A Short Story
20 January 2024
In a break from our usual programming, I'm publishing a short story I wrote a few years ago, working with a group of twenty Year Seven students at Ark Boulton Academy in Birmingham. This was part of an EU Partner project called, Read On, encouraging children and young people to read.
The theme, love, was provided by Read On, the ideas, characters, settings, etc, were worked out in a workshop run by me at the school, and then I was sent away to write the story.
The idea then was that I would return to the school, and present them with the story and show them how I wrote it. But, that first workshop happened in February 2020, and do I really need to say more? I refuse to mention the C word.
They still got to read it because the story was published in an anthology, and all students in participating schools received a free copy.
I would have loved to have returned though, and read the story to them.
One last aside before you read the story... Those young people in that workshop were all Muslim faith based. I returned home that day thinking, If I write them a story with the usual white kid as the protagonist, I will have let them down. So this story is written from the point of view of a Muslim teenage girl.
Probably my most difficult writing project ever, one I couldn't have managed without the help of my friend Pardip Basra and his grandmother.
Writing in the Shadows is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
My father’s a loser.
That’s the only thing you need to know about him.
Well, maybe there is one other thing, but we’ll get to that later.
My name is Shahzana. Most everyone calls me Shaz, except my mum. She says she called me Shahzana for a reason. She says that Shahzana means Princess, because that’s what I am, her princess.
My mum’s pretty cool, yeah? I mean, she’s a heart surgeon, which is amazing. Unlike my father, who is a complete and utter loser. Did I mention that already?
But as cool as my mum is, she still named me wrong.
Cos I ain’t no princess.
Mum brought me up on her own. That’s because my father, The Loser, left us when I was only six months old. Just disappeared.
Mum told me she was scared out of her mind at the time. She thought he’d been murdered or had an accident or something. But then he took all our money out of our account (not that we had much) and Mum had to close it and open up a new one. And the police never found a body or anything, and it was just like he’d walked out of the house and decided not to come back.
Wait a minute, I’m telling this story all wrong. But it’s difficult sometimes to know where to start.
Maybe I should start with Grandma, and the intruders breaking into her house and attacking her.
She’s The Loser’s mother, but unlike her son, she’s pretty ace. After The Loser left Mum, Grandma looked after us both. She looked after me while Mum continued her studies at medical school, and when Mum started working.
She’s still looking after us now.
But wait, Grandma didn’t get burgled. That turned out to be a lie.
And now I’m telling the story all backwards.
So I’m going to start with the first time I met Lenore.
That happened the day after the mugging, when I took the bus to the hospital to visit Grandma after school. They’d kept her in overnight for observation, as she’d been beat up and banged her head. Mum had already seen her the night before in the Emergency Department.
By the time I arrived, big fat drops of rain were falling from the sky. I just about managed to run from the bus stop and into the hospital before the heavens really opened up. Just inside the entrance, I turned and watched the rain. It was a deluge, like a wall of water.
Grandma was on Ward B6, in a bay with three other beds. The curtains had been pulled around Grandma’s bed and I could hear a low murmur of voices. That meant a doctor, or a nurse, was in there with Grandma. I didn’t want to disturb them, so I stood outside the curtains and waited.
“Get out of here!” Grandma hissed suddenly, and I had never heard such venom in her voice before.
The curtain whipped back in front of me, and I found myself face to face with Lenore. She was taller than me and looked down at me as though I was something unpleasant and stinky she had found on the bottom of her shoe.
Lenore was tall and elegant and beautiful. She had heart-shaped eyes and blood-red lips, and she was as pale as death. I didn’t know Lenore’s name then, I only found that out later.
I should have stepped out of her way as fast as I could move. I wanted to. But I couldn’t. Those eyes of hers held me, trapped me where I stood. Like an exotic butterfly pinned onto a board and examined through a magnifying glass.
Lenore’s blood-red lips curled in disgust.
“Beti,” Grandma said, reaching out her hands and beckoning me to her.
The movement, Grandma’s voice, broke the spell, and I stepped to one side. Still, Lenore did not make a move to leave. Her head simply rotated on her long, slender neck, her eyes following me as I backed away.
“Yeh larki churail hai!” Grandma hissed.
I grabbed her wrinkled, bony hand, and it gripped mine tight. Her palm was warm in mine.
Lenore turned and walked away, gliding from the ward as though she were being carried by invisible currents of air.
“Who is she, Grandma?” I whispered.
“Churail,” Grandma said, her eyes still locked on Lenore’s retreating form.
Then she pulled me close and hugged me.
“I don’t understand,” I said.
Grandma chuckled. “You think you should understand everything? You think you are so grown up now, but you are a child still. You do not need to know everything. Not yet, at least.”
“But that woman, is she going to hurt you?”
Grandma shook her head and held me even tighter. “No, she cannot hurt me.”
There’s something you need to know about my grandmother. She’s not your typical old lady who sits at home and spies on the neighbours. She’s strong-willed and independent, and that’s how she’s always been. And if she was telling me that Lenore couldn’t hurt her, then I believed it.
No one messed with Grandma.
Up until now I had been captivated with Lenore, but now she had gone, I noticed the bruising and scratches on Grandma’s face. Her one eye was puffed shut and her neck was covered in yellow bruises.
She waved her hand at me. “Shush, it’s nothing.”
“But the police, have they—?”
Grandma muttered something in Hindi.
“Stop, Grandma, you know I can’t understand when you speak Hindi.”
She gave me that look, the one reserved for when she was feeling particularly disappointed and let down. “Your mother told me you were learning.”
“I tried, but it’s too difficult.” I tore my eyes from hers and looked at the floor. It seemed the safest thing to do.
I heard Grandma huff. “Too difficult. You should spend less time on that machine of yours, doing whatever it is you do.”
“It’s an iPhone, Grandma.”
“Well, I never see you making any phone calls on it.”
I looked up again and Grandma was smiling at me, the laughter lines around her eyes crinkled up. Even through the bruising and the swelling, Grandma’s spirit shone bright and strong.
“How are you feeling today?” I said.
“Much better, the doctor thinks I can go home tomorrow.”
That was great news. I’d been really worried about her.
We chatted some more until she grew tired and I decided I should leave.
Grandma wanted me to call Mum and ask her to come and collect me. But Mum was working and besides, I was old enough that I didn’t need collecting.
I kissed Grandma goodbye on her cheek, being careful not to hurt her. When I pulled back, Grandma held on tight to my hand and gave me a fierce, almost frightening look.
“You go straight home!” she hissed. “Go home and lock the doors and don’t let anyone in.”
“Except Mum, yeah?” I said.
Her eyes softened a little, and she smiled. “Yes, except for Mum.”
Back down at the hospital’s entrance, I stood just inside the automatic doors and watched the rain hitting the cars and the ambulances pulling up outside. How could there be so much water in the sky? And it was dark out there, like middle of the night dark.
I flinched at the touch of a hand on my shoulder and when I turned around, I flinched again.
That look of disgust had gone, but her beautiful face still unsettled me. What was it about her that did that? Those lips, maybe? A little too full and red. Or her eyes? Her pupils were wide and dark.
“I think this rain will not stop for a while,” she said.
I tore my eyes off Lenore and looked at the rain again. “Why were you and Grandma arguing?”
The hand stayed on my shoulder. Her touch was gentle, but I had to resist the urge to shake her off. I had a bad feeling that might not be a good idea, although I didn’t know why.
“I have a car,” Lenore said. “Let me drive you home and we can talk about that.”
Yeah, right, like that was going to happen. I stepped away from her, and her hand slid off my shoulder and fell to her side.
“Are you serious?” I said. “I’m not getting in a car with you, like, how stupid do you think I am?”
Lenore’s full, red lips parted slightly in a tiny smile.
And she turned and strode out of the hospital and I swear to you right, I’m telling you the truth, it looked like she just walked right through that downpour and not one drop of rain landed on her.
A car pulled up, and Lenore opened the passenger door and climbed inside. The car windows were tinted black and I couldn’t see anything inside.
I walked down to the hospital canteen and got myself a Coke and sat down at a table. I thought maybe Grandma was right after all and I should call Mum. Wait for her to come and pick me up. The rain wasn’t the only reason I didn’t want to go outside tonight.
As usual, my call went straight to voicemail, but I knew Mum would pick it up as soon as she could. I sat and swigged the Coke straight out of the bottle. Mum was always telling me off for that. She said that when the bottles were being transported, rats peed all over them. She said that when I drank straight from the bottle, I was basically drinking Coke flavoured rat pee.
Mum’ll tell me all sorts of rubbish sometimes.
That got me thinking about Grandma again. She didn’t do that. She either spoke her mind and told it to you straight, or she said it was none of your business and clammed up. That’s what she was doing now. Whoever Lenore was, and whatever the business between them, Grandma wasn’t saying.
I thought about going back up to the ward and asking her again, but I checked the time on my phone and realised the ward was closed to visitors.
In the end, I decided I was being lame and I should just go home. Looked like the rain had stopped, anyway.
Back home, the house was quiet and empty.
I lay on my bed and watched TV for a while, and eventually I dozed off.
A light tapping at my door jerked me awake.
“Shahzana, can I come in?”
I pushed myself up to a sitting position. My head was groggy and full of sleep still. “Yeah.”
Mum came in and sat down on the end of my bed. “How’s Grandma?”
“She’s fine, she says she's coming home tomorrow.”
Mum smiled. “That’s good. I will collect her, and she can stay here. I don’t want her going home just yet.”
“She had this woman visiting her. Grandma doesn’t like her. I don’t know who she is and Grandma won’t say.”
Mum frowned. “Your Grandma can be a very mysterious woman sometimes. She drives me mad.”
“Yeah, me too.” I paused for a moment, trying to recall something Grandma had said to me. “Mum, what does churail mean?”
Mum’s frown deepened. “Who said that word to you? Grandma?”
“A churail is a devil, a supernatural being that sucks the life out of you. They are a myth, a story to frighten little children with.”
“Why would Grandma be talking about devils and monsters?”
Mum shook her head. “Who knows? Let’s ask her when she comes home, yes?” Mum paused, giving me one of her looks. Not one of her, You are in so much trouble, looks. No, this was one of her thoughtful, pondering looks.
“What?” I said.
“How was your day?”
“All right. School, you know.”
I held up a hand before she could speak. “I know, I know, I need to work hard and get good grades on my exams, and this is the only time in my life when education is free, and I should enjoy learning, and—”
“And blah, blah, blah!” Mum said and shoved me playfully. “Do I really nag you that much?”
I put on a mock, thoughtful look. “Hmm, let me think…”
Mum held her hands up in surrender. “All right, all right, I know.”
“How was your day?” I said.
Mum nodded, thoughtfully. “Good. I had a case today repairing the chordae tendineae in an old man’s heart.”
I scooped a hand over my head. “Whoa, hold on, I’m already out of my depth. What are chord…tendee…”
“Chordae tendineae. They’re tough strands, like string, which hold certain valves shut in the heart to prevent a backflow of blood in the heart’s chambers.”
“Oookaaaaayyyy,” I said. “So, they’re like strings in your heart, holding things together.”
Mum smiled. “Heart strings. Yes, exactly.” Mum reached out and tousled my hair as though I were five again. “And you, you tug on my heart strings all the time, especially when I have to be at work so often, and so late.”
I pushed her hand away. “Mum! I’m not a little kid anymore, and besides, I’ve told you I’m fine.”
“I know you’re fine,” Mum said, and smiled sadly. “Have you eaten yet?”
I shook my head.
“Me neither. How about we order in pizza?”
I grinned. “Do you seriously need an answer? Yes!”
So, even though it was a school night, which meant sensible food and homework, we had pizza and we watched a silly film on Netflix, and Mum drank wine and I drank Coke flavoured rat pee.
And we had the best time ever.
When I finally went to bed, my head was buzzing and I couldn’t get to sleep. What was I thinking about? Churail and blood sucking creatures? The mysterious Lenore? Grandma?
No, I was thinking about The Loser and about how much I hated him. If he hadn’t abandoned us, then I would have had someone at home when Mum was working, and she wouldn’t have had to worry so much about working so hard. How different would our lives have been if The Loser had never left?
But then, considering what he did, maybe it was for the best that he wasn’t around. Maybe we were better off without him.
Eventually I fell asleep.
I can’t remember now what the time was when I woke up. I know it was the middle of the night, possibly the deepest, darkest part of the night like maybe when churail wandered the streets, looking for victims.
I jerked awake just like I had when Mum knocked on my door. But when I looked at my bedroom door, it was closed and then I heard it again.
A light tap-tap-tapping on my bedroom window.
I sat up in bed and pulled the duvet up under my chin.
I shivered and goosebumps sprung up on my arms and my neck.
What was that? Something flapping in the wind, like the end of a branch, perhaps. Except, we didn’t have a tree that close to the house. Maybe a bird? Or…something?
Curiosity battled with my fear until my fear gave in and retreated. But only a little.
I climbed out of bed, my hands still gripping the duvet.
I let go of the duvet and padded barefoot across the hard wooden floor. The soles of my feet tingled with the cold. I stopped in front of the drawn curtains, but I made no move to reach out and pull them back.
I flinched as though I had been slapped across the face. Where had that come from? Was the voice real or in my head, my imagination?
I saw my hands, as if possessed of a will of their own, reach out and grip the curtain fabric, bunching the edges up in my fists. I yanked the curtains apart.
Lenore tapped at my windowpane with long, scarlet fingernails. Her face and hands were impossibly white, her eyes dark like pools of deep water, and her hair lustrous and shiny and framing her beautiful face. But her full, red lips were obnoxiously, repellently disgusting.
Shahzana…let me in…
Lenore was floating outside my bedroom window. She smiled, and I saw her sharp, pointed fangs. She bit down on her bottom lip and a round blob of bright blood bubbled from the wound and ran down her chin.
My head throbbed as I looked at her, like she was inside and pounding on my skull. But no matter how much I wanted to tear my eyes off her, to throw my arms over my face and stumble away, I couldn’t. Once more, with a will of their own, my hands crept towards the window openers.
…let me in…Shahzana…
I pulled the handle up and swung my window open. Lenore hovered in front of me as a cool night breeze caressed my face. I thought she would lunge through the open window and pounce on me. After all, I knew exactly what Lenore was now.
She was a vampire.
…Shahzana…can I come in…?
I shook my head, the movement jerky as though I was a puppet being operated by strings.
Lenore opened her mouth, revealing those pearly white teeth. Scarlet blood still trickled down her chin. Her long, pointed tongue flicked out and licked her lips.
…let me in, Shahzana…
Her eyes, so deep and black, like pools of water I could fall into, held me in place.
I had no choice. I had to invite her in.
I opened my mouth to speak the words.
An ambulance siren cut through the night, the sound sudden and shocking. Lenore broke eye contact with me as she whipped her head around, distracted by the noise.
Released from her hypnotic hold, I slammed the window shut and drew the curtains. I ran to my bed and pulled the duvet over me, over my head and everything.
Stupid, I know. Like that was going to protect me.
But I knew that Lenore couldn’t come inside the house unless I invited her in.
And no way was I going to do that.
The following morning, my encounter with Lenore seemed like a dream. Over breakfast, Mum asked me if I was all right and I just said I was tired. What was the point in telling her? She would just tell me I had a nightmare.
And I was starting to think maybe that was all it was.
A stupid dream.
I left the house and headed for school. The sun was shining, and that felt good after my dream last night.
But then I saw the car. The one that had picked up Lenore at the hospital. The one with windows tinted black.
Was that to protect Lenore from the sunlight? Was the driver a vampire, too?
All day I couldn’t get Lenore out of my head. I can’t remember a single lesson at school, or anything my mates said. I must have looked like a sleepwalker.
When I got home that afternoon, Mum was home and so was Grandma.
I ran over to her, sitting in her favourite armchair, and gave her a massive hug.
“I’m not complaining, but what’s this for?” she said, chuckling.
Fair question, I’m not usually known for my extravagant displays of affection.
“I’m just glad you’re here.” I sat down cross-legged on the carpet. “Now we can look after you for a while.”
Grandma smiled. “A little while. And then I will go home.”
“Do you have to? You could come and live with us all the time.”
Grandma just smiled, and the look she gave me, it was the same one my mum had given me last night. Weird, seeing as how they’re not related.
When it was time to go to bed, I thought of Lenore again, floating at my window, tapping her red fingernails against the glass and asking to be let inside. It seemed more like a dream than ever, but that didn’t stop the goosebumps rising on my arms.
“What’s wrong?” Grandma said.
I pulled my sleeves down. “Nothing. Goodnight.”
My room was cold, so I changed quick and climbed under the duvet. I pulled it up under my chin and looked at the curtains pulled across the window.
Why hadn’t I told Mum, or Grandma?
Because they would have laughed at me?
Because I didn’t believe it myself?
I lay awake for ages, listening to the creaks of the house settling. An owl hooted outside.
I closed my eyes, tried thinking of nice things, tried counting backwards from a hundred.
Nothing worked, I just couldn’t get to sleep.
I snapped my eyes open.
I hadn’t been dreaming.
And Lenore was back.
All I had to do was stay right where I was in my warm, comfortable bed and ignore her. Lenore couldn’t come in without me inviting her in.
And I wasn’t about to do that.
…let me in, Shahzana…
I clapped my hands over my ears and screwed my eyes shut.
Go away! I thought. Go away and leave me alone!
No way was I leaving this bed. No way. Absolutely n—
I pulled back the curtains, and there was Lenore.
How had this happened?
Lenore smiled at me through the windowpane. She scratched at the glass with her long, scarlet fingernails.
…let me in, Shahzana…
I pulled up the handle and pushed the window open.
As though listening to someone else speak, I heard my voice form words.
“Come in,” it said. “You can come in now.”
Lenore floated in through the open window. Her hands clasped my cheeks, and her flesh was so very cold.
I couldn’t move, I couldn’t speak or scream for help.
With her thumb, Lenore wiped away a tear running down my cheek.
“Don’t cry,” she whispered. “It only hurts a little and then you will be free.”
Her breath was freezing cold and it stank of moist earth and rotting flesh. As she pushed my head back, exposing my throat, she opened her mouth wide. It looked like the yawning mouth of an empty grave.
Lenore froze, her head tipped back, and she screamed.
I pulled myself free and stumbled, sitting on the end of my bed.
Lenore had a wooden stake protruding from her chest, and blood dripped from its sharpened point. Lenore sank to her knees, revealing Grandma standing behind her, another stake raised and ready to plunge into the vampire.
“That is how you deal with churail,” she said.
Lenore’s face trembled. She arched her head back as her features twisted and writhed. Her flesh bubbled and popped, and yellow pus ran from the open sores. Those once full, red lips shrivelled up and peeled back as her teeth turned rotten and dropped from her mouth.
Finally, Lenore fell forward onto the carpet. Her body continued to writhe beneath her clothes. Her fingers curled into clawed bones and dropped from her hands. Her lustrous hair turned grey and fell out of her skull. Her body continued disintegrating until finally there was nothing left but her clothes and a pile of ash.
A sob from the window startled us.
Crouched in the open window was a man. The wind tugged at his shirt and his long hair. I didn’t need to see the blood on his lips, or those piercing eyes to know that he was a vampire, too.
“Leave!” Grandma spat the word out like it was poison and lifted the stake in her hand. “Leave now or I will kill you!”
The vampire didn’t move. He didn’t even look at Grandma, just stared at me.
And I knew, don’t ask me how because I can’t explain that, but I knew that it was The Loser.
He turned and jumped from the window. I ran over and leaned out, but he was nowhere to be seen.
Later that morning, when the sun had come up and the events of last night could have been a dream, but for the human shaped pile of ash on my bedroom floor, Grandma told us everything. About how all those years ago, The Loser had gotten himself mixed with some bad types, about how he became a vampire, and how Grandma forbade him from ever seeing his family again.
Or else she would kill him.
He left the country. Grandma never saw him again.
Until a couple of days ago, when he and Lenore turned up at Grandma’s house. Said he wanted his family back.
“He wanted you, Raajakumaaree,” Grandma said. “He wanted you to become a vampire and join him, but he didn’t have the guts to do it himself, which is why he came to see me first.”
Grandma told him no. Told him to leave again, or she would kill them both.
Nobody had broken into Grandma’s house. Lenore had attacked Grandma.
The Loser had pulled Lenore off and fled into the night with her.
“Do you think he still loves me?” I said, and then felt stupid for even considering it, let alone saying it. Was I so pathetic that I needed The Loser’s love?
Grandma, as if sensing how I was feeling, placed a hand on mine. “I think he does.”
“Heart strings,” Mum took my other hand. “You have been tugging on his heart strings.”
I thought of him crouched in the open window. He hadn’t looked at Lenore, he’d looked at me.
And maybe, just maybe, that had been love I saw in his eyes.
He’s still a loser, though.
Not my like my mum. She’s ace.
And my vampire slaying Grandma?
She’s the best.