Tommy had no idea where he was. Or how he got there. Or where he had been before he got ... here.
Tommy racked his brain as he studied his surroundings. He vaguely remembered climbing a ladder, a sensation of falling backwards, and a loud cracking sound. About the same time, he realized that his surroundings reminded him of a bad Hollywood rendition of the Pearly Gates. Looking down, Tommy discovered he was standing knee-deep in what appeared to be ... well, a cloud. Although he was standing in a clearing, undulating cloud walls hovered at some indeterminate distance.
“No way!” Tommy exclaimed, without realizing he was speaking out loud.
“Way!” came an answering voice from behind.
Tommy spun around and saw one big difference between a cheesy Hollywood set and ... here. Instead of giant, majestic gates, Tommy stood in front of a small checkout counter with a cash register on top and a man behind it. Above was a sign that read “Checked Out Checkout.”
Tommy walked over the counter and, fearing to ask “Where am I?’, asked instead, “Can you tell me what that sign means?”
“I think you know what the first part means.” Using his fingers, the cashier pantomimed a man climbing up a ladder and then falling off backwards. With the latter, he added “Ssssssssssss, CRACK!”
“You mean I’m—”
“That’s right—checked out of Hotel Earth. You’ve had your last wake up call, you’ve bought the farm, you’ve kicked the bucket, you’ve punched the great time clock in the sky, you’ve—”
“OK, OK, I get it. But what’s the ‘checkout’ part mean?”
“Surely, you’ve heard the expression ‘You have to pay for your sins.’”
“But, but, ... I’m a Christian. I thought Jesus paid for my sins.”
“Whoa there, big fella. There’ll be an eternity to talk theology. If you get in, that is. Now here’s how this works. I give you a million dollars. Then we start ringing up all your sins. If you have money left over, you get in. If you come up short, you step right over here to this trap door, and I pull this handle. Don’t worry; you won’t feel a thing. Well, not until after you land. They tell me it’s quite hot after that.”
Tommy gulped as he looked at the trap door.
“Now how do you want to do this? Should we just march through your life year by year? Or should we go sin by sin? Maybe we should just save ourselves some time and start with the big ticket items. What about adolescence; you know—raging hormones, rebellion against authority, disrespect to parents. Or how about Internet porn? That might wipe out the million right there. Lying? That seems to be all the rage these days. Do you want to see the price list?”
“You’re—you’re ki-kidding, right?” stammered Tommy.
“Do I look like I’m kidding?” asked the cashier, as he started punching keys on the register. With the cashier’s fingers moving at superhuman speed, Tommy realized that the million dollar mark had been passed in the first few seconds.
“Stop! Stop!” Tommy hung his head.
The cashier stepped out from behind the counter, grabbed Tommy gently but firmly by the arm, and said, “I’m sorry, sir. Please come with me.” He walked Tommy over to the trap door, helped him position one foot one each panel, and headed for the handle.
“But ... but ... this can’t be. I mean I—”
Instantaneously, it was all gone: The clouds, the counter, the sign, the cash register, the trap door, the handle. There was nothing left but Peter, holding his sides, bent double with laughter, trying to apologize to the Voice, but only getting out a word or two between each new wave of laughter. “I’m ... sorry ... Lord. It’s shouldn’t ... it shouldn’t be ... . this easy!”
“Peter ... ,” the Voice lovingly chided.
“I know, Lord, I know. But they really shouldn’t fall for it.”
Turning to Tommy, Peter said, “I’m sorry,” although his face-splitting grin told Tommy he wasn’t really sorry. “Oh my, you should have seen your face! Ohhhh, this never gets old!”
Tommy just stared as Peter walked away. After a few steps, Peter turned and beckoned Tommy to follow. “Come on. Don’t you want to meet Him?”
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