The idea gnawed at Lennia "Nia" Hayes for weeks. Months even. She knew she had an older sister whom she'd never met. But she was scared.
What if the woman wanted nothing to do with her? Would she be opening a Pandora's box? She already had a big, loving family — four sisters, a brother, her mom and lots of aunts and uncles. Her dad, Lonnie Hayes, died in 2012.
His sudden death at the age of 63 shattered the family, and with him went the answers to questions that bubbled to the surface, Nia said. Like did he really once have another family?
They had long heard about another girl, another sister; there was even a random baby picture in the family photo album. But that's all they knew. No details, no explanations, at least none that the siblings can recall. They wondered if their dad was making it up. After he died, they let it go, not wanting to cause their mother more pain.
It took a push from a new co-worker of Nia's, and perhaps a little divine intervention, to bring two strangers — two sisters — together.
On Monday, Nia Hayes, 35, and Lana Hayes, 42, became friends on Facebook. On Tuesday, they became sisters for life.
Turns out the two have lived within a mile of each other in Fishers, Indiana, for eight years. They've been shopping at the same stores, eating at the same restaurants, living separate lives.
Now, 24 hours after speaking on the phone for the first time, the two are laughing easily and crying occasionally on the couch at Nia's home. They may have been anxious before the meeting, but minutes after that first long hug, there is no awkwardness in this room.
The women are half sisters, but both say they now feel whole after finding each other.
"I feel like I'm looking at myself a little bit," Nia said as she looked at Lana. "We're still getting used to it; we just keep looking at each other."
And with that, they laugh. A loud, contagious laugh.
"It tickles me that we have the same laugh," Lana said.
They also have the same eyes, the same sense of humor, the same fun-loving spirit.
And the same father.
Lana, who grew up in Rushville with a half sister and a single mom, doesn't remember Lonnie Hayes. He and her mother divorced when she was a baby. She doesn't know why she never saw him again, but she did call him once.
She was about 19, she said, and she'd looked up his number in the phone book. A child answered the phone; she could hear younger children playing in the background. She froze, then hung up. She never called again.
Nia could understand if her sister might be hurt, even bitter, about being shut out of her father's life. But Lana is looking only at the good. After all, she says, it's not the children's fault.
"I have no bad feelings at all. I'm just excited," Lana said. "My family has gotten a lot bigger. I've gone from one to seven siblings."
Within minutes of that first hello and that first hug, the two took a selfie, and Nia immediately texted it to her other siblings to introduce the sister they have never met. The response was immediate: a text from one, then another and another, all eager to say hi and welcome to the family.
It's more than Lana allowed herself to hope for.
"It hasn't hit me yet. I'm thrilled, overwhelmed," she said. "I just feel so blessed."
In that first hour of that first meeting, Nia wiped away tears several times, some inevitable because of the emotion of the moment, others shed for her dad, who she thinks orchestrated this encounter.
"This was unfinished business. I know he tried, he wanted to have a relationship with you," she told Lana. "I think he's looking down and saying 'Finally, they're all together.' "
Nia and Lana also credit their mutual friend Michael Hurst for bringing them together. He was nothing if not persistent, they say. But it only happened because he is trying to help another friend who is facing a life-threatening illness.
Hurst recently reactivated his Facebook account to help spread the story of Greenfield resident Dave Barkes, who is suffering from ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. He wanted to share Barkes' story and his YouCaring page to help support the former Community Health nurse.
Soon, his old high school classmate Lana Hayes friended him. Something about her reminded him of his new co-worker Nia. He wondered if they could be related. He asked and asked again. Despite their initial reluctance to contact one another, Hurst kept prodding, and today the sisters are grateful to him for bringing them together.
"You closed this loop for us," Nia told Hurst. "God works through people, and he chose you."
He points back to his friend with ALS and says, "He is the real reason that you found your sister. Not me."
Lana's new-found family is spread out around the country, but the sisters already are planning a Skype session with everyone, and they hope to have a reunion soon.
"The loop has been closed finally," Nia said. "I used to wonder if Dad was making it up that we had a sister. For so long, it seemed like a dream."
Now, that sister is sitting right beside her, examining a photograph of an infant tucked into the family photo album assembled by Lonnie Hayes. She pulls the photo out and on the back her father had written, Lana 1975.
"It's nice to see my baby photo in there. I feel like I missed out because they all got to know each other, but I'm thanking God today that we were able to connect the way we did."