Most of the wood in the factory had either turned a pale white, into a chalk-like substance, or a dark black, like charcoal. The Once-ler could no longer go for long periods of time speaking, it always sounded like he had insects in his nose and throat from all the scarring- his lungs and throat had already been damaged, and he had no idea how long he had been out in his sanctuary (prison) and as there was no one around to hear him or care what he had to say, it seemed rather pointless to go through the pain that speaking out loud actually entailed. So this morning, like every other, he stood with a cup of bitter coffee, a piece of the make-shift charcoal in his hand, staring at the wall in the lower floor of his lurkim, where he kept his supplies.
An oil lamp burned near him, casting shadows flickering up the walls, the walls that were already lined as far as the man could reach in white and black, sentences or fragments that all began with the same word. Some were crossed out, some were circled, but they all pieced together logically only inside the head of one man- the man who stood clad in green and pink, tall and dangerously thin, with his cup and his chalk, on a step ladder, to give himself more room to write.
And he began another sentence.
Unless you mix nitrate into the solution in the worm box, the fertilizer will do no good.
Unless you manage to find a way to get the lights to give of UA and UV- he crossed this one out.
Unless you wrap the seeds- no, that was stupid, he could get them to sprout, couldn't get them to grow. Cross that one out to.
Unless you find fresh air- that one had potential. He circled it. Maybe if he dug up some seeds, planted them indoors, in front of the purifier and with the sunlamps... That was a decent idea. One decent idea a day was better then none.
He stepped down, picked up the ladder, and moved it a few feet to a fresh part of the wall.
Unless- he began.
"Give it up, beanpole." the man refused to turn in the direction of the voice. He knew what he would find, and he knew it wasn't real. He filtered the bitter coffee through his mustache and kept writing.
Unless I get enough fertilizer in the right mixture to fix the topsoil...
"ONCE-LER!" The voice rang out again- not his voice, no- it was melodic and smooth, the voice of a man who had not been inhaling chemicals on a sour wind for... it must have been years now.
"You aren't real and I have no inclination to speak with you," the thin man choked out between drinks.
"I'm not real!" The voice was angry, "I'm more real then you are, you disgusting old hermit! Spending all your time down here trying to find out what that little fur-ball meant! FUCK HIM! He couldn't give you a strait fucking answer- he left just like the rest of them! He didn't give a shit about you! For all his talk, he didn't even give a shit about this land, or he would've fought for it! He didn't do shit! I'm real! I'm human! I'm a success! I'm a fucking MILLIONAIR!"
"You're an idiot," the older man said simply.
Unless I can clear the cloud-cover- no, that one was stupid- cross it out.
"Get down here," the voice behind him barked, "Sit down. Have a drink and a cigar, and let's count our money, cut our losses, and go somewhere- somewhere nice and warm and bright." the voice had softened near the end, "I'm the idiot... you don't even know what year it is."
"What does it matter?" he asked, tapping the chalk.
Unless... unless... unless...
"Sit." the voice was almost pleading.
The old man turned, and stumbled off the ladder, across the supplies, to the dim lamp-light and overturned boxes. On one of them sat a thin man, an apparition, in shades of green, spotless in the dismal surroundings, drinking a cup of coffee that didn't exist and speaking through vocal chords made of either. The man turned a box of something- wheat, maybe?-right side up and took a seat next to figment.
"Happy now?" he asked.
"It doesn't mean anything, you know," the ghost ran his fingertips along the back of the older man's hand, and he swore he felt them, "He's trying to drive you mad. And it's working. We need to go somewhere. We need to get outside- not into that gloom, but somewhere where we can collect ourselves. If we don't... you're going to die here. Sad and alone."
"I deserve it." he said simply, sitting down his empty cup.
"It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter what we deserve- we still have the money. You didn't give every cent to... her. We have enough to go somewhere, to retire in peace and forget this dreadful place- forget that awful night." he shuddered.
"Do you really think I could ever forget?" The Once-ler stared at the man- stared through the man.
"With enough alcohol, you would be amazed what we could forget."
"You are a horrible conscious." The Once-ler waved a hand dismissively.
"I'm not your fucking conscious., old man!" It snapped back.
"Then what are you?"
"The fuck should I know? I think you're going fucking crazy- I think you've bottled yourself up here too long, went too long without talking to anyone, and now you're hallucinating. I'm not your fucking conscious., I'm your... fuck, I don't know. Call me the voice of reason." he stood, waving his arms and zig-zagging through the food and soap and whatnot strewn about the floor, "And this is an unreasonable way to live. You're going to kill us all."
"I don't care."
"I DO!" It turned to him with wild, pleading eyes, "I don't want to die! I don't want to shrivel up and waste away like the seeds your plant in that barren ground! I'm to good for that- I built schools and hospitals and donated to charities and helped orphans and parents and children and homeless folk and I do NOT deserve to die, alone in a hovel of regret and shame! I won't fucking go out like this!"
"Leave him alone, you greedy son'o bitch." There was a sound wafting through the air, a guitar chord that became a melody, slowed down, distorted, as if he couldn't find a rhythm.
"Get the fuck out!" the man in green, the apparition hissed, "You're nothing but trouble for me!"
"Do you remember the Once-ler?
Who saw the world that he designed
Lookin' from an empty factory,
The nothing that he left behind,"
"SHUT THE FUCK UP!"
"Finally seemed to notice
The things we found appalling
Crying as the final
Truffila was falling!"
"You can't listen to him!" The apparition shouted, "If we listen to him, we really will go mad!"
"We're all already mad, here." The old man said, and shrugged off the invisible burden on his shoulders, and went back to work.
"I hate you!" the man in green was sliding through the debris now, to the source of the guitar, "I've hated you since the moment I set eyes on you! Everyone hates you! You're the reason that ma left us! You're the reason that we're all alone! You were too weak! You were too stupid!"
"Lead the world and heal tomorrow,
Knowing we can always,
Run to higher ground,
Same day, different story,"
The apparition was towering over another ghost, this one clad in a drab gray who seemed to be ignoring him, slumped over an old, acoustic guitar with a fedora pulled over his face, obscuring it. His fingers moved quickly, lightly, and expertly, his voice flowed beautifully, effortlessly, without the rasp of either of his counterparts, the voice of one who was fed on fresh air and laughter, on music and fresh water.
"You destroyed everything! You should have planned better! There were a thousand ways to do things better then how you did them! You've doomed us all!"
"When we play, but now we borrow,
Falling falling falling-
And there's no one left around!" he continued to strum without looking up, "And there's no one left around."
"Are you just going to let him do this!" The ghost in green turned back to the old man, who was staring at the wall, scratching his chin.
Unless...he wrote, and struggled to continue.
Suddenly, the ghost in gray jerked its head up, much younger, much more enthusiastic then his companions, but unmistakably the same. "NA NA NA NA NA NA,
Look, there's some circling birds,
I bet you that they're gonna eat our corpses.
Then the worms will come out of the ground,
And then some other little critter is gonna make furniture out of our bones
And sit on it
And have lovely dinners!"
"I can kill him," the man, the ghost, in green was standing, leering over his younger self, "If you give me the word, he will be dead and we'll be sitting beside a crystal-clear pool in the forest of Nool sipping wine to refuel and never think of this ghoul."
"AND THIS WHOLE THING IS GOING TO BE A DISASTER!
"He's the only thing keeping us here!" the ghost in green glared, hissing through clenched teeth.
The Once-ler moved the stool again, leaving a wide breath from the beginning of his sentence and, a space to be filled in later, and continued to write.
Then the Lorax and all of his friends may come back.
"Unless... something something..." he muttered to himself, "Then the Lorax and all of his friends may come back..."
"Let me kill him." The ghost was beginning to look less and less like a man. It's teeth were narrowed to sharp points, and even under the gloves, one could see the sharp claws forming, "Let me destroy it. Let's be happy. Let's be on top of the world, like we once were."
"When the sky was still blue,
And the grass was still green,
And the water was still wet,
And the air was still clean."
"Let me kill it," the apparition begged, it's eyes glowing with an otherworldly green.
And something happened. There was a noise. A shout. It was different. It seemed... real.
"Be quiet, both of you!" the older man hissed, and they both fell silent. The guitar stopped mid-strum, and three pairs of eyes turned upwards.
It was knocking. No one had knocked on his door in so long... The man turned and bolted up the stairs. He heard screaming. Something had set off his traps. But it wasn't a shriek of an assailant. It was a child. He knew it was a child. A boy- a little boy with a high-pitched shriek of fear. He made his way to the kitchen window and peered down. A bob of brown hair, standing on the porch. He had knocked off the railing. That's what had scared him- why he had screamed. Why the hell was there a child out here by himself in the middle of nowhere? What was he doing out here, alone? Was he lost? Was he in danger? Oh shit- no kid- don't ring the doorbell!
Thank god, the child was fast, so he wasn't flattened by the trap, but the hammer his a lose floorboard and sent the light child flying skyward. Stupid fucking kid- the Once-ler thought fast, and extended a lever, catching the child in mid-fall and saving him from injury. The boy was screaming, pure terror in his eyes, but he couldn't just let him fall, he had bounced four stories into the air. He shouldn't leave him dangling upside down by his pants either, so the old man reached for him, panic in his voice as he asked the first question he had asked another human being in years.
"Who are you?" He asked, trying to keep his voice from shaking, and as a result it came out much angrier then he had intended, "Who are you? What are you doing here!"
"I'M TED! I'M TED!" The boy used all the leverage he could muster to pull away from him, "Please... are- are you the Once-ler?"
The old man blinked. So the child was here on purpose. Looking for him? Why would he do that? This place was dangerous. This place was poisonous.
"Didn't you read the signs?" He asked- he had put up signs for that very reason. This was no place for children- this was no place for anyone. "No one is supposed to come here! You need to get out of here!" he lowered the lever, sending the child safely to the ground and added, as an afterthought, "...And leave me alone."
"What?" The boy asked from the ground, regaining a bit of his composure, "Listen... people say that if you bring them this stuff, you'll tell them about the trees! The real ones! That grow out of the ground!"
The boy was holding something in his outstretched hand, but with his aging eyes and the thick smog, he couldn't make out what it was. He extended the arm again, grasping the boy tightly by the shirt this time, to make sure he wouldn't fall, and hauled him back up to eye level. He reached his hand out, and the child placed the contents into his palm. He brought them inside the boarded-up window to look at them.
The child was talking, but he couldn't hear him. He was to distracted by what he saw. When Norma had come to visit him, years ago, he had told her that if she ever came back, to make sure it was her and not a trap or an assault, to bring him three things. Fifteen cents, a nail, and the shell of a great-great-grandfather snail. That was what was in his hand. That was what the child had brought him. The shell moved, and out curled an ancient snail, old and worn, like the rest of the house, but alive. The boy had brought more then money and trinkets- he had brought life.
"HELLO!" the child yelled, derailing his train of though.
"Oh... I'm sorry. I just... I thought no one cared about trees anymore," the old man sat the new possessions on the table.
"Well, that's me," The boy- Ted, he had a name, Ted said, his voice still panicky, "The guy who still cares."
The Once-ler thought it over, reached out, and pushed the hook downward, lowered it slowly, until the boy was sitting, safely again, on the ground.
"You want to know about trees," he mused, "About what happened to them? And why they're all gone?" How could he tell that story? How could he explain everything he had done- everything he had destroyed- to a child? "It's... it's because of me..."
"What?" The boy asked from the ground, as the last part had come out a whisper, and it was difficult to talk when you had scarring and smog in your throat. The Once-ler sighed, and pulled another lever, the one had often used in his youth to yell at people on the ground, an old-fashioned gramophone descended, and he spoke into his end, sobbing and screaming, "IT'S BECAUSE OF ME! And my invention- the Thneed."
The boy perked up- he knew what that was, at least. Or, so the Once-ler thought. In reality, the boy recognized it as the name of his home-town. But his interest was peaked.
The Once-ler felt himself pulled into his old sales pitch, the confidence returning to his voice, "It was an amazing product," he slid his from his neck and down his arms through the slits in the boarded-up window, "That could do the job of a thousand!"
"Wow," the boy said, and it traveled through the speaker back to the Once-ler, "That sounds cool!"
"Dam-rn," the Once-ler struggled to remember he was speaking to a child, "Right it was cool." He giggled to himself, mimicking the way the boy spoke, though he didn't seem to notice. He took a deep breath, tried not to cough, and remembered what he was doing. He slid the thneed back around his neck and continued, "It all started a long time ago..."