Contemporary Fiction Friendship

 “Think about others? I am sick and tired of thinking about others!” Barb Ellacott posted to the main message board of her favorite chatroom, SundayPainters.com. In person, Barb was meek and mild with everyone in her seniors’ low-rise condominium, but she loved SundayPainters (motto: “For Artists 9 to 90”) and felt she could let her hair down in the chatroom, even if it were long tangly tresses instead of the practical grey bob she had worn for years.

“Why are you sick and tired?” The reply from Habib, another member, floated in from cyberspace. “What happened?”

Her fingers flew over her keyboard. “Where do I begin?!? This evening I went to buy groceries and the cashier gave me the wrong change. She was so frazzled I decided to view the 80 cents I was overcharged as a donation to mental health.”

“Frazzled?” Habib replied.

Barb responded with a definition: “Exhausted, upset.” Habib’s mother tongue was not English, so he needed vocabulary help sometimes—but Barb, a retired high school teacher, rather enjoyed that.

She continued typing: “And while I was standing there looking at my receipt, a grumpy man shouted: Lady, you’re blocking my way! How rude. That made me annoyed, but I shut up. He was carrying a big bag of kibble.”


“Dog food.” She felt a little ashamed to be annoyed about such trivialities. “He’s a dog lover. I guess I can’t stay mad at a dog lover.”

Habib’s next message was sent, not to the main message board, but through the private channel: “May I ask: Do you often buy groceries in the evening?”

“I see what you mean,” Barb replied. “I guess most people aren’t at their best at the end of day.” Score another point for Habib the Wise. That guy was so subtle sometimes. “I’ll go early next time,” she wrote.

It was 1 AM, well past Barb’s bedtime but she could not resist adding, “Thanks for the suggestion. You sound like a very nice man, Habib.” She had noticed that, among the SundayPainters commenters, he was the most empathetic of the lot. Before giving an opinion on anyone’s picture, he always asked, “What were you trying to achieve?” and usually kept his comments in line with that.

She stared at the screen a long time afterward but received no further reply.

*         *         *

Two days later Barb made her grocery trip in the morning. Afterwards she logged onto SundayPainters.com and privately messaged Habib: “Thanks for the advice—my morning grocery trip was very pleasant.”

“You’re welcome.”

She smiled. He had an air of old-world courtliness. “How about you? When do you usually shop for groceries?” she asked.

“I order everything I need online,” Habib messaged back.

“Wow! You’re well prepared,” Barb wrote. Hm, it sounded like Habib was unattached. Habib’s profile on the website was a black-and-white cartoon of a painter with a beret and a rainbow-splotched palette, evidence of whimsy and humor. But it did not fully satisfy the curiosity that now nagged at her. In her mind’s eye he was a distinguished-looking Omar Sharif type, maybe ten years younger than she was.

“Thank you. I try to be,” he wrote.

Barb cocked her head at the screen. “Tell me the truth—are you blushing?”

“Maybe,” he wrote. “Now I must sign off and get to the studio.”

She was suddenly in the mood for some painting, too.

*         *         *

The next day Barb’s patience was stretched gossamer-thin when she had to chair the local Toastmasters meeting. Afterward, she ranted to Habib in the private channel: “I’m sick and tired of trying to schedule other people!”

Habib: What happened?

Barb: Cancellations! People said they would help but then they didn’t show up. Loads of excuses: one hip replacement, one surprise visit from grandkids, and two completely forgot they had offered to make a speech!

Habib: It’s difficult to schedule other people. It’s good you are helpful.

Barb felt calmer, basking in his words of admiration. And the torture of the meeting, after all, was over with.

Barb: But I get so stressed! It makes me want to give up.

Habib: Do not give up. What makes you stressed?

Barb: It’s too complicated to type out. May I phone you? Please? I’ll keep it short.

Habib: Sorry, no telephone.

Barb shook her head at the screen. No phone? Hah, what century was this guy in? She suspected that her fellow artist lived with someone who might be jealous of a cyber-friend monopolizing his time.

Barb: Why no phone?

Her question stayed unanswered for an hour. The SundayPainters chat room was for hobbyists—there was no presumption of dating—so why did she feel so disappointed that she couldn’t hear his voice? What was he trying to hide? Was it a simple four-letter word: W-I-F-E?

While she waited, Barb jotted down the list of pros and cons for her volunteer work at Toastmasters, and concluded the aggravations outweighed the sense of fulfillment. She would quit tomorrow.

Still no reply from Habib.

After two hours she reversed her decision. The fulfillment of applause outweighed the aggravation of no-shows—so she would continue volunteering for Toastmasters. The next day, still with no word from Habib, she felt like a whipped puppy. He was punishing her by stopping all contact. She decided to send him a private message.

Barb: I apologize. I get it: no phone calls.

Habib: Apology accepted. You are a bodacious online friend. I did not want to lose you.

Barb: Bodacious? Who’s been tutoring you lately?

Habib: Synonym.com. Did I use it incorrectly?

Barb: No. But maybe I’m blushing.

They rejoined the discussion that buzzed in the main chatroom, about the recent recovery of the stolen William de Koonig painting, Woman-Ochre. Rumor had it that an art-loving schoolteacher and his son dressed in women’s clothing, stole the painting from a small gallery, and hung it in the schoolteacher’s bedroom for the next thirty years. Where it hid in plain sight.

*         *         *

“Hello, how is life?” Habib private-messaged her the next day.

Barb, who had been rear-ended on her morning drive for groceries, typed a single word: “Accident!!!!”

Habib: Did you cause the accident?

Barb: NO!!!!

Habib: Was the accident caused by a drunk driver?

Barb: No—a distracted driver. A mom was on her way to drop off her kids at school. I guess they were arguing.

Habib: A distracted driver? Tell me more.

Barb tried to give a simple explanation of distracted driving and how it might apply to this morning’s accident. As she waited for his reply, she recalled how she used to constantly bicker with her brother Lonnie in the back seat of the old Ford when they were kids. Lonnie would wipe snot on her, or pretend to, and she would pinch him as hard as she could. Funny how she’d forgotten ancient grievances.

Habib: How serious was the accident?

She wrote that today’s accident was not so bad, after all; it was low impact. She even threw in the term “fender-bender,” which predictably, Habib needed defined. But just as her mood was mellowing, she remembered something else that had ticked her off.

Barb: When I came back home, I rode up in the elevator and my neighbor Maria ignored me! How rude!

Habib: Is your neighbor sick? Sick people often act rude.

Barb: Maybe. Anyhow, Maria’s dog Rufus is the ugliest hound you can imagine.

Habib: Maybe Rufus is sick.

That set Barb to thinking: maybe Maria had received bad news. Barb remembered how stunned she had been upon learning of Lonnie’s massive heart attack a few years ago.

Barb: Enough about me. How about you? Have you been painting?

Habib: I painted all week. I painted a bodacious self-portrait.

He sent a link to the main “Member Paintings” board for her to click on. Barb’s cursor lingered over it. Did she dare? Should she click on the link and discover he was bald and wore glasses and had a wart over his left eyebrow?

Barb, who had thinning hair, wore glasses, and had a wart over her right eyebrow, remembered beggars can’t be choosers. In one of their earliest conversations, Habib had described himself as “the typical immigrant child, who was pushed into accountancy and told to forget his artistic dreams.”

What if his self-portrait was a disaster? The paintings he had uploaded to date looked like, well… a guy who was pushed into artwork and told to forget his accountancy dreams. He had not been painting very long, that much was clear to Barb. Habib was irrepressible in his enthusiasm for Art, and praised all kinds of painting, especially the bold colorful works.

Barb waited. No other painters had commented on Habib’s self-portrait.   

Suddenly her curiosity grabbed the mental steering wheel. What the hell; she clicked on the link.  Seconds later, she was staring at a hyper-abstract rectangle of static.

Barb: Bad link!

Habib: Ha-ha, just kidding.

Barb: What a stupid joke!!

Her heart was racing so violently after she hammered out those words that she forced herself to shut down her computer—immediately. She packed up her oils and easel and headed out to a nearby ravine where she threw herself into painting. Enough of the mercurial mystery man; let’s get real. She stayed away from her computer and SundayPainters.com all week.

*         *         *

The hallmark of every Barb Ellacott landscape is its reference point: a distant pedestrian, a rusty bicycle, or even a gravestone—some contrast to the immensity of the scenery. After a week spent trying to capture the luxuriant greeny-gold of the ravine, Barb decided that the reference point would be a far-off image of herself. She was putting the finishing touch on her red-and-black plaid jacket when a herd of joggers thundered past—and one bumped her elbow. Swoosh! Her brush-point sliced across the painting.

“Ruined!” she screamed. “You clumsy idiot!” The departing jogger did not even slow down.

Barb stormed back home, spitting mad. Where else to go but the chatroom? She vented in a splenetic post titled: “Hit and run vandals!”

Habib immediately sent a private message: “Welcome back.”

Barb: Get lost!!!!!!!

Habib: Why are you angry with me?

Barb: Your self-portrait is a sick joke!!!!!!

Panting hard, Barb stared at her fingers, which had not typed a single word all week and now were red from exertion.

Habib: I apologize. I get it: no self-portrait jokes.

Barb gnawed her lip. She glanced at the stuff she’d dumped in a corner of her apartment: the easel and oils and ruined canvas. A bone-crushing weariness overtook her, and she could barely keep her eyes open to read what came next.

Habib: I have skin cancer and am in the middle of a series of disfiguring surgeries, including scars on my voice-box and loss of my nose. That’s why I do not use a phone, always shop online, and steer away from self-portraits. Maybe my humor falls short. My apologies, dear friend.

Barb stared at the screen, her fatigue gone. Her eyes filled. Here was Habib, who did not even dare stick his face out in public, making jokes about his nightmare existence—and she had become upset with him! When the real jerks were out jogging around public parks and defacing art! She threw herself on the loveseat and wept.

Her next dozen messages were abject apologies.

Habib: I do not want pity. I want communication please.

It was a watershed moment in their friendship. From then on Barb became a devoted “pen pal” who messaged Habib daily about things in the outside world. Thoughts of the suffering of Habib the Wise had a ripple effect on her life. She engaged more with others—so she could spin little stories online about the encounters to him later. In his charming and stilted way, he suggested new insights or responded with “Tell me more!” or “How did that feel?” Although once he admitted he was too drunk to continue.

Habib sent a list of “blackout dates” when he would be in hospital and not have access to his computer. She tried to ferret out details, such as what hospital was treating him, but grew ashamed of her schoolgirl crush. She thought: this man’s nose has been surgically removed. Why am I fanning the embers of attraction?

Habib “kept up a brave face”—how ironic, to put it this way!—but Barb inferred his treatment was actually not going well. Her figurative heartache for her friend sometimes became real pain in her chest: a touch of angina, she figured, but something she could control with mindful breathing.

Finally, one day Habib posted a farewell on the main message board of SundayPainters.com, asking for privacy in his final days. He apologized that it was an “impersonal farewell” but said he was just too weak.

“Classic Habib!” Barb murmured, blinking furiously. That day she took a long walk in the meditation labyrinth near the seniors’ condo, slowing down to cope with twinges of her heart.

In the weeks following, Barb got on the waiting list for a cardiologist. She talked with Maria and other neighbors about going on a pilgrimage. She bought a guidebook for Santiago de Compostela but no one else was in the mood to fly overseas. She was a no-show at Toastmasters, without a word of explanation.

*         *         *

Maria’s ugly hound Rufus became more and more interested in Barb’s door, which apparently emanated a faint odor from the small crack under it. Maria accosted the building superintendent: “Could you just check it, please? Rufus only gets this worked up when he finds a dead rat or something.”

The building superintendent heard “rat,” nodded deeply, and speed-dialled Rentokil pest control.

The Rentokil agent found Barb on the floor of her senior’s unit—at the foot of her computer desk. As he waited to be connected to 9-1-1, he held his nose. He noticed the bagel sandwich rotting on a dinner plate beside a big mug of fluffy grey mould. He accidentally touched the computer keyboard, and the screen jumped to life with a news item.

“Habib the Heartbroken” Passes Crucial Test

Researchers working at the University of Sheffield report a significant breakthrough in artificial intelligence with the completion of a two-year Turing test study, over a sample size of 1,024 seniors.

The team of Prof. Vernon Randall at the Gerontology Institute applied AI to problems of aging. “Over time, seniors grow physically isolated and increasingly turn to social media and the internet to stay connected. Here in Sheffield we identified high rates of depression and anger,” said Randall, lead investigator. “We developed a chatbot to engage seniors in daily therapy.”

The Sheffield team designed software that could mimic human dialogue through machine learning. In the Turing test, if a human being can’t determine whether statements have been made by a computer or by another human being, then the computer is considered to have “passed” the test.

 “The key to our success was selecting a credible persona for the chatbot,” Randall said. ‘Habib the Heartbroken’ came with a written profile that explained lapses in vocabulary, slang and jokes.

“We set up the Habib chatbot on a variety of hobby chatrooms, where initial conversations had a ‘theme.’ The chatbot loaded specialized vocabulary depending on the hobby,” Randall said. Habib made conversation with his human correspondents and asked hobby-related questions such as why they liked to collect guns, or whether they sorted their stamp collection by theme or by geography.

“We were especially proud of the visual segment of this chatbot, which operated on SundayPainters.com. Amateur painters uploaded image files of their works. The chatbot’s algorithm could discern color choice and the presence of a face.

Randall said Habib came equipped with a range of back-up conversational ploys such as “What happened?”, “Tell me more”, and the all-purpose, “I can’t understand. Too much beer.”

Habib had significant daily interaction with a majority of the 1,024 seniors. “Some seniors insisted on meeting Habib in real life,” Randall said. “This had to be avoided. Again, a convincing back story was crucial.”

At the end of two years, “Habib” informed all correspondents he was entering a hospice for his final days. He sent a link to a grief counselling agency.

Under the terms of UK law, the researchers sent an additional email to study participants, afterwards informing them that they had been participating in a large-scale AI experiment. However, such protocol was not required for Habib’s chatroom partners in other countries. “It is possible some correspondents may be out there who are still unaware of Habib’s true nature.”



June 17, 2022 21:22

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Eshawnial Lowry
15:03 Jun 23, 2022

Wow, what a great turnaround. The AI -Habib was great I enjoyed how they used him(it) as a friend to older people, in different media platforms. Very inventive.


VJ Hamilton
22:07 Jun 23, 2022

Glad you liked the twist!


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Eshawnial Lowry
14:44 Jun 23, 2022

VJ thanks for the kind words about my story Robin's impact abroad. Keep writing, your dedication will pay off. I look forward to reading more of your stories and getting feedback on mine.


VJ Hamilton
22:19 Jun 23, 2022

Re: dedication - I feel the same way, Eshawnial!


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Andrea Doig
12:48 Jun 23, 2022

Hello VJ! I got so caught up in your story and the lovely warm friendship that I completely forgot about the prompt and theme! I was so relieved that he was not a con artist and that he was a real friend and thought yay! Loving it… and then… Haha. The algorithm! How clever! It was quite a shock actually. So well well done! You had me at Barb’s hello ;) Loved it. Unhappy ending (damn!) and all … and how disappointing that the awesome Habib was not real. My only question: was Barb dead? Or was it just the food that was causing the smell? ...


VJ Hamilton
22:18 Jun 23, 2022

Thanks for your kind words, Andrea. It's based on a news item some years back from the Sheffield A.I. Centre... with a spin on it, of course :-)


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Thomas Graham
00:18 Jun 23, 2022

I'm tempted to first ask, "What were you trying to achieve?" but it's clear enough, and I'm certain you achieved it. To me, it was disturbing, funny, and bodacious, all at once!


VJ Hamilton
22:18 Jun 23, 2022

Thanks for your bodacious comment! :-)


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