news

DETROIT FREE PRESS

'the First Phone Call From Heaven'

By Mitch Albom

Book excerpt

'The First Phone Call from Heaven'

The new novel from best-selling author and Free Press columnist Mitch Albom arrives in stores Tuesday. "The First Phone Call from Heaven" tells the story of a small town on Lake Michigan that gets worldwide attention when its citizens start receiving phone calls from the afterlife.

This is Albom's first effort in a three-book deal with his new publisher, Harper, an imprint of Harper Collins.

The following is an exclusive excerpt from the new book.

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.

Drrrrnnn!

She ignored the ring and dug her nails into the plastic.

Drrrrnnn!

She clawed her forefinger through the bumpy part on the side.

Drrrrnnn!

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 -

"Drrnnn -"

"Hello?"

Too late.

"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.

***

Drrrrnnng!

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."

"A boat."

"Pay your bills."

"Not me."

"A boat!"

Drrrrnnng!

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.

***

Brrnnnng!

Pastor Warren wiped saliva from his chin. He'd been napping on his couch at the Harvest of Hope Baptist Church.

Brrnnnng!

"Coming."

He struggled to his feet. The church had installed a bell outside his office, because at 82, his hearing had grown weak.

Brrnnnng!

"Pastor, it's Katherine Yellin. Hurry, please!"

He hobbled to the door and opened it.

"Hello, Ka-"

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."

"No, dear-"

"Diane called me."

"Who called you?"

"Diane."

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-"

"Yes-"

"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.

***

Drrrrrnnnnnng.

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.

Jules.

His son.

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:

"Let's go."

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 Third Week

Miracles happen quietly every day - 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, 23 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 11, verse 28," 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.

The Fourth Week

Amy Penn was hoping for something big. When the TV station asked if she could work a few weekdays, she thought yes, good, politics - or even better, a trial - anything that might lift her from the swamp of weekend news. She was 31, no longer a kid in this business (although friends told her she was pretty enough to pass for 25), and to get to a bigger job, she needed bigger stories. But big stories were hard to find on weekends in Alpena County, which were mostly reserved for football games, charity walks, and various fruit festivals.

"This could be my break," she'd excitedly told Rick, her architect fiancé. That was Thursday night. But by mid-Friday morning, after rising early, choosing a chartreuse skirt suit, blowing out her sideswept auburn bangs, and applying a hint of mascara and bold lipstick, Amy found herself in a windowless office at the station, hearing a story that was straight out of the weekend file.

"There's a woman out in Coldwater who says she's getting calls from a dead sister," said Phil Boyd, the station's news director.

"Really?" Amy said, because what do you say to that? She looked at Phil, a portly man with a scruffy reddish beard that made Amy think of a Viking, and wondered if he was serious - about the story, although the beard also warranted the question.

"Where's Coldwater?" she asked.

"About 90 miles west."

"How do we know she's getting calls?"

"She announced it during church."

"How did people react?"

"That's what you find out."

"So I should interview the woman."

Phil lifted an eyebrow. "That's a start."

"What if she's crazy?"

"Just bring back the tape."

Amy glanced at her nails. She'd done them special for this meeting.

"You know it's not real, Phil."

"Neither is the Loch Ness monster. And how many news stories have been done about that?"

"Right. OK."

Amy rose. She figured they would kill the piece once it proved laughable.

"What if it's a waste of time?" she asked.

"It's not a waste of time," Phil replied.

Only once she'd left did Amy guess what he meant: It's not a waste of time because it's you. It wasn't like they were using someone important.

The Fifth Week

No one is certain who invented the telephone. Although the U.S. patent belongs to the Scottish-born Alexander Graham Bell, many believe he stole it away from an American inventor named Elisha Gray. Others maintain that an Italian named Manzetti or a Frenchman named Bourseul or a German named Reis or another Italian named Meucci deserves credit.

What few dispute is that all these men, working in the mid-19th Century, explored the idea of transmitting vocal vibrations from one place to another. But the very first telephonic conversation, between Bell and Thomas Watson, standing in separate rooms, contained these words: Come here. I want to see you.

In the uncountable human phone conversations since then, that concept has never been far from our lips. Come here. I want to see you. Impatient lovers. Long-distance friends. Grandparents talking to grandchildren. The telephone voice is but a seduction, a bread crumb to an appetite. Come here. I want to see you.

Sully had said it the last time he spoke to Giselle.

He'd been awakened at 6 a.m. in his Washington hotel room by a senior officer, Blake Pearson, who was supposed to fly an F/A-18 Hornet jet back to the West Coast. He was sick. Couldn't do it. Would Sully cover? He could stop in Ohio if he wanted, see Giselle for a few hours - she and Jules were there visiting her parents - then continue on.

Sully quickly agreed. It would break up his two weeks of reserve duty. And the unexpected family visit would make the long hours of flying worthwhile.

"You can be here today?" Giselle said sleepily when he'd called her with the news.

"Yeah. In, like, four hours."

"You really want to?"

"Of course. I want to see you."

Had he known what would happen that day, he would have changed everything, never flown, never talked to Blake, never even woken up. Instead, his last telephone conversation with Giselle ended much like the world's first.

"I want to see you, too," she said.

***

In the dream - which Sully had several times a week - he was back in the cockpit, helmet on, visor down, oxygen mask in place.

He felt a terrible thud. The plane wobbled. The gauges froze. He pulled a handle, and a canopy blew away. A rocket exploded beneath him. His skeleton screamed in pain. Then everything went silent. He saw a small fire, far below him, the wreckage of his aircraft. He saw another fire. Even smaller.

As he floated toward Earth, a voice whispered, Don't go down there. Stay in the sky. It's safe up here.

Giselle's voice.

He jolted awake, sweating. His eyes darted. He was on the couch in his apartment, having fallen asleep after two vodka and cranberry juices. The TV was on. Channel 9, the Alpena station. He blinked at the image of a female reporter standing in front of a familiar-looking church. It was Harvest of Hope, a mile from where Sully was now.

"It seems, at first, like any other small town, with telephone poles and wires," the reporter was saying. "Still, here in Coldwater, people are wondering if they might be the next to get a phone call from heaven."

"You gotta be kidding me," Sully mumbled.

"Can we eat now, Dad?"

He lifted his head to see Jules leaning against the side of the couch.

"Sure, buddy. Daddy was just sleeping."

"You always sleep."

Sully found his glass and swigged the now-warm alcohol. He groaned and sat up. "I'll make some spaghetti."

Jules pulled a loose piece of rubber on his sneakers. Sully realized he had to buy the kid new shoes.

"Dad?"

"Yeah?"

"When is Mommy going to call us?"

***

Excerpt from "The First Phone Call From Heaven" by Mitch Albom, copyright 2013, Harper Collins Publishers.

Mitch Albom

See

Mitch Albom book signings

Nov. 21: Kroger, 2905 Union Lake, Commerce Township, 7 p.m.

Nov. 22: Barnes & Noble, 14165 Hall, Shelby Township, 7:30 p.m.

Nov. 26: Barnes & Noble, 6800 Orchard Lake, West Bloomfield, 7:30 p.m.

Nov. 30: Barnes & Noble, 3235 Washtenaw, Ann Arbor, 11 a.m.

Dec. 3: Barnes & Noble, 4940 Monroe, Toledo, 8 p.m.

Dec. 6: Books-A-Million, 31150 Southfield, Beverly Hills, 7:30 p.m.

Dec. 7: Art Van Furniture, 6500 E. Fourteen Mile, Warren, 2 p.m.

Dec. 10: Barnes & Noble, 3120 Fairlane, Allen Park, 7:30 p.m.

Dec. 12: Barnes & Noble, 2800 S. Rochester, Rochester Hills, 7:30 p.m.

Dec. 15: Barnes & Noble, 9605 Green Oak Village, Green Oak Township, noon; Schuler Books & Music, 2660 28th St. SE, Grand Rapids, 4 p.m.

Dec. 18: Barnes & Noble, 500 S. Main, Royal Oak, 7:30 p.m.

Dec. 19: Chapters, Devonshire Mall, Windsor, 7:30 p.m.

Dec. 20: Books-A-Million, 32411 Gratiot, Roseville, 7:30 p.m

Dec. 21: Costco, 400 Brown, Auburn Hills, noon; Costco, 20000 Haggerty, Livonia, 3 p.m.