Title: Reflection in the Mirror
Disclaimer: My financial status precludes me from ownership. I refer you to CBS.
Charlie passed by the child's bedroom -- the remodeled childhood home of his brother -- and glanced through the doorway. He smiled tenderly at the sight before him.
She was seated at the small dressing table, facing the far wall, brushing her hair. Her tiny face, reflected in the mirror, held a serious expression, and she chewed on her bottom lip while she concentrated on her task. She had not noticed him yet, so he leaned against the door frame and watched for awhile, unobserved. When his heart was full to the point of bursting, he entered the room and moved to stand behind her. He placed a hand on the top of her dark head in a sort of benediction, eventually letting it fall the complete distance of the shiny, shoulder-length bob. "You look more like your mother every day," he murmured, smiling into the mirror. "You're absolutely beautiful, Lani."
She dimpled and ducked her head in mild embarassment before meeting his eyes with her own in the glass. "My real Mommy, or my now-Mommy?" she asked.
Charlie sensed a heart-to-heart coming on, and he squeezed her shoulder affectionately before crossing to the window seat near the vanity. "Your biological Mommy," he answered. "Your now-Mommy is very much a 'real' mother to you. Andrea loves you very much."
Lani sighed and rolled her eyes as only a 8-year-old girl can, having heard this opinion on more than one former occasion. "My 'logical Mommy," she clarifed.
Charlie suppressed a smile; in truth, Amita had been very logical. "Yes," he said. "That is whom I am talking about. You've seen photographs of her -- don't you think you look like Amita?"
A dreamy look came over Lani's face. "That's a nice name." She squinted into the mirror. "Did people think she was pretty?"
Charlie nodded. "Oh, yes. People thought she was beautiful." He leaned forward a little. "Your grandparents in India named her 'Amita'; it means, 'limitless'."
The girl had heard this before also, and she nodded. "And 'Lani' means 'angel from above'. Mommy Amita picked out my name."
Charlie smiled as if she had passed an important test. "That's correct, sweetheart."
Lani scooted toward her father and hit him with something inherited from his side of the family -- full-power pleading puppy eyes. "Tell me the story," she begged.
Charlie pretended she had never asked before. "I'm not sure I know which story you mean."
She stuck out a lower lip in a pout. "Daddy! Tell me how you met my bio...bio..."
Charlie took pity on the child. "Biological," he supplied.
Lani smiled. "Biological Mommy."
Charlie winked at his daughter. "Well," he began, "when we first met, she was my student -- Uncle Larry's as well."
"At Cal Sci," Lani supplied the next line.
He nodded. "Yes. At Cal Sci. After Amita got her doctorate, she started teaching there also. We were good friends by then. Eventually, we just grew closer, and began to date each other."
The little girl frowned slightly. "That's not really very romantic," she decided.
He had been expecting that -- the child said that every time. "It never is," he agreed, "but it's the best I've got." Lani rolled her eyes again and turned her attention back to the mirror. Charlie watched her start to brush her hair again, her lips moving as she counted the strokes, and continued the story. "We dated a long time, and then Mommy married me." He smiled again. "She was very happy to learn about you."
She already knew the answer, but Lani dropped the brush and asked anyway, eagerly. "Did she get to see me? Did she like me?"
Years ago, Charlie had not been able to tell this part of the story without crying; or at the least, talking around a lump in his throat. It still made his heart heavy with sadness, and his voice grew softer reflecting that sadness. "Yes, she saw you -- and she liked you very much. She was very excited."
At 8, Lani had learned to pick up on some of her father's nuances. She recognized his melancholy now and hurried him past this part of the story. "Then you brought me home from the hospital, and there was a car wreck," she supplied. "That's why Grandpa had to live with us -- he thought you would forget you had a baby."
As always at this point in the story, Charlie cheered. "That's what he likes to tell people," he said, "but I don't think it's true. You're pretty unforgettable."
Lani grinned quickly, then frowned. "Da ad," she said, stretching the title into two syllables, "You forgot about the lasagna in the oven last night -- Aunt Robin had to order pizza."
"Not the same thing at all," Charlie protested. "I'm not used to doing the cooking; usually your Mom or Grandpa takes care of that!"
Lani picked up a barrette from the top of the vanity and shook it in her father's direction. "I'm trying to 'stablish a pattern," she said solemnly, and Charlie's heart nearly burst from his chest yet again. Ever since Lani's birth, such extreme reactions on his part seemed to be a daily occurrence. He nearly missed what she said next. "And you lost the bet," she pointed out. "You had to make Uncle Don dinner."
Charlie straightened and frowned. "Who told you there was a bet?" he demanded. "Was Uncle Don telling stories again?"
She carefully placed the barrette in her hair. "He said it was the truth," she replied. "And he told me a new story about when you used to help him, when he worked at the...the...the...B.I.," she finally decided.
Charlie lowered his head and fiddled with his shoe so she wouldn't see him smiling. "F.B.I.," he corrected, straightening again. "Uncle Don needs to stop telling you those stories; they can be scary, and he's a teacher now, anyway. He should tell you stories about that."
Lani's eyes widened and she looked at her father in disbelief. "Oh, no, Daddy -- I won't get scared anymore, I promise! Uncle Don says you're a hero, and Mommy Amita was a...girl hero!"
She frowned. "That's a bad drug," she reprimanded. "Uncle Don said!"
Past time to change the subject, Charlie thought. "Um...right. You enjoy your dates with Grandpa, don't you?"
A vigorous nod. "I love them. Tonight we're going to dinner, and then to hear a man play the piano." She suddenly looked troubled and uncertain. "Daddy, Grandpa says this man is better than Mr. Taylor. Is he teasing me again?"
Charlie considered. He already knew that Alan was taking Lani to hear a Norwegian-born pianist perform with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and he thought about his response carefully. "Mr. Taylor is very good," he finally said. "That's why he's your teacher. But the man Grandpa is taking you to hear won a prize for playing the piano, and it's all he does -- he doesn't have another job, so he can practice all day. He might be better than Mr. Taylor."
Lani stared at Charlie in awe. "Wow," she breathed. "Better than Mr. Taylor!"
Charlie hastened to offer some parenting advice. "It wouldn't be nice to say so, Lani, even if it's true. It's not necessary to point that out to Mr. Taylor when you go to your lesson tomorrow. Just tell him you enjoyed the concert."
She nodded seriously and looked back to her own reflection in the mirror. "Do I look good enough? Mom helped me pick out my dress and put it on."
Unexpected tears sprang to Charlie's eyes and he blinked them back. "Completely stunning," he assured his daughter.
Lani smiled brightly and then almost ruined everything. "Daddy, do you love my now-Mommy as much as my 'logical Mommy?"
Charlie nearly groaned; he had engaged in conversation with his land-mine for too long, again, it was now apparent. "I...love them both, very much," he finally answered. "But I don't compare them that way -- just like I can't tell you if I love Uncle Don more than Grandpa. Amita and Andrea are different women; I love different things about them." The child looked confused, and Charlie tried again. "For instance, you are part of Amita, and I will always love her for my 'angel from above'. I used to love working with her, and the fact that she understood so much of what I was talking about. Andrea is a remarkable artist, and I love the way her photographs can make me feel -- and I love her for taking such good care of us all; you, me and Grandpa. Do you understand?"
She thought about it for a few moments, glancing at the bed littered with stuffed animals. "Maybe," she said slowly. "Like I love Roscoe because I've had him forever and he fits perfect in my bed, but I also love Trenton because Uncle Larry gave him to me and he smells good."
Charlie started. "Uncle Larry smells good?"
Lani giggled. "No, silly, Trenton smells good!" She giggled again, and Charlie smiled.
He really wasn't all that sure which one was Roscoe and which one was Trenton, but he decided neither he nor his daughter was too confused by the conversation -- and that was always a good sign. He stood and started for the door, pausing to lean over and kiss the silky top of her head. "I'll tell Grandpa you're almost ready," he smiled, and lowered his voice to a whisper. "I'll tell you a secret, Sweet Lani, but you can never tell anyone. Ever."
She tilted her gamine face to him, excited, lowering her own voice to an answering whisper. "What, Daddy? What?"
Charlie kissed her lightly on the cheek, nuzzled his significant nose in her hair, and inhaled the scent of his child. Finally he murmured into her ear. "Daddy loves you best of all," he said. He was soon rewarded by the one thing that could both anchor him to the earth and send him soaring into the heights above it: A little girl's arms, wound around his neck, much as the little girl herself was wound around his heart.