He finds a seed hidden in the crevices of the unless, its brown shell a stark contrast against the desolate landscape. He clings to it like a lifeline, and it is one, in a way.
(I'msorryI'msorryI'msorry, he says, over and over and over, like he could be heard, like he wasn't alone--)
He doesn't know whether the seed had been left behind by the Lorax or if it was from one of the trees, but...
Either way, he was being given a chance.
He doesn't plant the seed. The valley is too far gone for it to grow; even the circle of rocks that accompanies the unless provides no soil good enough for the seed. The air burns now, with every breath.
He has been left with nothing but a ring of stones and a single seed. (A seed that is his only chance for redemption, for forgiveness--)
The valley is nothing more than a graveyard now: for the trees, for the animals, for the enviroment...for him. (For the remnants of a boy that used to exist. That still exists, somewhere - in a valley, in a town, in a makeshift home with a makeshift family, in an old bass guitar that had been his father's. Just not in him. Not anymore.)
The Lorax had called him better than this - better than listening to his family, better than breaking his promise, better than being blinded by the success of his thneed.
Better than what had become of him: bitter, regretful, guilty. A recluse, a man who had nowhere to go, no reason to leave, and no one left to care.
The lerkim is the only place the smog-filled air doesn't touch, hasn't yet contaminated. The air inside is hardly any better, but it's cleaner and breathable, however stale it might be.
The Once-ler stops talking, after a while. There's no point in talking to dead air, to an empty house, to his own voice bouncing off the walls. So he stops talking in the months (and eventually years) that follow. Here, he is still relatively young, hardly out of his twenties, and stuck living in what has become a harsh reminder of his mistakes.
His father's old guitar - his guitar, now, he supposed - played nothing but broken notes now (kind of like himself). His final thneed remained tight 'round his neck, another reminder of the first and last tree that had fallen, that had shaken the earth when they landed and had been mourned as readily as they'd been cherished when they stood.
The Once-ler stays holed up in his lerkim, with a boarded up window and nothing but memories of the forest that once covered the entire valley. The truffula trees he missed enough that he held on to his thneed, associated with now distant memories of Barb-a-loots eating fruits in their Barb-a-loot suits and Swommie-Swans dotting the whole sky orange and the Humming Fish singing a tune of some sort, filling the air with lilting songs.
He had stopped pretending when they'd all left, the animals and the Lorax along with them, forced to face the reality he'd caused of a desolate, destroyed, dead land. There was no running from it now - he was living it. Living in it. It was why he had boarded up the window, why he never left the lerkim, why he never ventured far from that room facing most of the vast landscape.
We can hardly call the Once-ler ours anymore, for he'd abandoned the Once-ler we knew just over a decade ago, who had been content to let the animals stay in the tent-structured home he'd had, to persist in promoting his thneed in that small town (now Thneedville, as he can see from even the boarded up window), to follow Norma in traversing the valley. That Once-ler he'd left behind. The one we have now is a broken one, a lost one, a hopeless one.
But let's have hope for him yet, shall we?
The years pass, and he sees his hair going grey, the only sign of time passing in this crushing silence. He has the lerkim fitted with mechanisms to keep people from snooping, if anyone dared, though the state of the land was enough to discourage anyone, even himself. The road leading to this place is marked as The Street of the Lifted Lorax - a gravemarker of sorts, a headstone. A gray fog had settled over the place in the months following the fall of the last truffula tree, all smoke and smog and opaque, curling at its edges. It got thicker the further in the valley you went, and the air worse. A splotch of gray on maps and landscapes.
In the decades that pass, not a soul passes by except the odd one that gets thrown out from Thneedville for who knows what.
(He never bothers to ask why, or even make himself known, but he notices that they all have the same shell-shocked look about them from seeing the state of the place. They must be very shut in out there in Thneedville.
He watches them all wander further in, unaware of the valley's now-present dangers. He watches them all die out here, in this wasteland of a valley. There is no hope for anyone out here.)
No one dares pass through. Willingly, at least. No one ever makes it out alive.
Until the boy.