In the evening a storm breaks over them and they stop for a long, cold night. In the morning they wrap themselves up like “mendicant friars” and set out again. That evening the boy wants to have a fire, but the man confesses that he dropped the lighter. Later the boy asks if the bad guys were going to kill and eat those people, and the man admits that they were. The boy accepts that they couldn’t help the people because otherwise they would be killed and eaten too.
The man is generally a skilled survivor and a dependable source of strength and comfort for the boy, but he is still a human in a bad situation, and so he makes mistakes. The boy has to wrestle with his own compassion even in such a terrifying circumstance, as he reasons with himself about helping the prisoners.
They keep traveling, and pass through towns with billboards that have been painted over to warn people away. They stop to eat the last apples, and after some coaxing the boy asks if they would ever eat people. The man assures him that they wouldn’t, even if they were starving – which they are now – because they are the “good guys,” and they’re “carrying the fire.” As they move on the man starts fires by raking pliers against rock. Several days pass without food and the boy is so thin he looks like an “alien.”
The man clarifies “carrying the fire” by associating it with being “good guys” and refusing to resort to cannibalism. The fire now symbolizes a kind of basic human decency and adherence to the most essential rules of civilization, which most of the remaining survivors have discarded. The boy again seems like an “other,” some heavenly being.
The man starts to think that death is near and he finds himself sobbing sometimes at night. He realizes he isn’t crying about death but about “beauty or goodness,” things he hasn’t thought about in a long time. He dreams that the boy is dead and he wakes up in terror, but the boy is fine. They search through charred, empty houses and find nothing. One day the man steps out of a house and suddenly sees the “absolute truth of the world,” that the earth is lonely and cold in an endless black universe, and the man and the boy are just “two hunted animals” crawling across its surface on “borrowed time.”
The man’s memory of the old world and concepts like beauty and goodness is another part of “carrying the fire,” and he finds himself breaking under the weight of these almost-forgotten concepts. His grim insight is similar to the mood McCarthy creates with the book in general – everything has been stripped away and there is only life and death, darkness and light, and the darkness seems to be winning.
The man starts dreaming about his wife again and now he doesn’t want to wake up. He thinks about how the act of remembering changes the memory somehow, so he must be careful with the precious past. One day they walk through a house in a field and the man sees their reflection in a mirror. He raises the pistol at first but the boy stops him, saying “it’s us.” The man finds some morning glory seeds in a shed and pockets them, but he doesn’t know why. He finds a can of gasoline too.
The man recognizes that the present is the only changeable time, but it can be changed by the act of remembering the past – an insight that foreshadows the novel’s end, where memory seems to become its own entity outside of the person doing the remembering. The man still has some blind hope despite his weariness and depression, as he saves the seeds.
The man walks back towards the house and then stops in the yard, feeling faint and wondering how many more days they have until death takes them. As he lingers he feels a hollow space in the yard. He digs up the dirt and finds a locked hatch in the ground. The boy is terrified and begs the man not to open it. The man says it’s okay, but he takes the boy onto the porch to calm down for a while first. The man makes a new lamp out of a bottle. He sees the boy’s face and fears he has been irrevocably damaged.
Though this hatch is clearly not the same as the last one, the boy’s terror has carried over from the plantation house and he now fears entering any unknown chamber. The man is not just trying to survive at any cost, but also trying to preserve the boy’s purity and innocence, and to give him some semblance of a childhood – but now he fears that that has been lost.
Finally the man goes back to open the hatch door. He lights the lamp first and gives it to the boy. He reassures the boy that this door isn’t like the other one, and that because they are the good guys they have to keep trying. The man breaks the lock with a shovel and opens the door. He kisses the boy’s forehead before he climbs down the stairs.
The man associates being a “good guy” with persevering and taking risks. This connects to the larger symbol of the road, which represents the desire to keep moving forward and hoping for something better – part of the basic human nature the man is trying to preserve as “the fire.”
The man descends into a concrete bunker, and he whispers for the boy to follow him down. The bunker is filled with canned food, supplies, and cots. The man and the boy stare in wonder. They find a lantern and the boy reads the words on all the different cans, the “richness of a vanished world.” The boy wonders aloud if it’s all real, but then he worries that the owners of all this food are still alive, as he doesn’t want to steal. The man assures the boy that the owners are dead, and they would want them to take the food and supplies, as they were “good guys” too.
This is the man and boy’s great windfall of the book, and a momentary reprieve from their constant danger and starvation. The bunker contains only some cans and basic supplies, but to the characters these are impossible riches, showing just how far the world has fallen. The boy still tries to stick to his ideals as a “good guy.”
They have pears and peaches for dinner, and the man notices that the boy is still wary, probably fearing that he will wake up in the darkness at any moment. After dinner the man puts the boy to bed in a cot and jams the hatch door shut with pliers. Then he starts going through all the cans and supplies, sorting everything. He finds some gold coins and some rifle shells, but no gun. He eats some chocolate and goes to sleep.
The boy has never experienced comfort like this, so he is afraid it is another happy dream tempting him to give up. This bunker could have been built and stocked decades before, as in every generation there is a fear of some kind of apocalypse – and in this case the owners’ preparations still did not save them.
The man and the boy sleep for a whole day and a half. When he wakes up the man has to change his perspective, as he had been prepared to die before they found all these supplies. He makes coffee and cooks breakfast for the boy, who wakes up and looks “drugged” with wonder at the bounty. The boy suggests that they thank the people who left all these supplies. The boy says a makeshift prayer thanking them for the food and hoping that they are “safe in heaven with God.”
This sudden bounty almost makes their inevitable future struggle more heartrending and desperate – they had been ready for death at any minute, but now that they have had a glimpse of peace and hope, it seems that they have more to lose. The boy’s religious beliefs are never explained, but here he seems to find some comfort and order in the idea of heaven and a good God.
Later they leave the bunker and go up to the house, carrying water and a little stove. The man fills a hot bath for the boy, and the boy says he is “warm at last.” Afterward they wash their jeans in the water and then return to the bunker. The man says they can only stay there another day or two, because it’s dangerous, but he also reassures the boy that no one will find them. After the boy falls asleep the man drags a mattress over the hatch cover to hide it. Then he whittles five wooden bullets and puts them in the pistol so it looks fully loaded. He kisses the boy, looks around at “this tiny paradise,” and goes to sleep.
The man cannot truly relax even in this situation. He is constantly acting as a support system for the boy, reminding him that they cannot stay in the bunker forever in case someone finds them, but at the same time reassuring the boy that no one will find them. The man shows more of his extraordinary resourcefulness in making fake bullets.
The man and boy explore the nearby town and find a new grocery cart to carry supplies. The boy wishes they could live in the bunker forever, but the man says someone might find them. The man says they probably won’t meet any “good guys” on the road, so he has to stay scared and cautious most of the time.
The man wants to take control of his fate rather than let it come to him, a desire that requires returning to the road instead of waiting in uneasy luxury. This is similar to his wife’s reasoning, but they reached opposite solutions—she to give up completely; he to continue on and face the terrible world as it comes.
They return to the bunker and the man cuts the boy’s hair. Then he cuts his own hair and shaves off his beard. They eat a “sumptuous meal by candlelight,” play checkers, and go to sleep. It’s raining when the man wakes up, and he remembers that he dreamed about strange creatures. The man thinks about how he is like an alien to the boy, “a being from a planet that no longer existed.” He recognizes that he can never rebuild the memory of that lost world for the boy. He partly regrets finding the bunker, as a piece of him always longs for death.
The man has thought of the boy as an alien or holy figure before, but now he realizes that he too is like an alien, remembering a home world that no longer exists. Despite their extreme closeness, the man and the boy are still fundamentally separated by their relationship to the world itself. He is relentlessly optimistic with the boy, but the man still feels the appeal of just giving up.
The man jury rigs a tank of gas and they spend the rest of the day eating and sleeping, delayed in their exit by the rain. That night they pack the grocery cart with supplies. The next morning they bathe again, eat breakfast, and leave the bunker to set off on the road again.
The man exhibits more clever resourcefulness, which is probably what has allowed him to survive for so long. They leave the comfort of their bunker – which almost seems like the comfort the woman found in suicide – to return to the harsh life of the road.