I called Boot Key in the Florida Keys my temporary home. I'd leased a slip for living aboard my boat there. It wasn't a bad life.
I was stripped down to diving booties and a pair of baggies while scrubbing down my ship's hull. I stopped for a bit because my arms felt like they were going to fall off. You wouldn't think that there was that much surface to the hull of a little 26' Nordic Tug, but it's enough! I lay there, letting my flotation vest cradle me in the warm water while I caught my breath.
I saw a girl watching from the dock. A little slip of a thing, really. Slender, under four feet tall and looked to be at that age just before puberty kicked in. She had shoulder-length black hair, wore a light blue sundress that flirted with her knees and had bare feet.
She was pretty dirty. Her dress could have used a couple washings, too. I smiled and waved while she hesitantly smiled and lifted her hand a little.
I turned face towards the hull, put my foot into a climbing loop and clambered up to the deck. It took a few minutes for me to wipe down and put on shorts, a tee and deck shoes. I checked my pockets and headed for the gangway. She was still there, watching. I perched my butt on one end of a bench and motioned her over to join me. She cautiously sat down with the maximum possible space between us, ready to bolt.
My mind went blank. I fell back on the old standby. "Live around here?" I got a shrug. She was looking at her dirty toes. "So you live wherever." I paused to look her over. She was emaciated. Her cheeks were hollow. Her hair was dull under all that filth. "Get enough to eat?" Her face screwed up and she shook her head, "NO", real fast. I calmly said, "Okay, I can fix that. You wait here." I strode up to the grill attached to the marina office. I demanded, "I need three of the biggest cheeseburgers you can make, two chocolate shakes and a big order of fries. Add several packets of ketchup. I need it in a hurry. Twenty bucks says you can't have my order up in twenty minutes."
Eighteeen minutes passed. I paid up then hustled back to the bench. She was still sitting there, looking hopeful. I sat down at my end and plunked down the bag between us. "Knock yourself out, kid."
Have you ever witnessed true worship before? I did that day as she savored that meal with her eyes closed. I honestly cried. At that moment I decided to make her my project.
"Slow down. Don't try to stuff it all in your face at once or you'll be puking it back up, and then where will you be?" I watched her start chewing each bite ten times like her momma must have taught her long ago. She looked reproachfully at that third burger but couldn't force herself to eat it. "Good! You left some lunch for me!" She looked sheepish, then smiled after she looked at my face. I was grinning. I quietly said, "Let's get you cleaned up, then get you some clothes. I want to get you on some vitamins, too. As far as I'm concerned, you're sleeping on my boat, then eating breakfast and supper there as well."
She looked at me as if I'd slapped her face. Then it penetrated. The sun came out. She smiled.
I ate my luch as she started to drowse from the food. I finished up, tossed the evidence in a bin and picked her up, then slowly walked up to the marina offices. They had some terrycloth robes and big red T-shirts for sale. I bought two of each in about our sizes and arranged for a shower. I got her sitting on the bench and stripped off her threadbare dress. It's a wonder that she hadn't dried up and blown away. I could count her ribs and vertebrae. I put on a robe and got our clothes into a washing machine then returned to see how she was doing. She was still zonked out on the bench. I set the temperature of the shower for something less than scalding then carried her under the spray. It woke her enough so that she stood while I double-washed her hair. Then I dutifully washed her everywhere that she had a place to wash. When everything showed pink I scrubbed myself up, turned off the water then got us both dried off and minimally dressed. I carried her on one arm as I got our clothes into the dryer and bought a hair brush for a couple bucks. I sat her down in front of me to get rid of what appeared to be several years' worth of tangles. She fell asleep again while leaning back against me. When the dryer finished I carried both her and the laundry back to the ship where I laid her out on my big bunk in the forepeak. She looked so vulnerable lying there that it like to broke my heart. I put on a T-shirt and shorts, then lay down beside her and pulled up the covers. I fell asleep with my arm sheltering my tiny little charge.
I woke with a naked little sprite laying on top of my while holding my nose, giggling like mad. I wrestled her around and blew a zoober on her belly button, making her shriek and giggle. "You found the head yet?"
"What's a head?" Well, besides the thing that holds your ears apart, on a boat it's where you pee, poop and wash up." "Oh, yeah. I don't know if I used it right, though." "As long as you close the lid, then step on the pedal for a four count ya did good." She brightly said, "Oh, Okay!"
I sat up and looked at her bony ribs. "Hungry?" She tried to look apologetic but it came out as anxious as she nodded. "Come on, then. Let me out of my bunk. The galley's callin'." I stopped at the head for a pee and a quick toothbrush exercise, then scanned the cold locker. I had bacon and eggs. I couldn't go full English on her but I could do a trecherman's special. Soon I had a rasher of bacon, three eggs over easy, a palm-sized patty of butter-fried hashbrowns and toast with jam in front of her. "Sorry, no milk. You'll have to do with tea or instant juice aboard ship. All I've got is canned milk, and all that's good for is cooking and coffee." "Eww!" Well, she wasn't a coffee person. I got the tea on for the both of us. I was happy with a bacon butty.
After she'd wrapped herself around that lot, I laid it out. "I can't let ya wither away like ya have been. If you can put up with me, I'm gonna be yer pa. I'm gonna get ya fed up to yer fightin' weight, get ya dressed out and teach ya how to live aboard a ship. Yer gonna learn yer readin', writin' and maths come hell or high water. Wotcher say, missie?" I spit in my palm and held it out. She looked at me, looked at my hand, then looked at me. Finally she sloppily spit in her palm and shook on it. I gathered her up in a proper hug that made her squeak!
Awright, then. Firsts is clothes. Yer about nekkid except for that dress, and I've got nowt to fit ya. We're off to the shops."
I dropped my old accent and steadied down. I dressed in shirt, britches, jacket, keys and wallet. Of course I wore my deckkers. I got the little waif covered in her dress and gave her a good looking over. "You need a scrunchie for your hair. Then we're off." They had scrunchies at the marina shop.
As a note, marina shops are a lot like campground stores or vacation bait shops. They sell basic food-stuffs, bug coils, Tampax, rubbers, some diapers, condiments and they always sell coffee, coffeemate and sugar! Some have lots more, some the bare minimum, but on the whole they're pretty reliable. Ours was fairly well filled-out. I bought her some flip-flops before we went adventuring. She had that anticipitory gleam in her eyes as she sat perched in the shotgun seat of my Ford Ranger. Shopping!
The local Tesco's clone (Publix) had nice twill shirts, panties, loose shorts, socks and deck shoes for a girl. "Sweetie, have you had a period yet?" She nodded. Color me surprised! We got her supplies for her monthlies as well as shampoo, deodorant and some pretty T-shirts with lace borders. They had some bikinis in her size that didn't show too much. I threw two swim suits and a big floppy hat in the basket. Summer in the Keys is bikini weather. Mornings can be cool so she got a set of sweats too. Before we checked out I threw a family size bottle of chewable vitamins in the cart.
I found a place that made sea bags and bought her one with a nice wide shoulder strap. She was a bit too bony yet to be hefting a bag over her shoulder by the cord.
Sea bags are usually sewn from used sailcloth and are tougher than hell.
Next came a self-inflating vest, a couple spare inflators and a well-made high-visibility jacket that would shrug off a storm spray at sea. The vest had a big D-ring sewn into webbing to allow it serve as an excellent chest harness if you buckled the crotch strap. I bought her two survival lashes made of flat woven webbing with a snap-on karabiner at one end and a screw-tight karabiner at the other. One fastened to the vest, the other to the ship's hard points or a life line during challenging weather or when you need both hands for a task. Otherwise, it's one hand for the ship, one hand for you.
We sat down at a dining table at a place called Panda House with our choices. "Keep two pair of deck shoes to always have one pair drying. If you're hopping ships, keep a little sleeping sack with your gear, along with your own towel and your own pillow case. Write your name on 'em with a laundry marker. Inspect your socks after each wash to see if they're getting thin, and throw away the losers. Always keep a good waterproof flashlight handy that you can clip to your vest and make sure you keep a couple sets of reasonably new spare batteries. Since you're a girl, keep a nice, sharp rigging knife hung from your arm pit as a way to enforce that "NO!". Got me?"
After I got her kitted out We hit Publix again to boost the ship's larder. Keeping her in palatable food while she recouped would be an exercise in frustration. However, she'd been starved and wasn't likely to turn her nose up at anything edible unless it was something exotic, like sushi. I wouldn't be serving her any because I couldn't gag it down myself. The textures hit my squick reflex hard.
I made sure to stock plenty of instant oat meal, butter, marmalade and orange juice. It stows well, it's a great breakfast, it's kid-friendly (tastes good) and a kid can make it by themself. You can't burn oatmeal to the bottom of a pot with instant oat meal. You just pour in boiling water.
Back at the marina I snagged a dock cart to get everything on board. I'd owned the Ice Cube a few years and had a system for provisioning the larder, but it took a while to stow everything. She watched me play Disco for a while, then went up on deck to watch the harbor traffic. [Disco: Dis go here, and dis go there.]
I cleared out a shelf for her gear which brought a smile to her face. She wouldn't be living out of a bag--she had a home.
I caught up with her a bit later after I threw out the trash. There's never enough room for trash aboard ship. I plunked down beside her, making her bounce on the cushion. I asked her, "So what's your name? You never told me." "Annie." "Welcome aboard, Annie, I'm Jim. Jim Beam." She gave me a fish eye. "Uh hunh." "No, really. My pa liked the bottled stuff so much that he named me after it. Ma came close to stabbin' him for it, too."
She looked concerned when I sat her down at the dining table and sat across from her. "It's time to get serious here, missy. You need to see a doctor to get your shots up to snuff and a visit to a dentist to check yer teeth. I'll spring for it if you'll put up with it."
She slowly nodded. "I guess I have to, don't I?" I nodded. "It's best for the long term."
I made a couple phone calls to make appointments. Then I looked around my accomodations. There wasn't much extra space on a 26 foot boat. None, really. Still, I had to figure out where to put a second desk so that she'd have a place to study. I figured on a drop-down leaf fastened with hinges to the bulkhead separating the fore-cabin from the salon.
I couldn't just let her use the dining table. You see, I made my living as a technical writer. I worked best by spreading out my materials as I worked which pretty much used up the table while I worked. I wrote (or tried to write) five days a week to keep me afloat in more ways than one. I could do all right in Chinese with a dictionary, and I was competent in English, German and Spanish. I had enough demand for my work to be comfortable, if busy. I put in about thirty hours a week over five days, leaving my weekends free. I'd have to skip a day while getting her to the doc, looking into getting her enrolled in school and building that study desk for her. I'd have to mount a light for it, too.
The next morning we were sitting in the doc's waiting room, burning time. I opened the conversation. "So, what happened to your folks?" She kept her eyes on the floor as she shrugged and said, "They went out sailing one afternoon and never came back." I was surprised. Sailboats cost lots of money to keep up. She came from a wealthy family. "How long ago did it happen?" "Last April. I had the trots so I stayed at the marina when they went out." She sighed. "They never came back." Good Lord. That was over four months she'd been on her own. "Didn't anyone look for you? Try to take care of you?" She shook her head. "I guess everyone thought that I was onboard with mom and dad."
Christ. Someone owed this girl her inheritance. I had a lawyer, Henry, that represented me when I needed it. I'd have to get him involved before the estate dissapeared in the legal system.
Dr. Clyde gave her a good bill of health, even though she was quite undernourised. He had the nurse hit her with a couple syringes of stuff like an immunzation booster and a systemic vitamin. I asked for and got a signed copy of her shot record and health report. I'd need it to get her into school come fall.
I bought a quarter sheet of heavy plywood that I could cut down to size, a pint of spar varnish and the hardware to mount it all with hinges and corner ropes. Then we went to K-Mart for an LED gooseneck lamp that I could wire into the ship's 12-Volt lines and mount above the desk. It took up a lot of room while down, but when stowed away it was hardly noticeable.
The nearest grade school was near the hospital. The high school was way up the chain in Key Largo. It was a toss-up whether to find another slip or teach her as a home-school. I had a degree in engineering with a minor in languages, but I'd taken a couple of teaching courses while in college. That might float me for a home-school permit. I'd have to get Henry on that, too. First though, we had the issue of her family estate and her guardianship.
After dinner (baked chicken, mashed potatoes, store-bought gravy and a salad) I had her write down her full name, address and social security number. I called Henry to set up an appointment. He was an odd bird. He had his office in his home so he nearly always answered the phone. We set up a phone appointment for the next day. He lived in Tampa, and I wasn't about to go that far just for a face-to-face! I set up the dinette as a bunk for her, but she wanted no part of it. She wanted to share my big bunk in the forepeak. I didn't want to fight about it, so I made sure to wear a sturdy set of tighty-whities. I made her promise to wear panties to bed--and keep 'em on!