was covered with bits of soot from the nearby factory. Looking closer, the streaks of blood shining upon it were new. Her heart, beating loudly in her ears, leaped. She turned her body away and sat up, patting herself, and checking for damage. Trembling, she placed her feet on the ground. Another horrible sound escaped her throat, as she saw what spasmed between her ankles.

The bird’s eye glared, pure white, reminding her of their exchange. The last of its life shook from its crushed, gashed body with a tortured caw. Wrought with guilt and sadness, the girl knew, just as she had known she would have died on the train: this death was in place of hers.

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