There were no words at first.
Just one embrace between three sisters.
And a powerful emotional release after 22 years of confusion, anger and longing.
Tiera Rice grew up with a different name. A different family. Until, with the help of a private investigator, she learned the truth.
In 1988, her mother, Wanda Gee, sold her to strangers in exchange for drugs.
Now, she was home. With family.
And Crystal Smith and Teesha Jenkins, both of Clermont, finally set eyes on the little sister they hadn't seen since she was 3 months old.
Their mother, Wanda Gee, was addicted to cocaine. She wasn't afraid to admit it, but she couldn't stop using, either, said Smith, who was 12 when her little sister went missing.
She remembers a childhood in which it was routine for her mother to tell her she was going down to the corner to get a fix. It was routine for strangers to come in and out of the house.
It was routine, but embarrassing, to tell friends and teachers that, no, she didn't get anything for Christmas and, no, her mother didn't have a job.
"You'd come home, get off the bus, and there'd be a house full of people," she said. "... and just crashing there, and you'd wake up and there'd be people all over the floor in the middle of the night."
Extended family helped provide for the children. Smith said her great aunt made sure they had food and clothes.
And Smith said her mother always told visitors not to touch her girls. From what she remembers, those visitors listened.
"I really think, honestly, that God had his hand on us. I really do," Smith said "And I've always thought that, because you wouldn't get through the things that we've been through sane and unharmed."
When she was pregnant with her third child, Gee went to a Christian rehabilitation center, Smith said.
"I remember when Mama was in rehab we would visit her on Christmas," Jenkins said "And she was big and waddly with the baby."
Jenkins went with her grandmother to the hospital to pick up her baby sister. She remembers she was sick at the time and looked at her in the carrier but couldn't touch her.
Gee and her baby went to live with Gee's sister, Joan Gee.
"She didn't have nowhere to go," Joan Gee said. "So I had my own apartment and I brought her and the baby to my house."
Smith and Jenkins stayed with their grandparents.
"I went over there to see the baby and I saw her maybe three times," Smith said. "And then I went back another time and she was gone."
Wanda Gee lived with her sister three weeks before moving in with another sister. Joan Gee doesn't know what happened after that.
"All I know is Wanda came back from Gwinnett County and said that they had ... sold her baby for money, black market," Joan Gee said.
She took her sister to the sheriff's department but from what Joan Gee heard, the drug dealer involved with the sale had already been there.
He told the deputies Wanda Gee was on drugs and hallucinating. They dropped the case because it wasn't their jurisdiction, Joan Gee said.
She didn't have any idea who the baby was sold to. Smith and Jenkins heard she'd been sold in North Carolina. No one knew for sure what had happened.
But she was gone. Smith and Jenkins knew they'd lost their sister, but there was little they could do.
"I had so much going on in my life that I really didn't know what to do and I didn't know what to think," Smith said. "And I was really just trying to make it."
Less than a year later, Wanda Gee was charged with murdering a cab driver. She was convicted, along with another man, and sentenced to two life terms.
Both sisters know their mother's drug problem is what took her away from them.
"What it all boils down to is what drugs really does to a family and how many different aspects of everybody's life - how much it affected us," Jenkins said.
Two sisters surviving
When their mother went to prison, Smith was 12 and Jenkins 6. Smith went to live with her father. Jenkins lived with their grandmother.
"I didn't really know my dad all that good and his wife hated my guts, beyond hated my guts," Smith said.
Her father was an alcoholic and her stepmother physically abused her, she said. She'd go to school with black eyes, but she doesn't remember anyone asking questions.
Jenkins never knew her father except for pictures of a muscular Japanese man sitting with her beautiful mother.
But her life with her grandmother was relatively normal.
When Smith was 14, she ran away to live with her great aunt. A friend came and loaded her stuff, and Smith never went back. Sometimes she lived with friends, sometimes with extended family.
All the while, she'd visit Jenkins when she could. And both visited their mother in prison once a month.
At first they rode with their grandmother to the Hall County Jail. Then Wanda Gee was transferred to Washington State Prison in East Georgia. They still visited; sometimes their pastor drove them.
"When she was in the prison she turned her life over to God and everything," Smith said. "She witnessed. She had a big impact on the people there."
Once she was in jail and sober, she began telling her daughters what she had done, urging them to find their baby sister.
When Smith was 18, she began earnestly looking. She talked with local investigators and the Georgia Bureau of Investigations but was told she'd have to hire a private investigator. She couldn't afford that. And it may not have helped.
"The whole time I'm searching for Tiera, and there was no Tiera," Smith said. "She wasn't enrolled in school by that name. She had never used that name for anything."
A girl with no name
Tiera Rice didn't know to search for her sisters. She didn't know she was lost.
She grew up in Madison County as Candice Flores. Her father was Hispanic and her mother white.
When she was about 12 or 13, she found a medical bracelet with her birth date and a different name. She thought maybe she had a twin. But she couldn't get any answers.
"They would say it's not something I need to discuss with you, or don't worry about it, or you need to go ask your mom," Rice said.
It wasn't until the woman she knew as her mother died that she learned the truth.
"When I was 15, my mother overdosed and she died. And they said that they were sorry to tell me, but my mom had died and that my dad wasn't my dad and that she wasn't my mother and that I'm not Candice Flores."
Those whom she had known as family told her she didn't need to contact her biological family, that they were bad people.
But she left the family who had bought her.
"I just wiped all of them off the face of my earth after that, and I went on my own and tried to find myself ..." she said.
She ran away from home and got pregnant at 16. But she finished high school after moving, along with her boyfriend, to North Carolina.
With no legal identification, though, she struggled to provide for her child.
"I wanted to go to school just like normal people. I wanted to drive a car like normal people. Support my son," she said.
She eventually moved back to Georgia and made a living as an exotic dancer, though she said she's not proud of where she had to turn to survive.
She continued searching for her identity, contacting legal services, churches, lawyers, the Social Security administration. But she didn't have enough information.
"I went to the DMV one more time, trying to make them understand. And they sent me out and I just exploded.
And I just got on the Internet and typed in private investigators of Atlanta and stopped on the first one, which happened to be Tim McWhirter."
A lot of luck
McWhirter's starting point was the medical bracelet and a small photo of a girl who looked a bit like his client, with the name Teesha Rice on the back.
At first he ran into a lot of dead ends. He searched the name Tiera Rice. He searched the name Teesha Rice.
Finally he found the name Wanda Gee/Rice and determined that she had gone to prison and died in 2004.
Then he found a residence where Wanda Gee had lived a long time ago. He thought it was probably another dead end.
"When I ran out of anything else to dig into I called that current resident ... and a guy answered the phone," McWhirter said. "I explained to him what I was trying to accomplish and asking him if he knew Wanda. And he said, ‘Yeah, that was my sister. So I ended up talking to Tiera's uncle."
Gary Gee had inherited the house where Wanda Gee lived. He still had the same phone number from years ago.
McWhirter learned of Smith and Jenkins and left his number with Gary Gee.
Jenkins was in Walmart with all four of her kids when her uncle called with the news.
"My heart just kind of sunk - and I was like, 'really?'" Jenkins said
She immediately went to get Rice's birth certificate. Gary Gee then took it to Rice on his way to Atlanta.
"(Rice) was very lucky in that there was something out there that we could stumble across," he said. "Most of them don't end that well ... or that complete."
McWhirter said many cases he works on can stretch on for years.
Jenkins talked with her little sister first.
"I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, you sound just like Mama. I couldn't believe it," she said. "I was just like, ‘Keep talking where I can hear your voice.' It was amazing."
When Smith tried to call her sister, she'd get choked up before she even picked up the phone. She looked at pictures and, after three days of crying, she made the call.
"I finally got the nerve up and then it was just like, ‘Hey.' ‘Hey,'" Smith said.
Since then they've texted, talked and swapped lots of photos. Rice calls Jenkins about some things and Smith about others. She's already figured out the "sister thing," Smith said.
A long time coming
On Wednesday, Rice had to stop to smoke a cigarette on her way from Smyrna to Clermont. Smith and Jenkins waited nervously in the living room.
Then she walked in. They embraced.
"Oh my goodness, I don't even know what to say," Rice told her sisters. "It feels like I've missed you guys already."
They quickly moved to the couch to pore over family photos.
"Oh, I do look like her — in the face," Rice said as she shuffled through old snapshots.
After questions about family and lots of photos, the sisters took a break. Rice's oldest sister made her a sandwich and then she toured her house.
Then the three sat down and Rice read her mother's will.
"I wish for my two children, Crystal Garrison and Teesha Jenkins, to continue the search for my youngest baby daughter to be found," the hand-written will reads. "Her name is Teairra LaShae, who was adopted out illegally. ... I want Teairra to know she has two sisters that love her. And that her birth mother loved her as well."
A poem by her mother was included with the will, and Rice said she writes poetry, too.
She still questions why her mother did what she did.
"I've never been addicted to drugs. I don't know how that feels. I don't know how it feels to be that needy for something to give up your child," she said. "It hurts me, but it is what it is. And what I've been through makes me who I am. And I'm still a good person."
She's trying to forgive.
"I know God says forgive people not for them but for yourself," she said. "So I'm trying to tell myself that. And it's slowly coming."
And slowly, she's getting used to the idea of being Tiera Rice.
"I don't want to be called Candice because I feel like it's a big lie. So Jayla is who I may be for right now," Rice said of a name her friends call her. "I feel like I'm still writing that signature on papers, Tiera Rice, I'm thinking ‘yeah, right.' But it is right. That's me now."
Rice met her nieces and nephews as they filed in the house. The sisters are planning one big family Thanksgiving.
"It used to not bother me to be lonely," Rice said. "But now that I know I have someone who wants me there, I don't want to be lonely."
"We need her, and she needs us," Smith said.