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Those We Leave Behind-A Series of Connected Escape the Night Oneshots

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For the third year in a row, the same nightmarish tale is repeating itself: a group of about 10 Youtubers disappears, all at once, and no one seems to know where they went. Law enforcement is left completely stumped. The families, friends and communities of the vanished spend weeks, months trying to find answers, to now avail. And in the end, only two or three of the missing will return alive.

Rachel Ballinger had thought that last year’s “Slaughtering” (as the mass kidnappings and ensuing murders had come to be known) had been bad. No one had expected a repeat of the first massacre. It had been terrible: the creeping realization of “omigod its happening again omigod” as new of the disappearances had started to filter in; the police announcing that they had no leads, just like the year before, and the panic that had followed; the massive search effort that the Youtube Community had run (that had ultimately failed, of course); the fact that there were even fewer survivors had than there had been the year before, only two instead of three.

Rachel had been friends with a few of the victims, but her troubles were nothing compared to her sister’s: Colleen was nothing if not emotional, and had almost come apart at the seams, both the first time and especially the second. She had been close friends with far too many of the lost: Colleen had counted Joey Graceffa, Gabbie Hanna, Shane Dawson and a dozen others among the victims as close personal friends, and it had almost broken her when they hadn’t come back.

Rachel had watched as her bright, energetic happy sister had been reduced to a shell of former self, crippled by depression and grief, and her recovery had been by no means a linear process. In fact, Rachel wasn’t sure that Colleen had ever fully recovered, or ever would: things had just barely started to return to normal after the first Slaughtering when the second had happened, sending Colleen into an even worse tailspin than the previous year, undoing all the work that she had put into moving on in an instant.

There had been a pair of long hiatuses for Rachel’s sister after each massacre, for a month after the first and for nearly two after the second, and when she finally did start regularly uploading again, it was obvious that things were different. Anyone could see that Colleen wasn’t quite the same person she had been before the Slaughterings began: in the videos that Colleen put out these days you could tell that a part of her creative spark had gone out.

But said spark wasn’t quite gone out. There were still bits and pieces of the old Colleen there and he rest of the Ballinger family did everything in their power to get them out. It started with just trying to get her to smile again: The kids made artwork, Chris showed her new magic tricks, Rachel told bad puns and fart jokes, their parents and cousins and more family friends than Rachel could count just came over and tried to be there for her (None of them had anything on Erik Stocklin, of course. That one man had probably done more to help Colleen through her grief than the rest of them combined)

It had been a nonlinear process at best, with a lot of tears shed, but ever so slowly Colleen had began smiling and laughing and just being Colleen again. In the last few months especially, had been good ones: Colleen had found out that she was on the verge of fulfilling her lifelong dream to become a mother. There had been so many tears, happy ones for once, in the Ballinger family when Colleen had told them the news. And there were further happy tears to be shed: Erik, the father of the baby, was going to go from Colleen’s boyfriend to her husband to help raise the child. Rachel had watched as her sister had finally started to be her old self again, instead of the pale shadow of a person that the Slaughterings had almost reduced her to. Finally, after two years of grief and misery, things had started to look up.

And then it had all come crashing down. Rachel had found out through Twitter, of all things, that the nightmare was repeating itself for the third time in as many years: she had been scrolling through her feed when posts with #Slaughterings started showing up (she had followed the hashtag the year before, while working with the search effort). Apparently Matthew Patrick and Rosanna Pansino had gone off to do some secret project together and hadn’t returned when they were supposed to, and hadn’t been heard from at all since.

That alone had been enough for Rachel to start trying to get in touch with Colleen. When she got her sister’s voicemail, she had tried not to panic, her mind refusing to even acknowledge the possibility that Colleen could have been swept into the insanity that had become just about every Youtuber’s worst nightmare. Her sister was a busy person: she was probably just working on some project, or was wedding planning, or was a baby checkup. She would be fine. No need to panic. No need to feel her heart sink into her toes, or bile rising in her throat.

About an hour after after the news about Matt and Ro had leaked, JC Caylen had joined them in the ranks of the missing, having missed some event he was supposed to be at with Kian. That was when the floodgates had opened. Every social media platform began to explode with #Slaughterings, with panicked fans trying to make sure that their idols were safe and with rampant speculation about how the hell this had happened again.

Rachel, meanwhile, was still trying to get through to her sister. She gets nothing but voicemail when she calls, and no responses if she texts. She calls her siblings, her parents, everyone with any way to contact Colleen that she can think of. They all come up empty. She tries and tries and tries again, and hours begin to pass by in a blur. In the background, other names start being added to the ranks of the missing Finally, around midnight, Rachel had finally given up, curled into her bed and cries herself to sleep.

Nightmares plagued her. She didn’t know what happened to the missing, no one but the survivors did, but their unanimous refusal to speak about says a terrifying amount. She wakes up the next day praying that the day before had all just been a bad dream, but even that tiny shred of hope is dashed the moment that she opens up her phone and saw all the dozens of news articles about this new wave of disappearances.

That was two months ago. Ever since, Rachel had practically buried herself in trying to find her sister. The search effort, somehow, is even bigger than last year’s. From the outside looking in, its more organized, more coordinated, better in almost every way than the last attempt. They find more than last year (they all ignore how little that means considering that last year they found nothing at all):  Its a car, a van, a motorcycle and a few other miscellaneous objects, found abandoned in a field in the foothills of the Sierras, with the fingerprints of the missing Youtubers on all of them. Its the only lead that they’ll find. The trail goes cold soon afterwards.

The search continues. Fear builds in Rachel’s heart with every passing day, terror that her sister won’t come back. She feels like she spends more time at the Patrick household (the de facto command center for the volunteer search effort) than she does in her own home, and much of her family does the same. All the Ballingers end up promising each other that if they find something, anything, they’ll tell each other face to face-news about Colleen, it’s unanimously decided, is too important to give over the phone.

So news about her sister will come from a knock on the door. And to be frank, Rachel dreads that knock more than anything in the world. She doesn’t tell anyone this, not even herself, but the truth is that she very much doubts that there’s any good news left to be had in this nightmare. Rachel almost went into the Police Academy coming out of college: she knows the odds of someone being found alive after this long. In her darkest moments, she acknowledges that there might not even be any survivors this time. Any news, after so long, is likely to be bad news. Rachel buries these thoughts beneath a sea of desperate hope that she’s wrong, that they’ll find everyone alive and okay, but she can’t shake the feeling that a knock at her door will bring her nothing but terrible news.

And so it was that on this particular afternoon, when Rachel heard knocking on her door, she reacted as she usually did: she curled up into her couch and pretended that she wasn’t home, hoping that the salesman or person trying to tell her about Jesus (she already knows about Jesus, thank you very much, she doesn’t need to know more) or neighbor looking for a favor or whoever it was would eventually just go away.

But the knocking doesn’t stop: its hesitant and soft, like it doesn’t want itself to happen, but it keeps going, and eventually Rachel couldn’t keep ignoring it. She peeks out her window to see who it is, and her chest starts to tighten when she does. Its her brother Chris, looking even worse for wear than he usually has these last couple months. There’s only one thing that this could be about.

Colleen…

This, then, is the moment that Rachel’s been dreading, and she tries and fails to steel herself for the worst. Taking a deep breath, she throws the door open. The first thing Rachel notices are her brother’s eyes: they’re starting to fill with tears already, and he’s sniffling and he looks like he’s struggling to breath. Everything about his body language screams pain agony make it stop: his hands are shaking, his whole body is shuddering and trembling, his knees look like they’re about to give way beneath him. Chris Ballinger, Rachel realizes, is not the bearer of anything remotely close to good news.

In that instant, Rachel knows at some level what he’s going to say, even if her conscious mind refuses to even entertain the idea. While her thoughts rapidly turn into an endless chorus of no no no nonononono , her body is already beginning to react. Her throat tightens. Her breathing seems to hitch. She feels like she did in that car crash all those years ago, time slowing almost to a stop around her. Back then, she had thought that she was going to die, and she remembers the overwhelming fear that had flooded her as her car had begun to flip, as she felt water splash on her face and she had thought she was hurtling into a river. It had been probably the worst single moment of her life, by far.

When faced with her own death, Rachel’s mind and body had kicked into overdrive, desperate to survive. Her terror had been held at bay, her every thought and action numbed by shock and adrenaline coursing through her veins, and it was only later that the fear had kicked in, as she had spent the whole lying awake, replaying the accident over and over and over again in her mind, wondering what she could have done to avoid it.

This time, though, this time is somehow far worse, because its not her life on the line, its Colleen’s and time is moving at a crawl and her whole body is screaming for her to do something, to do anything but she can’t, there’s nothing she can do, all she can think is no, no please God, no. Chris, please don’t say it, please don’t say it she can’t be gone she can’t be God no please she can’t be no. Her brother takes a long, shuddering breath before he speaks-he’s shaking, and his eyes refuse refuse to meet hers and there was any doubt left about he’s going to say it disappears and she knows, she knows that her world is about to end but she still refuses to believe it, still searches for some kind of hope.

“The...they found th-the survivors,” he manages to choke out, the tears starting to roll down his face, and Rachel can feel them forming in her own eyes, can feel her world start to implode around her. No, no no, no no no no no no no nononononononono are the only words that her mind can form, and they begin to spill out of her mouth, even as Chris desperately tries to regain some semblance of composure but he’s starting to break too.

“Chris…Chris, no, Chris no, no no no…” she manages to stammer. She searches his face for...something, for anything, that will tell her that its not true, that these are tears of joy, that her big sister was found safe and sound and that this horrible nightmare is finally at an end and that their family will be whole again. She doesn’t find any, and her body feels like its about to melt and her brother’s next words are like a burning knife through her heart.

“I-it...its” he’s crying and she’s crying and nothing will ever be okay again. Chris swallows and for a moment they manage to get their eyes to meet. “Its Matt...and Nikita.” Everything starts to blur, and Chris buries his face in his hands, barely able to finish. “Colleen...Colleen didn’t…” he can’t finish, he’s bawling and Rachel can’t comfort him because she’s bawling to and they collapse in each other’s arms, crumpling to the ground, trying to hold on and failing.

She can’t comprehend it. Rachel’s mind is still screaming no, no, no, no, no and her voice is screaming it and her world is collapsing in on itself. She clutches onto Chris and Chris clutches on to her and they’re trying to find comfort in each others arms and they can’t, they can’t, because Colleen, impossible-to-describe-Colleen, big-sister-Colleen is gone, their big sister that was always there for them is gone and this wasn’t supposed to happen God she was going to have a baby and get married and so, so much more why is she gone how did this happen oh God why why why why why

Rachel doesn’t know how long they lie there in each others arms, screaming and wailing and bawling their eyes out. They cry until they don’t have any tears left and then keep crying and they don’t stop they can’t stop God it hurts so damn much . A million thoughts and memories and regrets fly through Rachel’s head, but she can barely process any of them, she can only clutch her brother and feel her brother clutching her and there’s nothing either of them can do but cry and cry and cry and keep crying.

And in this moment, it feels like neither of them will ever be able to stop.