Chapter 6 Summary and Analysis

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The man and the boy remain as still as if frozen stiff. The people at the house did not see them, but they are afraid to move. While they wait for dark to fall, the man questions himself, asking if he would be strong enough to kill the boy should the people find them. Could he pull the trigger, he wonders. If the gun should fail, could he crush his son’s skull, kill him so the people would not torture him? The man cannot answer. His thoughts are too dull. His body is too tired. He does not want to think about the death of his son, though the thought has been haunting him for a long time. When night does come, the man finds that he is too tired to run. He pulls their single blanket out of his knapsack and covers the boy. The boy finally falls asleep.

The father cannot fall asleep. He must remain vigilant. When he hears blood-curdling shrieks coming from the house, the man covers his son’s ears. The boy does not stir. The man notices a small building like a tool house. Inside, the man imagines, is a man standing on guard outside the house. The guard is watching the road, waiting for anything to move. The man suspects that there is some kind of warning system with which the guard can warn the people inside the big house. The man and the boy must wait until all fires inside the house are put out. When the time comes, the man wakes the boy. They must move on. The boy totters on his feet. He can barely speak. He asks the man to carry him. The man does, but he must put the boy down every fifty feet. The man has so little energy to carry his own weight. But he knows if they do not move, they will be discovered.

They trudge on, weary from lack of sleep and no food. Days later, the man sees another house in the distance. He is concerned about making another mistake, but they still must find food. The boy is sound asleep. The man does not want to wake him, so he remains undecided. He also does not want to put the boy in any danger and take him with him as he had done at the other house that they just barely escaped. He decides that going to the house alone is the best thing he can do. So he lays the pistol at the boy’s side. Then he moves forward alone toward this new place, hoping for food.

The man searches the barn at the back of the house first. He finds bales of hay up in a loft and prods out several seeds and chews them, believing they must contain some nutrients. Then he walks through an old apple orchard. The trees are dead, but his foot steps on a lump and he looks down. A dried-out apple is lying on the ground. He eats the whole tasteless fruit, core and all. Then he searches the rest of the orchard. In the end, his pockets are full, so he fills the hood of his parka. There are too many apples to carry back with him.

Next, the man notices a drainpipe running into a square of concrete. He investigates, cleaning off the cover, removing debris and some screening. Finally he lifts an interior tray of charcoal and beneath it he discovers a cistern of sweet, clear water. This is the best water he has ever tasted. He drinks his fill and feels refreshed.

He hurries as fast as he can back to the boy, who appears not to have awakened in the man’s absence. When the boy opens his eyes, the two of them have a feast of dried apples. The man had filled several jars with the clear water. In the kitchen of the old house, the man had found a sugary, grape flavored powder. He mixes some of it into one of the jars of water to provide a new treat for his son.

Then they move on. They cannot stop. The rains come again. The boy shivers in his wet clothes. They have no fire because the man has lost his lighter. He promises to find some flint with which he can make sparks. When the rains stop, the man has the boy undress. He wraps him in the blanket while he wrings out the water from their drenched clothing. The man stares at his son. He finds that the boy looks like an alien with all but translucent skin and bulging eyes. The boy’s hunger has taken something out of him that the father fears he may never be able to put back.

They come to towns that have signs painted at the outskirts, telling others to keep out. The man feels that the land around them has been scoured of every morsel of food. He begins to think they should just find a place to die. They rummage through almost every house they encounter. At one house they cross in front of a mirror. The man reaches for his gun to point at the images. The boy shouts out that the figures the man sees is them.

Some distance from the town, they come across another house and barn. The boy is scared. He does not want his father to search unfamiliar places any longer. The man knows that he cannot stop. He tells the boy that this is what good people do. They do not stop trying. They keep searching for what they need. They do not give up.

The man finds some old gasoline and concocts a lamp with the fuel, an old rag, and a bottle. He wanders across the property. While crossing the lawn, his foot steps on top of something that sounds and feels different from the rest of the dead grass. He prods the dirt with his shoe. Then he returns to the barn and brings back a shovel. After scraping away the dirt, the shovel touches wood. The wood turns out to be a door. They boy does not want the man to open it. The door reminds him too much of the other door in that big house, the door that led to the people in chains. No matter how hungry they get, the boy says to the father, they would never eat anyone, would they? The father tells him they would never do that no matter what.

Before the man opens the door, he looks over at his son. He asks if the boy is all right. The boy nods quietly. Then the man pulls away the door and throws it on the dead grass. There is a set of roughly hewed wooden stairs, man-made. The steps lead downward into the darkness. Before moving his foot onto the first step, the man looks back at his son, stops, and kisses him.

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