Summary and Analysis
Section 3 - "Hot cocoa" to "Memory—the woman leaves"
The man and the boy make camp in the mountain pass and then move on the next morning. Before setting out they have a small breakfast of crackers, tinned sausages, and hot chocolate. The boy watches his father, noticing that his father is pouring himself only water. The boy tells his father not to do that, not to go without so that the boy may have more.
The man has to drag the cart through sludge, and their continued descent takes days. Finally, they reach the river. A waterfall streams before them and the boy watches it in awe. The water is freezing, but the man and the boy go swimming in it anyway. They make camp near the waterfall and find some morels, out of which they make a meager dinner. To put the boy to sleep, the man tells him stories of courage and justice from the old world.
The boy wants to stay at the waterfall, or at least follow the river, but the man says the river runs east and that they must continue south. He shows the boy their map, now a tattered piece of parchment they must piece together each time they want to look at it. They continue to follow the state roads of states that no longer exist, states that the boy has never known.
They come upon an overturned tractor-trailer that's been jackknifed there for years. To get to the other side of it, they must slide the cart sideways beneath it. They camp in the truck cab and the next morning the man finds human bodies sprawled in the trailer.
That night in the woods, a storm breaks out, lightning flashing around them and setting fire to the trees. They have to wait for the road to cool so that the macadam doesn't stick to their feet. Ahead of them they see tracks and soon come upon a man, limping and ragged. They follow him, but his pace is slow, and soon the man sits on the road, not even daring to look up at the man and the boy as they pass. He's been struck by lightning, and they leave him there, the boy crying. He wants to help the man, but his father explains that he's going to do and there's nothing they can do to prevent that.
The man remembers his billfold, how he eventually left that behind in the road, along with his wife's picture. He feels guilty for not keeping her memory alive. He thinks back to the first day, how the clocks stopped at 1:17 and he filled the bathtub with water, all the electricity exhausted.
The boy says he wishes he was with his mom, that he wishes he were dead. The man tells him he mustn't say that. The man remembers the night she left, how she'd wished they'd all gone ahead and killed themselves, but she especially wished she'd killed their son. She's leaving them both so that she can die alone. She can't bear to see her son raped, killed, and eaten, a future she believes is imminent no matter how much the man says he will protect them. She leaves in the dark night, and the next morning, the man and the boy set out. The boy knows she's left them.
In this section we see that the boy feels a great deal of responsibility to keep his father alive, to make sure that his father is taking care of himself, too. This is shown in how the boy makes him take some of the hot chocolate.
As much as the world has changed, there still exists a strong, traditional bond between the man and his son. The father is trying to keep the fire alive in his son by telling him stories of courage and justice. They take time to enjoy the waterfall together, the man floating the boy on his stomach and helping to push him around in the water, just as a father might have done before the world expired.
This section highlights the boy's strong sense of right and wrong. He feels guilt at leaving the man who's been struck by lightning behind. This is a recurring theme in the novel, how the boy wants to give what they have to others in order to help them, but how the father must refuse such help so that the two of them can survive. It creates a tension between the father and son, sometimes a silence, as is indicated by the father asking if his son is still talking to him after they've left the man behind.
Dreams and memories play a strong role in this section as the son has a nightmare about an old wind-up penguin toy that he had at the house where they once lived. The man, too, has dreams about figures standing on the far side of a river, calling to him. Perhaps it is the call of death. He thinks more and more about his wife, about the day on which the world ceased to exist as they'd known it, about how she'd left them in the middle of the night, and about how he'd left her, too, when he put his wallet with her picture on the road. The man wants to hold onto his wife, wants to keep her memory alive for himself and for the boy, but he knows that this will only make living harder.
The son says that he wants to be with his mother, that he wishes he were dead, and the man tells him that it's bad to say this, bad to think it, that he mustn't wish to be with his mother. Not only does the ghost of the old world haunt the man and the boy, but the ghost of the boy's mother haunts them as well.