Chapter 2 Summary and Analysis
Last Updated on June 30, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1119
Memories are stirred as the man rummages through the house he had lived in as a boy. Though the roof has caved in over parts of the house, the man sees it as it once was. The boy, however, feels uncomfortable in the house, as if he could feel the ghosts that his father was seeing. They find the remnants of a small animal, now a neat pile of bones. The man thinks the animal might have been a cat, possibly someone’s pet at one time. The narrator insinuates that a human must have eaten it.
The backyard behind the house is a dead zone. Only skeletons of bushes and trees remain. The man and the boy look through all the rooms but find nothing they can use. They do not stay there long.
They travel for three days through the nearby mountains. They cannot find a safe place to build a fire, a place far enough from the road so that no one will see the flames. Instead they huddle together under the blankets that they recently confiscated from one of the houses that they rummaged through. The man worries about the boy. He thinks of death. He remembers a woman (readers are not told who this woman is). The woman tells him that the only thing between him and death is his son.
One night, as they are sleeping, the man and boy are stirred. They hear a loud noise rumbling toward them. As it passes, the man feels the energy under the ground. The boy is scared and asks what it is. The man replies that it is an earthquake. The boy returns to sleep, but the man stays awake remembering what the first years on the road were like. There were more people then, most of them sitting in rags along the sides of the streets, staring out at nothing. He thinks about how the things he used to worry about, before this catastrophe, had suddenly disappeared. In comparison to the trauma that he was now experiencing, those earlier worries became insignificant.
The weather in the mountains grows worse. Snow is falling. There are at least two inches on the ground. Pushing the grocery cart becomes more difficult. If the snow gets thicker, the man thinks, they will have to leave the cart behind. But the snow helps them, too. The snow marks tracks, so they can tell if anything or anyone is near them. There are no tracks to be found. So each night, they build a fire to keep themselves warm and to cook their food. The man worries that they might not have enough food to get out of the mountains. But then, the cold could kill them too. One night, the man doubles over in a coughing fit. He leaves blood splattered on the gray snow.
The man has a dream of a woman. She is sick, but he takes care of her. He senses, in the dream, that he does not really take care of her, because he knows that she died while he was not with her. He also has another memory of the past, those years immediately following the catastrophe. He evokes visions of people impaled on stakes and the cries of those who are murdered. He does not know their crimes. Many people also committed suicide.
The man and the boy finally reach the summit of the mountain they are crossing. The man recognizes the gap that his father had once taken him through when he was a boy. There are six inches of snow on the ground now. Pushing the cart takes all the man’s energy. At times the snow is so deep, the man pulls the cart behind him, creating a path through the snow with his feet. One night, the man fixes the boy the last of the hot cocoa mix. He fixes himself just a cup of hot water. The boy reminds his father that he had promised not to do that any more. The father gives in and shares the hot chocolate with his son. When the boy’s feet get cold, the father places them under his shirt. The boy’s feet are warmed against his father’s bare stomach.
They come to a river that is not entirely weighed down by ash and soot. A tall waterfall blasts the air around it with a rumble. Though the water and the air are cold, the man and the boy cannot resist taking off their clothes and plunging into the river. The man, upon seeing his son unclothed, is shocked at how thin he is. Dried and fully dressed once again, the man searches the woods for food. He finds mushrooms. He tastes one and tells his son to eat them. They are safe. The man’s knowledge of the woods is apparent. He and his father used to hike the countryside.
The boy wants to stay in this place close to the river. But the father knows the weather will eventually get colder. He knows they must spend the winter farther south. He stares into the river, once again remembering his past. He and his father used to fish from this river. They used to catch trout. The trout are all gone now. When the man tosses a white rock into the river, which was once transparent, the rock disappears as soon as it sinks below the surface. When the boy asks why they cannot follow the river, the father says it is not safe. The river flows east to west, and they must go south. The boy wants to know how his father knows this. So the man pulls out an old map and shows the boy the line that represents the river. He also shows the boy the dark lines that outline the roads. The man mentions that some of the roads are called state roads. The boy wants to know what state means. The man explains. Then he tells the boy that states no longer exist. There are no remnants of organized society, no government, no laws.
They continue along the road until they come to an old truck that has jackknifed itself across the width of a bridge they must use to cross the river. The man climbs into the cab of the truck but finds nothing they can use. He is curious what might be in the trailer. So he makes his way to the top of the trailer, hoping to find a hole. He cannot imagine that no one else has explored it, so he does not expect to find anything of value inside. But his curiosity is stronger than his rational thoughts.