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Advanced Word Problems in Portal Math

Aimee Picchi's short fiction has been published in Fireside Magazine, Intergalactic Medicine Show, Flash Fiction Online, and Daily Science Fiction, among other publications. She's a graduate of Viable Paradise and a former classical musician. She lives in Burlington, Vermont with her family. You can find her at @aimeepicchi.
Problem 1
It is 7 p.m. on a snowy January evening, and Penny is a 13-year-old who likes fruity lip balms, wears leggings, and notices everything, like how she's expected to wash the dishes but her older brother is excused to finish his homework. On this night, she insists her brother do the dishes because she has an algebra test and it's only fair. Her parents explain girls can do anything--everything, in fact. She can wash the dishes plus get top grades. Her brother smirks as he escapes upstairs. Penny scrubs the dishes extra hard as she thinks about the unknowns in her life, like what she could do if she weren't expected to excel at everything. She dries her hands on her leggings and reapplies her strawberry lip balm, then walks through the split-level house, running her hands along drywall and peering into closets. She hopes to find a portal to a world with a warm patriarchal figure who will encourage her to spend long days in a library without any housework duties. After two hours, she gives up.
Using only paper and pencil, estimate the equivalency of one pair of leggings to nylons and one lip balm to lipsticks, if l = lipsticks and n = nylons, and then calculate the nearest portal's location and extrapolate why Penny was unable to find it.
Problem 2
At 16, Penny is excelling in math. Her teacher gives her his mobile number, telling her to text if she needs trig help. She takes him up on his offer. His texts become personal. Acutely personal. She reports him to the school, and the teacher receives a disciplinary hearing. The math teacher forwards portions of their texts--only the tangential, innocuous comments--to an old frat buddy, claiming Penny is a girl angling for attention. That friend forwards the texts to two more friends, etc., etc. She becomes known as the girl who entrapped a beloved teacher. Although the teacher is fired, she becomes a school outcast. Her parents blame her for being obtuse: Penny should have known better, they say, unless she's the type to lead on older men. When her parents are asleep, she probes the air in her bedroom with an X-Acto knife, hoping it might slice open a portal to a world where girls and women aren't blamed when men prey on them. She fails to find one.
Using "Dodgson's Treatise on the Geometry of Doorway Magics" and the modern theory of portal probability, estimate the likelihood a random selection of 100 cutting implements would open a portal such as the one Penny was searching for. Please complete your calculation before moving to the next problem.
Problem 3
Penny is now 20 and working as an ecommerce warehouse packer. Her parents don't have money to send her to college after paying her brother's tuition, so she is saving to enroll herself. She's dating a co-worker who plays esports and is a black belt. Her girlfriend writes funny but devastating tweets that get retweeted by celebrities; she drinks whiskey and reads comic books, even those with obscure Marvel superheroes. The men in the warehouse look up to her. She's awesome, totally ballsy, and Penny is heartbroken when she finds a note from her girlfriend on a warehouse shelf, explaining she'd found a portal to a world needing a savior like her. Penny peers behind shelves of toilet scrubbers and princess dolls, but the portal never appears for her.
Based on portal immigration statistics, calculate the optimal talents sought by portal worlds. Determine which of Penny's girlfriend's traits provided her entry to her portal world. Estimate whether Penny would require one or more than one of those traits to tip the balance in her favor.
Problem 4
Penny is 30, married to a man she met in college, and has two daughters. She's a stay-at-home mom because her husband puts in 80-hour weeks and someone needs to pick up the slack at home. She agrees with her husband that she'll use her college math degree when the girls are older and need homework help. One day, when her husband takes the girls out for ice cream--a task he likes because people ooh and ah, telling him what a good husband and father he is--she's washing dishes with a new dish liquid. A squirt of its lemony scent washes away the years, and a twist of pain and joy surges wild and sharp--that feeling of being 13 and in search of a better place. She turns off the water and dries her hands on her leggings. She opens every cupboard and closet. When she's in the backyard searching for rabbit holes, her husband and daughters return, and she laughs at the futility of her quest. Why would a portal appear now, especially to a 30-year-old, stay-at-home mom? But when she puts her hand on the fridge door handle to pour glasses of milk for her daughters, she feels a muted vibration travel through her arm, as if something powerful is hidden inside. When she flings open the door, she comes face-to-face with a snowy hillside dominated by a turreted black castle. In the castle's doorway stands a dark-robed man who introduces himself as Sorcerer Slate. He proclaims himself in desperate need of a woman's touch, specifically dusting his library and meal prep.
Using Bayesian analysis, determine Penny's most likely action:
A) She accepts immediately, because this is her first chance at entering a portal world;
B) She negotiates a job as a housekeeper with full use of the castle library as well as weekend visits to her own world;
C) She bids the sorcerer closer, and when he's within reach, she pulls him out of the fridge and dumps him on her kitchen floor, and then grabs her daughters' hands, clambers into the snowy landscape and pulls the fridge door shut behind them. She intends to allow herself and her daughters to spend long days within the castle's library.
Don't forget to show your work.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, January 3rd, 2020


I love portal fantasies, and have ever since I read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe when I was a kid. Of course I hated how CS Lewis treated Susan because she "betrayed" the ideals of Narnia by (shock!) wearing lipstick and nylons. A lot of fantasies today portray girls and women as heroic because they take on traditional "male" traits like fighting skills. But it's not the portal worlds that are deciding what matters, it's us, of course. I wanted to portray a woman whose struggles may seem more mundane but who has emotional strength and resilience. I have no doubt that Penny will end up ruling Sorcerer Slate's world and raising her daughters to spend all day in the library, instead of doing dishes.

- Aimee Picchi
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