They sat quietly in the living room, with the fire glowing nearby, before Once-Ler decided to speak up again. Clearing his throat, he brought up the urge to ask the question he had been meaning to ask yet was afraid to, in case hurting the boy. But since they had just spoken about their family members, never mind had often done so in the past year-and-a-half, he figured that it was as good as any time to ask. "Ted," he said, catching the boy's attention, "Your father… did you ever… know him? I mean, did he ever come back to uh… teach you things? If you don't mind me asking, of course."
Ted stared at him in silence, but his eyes did not reflect pain or anger—in fact, he did not seem the least bit concerned about Once-Ler's question, which relaxed the man a bit. "I know your Grandfather held an important place in your life, as you and your Grammy have told me, and I would never want to replace him," Once-Ler clarified as he continued to knit. "But I was always curious about your father."
Ted blinked a few times before finally opening his mouth to speak: "My dad was never there," he said while returning to his knitting. He paused before continuing, knowing that the old man was undoubtedly listening. "Mom was never afraid to say that he was a phoney, a nobody. He ditched her a month before she gave birth to me. My Pappy… he took my dad's place. He taught me everything he could, from golfing to flying kites to fishing—uh, even though we uh… had no fish to actually uh… fish in Thneedville… When I was four, he taught me how to ride a bike… When I was five, we visited him at the hospital every day, and he used to tell me that I needed to take care of my mom and my grammy soon. He made it clear to me that he wasn't going to be able to stick around any longer, even if it took a while for me to get it…" Ted was quiet for a second or two before speaking again, in a low voice: "He died in his sleep when I was six."
Once-Ler stopped knitting and looked on in shock. He had not meant for his question to receive such a developed answer, and immediately felt ashamed for having asked it. He looked at his hands, thinking that the awkwardness of the moment would hold for any longer.
To his surprise, it did not. When Ted spoke again, he did not seem affected by the sad memory: "After Pappy passed on, I was pretty much raised by girls," he said with a shrug and a laugh. "Kinda dorky, but true. Grammy and Mom showed up at Parent-Teacher night, they cheered me at my races… and the shopped for my underwear, which is by far the most embarrassing thing ever." He waited to hear if Once-Ler would laugh at him, but when the man did nothing of the sort, Ted went on: "So what I'm about to say is something that'll either ruin my reputation as a teenager… or totally make it worth wild…" He raised his head and looked up at Once-Ler with serious eyes. "You're nothing like Pappy was, Once-Ler… But I'm glad you're not."
Once-Ler blinked and tilted head in confusion at these words.
"Pappy meant the world to me," Ted explained, "But he wasn't you. You're not him, you're nothing like him. But I don't care. I don't care if you spent fifty years in some Lerkim far outside of town, in atonement for your mistakes. I don't even care if people way back in the day called you a monster after destroying the valley. What's in the past, stays in the past. That's what Mom tells me all the time."
He smiled and continued to knit his green scarf, aware that Once-Ler was still observing him. "Pappy told me stories about fantasy; you told me a story about reality. Pappy taught me how to fly a kite; you taught me how to plant a tree. Pappy taught me how to fix cars…" He looked up at Once-Ler. "… You taught me how to knit. Most of the things you taught me so far would be considered as silly by most kids my age. And like I said earlier, Knitting seems unmanly. But you don't care. You do it because you love doing it. There's no way in heck that my Pappy would be caught cooking or folding laundry or knitting. He was a big guy, a carpenter. He did the stereotypical manly stuff. You're different. You're more docile… down to earth. You're tough but you have a genuine caring nature for everything living, despite your past mistakes, and you're not afraid to show it. You toss stereotypes out the window and won't be afraid to knit. The things you do are so unmanly that they're just the opposite: what gives you a heart, makes you a man. Grammy used to say that all the time, which is probably why she always said my dad had an empty hole in his chest where a heart should have been."
Ted laughed here. "And what's more: you taught me patience, selflessness and trust. If that's not being a man, then I dunno what is. My Pappy was a big guy, and he taught me loads of things to survive… But you taught me the things that are needed to live. You taught me that Unless someone like me cared a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not. Now that I've spent so much time around you, I've come to realize that the things my Pappy taught me, though they'll always be important, aren't nearly as important as what you've taught me in the past year and a half. You taught me values that will really make me a man one day. And knitting, or planting, or anything like that, are just little ways of improving skills like patience, humbleness and purity. Pappy was a big part of my life… but you're the one who's set down the guidelines for me." Ted looked up again and beamed. "And I couldn't have asked for a better teacher."
Once-Ler said nothing. All he could do was attempt to keep his chin from trembling and blink back the tears that were beginning to blur his sight.
Ted shrugged. "Don't take me wrong; being snowed in for the past two days is kinda annoying," he concluded, "Especially for the valley's first snow in decades. But I'm really glad you're stuck here too, Once-Ler. Not only has it been a little boring, living in a house with two girls, but I really admire you. You can't replace Pappy… but no one would be able to replace you either."
There was silence for a moment or two before Once-Ler set things down and placed a hand over his mouth to keep back a sob. He closed his eyes tightly and squeaked, before raising his other hand and wiping away a few tears. Ted set his scarf aside and gently kicked the ball of yarn over so that he did not trip over it as he rose to his feet. Without a hint of reluctance, or hesitation in his feet, the thirteen-year-old walked over to the old man and placed his arms firmly around his neck. Once-Ler did not hesitate in doing the same, wrapping the boy in his arms and holding him as though it was the last time he ever would do so to someone he cared about. His sobs were muffled against Ted's sweater, and the teenager hardly even flinched when Once-Ler buried his face in his clothes and cried. While this action may have, without a doubt, embarrassed him two years earlier, it now felt like an honor—to be the shoulder a man, condemned by the world and abandoned by his own family, could cry on.
Once-Ler fell silent once his tears had been spent, and stared over the boy's shoulder as though he could see passed the wall. He grasped onto Ted's sweater like a leech, never wanting to let go. "No one," he whispered heavily, "… No one has ever said something like that to me before… No one ever cared enough to tell me that."
Ted smiled and closed his eyes. "Grammy always says that if you expect someone in particular to say things they normally wouldn't say, then it's like waiting for a flood in the desert," he said. "Sometimes, you have to go looking elsewhere to hear what you want to hear, Once-Ler." With a short laugh, he added, "And sometimes, you have to cut down a few dozen trees before you realize that."
Once-Ler forced up a laugh at this, though it wasn't long. Ted knew how he would undoubtedly be scolded for making a joke like that later—both Once-Ler and the Lorax had shown their disdain for it numerous times, despite Ted's lack of seriousness.
Once-Ler patted the boy's back before finally pulling himself away from him. He placed his hands on Ted's back, looked at him with bright blue eyes and smiled, despite his whiskers hiding it. "Let's hope it doesn't come to that again," he said. With a gentle pat on the boy's cheek, he chuckled. "And for the record, I wouldn't dream of replacing you."
He kept his hand on Ted's cheek a moment longer before clearing his throat and suggesting they get back to knitting. Ted returned to his seat, picked up his needles and got back to work until Once-Ler sighed. Seeing the man staring at the window, he too, turned his head.
"Kind of a pity the snow goes about six feet up the window," Once-Ler noted. "We could have had knitting while watching the scenery this fine night."
"Bah, the town'll get the snowplows up an' atem soon," Ted reassured him. "Though personally, I don't think we'd get much of a view with the snow gone either; too many houses."
"True, too many… Moustache is probably enjoying himself right now, though. First real snow in fifty years, and I'm not even at home to see what the valley looks like."
"Look on the bright side," Ted said, catching Once-Ler's attention. With a chuckle, the boy added, "At least we know how to start a fire."
He knew that this is particular would make the man laugh—which it did. "Well, his powers probably allow him to do that," Once-Ler said. Raising a fist victoriously in the air, he said, "But we have s'mores! Ha!"
Ted chuckled before continuing to knit. "Junk food, pshaw," he scoffed, making Once-Ler laugh again.