“If you burn the cookies Raymond, I swear to god you will be at that bake sale alone,” Rose said, trying to get around Ray’s batting hands to the oven. “The timer went off five minutes ago!”
Ray huffed. “Um, yes, and you and I both know that this oven is terrible at preheating properly. I promise they’re fine, and if they’re not I will go to the store and get cookies myself.”
“It’s a bake sale, Ray, not a buy sale,” Rose snorted. She ducked around him again, turning, and then her face fell in concern. “Mija, what’s wrong?” she demanded.
Ray turned as his wife bolted for the door in time to see Julie drop her bag onto the kitchen floor, her cheeks streaked with tears. Rose enveloped her in seconds, dropping to her knees to better tuck the girl against her, and Ray spared only a moment to shut off the oven before he joined them, sinking down behind Julie and pressing a kiss to the back of her head.
“What’s wrong, baby?” he murmured.
Julie’s sniffles were quiet. She shook her head, tangling her hair against her parents. “Um…it’s dumb,” she finally said, her voice trembling.
Rose pulled back, pressing the palms of her hands to Julie’s cheeks and looking her in the eye. “It’s not dumb, lovely. Was it those boys down the street again? I swear, I already spoke to their parents about them teasing Carlos, if they-”
Ray set a hand on her shoulder and Rose quieted down. Julie sat on her knees between them, fingers tight in the hem of her skirt and her eyes trained on the floor. “My teacher got married last weekend,” she said softly, which wasn’t what Ray expected to hear.
The adults glanced up at one another. Rose’s brows were furrowed in confusion, and Ray was sure he was a mirror image. He looked back to Julie. “That’s a good thing, isn’t it?”
Julie’s fingers tightened in her skirt. “She got fired today. Because she married a lady.”
Ray’s jaw tightened and he pressed his lips together in a thin line, looking back at Rose. His wife looked equally pissed off, but he knew she was trying to hold it together for Julie’s sake. “Did whoever fired her say this, sweetheart?”
Julie shifted, dragging her knees up to her chin and tucking her nose into the crook they formed. She’d stopped crying, and was now staring blankly across the room. “Not exactly. She just told us that Mrs. Winchester wasn’t teaching us anymore because she “wasn’t right” for the school. But she’s been there for like, thirteen whole years. That’s as long as I’ve been alive.” Julie tightened her arms. “So we knew.”
“Well, I will be calling the school board and having a nice talk with them, and then the superintendent,” Rose said through clenched teeth, which was her way of trying to keep her cool.
Ray chuckled. “And if they don’t reinstate her, then I’ll be taking it to the local media.”
Julie glanced up at them, eyes shining. “So it doesn’t…bother you?” she whispered.
Rose’s eyebrows furrowed again. “Mrs. Winchesters wife, or the school firing her?”
“The first one.”
Rose cupped Julie’s cheeks again. “Baby, of course it doesn’t bother us. People are people, they like who they like. We can’t change that, and why should we, if it makes them happy?”
Ray could practically hear Julie swallow. “S-So it wouldn’t b-bother you guys i-if…”
She trailed off, fingers tapping out a rhythm against her arms like they did when she was anxious. Ray settled his hand over Julie’s and squeezed it gently. “If you liked girls?”
She wrapped her fingers tightly around his hand and nodded, a barely imperceptible nod that Ray would have missed if he hadn’t been looking for it. Rose settled an arm around Julie’s shoulders and tugged her close. “It would not bother us in the slightest, sweetheart. Never. Do you?”
Julie’s words came a little easier now, and Ray was relieved to see that she was relaxing. “Maybe? I like boys too, though. That’s a thing, right?”
“Yes, of course baby,” Rose assured her. “There’s a couple terms, we can look them up later, okay? But no matter what, your father and I love you, and we will be having a word with the school about Mrs. Winchester, okay?”
Julie pressed her face into the crook of her mother’s neck, hugging her tightly, and Rose met Ray’s eyes over her shoulder. Her gaze was angry, but her eyes were sparkling, and Ray lifted his wife’s hand in his and kissed her knuckles. “Who wants cookies?” he said, hoping to break up the tension.
“If they’re not burnt,” Rose said, the teasing lilt back in her voice.
Julie giggled, a bit wet, and dragged her fist across her eyes. “Chocolate chip?”
“Duh, of course,” Ray scoffed, dragging her to her feet and leading them into the kitchen. He opened the oven door and a smirk slid across his face. “Burnt, huh?”
He pulled out the perfect cookies and shot his wife a grin. She rolled her eyes, snatched one off the hot tray, and ducked out of his reach to grab the milk from the fridge. Arms latched around his hips as he set the pan on the oven and he glanced down to find Julie hugging him. “What, all this for cookies?” he joked, throwing the pot holder aside and wrapping his arm around Julie instead.
“Not just for the cookies,” she mumbled into his chest.
Ray tightened his grip.
Okay, so Julie was in a band.
That wasn’t really a shock – Ray had always known his daughter would go on to do big things, and being in a band was nothing if not a stepping stone. He hadn’t quite expected it until she was out of high school, of course, but kids these days kept doing things younger and younger, so he wasn’t entirely surprised.
He was surprised, however, to find that her band was made up entirely of ghosts.
He’d had to sit down when he figured that one out. She hadn’t told him – in fact, none of them had. He’d come across a box of stuff in Carlos’ room while they were doing spring cleaning together and, on the top of the box, was an old CD. A Sunset Curve CD. With three very familiar faces on it.
Twenty minutes of research later found Ray sitting on the floor of Carlos’ room holding his head in his hands and trying not to have a meltdown.
Ghosts. Freaking ghosts.
If Rose was here, she’d laugh and roll with it. Ray knew that.
And…hell. Ghosts were real. His wife could-
Ray refused to let that thought continue. Instead, he picked himself up off the floor, put the box back in Carlos’ closet where he’d been initially looking for the suitcases they used on vacation, and went downstairs to where Julie and Carlos were going through kitchen utensils.
“Keep or donate?” Carlos asked, holding up a spatula from his pile.
Julie rolled her eyes. “Donate. That’s like the seventh spatula.”
“But it’s shaped like a frog,” Carlos protested.
Ray cleared his throat, and the kids looked up. “Did you find the suitcases?” Julie asked. “Cause if we’re getting new ones, I think I want a purple set.”
Ray didn’t answer, just stepped closer and leaned an elbow on the kitchen island. Silently, he held up the Sunset Curve CD. Both Julie and Carlos went still, eyes wide, and that was all the answer he needed.
“So. Who’s explaining?”
It didn’t take long to get used to the ghostly antics. Things floating in mid-air, random things vanishing out of nowhere, sudden guitar music in the living room, Julie leaning against seemingly nothing, or the TV turning on to the cooking channel, again, because Reggie and Alex really liked Chopped.
That was easy.
What was not easy was when Ray, Carlos, and Flynn started seeing and hearing them, out of nowhere, and for reasons none of them could understand beyond, “They were close to Julie.”
Sure, it made it easier to not walk through the guys, and it definitely made talking to them easier, but it was still a shock to suddenly have three dead teenage boys just casually lounging around his house, no matter how much Ray tried to reason with himself that they’d been there before he could see them.
But, like all things, it eventually became the norm, and Ray genuinely enjoyed their presence in the house. Got used to their voices, their little quirks, Reggie’s helping hands in the kitchen. He started to think of them fondly, much like he did Flynn.
So when he found Alex pacing the living room in front of Julie, clearly exasperated, he couldn’t help but listen in.
“I don’t know what to do,” the drummer was whispering. His hands were wringing together. “I haven’t seen him in like two weeks, Caleb could-”
“Alex,” Julie said firmly. “I’m sure Willie is okay. He’s smart, right?”
“Well yeah, but Caleb also owns his soul, Julie!” Alex hissed, throwing his hands up. He turned to her and froze, eyes landing on Ray, who wasn’t trying to hide but was also trying his best not to interrupt. “M-Mr. Molina, I’m sorry, I didn’t-”
“No worries, son,” Ray said, holding up a hand. He stepped into the room, leaning his hands on the back of the couch behind Julie. “Caleb’s the one who had you boys under control, yes?”
Julie and Alex both nodded and Ray frowned. “Who’s Willie?”
Alex froze. Ray watched it happen – saw his shoulders stiffen, his jaw clench, his fingers start tapping against his thighs. The same nervous tick Julie got. “Um.”
Julie twisted on the couch, looked to Alex, back to her father. Back to Alex, and Ray watched her gaze soften. “Alex.”
He glanced at her, and something in him shifted. His body loosened up a little, and then he looked back at Ray. “My boyfriend. He’s…also a ghost. Caleb kind of owns his soul. We’ve been trying to figure out how to get it back, but…”
Alex spread his hands, looking helpless, and Ray hummed, tapping his fingers against the sofa cushion. “I can’t say I know anything about…owning souls,” he admitted. “But you boys are smart. And Julie clearly broke through his hold on you, so I have no doubt that you can figure this out. Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.”
Alex nodded, still looking a bit forlorn, and Ray left the two of them alone, heading back to the kitchen to finish prepping dinner.
Ray peeked sideways as Alex caught up, walking alongside him even though he really didn’t have to. “How many times have I told you boys to call me Ray?” he said, even though he knew that they probably never would.
A smile slipped across Alex’s face. “A million. Um. Thanks for being so cool back there.”
Ray lifted an eyebrow, stopping in the doorway to the kitchen and turning to look at Alex. “About the soul owning thing? Can’t say I understand it, and can’t say I’m exactly cool with some evil ghost owning people’s souls, dead or alive, but-”
“N-No, no,” Alex said quickly, twisting his hands in the hem of his sweatshirt. “Um. I meant about Willie. B-Being my boyfriend. I know a lot’s changed since…since we were alive, but it’s still…”
Ray wished he could give the kid a hug. Instead, he crossed his arms and shook his head. “Alex. You never have to worry about that kind of stuff in this house. Ever. All of Julie’s friends know this is a safe space, and that goes for you three as well.”
Alex’s smile was bright, and he tucked his hands deep into his sweatshirt pocket. “Thank you, Mr. Molina,” he whispered, and Ray didn’t bother to correct him. “M-My parents weren’t…”
Alex’s brows furrowed and he ducked his head, his mouth twisting into something uncomfortable. A sour taste settled in Ray’s mouth. “Weren’t accepting?” he finished softly, trying not to let rage seep through into his tone.
Alex’s shoulders lifted in a shrug and he glanced back up with a sad smile. “Nah. Kicked me out. I stayed with Reggie for a while, and then we eventually moved into the garage out here, so.” His real smile was back, softer now, but still just as genuine. “I guess this place has always been pretty accepting of us.”
He poofed out before Ray could respond to that, which was probably a good thing, because Ray was a little choked up.
He hung up a pride flag in the window the next week. If he was going to be the safe space, he might as well make it known.
Reggie was reorganizing the silverware drawer.
That in and of itself might not be a problem, but this was the third time in a week that he’d reorganized the drawer, and Ray was pretty good at picking up on anxious habits when they made themselves known, and he was fairly certain this was one of Reggie’s.
Reggie jumped, the fork he’d been holding literally slipping through his fingers and clattering to the countertop. “Mr. Molina! Sorry, was just reorganizing. You cooking? I can get out of the way.”
Ray reached around him, careful not to reach through him, and picked up the fork, easing it down into its spot. “Not cooking just yet. Want to tell me what’s on your mind, Reggie?”
Reggie was the easiest of the guys to get to know, but he’d been the hardest for Ray to crack emotionally. He always seemed so happy go lucky, but Ray knew from Julie (and Luke and Alex) that that wasn’t the truth all the time.
“Uh, I’ve been thinking of some new songs that I want to talk to Luke about?” Reggie said, and Ray knew that Reggie knew that wasn’t what he meant, but he let it slide. His safe space wouldn’t feel very safe if he forced anyone to talk before they were ready.
“Oh yeah? Some more country?”
Reggie snorted. “No way. Luke never listens to those anyway. I’m waiting for us to get big before bringing those up again. No, they’re uh…closer to our normal sound.”
“Well that sounds interesting. Can I read them?”
Reggie hesitated, drumming his fingers against the countertop. Ray was always baffled by how the ghosts could interact with the physical world but yet could still pass through literally anything if they weren’t thinking about it. “Um. Maybe?”
Ray hummed and moved away from Reggie to the fridge, opening it up and peering inside. He’d be damned if Victoria came in and caught them all eating leftovers again. “Well whenever you feel like it, I’m happy to read them. I read Julie’s all the time.”
There was silence for a few seconds, and Ray was starting to wonder if Reggie had left when he spoke again. “You put a rainbow flag in the window.”
Ray straightened up and shut the refrigerator door. Counted for one, two, three seconds before turning around leaning against it, eyeing Reggie with what he hoped was a disarming appearance. “I did. Alex was talking to me about Willie and I realized I never explicitly told you boys this was a safe space. Always has been, always will be.”
Reggie’s brows furrowed and he hopped up on the counter, kicking his heels against it gently. Ray couldn’t help but wonder if ghost shoes could scuff the woodwork. “Is there a word for liking both? Like…guys and girls?”
Ray cracked a grin. “There’s a couple. You should talk to Julie about them.”
Reggie looked up, obviously a little anxious. He was twisting his ring around his finger – his tell, just like Alex’s was drumming his fingers on his thighs or twisting his hands in his shirt. “So you’re okay with like…all of it?”
Ray snorted. “I’d be a pretty terrible safe space if I wasn’t, son.”
He heard Reggie’s breath hitch, which was admittedly a little funny given that they didn’t…you know, breathe, and when he looked up again, Reggie was staring at him. “Reginald? Everything all right?”
“Y-Yeah, yeah,” Reggie stammered, too quick for Ray to really believe him. He smiled, though, a real smile, so he let it slide. “Um. Thank you. I’ll talk to Julie. But thank you. For being so chill.”
Ray tilted his head, giving the boy a smile. “Of course. Let Julie know it’s an hour to dinner?”
Reggie slid off the countertop and gave Ray a grin. “Will do, Mr. Molina.”
“For the last time, please call me Ray.”
“Julie, Flynn, time for lunch,” Ray said, poking his head into the garage.
The rehearsal came to a cacophonous halt, one that made Ray cringe a little and wish he’d waited until the end of the song. The guys looked at one another, then back at him, hope radiating off of them like puppy dogs. Ray chuckled and rolled his eyes. “You boys are obviously welcome to join us,” he added, nodded to the house. “Wash up, girls.”
The guys beat them to the dining table, of course, because they could teleport. The table had grown in the last month. Instead of four places, Ray had lengthened the table and added in more chairs to make eight. While the guys couldn’t eat with them, Ray wanted them to feel at home, and he knew having a place at the table helped with that for all of them. Toss in another chair for Flynn and one for Victoria, who’d been looped into the ghostly shenanigans about two weeks ago (it had involved a couple fainting spells, some loud cursing, and then the eventual dismay when she realized she couldn’t forcibly feed the boys to “fatten them up,” but had overall turned out well), and Ray’s dining room was suddenly very crowded.
Not that he minded, of course.
Carlos bounded down the stairs from where he’d been working on a paper, flopping into his chair between Alex and Reggie and taking the plate Ray handed him with a cheerful grin. “Can I watch them rehearse after lunch?” he asked, already grabbing for the potato chips on the plate.
“If you promise to work on your paper after dinner, and-” Ray slapped at his hand gently “-wait for your sister and Flynn, young man.”
Carlos huffed, but sat back obligingly, his face lighting up as Flynn and Julie finally burst into the room. They sat down next to one another, Luke on Julie’s left, and accepted their own plates. “All right, now you can eat,” Ray chuckled.
He sat back with his own sandwich, silently munching while he listened to the conversations at the table. Dinner time was his time to ask questions – during lunch, he let the kids have their fun. Carlos was asking Alex and Reggie a million questions about their instruments; he’d graduated from being obsessed with ghosts to obsessed with percussion instruments, and while Ray never minded musical talent, he’d have a headache if two of his kids were suddenly playing drums.
Julie and Flynn were pouring over something on Flynn’s phone, most likely a school project, absently picking at the carrot and celery sticks on their plates while they talked.
At the end of the table, Luke sat quietly, chin in hand, pencil scratching out words on what Ray had come to understand was his song book. He looked a little down, and Ray found himself staring at the boy for longer than he meant to.
Luke, clearly aware he was being watched, glanced up, meeting Ray’s eyes and freezing. Ray tilted his head, lifting an eyebrow in what he hoped came off as concern. Luke shrugged, eyes flickering back to his book, and Ray made a note to find him and talk to him afterwards.
Evidently, he didn’t have to. Luke found him first, cleaning up the plates the kids had left behind in their frenzy to get back to the garage. Saturdays were their big practice days, so he never held the messes over their heads.
Ray shut his eyes and sighed. “Ray, Luke.”
“Right. Um. Can I ask you a question?”
Ray turned around, leaning against the counter top and studying the ghost in front of him. “Of course you can, son.”
Luke pressed his lips into a thin line and looked down at the book in his hands. “If…if I asked you to drop something off at my parent’s house, would you?”
Ray frowned, confused. “Luke, I’d be absolutely honored. But…why me? Why not Julie?”
Luke’s lips twisted and his nose wrinkled. He glanced down at the floor. “Um. It’s something I want my parents to know first. I-I wrote them a letter, I figured you could say you found it cleaning the loft or something. If it’s okay. If not, I get it, totally.”
“Luke,” Ray said, keeping his voice gentle. When the kid looked up at him again, he offered a smile. “Of course I will. Do you want me to take it now, or after rehearsal?”
Luke glanced over his shoulder, out the window at the garage. “We can go now. We were working through one of Alex’s sections, so they don’t really need me.”
“All right. I’ll be in the car, just let me tell Carlos I’m leaving,” Ray said, setting the dishes in the sink to rinse later.
Luke looked confused. “I can just poof there?”
Ray gave him a wry smile. “I need a navigator, son.”
Ten minutes later found Ray walking up the Patterson’s front steps, Luke’s wrinkled note tucked into an envelope in his hands and said ghost trailing nervously behind him. Ray was a little nervous himself – Julie had said that Mr. and Mrs. Patterson were very kind, but he’d been doing this ghost thing for much less time than Julie had.
Luke rang the doorbell and then ducked back behind Ray, as if somehow his parents would see him.
Mr. Patterson answered the door, tilting his head in confused greeting when he laid eyes on Ray. “Good afternoon, can I help you?”
Ray cleared his throat. “Um. Hello. My name is Ray Molina? I believe you met my daughter, Julie, a while back?”
Mr. Patterson’s lips parted in a smile and he softened. “We did. I’m Mitch. Your daughter is lovely. What can I do for you?”
“She’s a little preoccupied today, but she told me our garage used to be where your son rehearsed?”
Mitch nodded, his smile saddening. “Yes. She brought us a song that she found that he wrote for my wife, Emily. Did you find another? We’d love to have it, if you did.”
Ray shifted from foot to foot, trying not to look at Luke, who was now practically pressed to his side. If he was any closer, he’d phase through Ray’s arm. “Um. Of sorts. I actually found a letter? We were cleaning up the loft, and it was addressed to the two of you.”
He held out the envelope, letting Mitch take it. Before the man could open it, a woman appeared at his side, looking confused. “Who’s this, Mitch?”
Mitch nodded to Ray. “This is Ray Molina, he’s Julie’s father. They found…they found a letter from Luke. To us.”
“Oh,” Emily whispered, her eyes softening. “Your family just keeps surprising us, doesn’t it?”
Ray’s lips quivered and he fought down the mirth in his throat. “It certainly seems that way.”
Mitch had already begun skimming the letter while Emily spoke, and his shoulders fell. “Oh. Oh.”
Emily looked at him, questioning, and Mitch leaned the letter towards her so she could read as well. Ray took the opportunity to look at Luke. The boy had his arms wrapped tightly around his body, his whole figure shaking, eyes glassy. If Ray could have, he would have wrapped the boy tightly against him and kissed the top of his head. As it was, he edged just a bit closer, until their elbows overlapped.
Luke jolted at the feeling, glancing over, and his breath came out a little harshly, a tiny smile gracing his features. “Thanks,” he whispered.
Ray nodded, and then glanced back to the Patterson’s. “Um.”
They looked up, startled, and Emily set a hand over her chest. “Oh. Oh, my apologies. I’m sorry, we’re being rude. Thank you so much, Ray. This means…a lot to us. Did you read it?”
Ray smiled and tucked his hands in his pockets. “I didn’t. I felt that would be rude, given it was addressed to you.”
Emily nodded, looking back at the letter. “Do you have children other than Julie, Ray?”
“My son, Carlos. And my daughter’s friends,” Ray said fondly, putting emphasis on his words. “They’re basically my children.”
Emily and Mitch smiled like they understood, and maybe they did – Ray wasn’t sure how close they’d been with Alex and Reggie. “Take my advice, hon: don’t go a day without telling them that you love them, all right? Even if they make you…unbelievably upset. Always tell them. No matter what.”
Ray swallowed around the lump in his throat. Next to him, Luke vanished. “I will. Thank you. I hope you have a good rest of your day.”
“Ray?” Emily called as he turned.
He glanced back, eyebrow lifted, and Emily vanished inside, coming back out a moment later with a scrap of paper that had a phone number scrawled on it. “You and Julie are always welcome here. Your son as well. Thank you, for giving us back some of our son. I wish…”
Mitch settled his arm around her shoulders and gave her a squeeze. Emily took a shaky breath as Ray accepted the paper. “I wish we could have told him how much we would have supported him.”
With that, Ray had a feeling he knew what the letter was about. He said nothing about it, merely bid them a good day and went back to the car. Luke was sitting silently in the front seat, tears drying on his cheeks as Ray buckled and started the engine. He tucked the phone number into the vanity mirror and backed out of the driveway.
“Do you want to know what they said?” he asked after a long minute of silence.
Luke’s breath was shaky. Ray hummed, taking the silence as a yes and keeping his eyes on the road. “They said they would have supported you.”
The next breath was shakier, and Ray allowed himself to side eye Luke, to watch how he drew in on himself. “You know I would too,” he said, softly.
“I know,” Luke said immediately, with such confidence that it floored Ray, made his heart flutter. “That was…never a doubt. I just really wanted to tell them first.”
Ray nodded, not sure what else to say.
“I’m pan. A-And I…I think I’m ace? That’s the word I heard at the club Julie and Flynn go to. B-But I don’t know a lot about that one,” Luke admitted softly. “I just told my parents about the first one, anyhow.”
“We can figure the second one out together, if you want,” Ray offered, keeping his voice light.
He could hear the smile in Luke’s voice. “I’d like that. Thank you, Ray.”
“Oh, finally. You kids were making me feel old with all that Mr. Molina nonsense.”
Luke burst into giggles.
His window was getting pretty full.
He had the rainbow flag. The bi flag. The pan flag. The asexual flag, and one of the new inclusive ones that Julie had brought up, with the black and brown stripes and the trans flag on it. When the sun came through in the morning, it made the prettiest array of colors across the living room floor.
He caught Carlos studying them one day, sitting on the arm of the sofa and just watching them quietly. His thumbs circled around each other, over and over again, and he startled when Ray came up behind him and dropped a kiss on his head. “Thinking, bud?”
“Yeah. Just thinking,” Carlos answered, no hesitance in his voice whatsoever.
Ray hummed, squeezed his shoulder once. “Let me know what you decide, okay?”
Carlos nodded and Ray left him to it, ducking into the kitchen and digging around for a baking sheet. Julie and Flynn had an event for the GSA coming up, and Ray had promised them he’d make cookies for it. Not that they’d care if he just bought them, of course, neither of them would be upset if he went to the store and got them from the bakery instead of slaving over the kitchen stove all day.
He just wanted to put in the effort, that was all.