Chapter 9: Flatline

The first week of January, Tom installed the phones.

Lorelai learned about it when one shrilled into the emptiness of the front lobby. She shrieked, bringing Tom running from where he was installing hardware in the kitchen. She waved him away and, standing alone, took the first reservation for the Dragonfly Inn on the back of a receipt shoved into her purse. She stared at her scribbled writing with complete and utter panic at first, then a swell of pride. She reached for her cell phone to call Sookie, but it buzzed in her hand. Frowning at the unfamiliar number, she answered. "Hello?"

"Is this Lorelai Gilmore? I wanted to speak with you about a party I was planning."

Lorelai cast a glance around and walked to the stairs. She finally located her planner at the bottom of her purse and tucked the reservation among the May pages before flipping back to February. "Yeah, shoot!"

She scribbled the appointment in the planner, then glanced at her watch. With a groan, she got to her feet and headed for the car. Celebrating with Sookie and Michel would have to wait. She needed to get over to Waterbury.

Three hours later, she was heading back to Stars Hollow with a massive headache and a check tucked into the back of her planner. The Cartersons were paying her a handsome sum to plan their 45th wedding anniversary celebration, but the wife especially was difficult to deal with. It reminded her of some of her more challenging weddings at the Independence Inn, but she was good at soothing the skittish.

Lorelai pulled into the driveway of the Crap Shack and laid her head on the steering wheel. Over the past few weeks, she cultivated the party planner idea she had come up with while making Christmas presents. Despite reaching an agreement with Luke on the bills, the money in the Dragonfly accounts was rapidly depleting - even with Mia's gift. Worse, her own savings were dropping to an amount that nearly had her hyperventilating. She had to bring money into the household, into the Dragonfly. Sookie was wrapped up with Davey, and Jackson had just purchased a large amount of farm equipment for expanding. She couldn't go to them for more money. Michel was working at his hotel job, hanging on until the Dragonfly opened.

Neither Sookie nor Michel knew that Tom had quietly approached her just after the new year and pointed out that Lorelai had skipped a couple of payments to his crew. That was because the Avery stove, the sink, and other large-ticket items had come in much higher than expected. 2004 had brought a sharp increase in shipping costs, and the customs they had to pay on the Avery nearly gave Lorelai a heart attack. On the decorating side, Natalie was chewing through the budget like the money would disappear if it wasn't spent quickly. She had tried going to the bank again just after the new year, but the previous inquiries made her already laughable credit score even more pitiful.

She needed to tell Sookie and Michel what was going on, but she could already see the look on Sookie's face if they had to cancel the Avery. This inn was their dream, and Lorelai would do whatever it took to see it happen.

This job from the Cartersons, this particular check, would be enough to finish paying for the big-ticket items, which would free up the renovation budget for a payment to Tom's crew. Then she would figure out a way to fire Natalie without freaking Sookie out. It would save a lot of money. She had an appointment in Hartford with the parents of one of Rory's former high school classmates to plan their anniversary party. It would be enough for her mortgage and to try to resuscitate her savings.

Lorelai jolted at the knock on her window, realizing her cheek was pressed into the steering wheel. Her temple throbbed in time to the knocking, and the window was so dirty she could barely make out the figure standing next to the door.

"Is everything all right, doll?" Babette asked as Lorelai got out of the car and rubbed at her cheek.

"Yeah, I was just thinking."

"You were in there for a good 20 minutes. Morey was getting worried, but I said the car wasn't on, so you weren't getting carbon monoxide poisoning."

"It's sweet for you to worry, Babette." Lorelai looked up at the house, at the darkened windows, suddenly remembering that Luke was working late and closing the diner. Her stomach growled in protest, but she couldn't summon the energy to get back in the car and drive to where the food, the coffee, and her man were. Hell, even the thought of walking the few blocks to the center of town made her want to cry.

"Have you been getting enough sleep? Getting that inn together's running you ragged."

"I'm sleeping fine. Don't worry, everything is good." Lorelai pasted on her brightest smile and headed around to the back door. She let herself into the kitchen and immediately felt the sharp sting of tiny claws on her legs.

"Aww, am I today's proverbial sacrifice to the kitten gods?" She scooped up Buddy Holly before he could climb his way up her hose and absently scratched his tiny head. They had been able to wean him off the milk replacement, and he inhaled kitten food like there was no tomorrow. Rory had strung a bell on a tiny collar so they could hear Buddy Holly approach, and the highlight of Christmas had been the moment she put it on him. The kitten had rolled frantically around the living room trying to get rid of it, causing them all to laugh so hard for so long that it had drawn Babette over from her house.

The kitten gnawed her knuckle as she tossed her purse on the table, set her laptop next to it, then walked into the living room. She flopped down on the couch as the kitten circled her abdomen, then plopped down into a tiny, purring ball. Lorelai absently stroked him as the purrs lulled her to sleep.

She woke when she felt fingers running through her hair, lightly massaging her scalp. She arched into the touch instinctively, moaning a bit. She took a deep breath and smelled fry grease and coffee. Her stomach growled again, reminding her that she never did hunt down dinner.

"What time is it?" Lorelai murmured.

"Around 10. I brought some food home with me. You haven't eaten." Through bleary eyes, she saw Luke frowning at her.

"Had the biggest ice cream sundae in the state for dinner." Her stomach growled again, proving her a liar. "Shut up," she informed it.

"You look exhausted."

"Just a long day." Lorelai looked at the sleeping kitten on her stomach. "I don't want to disturb him."

Luke gently lifted the kitten off her, and she swung her feet off the couch. "I'll go change. Thanks for bringing home dinner, babe."

He absently scratched the top of the kitten's head, which made him purr ecstatically. "Are you sure you're OK?"

Lorelai shot him the same smile that she'd given Babette earlier. "Yeah! Never better!"

She kept up the false cheer until she reached their bedroom. She stripped off her work clothes, letting them fall to the floor as she stumbled into the bathroom. She went through her nightly rituals and went back out to scoop up her clothes. She sat on the bed with them and yawned. It would take Luke a few more minutes to warm up their food, she rationalized, laying her head on her pillow. She snuggled into the armload of clothes. Just 10 minutes, then she'd go eat. And Rory. She needed to call Rory, check in with her. Classes were swallowing her kid whole and …

Lorelai didn't wake up until nearly 9 a.m. the next morning.

Somehow, she had made it under the covers. The clothes were gone from her arms, and Buddy Holly was curled at her feet. The spot next to her on the bed was cold, and Lorelai found herself tracing Luke's pillow. Glancing at the clock once more, she dragged herself out of bed and into the bathroom. Her Hartford meeting was at 10:30, and she needed to hurry if she wanted to make it, run by the bank, and then head back to the inn for a meeting with the decorator. She tucked her cell phone beneath her chin, her phone calling Rory's as she ran out of the house.

She never saw the note taped to the microwave, food tucked inside waiting for her to eat.

Three hours later, Lorelai swung to the curb near the diner. The meeting with Madeline Lynn's mother and stepfather had gone well, and she even had enough spare time to run by the bakery and the florists to talk over the Carterson party with them. She had just enough time for a quick bite, then be at the inn by 3 to talk with Natalie. Sookie had promised to make this one, and they really needed to finish ordering the kitchen supplies. Rory's phone had gone to voicemail, so she really needed to try her kid again.

Lorelai rushed in the door, waving at Lane. "Hey, where's the king of the joint?"

"Bank run," Lane replied. "Your stool's free."

"Thanks!" She slid onto it. "Cheeseburger and chili fries, please. God, I'm starving."

"Sure, no problem!" Without even asking, Lane grabbed a large mug and poured coffee into it. "You OK? You look tired."

"Yeah, I'm fine." Lorelai pulled out her planner and dropped it. Frowning, she slid off the stool to pick it up and noticed her hand shaking violently as she picked it up. "OK," she said slowly, putting the planner on the counter. She reached for the coffee mug. The trembling caused the hot liquid to splash onto her hand, and she jerked it away with a yelp.

Lane turned back from the order window. She blinked. "Lorelai? You look really pale."

"Just haven't eaten today." Lorelai reached for the coffee once more, then decided not to risk ruining her clothes.

"Wait one sec." Lane pushed into the kitchen, then back out. "Here, have a banana."

"Thanks." Not bothering to comment on the fact it was fruit, Lorelai reached for it and immediately dropped it as well. It rolled and landed behind the counter. "Damn it."

"I've got it." Lane scooped it up as the bells jangled behind Lorelai. They rang and rang and didn't stop ringing. Lane was saying something to her as she held out the banana, and then there were two Lanes. Then three. The entire room was full of Lanes, and Lorelai's hands trembled like a wild thing. She heard Lane shouting her name, then someone else yelling her name, and then the room spun violently before going black.

The last time Lorelai had gotten an intimate acquaintance with the floor of the diner had been trying to hide from her fellow Stars Hollow residents before painting the diner several years earlier. She didn't remember it being quite so hard. Or so shouty. She could hear voices, and as her senses snapped back into place, she started to pick them out. Lane was frantically talking, and she heard Rory's name being mentioned. Crap, she needed to check in with Rory. Kirk was insisting he was a fully licensed EMT and could easily handle things. She heard Luke's voice in her ear yelling at him, which was ridiculous considering he wasn't even in the diner in the first place.

"She's comin' around," Babette said somewhere near her right arm.

Lorelai blinked open her eyes to see Patty and Babette peering anxiously down at her.

"How are you, dear?" Patty asked. "You took quite a tumble off the stool."

"I did?" She tried to sit up, but then something held her down. Craning her neck, she saw Luke glaring down at her, looking about five seconds away from losing his temper.

"Don't move," he barked.

"When did you get here?" she whispered.

"Right around the time you fell off the stool." He stood, scooping her into his arms over her feeble protests. "Lane, I'm taking her upstairs."

"Aren't you going to the hospital?" Lane stood by the phone, hand covering the receiver.

"No, I know exactly what's wrong with her." The anger in Luke's voice was nearly a living thing and it twisted Lorelai's gut into painful knots.

She closed her eyes as they went up the stairs and he threw open the door to his old apartment. Boxes were stacked in one corner from where Lane was planning to move in over the weekend. He carried her over to the bed they had picked out together just five months earlier and gently set her down before turning on his heel and marching out.

Lorelai struggled to sit up as Luke banged back into the room with a plate containing the lunch she had ordered plus the banana. "Stay," he ordered.

"I need to pee," she snapped at him.

"Fine." He put the plate on the table and went to the bed. She struggled but gave in as he carried her to the bathroom.

He set her on the closed toilet seat, and she fumed at him. Whatever stick had crawled up his ass was now affecting her. "I can handle this part on my own," she said in her best Emily Gilmore voice. And it worked, because he simply glared at her and stormed out of the room, slamming the door after him.

The shaking caused it to take twice as long as it normally did, but Lorelai refused to ask for help. She took the time to put her clothes back in order and scooped her hair back into a ponytail with a tie she had stashed in the medicine cabinet before stumbling out of the bathroom. The second she opened the door, she found the much-abused banana shoved into her face, the skin peeled back.

"Eat," Luke ordered.

Lorelai nudged it away. "I don't want that."

"Tough. You're eating it. You're not moving from here until you do."

Lorelai glared at him, then stepped to the side. But she wasn't quick enough, and Luke blocked her path. Another sidestep and he blocked her again.

"This is ridiculous," she snapped and snatched the banana from him. She took a big bite, chewed hastily, and swallowed. It hit her empty stomach, which seized almost painfully. Frowning, she took another bite. Now Luke moved away, and she walked over to the table and pulled the plate of food toward her.

"Why are you so pissed?" Lorelai asked between bites of fries.

"It might just be the fact that you fainted in the middle of the diner because you haven't eaten in god knows when. When was the last time you had anything to eat, Lorelai?"

She chewed more thoughtfully. She had slept through dinner, had back-to-back meetings in the morning and early afternoon and just barely enough time to grab coffee. She had vague memories of eating a bowl of cereal while crunching numbers on Sadie during breakfast yesterday and realized abruptly that was when she had last eaten.

Luke sighed, and some of the anger seemed to drain away. "You scared the hell out of me."

Guilt pricked at her now that her initial hunger had been sated. Lorelai picked at her fries. "I'm sorry. Just been busy."

He stared at her for so long that the knot in Lorelai's gut gave an extra good twist. "You haven't been out at the inn," he blurted.

Lorelai's head snapped up so fast that she was surprised that she didn't injure herself in the process. "What?"

"Tom called me a few times, had me come out and sign for some of the stuff being delivered. You told me that you would be at the inn, but you weren't there. Where have you been?" Luke folded his arms over his chest. Folding into himself. It was never a good move.

"Meetings. Hartford, Waterbury, Litchfield. Feels like I'm running over the damn state. It's all inn business. It's fine." Lorelai mustered a smile for him and her stomach pitched. She really didn't want to re-enact the Legend of Lard-Ass in front of him.

Luke studied her face so intensely that she nearly squirmed. "Why are you lying to me?" he asked in a voice barely above a whisper.

"I'm not lying!" She really wasn't. The side jobs were for the inn.

Luke stared at her another ten loaded seconds before turning his back on her. She winced as the door slammed after him as he left the apartment.

Lorelai took another 20 minutes to finish her fries. She really didn't feel like facing Luke nor the crowd of townies in the diner yet. She needed to tell him. She needed to tell him, to tell Sookie, to tell Michel. But she couldn't. She didn't want them to worry about the inn.

She could handle it. She was almost there. Just a few more jobs, and things would be back on track. No one ever needed to know. She could fix things with Luke. He would stew, she would flirt, and he would forget it. Hopefully. Comforting herself with that lie, Lorelai tackled on the now-cold burger.

She had just finished it when Rory rushed in. "Oh god, Mom, are you OK?"

"Hey, kid! You didn't need to rush up from Yale!" Lorelai started to stand, but found herself thrown back in the chair from the force of Rory's hug.

Rory pulled back, studying her anxiously. "Lane calls and tells me my mom has passed out in the middle of the diner, I'm going to come up from Yale."

"Just low blood sugar. See?" Lorelai motioned to the plate. "You can tell Grumpy downstairs that I cleaned my plate."

Rory worried her lip, then nodded. Satisfied, she took one of the empty seats. "Is everything OK between you two?"

"Yeah, never better," Lorelai lied through her teeth.

And Rory knew right away. She narrowed her eyes. "Are you sure?"

"Yeah!" Lorelai glanced down at her watch and flinched. "Oh shoot, I'm supposed to meet Sookie at the inn in 15 minutes. Wanna come out with me?"

"Sure. But I'm driving."

They escaped through the back of the diner, not because Lorelai was avoiding Luke. She wasn't, she repeatedly told herself. She just didn't have the time to answer all the well-meaning and concerned questions from her neighbors and friends. She loved Stars Hollow dearly, but her schedule was just a little too full to stop for chatting at the moment.

They had just reached Rory's car when Lorelai's cell phone rang. She winced and answered without checking the readout, ready to apologize profusely to Sookie.

"Well, guess who's demanding we all make an appearance at lunch?"

"Hi, Mom." If she had been in her own car, Lorelai would had laid her head on the steering wheel once more. The last thing she needed today was to deal with her mother.

"Your grandmother is coming back from Palm Beach."

"She wasn't there very long." Lorelai looked out at the grey skies of mid-January as Rory drove. If she remembered right, Trix had left the day after Christmas and had planned to spend until March in Florida.

"Your father has to run over to her house to open it up for her, and then she will be coming over here for the evening to berate me and tell me that my couch has some sort of smell."

"Yay, fun!" Lorelai infused her voice with extra cheer and wondered why the hell her mother was getting her involved. She was betting on revenge for the whole botched family photo at Christmas. There had yet to be a Friday night dinner since the whole debacle, and really it was about time for the next season of Gilmore Wrestlemania.

"She wants to have lunch - sorry, a luncheon - the day after tomorrow. You, me, and your father. Apparently, she wants to talk to you about the inn. Be here and be on time, and get your hair cut. You looked like the bird lady from Mary Poppins the last time I saw you."

Hair cuts had fallen to the bottom of her priority list. Along with eating. And almost everything else in her life. "Look, Mom, I've been very busy lately," Lorelai huffed. "Just take a number." She could deal with her mother after dealing with Luke and with Sookie and Michel.

"I don't care how busy you've been, Lorelai. If your hair looks a mess, it will be my fault, and I don't need that responsibility right now. I'll see you at noon."

The call disconnected, and Lorelai found herself staring at the phone.

"Is my hair really a mess?" she asked Rory.

"It's been in better shape," she acknowledged.

"Oh God." Lorelai dragged a hand through the locks. "It's such a mess." Tears pricked at the back of her eyes. "Everything's such a mess, Rory."