The Three Strike-Point-Flag System

A Lorax Fanfic Series by Digitaldreamer

XIV: Sore Loser (Trying Not to Be)

Annnd new chapter. Some people thought I was stopping the fic last chapter, but nope. I intended to chronicle the whole of the Once-ler's journey, and that means the aftermath and Old!Once-ler. The latter will be next chapter, as for the former, here we are.

I wanted to just depict the Once-ler coming to accept everything, as well as the aftermath of it all. Hopefully I did it believably. Music-wise, I think Thistle and Weeds by Mumford and Sons fits very well, though You Found Me by the Fray fits the "climax" bit, if you care. Just uh... yeah. Hope you guys enjoy!

He deserved this.

The Once-ler knew he deserved it. To not observe this would be the equivalent of spitting on the footsteps of everybody who had left, and there had been far too many discussions on the concept of responsibility for him to not at least acknowledge that on some level. Still, it was hard to accept it.

At first it had had simply been too big to even comprehend. The silence in the wake of everything was like a gaping wound, something so immense it almost felt physical. It was too big to feel sad over, too big to cry over, too big to scream at. It was so impossibly big that he felt almost numb and nonexistent in the throes of it, disbelieving.

Maybe it was all a trick. Maybe his mom was just testing him- she had a tendency to do that, like when she'd left him, Brett and Chett behind at the super market for hours at a time. Surely any moment now that RV would come roaring over the hills again and she would be insisting she'd never meant to leave at all and everything would be fine. Maybe the Lorax was doing the same thing and he'd be coming back any second now, appear out of nowhere like usual with some stupid comment about his height and they'd argue and get back to work and everything would be normal.

Of course, after awhile he had to accept that this simply wasn't the case, and that was when he'd found himself curling inward in the dust. He'd sat alone with his knees pulled up to his chest in the dark, choking back whispered pleas for that hopeless return with nothing but the stillness and the silence to listen to him. For awhile there wasn't anything, simply that stillness, the sheer blinding agony of the idea and the thing they'd left behind, the idea of the logical consequence.

Then the anger set in.

At first, he wasn't sure what to be angry over. He'd sat alone in the dirt, dust coating that fitted green suit, and somewhere amidst the burning at the edges of his vision and the bitter black on his lips had come that rising bile to fill the hole. Out came the "I don't deserve this" and the "how dare they"s, because he had never meant for any of this to happen.

How dare they leave him with this? How dare the board and his employees abandon him after everything he'd done, after the bonuses and changed lives and the lavish celebrations he'd thrown in their honor? How dare the public lash out at him when he'd been the one to give them everything in the first place? How dare his mother- no not his mom never his mom - how dare his family leave after he'd tried so hard for them? How dare the animals and Lorax abandon him after all those things he'd made for them, after all the compromises he'd tried to pull? How dare they, how dare they, and this just wasn't fair! All he'd wanted was to succeed, to finally get something right. He had never meant any harm, had never meant for this, and the aftertaste of loneliness seemed like unfair retribution when he'd never had any sort of malicious intent.

He destroyed everything, there was no denying it- but he hadn't meant to, and that had to count for something.

So these things ran through his mind at a million miles an hour, all the bitter "how dare theys" and the musings on good intentions. Then something clicked, and rather suddenly he knew what to do. He'd never meant for this to happen. All he'd ever wanted was to make things better, to change the world. He'd failed at that and there was no denying his mistake. But he'd always been the sort of person to take failure in stride, to accept it and find a way to make it work- or more importantly, to fix it.

This thought had come, quite literally, with the seed. He'd been sitting there in the dark, alone, sifting inherited dust through gloved hands when he'd spotted it. It was tiny, so tiny it was nearly invisible, but its light brown gleam and spiral shape were unmistakeable. A truffula seed- the only truffula seed, now. It'd been placed in that circle of stones- maybe a parting gift but probably coincidence because those green eyes could not have offered him anything back then - alone, small and pathetic and so fragile looking he'd been afraid to even touch it. Still, he'd scrambled through the dirt on his knees and reached for it, cradling it with the sort of care he'd been desperately missing for his past few years in the valley. He cradled it in his dust-coated palms and his voice had come out somewhere between a choked sob and laugh, bubbling in his throat as he clutched the thing to him in the dark.

He could still fix this, right?

And oh, he did try. He planted it right then and there, watered it carefully and waited and waited. When nothing happened he'd dug the seed up and moved to a different spot, tried again and again. The area around the factory became pock-marked with small holes, and after awhile he had to accept that the seed simply would not grow. He supposed it made sense- the soil was so thin and gray it was essentially ash between his fingers every time he dug, so thin it wouldn't even absorb the water he desperately tried to force it to drink. The liquid would just pool in the gray, create a sort of dust soup until he finally panicked and rescued the seed because what if it drowned?

Of course it didn't work. Of course it didn't, because it was related to him, and everything he'd ever done turned into a failure no matter how he tried, so why would this be any different? There was no fixing himself. But there was Thneedville, still chugging along with its smoke and smog even with no puppet master, and maybe he could start there.

So he'd tried that. The Once-ler had crept into town with that seed and new words, called out over public warnings regarding the air quality. He called out over promises of fresh water shipped from the Alps and job offerings for sales and deliveries for all the exporting that was necessary to keep Thneedville afloat. He tried to explain where the problem lay, tried to point out that draining resources from the outside was hardly fixing the issue. He'd explained about trees and just what they did, tried so hard to make it clear that there was a problem that needed fixing, not burying and running away.

No one listened. Of course they didn't, because why would they? After so many years spent paying lipservice to industry and the safety outside, his words seemed downright mad. Mostly he just received scoffs and laughter, insistences that there was nothing to be done or anything that needed to be done about the outside and even if there was, nobody had time to do anything. After all, there were actual jobs that needed doing right now- resources necessary for survival became commodities and something to put food on the table, and what would you know about that, Mister Once-ler?

Usually that was when the violence started, the thrown rocks and shouts of just what a hypocrite he was. There were instances that he was just trying to lie again and how dare he even show his face after everything he'd promised them, and well, he certainly couldn't deny that. He visited multiple times with an "I speak for the trees" and a seed, but there was no one to listen and only fists and anger when he over-stayed his already short welcome.

He'd tried to get them to listen and of course no one did. He tried to argue against the smog, tried to point out how dangerous it was and of course there was no one to listen Everyone just laughed and there had been the arguments of how this was necessary for survival, there had been declarations that he was a hypocrite and oh of course he was but there was no arguing against them. Then there'd been the couple of times he'd tried to speak only to be interrupted by some new ad for O'Hare Air, whatever that was, and it was only natural that when weighed against the latest trend an old has-been didn't stand a chance.

The Once-ler had tried so hard to pull a veil over everyone's eyes when he'd started this whole mess,. Unfortunately, he'd succeeded, and now he wasn't strong enough to pull it away.

Perhaps his answer lay in the kids. While the adults remained angry at him, there had been children who had been curious. Wide eyes that sought out his, still young and innocent and completely unaware that he was the source of the thing that silenced their laughter with coughs when they stepped outside. They'd sought him and they'd listen before being whisked away by nervous parents, but that was a spark of hope by itself.

He could not bring the solution to Thneedville, that much was obvious. But maybe he could bring Thneedville to him.

That was when the rumor started. He planted the idea of the fifteen cents and the grandfather snail, built himself up from a forgotten has-been and the nightmare who ruined Dad's job to something else entirely. He became a legend and for awhile it had worked. For awhile the kids did show up, some genuinely curious, most to laugh. Of the genuinely curious there were far too many who got bored and wandered off, those who'd been too scared by the outside to stay, some who even got sick out in the wastes before outright declaring their parents had forbidden them from venturing out anymore.

For awhile there were the visitors, curious kids, laughing kids, angry parents and former employees who were angry over lost jobs and broken promises. After a few months, however, these largely dwindled down to nothing and he had to accept that no one cared and no one was coming.

After months of trying with that damn seed, the Once-ler what at a loss for what do. In fits of self pity and penance had come the inspiration to simply throw it all away. He'd sold off those stainless steel appliances and nice furniture, dismantled the expensive stove tops and shattered awards coated in dust. He recalled lectures regarding thing after thing and he responded in full, destroyed every stupid guitar he owned besides the first one. He smashed his things and let his old world burn, as if breaking it all could somehow bring the Lorax back.

Of course that did nothing, because why would more destruction fix anything?

It was with the splintering of that last guitar over the factory railing that it finally clicked. Because that was it- there was nothing left. Before he'd had that wild, stupid optimism- no, not optimism, desperation because that was all he'd ever been was desperate for attention -all that stupid desperation, that hope in the tiny seed. Before he'd had memories of the "right thing" to push him forward, that hope because yes he'd done something wrong but surely he could fix it.

This was it. There was no fixing it.

The dam had finally broke at that point. The dam had finally broke and the tears had come, hot and wet and tracing trails across his dust-coated face. He hadn't cried back before, back when it had started- there had been tears yes, hot pinpricks at the corners of his vision, but he'd blinked them back, felt too shocked and overwhelmed to even cry. Aside from that one time he had not cried, because the Once-ler had always made a point of avoiding such things. Boys don't cry, his mother had drilled that into him well enough, and no he would not let himself break because that would mean he had given up and it was over. The closest negative emotion he'd let through had been anger, and even that had been a vague, undefinable thing toward the situation as a whole- after all, he'd always considered himself an optimist. If there was negativity, he'd focus that energy into something positive, keep moving forward, because life had never left him room for things like anger and sadness against his mom so why would he allow it for anything else?

Well, there was room now. Miles and miles of emptiness and nothing else.

In spite of that, the first few tears had been hidden. They traced hot, wet tracks across his dust-coated face and still he curled inward, tried desperately to stifle his sobs as to stop the silence from hearing. His shoulders shook and his sobs came out quiet, breathless, gloved fingers clenching at fading pinstriped cloth and tugging at tufts of black hair turned gray by the dust around him. Eventually the sobs built and built, however, becoming an unstoppable force in his chest as great, unbidden gales of breath tore from his shaking frames. The sobs built and built until at last he was sitting there on the dusty walkway of an empty factory, head thrown back as he finally just screamed to the clouds above and the sour air.

First came the pain, finally hitting him in full and tearing those sobs of agony and mourning from him. Then came the anger, something true and honest and awful, like a monster in his gut. All he'd ever wanted was to make people happy and he'd gave and gave and now all he had to show for it was an endless wasteland and an empty factory. He'd given them Thneedville, he'd given jobs and lives, he'd given his mom pearls and dresses, he'd given them everything and everyone had just spat in his face. It just wasn't fair and he knew it wasn't fair at all and how fucking dare they! The board of directors had been the ones to stick him with those decisions in the first place, his mom had been the one to constantly push for him to chop down the trees and get the stupid suit and all those things! Brett and Chett had been the ones to constantly mess up and throw away entire harvests because of something stupid they'd done, his employees had been the ones constantly draining on resources and asking for more, more, more and all he'd done was listen! He hadn't done anything to deserve this, he hadn't done anything wrong, it had all been them and he was the one paying the price for it and how dare they?

How dare the Lorax do this to him?

"Why didn't you warn me?" The words came unbidden from his abruptly quiet lips, whispered in the stillness. "All you said was to stop cutting the damn trees, you didn't tell me this would happen. You didn't tell me they'd leave, you didn't say you'd leave. You never warned me. You never told me anything- you wouldn't even prove to me you were an actual forest guardian until it was too late." He let out a harsh, broken laugh at this. "All I asked for was proof, what was wrong with that?"

His words were coming out stronger now, his eyes narrowed as he clambered to his feet and looked to the sealed up sky. "All I asked for was proof and your stupid friendship. I tried everything- all I wanted was to please you and you judged every damn thing I did. Red flag for this, strike for that: I could never do anything right for you. What did you expect! I'm only human, you stupid orange sack of fuzz, I'm not perfect! I tried everything and you never even cared, all you did was sit there and remind me what a failure I was and you knew how I felt about that, I told you everything! I gave you everything and I needed your help and you didn't even care!" His teeth ground together at the last bit, fists clenching at the railing.

"You Goddamned LIAR!" He snarled at the top of his lungs. His voice echoed through the wastes, raw, hoarse, tearing from his throat to the point where he almost felt it would bleed, but he kept screaming. "You said the forest was yours to protect but you never lifted a damn paw to do anything, you fraud! You said you cared about them but when I asked for your help you weren't there, you were never there when I needed you to be! If you were such a powerful forest spirit, why the hell didn't you stop me! I asked you to stop me, why didn't you! This is all your fault for not doing anything, and then you just up and leave!" His laughter came again, a screaming, awful cackle that echoed in the stillness. "Just pin it all on the stupid, puny human right? Oh yeah, just leave poor ol' Once-ler all alone to deal with the failure, no problem, he's so used to already he won't even notice! Wanna tell me about responsibility? Try it yourself, you stupid, filthy liar!"

He stood there in the stillness for a moment, simply breathing after his outburst, feeling drained of everything. He wasn't sure what he was expecting. A thunder crackle, lightning, a burst of orange, the Lorax appearing from the heavens to tell him off. Anything, anything as long as it wasn't silence.

But of course, that's not how it works.

After roughly a minute of waiting he finally collapsed, didn't even notice the metal slapping against his knees as he draped himself across the railing. "You said you'd be there for me… why aren't you?"

His wasn't sure how long he faced the silence. Hours and minutes were all the same here, after all. Still, after awhile he'd felt the anger drain away, like poison from a wound, and all it left in its wake was cold, hard truth.

The Lorax had warned him, he couldn't deny that. The Lorax had warned him time and time again that cutting down the trees had been wrong and dangerous, had warned him on multiple levels. The Lorax had warned him and he hadn't listened, choosing instead to listen to his mother's sugary sweet words and every idea aimed more for a quick buck than anything substantial. He could have pulled the plug at any time- had considered it once or twice, even, because of course he hadn't been blind to the destruction outside -but he'd chosen not to. Who was he to be angry at the Lorax for not stopping him when it had been his mess in the first place?

He'd sold the world for a few years as king, and in the end it hadn't even been worth it.

After that had been the slow decline into acceptance. He still tried reaching out, for awhile anyway. He would visit town on occasion and spread the rumor of himself, though those first few months had taught him well that being open about it would only invite violence and some interesting arguments on how trees were unnecessary from workers at the new factories. The kids still came to visit him on occasion, but more and more it was less about curiosity and more because he was that creepy man outside of town with the creepy house- the "lurkim", the called it, though he had no idea where they got the word. All he knew was his lurkim and crumbling factory it was attached to had become fantastic target practice, and eventually out of sheer frustration he found himself erecting traps because this was ridiculous. He'd spread that rumor for the damn seed, not to be mocked, and if these people weren't willing to do that then so be it. Of course, that only drove him further into solitude, but after the hundredth kid who had shown up to throw rocks at his head and howl when the boot knocked him across the wasteland the Once-ler wasn't so sure he minded.

Eventually the visits trickled down to nothing. The visits ceased and his trips into town became rarer and rarer, until once day he went only to find a wall had been erected. The wall had been pulled around Thneedville with "Keep Out" signs and something about things being the property of O'hare Inc, but the Once-ler hadn't really been surprised or truly cared about the signs. Like bacteria from a wound he'd been sealed out, and in retrospect he supposed it was fitting.

He deserved this.

He deserved this and those words were like a mantra as time crawled around him. After awhile he'd finally been forced to pick himself up and move on. And he had, though it hadn't been easy. Mostly he'd just been at a loss for what to do. For awhile he'd tried little things like taking care of his home, dusting everything that needed dusting, keeping everything in tip top shape. He'd invented small things with the few resources he had, erected more traps to the point where they became increasingly more elaborate and would result in the littlest movement from his abode. On nights where the silence burned he'd take to playing little ballads on his guitar, let guitar strings scream for him into the dark. He erected a memorial of sorts, naming his little kingdom after a long gone friend. He felt an awful mixture of bitter pride when he erected the sign like a hangman's noose, but it was an empty sort of thing. No matter how hard he tried it was impossible to ignore that little nagging voice in the back of his mind, the one reminding him that he was just trying to fill empty space.

But then again, he deserved this.

The world crumbled around his little home. Sometime, to pass the time, he would wander through the remnants of his factory. His footsteps would echo across dusty, rusting catwalks, he'd count each new broken window that stood out like punched in teeth in the dust, He'd pass over scorched out workrooms and take in the scent of old sweat from the employee locker rooms, listen to the ghosts in empty watercoolers and break rooms. Sometimes he'd sit at his old desk and feel nostalgia wash over him, be filled with a desperate longing for flashing lights and microphones.

The king sat alone in his kingdom of dust and he did not weep because there was simply nothing left to mourn for.

There was nothing but himself, an empty factory and that damn word, and there were times when it was hard not to be frustrated by that. Unless what? He'd tried with the seed, he'd tried with the people, he'd tried to invent something, he'd tried everything. In his most bitter moments, it was hard to not think that it all simply meant "unless you suffer" but he was well aware the Lorax had never worked that way. So he held on and for what he didn't know, and in the end it simply fell down to him and that emptiness for company.

There were times when he missed it. Like an addict there were times when he longed for the days of endless attention and his mother's sugary sweet tone, when he missed the days of everything he wanted at the snap of his fingers. He missed fitted green suits and that double guitar, missed the award ceremonies and the endless praise and the cream of the crop. But then those thoughts would be cut off by a guilty cough and all too quickly the memories of hallow smiles and a too big, too empty kitchen would join the taste of black and almost instantly he'd feel awful for the wish. After all, he knew better.

He deserved this.

For awhile, he'd tried contacting his family. He sent his mom letter after letter, first begging her to come back and then dwindling down to updates, reminders that he was still alive. He'd tell her of life in the wastes and desperately ask how the family was doing, hoping for something, anything. Mom, of course, never responded. He got a few cursory letters from his Uncle and his brothers did genuinely try- but the former was always awkward and the latter, while heartfelt, were neigh illegible. After awhile they'd just stopped responding and he simply gave up- he doubted it was their fault, he was well aware his lone mailbox was hardly something worth traveling for and he certainly didn't feel up to advancing to "e-mail" or whatever had replaced it these days.

Then again, he was starting to not feel up to much of anything these days.

It was this thought that drove him further and further into his home by the day, sapped his energy and made things like those cursory cleanings and little inventions seem like an impossible effort. What was the point? There was no one to see the dust choking up old gears and gathering on windowsills, no one to view these inventions. There was nothing to help the wasteland outside, no magical cure for death and its friends. There was no audience for his little one man shows and the echoing of guitar strings that he tuned less and less. There was nothing.

He tried to let himself waste away. At first he wasn't conscious of the fact, it was simply the idea of eating canned truffula fruit didn't appeal to him for a few days and he already had a habit of forgetting he'd simply not felt like getting out of bed, and when those typical, black-lunged coughs welled up he'd simply ignored them. He ignored the rising heat within and the dry crack of his lips, ignored the way his wheezing breaths grew weaker and weaker. He'd considered dying before, but he'd never been brave enough to just take his own life. Perhaps this would be better, simply fading away to nothing like everything else around him.

But of course, he didn't.

He tried letting himself waste away several times, sometimes skipping meals, other times willfully ignoring the thickening tar in his lungs in hopes that it would eventually choke him. But every time he tried, in his feverish haze he swore he'd see a spot of orange in his gray world, hear a gruff voice snapping about how stupid he was and how he needed to take care of himself. Then would come what he swore was a paw against his forehead, the voice becoming almost gentle.

"Not just yet, Beanpole. Come on, you're stronger than this."

He'd wake up feeling better, with strength in his aging bones that he thought he'd lost. He'd wake up again and there was that awful sensation between agony and a hope he'd forgotten, an optimism that struggled against the dusted shadows his life had become. It seemed impossible, but still, he kept living. He kept living and there was that vain hope, lying dormant like that seed in his glove and still he waited.

There was nothing left, he knew that. There was nothing but himself, the sour air, an empty factory and that damn word. When it came down to it, he had nothing left to live for, but he stayed anyway.

He deserved it, right?