Contemporary Friendship Suspense

CW: Some Adult Language.

Adriana and I had been in a dry spell all day without selling a single piece of artwork, a disappointing realization for our first time at a comic con. Adriana who had been sitting at her booth next to mine kept reminding me of how much money we could have made working from home. On a good day on commissions, we'd make 20 dollars for a full-body line art, that's about 2 or 3 hours of work within a week's time frame. It's maybe fifteen bucks more for an expedited piece. Adriana had been a little pricier, sometimes she'd work creating her smut work from her NSFW page, you know for those eager fanatics looking to ruin their childhoods. She'd shamelessly draw their favorite characters with swollen body parts in compromising poses.

      "That's where the money is at." She'd say. "Two words: sex sells."

      When lunch came around, we started to wonder if the booth costs were even worth it. We wondered if we needed to spend our own money to buy lunch from expensive food vendors. At times, it seemed our reward for taking a risk was a big steaming pile of disappointment. It was the nature of becoming an artist, sometimes gaining one new fan makes it all worthwhile, but other times you're a victim of window shopping. Most times your biggest critic was yourself so me and Adriana knew we needed to be cheerleaders for each other. There was a lot of talent out there in the competitive world of selling art.

      I glanced at Adriana, who had been half-ass cosplaying in her pink wig.

      "Put an end to this misery" she whispered. She reached out her hand to me so I'd play along. I brushed her palm and she signaled a fake gun pointing her index finger under her chin. "BANG!" she yelled, rolling her eyes back.

      I had been embarrassed by the people turning around and laughing hysterically.

      "Maybe when the celebrity meet and greets are over?" I asked wistfully.

      "Right," Adriana nodded. "Then we'll be swimming in the greens."

      "I heard Tara Strong is doing autographs across Hall H."

      Adriana rolled her eyes knowing I was full of it.

      "Maybe, I should've dressed as a slutty Ninja Turtle," she said to make me smile.

      Nobody was coming.

      Not even the few of my subscribers that promised.

      Then soon as I knew it, some guy with a painted cat face greeted me.

      "Wow, your artwork is so unique!"

     I leaned in and worked my best version of an extroverted salesman despite my social anxiety. "Thank you so much for saying that! That's kind of what I was intending when I worked on this little devil guy over here." I flipped through my portfolio to show him my best piece of fully illustrated linework. "Feel free to browse and let me know what catches your attention. I have a special right now if you're interested in some prints."

      He flipped through some pages and nodded. "So what inspires you?"

      "Well... Everything. " I tried to sum it all up in a few words. It was a question I loved to answer. "When I draw something, it's like I'm giving birth. It's like a fragment of myself is being placed on a blank canvas. I take inspiration from everything around me, whether I'm recreating popular characters or doing my own, I put so much of myself into it."  

      "It all looks amazing, do you ever screw it up when you're almost done?"

      He was referring to a traditional drawing I had created with copic markers.

      I shrugged. "Eh, I love the imperfections of my pieces!" I laughed.

      I glanced over at Adriana smiling at me.

      She could understand the conundrum of turning your passion into a career.  

      That man was one of the very few people who stopped by.

      He purchased a refrigerator magnet, and some key chains and happily took my contact card and continued. Adriana had a bit more luck as she appealed to some of the younger audience when she focused on parody pieces of more mainstream characters.

      "Adrianaaa?" I pleaded.

      "Bathroom again?"

      "Yes. Sorry."

      "Go do you, girl. I'll watch over your shit." she handed me some money. "If you get a chance, can you get me an iced coffee from the Deli?"

     I walked over and noticed a crowd of attendees lurking around a particular booth.     I was curious.

      There was a blonde girl sitting by her booth with a long line of people ogling her amazing artwork. There were intricate details in every inch of the canvas, and abstract amalgamations of colors painted on unique character designs. I understood why they were foaming at the mouth for a chance to buy some merch.

      I stood around to eavesdrop and get an idea of her pricing.

      "How much for the realistic version of Neko-Girl in the old English town?"

      It had gotten to the point where security had to step in to wrangle them all into a singular line. I wondered if I was in the presence of the next big Manga prospect because only celebrity artists had gotten this type of vigorous patronage.

      The blonde girl behind the counter had been confident in selling out all of her work.

      "My girlfriend is going to love this one!" someone said before leaning eagerly to insert his chip into her card reader.

     350 dollars, in this economy? I held in my envy in fear I was becoming a cynic.

      I'll agree, the art was beautiful. There was one piece that looked like it belonged in a contemporary art museum.

      "How about that one over there?" another buyer pointed at another piece of a character with the likeness of a celebrity dressed in Neo-Medieval garments.

      "Oh, that one is unique! My client's favorite work. We only have small prints left." the blonde seller said. "They start at 150 dollars."

      I noticed then, she had just been selling for someone. I noticed there was a sign that said no photos allowed but managed to sneak a selfie without her knowing.

      I quickly rushed over to Adriana, who had been awkwardly giggling at some girl dressed as a Japanese Samurai with fishnets. I had known her fake laughs and knew she had been attempting to finesse her most expensive piece, one she had already rolled up in a large 40-inch tube.

      "Ahem!" I hinted. She glanced over at me and ended the conversation.

      "Where's my latte, Bitch? I'm perched!"

      "Yeah, I can tell how thirsty you are."

      She laughed out loud.

      "Sorry. There was a distraction."

      "What do you mean?"

      "There's this artist. The work they're putting out is next level."

      She snatched my phone away. "Let me see."

      She had watched the photos I took and the tab I had opened with her art profile.

      She scrolled through it while I watched her reactions. "It's really good, aye?"

      "I know."

      "But, I find something so weird." she squinted closer.

     "What is it?"

      "Her page has only been active for a few months. Where's the progression? Where's the ugly work she did as a pre-pubescent teen weeb who couldn't draw hands for an elbow?!"

      "Well, first of all, you're projecting. Some people like a clean professional profile."

      "I know, but..." she stammered. "Something's off."

      "Give me my phone, Adri. You're delusional."

 She held onto it. "Wait."

      She showed me a particular digital art piece. It was her best work.  

      "This one. I recognize it."

      "What do you mean?"

      "I recognize this. The pose and brushstrokes are from a famous artist I follow, and then also the mountain placement here is from someone else. The concept artwork is from a team that works for a successful animation studio. This is just a bunch of amazing established work rearranged into some kind of Frankenstein piece."

      "Shut up?"

      Adriana was livid. She rose from her chair and dragged me by the arm like a toddler. "Come here, Megan. We need to say something."

      I had resisted for a while, fearful she had been wrong. Plus, I was not comfortable with confrontations. "Please. Can we just talk to one of the organizers at the events?"

      "Oh, no. This is our livelihood. If we don't say something now, all of these guys here suffer. We need to stop this."

      She dragged me over to the blonde girl's booth who still had a few pieces remaining. The line had still been long.

      "Excuse me," Adriana said looking down at her.

      The blonde girl looked confused, raising an eyebrow. "Can I help you, ladies?"

    "Yes," Adriana continued. "I'm Adriana, this is my friend Megan. We have booths in the next aisle and she was walking past and couldn't help but notice your work."

      "Oh, thank you. Yeah, I think I saw her earlier taking a few "selfies" by my work", she said hand signaling with quotation marks. I appreciate your interest, but I'm actually not doing any art trades right now, sorry." she said, deadpan.

     I looked over to Adriana who rolled her eyes.

      "We're not here for that. This is all bullshit plagiarism and you know it!"

      Some of the people in line took notice. "What did she say? Plagiarism?"

      "We think this stuff is A.I. like computer generated" I inputted.

      "Oh, WOW." the girl said. "A couple of amateurs who can't sell their shitty uninspired work sunk so low as to attack someone more popular than them. Did I get that right?"           

      "Shut up." Adriana grabbed her folder and aggressively flipped through the pages that had been similar to published ones online. The blonde girl quickly left to call security.

      When they arrived, they escorted us back to our tables. Adriana tried to call a few of her artist friends through her social media channels.   

      Some more security guards came back 20 minutes later to speak with us.

      "Excuse me, you two. We've received a lot of complaints about your harassment of the other sellers in artist alley. Can you please come with us? We're going to help you pack up your items too."

      "This is bullshit. It's that bitch! She has it in for us."

      "We're shutting this down right now and we need to discuss whether you girls will be welcomed back next year. Are we going to do this the easy way or do we get the police involved?"

      There were some onlookers around when Adriana grew more irritated.

      My heart sank when I noticed my art profile which had thousands of followers had been deleted. Adriana's profile too. We had backups of our work, but it took years to build a fan base. All that networking had just vanished in an instant. It happened so fast while we were escorted out to our vehicles.

      Adriana's checked her phone again and realized she had a voicemail.

      "Who is it?" I asked.

      "I don't know." she pressed the button for the speaker.  

      A soft-spoken man spoke that sounded eerily artificially generated, "Hope you two have a safe drive back. Maybe next year, we could find something more meaningful in your work and you won't find the time to bother other attendees." 

      "This is starting to freak me out, Adri."

      "Me too," she said. I hadn't seen her so serious about anything.

      She called the number back despite my protest.

      "Hello?" she placed it on speaker again. "Why did you get me and my friend kicked out? You evil piece of-."

      "My work is far too important for you two to get in the way," he said calmly.

      "It's all just fake!" she pleaded.

      "It's not real," I added.

      "What's fake? My work is no different than yours, like you, I get influences from the world around me when I create my pieces. They are fragments of my inspiration. And you tell me it's all worthless? The sales numbers never lie. Furthermore, you two have so much to learn. It's a new world and these intricate pieces I make take mere seconds to complete. Some of your less-stylized work could hardly be considered for realism."

      "Fuck you!" Adriana hung up.

      "He's insane."

      "Who is he?"

      Adriana finished packing all of our stuff in her SUV and turned back.

      "Where are you going!?"

      "We're going back," she said, pulling me over by the arm again.

      "No," I pleaded. "I'm not going. I know he's wrong, duplicating aesthetics from real artists out there is horrible, but I'm not cut out for all of this. I can't risk being banned."

      One look at Adriana's face made me second-guess myself. I was reminded of all of those years watching her draw on her sketchbook for hours. I don't know if I could respect myself if I didn't come along. So we headed over again to the main hall.

      Adriana confronted a guy dressed in a full-suit ninja armor posing for photos for his friends. "Hey kid, I'll give you 20 bucks for that mask."

      "Real funny."

      "C'mon. You can get it on eBay for like 10 dollars max."

      "You're an idiot. This is custom-made from Etsy molded like the movies."

      "40 dollars to borrow it and I won't kick your ass."

 The kid shook his head and flipped us off.

      "I'll show you my tits." 

      The kid quickly handed it over with shaky hands while Adriana snatched it.


      "Pervert," she said.

      "Adri!" I turned red. "You just robbed that kid..."

      We borrowed some Day passes from her friends and made our way into artist alley again. There, we noticed the lady again holding her suitcase with all of the money she had made, followed by some event volunteers.

      When we walked closer, Adriana received a message from an unknown number.

      "Will you two please try to act sane? You cannot stop what's going on. Turn back now, please. You can get some of the funds we made. It was all just an experiment, simply data collection."

      Me and Adriana looked at each other paranoid.

      I noticed some of the cameras around. "He's watching us, I think."

      "How much?" Adriana texted back.

      $ 27,200.10, I can wire it directly to your Paypal if you wish. I believe that's $13600.05 each. More than average of what a successful seller makes at the largest convention in San Diego for comparison."

      "I don't know about this one, Adri. Selling my soul for money?"

      "I know, it sounds suspicious... It's a lot of money though."

      "It is but..."

      "We could use it for new tablets and pay off some of our tuition," she said.

      I felt like I had to snap Adriana out of a spell and so then I did something so unlike myself and wondered if maybe she could find it in her heart to forgive me in the long run., I grabbed the suitcase the girl had been holding and slammed it against the wall. There was cash inside the envelopes that busted out. I wasn't interested in it, I instead grabbed the laptop computer she had been using to sell her work and destroyed it.

      "You're making the biggest mistake of your life!" the blonde yelled. "Do you want to be a broke artist forever? Do you know how much my client is going to sue you for?" she laughed. "Destroying other people's property in the name of what? You are replaceable. What we do here can easily be replaceable by them. It's all too fucking late."

      For a moment I could hear trepidation in the girl's voice.

      I jumped on the solid state drive with two feet until it was tiny fragments of metal and plastic. I kept stomping until the security guys came in, and when they couldn't use force to drag me out, a police officer came by to handcuff me while Adriana stood by shocked. She looked at me like I destroyed her future.

      I ended up getting banned for a few years, spent a few days in jail and my best friend wouldn't speak with me. Luckily, the blonde girl never pressed charges, but then something crazy happened. There were a few viral recordings of me amongst the horrified onlookers that day. They collectively found out I was protesting the A.I. generated art being sold on the floor and as some of those sleazy Public Relations firms say, no publicity is bad publicity. Turns out a lot of people started being aware of A.I. artwork at the convention. Some agreed there were some benefits from it, but there was a line that couldn't be crossed when it took business away from the artist.

      They ended up reducing my ban to a few months, and nowadays me and Adriana have returned to sell our work at conventions. My most popular piece is an illustration of an old Macintosh computer holding Bob Ross hostage. It's a little on the nose, but the T-Shirts sell out. Adriana created a piece where I'm stomping down several popular Robot characters from Sci-Fi video games and movie franchises.

      We eventually ended up regaining access to our accounts, the user names and passwords had been changed and tracked down by our fans.

      We never did find out who was behind it all.

      The blonde girl who sold the A.I. art disappeared from cons and never did tell anyone who her client was. Adriana thinks it was a degenerate hacker trying to scare the shit out of us with a premium AI program, but there's an urban legend out there surfacing on the internet forums that believes it was something more sinister, like something sentient.  

August 08, 2023 14:36

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Bruce Friedman
19:04 Aug 08, 2023

Wow, Eric. I have never read anything like this before. I am familiar with generative AI but your story rolled out a world that I was not familiar with. I assume that you are an artist or close to some of them. Great work.


Eric D.
16:02 Aug 10, 2023

Thanks so much for the kind words Bruce! I use to spend a lot of time at conventions when I was younger and met a lot of artist there haha. Glad the story took you to a new place.


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Annalisa D.
15:24 Aug 08, 2023

This is a great story! Really interesting concept to think about it and very relevant with some of the stuff going on right now.


Eric D.
15:30 Aug 08, 2023

Thanks for reading ! I wanted to write a very relevant story to what's going on now, such as the writer's and Actor's strikes going on today.


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