This is one of the short fiction stories from my book "I Leapt Into the Night, and Ten Other Stories"...
"The Man Who Stood Alone In the Crowd"
There was once a man who stood by himself within a large throng of people. He was a little off to the side of the crowd, so as not to be too conspicuous—but near enough to the center that it was obvious he was in the crowd, and not at all separate from it. The crowd was nestled all around him, its gentle hum buzzing in his ears.
The crowd was all the man had ever known, and he thrived on its familiarity. Ironically, however, he was not much the talking type. He chose, as much as he could help it, not to contribute to the buzzing of the crowd he so enjoyed. He preferred simply to experience the crowd, and yet remain detached to some extent, an observer from within.
Since he could remember nothing else, he could scarcely imagine life outside of the crowd. The crowd was everything to him. It was the only world he could conceive of, and whenever he was reminded of how much he enjoyed the crowd—which was often—he would revel in its comforting embrace like a bird curling up in a warm nest, or a baby hidden deep inside the womb.
Since this man chose to stand alone within the crowd, he had plenty of time in which to ponder. Sometimes he thought about how nice it was to be in the crowd. Sometimes he thought about moving to another part of the crowd, just for a change—in which case he would generally do so, with an occasional “pardon me, ma’am” and “excuse me, sir, mind your drink!” Although he didn’t talk much, he had well-refined manners from so much listening to the people crowded around him.
Sometimes he even pondered, or at least imagined, life outside of the crowd. On one particular day, he was thinking about the time when he had actually had the urge to leave the crowd. Out of a clear blue sky, a sudden faltering within his mind made him wonder if he should flee from all these people gathered together in the crowd. He had been there in the crowd for so long, it occurred to him, for some reason, that he might be missing something interesting or important outside of the crowd.
But then, he had thought about where he might go if he left the crowd, and this disturbing possibility perplexed and confused him so much that he’d decided rather abruptly just to stay put. He didn’t much like perplexion or confusion. He didn’t see the point in it, and didn’t need any more complications in his life. The time a friend of his had asked if he would care to join him for a game of backgammon at his house had been enough to remind him of all the unpleasantness of the outside world. Leave the crowd? Of course not! What would he find out there? Probably more friends, who would ask him over for tennis, ask him to listen to their music, invite him to go swimming or go for a drive into the country. Soon enough he would be in some foreign land, where even the crowds themselves were unrecognizable.
No. It was too much. Too frightening even to consider. He must stop these nonsensical notions of leaving the crowd. It was much safer simply to remain there. He had everything he needed right there in the crowd—so why leave?
With that conclusion, he thought long and hard then about how nice it was just to be there inside the crowd. It made him so happy being amongst all those friendly people, that the man huddled up against the person next to him, who was trying to make a very important business deal, and he stepped on his foot, which surprised the businessman, causing him to spill his drink down the front of the man he was talking to, insulting him greatly so that he refused to close the deal, which put the businessman into a deep depression that left him incapable to work, so that his wife and kids finally left him for a plumber from Chicago whom she had secretly been seeing the last two years, which of course resulted in the businessman’s eventual suicide.
“Sorry,” said the man standing alone in the crowd.
Eventually, the crowd began to thin out. This did happen occasionally, although fortunately it never disappeared entirely. The crowd merely fluctuated between sparse and dense. The man who stood alone was always a little more nervous when the crowd was smaller, than after a big event when the entire town it seemed was there to join him. But he never really worried too much, because if it came down to only him left in the crowd—well, then he would be a one man-crowd. He’d heard of a one-man-band before. What was the difference? Nothing, really. As long as he was part of a crowd of some sort, then he was safe and secure. And besides, the people would always return eventually, and then he would be even more thankful for the comfort of the crowd.
It was early one May, as the sun was shining majestically overhead and the birds were fluttering from tree to tree, chirping their melodies to the people of the crowd, that the man had a sudden, unexpected desire. He had never experienced it before. He’d heard about it, of course. But he had assumed, out of ignorance perhaps or just innocence, that he was an exception to the rule. He would often hear in the middle of a nearby conversation, “Hey, Ralph, I’m a bit famished—shall we get a bite?” Or something of the sort. And then, they would be gone—only to return sometime later, revived and relaxed, as if nothing really had happened.
He thought it so curious, even a bit disrespectful for these people to simply leave the crowd like that and then return so nonchalantly, as if they knew the crowd would be there when they returned and they could just come and go as they pleased. Didn’t they feel such a devotion to the crowd as himself? What if everyone chose to leave the crowd—even him—and then there was no crowd at all? What then?
But all of a sudden, in the midst of an otherwise contented and satisfying life, he found himself experiencing this inner need, this growling within his bowels that he had only heard about before, but which he had, in fact, dreaded unconsciously for a long time. He’d known it might happen to him. But he’d hoped simply to ignore it when it did. Like the waxing and waning of the crowd itself, this feeling, too, would come and then go. But no—it wouldn’t. And he knew then that it wouldn’t and that he must satisfy it, for it was gnawing inside him and seemed only to be growing stronger.
He was filled with fear at the prospect of solving the dilemma before him. He didn’t know what to do. He knew that people always left the crowd when this happened. But he didn’t know where they went or what they did out there. He knew only that he must take action. The rest he would discover soon enough.
He lifted his right foot, which had been planted in the same position for a long while by then, and moved it forwards. His brow was sweating. His hands were shaking. “My God, I never thought it would be so hard,” he thought. He hadn’t. He had thought it would be easy, that he could have left the crowd anytime he wanted, that it was only by choice he had stayed.
He paused for a moment and fixed his tie, as he readied himself for the next step. Finally, strategically, he lifted his left foot to place it in front of the right. He repeated this action, and then repeated it again. It took every ounce of courage and concentration he could muster for him to walk, slowly, to the edge of the crowd. But he kept his head up and his feet moving, and with an “excuse me” here and a “pardon me” there, soon enough he was standing on the edge of the crowd.
He thought long and hard then about the decision at hand. It was a whole new world from here, past the edge of the crowd. It was that foreign land he had feared he might someday find himself in. But he had to face it. The crowd would always be there upon his return—at least so he hoped. But he would have to take that risk, and brave the consequences.
Just then his stomach rumbled, and he knew it was time to venture forth into that great unknown. The longer he waited, the harder it would be. If he turned around now, he knew he would never try again, and then the crowd would swallow him in his hunger, and he would never know if he could have lived to tell the tale of his adventure beyond the crowd. He lifted his right foot and raised it upwards, moved it forwards, set it down, took another difficult step, and then another—and in so doing, took a giant leap off the edge of the world he had known for too long.