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BEHIND EVERY BEAUTIFUL THING

BY M J BURNS


I’M WEARING COLOGNE. I realise from the moment the door opens that I shouldn’t have bothered. Gil’s room greets me with a wall of pungency straight away. The first thing that comes to mind is rotting carpet. How can it be rotting carpet? Then again, it’s university halls. The carpets are probably from the 80s. I feel bad for blaming him immediately.


I hurry to show him my best smile, fumbling a bit over a simple “Hey!”


The bottle of wine I spent ages agonising over in Tesco now feels...


Gil looks down at it in my hand.


“Oh. You shouldn’t have.”


I can tell from how we look at each other’s outfits then that I really shouldn’t have. I ironed—I borrowed an iron. The lines in my cream chinos are as crisp as the day I bought them and the front of my loose-collared shirt is as smooth as sheets of printer paper. None of my nervous sweating has rumpled it.


Gil is in jeans—the same ones he wears every day. His baggy t-shirt looks like a pyjama top. Maybe it is.


“Uh… we are still on for tonight... yes?” Maybe he was asleep. Maybe he forgot. His face reveals nothing. He’s always like this. When we talk in tutorials, and even when we got talking regularly afterwards, the way he looks at me reminds me of my counsellor’s expression: cool, steady, gives nothing away, but lets you know that you certainly are.


“Mhm. Come on in.” He steps aside from the door and lets me pass him. Closes it behind me.


“I’ve only got mugs.” He’s rinsing them out in the sink.


He’s got a small room. I hate that I notice this, but it’s a lower budget residence than mine. Smaller rooms have nowhere for the air to go. The smells build up. A trickle of conditioned air comes through the ajar ensuite door. He’s left the light on, so the fan is going.


It’s only a single bed, a wardrobe, a chest of drawers, and a desk and an office chair. Only two places to sit—the chair or the bed. Most university halls have this set-up, but these walls feel closer together in Gil’s room.


He hands me a mug—too full of the wine I brought. Red sloshes over the edges. I try to avoid touching it because I have nowhere to wipe my hands.


“A girl died in this room.” Gil says.


I try to control my reaction so the wine doesn’t spill. “What?”


He lifts his mug to his lips. Still no smile.


“I can’t tell if you’re joking or not.”


“I’m not.”


“The fuck, Gil?” I try laughing, to prompt him into copying. I know he’s capable of it. I succeeded one day, one of the times we stood outside a lecture. I said something clever and I made him laugh. I remember it so well I have it memorised like music—the cadence of it, every note. He doesn’t laugh this time. I drink some wine.


“How do you know that?”


“Did my research.”


“When did it happen? Not last year, surely. We’d have heard about it. The Principal would—”


“No. Before we were here.”


“Wait, was that Kate someone? Her name was like some famous actress’s name…”


“It’s apparently haunted in here. Do you believe in ghosts?”


“I...” I laugh again and take a drink. A little bit of it slips out into the corner of my mouth. Gil’s thumb is there before mine. He swipes the wine away from my chin, deftly as a razorblade.


“No problem.” He says, as if I had said thank you. As if I would be able to speak at all after that. I’m laughing, looking down at the ground, at my wine, feeling the heat of his touch like it might glow under an infra-red camera. I wish he would look away. I don’t even want to know what colour my face is now.


“You want the chair or the bed?”


“Whatever is easiest for you!”


He takes two paces and sits on the chair. I lower myself down onto the bed. At least he’s made it up—that’s something. The dark duvet cover sits squint across the single bed, the pillows slumped against the wall like they’ve been punched.


He has his back to me, typing into his laptop on the desk.


“One sec.” he says. “It takes a while to load up so I’m just doing it now.”


“Doing what?”


“My AI.”


“Oh! Oh yeah. Yes, of course.” Our conversation from this afternoon comes back to me, and it comes like a little boat being carried on the top of slow but deep waves of anxiety. We had been, as we always are, talking computer science. Ethics and AI. He wanted to show me a programme he’d built—he had invited me round to see it. To see it.


I’m glad his back is to me as I take three, big, deliberate gulps of wine. A red drop falls on my lap.


“Shit.” There’s no room on his bedside table to put the cup down. He doesn’t turn around to help. “Can I use your bathroom? I’ve spilled wine.”


“Honestly, don’t worry about it. These sheets have seen worse.”


“I mean on me. I’ve spilled wine on me.”


“Oh.” He half turns. “Yeah, ‘course.” His face is just then illuminated by the flash of a green loading screen. There’s an icon above the loading bar. It’s two pixelated crossed plasters—bandaids, or whatever he would call them.


I put my wine cup down on his desk. It’s with a bit of a clunk that I both did and didn’t mean. I hurry to the bathroom before he can react—or not react.


I try to wash out the stain as much as I can without looking at anything. I leave the door ajar—as if that helps make this feel any less invasive. The bedroom and the ensuite bathroom—the two most sacredly intimate parts of anyone’s house. It’s all a university student gets to entertain guests. I feel stared at by imaginings of packets of condoms and bottles of lube. I keep my eyes firmly on my own trousers case I even catch a glimpse of a stray dark hair.


I emerge with a fresh smile and present a damp leg to him with a flourish.


“Unless you have any white wine, that’s as good as it’s going to get!”


His eyes linger. They seem to track and record each moment of the journey up to meet my eyes. I stand so still I think I’m trembling. And I’m standing on one leg, even more like a damn flamingo on account of the colour of me now.


He hands me back my wine.


“Not got any white. Just vodka. Don’t think that would do any good. Drink up. I fancy some vodka now. You want?”


“Sure!” Maybe the best way for this evening to progress is to get pissed. Maybe then I’ll have no shame when I throw myself at him later. It would give my counsellor something to shake her head about. I’ve been doing so well recently that she’s probably missed the routine.


Red wine should never be ‘chugged’. He’s making me do it now. A stupid drinking song that I never thought I’d hear coming from between his sullen lips.


“We like to drink with Robin, coz Robin is our mate. He drinks in moderation and that is what we hate. So, drink drink drink!”


He does a good impression of a Lad. Even more impressively for him, a Glasgwegian one. I feel that’s a talent of his—soaking up the acts of others—yet I don’t know why I think that. I think this is the first time I’ve seen him do an impression of anyone.


I follow his lead and roar like a Rangers fan when I’m done.


We laugh—he laughs!


The way the loading screen behind him backlights him makes his sharp edges glow. I really want to take photos of him. He doesn’t have social media. Believe me, I’ve checked.


“You make me kinda like college.” He says. He’s pouring vodka into my now-empty wine mug. I’m watching the red turn pink and vanish into the swirl of stingingly-clear liquid, so I almost miss how my own heart leaps. “Huh?”


“Yeah, I hate it here. I’m only going to get the official credentials. I learned all this stuff when I was like thirteen.”


“Oh... I see. Wow.” Drinking vodka straight is definitely not something I’m good at. I try not to screw my face up. I try to look serene as it somehow burns the entire inside of my face right up to my forehead. Gil knocks his cup back, fills his mouth with vodka, and swallows. If it nipped at all it only shows on his face mildly as he says, “Not bad.”


I quickly change the subject in case he makes me chug this drink too. All the wine I quaffed has begun to make my brain feel hot. “So uh, why—uh, why here? Why did you come over here for uni if you didn’t even want to go?”


“It’s as far away as I could get from home where they still speak English. Plus, it’s cheaper to study here.”


I want to go back to the part where he said I made him like university. I leave a silence for him. He glances behind him to check on the computer. The green loading screen is still there. Bandages and a loading bar. It’s about three-quarters now.


“Almost there. She’s slow tonight.” He says, shaking his head. “Probably shy ‘cuz you’re here.”


“Am I allowed to ask what she is, or is it a surprise?”


“No, Robin, you are not allowed to ask.” He grins. I wasn’t prepared for a smile, or my name—I find myself grinning stupidly back. He pours more vodka in my cup. It’s now probably the equivalent of five shots in there—I remember the Weights & Measures talk from Freshers Week. He doesn’t seem to give a shit—he helps himself to more too. I can picture him skipping Freshers Week entirely because it’s all ‘frat-boy bullshit’. Or, I can see him arriving at night, fresh from a flight from Chicago with only his backpack, showing up two days late and somehow finding himself invited to a party by the first group of students he meets, and then drinking them all under the table.


***

Conversation with Gil is fascinating—correction, being the sole attendee to his exclusive, private TED Talk is fascinating. I stay silent and I listen. I drink, and I admire. Maybe he wanted the ‘official credentials’, as he put it, so he could become a lecturer in future. He knows so much and he speaks so eloquently. I know all of it is useless to me in the long-run, as I won’t remember any for the exams, or even tomorrow’s tutorials. My brain feels tingly and soupy. I speak too loud and I know it, but I don’t care.


He’s kissing me.


My brain’s command centre is slow. It doesn’t alert me to the shock, the thrill, the longing, until he’s stopped. He rolls back in his office chair. The moment is gone. He turns back to his computer. The screen has changed colour.


My mouth is hot from him. It tastes of vodka, mine and his. The memory of his sharp tongue against mine—for a second, it was only a second. Was it only a second? His stubble has left a burn on my face, the smell of his skin in my nostrils.


“She’s good to go.” He slaps his hands down onto his thighs, “Alright, c’mon. Get up and sit in my chair.”


He pulls me to my feet. My body is heavy and my reaction is to giggle. I feel floppy. I sit on his chair and he rolls me forward. The motion makes me feel like I zoomed as fast as a train. I try not to swivel around on it too much or I’m sure I’ll be sick.


I lean forward and focus on the screen. I am confronted with a— I squint and try to sober up enough to understand what I’m looking at.


“Okay, it doesn’t look like much now.” He’s leaning over my shoulder. “But she’s a beaut. Trust me.”


I peer at the screen. It’s like watching very far into the middle of the ocean as it reflects a milk-white sky. Pale waves rise, surge, subside, but they never properly break. It’s as if it’s a different thing to water.


“Is it like… early CGI?”


His sudden thump to the top of my arm catches me by surprise. “No, stupid. How dare you.”


He’s laughing. I turn around to catch a glimpse of him. I’m transfixed by the underside of his jaw, his Adam’s apple, that little patch that he didn’t quite catch when he shaved.


“This is her calm. It’s what she chose to be her calm. She’ll do stuff properly in a minute.”


“Huh? What do you mean what she chose?”


I stare at the pale waves. Now that I look at it again, it almost reminds me of a shroud, and someone moving below it.


“Did I just see a… hand under that?”


“Just keep watching.”


“Gil, what did you say this was again? You said you made it?”


I stare at the screen. The white environment now reminds me of curtains, or sheets on a washing-line. Shadows behind them. A soft touch like a finger behind the fabric.


“There! There it was again!” I point at the screen. “That was a hand.”


“Yeah. She never really shows herself. She’s a fucking tease. I call her Cleo.”


The white screen has shifted to look like sand, or salt—a deep, deep vat of it, gently shifting.


“It’s really pretty. Is it AI art?”


“Partly. Keep watching.” He takes up a headset, spends a moment or two untangling the wires as I keep watching the beautiful ways the AI seems to be interpreting a theme of blank whiteness. Now it is almost like the fur of an arctic fox or a polar bear, then an extreme close-up of white human hair—flowing like a models’ in a shampoo advert, but if you kept watching it, you’d see from its movements that no human could ever have that amount of hair. It just keeps rolling and going and going.

“It’s like when AI gets hands wrong and they fuck up and give them like six and a half fingers on one hand.” I hear my own voice before I realise I’m speaking. I’m slurring. The rim of the cup is below my face and I’m confused.


“Drink up.” Gil says. He’s got the headset on. He pulls down the microphone.


“Hey Cleo.”


The screen immediately changes. The white hair fizzles, frazzles, sizzles away as if it was suddenly set ablaze by invisible fire. It leaves the screen with nothing but black. Within the centre of it, what looks like an impact from the other side—like someone punching a sheet.


“What the fuck?”


“Cleo. I’ve brought a friend to meet you. Say hello. His name is Robin.”


Cleo shows me a robin red-breast on a branch on a winter’s day. The transition from one image to the next is not as smooth as the white was—the robin’s red breast smears, smudges, melts into the next image of the same type of bird. Two beaks. Its leg is part of the branch, or the branch is part of its leg. It quickly slides into the next image as if embarrassed and trying to move on. Now it shows me what looks like it could be the beginnings of, or at least the colour-scheme of, Batman’s side-kick. A twisty, spiral shape that I can only describe as shards of a human form.


Gil huffs. “Fucksake, Cleo.”


He leans right over me and presses a button on the keyboard. The image skitters, flitters, snaps back into blackness.


“Sorry. She’s misbehaving today.”


“You know what we should have had instead of booze? Weed! That would have made this so much better!”


Gil’s eyes flash down to mine. He looks me dead in the eye in a way that makes me question if he’s ever given me proper eye contact until now. I shrink beneath that look and take a drink from my cup.


“Sorry… It’s good. It’s really cool. I just meant it’s the kind of thing you’d be tripping balls to if you were high.”


“That’s not the point.”


The screen is the colour of ash. In fact, it looks like a mound of ash, the wind winnowing the top off in little spirals. Gil is watching it too.


“How did you make this?”


“I’m not gonna tell you how I made her. I’m not stupid.”


I scoff, “Well, I am. So even if you did tell me, I wouldn’t know how to recreate it. I’m not a genius like you.”


The corner of his mouth lifts a little. A glimpse of the tip of his tongue as he wets his lips. I swallow. I don’t care about his stupid AI, the vodka dares me, goads me to lean up and kiss him. It alarms me how much I want to.


“I can’t tell you. I’m not telling anyone until I put a multi-million dollar patent on her. You even seeing her tonight is a privilege, you realise?”


“Then I’m honoured.” I lift my cup to him. “But Gil? I still don’t know what she is.”


“Watch.” He leans over me again, his hands on the arms of the chair. His breath is hot next to my face. “And tell me what this looks like to you.”


He presses something on the keyboard. The screen flickers and for a second I think it is broken. But then an image bursts into life. Red hot welts, dragged by teeth—no, the teeth of a digger scraping back dark soil—no, the tines of a pitchfork against skin. Spurting blood. Molten iron. Lava. Steam. A gaping mouth, a gaping wound. A silent scream. Steam rising from the depths of the throat. Skin shivering, pulsing, heaving.


“Fucking hell…”


Gil’s breath is in my ear, “First word that comes to mind.”


The screen still shows skin, except it doesn’t look like it’s attached to anything—just a shivering, deep mound of flesh.


“Pain…”


“Exactly.”


The vodka is making my ears ring.


“You smell good, by the way.” Gil’s fingers are on the back of my neck, feeling their way forward as if they can find the source of the scent at my collarbone. “Is that cologne?”


“Y-yeah.”


“It’s nice. Very fancy.” His breath is inside my collar. He inhales. “I must have not got the memo with the dress code for tonight, but you understood the assignment.”


His hand leaves my neck for a second to press a button on the keyboard. Cleo becomes a worm. It’s sliced in half. The two ends wriggle and buck. One end twitches then lies still. The worm parts begin to dissolve. Alcohol in my stomach lurches and burns. I look away from the screen. Gil takes my head in his hands and turns it back to her. His palms are hot and sweaty. Cleo shows flesh falling from bones, like decomposition sped up. Pockets of blisters burst.


“Gil… I—”


“I made an AI feel pain.” He yanks the chair around so I’m facing him. Puts his hands on the arms of the chair and leans down over me. In my peripheral vision, Cleo’s images morph and distort. I try not to look at her.


“Robin, this is a huge deal. It’s a form of sentience. I’ve created a new form of sentience! Nobody else in the world has done this.”


“But—it’s just a simulation. It can’t be actual pain.”


“No, it is.”


“Machines can’t feel pain. That’s impossible.”


“It is pain. Trust me. After a lot of stimulus-response practise, over and over, she started doing things without me. She kept wanting to go back to that white screen. Kept fighting to get back to that point of equilibrium. I hadn’t programmed in any kind of system of homeostasis—she did that all by herself! Look! Watch her!”


I glance over at her. The screen flickers, struggles, fades like an ancient TV into a snowy white. It’s weak, pale.


“She’s trying to survive. She’s struggling, crawling back to feeling okay as we all do every fucking day as humans. I didn’t programme in any of that. And then all those images started showing up. All those reactions. That’s all her. She’s just expressing how it feels. You are watching the very first AI in actual, actual pain.”


“It can’t be actual pain.”


“Robin. Trust me. Try it…” He turns my face up to his and kisses me. I feel dizzy. His breath is hot, his nose pressing down on mine. I struggle to breathe. His hands are on my cheeks, my neck. He murmurs against my lips, “Try it.”


I lean forward and kiss him back. I don’t want to try it. I want to kiss him. He breathes in my mouth, “Try it, and then we can have some fun.”


He’s too close for me to shake my head, and the back of the chair stops me leaning away.


His tongue is inside my mouth. His hands sweep down my back. His nails are short but the ends of his fingers are blunt-hard. They pull hard up my spine, buckling my skin under my shirt. I gasp.


He takes my hand. Puts it on the keyboard.


“Press Q, Z then R.”


I feel my way across the keys as he kisses my neck.


“Q, Z, R.”


My fingers lie, ready.


“Talk to her.” Gil fumbles to take the headphones off his head and put them on mine. They’re squint. The microphone is too high for my mouth. He turns my head to face the screen and holds it there.


“Cleo? It’s—It’s Robin.” The alcohol talks for me, while the sober part of my mind screams.


“Press Q, Z, R.”


I do it. I press them lightly, one after the other.


Cleo’s image is almost a face. It’s a scrap of skin, dimpled liquid, melting over black endless eyes and a gaping maw.


“Do it again.”


My fingers, poised in a pattern, press one, two and three.


Q, Z and R.


It’s greying bones, it’s snapping bones. It’s pieces of sinew stretching and bending before they break. The empty tubing of the windpipe rocking after a beheading.


“Keep talking to her.”


My head is tilted right back as Gil’s hot mouth follows his fumbling, hurried fingers downwards. “Cleo… can you—can you feel—Can you actually feel—pain?”


An explosion of images. Too fast for my drunk, sex-crazed brain to keep up with. It flits through a hideous messy jumble. Faces, hundreds of them, turning into hands turning into brains turning into mouths turning into eyes bloodshot eyes teeth teeth being extracted saws saws cutting through bone bones snapping breaking people people pleading begging begging and crying wailing wailing screaming screaming howling howling ripping their hair out begging begging screaming screaming.


Gil’s hand is sweaty inside the waistband of my trousers. He’s breathing hard against my stomach, but I know he’s watching the screen.


“Keep going. Q, Z, R.”


Q, Z—


“Do it.”


Q, Z—


“No! No! I can’t!”


I yank back my hand. Push Gil away. I push him so hard he goes toppling onto his back. I send the chair flying back as I get up. I tug the headphones off and throw them. Cleo is glowing red. It looks like fire inside the screen. A dark figure inside it jerks and writhes.


I feel and hear everything in that moment. The smell of the old carpets, the vodka, the wine, our sweat. The strained whirring of Gil’s laptop, his angry panting breaths, the sounds of students laughing outside.


Outside—it’s like I forgot it existed. Gil is getting up. I rush for the door before he can stop me.


“Robin! Wait!”


I can’t remember the way to the main entrance of the residence. I just run. Corridors are endless and I can’t breathe until I collapse into a lift. The robotic voice that tells me lift going down makes me want to scream.


I remember the dead student. I remember her now. I remember my step-dad reading the news and shaking his head, saying maybe I shouldn’t be going to that university because a girl was found dead in her bedroom in halls. Poor Cleo Blanchet. You never know, he’d said, you never know what goes on in these places.


© Behind Every Beautiful Thing, 2023, M J Burns

 

M J Burns is a queer Scottish writer and artist. They studied the MLitt in Creative Writing at the University of Aberdeen and English Literature at the University of St Andrews. They have work published in Gutter and Shoreline of Infinity. They love writing dark, psychological and gothic fiction, often juxtaposing traditional gothic and folk-tale themes and ideas with modern settings, and exploring unconventional narrative perspectives. They are also currently working on a graphic novel adaptation of James Hogg’s ‘Confessions of a Justified Sinner’. You can find their artwork and updates on Instagram and Twitter @mjburns_art


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