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He missed the taste of marshmallows…

Summary: While committed at the sanatorium, Once-ler gets a visitor. Sequel to “Who Cares If A Few Trees Are Dying”, yeah I know I said that was going to be a one-shot. Guess not. A psychological horror fic, with continued inspiration from Saya no Uta. (Partnered with this illustration.)

Characters: Once-ler and Ted

Warning(s): Ableism (as a character flaw), some gory imagery, reference to abuse (explicitly emotional and financial) and murder-cannibalism

Disclaimer: Goes without saying, but I take no credit for the original works of which this has been derived: The Lorax by Theo Seuss Geisel et al; Saya no Uta by Urobuchi Gen et al.

     A young man was barely containing a look of disdain as he walked down the hospital’s halls. Oh the cloying smells of sanitation products barely removing whatever bodily fluid smells that were likely to be found here. It was clearly far understaffed; he could hear the crowded recreation room and the cacophony of madness therein as he passed by it.

     There were patients that roamed the hall of the suite, some looked well and able. It made him question why they were here in the first place. Whilst in others it was clear they were unwell, fidgeting, muttering, recoiling, chattering, it unnerved Ted.

     Ted was told by the receptionist that the man he came to the Thneedville Sanatorium’s Mental Health Ward for, was under higher surveillance than most of the patients admitted. Ted wasn’t surprised, following an orderly toward the furthermost halls, where things got quieter; he already knew the gist of this patient’s dark history.

     At least he thought he did.

     The orderly said very little as he and Ted entered the patient’s room. The clattering ring of keys and the door slam behind them incredibly loud to the silence. It was a padded cell and the patient, no, criminal sat pretty in a tacky looking straightjacket. The orderly announced their presence, “Mr. Once-ler, this is Mr. Wiggins, here to interview you.”

     Once-ler barely acknowledged the introduction, even though he was certainly aware of the appointment they had. Ted coughed, “Please, call me Ted.”

     “The paperwork said you were a journalist?... who do you write for?”

     Once-ler couldn’t have been older than thirty; he had shocks of gray hair and very prominent bags under his eyes, making him appear to be almost a full decade older. His voice also aged him slightly, if sedate from whatever medication they were giving him. Ted guessed it was understandable, given the conditions of this dump, “The Daily Thneed.”

     He huffed a bit, “You write for that tabloid bullshit? But then, I guess nobody else would care to sully their repertoires with me. Old news.”

     “Excuse me, but can we set that aside? I just want to know what happened to you and your company.”

     "Ted, huh? You really want to hear my story?"

     The reporter looked less than impressed, “Why else would I deal with all the red tape. To be here. In this cell. With you.”

     The orderly sat himself near the door and began leafing through a more objective newspaper, as if to spite Ted. Once-ler looked back at him, finally saying with questionable sincerity, “It all started a long time ago…”

     Ted couldn’t help but roll his eyes, he really really didn’t want to hear the whole story, “Can we start, I don’t know, maybe not so long ago?”

     “Do you want your scoop or not?”

     Ted responded with a sigh, pulling out his notepad, “Fine. Fine. Whatever.”

     The patient repeated himself as he segued into his own past; Ted thought he saw a slight smile as he regaled it. He looked hesitant when it came to talking about his family; starting off with the very backhanded send-off as he set off to establish his rise. He focused more on the flora and fauna of the chopping grounds, descriptions almost nauseatingly purple at times. He barely paid attention to the talk of feeding junk food to forest animals. It was so pointless, “What does this have to do with anything?”

     The patient was in a green, striped straightjacket that was reminiscent to the gaudy affair Once-ler wore at his height grimaced, “Maybe this: if you interrupt me again, I’ll ask you to leave.”

     Ted nodded and gestured Once-ler to continue, who next described the shaky start he had. Of meeting the Lorax and the way they had clashed, albeit Ted found himself incredulous about the existence of such a creature and thought it was medication talking. Of how initially negative his brainchild’s reception really was. Once-ler looked almost mortified when he said, “I was so tired of feeling like nobody, especially in front of Mom.”

     Again, Ted wasn’t surprised about the possibility that this man may not be on spectacular terms with his relatives. After all it was hot news, three years ago, how this once successful CEO utterly cracked and brutally murdered his family. There were many rumors surrounding his plea for insanity and what led him to do it, another columnist from The Daily Thneed even reported about it. It was trite and inconclusive with secondhand information; he was also very familiar with the technique of making people fill in the gaps.

     It aggravated him, more than he ever let on. That was part of the reason why Ted came to see him, that ounce of journalistic integrity. As he continued, Once-ler seemed to glow slightly when he described the moment that got the ball rolling for his company. One of those eureka moments, it would have been awe-inspiring a success if Thneeds Inc. was still around. His eyes became half-lidded and he smiled big, “She was actually proud of me.”

     The way this man swooned over her almost creeped Ted out; but Ted’s mind was on autopilot- he was thinking about the bigger reason he was there. “Who? Oh yeah… your mother. Right.”

     Ted also used to work for Thneeds Inc. and he made a good deal of money while the place was booming- treating journalism as a side income. He was looking forward to promotion opportunities, even wanted to see the big man himself. But then it fell apart, and he lost his job as logistics director. And as the corporate politics grew murky, most of those laid off were reticent to even put this job on their resumes for new employment. The only reason he was able to keep his job as a journalist was the sheer national spectacle surrounding it.

     He never heard the end of it. He hated his sudden decline in income, it was embarrassing after all he went through to get where he was. His cohorts often making snide comments about being knocked down a notch and even insinuating that he had his hands in the embezzlement charges also flying over the Once-ler’s head. Ted wanted some gratification out of this, and that was his hope this madman suffered.

     It took Ted a moment to realize Once-ler had gone quiet, “Well, what happened next?”

     “Oh, I was happy when she was, completely aboard to her whims. But then, everything went downhill. Doctors said it may’ve started when I got knocked in the head… fucking knucklehead.”

     “Sorry, what?”

     “Brett. He wasn’t watching what he was doing. Funny thing is that it wasn’t the first time I got roughed up. Boys will be boys, ha, whatever. You know why I’m here? It should be obvious, I am unwell. Unwell ever since that- that-”

     Once-ler frowned, hesitating, “I shouldn’t speak ill of the dead. But honestly they all died to me that day. Everything did.”

     Insofar as Ted wanted to see whether the man in front of him suffered, he couldn’t have expected the exact nature of it. Once-ler put on an insincere smile, “Have you ever been inside a slaughterhouse?”

     Ted shrugged, not one interested about what exactly went on behind the front desks of meat markets, “No.”

     “My uncle owned one you see, he used to be a butcher before being hired onto Thneeds Inc. One time, when I was little, Chet thought it was a good idea to dare me to check it out. I won’t lie; I hated being in there, the smells got to me and it was the first time I’ve seen anything’s insides. He just laughed at me for it.”

     Ted was growing bored with the man in front of him, “Point?”

     “When Brett knocked me out… wow, has it really been ten years? Anyways, when that happened, everything turned to shit. When my senses… just broke. Everything I tasted, smelled, heard, saw…”

     Ted had a knack for seeing a pattern in the Once-ler as he launched into another overly descriptive tirade about it. Once-ler described how everything looked like it was alive, pulsing, oozing and visceral to him. It was far too much disgusting information, “Whoa, whoa- can you lay off all the gore? I just ate.”

     “No. I won’t, Ted. You need to understand me when I say everything died for me then. EVERYTHING. I didn’t care about what other people thought, what the damn Lorax thought, because I too was busy trying to SURVIVE with my brokenness. Make the hell more livable. And, after all, people were monsters… but then, perhaps they always were.”

     The tired frustration in the former CEO struck a chord of shame in Ted, but he shook his head, still indignant over the past. The latter note also made him feel somehow above the Once-ler, how could he ever think people were anything less? The thought was sociopathic. It was still okay to hate him, Ted thought. “Okay, let’s say I understand you now… what next?”

     Once-ler pointedly skipped over events, though the insinuation of them unsettled Ted, “You know, the gruel here isn’t as bad as the other patients say it is. I do miss the taste of marshmallows though…”

     Why did Ted have to ask? “Marshmallows?”

     “The closest I ever got to their taste after the accident...  was when I ate those monsters.”

     Ted started to feel anxious in spite the burly orderly behind him and the straightjacket confining madman in front, with the perverse levity in his tone of voice. Once-ler didn’t seem to notice, “I would kill to taste that again… sweet, thick, soft, sticky… warm.”

     The reporter started to look a bit green, admitting in hopes the man in front of him would relent, “I-I don’t think you should-”

     His stare froze Ted, Once-ler had been salivating the whole time. “You don’t seem to get it, meathead! Hmm, I bet you taste delicious.”

     Once-ler then stood up and began to approach Ted, a bit too enthusiastically. He towered over Ted, it was difficult to see his former boss as a human being, especially then, with that intimidating stare. Ted couldn’t get in a word edgewise when the man wore a manic smile. “You know, I’m under evaluation. They said I’ve been better behaved. Haven’t attacked anyone since-”

     Ted took a step back, appalled at the apathy the orderly seemed to express, “You’re honestly scaring me, Mr. Once-ler. I came here to see what happened to my former boss… I’m starting to regret it.”

     The taller of the two paused, “Hmm, I thought I recognized your name.”

     “Y-you do?”

     “It’s part of my business to know some people in the pecking order. So yeah, you’re a director? Heh, didn’t you get recommended for promotion? I vaguely remember it sitting on my desk…”

     That was a very sore spot, but part of Ted knew what he said next to be rhetorical. “… why did you throw it away?”

     “Sometimes I ask myself the same thing,” Once-ler shrugged, “I wonder about a lot of things. Like what if that accident never happened, where would I be?”

     Ted seethed, thinking about where he himself would be, probably making a seven-figure income, that’s what. He couldn’t contain his resent anymore, “You ruined my life.”

     Once-ler looked hurt and grumbled, “Did I? Oh, should I be sorry that I just had to go a little bit crazy? Come now.”

     Ted gritted his teeth, “Yeah. You should be sorry. You sick sick-”

     His frown deepened, “You’re disgusting, you know that? Pulling this holier than thou crap? I can’t believe someone like you got where you were in my company. Just like everything else.”

     “You killed people! Not only that, they were your family!”

     “Oh, they were monsters anyway… if anything, the accident gave me that much clarity.”

     Ted’s eyes widened a moment, “I can’t even wrap my mind that someone like you even exists.”

     “But I do; oh my, don’t we have an irrational sense of optimism? Am I so threatening to that?”

     The taller of the two was no more than a foot’s distance, looming over Ted at that point. Ted found he couldn’t even quip back as his personal space was being invaded. He could practically feel the man’s breath, but he couldn’t move.

     A flash of pain shot into Ted’s neck as he noticed that he was starting to black out. It didn’t take much longer before he was being hastily wrestled away by the orderly. As he came to, panicked and repetitious thoughts ran through his mind as he found trouble processing what just happened. And in the briefest moment before the orderly whisked him out of the cell, he saw Once-ler licking up some of the blood and skin he had stolen with a most hungry looking smile.

     Ted found himself cursing the man he just talked to, cursing at the orderly, shuddering and shouting excessively, “That fucker just bit me!? Didn’t you see that- that psycho!? Why the hell wasn’t he in a fucking face mask!?”

     The orderly simply nodded, “I’m sorry you had to go through that, sir. But we’re about rehabilitation here. And it was agreed upon for his evaluation; I have to remind you that you signed the contracts too. Let me take you to the infirmary, there’s going to be some more paperwork to fill out after you calm down.”

     Ted just blinked and seethed, “… I- fine.”

     He didn’t want to admit it, but the experience had rattled him to his core.

     Ted just wanted to forget it happened and hoped that the future had other assignments for him.