BONE RATE by Kristen M. Ploetz

The marble lobby smells like old paper and spiders have taken residence in the dark corners of the tooth dentil trim. From behind a framed pane of cheap glass, ten wanted men stare at Naenie. Eight of them are smiling. She glances long enough to know some are dangerous, but all of them are broken.

Of the three windows, the middle is open for business. As Naenie waits her turn, she watches the woman in a red coat. With a gloved hand, the woman slides a small white box toward the clerk and drops three coins into his palm. Naenie cannot hear what the clerk asks before the woman nods. When she turns to leave, Naenie sees the missing eye.

The clerk waves Naenie forward. Inside her coat pocket, her left hand is in a loose fist. Her right hand signs the alphabet over and over at her side.

“Sending first-class?” he asks.

Naenie does not respond.

The wood counter is dipped in the center. A century of hands and wrists have worn it down. Over the shallow bowl, Naenie opens her fist. Six tiny bones fall from her palm. Malleus, incus, and stapes from her right ear, the other three from her left. She scratches at the stitches behind her ears, tucks the hospital bracelet back under the cuff of her silk blouse.

He leans closer to Naenie, mouths the words with precision. “Bone rate?”

She nods.

He pinches the bones one by one and puts them on the scale. Tick tick tick tick tick tick against stainless steel. For Naenie, they fall in silence.

Total weight: 1/1000th of an ounce. She pulls a wrinkled dollar from her pocket and sets it on the scale next to the bones.

With a sable paintbrush he slides them into a small metal tube the size of his finger, pushes a black rubber stopper into the top. From a desk drawer near his knee, he pulls out a padded envelope. Stamped in block letters on the front: FRAGILE-OSSICLES.

“Where to?” He says the words slowly, his black pen suspended above the envelope. He doesn’t break his stare as he waits for her answer.

Naenie slips him a folded square of paper and whispers, “This address please.” She signs no more with her right hand low behind the counter so the clerk cannot see, twists the ends of the stitches behind her left ear as he writes the name of her father.

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