In a recent writer’s exercise prompt, we were asked to create a character who had done something truly awful, and then see if we could induce readers to sympathize with that character despite his despicable act.

Do you feel some compassion for him?

Guilt, by Donna Rubino, copyright 2016

The killing was easy. Even living with the knowledge he’d done it wasn’t hard. He told himself he had no conscience; had been born without a guilt gene.

When the farm house burned, he’d sat on a tractor near the barn and watched it go up in flames—slow to catch, but then the whole thing—wood siding and roof shingles, all his ma’s homemade curtains and pa’s handmade furniture seemed to pass little spits of fire one to another like dinner servings around the table until a final belch, like Uncle Harry’s after Christmas dinner, sent a fireball skyward.

It had been fascinating the way the roof fell in with a whoosh, and sparks and cinders flew in the sky like the fourth of July fireworks. The walls eventually fell in too, blanketing his parents’ bodies, but the memory of his ma’s stare would go with him to his grave. Not that her look of disappointment made him feel guilty, no, it had only added to his frustration. He wasn’t a farmer and all their telling him he was wasn’t going to change that.

He’d walked into the fields, his ma’s last words, “you always were a mess,” reverberating in his head, and sat, hidden by towering cornstalks when he heard the fire brigade come, but they were way late; and no one even looked for him because he was supposed to be at a cattle sale a hundred miles away.

He sold the farm—every last acre—to developers. They made him a wealthy man.

After that, he’d worked hard to build a business, not that he was running from his ma’s accusation. No. More like he was showing her she was wrong. He invested well, married better. His son was 20 now and at college, a serious, industrious boy like his wife. His daughter Lily was 16 and a handful. She was a dead ringer for his ma; he remembered how she looked in that old wedding photo on the parlor wall. Since that first moment infant Lily had clapped her fingers around his, he was lost to her. Some time early on, Lily’d developed the habit of staring at him, squint-eyed, lips pressed firmly together just like his ma had whenever she’d disapproved of something he’d done.

He told himself it wasn’t guilt that made him keep bailing her out when she got arrested for underage drinking, or busting up a department store when they caught her shoplifting. He did it because she was his daughter and he loved her; and besides, she’d probably inherited his unguilty gene. There was something to be said for that.

But the day she died near killed him.

The police had called. She’d led them on a chase at speeds closing in on 100, from the interstate to the local highway to the back roads that led to the dammed river that protected the town from flood.

On the way to the hospital he and his wife passed her car—what was left of it—wrapped around a tree, the front of it split in two right into the front seat, the engine sitting beside the car as if it had been carefully placed.

His wife raced into the hospital while he parked the car, seeing Lily in the rear view mirror as he backed into a spot, hearing Lily’s baby giggle as the tires squealed against the curb.

In her room in ICU, he couldn’t see much of her. Her head was swathed; there were tubes and machines, more bandages and casts, winches and safety bars protecting every part of her. He swallowed the urge to scream as he sat in a chair beside her. All those beeps, buzzes, and whirring pumps. His wife was speaking quietly with a doctor.

Was this why you raised a child? So she could bedevil you? Tear out your heart? So you could try to save her over and again and still she was hell-bent on suicide? He remembered the time she jumped out of the old oak tree and broke both ankles; the time she tried riding her bike over the earthen dam at high water and was swept away and almost drowned.

He touched her hand. It was barely warm. He slid his fingers under her palm.

She turned her head toward him, and, despite intubation, pressed her lips together, eyes squinting his way. And then her lips parted. “Mess,” she said, and flat-lined.

A pain skewered his heart, a fire hotter than the one he’d set that night long ago. He heard a scream, but only realized it was his as his head hit the floor.