Julie Chapman grew up in Key Largo, a tenth-generation Conch, raised in the Florida Keys by her grandmother, Tillie, since Julie’s parents were deceased. Then one night Tillie has a car accident and ends up in a coma, leaving Julie and her best friend Joe to wonder if it really was an accident. As Julie and Joe start digging for the truth, they uncover some dark and desperate secrets that can not only cause them a good deal of trouble, but also cost them their lives.
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In Conch Town Girl by Daniel J. Barrett, Julie Chapman is writing a book as part of her requirements to receive her MFA in Education from Brown University. The book, coincidentally, is called Conch Town Girl and tells of Julie’s life growing up poor in Key Largo and the Florida Keys. While writing the book, Julie is also taking care of her grandmother who has been in a hit and run accident, working as a teacher’s aide, falling in love with her best friend, Joe, and coaching the cross-country track team. When Julie and Joe find $300,000 in the attic, they begin to uncover some dark secrets that could put Julie, her grandmother, and Joe in real danger.
The story is charming and gives you a good glimpse into what like was like for a poor white girl growing up in paradise. There is a sense of community and authenticity that add a nice touch to the story.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: Conch Town Girl by Daniel J. Barrett is about Julie a young girl who grew up in the Florida Keys. She has had to overcome losing her parents at a young age, being raised by her widowed grandmother, and poverty to make something of her life. She managed to get a scholarship to Brown University and got an MFA in Education. As part of her requirements for the MFA, Julie is writing a book about her life in the Florida Keys. Woven through the story of her life is the present in which Julie has her hands full taking care of her grandmother, Tillie, who is in the hospital after a hit and run accident. She also has to finish her book, solve the mystery of illegal money found in her attic, and work full time at her old school.
There’s a sweet little romance woven in with all the other subplots, and the overall story is quite touching. There is a definite ring of truth to the book that tells me the author has spent a great deal of time in the Florida Keys. The plot is strong with a number of surprises to keep you guessing.
Tillie was asked to fill in for the dinner crowd. She backed out of shifts as much as she could, covering only breakfast at the Waffle House for the time being. Her friend and fellow waitress, Martha, had to take her mother to the doctor’s office for a 4:00 p.m. appointment and would not be back on time. Tillie switched with Martha for tomorrow’s breakfast shift. No problem she thought. She left a note and some dinner for Julie, who would be in later after practice. There was nothing like routine to keep the day going smoothly. Another day in Key Largo.
It was getting dark and closing in on 4:30 p.m. when Tillie hopped into her Escort and headed out to the restaurant for the evening shift. She never drove fast and got there in twenty minutes, right before the shift began. She parked in the lot and started toward the front door. As she turned to open the door, she saw a white truck parked across the street with a tall man getting out of the driver’s side. For some reason, he looked familiar but she could not place him. The man turned and looked at Tillie. She held his gaze for only a few seconds but it felt like a lifetime. He turned around, hopped back into the truck, started it, and took off like a bat out of hell.
Tillie was shaken. She ran through the front door and told the manager that she had to go home for a minute. It was an emergency. She said she would be back in less than a half an hour. She had to speak to Julie. She ran out of the restaurant with the manager shouting at her, “Is everything all right, Tillie?”
She turned. “No.”
She started her car and took a left out of the parking lot, going south on the Overseas Highway, heading toward home. She was speeding for the first time in a long time. She had to see Julie.
In the meantime, her manager Phil called Julie at home to let her know Tillie was on her way and she was very upset about something. He’d just caught her coming into the house from cross-country practice.
“Hi, Phil, what’s up?” she asked.
“I really don’t know, Julie,” he said. “Tillie was very excited, almost in distress, and she said she had to rush home to see you. She said it was an emergency. I have no idea what the problem is but she said she would be back in a half an hour.”
“Thanks, Phil. I am sure she is okay. She should be here in a minute. I’ll wait outside for her,” Julie said, wondering what was wrong.
Tillie tried to control her emotions and held on to the steering wheel for dear life. Please Lord, don’t let me get a speeding ticket, she thought. As she headed out of town toward home, a big truck, with its high beams on, came up behind her and started to tailgate her. She couldn’t see who it was or even what kind of vehicle was behind her. She sped up even more. It was a desolate one-mile section, just south of town, with nothing but highway and sand ditches on both sides of the road, and one lane both ways. The vehicle behind her–she could now see that it was a pickup truck–pulled out, so, she slowed down to let it pass. As soon as the truck’s passenger door met her driver’s side door, she looked over and saw a face that she’d thought she would never see again. The driver immediately jerked the truck hard to the right, hitting the Escort on the front driver’s side, and pushed the car toward the ditch. Tillie tried to keep the car straight and hit the gas but it just made the car swerve more to the right and fly off the road. She was going almost sixty miles an hour when she became airborne. She hit the ditch and the car rolled over and over and then stopped. The truck slowed, stopped, backed up, and then took off again. Tillie’s car was at least fifty feet off the road, upside down, with the lights facing into the wetland area. It was partially submerged in the bog.
Julie could wait no longer. Tillie should have been here by now. It was less than seven miles door-to-door, even as slow as Tillie drove. Julie got into her car and went toward the Overseas Highway, heading north to the restaurant. She’d barely gotten onto the highway when she noticed two police cars on the west side of the road, parked in a southern direction. The lights were flashing and Julie’s heart sank. Oh, my God, please don’t let it be Grandmother. Oh, God. She parked off to the side of the road and ran across the highway to the sheriff’s vehicles. Moving behind the police cars, she saw a car upside down with the lights on. Tears formed in her eyes.
She knew one of the deputies, Sam Parker. He ate breakfast regularly at the Waffle House. He saw Julie and said, “Julie, stay where you are, please.”
“Sam, is it my grandmother?” she asked.
“Does Tillie have an old Escort?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said.
They walked gingerly through the field and saw Tillie hanging upside down, still fastened in her seat belt.
“Tillie, can you hear me?” Sam said. “Tillie, Tillie? I think she is unconscious.”
“Oh my God.” Julie tried talking to Tillie but she got no response. It was clear Tillie was in trouble.
The ambulance was on its way. As soon as the deputies saw the car, they had called the Mariner Hospital to let them know they had a very bad accident. The EMTs were able to get Tillie out of the vehicle and onto the stretcher. She had a weak pulse but they were only a few miles from the hospital. The emergency room was ready for her.
Julie followed one of the deputies and the ambulance while the other deputy took care of the crash site. They pulled into the emergency room exit. Julie parked to the side and watched the EMTs rush Tillie to the emergency room. Julie followed them in but she had to see the admitting room staff to complete the admittance paperwork. Thank God Tillie was now covered under her policy from the school. A couple of months earlier, Tillie would have lost everything, including the house, which she had owned for over forty years.
As Julie sat there, all she could think about was fifteen years ago when she and Tillie saw Annie Chapman die right in front of them at the same emergency room exit door. With the image flashing before her eyes, she thought, If Tillie dies, I’ll be alone. It’s been the both of us together, and now, it may just be me. Why?
With that, she burst into tears, covered her face, and used her jacket to dry her eyes. Tillie was always there for me, and now I’ll be there for her, God willing.
© 2014 by Daniel J. Barrett