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Where You Believe, I Will Follow

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Eastside Tilly swung the door to Luke’s Diner open. It was seven am on a Tuesday, not the time of day Tilly normally dropped by. Generally, a break from routine meant Tilly had gossip. But then again, Tilly always had gossip.

“Sit anywhere you can find a seat, Tilly,” Luke grunted as he placed a bowl of oatmeal in front of Kirk.

Babette and Miss Patty waved the new arrival over to one of the open chairs at their table, but Eastside Tilly remained planted firmly in Luke’s Diner’s entrance. In a clear, loud voice, she announced to the diner, “She’s taken in a man!”

The announcement provoked precisely the reaction Tilly had desired. The bustling diner fell silent, the only sound the sizzle of bacon on the flattop. Tilly beamed triumphantly at her audience, sauntered to Babette and Miss Patty’s table, and plunked herself onto the open chair.

“Coffee and French toast!” she called to Luke.

Luke stepped into the kitchen to start on Tilly’s order, and snapped at Cesar not to burn the bacon.

Then the diner erupted into noise.

“Who’s taken in a man?”

“What man?”

“Has Lorelai’s fiancé moved in with her?”

“Is it Mrs. Henderson? Did she and Archie have another fight?”

“Crazy Carrie—she’s gotta be talking about Crazy Carrie!”

The diner occupants tossed out several less plausible guesses, and Luke emerged from the kitchen to pour Tilly’s cup of coffee. Then he started to clear Miss Patty and Babette’s dirty plates, taking longer than it should have to stack two saucers and a bowl.

“Well?” Miss Patty prompted Tilly. “Don’t keep us in suspense!”

“Yeah, sugar! Spill!” barked Babette.

Tilly took a slow, luxurious sip of her coffee and, certain that the entire diner was hanging onto her every word, said one name that no one was expecting: “Mia.”

“Mia!”

“Mia?”

“Independence Inn Mia?”

Eastside Tilly nodded and related how she had stumbled onto the scoop of the century. She’s been out last night for a late stroll, just minding her own business, enjoying the cool night air. She’d had to get out of her house because the Hendersons next door had been fighting again—a real doozy, this time. She didn’t like to gossip, but the word “secretary” had been flung around quite a bit, and Tilly couldn’t go to sleep with that racket.

So she’d walked down Peach Street—a peaceful night, nothing to see except for Taylor lecturing that new stockboy of his on the proper way to tie an apron. And she thought it might be nice to see the Independence Inn at night—really peaceful.

Or so she had thought. She had been strolling on the grounds in the moonlight, her mind finally clear except for that spat between Michel and the inn’s night manager she’d had the misfortune of overhearing—some disagreement where someone might have accused someone else of stealing robes from the inn—nothing important, but finally the two stopped bickering and Michel left for the night. And that’s when Tilly heard voices by the potting shed. A man’s voice and a woman’s voice.

She’d thought maybe some guests were lost and she could direct them back to the inn, so she walked over to the voices—but then she thought maybe they were burglars, so she crept behind the bushes to get a better look. And she saw Mia. And a man. And a baby.

That’s right—a baby! She could barely believe it herself! But the man was holding a baby. The baby must have been sleeping, because it wasn’t making a peep. Mia and the man were speaking in low voices, and eventually the man passed the baby to Mia, and Mia started giggling. The man opened the potting shed door and entered the shed, carrying some duffel bags with him. Mia followed him in and closed the door after him, and that was it.

Tilly had been so scared by the prospect of burglars that it was a while before she was able to move again, naturally. She stayed in the bushes for about twenty minutes more, until Mia exited the potting shed, no longer carrying the baby. And that was it.

Only that wasn’t it, because now Tilly was besieged by questions. Did she recognize the man? How old was he? What did he look like? Did Mia seem happy? How many bags did the man have with him? Wasn’t Jackson’s cousin Rune staying in the potting shed?

This last question was answered not by Tilly, but by Kirk, who informed the diner that Sookie had kicked Rune out of the potting shed ages ago. Kirk started to tell the details of that piece of gossip when the other diner occupants shushed him and repeated their questions about the mysterious man to Tilly. Did he look like a criminal? What had he been wearing? Was he handsome?

Luke set Tilly’s French toast in front of her, and she began to dig in.

“Hard to say,” she answered, chewing slowly. “He was wearing dark clothing—jeans and a leather jacket, I think. He looked sort of…” she poured more syrup on her French toast, “like Bill Maher.”

“Bill Maher?” Babette screeched.

“Yeah, but…” Tilly took another bite of French toast, “Bill Maher if he had dark hair. And a beard.”

“That doesn’t sound like Bill Maher…”

“Well…” Tilly considered this, “maybe more like Ringo Starr—“

Kirk swiveled around in his seat at the counter. “A Hard Day’s Night, Sergeant Pepper’s, or Shining Time Station?”

“Shining Time Station,” Tilly answered. “Only he was tall. And good-looking.”

“That doesn’t sound like Ringo Starr…”

Tilly screwed up her eyes to remember the mysterious man from last night. “He sort of looked like Richard Gere.”

Miss Patty perked up at this. “Richard Gere, you say?” she chuckled huskily.

Tilly shrugged noncommittally. “Yeah, if Richard Gere looked like—“ she froze, staring at something on the other side of the window. “Looked like him,” she finished, nodding to a figure approaching Luke’s.

As the door swung open, the diner fell silent for the second time that morning. The newcomer stepped over to the counter, Kirk swiveling as he did so Kirk could maintain eye contact. The stranger’s eyes swept across the room, and every other set of eyes was fastened on him. The only eyes that weren’t were those of the dozing baby strapped to the stranger’s chest.

“Um…” the newcomer took a few steps experimentally to find that, yes, all of those eyes were following his movements, “jeez,” he murmured to himself, “now I know how Tippi Hedron must have felt.” He had a strained smile, and he stepped back to the counter, where Luke was absently wiping a glass. “Can I sit here?” he asked, jerking his head to the counter’s sole empty stool.

“Uh…” was Luke’s unhelpful response.

The strange man turned to Tom, who was occupying the stool next to the empty one. “Is this seat free?” he asked with the air of someone accustomed to prompt cooperation from strangers.

Tom slowly nodded, and the man sat down, hiding his face with a heavily-annotated Luke’s menu.

Most of the diner’s occupants were struggling to reconcile Tilly’s account of Mia’s tryst with the man in front of them.

First of all, the man was about 20 years younger than they had assumed he’d be—he couldn’t have been much over forty. His hair was brown, no hints of gray, with a slightly darker beard that looked like it was a new addition. He wore glasses—a wire-framed style that had been popular back in the early ‘90s. His skin was a few shades darker than any of the men Tilly had compared him to, but it was obvious why she had selected the men she had: this guy had one giant nose.

Miss Patty would later speak of his deliciously large lower lip, Babette would later comment on his tight t-shirt, and Kirk would later insist to skeptical listeners that the man’s dark jeans had a bulge on the side like he was carrying a gun. As soon as the man stepped out of the diner, these descriptions would erupt, and maybe the man knew it, because as he set down his menu, his lips had a slight quirk.

“Coffee and eggs benedict, please,” he said to Luke, who grunted his acknowledgement, poured the coffee, and disappeared into the kitchen.

The man then returned to reading his menu, apparently amused by the notes a previous diner had scribbled in the margins.

There had been some whispering at Miss Patty and Babette’s table, and the whispering let up when Miss Patty waved her hand and called a friendly, “Yoohoo!” to the stranger.

The man didn’t react at first, and only turned around when Miss Patty followed the call with an additional, “Yoohoo, Mr. Daddy over there!”

The man shot Patty a confused glance and pointed to himself, to which Patty smiled and nodded.

“Come over here!” she ordered him, gesturing to the last open chair at her table. “Nobody sits alone at Luke’s Diner,” she announced, ignoring the five other people at the counter.

The man complied, still carrying his scribbled menu. Once he’d sat down, Patty, Babette, and Tilly quickly shook hands with him and provided their names.

“So nice to meet someone new!” Patty said, giving him what could only be described as “sex eyes.”

“Are you passing through?” Eastside Tilly asked.

“What’s your name, sugar?” demanded Babette.

“Harry Mudd,” the stranger provided. “Nice to meet you.”

Luke set the eggs benedict in front of Harry roughly. His eyes swept over the newcomer, and he asked him sourly if there was anything else he needed.

“Uh…no, that’s it, thanks…” Harry replied.

Luke scribbled Harry’s bill, tore it from his pad, and slid it to Harry. Then he stalked back behind the counter and returned to cleaning glasses, now eyeing Harry suspiciously as he did so. Harry looked at his new acquaintances questioningly.

“Oh, that’s just Luke,” Patty waved off Luke’s sudden antagonism.

“Luke’s a grump,” added Tilly.

“Luke hates babies,” provided Babette.

“We love babies,” purred Patty, her eyes glued to Harry’s forearms rather than to the sleeping infant just inches away.

“What’s the little guy’s name?” asked Babette, who actually was looking at the baby.

The infant chose this moment to stir, perhaps reacting to Babette’s shrill voice. No sooner had it opened its blue eyes than it shut them again, nestling its head against its father’s chest in deep sleep.

“Roger,” Harry informed them, looking down at his son affectionately, “but I think Rip van Winkle might have been a more appropriate choice.”

This earned some laughter—Roger stirred again, but didn’t wake up—and the conversation continued its typical course: how old the baby was (two months), whether Harry could divine any personality traits yet (sadism—Roger always giggled when Harry got hurt), and whether Harry had gotten a full night’s sleep since Roger had been born (he hadn’t, but admitted to his audience that even at the best of times, that was often the case).

“Oh?” Patty smiled at him. “Usually something keeping you up at night, hmm?”

Harry grinned lopsidedly. “Nothing I’d admit to in front of Roger.”

“Oh, Harry, be careful!” Miss Patty hooted, using her exaggerated laughter as an excuse to cop a feel of Harry’s bicep. “This is a small town—people will talk!”

“Yeah,” Harry replied, scanning the still mostly silent diner, “Mia mentioned Stars Hollow liked its gossip…”

Everyone tensed, and it was brave Eastside Tilly who finally brought the conversation to the topic on everyone’s mind. “Mia Bass?” she asked innocently.

Harry nodded. “Yeah—she owns the inn—you know her?”

Tilly, Patty, Babette, and the rest of the diner nodded their heads. Harry’s smile widened at this shameless eavesdropping and he continued to speak. “She’s an old family friend. One of the nicest women you’ll ever meet—when I told her I was travelling in the area, she offered to put me up in her inn for a while. It’s just the shed, but…” he shrugged and looked down at his son lovingly once more, “Rog and I like to rough it, don’t we, Rog?”

Roger neither confirmed nor denied that.

“…so you’re travelling in the area…?” Eastside Tilly once again was the brave champion for those who sought the truth.

He nodded. “I don’t want to bore you pretty ladies with the details, but yeah, business will keep me in the area for a few months, maybe longer.” Before Eastside Tilly could ask any follow-up questions, he held up his menu, “Since you ladies seem like you know everything there is to know about this town,” he said with his most charming smile, “maybe you could tell me the story behind these comments on the menu. Mine’s covered with them and—“ his eyes flicked to the discarded menus lying by Babette, “all of the menus in this restaurant seem to have gotten the same treatment. Who is this mysterious person who likes making pop culture food puns so much?” He jabbed to some writing on his menu. “Earth Girls Are Eggs Over Easy, Gray Gardens Salad…”

“Oh, that?” Miss Patty shrugged. “That was probably Lorelai.”

“Maybe her daughter Rory,” piped in Eastside Tilly.

“But probably Lorelai,” Babette completed the answer.

“Lorelai?” Harry asked. “I think Mia mentioned a Lorelai Gilmore. Is it the same Lorelai?”

For the third time, the diner fell silent. Everyone was staring at Harry as if he had grown an extra face and then had started living in the basement of a farmer whose son was a crazy geneticist.

“You don’t know Lorelai?” Babette eventually screeched.

“Um...no…” Harry goggled at the diner occupants like they were a deformed man who would periodically eat the sick, absorbing their maladies, and would then vomit them out whole and healthy again. “I just arrived in town--how would I?”

Miss Patty, Babette, and Eastside Tilly exchanged glances.

“I just thought everybody knew Lorelai,” Miss Patty finally replied. She dug through her purse, extracting a Ziploc bag full of pictures of a dark haired, blue-eyed woman. “Here,” she pushed a few photos to Harry. “Take one--I got plenty.”

“I don’t...I don’t need pictures of Lorelai…”

“Yes,” Miss Patty firmly placed a small picture in the palm of his hand and closed his fingers over it, “you do.”

“Well, thanks…” Harry slipped the photo into his pants pocket where it joined a gasoline receipt, 37 cents, a burner cell phone, and five loose sunflower seeds.

“I’ll drop off more photos at the potting shed tomorrow,” Miss Patty assured him, stroking his arm once again. The arm in question had tensed, and Harry had now tilted his head ever so slightly to the door, his hazel eyes tracing the path to the exit.

“That’s very...generous of you,” he said, “but--am I missing something? Why do I need a bunch of photos of this woman?”

“Because she’s Lorelai Gilmore!” Babette shrieked, and everyone in the diner nodded their heads.

“I have three photo albums of pictures of Lorelai,” Kirk announced, jumping to Harry and extending his hand for a shake. “Kirk Gleason, nice to meet you.” He handed Harry a business card crammed with Kirk’s various occupations and qualifications. “I happen to run a small photo-mounting business--I also laminate photos, make scrapbooks...I can get you a good price on a starter set of photos of Lorelai and Rory. You’ll want a blank album, too, so you can fill it up with wedding photos.”

Harry studied the business card, and mouthed one of the listed professions: 'Officially Licensed Dungeon Master.' He flicked his eyes up. "A wedding--mazel tov. Who's the happy couple?"

There were a few gasps.

“Her wedding! Lorelai’s wedding!” the diner patrons chorused.

Harry’s head swung back and forth as he eyed the townspeople incredulously. “Who’s she marrying?”

The patrons were less uniform with this reply.

“That teacher guy.”

“Matt Molina--right?”

“Max something--I think?”

“Some guy. A nice guy.”

“Not good enough for Lorelai,” Eastside Tilly concluded. “But who is?”

“I’m sorry…” Harry shook his head, “isn’t this woman the manager of the inn? Why is she such a big deal?”

The diner patrons’ response (“Because she’s Lorelai.”) was less than helpful.

“And her kid!” Babette exclaimed. “You gotta meet Rory!”

Babble broke out amongst the patrons extolling Rory’s numerous virtues. Harry gathered that Rory was smart, kind, sweet, cute, hard-working, perfect, amazing, magnificent, awe-inspiring, and a testament to humanity at its finest. He also received a color photocopy of some of her kindergarten fingerpainting and her transcript from the local high school.

“She’s attending some fancy prep school,” Babette informed him. “And when she goes to college, she’s gonna go to Harvard!”

“Well, good for her…” Harry said, his voice even, his eyes sleepy-looking. “That’s a good school…”

The patrons apparently thought Harry’s reaction was insufficient, and hastened to impress upon him the magnificence of Rory’s destiny.

“It’s a great school!”

“It’s the best school!”

“And she’s gonna be top of her class and then she’s gonna be the next Christiane Amanpour!”

Harry smiled a polite but underwhelmed smile. “That’s nice to hear, but I still don’t get it--what’s the big deal about this mother and her daughter?”

“Oh, you stupid, gorgeous dope,” Miss Patty shook her head and stroked Harry’s arm once more, “you just don’t understand. I guess we’ll need to tell you the whole story…”

“Um...actually…” Harry stood up and placed a ten dollar bill on the table, “maybe this could wait for another day? It’s getting close to Roger’s feeding time…”

But Tom and Kirk shoved Harry back into his chair, and a pig-tailed woman sitting near the door stood up and locked it, maintaining eye contact with Harry all the while. “You stay,” she announced, squaring her shoulders, her fingers balled into fists. “You stay until you hear the story.” Five other people joined her by the door, physically obstructing Harry’s escape route.

"You'll love the story," they chorused. "It's a charming story about overcoming adversity and finding your true self."

Harry’s jaw tensed and his hand hovered over the bulge on his pants side pocket that Kirk had noted earlier, but he nodded. “Okay--sure--”

“Lorelai,” Eastside Tilly informed Harry, “has had a hard life.”

The patrons murmured their agreement.

“Her parents mistreated her.”

“How did they mistreat her?” asked Harry.

The answer he got was confused...the parents controlled her, they told her what to do, they invited the pastor over for dinner…

“Well,” Babette eventually admitted, “so we can’t point to specific bad thing they’ve done, but trust us--they’re monsters.”

“Lorelai says so,” the other patrons chorused, “and so it is true.”

“Anyway,” Miss Patty continued, “Lorelai had this friend named Christopher…”

An hour and fifteen minutes later, Babette had mostly finished Lorelai’s riches-to-rags saga, and had now moved onto the story of Rory losing her first tooth. Harry sat there, his head occasionally lolling back, once or twice jerking up with a snort. Then Luke’s phone rang.

Luke answered it--and within seconds, his eyes bulged from their sockets.

“I’ll be right over,” he promised the person on the other line. Then he hung up and eyed the patrons. “Everyone out,” he announced. “The oven at the Independence Inn has caught fire and I need to take a look.”

Most people gasped, and a few even screamed, nearly jolting Roger from his sleep.

“Don’t worry,” Luke assured them, marching to the door and unlocking it, “Lorelai’s fine. A couple of the kitchen staff caught fire, but Lorelai was way on the other side of the inn when it happened.”

Sighs of relief issued from everyone except for Harry, who frowned. “Wait--did you say two people caught fire…?”

Luke ignored Harry. Instead, Luke waved his arms at the crowd. “Out!” he shouted. “I gotta go to the Independence Inn to fix this!”

The crowd stampeded out of the diner, and Harry went along with them, though he hung back when he reached the town square. The rest of the crowd seemed to be headed with Luke to the Independence Inn to lend Lorelai whatever assistance they could and see with their own eyes that she had emerged unscathed.

“Mia was right,” Harry mumbled as he strolled around the square. “These people are obsessed with those Gilmore girls. What a weird town…it’s like they’ve been brainwashed...” he glanced at the gazebo in the town square, where a chubby, sweater-wearing man was hanging up a banner labelled, “16TH ANNIVERSARY OF LORELAI GILMORE ARRIVING IN STARS HOLLOW FUNTIME CELEBRATION DAY.” Harry gaped at the banner, reading it five times out of disbelief. “Hey William,” he murmured this different name to his son, “since we’re stuck hiding here anyway, I think you and me have got an X-File to investigate. Whaddaya say, partner?”

Roger—or rather, William, burped.

“That’s spirit!” the proud father beamed. “The truth is out there.”