First published in Second Coming #6 by Ahoy Comics | January 2020
J. Robert Oppenheimer woke, held the bars of his crib, and pronounced: “Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.” They were his first words, and his parents – Julius and Ella – were startled and overjoyed. Only later, lying in their bed, did they dare to discuss what Oppenheimer had actually said. I am who? Destroyer of what? They chalked it up to coincidence. Just words, overheard, strung together like pearls. But the fact he’d spoken eight of them in a row? His parents knew, there in the midnight gloom, that their baby was destined for greatness.
Oppenheimer performed well in school. Whenever a question was asked, his hand was the first to bloom upward. Unfortunately, there was no telling when his nervous tic would appear: his tongue would swell in his mouth, thick and numb, and the only way to return it to normal was to mumble “Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds”. The class would explode into laughter, often improvising mocking, sing-song chants, and Oppenheimer would run from the room in hot tears. This was long before he’d skip half the eighth grade.
“I was, uh, wondering, if you might consider, um, going out with me sometime,” said Oppenheimer, fiddling with the buttons on his shirt, before adding, “Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.” The girl excused herself – not unkindly, which made it worse. First, he’d clumsily drenched his chemistry bench in god-knows-what, and now he’d scared off his lab partner! Already news of his tic had spread around Harvard. They were calling it an affectation; something vague, something ominous, so he’d be remembered. Oppenheimer didn’t want to be remembered. Right now, he wished the lab accident had made him invisible.
That all changed in Europe, where Oppenheimer discovered smoking. Something to do with your hands and your mouth at the same time? It helped keep his tic in check. Soon he was dominating the conversation with his classmates as if wrestling in a ring. When he drank, though, the alcohol let it seep out and, if drunk enough, he’d find himself playing with it. He’d let emphasis fall on different words: he’d bark out “now” or boom “become”. And “death”? He rolled that around on his tongue like smoke.
Oppenheimer – or Oppie, as he was now affectionately known – continued both his work and his outbursts. He was about to begin at Berkeley when he contracted tuberculosis and spent some time recovering at a New Mexico ranch. He would later say that “physics and desert country” were his “two great loves”. Enjoying the mild delirium of his fever, Oppenheimer would spend hours staring out at the barren landscape. When he slept, sweating through the sheets, he dreamt of a world just as desolate. He woke and sat upright in bed, but for once his tic didn’t possess his lips and larynx. It was quiet as only the desert can be, and in the silence, Oppenheimer knew what magic words could make his dream come true.