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It started with rats.

Sheila had nagged him for weeks to do something about them. There were no chew-marks, but every night scuttering noises would come from the attic. Brian had procrastinated for weeks, but it was becoming too irritating to tolerate.

He wasn’t squeamish. He liked to think he was a practical person, the sort you could rely on. It was just that… he really hated that attic. They rarely used it, and the lights never worked.

So here he was, surrounded by darkness with his only light from a flickering torch which was annoying him greatly. Why did nothing ever function properly? He could hardly see anything with the barely-existent light. Should he go back and get some new batteries? Maybe- No. That was just an excuse. He needed to get this done.

Yet as he thought that, the flickering died out. He tried flicking the switch. Nothing. He looked about. No matter how he strained his eyes everything was empty blackness. “Shit” he muttered.

He reached out, trying to feel for something familiar, something to guide him towards the trap door, back to the light. His hesitant hands connected with something. A box. Yes, that was right, the kids’ toy box. Okay, he could work this out.

He continued to probe about, wary of stepping on some nail lying about. He felt something soft and furry. One of the toys?

That was when he noticed that it was sticky. And reeked.

His hand withdrew, probably faster than he had ever moved before. A rat. It was a dead rat. And now he had his hand covered in its rancid blood.

He retched and was sure he would vomit, but nothing came of it. The wall. He just needed to find a wall, then he could trace it to the door. He stumbled about blindly, flailing about.

Then it happened. Or, more accurately, when it didn’t happen. It should take seconds to reach a wall. But he had been going in the same direction for at least two minutes.

He was panicking. Nothing made sense. Where were the walls? How was this possible? He decided then that his dignity wasn’t worth putting up with this.

“Sheila!” he screamed, surprised at how desperate and afraid he sounded. “Sheila! John! Debby! I need help!!”

The silence that followed was the worst. Where were they? what was happening? “SHEILA!” he bellowed as loud as his body allowed.

He kept screaming their names. Over and over Brian drove his lungs to their limit, but still, no responding voices sounded.

Suddenly lacking energy, he slumped to his knees. His throat burned and his eyes were watery. He had tried everything. None of this could be real. It was a dream, some nightmare.

But he knew it was real. He could not explain how he knew, it simply was. He even tried the old cliche of pinching his own arm, rewarded only with pain.

He sat there for… he didn’t know how long- just going over these thoughts as if that would help. He sighed miserably.

But… Wait... That’s it!

With renewed energy, he rose up and gripped the torch. Raising it like a club, he gave out one last shout for help. There was no reply, as expected.

Tensing, he brought the torch down on the wood beneath him with all his might. Nothing. He struck again, trying to use his whole body. No breakthrough.

A third time, still no luck. He became frantic now and started hammering away at the ground as if possessed. He must have looked utterly without sanity, but that was irrelevant. This was his only hope.

He hammered relentlessly. It should be breaking. Why wasn’t it? Why-

The first thing Brian noticed upon waking was the light. The brightness made him recoil with its intensity. How long had he been in the dark for?

He was able to force himself to stand, and noticed the pieces of wood scattered about. Above him was a gaping hole in the ceiling. His fatigue was replaced with joy. He’d done it!

Looking around, all was as it should be. He’d fallen into the passageway... He had no idea what had happened up there, but he was relieved that everything made sense again. Maybe he had hallucinated.

Except… something didn’t feel right. As he approached the door to the living room, an unexplainable shiver rippled through him. With reluctance, he opened it.

The room was as it should be. Debby’s phone was on the sofa. One of Sheila’s magazines lay on the table. Everything in order… except for the lack of people.

More worried than he liked to admit, he entered the kitchen. Only emptiness.

He went through every room. Every time his heart rate increased when as found each as empty as the last. The whole house searched, he resorted once more to desperation. “Debby!” he bellowed. “John! If this is a joke it isn’t funny!”

Searching every tiny crevice, he shouted, “I’m not angry with you! Please!”

He went upstairs to check the bedroom again, He knew that was illogical, but nothing was happening logically anyway.

Next, sweating and panting, he returned downstairs.

His heart almost jumped out of his chest.

There was someone sitting at the table. A woman. With his mind racing, it took him a few seconds to realise the woman was his wife.

Brian blinked. “Sheila?” He could hardly speak. “What happened?”

She looked at him in the most peculiar way. It was as if she was trying to process what he was saying. Then, at last: “Oh, hi sweetheart. What’s the problem?”

“I’ve been… It doesn't matter, I’ll tell you later. I think I ate some bad food or something.” He pulled a seat out to sit opposite his wife. Something wasn’t right. She seemed unresponsive. Cold.

“So… where are Debby and John?”

She blinked. For a long moment, she simply stared blankly. She had the most horribly alien look on her face.

“Sheila?” She blinked and smiled, but the attempt at warmth felt so artificial. “Oh, they’ve just gone to a friend’s house.”

“Which friend?” Brian asked slyly, certain that what was sitting opposite him was not his wife, and hoping he was not becoming insane.

She smiled and opened her mouth, but again her face was unresponsive, like a computer trying to process broken code.

“Sheila!” he barked.

With that, her face changed. The warmth and humanity just… left. What was left was something wearing the skin of the woman he married, no longer maintaining pretenses. It sighed.

“Well, I had hoped to play a little longer.” It’s always fun to see how they react. Oh well. Down to business then.”

“W-what are you?” he said through teeth clenched with both fear and rage.

“That’s not really important, is it?” The thing giggled with Sheila’s mouth, “But you know this isn’t real, don’t you?”

Her taunting tone infuriated him. “Are you saying this is a dream?”

“Something like that,” she purred.

Her deliberate evasion of his question only made him more agitated. “Answer me, bitch!” He felt somewhat ashamed, as if he was calling Sheila that. “And get out my wife’s body! I don’t know how this is possible, but leave her out of it!”

It sighed with the expression of one trying to talk to a simpleton. “I’m not in your wife’s body. You already know this isn’t real. I just took a form that I thought fun to use.”

His anger started to dissipate as he realised there were more important things here. “I just need to know, are my family okay? Messing with me is one thing, but-”

“Oh be quiet, you’re annoying me! You’re the one I’m playing with, I don’t really care about your family. That said, if you want to see them again you’ll need to get out of here.”

“And where is here?” he asked, both angered by her malice and relieved that his actual wife and children were okay (if it was telling the truth).

“Again, it doesn’t matter. But luckily for you, I'm going to tell you how to get back to your precious family.” It smiled unnervingly as it spoke those words. “You just have to kill me. That’s all. ”

He was at loss for words. “This is a trap, isn’t it? You’re going to kill me.”

“Ha! I could do that whenever I want. No. When I say ‘kill me’, I’m simplifying it for you. You can’t kill me. I simply want you to destroy this shell I’m living in. There’s a hammer over there”. A finger pointed to the sofa, where indeed there was a large, crude looking hammer waiting.

He could hardly believe it, but he stood up and began to walk towards it. It was surprisingly light in his hands.

Turning to the smiling thing, he asked “Do you give your word that this isn’t really her body? That she’ll be okay?” He felt stupid asking for the truth from such a creature, but didn’t see any other option.

It rolled its eyes, showing that arrogance that separated it from Sheila. “Really? Everything that’s happened here and you doubt that this is a simulation? How simple are you creatures?”

So many contradicting thoughts were clashing against each other in his mind, that he did not react to her condescension.

For what felt like an eternity, he stood there, utterly indecisive. What would any reasonable person do in this situation? The tug of war playing out in his head went one way and the other. He actually felt that, despite everything, it was telling the truth. This couldn’t be the real world. How could it? It defied the laws of logic in too many ways. But if he was wrong then…

No. No! He was no idiot, it was physically impossible for this to be the real. The creature was using his own indecision against him. He wouldn’t let it!

Resolving to act before this new confidence left him, he tightened his grip on the fateful hammer held in his clammy fingers.

As if from nowhere, he rushed forward, eager to do what he needed to, before he was consumed with hesitation.

The first strike knocked her (not her, it, he reminded himself) from the chair. He had aimed for the head, but had only struck the shoulder. He was breathing more heavily than he ever had, filled with uncontrollable fear and anger.

As it picked itself up, Brian closed in and brought his weapon down on its back. It giggled, still mocking him even now. Good, it only made his task easier.

He turned it over forcefully, and with his other hand raised the hammer to finish this quickly. Surprised by his own eagerness, it descended onto its ever-mocking face. His tormentor's head was knocked backward and blood erupted from the remnant of (the illusion of!) his wife’s nose.

He felt tears rolling down his face now, but lashed out again. And again. And again.

It wasn’t that he wasn’t having an impact. Its face was by now entirely drenched in blood and deformed beyond possibility. But no matter how hard he hit, that disturbing visage merely kept on looking up at him, breathing heavily to remind he had not finished the job. Gripping the weapon in both hands, he cried out savagely and let out all his pent-up anger. He smashed and he gorged and he pounded, not stopping for even a second. The worst part was that while it was happening, the broken face kept looking up at him with pleading eyes, as if begging for mercy.

No! He refused to stop! He continued to destroy the thing, the thing that should already be dead. It was a trick, it was trying to mess with him, trying to make him think it was his wife. Ha! He was not falling for that one again.

He laughed out loud in defiance. He laughed as an ear was hacked off, he laughed when it cried and told him it loved him, he laughed when he began to see brain matter on the end of the hammer, he laughed when-

Brian’s laugh turned into a scream as he woke. He could hardly breathe. He sat there two minutes straight, just acclimatising himself to reality. Facing away from him lay Sheila. Somehow his scream had failed to wake her up. He sighed, feeling more relief than he had ever felt before. It was… None of it was…

He slumped down onto the pillow, just smiling to himself. Surprisingly, he managed to return to sleep, the smile still on his face.

That smile remained in place all night. It stayed there right until the morning, when the police found him in bed next to the bloody form of a woman and a large hammer on the edge of the bed.