*****Prologue*****

Joe leaned on her elbows, staring into the plastic hamster cage. "Hey, Lord Elrond," she said to her hamster, whose name was Lord Elrond. She scratched her nose a bit. "Elrond!" she insisted, then flipped open the red plastic lid and poked the moving shavings that indicated her dear little pet. The creature tried to bite her and she quickly withdrew her hand. As soon as she did this Lord Elrond followed, and Joe could see the squirming pink hamster-babies in the woodshaving-nest. It occurred to her that the little guys ought to have a mother who was not named Lord Elrond, but something slightly more effeminate, but she just shrugged and said, "Good morning, Elrond and company!"

Joe poured the hamster food into the cage, then scooted over to wire cage. "Hey, Boromir," she said. Boromir was the male hamster, and she kept him in a separate cage, knowing that if she did not he would most likely eat the babies. Joe knew this because it had happened to her once before. She fed Boromir, then took his and Lord Elrond's water bottles off their cages, and padded over to the bathroom to change their water.

No one was awake except for Joe, so the bathroom, just down the hall from her room, was empty. She knew just by looking around that Shaun had gone to bed after Mom. Mom would have straightened out the bathroom--Shaun left a wet towel on the floor, a dirty razor in the sink, and, as Joe discovered when she threw his towel into the laundry basket, briefs in the laundry. Joe stuck out her tongue at the odor of Shaun's shaving cream and soap. She hated that smell; she preferred the smell of Shaun sweaty to the smell of Shaun clean. Trying her very best to ignore the razor, Joe filled the hamsters' water bottles as fast as possible and tiptoed out of the bathroom, more in the interest of not touching the floor than of being quiet.

Back in her room, she slipped the water bottles back onto the cages and then stretched out on the floor. "Hey, Boromir," she said again. Boromir was a snow-white rodent with lots of fur who looked like a puffball with two black eyes. Joe reached into the cage and pulled out the male, who squeaked but not in protest. She set him on the floor before her and ran one finger along his back. After a while she decided she was bored and placed him back in his cage, then rolled over onto her back to stare up at the ceiling.

Mom didn't know yet that Lord Elrond was a woman hamster, and she certainly did not know that Lord Elrond was a woman hamster with a litter. Joe knew that wasn't what they were called, but she still referred to them as a litter of kittens. Lord Elrond was a light brown hamster with a white stripe round his middle whose bottom wriggled noticeably whenever he walked. Joe thought this was cute, and also thought that Lord Elrond was quite the flirt, and that was not at all appropriate for a man with a husband and seven children! She was friendlier before she had the little ones. . .

Rolling onto her stomach again, Joe stared at Elrond. She would probably be moving her to another cage in about a month, as soon as the babies were all right on their own. Could they all stay in one cage? Joe was glad it was summer. She could stay in her room all day and watch her hamsters. There was nothing else worth doing in a small town, anyway.

*****

TBC