The First Phone Call from Heaven
The Week It Happened
On the day the world received its first phone call from heaven, Tess Rafferty was unwrapping a box of tea bags.
She ignored the ring and dug her nails into the plastic.
She clawed her forefinger through the bumpy part on the side.
Finally, she made a rip, then peeled off the wrapping and scrunched it in her palm. She knew the phone would go to answering machine if she didn’t grab it before one more—
“Ach, this thing,” she mumbled. She heard the machine click on her kitchen counter as it played her outgoing message.
“Hi, it’s Tess. Leave your name and number. I’ll get back to you as soon as I can, thanks.”
A small beep sounded. Tess heard static. And then.
“It’s Mom. . . . I need to tell you something.”
Tess stopped breathing. The receiver fell from her fingers. Her mother died four years ago.
The second call was barely audible over a boisterous police station argument. A clerk had hit the lottery for $28,000 and three officers were debating what they’d do with such luck.
“You pay your bills.”
“That’s what you don’t do.”
“Pay your bills.”
Jack Sellers, the police chief, backed up toward his small office. “If you pay your bills, you just rack up new bills,” he said. The men continued arguing as he reached for the phone.
“Coldwater Police, Sellers speaking.” Static. Then a young man’s voice.
“Dad? . . . It’s Robbie.”
Suddenly Jack couldn’t hear the other men. “Who the hell is this?”
“I’m happy, Dad. Don’t worry about me, OK?”
Jack felt his stomach tighten. He thought about the last time he’d seen his son, clean shaven with a soldier’s tight haircut, disappearing through airport security en route to his third tour of duty.
His last tour of duty. “It can’t be you,” Jack whispered.
Pastor Warren wiped saliva from his chin. He’d been napping on his couch at the Harvest of Hope Baptist Church.
He struggled to his feet. The church had installed a bell outside his office, because at eighty-two, his hearing had grown weak.
“Pastor, it’s Katherine Yellin. Hurry, please!”
He hobbled to the door and opened it.
But she was already past him, her coat half buttoned, her reddish hair frazzled, as if she’d dashed out of the house. She sat on the couch, rose nervously, then sat again.
“Please know I’m not crazy.”
“Diane called me.”
“Who called you?”
Warren’s head began to hurt.
“Your deceased sister called you?”
“This morning. I picked up the phone . . .”
She gripped her handbag and began to cry. Warren wondered if he should call someone for help.
“She told me not to worry,” Katherine rasped. “She said she was at peace.”
“This was a dream, then?”
“No! No! It wasn’t a dream! I spoke to my sister!”
Tears fell off the woman’s cheeks, dropping faster than she could wipe them away.
“We’ve talked about this, dear—”
“I know, but—”
“You miss her—”
“And you’re upset.”
“No, Pastor! She told me she’s in heaven. . . . Don’t you see?”
She smiled, a beatific smile, a smile Warren had never seen on her face before. “I’m not scared of anything anymore,” she said.
A security bell sounded, and a heavy prison gate slid across a track. A tall, broad-shouldered man named Sullivan Harding walked slowly, a step at a time, head down. His heart was racing—not at the excitement of his liberation, but at the fear that someone might yank him back.
Forward. Forward. He kept his gaze on the tips of his shoes. Only when he heard approaching noise on the gravel—light footsteps, coming fast—did he look up.
He felt two small arms wrap around his legs, felt his hands sink into a mop of the boy’s curly hair. He saw his parents— mother in a navy windbreaker, father in a light brown suit—their faces collapsing as they fell into a group embrace. It was chilly and gray and the street was slick with rain. Only his wife was missing from the moment, but her absence was like a character in it.
Sullivan wanted to say something profound, but all that emerged from his lips was a whisper:
Moments later, their car disappeared down the road. It was the day the world received its first phone call from heaven. What happened next depends on how much you believe.
The Second Week
A cool, misting rain fell, which was not unusual for September in Coldwater, a small town geographically north of certain parts of Canada and just a few miles from Lake Michigan.
Despite the chilly weather, Sullivan Harding was walking. He could have borrowed his father’s car, but after ten months of confinement, he preferred the open air. Wearing a ski cap and an old suede jacket, he passed the high school he’d attended twenty years ago, the lumberyard that had closed last winter, the bait and tackle shop, its rental rowboats stacked like clamshells, and the gas station where an attendant leaned against a wall, examining his fingernails. My hometown, Sullivan thought.
He reached his destination and wiped his boots on a thatched mat that read Davidson & Sons. Noticing a small camera above the doorframe, he instinctively yanked off his cap, swiped at his thick brown hair, and looked into the lens. After a minute with no response, he let himself in.
The warmth of the funeral home was almost smothering. Its walls were paneled in dark oak. A desk with no chair held an open sign-in book.
“Can I help you?” The director, a tall, thinly boned man with pallid skin, bushy eyebrows, and wispy hair the color of straw, stood with his hands crossed. He appeared to be in his late sixties.
“I’m Horace Belfin,” he said.
Ah yes, Sully thought, the one who missed his wife’s funeral because he was in prison. Sully did this now, finished unfinished sentences, believing that the words people do not speak are louder than the ones they do.
“Giselle was my wife.”
“I’m sorry for your loss.”
“It was a lovely ceremony. I imagine the family has told you.”
“I am the family.”
They stood in silence.
“Her remains?” Sully said.
“In our columbarium. I’ll get the key.”
He went to his office.
Sully lifted a brochure off a table. He opened it to a paragraph about cremation.
Cremated remains can be sprinkled at sea, placed in a helium balloon, scattered from an airplane …
Sully tossed the brochure back. Scattered from an airplane. Even God couldn’t be that cruel.
Twenty minutes later, Sully left the building with his wife’s ashes in an angel-shaped urn. He tried carrying it one-handed, but that felt too casual. He tried cradling it in his palms, but that felt like an offering. He finally clasped it to his chest, arms crossed, the way a child carries a book bag. He walked this way for half a mile through the Coldwater streets, his heels splashing through rainwater. When he came upon a bench in front of the post of- fice, he sat down, placing the urn carefully beside him.
The rain finished. Church bells chimed in the distance. Sully closed his eyes and imagined Giselle nudging against him, her sea-green eyes, her licorice-black hair, her thin frame and narrow shoulders that, leaned against Sully’s body, seemed to whisper, Protect me.
He hadn’t, in the end. Protected her. That would never change. He sat on that bench for a long while, fallen man, porcelain angel, as if the two of them were waiting for a bus.
The news of life is carried via telephone. A baby’s birth, a couple engaged, a tragic accident on a late-night highway—most milestones of the human journey, good or bad, are foreshadowed by the sound of ringing.
Tess sat on her kitchen floor now, waiting for that sound to come again. For the past two weeks, her phone had been carrying the most stunning news of all. Her mother existed, somewhere, somehow. She reviewed the latest conversation for the hundredth time.
“Tess . . . Stop crying, darling.”
“It can’t be you.”
“I’m here, safe and sound.”
Her mother always said that when she called in from a trip—a hotel, a spa, even a visit to her relatives half an hour away. I’m here, safe and sound.
“This isn’t possible.
“Everything is possible. I am with the Lord. I want to tell you about…”
“What? Mom? What?”
The line went silent. Tess stared at the receiver as if holding a human bone. It was totally illogical. She knew that. But a mother’s voice is like no other; we recognize every lilt and whisper, every warble or shriek. There was no doubt. It was her.
Tess drew her knees in to her chest. Since the first call, she had remained inside, eating only crackers, cereal, hard-boiled eggs, whatever she had in the house. She hadn’t gone to work, hadn’t gone shopping, hadn’t even gotten the mail.
She ran a hand through her long, unwashed blond hair. A shut-in to a miracle? What would people say? She didn’t care. A few words from heaven had rendered all the words on earth inconsequential.
Jack Sellers sat by his desk inside the converted redbrick house that served as headquarters for the Coldwater Police Department. It appeared to his coworkers that he was typing up reports. But he, too, was waiting for a ringing.
It had been the most bizarre week of his life. Two calls from his dead son. Two conversations he thought he would never have again. He still hadn’t told his ex-wife, Doreen, Robbie’s mother. She had fallen into depression and teared up at the mere mention of his name. What would he say to her? That their boy, killed in battle, was now alive somewhere? That the portal to heaven sat on Jack’s desk? Then what?
Jack himself had no clue what to make of this. He only knew that each time that phone rang, he grabbed for it like a gunslinger. His second call, like the first, had come on a Friday afternoon.
He heard static, and an airy noise that rose and fell.
“It’s me, Dad.”
“I’m OK, Dad. There’s no bad days here.”
“Where are you?”
“You know where I am. Dad, it’s awesome—”
Then a click.
Jack screamed, “Hello? Hello?” He noticed the other officers looking over. He shut the door. A minute later, the phone rang again. He checked the caller ID bar. As with the previous times, it read unknown.
“Hello?” he whispered.
“Tell Mom not to cry. . . . If we knew what comes next, we never would have worried.”
Once you have a sister, you never stop having her, even if you can no longer see or touch her.
Katherine Yellin lay back on the bed, her red hair flattening against the pillow. She crossed her arms and squeezed the salmon-pink flip phone that had once belonged to Diane. It was a Samsung model, with a glitter sticker of a high-heeled shoe on the back, a symbol of Diane’s love for fashion.
It’s better than we dreamed, Kath.
Diane had said that in her second call, which, like the first—like all these strange calls to Coldwater—had come on a Friday. Better than we dreamed. The word Katherine most loved in that sentence was we.
The Yellin sisters had a special bond, like tethered children scaling small-town life together. Diane, older by two years, had walked Katherine to school each day, paved the way for her in Brownies and Girl Scouts, got her braces off when Katherine got hers on, and refused, at high school dances, to take the floor until Katherine had someone to dance with too. Both sisters had long legs, strong shoulders, and could swim a mile in the lake during the summer. Both attended the local community college. They cried together when their parents died. When Diane married, Katherine was her maid of honor; three Junes later, the positions were reversed. Each had two kids—girls for Diane, boys for Katherine. Their houses were a mile apart. Even their divorces fell within a year of one another.
Only in health had they diverged. Diane had endured migraines, an irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, and the sudden aneurysm that killed her at the too-young age of forty-six. Katherine was often described as “never sick a day in her life.”
For years, she’d felt guilty about this. But now she understood. Diane—sweet, fragile Diane—had been called for a reason. She’d been chosen by the Lord to show that eternity waits for the faithful.
It’s better than we dreamed, Kath.
Katherine smiled. We. Through the pink flip phone she held to her chest, she had rediscovered the sister she could never lose.
And she would not be silent about it.
The Third Week
You have to start over. That’s what they say. But life is not a board game, and losing a loved one is never really “starting over.” More like “continuing without.”
Sully’s wife was gone. She’d died after a long coma. According to the hospital, she slipped away during a thunderstorm on the first day of summer. Sully was still in prison, nine weeks from release. When they informed him, his entire body went numb. It was like learning of the earth’s destruction while standing on the moon.
He thought about Giselle constantly now, even though every thought brought with it the shadow of their last day, the crash, the fire, how everything he’d known changed in one bumpy instant. Didn’t matter. He draped himself in her sad memory, because it was the closest thing to having her around. He placed the angel urn on a shelf by a couch where Jules, two months shy of his seventh birthday, lay sleeping.
Sully sat down, slumping into the chair. He was still adjusting to freedom. You might think that after ten months in prison, a man would bask in liberation. But the body and mind grow accustomed to conditions, even terrible ones, and there were still moments when Sully stared at the walls, as listless as a captive. He had to remind himself he could get up and go out.
He reached for a cigarette and looked around this cheap, unfamiliar apartment, a second-story walk-up, heated by a radiator furnace. Outside the window was a cluster of pine trees and a small ravine that led to a stream. He remembered catching frogs there as a kid.
Sully had returned to Coldwater because his parents had been taking care of Jules during his trial and incarceration, and he didn’t want to disrupt the boy’s life any more than he already had. Besides, where would he go? His job and home were gone. His money had been depleted by lawyers. He watched two squirrels chase each other up a tree and kidded himself that Giselle might have actually liked this place, once she got past the location, the size, the dirt, and the peeling paint.
A knock broke Sully’s concentration. He looked through the peephole. Mark Ashton stood on the other side, holding two grocery bags.
Mark and Sully had been navy squadron mates; they flew jets together. Sully hadn’t seen him since the sentencing.
“Hey,” Mark said when the door opened.
“Hey,” Sully replied.
“Nice place—if you’re a terrorist.”
“You drove up from Detroit?”
“Yeah. Gonna let me in?”
They shared a quick, awkward hug, and Mark followed Sully into the main room. He saw Jules on the couch and lowered his voice.
“I got him some Oreos. All kids like Oreos, right?”
Mark laid the bags between unpacked boxes on the kitchen counter. He noticed an ashtray full of cigarette butts and several glasses in the sink—small glasses, the kind you fill with alcohol, not water.
“So . . . ,” he said.
Without the bags in his hands, Mark had no distraction. He looked at Sully’s face—Sully, his old flying partner, whose boyish looks and openmouthed expression suggested the ready-to-go high school football star he once had been, only thinner and older now, especially around the eyes.
“This the town you grew up in?”
“Now you know why I left.”
“How are you getting by?” Sully shrugged.
“Look. It’s awful. What happened with Giselle . . .”
“I thought they’d let you out for the funeral.”
“‘Navy rules rule the navy.’”
“It was a nice service.”
“As far as the rest . . .”
Sully glanced up.
“The hell with it,” Mark said. “People know.”
They know you went to prison, Sully thought, finishing the unfinished sentence. They don’t know if you deserved it.
“I tried to come see you.”
“Didn’t want to be seen.”
“It was weird for the guys.”
“Let’s drop it, OK? I already said what happened. A million times. They believed something else. End of story.”
Sully stared at his hands and punched his knuckles together.
“What are you planning next?” Mark asked.
“What do you mean?”
“I know a guy near here. College roommate. I called him.”
Sully stopped punching his knuckles.
“You called before you saw me?”
“You’re gonna need money. He might have a job.”
“I’m not a salesman.”
“It’s easy. All you do is sign customers back up, collect a check, and get a commission.”
“What kind of business?”
Sully blinked. “You’re kidding, right?” He thought about all the newspapers that had written about his “incident,” how quickly they had jumped to the easiest, fastest conclusion, reprinting each other’s words until they had devoured him, then moving on to the next story. He’d hated the news ever since. Never paid for another newspaper, and never would.
“It lets you stay around here,” Mark said.
Sully went to the sink. He rinsed out a glass. He wished Mark would go, so he could fill it with what he wanted.
“Give me his number, I’ll call him,” Sully said, knowing full well he never would.
Tess sat cross-legged on soft red cushions and stared out the bay window to the large front lawn, which hadn’t been mowed in weeks. This was the house she had grown up in; she remembered, as a child, curling in this very spot on summer mornings, whining to her mother, Ruth, who sat at a bridge table, reviewing her paperwork, rarely looking up.
“I’m bored,” Tess would say.
“Try going outside,” Ruth would mumble.
“There’s nothing to do.”
“Do nothing outside.”
“I wish I had a sister.”
“Sorry, can’t help you.”
“You could if you got married.”
“I was already married.”
“There’s nothing to do.”
“Try reading a book.”
“I read all the books.”
“Read them again.”
On and on they went, a jousting conversation that in some form repeated itself through adolescence, college, adulthood, right up until Ruth’s final years, when Alzheimer’s robbed her of her words, and ultimately of the desire to speak at all. Ruth spent her final months in a stony silence, staring at her daughter with her head tilted, the way a child stares at a fly.
But now, somehow, they were talking again, as if death had been an airplane flight that Tess thought Ruth had taken but later found out she’d missed. An hour earlier, they’d shared an- other inexplicable phone call.
“It’s me, Tess.”
“Oh, God, Mom. I still can’t believe this.”
“I always told you I’d find a way.”
Tess smiled through tears, remembering how her mother, a health food devotee, used to joke that even dead, she’d make sure Tess was taking her supplements.
“You were so sick, Mom.”
“But there is no pain here.”
“You suffered so much—”
“Honey, listen to me.”
“I’m here. I’m listening.”
“The pain you go through in life doesn’t really touch you . . . not the real you. . . . You are so much lighter than you think.”
Just the words brought Tess a blessed calmness now. You are so much lighter than you think. She glanced at the photo in her hands, the last photo of them together, taken at her mother’s eighty-third birthday party. You could see the price the illness had exacted—Ruth’s hollowed cheeks, her blank expression, the way her caramel sweater drooped on her skeletal frame.
“Mom, how is this possible? You’re not using a phone.”
“How are you speaking to me?”
“Something has happened, Tess. . . . There’s an opening.”
“How long will it last?”
A long pause.
“Mom? How long will it last?”
Miracles happen quietly everyday—in an operating room, on a stormy sea, in the sudden appearance of a roadside stranger. They are rarely tallied. No one keeps score.
But now and then, a miracle is declared to the world.
And when that happens, things change.
Tess Rafferty and Jack Sellers might have kept their calls secret, but Katherine Yellin would not. Proclaim the good news to all mankind. That’s what the gospel said.
And so, on a Sunday morning, twenty-three days after Coldwater’s first mysterious phone call, Pastor Warren stood before his Harvest of Hope congregation, flipping pages in his Bible, unaware that his sanctuary was about to be transformed forever.
“Let us read together from Matthew, chapter eleven, verse twenty-eight,” he announced, blinking. The print was blurry, and his fingers shook with age. He thought of the psalm: Do not forsake me when I am old and gray.
“Excuse me, everyone!”
Heads turned. Warren peered over his glasses. Katherine was standing in the fifth row. She wore a brimmed black hat and a lavender dress. In her hands, she clutched a piece of paper.
“Pastor, I’m sorry. The spirit of the Lord compels me to speak.”
Warren swallowed. He feared where this was going.
“Katherine, please be seated—”
“This is important, Pastor.”
“Now is not the—”
“I have witnessed a miracle!”
A small gasp rippled through the pews.
“Katherine, the Lord is with us all, but claiming a miracle—”
“It happened three weeks ago.”
“—is a very serious matter—”
“I was in the kitchen, Friday morning.”
“—best left to the leaders of the church.”
“I got a phone call—”
“Really, I must insist—”
“—from my dead sister!”
More gasps. She had their attention now. The sanctuary was so quiet, you could hear her unfold the paper.
“It was Diane. Many of you knew her. She died two years ago, but her soul is alive in heaven. She told me!”
Warren fought to keep from shaking. He had lost control of the pulpit, a sin, in his mind, of the highest order.
“We first spoke that Friday morning,” Katherine continued, reading louder as she wiped tears with the back of her hand. “It was 10:41 a.m. And the next Friday, at 11:14 a.m., and last Friday at 7:02 in the evening. She said my name . . . she said . . . ‘Kath, the time has come to tell everyone. I’m waiting for you. We are all waiting.’ ”
She turned to the rear of the sanctuary. “We are all waiting.”
The congregation mumbled. From the pulpit, Warren watched them shifting in their seats, as if a wind were blowing through them.
He rapped his palm on the lectern.
“I must insist!” Rap. “Please! Everyone!” Rap, rap! “With all respect to our fellow congregant, we cannot know if this is real—”
“It is real, Pastor!”
A new voice came from the back of the church. It was deep and gravelly, and all heads turned to see a tall, burly man in a brown sports coat, standing up, his large hands on the pew in front of him. He was Elias Rowe, a longtime African American congregant who owned a construction business. No one could recall him ever speaking to a crowd—until now.
His eyes darted. When he spoke again, his voice was almost reverent.
“I got a call, too,” he said.