False Dawn


Yma Johnson

Art by Erik Sellstrom


The clock on Agostinho’s phone read 3:10 a.m.—twenty minutes before the alarm was set to go off. He rarely snuck out in the middle of the night because the dense, drug-like sleep brought on by adolescent growth spurts made it impossible for his alarm to wake him in the middle of the night. So he changed his tactics to make sure that he was alert and ready. At dinner, he told his mother he wasn’t feeling well and capped off the performance by leaving most of his calulu de peixe and funju untouched. He staggered to his bedroom, took a Benadryl and gobbled four pastel de natas that he’d stashed under his bed earlier in the day. Then he waited for the antihistamine to knock him out.

Nine hours later he was well rested and ready to run. He turned on the lamp by his nightstand and stared at the black and white landscapes on his wall. His favorite photograph, a gift from his parents, showed canyons crowned with a tumult of gunmetal and ivory clouds. The surrounding valley was divided by a sylvan river which seemed to glitter as it wound through an expanse of forest. Emptiness—empty of humanity. Every time Agostinho stared at it, his insides pulsed with intertwining melodies of enchantment and desolation. He imagined himself alternately at the canyon peak and the valley below, a composer of infinite songs, camera at the ready.


Agostinho pulled his new camera out from underneath his bed. He saved a lot of his own money to buy the costly piece of equipment. High marks at Sao Pedro Academy combined with his family’s influence qualified him for a paid internship helping with safety inspections. He had joined the Corporate Leaders of Tomorrow program at the Portuguese headquarters for Angola Petrochemical Company where his father worked. His parents contributed the last three hundred euros he needed to buy the camera and the software for a digital editing suite.

Agostinho surveyed his supplies that included what he bemusedly called his stealth wear—a black hooded sweatshirt, black pants, black tennis shoes, and black backpack. He had half a dozen more pastel de natas, two ham sandwiches, and a bottle of his mother’s homemade ginger beer. The sandwiches were warm from being under the bed, but they only smelled a little bit off so he stuffed them in the backpack. He took the camera out of its padded leather satchel to admire it, then ran his hands over the smooth surface before securing it in the bag and placing it in his backpack.


He crept past his parents’ bedroom and carefully walked down the two flights of stairs, avoiding the ones that squeaked. The two dogs, Dolph and Jean Claude, had been sleeping in a heap on the game room floor. They raised their heads and moved to greet him. He held up his hand.

“Lay down,” he whispered and down they went. The Rhodesian Ridgebacks were incredible guard dogs and trained not to bark unless directed by their owners. Then they would kill on command, making them silent and deadly. It also meant that they wouldn’t alert his parents to his absence. Agostinho deactivated the house alarm and stepped into the night.

And then he was free and running towards Os Liminales. Streams of temperate air cooled his face, and he inhaled the velvet intoxicant of night into his lungs. Once he had cleared his street, Agostinho slowed down. He basked in the waves of liberation and the promise of adventure. Secrets. The secrets he drank like water when thirsty, private interludes between himself and the images he captured on film. A lone vestigial frond clinging to a dying tree. An elderly Angolan woman dislocated from time and place in a wash of sepia. Tonight, his secret would be the false dawn, a hazy pyramid of spectral light illuminating cosmic dust over the ocean.


“His neighborhood was mostly executives from Angola... and was beautifully situated for photographs, and had it not been nearly four in the morning, Agostinho would have lingered to see what secrets his camera and decorative lights would reveal about the gardens.”


The breeze shook flame trees heavy with pink-petaled flowers so they trembled in the night. He took a ham sandwich from his backpack and munched cheerfully as he passed verdant lawns and ornate gardens with travelers palms ringed in hibiscus and sinewy foliage. His neighborhood was mostly executives from Angola. A few Portuguese lived there, but most were in Os Liminales or in Las Palmas along the coast. Agostinho’s father, like most of the residents, received down payments on their homes as part of the generous compensation packages offered when Angola Petrochemical was recruiting in east Africa. His neighborhood was beautifully situated for photographs, and had it not been nearly four in the morning, Agostinho would have lingered to see what secrets his camera and decorative lights would reveal about the gardens.

It took him twenty minutes to arrive at Os Liminales, the upscale waterfront district between the Angolan ghettos and his neighborhood. He chose an elevated point in Parque Dom Machado. It overlooked Rua Centenária across from expensive apartments, martini bars decorated in chrome and glass, and boutiques selling designer clothes from Italy, France, and Germany. Lots of interesting shapes and lighting. However, tonight Agostinho was interested in the boardwalk which had a pedestrian lookout area onto the ocean. One of the few areas in the business district where his view of the ocean was unobstructed by skyrises and overpriced commercial property. He ensconced himself in the shadows near a ten-foot-by-ten-foot plaque recognizing police killed by Angolans during the Centenaria Massacre.

Satisfied that he was invisible, and with an excellent view of the ocean and the eastern horizon, he checked his watch. Fortunately, the wind was on his side. The Atlantic smelled salty with only a hint of sewage and dead fish tonight. Bats flapped in the flame trees above him, and he shivered, unnerved by the song of a bird that sounded like an injured cat. He pulled out his second sandwich and the ginger beer. He probably had another half hour before the darkness shifted into false dawn over the sea.


A group of women in their twenties staggered out of the Clube Cormorão. They tottered and swayed down the sidewalk in pretty dresses and high heels. A lithe brunette in a snakeskin sheath dress broke from the group and leaned over to adjust the strap on her stiletto. She had very long legs and was too drunk to be careful. Her short skirt rode up perilously high on her thigh. Agostinho lifted the camera and pressed down hard on the zoom button. Her girlfriends continued on, leaving the woman alone in a perfect cone of yellow light, her body framed by the doorway of a closed restaurant. He took several pictures in rapid succession.

One of the girls noticed that their friend was not with them and walked towards her laughing, arms flailing. He watched the two women hug each other and clicked his camera as their slender limbs intertwined—-honey and peaches. Then the group hailed a cab, and they were gone.

Agostinho had been holding his breath and exhaled loudly. His face was damp with sweat. He pulled out the last half of his ham sandwich with trembling fingers and devoured it in three bites. He took a long drink of the ginger beer, the fragrant, peppery beverage exploding in his mouth and backing up hot into his nose causing him to gag and cough into the sleeve of his hoodie to cover the noise. After clearing his throat and wiping his eyes, he tore into another sweet and waited.

A few moments later a thin hazy layer of amber appeared on the horizon. The color saturated into a dense band of golden light hovering above the sea. Silver cosmic dust hewn from the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter interspersed with stars, glittering from sea to sky. Agostinho entered the waking dream state that came from elaborate attention to exceptional beauty. An orgy of purples and oranges melted into one another. He took photo after photo, his lips wet and his mouth pursed in a small “o.” Then suddenly his ecstasy of spectacle collapsed as he shifted the camera angle.

Agostinho zoomed in on three white men in suits lurching out of Clube Cormorão. He could hear one telling an unseen figure inside the bar to fuck off. They laughed and jeered, slapping each other on the back. The sound of their voices gave Agostinho the same anxious feeling that he felt when his father was in a bad mood and had had too much to drink. He tasted the dry and chalky fear in his mouth which had been so moist moments before.


The three men walked back and forth in front of the Clube Cormorão strutting and swearing. Loud, really loud. They were fashionably dressed in designer suits that reminded Agostinho of the clothes his father and other Angolans at his company wore to their offices. These men probably lived in the palatial apartments at the top of the high rises in Os Liminales.

“Hey, you fucking monkey!”

It was the same bulky man who swore into the bar. They sounded like Americans. Agostinho tensed, fearing that he had been spotted. Then he saw a young Angolan, only a few years older than himself. The Angolan man wore the dark pants and white shirt of a restaurant server. He was tall, but frail looking in the slight light of oncoming dawn. The server was probably just getting off work. Agostinho thought of roving gangs of schoolboys whose ghoulish entertainment focused on menacing loners and oddballs. It always ended badly. He pressed record on his camera and braced for the confrontation. The men walked parallel to the Angolan, but on the opposite side of the street shouting obscenities and racial slurs. The police probably wouldn’t care what happened to the young man, but maybe somehow Agostinho could notify the man’s family in case his foreboding proved true.

“Hey!” said the fat man. “After your sister cleans my house, I make her suck my dick.” He stepped towards the street away from his friends. The two other men were laughing, but Agostinho could see in the zoom lens that their eyes darted back and forth between the Angolan and their friend. Agostinho gripped the camera tightly and felt a thin layer of sweat between his fingers and the plastic. The Angolan slowed his pace then abruptly crossed the street heading directly towards the three men.

“What are you going to do?” The American walked out towards the black man. His friends did not follow.

“Hey, Bobby! Bob, man!” said one of the friends. “Dude, let it go. We need to get a cab. I’ve got to be at work in four and half hours.”

The rational one stepped off the curb and put his hand on Bobby’s shoulder. He shrugged off the hand, turned and shoved his friend so he stumbled backwards, then continued into the middle of the street bellowing, “You know we should have wiped your kind…”

The Angolan kicked him. It wasn’t an ordinary kick. Agostinho had seen such a kick only in martial arts films or action movies starring Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan. The server jumped off the ground, spun his whole body in a circular motion, leg aimed high and cutting the night. Then the Angolan’s foot connected with Bobby’s head at the temple. Agostinho heard it, the sound of two thick boards smacking together. The American’s head jerked violently to the right then snapped back as he dropped to the ground like a skin suit.


Agostinho gasped and swallowed the bile rising in the back of his throat. His battery indicator light started to flash red; he adjusted the zoom. The Angolan and the man’s two friends stared down at the motionless body on the ground, three faces frozen in shock. Then the Angolan jumped like a deer startled by wolves and sped into the shadows.

“Bobby!” The man who Bobby had shoved shook his friend. The head lolled obscenely, a rag doll with a broken neck. The other man was yelling into the phone in terrible Portuguese for the police to send an ambulance.

Agostinho shoved the camera in his backpack. He accidentally kicked over the rest of his ginger beer, cursed, and hurried away from the lookout inexplicably panting, eyes sweeping the street in wild arcs. Somewhere near the border of Os Liminales, he heard the rhythmic scream of sirens and dropped into a dead run.


At home, Dolph and Jean Claude were waiting silently at the door. He was too upset to give them affection. He stationed Dolph at the front door and Jean Claude, the more vicious of the two, at the back door. “Stay!” he said firmly. On his way up the stairs, he said under his breath, “Kill.”

Agostinho crawled into bed without taking off his clothes. In the darkness of his room, he stared out his window and watched true dawn unfolding in streaks of quiet light. His heart banged against his ribcage; he blinked hard again and again as though trying to clear his vision. Under the comforter, his sweat-soaked T-shirt clung to his chest.

Agostinho pulled the camera from its case and held it. Should he replay the fight? Fight. That wasn’t the right word. The right word for what happened between the Angolan and the American was a word Agostinho didn’t want to use. He watched the footage several times, saw the American drop to the ground and the Angolan flee into the night. He had zoomed in on Bobby’s face once. With the recording paused, Agostinho could see that the man’s skin was a ghastly gray-blue. Ham sandwiches, pastel de natas, and ginger beer churned threateningly.

Agostinho stared at the camera, then moved his finger slowly so it hovered over the red erase button. His jaws working into knots of fear and worry, he pressed the button.


Yma Johnson

Yma Johnson is a first-generation Sierra Leonean immigrant who began her writing career in 1996 as a journalist and editor in Puerto Rico. She won first place in the 2012 Current Magazine Fiction Contest and was listed as an honorable mention in the 2014 Glimmer Train Very Short Fiction Contest. Her work was also nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2016. Yma taught rhetoric and composition at Eastern Michigan University and co-facilitated an ongoing poetry workshop in a women’s prison. Her short fiction has appeared in Cosmonauts Avenue and The St. Petersburg Review. Yma’s stories have also been anthologized in Cthulhu Lies Dreaming published by Ghostwoods Press (2016) and in the Experimental Encyclopedia, Vol. III, L–Z by Publication Studio House (2017). She earned an MA in creative writing from Eastern Michigan University in 2019 and was awarded the Distinguished Graduate Student in Creative Writing for her science fiction work-in-progress. In 2020, she was a semifinalist in the Sundress Publications Manuscript Contest.

Erik Sellstrom

Erik Sellstrom is a photographer living in Detroit. He began his photographic work in Toronto while pursuing a PhD in Eastern Christian studies at Trinity College of the University of Toronto in 2016. Erik holds an MA in Irish history from the Queen’s University of Belfast. Erik is active in Detroit’s film photography community and leads workshops teaching the art of street photography.

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