I didn’t actually like my stepsister at all when I first met her.

I suppose I was angry at Mum for heading out for cigarettes when I was nine and clearly having trouble choosing between brands. After all, she hadn’t come back.

According to my stepfather, I’d spent three weeks lounging around in a filthy and empty flat before social services took me in. I don’t know if there’s any truth to that. I generally don’t remember much from when I was younger.

Some of my earliest memories were from about 11, when I first got taken in. I must have been 10, 11? In any case, I’m probably never going to stop being sorry to Stephen Alger for what I did to Cass.

But it’s the price we pay for the lives we live. And Cass always understood that from day one.

I remember a few things. Granted, it’s not much, but it’s still something. So Cass would have been 15. Maybe. 14 or 15.

And I can remember pretty much everything of the house. The walls were cream with this kind of floral pattern across it and it was a BlackBerry. I can’t remember which model.

So what had happened was pretty self-explanatory. What had happened was that I had borrowed my sister’s phone because mine had broken and I had nothing to text my friends off of. I didn’t have many friends back then. Just Alan and Arthur, but really had no other use for it.

No, really, I was not using it for anything bad. I was never searching anything dodgy or doing anything weird with it. In fact, I could tell you stories about what certain boys in my class had been looking at and it would kinda shock you.

Or just make you roll your eyes. Let’s face it: nothing’s quite offensive the same way that it was, right?

I remember talking to my stepfather and asking him for a new phone. I couldn’t call him “Father” or “Pa” or whatever because it just felt so unnatural, so I just called him Stephen.

I said, “Stephen, I need something to text my friends off of,” and Stephen had the idea of my stepsister giving me her phone.

And that’s important. Because I want it known for the records that this was his idea. If he hadn’t had this idea, he wouldn’t have set this all off in motion.

So I’m using the phone, yeah? And it’s a BlackBerry, so that’s pretty good. It’s got a few bells and whistles and shit and I’m just looking through it. I wasn’t going looking for anything in particular.

My sister did okay. I mean, she had money. Stephen? Stephen didn’t have much and sort of lived month by month. The paycheque he’d get would sometimes cover the gas, but then sometimes it wouldn’t really cover the food. Other times it’d cover the food, but we’d end up taking cold showers near the end of the month.

So, I don’t know, my stepsister gave me her new-ish BlackBerry because she’d got the new iPhone and I still think about her room from time to time, during the quiet periods.

So the flat we lived in was a bit of a tip. I mean, Stephen had soggy pipes, dirty walls, and just generally the house had the air of disrepair about it, but my stepsister’s room?

It was so tidy, so neat. And filled with amenities. A large TV. She had two game consoles, she had these beautiful fairy lights, she had these absolutely beautiful quilts and screenprints on the walls. I was just a year younger, but I got the same pocket money of five bucks a week and I knew that even if I socked it all away for half a century, I’d never manage to have a room with the amenities that she had.

I wasn’t even that good at mathematics at school, but I still knew.

I still knew.

So she reluctantly handed it over and I remember her looking at me as if she’d stepped in me on a street pavement and her red-painted nails and I remembered the rumours at school that she had three boyfriends who treated her to nice things.

I felt uncomfortable whenever I was around her: the way she raised her eyebrows, the way she glared, the way she just always made me feel unwelcome wherever I was.

And then I went to my room to text a friend and, well, I found them.

I didn’t mean to go on to the images, but it was just curiosity to see if my stepsister had saved any images back onto the phone.

And I saw a fully nude photo of her. I can still see it, vividly.

And I remember my heart jackhammering as something had gone wrong. As if I was committing some sort of crime, as if I was doing something incredibly wrong. But all I did was click on the button marked “Photo Gallery,” and if I’d have done that and there hadn’t been that photo, would it have still been a crime?

And I clicked off because I didn’t want to see any more. I spent 20 minutes prone on my computer chair. I felt weird.

I mean, I didn’t know how to feel.

I kept the picture on my phone. I don’t know why. And when I went to school, I was quiet. For about two weeks. I wanted to talk to my friends about it, but at the same time, I knew that I couldn’t. It just felt like some sort of betrayal of my stepsister’s privacy, because I suppose it was.

But eventually, I snapped. I don’t know what it was. Was I trying to impress my only two friends in some fucked up way? Was I just looking for a way to talk about the pictures I had on my phone?

So I showed them.

And when I got home, I slung my school rucksack into the corner and headed into my bedroom, where my stepsister was waiting for me.

She hit me. That was the first thing she did. Socked me right ‘round the jaw. And then followed it up with another one. Took about two weeks for the bruise to heal up, I can tell you that much.

When she’d finally calmed down from shrieking and screaming, I remember her leaning against the wall of my room.

I mean, it was strange seeing my stepsister in my room. It wasn’t just because my room was a tip. Hell, it was a cupboard compared to her room.

I couldn’t see very well because my eye was all swollen and tearing up, but I can remember her in the corner letting out these low, heaving sobs and her eyeliner was running down her face in thick clumps.

“And you didn’t charge them,” she was yelling at me. “They just got to see the pictures for absolutely nothing. You’re such a fucking fool!”

That I hadn’t expected.

At all.

When she’d finally calmed down, she was sitting at the foot of my bed with a notepad in hand she’d pulled out of her pocket and frantically scribbling away with a disposable biro. I didn’t understand why she’d taken them out, or why she’d brought them into the room with her.

I tried to talk to her, to tell her that I was sorry, but she just raised a painted hand to silence me.

After about ten minutes, she handed the notepad to me and, well, it blew my mind.

Underneath were both of my friend’s names and a list of requests and demands and prices. There were subscription ideas, repeat price raises based upon the number of transactions. Oh, it was pretty in depth.

I looked up and she had this wicked little grin on her face and it was very strange. It was a face that lacked any of the vulnerability it had only a minute ago, when she was in tears. In fact, I felt a pit in my stomach looking at that face and that grin, which seemed to tell me that the face before it, and the tears that rolled, hadn’t had anything behind them. No emotion or rage.

They were the saltwater of a girl who had her plans inconvenienced.

And so I started, I suppose, working with my stepsister. If it makes you feel any better, I refused at first.

Then she threatened to tell Stephen, and threatened to tell him that I was the one who’d taken the naked photo of her.

So it was a choice between homelessness and being a pimp.

As I understand it, most people find themselves faced with slightly different sets of life choices at the age of 15.

We did it for about a month and I had no choice. Thankfully, I never had to take any of the pictures myself. We managed to use Google Drive to share them between phones so she’d take pictures and I’d have them to send to my friends.

We were lucky that we went to two separate schools, so the way it worked is that I talked to Arthur and Alan and asked if they wanted any more pictures and would tell them it was just a girl I knew.

And they always wanted more, which was surprising. But teenage boys are weird, you know? You have an entire Internet full of all the breasts, ass and vagina you could want to look at and still that’s not good enough because it’s all public archive and you can only get your kicks from a private collection.

I mean, ten years later, I can understand that. But back then, I was surprised when they coughed up for something they could get for free. But, you know, bottled water gets sold every day.

And I was even more surprised when there were more. Friends of my friends. Friends of theirs and so on and so forth.

So we had to get inventive. After a good three months of trialling, I went shopping with my stepsister for wigs and we put together a list of fake names.

What was possibly the most troubling was just how organised we became at it all. After we’d made so much money, we learned how to tax it efficiently.

Stephen was about to get ejected from the family house, but we managed to keep up the rent under his nose. It was pretty complex at first and we had to make sure we kept bills coming in, but only letting them through at a fraction of what they were.

We even forged a letter from the council to try and explain away why the rent was getting lower, and when we started getting even more money, we started mailing money to our own house under the pretence that it was Stephen’s tax returns.

Which he believed for a time.

Eventually, we left school and made up some cock and bull story that we’d got jobs in the media (which wasn’t entirely untrue) and they were pretty high-paid and high-flying and Stephen had to believe that. We wrapped up bigger and bigger lies under thinner and thinner wrapping until I was sure he’d find out.

I was thinking about that last Christmas when we were all sitting on the sofa in festive jumpers and Stephen was tearing off purple pink tissue paper off of a present whilst grinning like a loon.

I remembered his wrinkly hands happily tearing apart that package as he laughed and gave a shriek of delight as the toy tumbled into his lap.

He hadn’t been the same since he had a stroke earlier in the summer and he’d been severely damaged. The blood clot in his brain left him with the mind of a four year old.

He held the purple toy cactus with the stitched smiley face on it and beamed from ear to ear.

I had to take it off of him for a minute, to which he let out a low and confused cry and reached out for his toy. Whilst he was grizzling, I unscrewed the base and put the batteries in. Then I clicked the on button and the cactus jiggled from side to side and Stephen began to laugh and clap his hands excitedly.

He must have been looking at that cactus for 12 minutes, his eyes just shining with wonderment.

I wished him a merry Christmas and left the living room for a moment because I needed to sob in the hallway for a while. There was something about watching Cass’ dad cheering and hooting over this stupid fucking cactus whilst I was selling his daughter’s body.

And as I cried and felt hot tears run down my face I could hear Cass in the other room laughing with him and looked ‘round the door to see them putting that purple crepe paper on the cactus and Stephen shouting happily as the cactus shook the wrapping paper off, but it all got blurred pretty fast, so I had to duck back into the hallway because I couldn’t let Stephen see me.

It would upset him and he wouldn’t understand. And for some reason, that made me sad. Sad deep down in my stomach. The fact that he didn’t know. And that I couldn’t explain it to him.

My worst fear was him finding out about what we did, but it turned out that it was much more horrible when he didn’t.

And she came out a while later and we both went out on the back porch.

Cass lit a cigarette and we talked.

She was always very dogmatic. She explained how his brain was mush and how if it wasn’t for the work we did, he’d be in a home getting abused by the nurses and we wouldn’t even be able to get him a toy for Christmas, let alone pay his bills and medical costs. And I understood that, I did.

But when I looked at him, there was still something that made me hurt deep down inside.

So I remember yelling at her that I was telling him once and for all and that she could show him what she liked because I was tired of walking around with a millstone of guilt around my neck and that I was done with it all, done with the business, done with the money, done with the pictures and the blogs and the fucking videos and sponsorships.

And I went into the living room and he was sitting on the sofa with the little family picture of the three of us. Pretty as you like, smiling like a family.

The cactus lay almost forgotten on the floor as he grinned down toothily at the picture, a thin line of drool trickling down the side of his gaping mouth.

“Lubbu,” he mouthed, his cracked face staring at me intently. I don’t think he could tell that I was crying or that my eyes were red because he’d been developing cataracts and couldn’t see much, but had probably picked up on how quiet I’d been all evening.

“I love you, too.”

Stephen clapped his hands at this and the picture fell from his hands onto the carpet and he threw his arms around me.


I cradled him in my arms for a while as he looked up at me, his face stuck in this huge gormless grin, and I knew I couldn’t tell him.

And it sucks because he’ll never forgive me. He’ll never even know what he has to forgive me about.

All he understands is within his small world of food, bath, sleep, playing with his toys, and getting hugs.

Is he happy? Of course he’s happy. Do I keep him happy? Sure, yes I do.

But why do I feel so guilty every time I look at his face?

We’ve got another video shoot next week which I’ve booked, hired the press team and photographers, and have marketed the whole thing on Twitter. It’s a five men and one girl scene.

But Stephen’s happy and so’s my stepsister, who says she wouldn’t have chosen any other way to live her life.

She has everything she wants, all the creature comforts and accessories and bags and designer clothes.

But sometimes I have trouble sleeping.

I lay awake at night wondering just when the guilt will go away.

Even though I know it never will.