Long the Mile
Sometimes it takes losing everything to find what you really need.
When Judah went to prison for insider trading, he lost everything he thought was important: his business, his money, his power. But when he gets out, homelessness strips him of the one thing he has left: his self-respect. When another homeless man saves him from a beating, he begins to learn to rely on the goodness of those around him.
For Toby, life on the streets has become familiar. Comfortable. So comfortable he wonders if he’s given up on changing his life for the better. Then comes Judah. Formerly rich, newly homeless, all his pride and attitude gone along with his material possessions. Helping Judah feels good. Their unexpected connection—physical and beyond—feels even better.
Their shared situation nurtures a growing closeness that blossoms into something deeper. But when change comes knocking, it will take all their strength to keep fear and insecurity from tearing them apart.
20% of all proceeds from this title are donated to the Ali Forney Center in New York, whose mission “is to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning (LGBTQ) youth from the harm of homelessness, and to support them in becoming safe and independent as they move from adolescence to adulthood.” To learn more about this charity or to donate directly, please visit http://www.aliforneycenter.org/.
This title comes with no special warnings.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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The bus dropped Judah Jackson off at the Coxe Avenue stop in Asheville, North Carolina, with a bag containing two pairs of pants, a shirt, the underwear and socks his lawyer had brought him when he’d been released from prison, and three hundred dollars in cash.
He made his way up to Patton Avenue and stood on the corner waiting for the walk signal with a group of people who looked like tourists. They eyed him with caution, and he hunched his shoulders, embarrassed. Prison hadn’t done his appearance any favors.
The apartment he’d rented via email was only a few blocks away, just down the road from the Civic Center. It wasn’t exactly what he’d been used to before prison, but his business and the majority of his personal assets had been seized as part of his sentence, including his penthouse condo atop the Kress building in the heart of the city. He had to pass right by it on the way to his new place. Looking up at the stately old structure with its art deco carvings and huge arched windows hurt. After paying his team of lawyers, he had less than two thousand dollars to his name. He could no longer afford Kress building real estate.
He stifled a bitter laugh as he started across the parking lot toward the building where he’d been reduced to living. All that money, and the idiots hadn’t even been able to get his sentence lessened. They’d shrugged and said the courts were cracking down on insider trading and wanted to make an example of him, and they’d done all they could.
Judah didn’t buy it. His team hadn’t put in their best effort, and he’d paid the price for it.
But that was in the past. He’d served his sentence, and he was free now. Free to rebuild his brand and the fortune he’d begun to accumulate before everything went to hell. He’d done it before—turned himself from a kid with nothing but ideas and ambition into an entrepreneur with one of the fastest growing businesses in the country. He could do it again.
A few yards short of the apartment building door, a man walked up and planted himself directly in front of Judah. “Hey, man. I’m out of work and I need money. You got anything I can do for you? I’ll work for food. Whatever you want me to do.”
Judah studied the young man—about Judah’s height, a little too thin, sandy hair falling in waves to the shoulders of a well-worn blue T-shirt. A ragged blond beard and mustache framed a wide mouth, and large gray eyes squinted at Judah between thick, pale lashes. The man smiled, obviously hopeful, and shuffled from one foot to another. His jeans and sneakers both had holes in them.
Judah knew a homeless person when he saw one. They’d accosted him plenty of times in the past. Normally he ignored them. He’d especially like to ignore this one and the reminder he carried with him of the narrow ledge Judah inhabited these days, but this man apparently was not going to give him that option.
Judah sneered, knowing exactly how cruel he looked when he did it. “The only thing you can do for me is get out of my way and go back to whatever bridge you’re sleeping under.” He skirted around the man, deliberately not looking at the flush of color in his cheeks or the way his head hung down. “And take a bath, for Christ’s sake. You smell.”
He didn’t, actually, but some cold, angry corner of Judah’s psyche made him want to lash out. To hurt someone else. Maybe transfer some of his own unfocused fear to them. Because the plain, unwelcome fact was that he’d never been more scared in his life.
“I’m sorry, man.”
The words stopped Judah in his tracks, one hand on the door handle. He didn’t want to turn around, but he did it anyway, because . . . Well, honestly, he couldn’t remember anyone ever saying sorry to him without equal parts terror and resentment behind it, and he wanted to know what honest regret looked like.
The homeless guy stood there, watching him with something uncomfortably like pity on his face. Through all the struggles and triumphs of his life, Judah couldn’t remember anyone ever pitying him. The unexpected sympathy—from a stranger, no less—triggered a war of conflicting emotions in Judah’s gut. Embarrassment, anger, and a whiff of gratitude he hardly liked to acknowledge wound themselves together until he could barely tell which was which.
He shook his head, as if he could physically rattle his worldview back into place. “What?”
“I said I’m sorry.” The man shrugged. “Look, obviously you’re having a bad time. It fucks with your head, right? I’ve been there, man. I get it. Happens to all of us sometimes.” A smile lit up the stranger’s face, turning it from average to handsome. “I hope things get better for you. Peace.”
Judah just stared, shocked into silence, as the man turned and sauntered away. The worn-out jeans clung to his thighs, emphasizing the flex of his muscles as he walked, and the sun caught on the strands of gold in his hair.
I am eyeing up a homeless man. The thought shook Judah into motion. He yanked open the door and stomped inside. The sooner he got settled into his new place, the sooner he could begin moving back up in the world and rid himself of the dread lingering like a poisonous aftertaste on the back of his tongue.
Tobias Simonsen walked away from this latest humiliation with jaw tight and hands clenched into fists at his sides. He’d done the right thing by wishing the guy well—the fear had shown right through the worn-thin mask of superiority he’d tried to wear—but damn, it was hard. Anger churned in his stomach, the way it did every time some jerk looked at him like being homeless made him less than human. He was working on overcoming that.
Hector Poole was waiting on the sidewalk at the corner, grinning. “Hey, Toby.”
Toby eyed his friend with deep suspicion. “What?”
“Nothin’, man. Just figured we could walk up to the church together.” Hector fell into step beside Toby as he started toward the center of town. “It’s almost dinnertime. Father Bill’s expecting us to help out.”
“Yeah, I know.” He forced a smile for Hector, who he’d known since the first night he’d slept on the street, over a year ago. “I could use the company. Thanks.”
“Sure thing.” Scratching the black stubble on his neck, Hector glanced back toward the apartment building behind them. “So. Nothing from Richie Rich then, huh?”
Toby scowled. “He said I needed a bath.”
“Seriously?” Hector turned and walked backward for a few steps, apparently just so he could glare at the asshole stranger’s building. “Dude, you’re not letting that bother you, are you?”
Toby shrugged. He wanted to say no, but he’d never been good at lying.
Hector groaned. “Jesus Christ. You don’t stink, you fucking idiot.”
“I know, okay? I showered this morning at the shelter. MayBelle even let me wash my clothes.” Toby rubbed his beard, trying to work out why he’d felt so embarrassed about a stupid insult when he knew damn well it was just the other guy lashing out at the world. “I don’t know why it bothered me. It just did.”
“Probably ’cause the dude was hot, and he shot you down.” Hector shook his head. “You always did think with your dick.”
“Jackass,” Toby muttered without any real heat. Hector always said shit like that, even though they both knew it wasn’t true.
He was right about one thing, though. The man who’d sneered at Toby and made him feel about an inch tall was hot. Average height, same as Toby, with great big eyes the color of the expensive dark chocolate Toby had always loved but could no longer afford. Thick black hair cut close to the scalp emphasized a sharp-featured, ridiculously handsome face that looked like it had seen too much. Best of all, the black slacks and snug gray shirt clung to the sort of hard, wiry body Toby liked best.
Yeah, the guy was a looker. That wasn’t it, though. Toby had been sneered at by hot guys before without it bugging him. But this one gave off an air of someone who’d had money once and didn’t anymore. For some reason, that gave his words an unaccustomed sting, though Toby knew he was being stupid by letting it get to him.
He and Hector walked on in silence for a while. As they turned onto the side street leading to the church where Father Bill fed Asheville’s homeless every day and led jubilant, unconventional services, Hector nudged Toby with his elbow. “I got a lead on some landscape work with a new company in town. It’s temporary, but it’ll get us food money enough to last a little while. You in?”
“Yeah. That sounds great.” Toby grinned. “Come on, I’ll buy you lunch to celebrate.” He gestured toward the church.
Hector laughed. They walked down the sidewalk together toward the group already gathering on the front lawn.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Jackson. We simply don’t have anything for you at this time.”
Judah resisted the urge to scream bullshit into his cell phone. “Mr. Owenby, I think you’ll find my qualifications—”
“My company does not need qualifications that involve breaking the law.”
Fuck. Leaning over the cheap Formica counter in his tiny kitchen, Judah rested his head in his free hand. “I’ve served my time. I’m trying to start over here.”
The man on the other end of line laughed, trailing off into a rough, loose cough. Smoker, Judah thought, remembering his grandmother’s constant, gravelly hacking. She was still at it, for all he knew. He hadn’t spoken to his grandparents since he’d left their nominal care for New York City at age seventeen, almost thirty years ago.
God, time sped up when you got older.
“Yes, very noble,” said Mr. Owenby, his dry tone expressing pretty clearly what he thought of that. “I wish you luck. Truly. But I’m afraid I can’t have my business tarnished by a criminal element, even one attempting reform. Goodbye.”
The connection cut. Judah scowled. “Pompous old ass.”
With a deep sigh, he thumbed off his phone, wandered over to the window of his small apartment, and stared out at the less-than-ideal view of the back of the Civic Center. Christ, if he didn’t find a source of income soon, he wouldn’t be able to keep even the relatively cheap phone plan he’d gotten when he’d arrived back in Asheville twelve days ago.
His plan was to re-create Jax Enterprises. He was no idealist, though. He knew that would be a long time coming. Re-building a business like JE would require plenty of capital, and he’d need a hell of a lot of it himself before he could even think of approaching anyone else to invest. The idea was to get a job in upper management in one of the companies flocking to Asheville over the last few years—or maybe one of the ones already embedded, like the Biltmore Estate, he wasn’t that picky—and build a nice capital cushion, then start putting out feelers for possible investors in the new Jax. Under a different name, of course. The name Jax Enterprises was eternally tarnished now. But that was only a small thing. With any luck, two or three years would give him enough time for people to forget. Then he’d think of a new name for his company, find investors, and reclaim his former life.
The big snag in his grand plan was that no one would hire him. To be fair, he’d only heard back from a couple of places so far, but he’d considered them the most likely to hire him, and both had told him the same thing: they had no room for an ex-con.
The whole thing burned his ass. Especially in Owenby’s case. The only differences between the two of them were that the old man had engaged in truly egregious insider trading—more than once, from what Judah had heard—and he’d never gotten caught. Hypocritical prick.
Oh well. No sense in brooding. He still had a couple of applications in, and two or three other prospects in mind before he had to come up with a plan B.
In the meantime, it was almost 7 p.m., he was out of anything that might resemble a meal, and the idea of taking the bus to the grocery store made him want to curl up in a corner and die. Strange, how he’d never felt the need for a car when he had money for restaurants, delivery, and a driver when he wanted it.
Groaning, he leaned his head against the window. It had been a long, long time since he’d been poor. He didn’t want to go back to those days. But it looked as though he had no choice.
The thought terrified him.
“Stop that. You’ve done it before. You can do it again.”
Talking out loud to himself might be stupid, but it helped. Feeling slightly more confident, he pulled away from the window, grabbed his jacket from the back of the chair to ward off the unseasonably early September chill, and headed for the door. He’d decide where he was going once he got outside.
“Coffee’s on, boys and girls.” Father Bill pushed a cart loaded with three beat-up old metal urns into place at the front of the church fellowship hall and grinned at the crowded room through his wild beard. “Come and get it.”
Toby stood from the wobbly card table where he’d been sitting with Hector, Vicki, and the boy who never talked, and lined up with the others for coffee. He needed it this morning. The folks who’d been on the street for a long time had warned him about Halloween, and boy, they’d been right. The full-to-busting shelters and increased police presence meant he hadn’t slept at all. Kept getting kicked out of every place he’d found to curl up out of the cold. So he’d spent the whole night moving from place to place, trying to stay warm.
He filled a Styrofoam cup with hot, strong coffee and moved out of the way for the next person in line. Yawning men, women, and children, all with cold-reddened faces, packed the church hall this morning. Obviously Toby wasn’t the only one who’d had a bad night. He walked to the bench under the window and sat down, sipping the bitter brew and blinking the grit out of his eyes.
Father Bill sauntered over with a steaming cup in his hand. “Toby.”
Toby found a smile for the priest. He was a real oddball, with the owl feathers in his beard and his penchant for leading his mostly homeless congregation through the streets singing gospel tunes instead of holding more traditional worship services. But he had a big heart, and he’d done more to help the city’s street people than probably anyone else.
“Morning, Father.” Toby moved over so Father Bill could sit. “Thanks for the coffee.”
“God’s house belongs to all of us. So does God’s coffee.”
Toby laughed. “God’s coffee tastes especially good this morning. It was a long night.”
“Yeah. I’d’ve brought you a blanket, but I couldn’t find you.” Father Bill scratched his chin, blue eyes fixed on Toby in a thoughtful stare. “So. Hector said you dropped the landscaping job.”
Toby wrinkled his nose. “Hector has a big mouth.”
“He worries about you, that’s all.”
“I know.” Toby gazed out the window at the small church parking lot. “It just felt weird finishing out the temporary job when they hired Hector on permanently. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m really happy for Hector. They couldn’t’ve gotten a better guy. But, yeah. It felt weird being there after that. So I quit.” He shrugged and took a sip of coffee, not looking at the priest because he would definitely see the jealousy Toby couldn’t quite hide. “There were only a couple of days left anyway.”
Father Bill shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. How’s that gonna look next time you apply for a job?”
“Like three weeks’ worth of winterizing somebody’s lawn would make my résumé more impressive.”
He got a snort of laughter in answer. “Still, you know you quit, and that makes a difference in the attitude you bring to the table.” Father Bill took a swallow of coffee, peering at Toby over the curve of his cup. “You’re a smart guy, Tobias. You have education, experience, and talent. Don’t give up on yourself just because you’ve had a tough year.”
Startled, Toby widened his eyes at Father Bill. “Huh? I haven’t. Given up, I mean.”
“You say that, but I wonder sometimes.” Father Bill glanced toward the kitchen, where Vicki and Silent Bob—as one of the girls had dubbed the boy who couldn’t talk—were pulling out pots and pans to cook whatever happened to be in the fridge. “I better go make sure they don’t try to feed everybody outdated bacon or anything.” He rose and clapped Toby on the shoulder. “I’m keeping the sanctuary and fellowship hall open as long as it stays this cold. Come on by tonight if you want.”
“I will, thanks.” Toby smiled as the priest hurried away. He’d slept on the church pews before. It wasn’t very comfortable, but it was a damn sight better than sleeping outside in the cold.
Toby wasn’t particularly hungry, in spite of not having eaten in almost twenty-four hours, but he forced down a plateful of scrambled eggs, toast, and oatmeal anyway when Vicki beckoned him to the table. The most important lesson he’d learned over the last eleven months was to eat every time you got the chance. The second most important lesson? Save something for later if you could, because you never knew how long it might be before your next meal.
With that in mind, Toby wrapped a couple triangles of toast in a napkin and tucked them into his jacket pocket before heading out into the city again.
By now, the sun had risen high enough to melt some of the icy bite from the morning. Toby breathed deep as he strolled up the sidewalk toward Patton Avenue. The mouthwatering smell of pastries and strong coffee drifted from the bakery up the block. Every building, every tree, every weed-sprouting crack in the sidewalk stood out sharp and clear in the cold, crisp air. Birds sang in the nearby park. Even the men and women hurrying by in business suits seemed happy today, exchanging smiles with one another as they rushed to their jobs. A couple of them even spared a nod and a smile for Toby, which made him laugh. Usually he was only visible to cops and other street people.
When he reached Pack Square, Toby lifted his face to the bright blue sky, his exhaustion ebbing away with every step. On days like this, sunny and clear and practically vibrating with a hopeful energy, all his worries faded into the distance and his possibilities felt limitless.
He wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. But when you felt lucky, you had to go with the flow, right?
Squaring his shoulders and hoping he looked presentable, Toby marched across the square, heading for Barley’s Taproom. He knew his beer, he’d tended bar to help pay for his college tuition, and he’d waited plenty of tables, working his way up to manager of a couple of the best hotels in the South before the crash of ’08. He’d be an asset, if he could talk the management into hiring him.
He’d started down the street toward the pub when he saw a man coming out of the museum at Pack Place. A very familiar man.
Toby stopped and stared. It was a bad idea and he knew it. But he couldn’t help himself. The man who’d managed to get to him with a sneer and a weak-assed insult looked like he’d been put through the wringer over the intervening weeks. He’d lost weight, his shoulders were slumped, and dark circles bruised the skin under his eyes. Before, he’d looked down his nose at the world. Now, he studied the sidewalk at his feet like he couldn’t bear to meet anyone else’s gaze.
Toby knew that look—desperation. Fear. Shame. All jumbled together into a toxic brew that sat like lead in your veins and turned you into a shadow of your true self. He’d felt it himself—fucking drowned in it—not so long ago. It had taken him long months and a whole lot of painful inner struggle to make a tentative peace with his situation. Even now, he still struggled with it. He wouldn’t wish what he’d gone through on the most evil man who’d ever lived.
Well. Okay. Hitler. Or Saddam Hussain. A few others. But not some formerly rich dude who dished out knee-jerk insults based on insecurity more than anything else.
Several seconds passed before Toby realized Mr. Used-to-Be-Rich was coming his way. Toby put his head down and picked up his pace. He had no idea why he was so nervous all of a sudden, but there it was. He felt like he’d ridden a magic slingshot back in time to his pudgy, painfully shy, socially awkward teen years.
Pathetic. Absolutely fucking pathetic.
Which did not stop him from literally sighing with relief when he managed to turn the corner onto Biltmore Avenue before the weirdly intimidating stranger crossed his path.
The itch at the back of his neck told him the man was watching him. Why, Toby had no clue, and he didn’t really want to find out. Ignoring the urge to turn and look, he locked his gaze resolutely on the entrance to Barley’s and kept walking.
[A] heart wrenching and heart-filled story.
[T]hought-provoking, warmhearted, tender and loving.
Not only is this a great romance, but it really is a good reminder. For people on the street, hope is hard to believe in day in and day out.
A great story for the holidays!
It’s harrowing, heartbreaking, and a little sad, but at the same time it’s uplifting and hopeful.