Let Love In Your Heart: Scary Florida Story
Scary Florida story of a man walking alone through the Orlando streets, haunted not by a monster or ghost, but instead a strange song. Written by K.E. Moore.
NOTE: Some adult content.
Max stepped out from beneath the yellow and white marquis to the pattering of rain drops, tapping against his head and seeping into his hair. “Damn,” he sighed, as he threw up the hood of his windbreaker and hunched his shoulders against the harsh Orlando weather. The lights from the movie theater stabbed into the darkness, shattered into luminescent shards by the falling rain before dying like embers on a breeze.
Max groaned at the idea of having to slog through the oncoming torrent, gritted his teeth, and began to walk home.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw poster after poster lit in neon pinks and blues with “Coming Soon” or “Now Playing” emblazoned beneath. Most of them were chick flicks or cookie cutter spy thrillers, the kinds of trash boring people went to see with other boring people.
Not that Max was pleased with the movie he had just finished watching, a midnight debut of yet another beloved comic book hero perverted by Hollywood in some over-budgeted special effects nightmare.
Max had decided this was the last time. Ever.
All around him, Florida’s night life was pouring into the street from bars and nightclubs. It had to be almost three in the morning, and yet the girls in skin tight dresses and young men with square jaws and expensive outfits, flooding the streets and heading to their cars with jackets pulled over their heads, made it seem almost like midday.
Max sneered. He could tell at a glance which people were going home to sleep it off, which people suffered the disappointment of not hooking up with someone, and which people were crawling into strange cars with strangers to spend the night in strange beds, only to wake up in a few hours and slink away in shame. And he hated them all.
Max was a night person—he worked during the night, lived during the night–and these people were anything but. Oh, they would talk about running the night, throwing their hands up in their cars as they bumped whatever crap was being pushed out by music execs these days. They would stumble into the convenience store in the middle of his shift, giggling as they ambled toward gum that barely covered their halitosis, or the rows of alcohol in the back. They thought they were night people, but really they were just visiting. Trespassing.
Up ahead, Church Street glowed with its whitish yellow lights, a haven to tourists. The locals were bad enough; tourists with their fanny packs and travelers’ checks and Hawaiian shirts, their clueless, gullible eyes always searching as they bumble from one landmark to another, were more than Max could handle.
Before he could reach the intersection, Max dipped into an alley, leaving the last fading lights of Orlando’s nightlife for the reassuring darkness. The rain started to seep through his windbreaker and pants, sending a chill through his skin. He didn’t mind. Max had lived in Orlando his whole life; he knew that in fifteen minutes the rain would stop, leaving in its wake the suffocating humidity, wisps and ghosts of steam dancing their way slowly off the cracked concrete. Let the rain pour, he thought, let it keep falling until his worn sneakers carried him to the crappy apartment, where his mother would be stone drunk and passed out in the living room chair and the cockroaches, big and black and territorial, roamed the walls and floors. Let the rain fall until he was finally home.
Being a native, Max could hear underneath the rain. He didn’t think the tourists could. They probably only heard the machine gun patter of water against concrete and maybe their own ignorant jabbering. But he could hear the scurry of rats, the shifting of bums under their cardboard boxes. Hell, Max could hear the damned cockroaches—the kinds of cockroaches people called “Palmetto Bugs” because everyone was too ashamed to admit they were really just massive roaches. That bit. And could fly.
Despite the pests and the smell of urine and the horrible weather, Max did not hate this place. He didn’t love it. But he didn’t hate it. It was all he had ever known, and while there might be more comfortable or less infested or at the very least better smelling places, this was where he was comfortable, where he was safe. The tourists and the clubbers, primped in their fabric plumage and doused in perfume and cologne—that wasn’t safe, that wasn’t comfortable. They were as foreign as any country overseas. But these alleys, painted in piss and humidity, would always be familiar.
Like a shark in familiar waters, Max hooked a left in the dark network of alleys, the salty, pungent aroma of a familiar noodle shop filling his nose. They’d been closed for hours now, but the trash heap behind the weather-worn back door still steamed and smelled of grease and MSG. Max’s stomach grumbled, and he toyed with the idea of taking a peek in the garbage; sometimes the family that ran the shop would throw out whole chunks of meat as big as roasts. His mother’s voice in his head, stern and slurred, stopped him. “We don’t need to go dumpster divin’, boy. We ain’t no white trash!”
Max shoved his hands deeper into his pockets and slouched by.
He took a right, his eyes only just registering the way the rain drops exploded against the black surface of the narrow lane before him, the buildings tall and huddled on either side, looking down on him. The thin sliver of clouds above were purple and electric with the haze of the city’s lights. Max was halfway home, halfway to a bowl of Ramen noodles and the smell of his mother—sweat, gin, and stale cigarette smoke.
Halfway to his room, where he coated the cracked plaster with posters of his heroes, and used his headphones to block out the world. Halfway home to sleep, where he could forget about everything until the next day.
“Let love in your heart,” a voice sang in the night, gravelly and horribly off key. The shape of a man, outlined in rain, shifted in the dark only a few feet away.
Max gasped. Adrenaline flooded his system. His hands clenching, his knees bent as though his body was making plans to run without checking with his brain. You can’t show fear, he knew. Orlando preyed on the frightened. You had to swim its waters like a shark or be eaten. “Scared the shit out of me, bro,” he said, forcing his voice to sound relaxed.
The shape drew nearer, near enough for him to see hints of facial features, matted hair, a nose and cheeks chiseled out of dark stone by a sculptor driven mad by drink and failure. Max could see the figure’s eyes, yellowed, ugly and damned. Those horrid eyes held Max’s as the figure lurched past, leaving an odor of vomit and feces in its wake.
“And let the Lord into your soul,” the figure sang. The voice was strained, every note shaky and off. Max had never heard the song before. But he didn’t need to have heard the song to know that the bum was singing it wrong. The notes, tortured and twisted, bent out of shape, stayed in Max’s ears long after the transient shambled out of sight, taking his song with him.
He stared down the alley, back where he came from, peering into the dark, into the shadows that swallowed the singer whole. It felt like something was waiting for him, watching, smelling him. Sniffing him out.
Max couldn’t afford to think that way. Not here. Not in his waters. He had to be the shark; that or wind up yet another dead-eyed fish, torn apart and crushed in the jaws of another deep sea predator. He shrugged and sneered. Whackos.
Orlando was full of them. He would survive. He’d always survived.
No matter how hard he tried, though, Max found himself craving light again. As much as he hated to admit it, he wished he was back out in the main streets, amid the other people his age showing off, desperately seeking the attention of the opposite gender so they could feel better about themselves when they slogged back to their dead end jobs in the morning.
The off key melody played over and over in his head, the gravelly voice resonating in his bones. He no longer felt safe—these waters no longer felt like they belonged to him.
The rain stopped.
That was Florida. The rain came without warning and left without so much as a thank you, have a nice day. The rain stopped and left Max alone in the dark, the staccato patter replaced by a silence as thick and tangible as cotton.
He could hear his own breath in his ears, his heart pounding, a snare drum drilled into his brain. He realized that this was all probably because his hood was still up and he lowered it. There was some relief—he no longer felt walled in by the sound of his own breath, but the silence still permeated everything.
Max needed to get home.
Embarrassed, he started walking faster than normal. Screw that, the bum unnerved him, so what if he picked up his pace. It was late, he had to get home. Who, in the great cosmic scheme of things, really gave a shit?
“Let love in your heart,” another voice croaked and Max jumped, his hands balled up in fists before him.
“And let the Lord into your soul,” sang an old woman. She was plump, collapsed against a wall, her skin the color of sadness, her eyes tired with years of disappointment. To Max, she barely looked real, like one of those strange animatronics you see at Disney World. She stared at him accusingly, like he had failed her somehow.
Max scowled back, and began to pick up his pace. Screw this. Screw all of this. Max decided to get the hell out of the alleys. Sure, it would probably add an extra ten minutes to his walk home, but he no longer wanted to be stuck here with these freaks. He didn’t want to be stuck in the dark with that crippled, mangled melody.
“Let love in your heart,” the woman sang after him as he walked as fast as he could away from her. The song sounded like an accusation. No. It sounded like a condemnation.
Don’t run, he told himself. Don’t run. But despite his commands, his knees started to bend and his gait revolted, transforming his fast walk into a stilted half-jog. Max needed light. He needed the stupid people, the empty, useless, boring people. Max needed the minnows so he could be a shark again.
Another left and a right, and up ahead Max could see traffic lights and cars sluggishly prowling Orlando’s rain-coated streets. Steam wafted up from the concrete, swirling around Max like a specter, grasping at his ankles, tugging him down, down into the pavement, to stay there, trapped forever.
He sped up even more.
“Let love in your heart,” another bum sang, a wizened old white man turned bronze with a gin blossom nose. He pulled a swig from a bottle wrapped in brown paper bagging, and reached out and rested a hand on Max’s shoulder. “And let the Lord into your soul,” he sang, alcohol breath and broken notes washing over Max in a putrid wave.
Max brushed off the old man’s hand like it was a spider and hurried towards the main streets. Everything would be better when he got home.
Leaving the alleys felt like walking into a grocery store on a hot summer day, the way the air conditioning swirled around you, plunging your skin into the cold. Store fronts here were lit, even if they were closed, and there were even a few people, normal people, meandering about, squeezing the last precious few moments out of Orlando’s night life before they were forced to head back to their beds and sleep until it was time to do it all over again.
Max could breathe again.
He checked the street signs at the intersection, grateful for real street lights. Home wasn’t too far. Ten minutes at the most. He just had to make it for another ten minutes.
A relieved smile on his face, Max strolled along the sidewalk. He’d cross the street ahead, turn left, a right, and there would be home, an old motel refit to serve as cheap apartments. He was even thinking he might unwind with a little playstation before sleep. His mom bitched about him being online, but the old hag would be passed out by now. She would never even know. Yeah. Play some playstation, get some sleep.
That’s what he needed.
Max even waited for the light to change at the crosswalk before crossing the street; he was feeling that much better. The shark was back in its waters.
Parked at the curb ahead was a beat-up old sedan. Max could make out the shadows of two people huddled together and he rolled his eyes. “Come on,” he hissed to himself, “really?”
As he neared the car, he noticed that the windows were rolled down. He could hear the giggles of a girl, soft, alluring.
When he drew even with the car, he cast a glance in through the window. He couldn’t see the girl in the back seat. But he could see the guy, his face illuminated by the neon sign of a gun store, his hair stylishly tousled and held in place by product. He seemed completely focused on the as yet unseen girl until Max drew perfectly even with the vehicle. Then the man looked up, looked right into Max’s eyes.
Those eyes were dead eyes, lifeless eyes, the eyes of a shark as it patrols its waters, mindless, only conscious in the most basic of definitions of hunting, and eating. Plastic eyes.
“Let love in your heart,” he sang off key. Max froze, his feet welded to the sidewalk in fear, his ears ringing.
There was movement, and Max saw the girl’s head rise into view, her chestnut hair falling over exquisite shoulders in a beautiful waterfall. Arched eyebrows and dark eyes held him as her lips, full and crimson, sang the second half of the refrain.
“And let the Lord into your soul.”
Her voice was soft, sensual, and yet the notes were still wrong, still mangled. Moments before, she had laughed a symphony of ecstasy, but now that pretty voice was stretched taut along sinew-snapping tones, like a fine violin out of tune.
The couple stared at Max, dull, stupid, and hungry. At once he got the sense that they wanted him, craved him, and yet were not capable of basic sentient understanding. As he stood there, the only thing Max saw in their eyes was death—his own.
Desperation overcame him, blanketed him, seeped into his pores and entered his bloodstream.
Behind him, he could hear the car open and shut, dull thunks in the empty night.
Another street to cross. This time he didn’t bother to wait for the lights. Screw the lights. He had almost made it to the other sidewalk when a car came skidding around the corner and almost slammed into him.
He fell against the hood of the car. It was red. A sports car. Its horn blared through the night, and Max cringed. ‘Shut up!’ he screamed inside his head, ‘You’ll bring them here!’
The driver, a middle aged man, leaned out the window and glared at him. Max was ready for him to yell, to shout, “Get out of the fucking street, kid!” but those words never came.
Instead, the motorist sang in wretched notes, “Let love in your heart.”
Max didn’t wait for the refrain before he started running. Even so, the words, that horrible non-melody, chased after him, “And let the Lord into your soul.”
Home, he just wanted to be home. That’s all he wanted. He just wanted to be home, damn it.
But as he ran, people oozed from everywhere. Every storefront, every alleyway. They were singing in unison, each off key, each in a hideous, discordant chorus. “Let love in your heart.”
He turned a corner. His street. The run-down apartment complex in view. Stupid palm trees with Christmas lights stood like sentries on either side of the driveway. Max glanced over his shoulder to find the street packed with people. The bum chiseled out of dark brown stone. The old lady. The man with a gin blossom nose. The couple from the car. The driver that had almost run him over. Nameless faces. Blank faces, with dead eyes. Walking after him, singing, more like chanting.
“And let the Lord into your soul.”
Max’s feet landed on the walk that led into the complex. The pool, still lit at this hour, glowed blue-green and yellow, sending a haunting light dancing along the fronts of all the apartments crowded around it. All he had to do was climb the stairs and he would be there.
Behind him the crowd sang, an unholy choir, no one in key with the other. The words like shackles reached out for him, “Let love into your heart. And let the Lord into your soul.”
His chest was burning as he tried to gulp in air, his legs stinging from the lactic acid as he took the stairs two at a time.
Giant cockroaches scuttled to and fro as he disturbed their nocturnal wanderings, and he didn’t care. Everything would be okay once he got home. Once he slid his key into the lock, slipped by his alcoholic mother, and closed the door of his room, shutting out the world and that crazy fucking song.
Max was already fishing for his keys, the jangling noise they made as he pulled them free more musical than any song he had heard in his life. His fingers fumbled through them, finally selecting the right one as the crowd singing that horrible song reached the palm trees with the Christmas lights.
“Let love in your heart.”
Max’s free hand wrapped around the door knob as he guided the key towards the keyhole. He was shaking, and the tip of the key scored arcane symbols uselessly into the metal of the lock.
“And let the Lord into your soul.”
The key finally slid into the dark recess of the keyhole, and Max was about to push it in when he felt the door knob turn in his hands. The door swung open.
Max stared at his mother. She was barely more than a silhouette; the room behind her was cast into darkness, the only light inside the apartment coming from the kitchen beyond. Even in this dim light, though, Max could see her dead eyes, gazing at him, but not comprehending. Fish eyes. Plastic eyes. Judging him, condemning him, without even acknowledging him.
“Let love in your heart,” she half-sang, half-whispered.
He felt it before he saw it, hot, so hot, a stinging in his chest. Pain branched out from the center of his torso, rendering his brain slow and witless. He looked down.
His mother’s hand was holding something. Something dull and dark, but glinting. The darkness was already closing in. The word knife drifted across his consciousness, and in the dim light, he could see a crimson blossom spreading onto his shirt, exploding slowly. Blood. His blood.
The pain was exquisite, terrible.
No. Sharks don’t get stabbed. He was a shark.
Max felt the energy seep from his muscles, his knees unable to support him. He was going to drop to the ground.
Max looked into his mother’s dead eyes, the only light left in this rapidly shrinking world.
She glared at him. Judged him. She was drunk, had to be drunk. He could smell her. But she stood there, with her knife buried into his heart, and she watched him as he died, and sang.
Max’s mother sang. “And let the Lord into your soul.”
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