The boy shows up asking after trees. Real ones.
In all the decades he'd spent in his lerkim, no one had ever asked about trees. Not that he'd ever offered to tell anyone, but he had hoped. He didn't think anyone still cared about trees. But he had hoped, all the same.
The boy comes asking after trees, and calls himself Ted, and the Once-ler wonders who would venture all the way out here to hear about trees. He looks down at the last thneed that he'd kept, and thought of the life he'd chosen to lead; left with nothing but the very last Truffula seed.
He looks down at the boy, eyes young and bright, undeterred by reality; irrationally optimistic, not unlike--
It's because of me, he tells Ted of the trees, of the valley's destroyed state. Where it had once been bright and cheerful and light, it was now a monochromatic landscape with whatever dangers that lurked beyond the lerkim hiding in the smoke. Not even he, who knew this valley far better than those who ventured here, had dared to explore what had become of the Truffula Valley.
The Once-ler, pensive, thought of the tale that he'd be telling, of how the once living valley had fallen, of his own mistakes. Six decades he'd been in this place, looking out to the town that didn't care to know about trees nor the valley nor their own town. How much ignorance did they live in, the people of Thneedville, living in an artificial city with not a living thing but themselves?
Six decades he'd spent out here, whittling away the time, with no one and nothing for company but the shlop and the smog and the old crows whose caws were the only sound around here these days. He had watched people die here. (And he wouldn't watch this one.)
It was quiet uptown.
This boy, the Once-ler thought, was awfully insistent on hearing about trees. It was about a girl, he was sure; no boy ever did something this stupid twice. (Except for...well, himself. And look at where that got him.) It was odd, talking to someone after decades of silence. All things tended toward entropy, and so did he. However long that might take, he was willing to wait for it.
All he'd ever wanted then...all he'd ever wanted was his family's approval. He doesn't know what happened to them, in the end. Dead, most likely, if not disappeared off the face of the planet. Thinking back, he doesn't know how he ever stuck with them.
(The words If you stand for nothing, then what'll you fall for? come back to him, in a fleeting moment. It had hardly been a few months since the thneed had taken off and already the Lorax - annoying little thing that he was - had taken to pestering him about the trees again. He had changed, our Once-ler, from a Once-ler to the Once-ler, becoming someone much, much different from the boy who had spent his days traversing the valley with Norma. The Lorax had warned him, and he'd been a fool not to listen - the thneed had been a dangerous thing to gamble on.
How far the Once-ler had fallen.)
The walls of Thneedville are visible even from his lerkim, as far out as it is. There is no light that he can see - real light, at least - and the entire city is artificial, with no living things but the people who lived there. (What filtered their air is beyond him. Some sort of fancy doodad, he supposed. He was the reason the town existed, and he didn't even know what it was like inside it. He doubted its people knew who he was. From what Ted has told him, they don't; it was a so called utopia that no one cared to leave.)
He wonders if any of the original townspeople were still there, however old they'd be now. He wonders if anyone knew he existed. Someone ought to have, to tell Ted. If someone were still alive--
Well, that would be a miracle in itself. It was a miracle that he was alive. (Come to think of it, he isn't quite sure how he survived all these years.)
The walls of Thneedville were high and metal and exactly like he'd had it on the model. Until now. Now...now they were knocked down, or beginning to be.
He's seeing the light again, after so many years.
Ted comes back to visit, after the walls have come down and the town is a spot of light on the horizon. The Once-ler hears the boy far before he can see him, with that infernal scooter. I did it! Ted proclaims, proudly, like he can't see the town from here.
I know, he says, one of the many first things he's said after decades of silence. There were many things he'd thought in those long years - he'd had a lot of time for thinking, even in his youth - but none of them stood out so much as this one: this boy reminded him of himself.
Imagine Thneedville flowered and treed! Ted is saying; imagine imagine imagine: imagine being redeemed. Imagine Truffula Valley alive again. Imagine forgiveness for all that he'd done. (It's what he's been imagining for the past six decades. It's what he's been waiting for.)
The girl (Audrey, if he remembers) tags along at some point or another, all bright colors that match the trees; an environmentalist to the end. He ends up pestered with endless questions about trees, even more so than from Ted. (Though he may have suggested he would have left Ted to die if the boy didn't stop talking.) Ted brings out his grandmother and she had been just as he remembered, give or take new quirks here and there. He doesn't know what to expect, but she laughs and grins and tells Ted he's an old friend, though he suspects from Ted's reaction that she meant something different than friends.
The unless and its ring of stones lies among growing things now, instead of dead ground - the Truffula Valley is alive again. The crows have all but left, and the valley is healing, and the sun has come back in full force. And the animals--
The animals have begun to come back, the Swommie Swans and Humming Fish and Barb-a-loots. (Pipsqueak is hardly a pipsqueak anymore; it's something strange to see the baby Barb-a-loot all grown.)
But they had all come back before the Lorax had, floating down from the clouds onto the unless. It was a reunion none of them, he and the animals alike, thought would happen for a long while. And he laughs for the first time in a near lifetime, partly in disbelief, mostly in happiness.
You done good, beanpole, the Lorax says, the old taunt hardly a taunt, you done good.
And finally, finally, our Once-ler found peace.