Her skin was on fire.
Lauren Laframboise was aware of her surroundings. She was aware of being partially led, partially carried through the swinging doors of the emergency room. She was aware that her two companions, Dan Baldwin and Ginger Gold, were both panicking perhaps even more than she was, herself. Ginger's shouts for help registered somewhere in Lauren's mind, as did Danny's white-faced look of fear and confusion. She was with them, in the emergency room, after a torturous cab ride through Midtown, mid-day traffic, but her physical presence below the fluorescent lights in the hospital had little to do with the location of her mind -- which, at the moment, was somewhere in the seventh level of hell.
Lauren wasn't even quite sure what had happened. One minute, she'd been sitting in the conference room, poring over contracts and briefs for the Cortland acquisition, and the next she was in some sort of allergic shock. It had come on suddenly and unexpectedly, but even the initial burning and itchiness had nothing on the state of discomfort that Lauren was now suffering through. Beneath her clothes, her skin was melting off the bone, hot lava flowing through her veins and arteries. The waistband of her pants and panties felt as if they had dug so deeply into her midsection that she was sure they had to have been drawing blood. The same for her bra straps, which stung her shoulders terribly. The bra itself, wrapped around her torso, seemed to be ratcheted just a bit tighter with every passing breath, to the point where Lauren's breathing had become labored.
Through the burning and itching, Lauren still managed to ask herself, "Was the language in Section 14, Paragraph 4 clear enough in describing trademark governance?"
"She needs help!" Ginger yelled in the direction of the check-in desk. "She needs to see a doctor right now!"
The nurse at the desk nodded, pressing the "call" button for a doctor. "What's wrong?" she asked, stepping from behind her station and meeting the threesome halfway.
"We don't know," Ginger replied. "She's having some sort of panic attack or allergic reaction to something!"
Danny shook himself from his own panic-stricken silence to pull the sleeve of Lauren's blazer gently up her forearm. Beneath, her white skin was covered in an evil-looking pink rash.
The nurse did her best to prevent herself from recoiling, but it was clear from her reaction that she wasn't expecting anything as bad as she had just witnessed. "This way," she said, leading them out of the waiting room and into a room beyond.
There were patients here and there throughout this next room. The room was large, and open, with approximately five beds on either side. Some curtains were pulled, some were not. As Ginger, Danny, Lauren, and the nurse entered, they were watched by a teenage girl in a Catholic schoolgirl uniform sitting with her parents in a bay across the room, a construction working clutching a bloody rag to his forearm by the door, and an elderly woman struggling to breathe in the corner. There were nurses and orderlies everywhere, but unfortunately, there didn't seem to be a doctor within visual range.
"I'm going to grab Dr. Cherry," the nurse explained, gesturing towards an empty bed on the opposite side of the room, a close-curtained bay further than the schoolgirl. "Just try to stay calm."
"Hurry!" Ginger yelped after the hustling nurse.
Lauren's chest was heaving in and out as Ginger and Danny set her down on the bed. Like the old woman in the corner of the room, each breath was becoming more and more of a struggle, Lauren's lung capacity seemingly stifled by the constricting effect her bra was having on her entire upper body. She was sure, given the pain she felt beneath the undergarment, that it had to have been drawing blood. But so far, her white blouse showed no sign of red.
The sleeve of the girl's blazer was still bunched at her elbow, her forearm still exposed. Curiously, though the rash was still visible, it did not appear to as deep a pink as it had been only moments before. Lauren chalked it up to her imagination. But then, why did Danny seem to be staring at her arm in confusion, as well?
"The copyright provision," Lauren wheezed, her mind still stalling out on the contract language she'd been working on for the past month. She had to talk to Bramley about copyright ownership when she got back to the office, had to double and triple check the language to make sure the company was covered, had to make sure there was no wiggle-room in the contracts. She tried to alert Ginger, but all that came out was a gasp for air.
The bra had to come off.
Lauren was still wearing the gray-white Evelyn Lane blazer she'd been wearing since that morning, the top half of her pants and jacket ensemble. She struggled in shrugging it off, but as she did so, she felt her body temperature dip dramatically. The jacket was deposited on the floor, Lauren focused on nothing more than the bra that was constricting her lungs. She didn't care if the bloody construction worker was watching her or not -- she untucked the back of her white blouse, and found the bra hooks behind her back. Along the way, she exposed her bare back to Danny, who blanched at the surface area Lauren's pink rash now covered.
She was panicking, unable to breath, and thus was unable to unfasten the clip. "Please," she gasped. "Help! Get it off!"
Danny stood frozen, still taken aback by the breakout covering Lauren's skin. Ginger, though, jumped into action, swinging around the other girl's trembling body and fingering the hooks. But like a drowning swimmer desperately trying to survive, Lauren was still clawing at the bra herself, her body convulsing from a lack of air. Four hands then fought against one another as they tried to rip the nylon/spandex piece of lingerie from the girl's back. And rip they did, the hooks tearing from the fabric itself as Lauren literally tore the bra from her back.
But the girl wasn't satisfied with just unclasping it -- she wanted the bra off. Lauren reached both hands up the front of her blouse, exposing the bottom of the ivory cups to Danny beside her, and tugged violently at the fabric between them. The thin straps that had gone over her shoulders snapped with ease, but the force against her inflamed skin nearly caused her to collapse to the floor.
Lauren inhaled deeply, finally able to breathe again. With one affliction remedied, she had more time to focus on the others, worry over her lack of air giving way to the excruciating burning sensation she was suffering from head to toe.
What remained of Lauren's ivory lace bra -- and it was clear that she'd never be able to wear it again -- was discarded on the floor, beside her jacket. Neither Danny nor Ginger made an effort to pick it up, each worried more about the health of their coworker than the state of her wardrobe. Ginger eased her back against the bed, where Lauren half-sat, half-leaned against the mattress.
"What's happening?" a voice said from behind Ginger, and all three looked to find a twenty-something black woman in a white coat. The nurse was standing with her, holding a clip-board and carrying a medical kit under one arm.
Lauren lifted her blouse, exposing her stomach. Like her back and her forearm, it was covered in the mysterious pink rash.
The doctor had a good poker face, but Lauren was fairly sure that she had no idea what she was looking at. Lauren herself was twenty-nine (actually, only a few short days removed from turning the corner to thirty), but she guessed that the doctor was a good two to three years younger than her, fresh out of medical school and interning in the Emergency Room. Still, while the lifted blouse did little in the way of gaining any sort of expert opinion on the situation, Lauren found a measure of relief from the burning as the cool hospital air kissed her bare skin.
"I'm Doctor Cherry," the African-American girl introduced herself. "Could I get your name, and would you mind sending one of your friends with Nurse Pomelo here so that we can pull a medical history?"
"Lauren Laframboise," Ginger answered for her boss. "She's Lauren Laframboise. I'm Ginger Gold. This is Daniel Baldwin. We work a few blocks over, in the legal department at Evelyn Apparel. This just started, about a half hour ago -- she just started breaking out in that rash."
"Okay, okay," Cherry replied, trying to calm the situation down. "It looks like she's having a reaction to something, something she ate, maybe some sort of sting or bite, maybe something else?"
Ginger shook her head. "She had the same lunch she has every day -- a turkey wrap from the sandwich shop downstairs. I don't know what could have happened..."
"Alright," the doctor said, taking a deep breath and gesturing to the nurse for the medical kit. "We're going to give her a shot of diphenhydramine, to see if that slows the rash. Why don't you go with Nurse Pomelo, and we'll see what we can find in Lauren's medical records."
Ginger nodded, and joined the nurse. The pair walked together from the bay, leaving Lauren with the dark-skinned doctor and the increasingly pale Danny Baldwin, who looked like he might faint at any moment.
Lauren was struggling to pay attention to what Cherry was asking her, but the waistband of her panties had now moved to the forefront of her mind. Like her bra, it seemed to be digging into her flesh, and seemed to be becoming tighter and tighter by the minute. Hoping that maybe just loosening her pants might stop the chafing sensation, Lauren reached for the button atop her fly and slipped it through its corresponding buttonhole.
Meanwhile, Dr. Cherry was readying her needle, despite being unable to get a clear response from Lauren about any known allergens. A sideways glance at the girl writhing in agony at the foot of the bed, though, slowed her momentum.
With her left hand, Lauren had continued the process of loosening her pants. With her right, she was still holding her blouse in place just below her breasts, the bare skin of her midsection exposed to the air. But the skin that only a few moments before been almost a deep fuchsia appeared to be more of a coral-pink, the rash diminishing a bit more with each tick of the second hand.
Cherry had never seen anything quite like it before, a rash that disappeared so quickly. Nor could she recall reading anything about it med school, or hearing about it from any of her peers. But there seemed to be a measure of cause and effect taking place, and Cherry acted upon instinct. She stood, grabbed the curtain that surrounded the bed, and rushed it along the u-track until she, Danny, and Lauren were cordoned off from the rest of the room.
"Lauren, I'm going to need you to take your clothes off," Cherry announced. "I think you're having an allergic reaction to the fabric."
Lauren already had the fly of her pants halfway unzipped, her ivory lace panties exposed as it descended bit by bit. She should have been mortified by the instructions, but the idea of her inflamed skin getting access to the cool hospital air sounded heavenly. She nodded, and slipped the last button loose.
Cherry turned her attention to Danny, trying to decide if he belonging inside the bay or out. She jutted her chin in his direction, but addressed Lauren, "Do you want your friend here? Or should I ask him to leave?"
Lauren glanced at Danny, who at the moment seemed frozen in place, too dumbstruck to talk or react in anyway. "He's fine," she croaked, not quite processing the fact that her coworker was about to see her in the nude. She had more pressing concerns than her shame, and honestly, she was far too frightened about what was happening to her body to be alone.
"Sit," Cherry instructed the man, pointing to a chair at the head of the bed. "And breathe."
Both Danny and Lauren did as they were told. Danny practically collapsed in the bedside chair, and Lauren reached for the hem of her blouse. Though it was a button-down shirt, Lauren decided, for alacrity's sake, that she'd simply pull the whole thing up and over her head. But her body was still quivering, her mind in overdrive, and as she lifted the material past her naked breasts and towards her head, she panicked. Like the bra before it, the blouse became a victim of struggle, most of the buttons popping off in one quick tug. One remained, but Lauren gave a second effort, tearing it from the fabric and throwing the entire shirt to the floor.
The girl now stood topless before her coworker and the doctor. But Lauren gave her nudity little thought. Her waistline was still burning, the elastic of her panties wringing her internal organs. She was wearing only one of her heels, the other falling off on the trip from the lobby of her building to the cab, and now residing peacefully in Ginger's purse. But she kicked the shoe off, and in one motion, grabbed both her pants and panties by the waist. Down they slipped, past her hips, past her buttocks, down her thighs, below her knees, and puddled at her ankles. Lauren stepped out of the material, naked from head to toe, and braced herself against the foot of the bed.
Lauren Laframboise was, in a word, a knockout. She had long, straight blonde hair that descended past her shoulders, and alluring azure eyes that shimmered in the right light. Her lips were full, her teeth perfect, her smile entrancing. She wasn't terribly cautious about what she ate, but Lauren had been an exercise freak since high school, her workouts a form of decompression. Given that she often spent a good hour and a half in the gym each day, her slender figure remained slender. She had been gifted with a naturally good waistline, and an above-average bust, her C-cup breasts appearing almost disproportionate to her thin body.
Lauren had the prototypical body of a star cheerleader, which was especially fortunate, given that she'd been the star cheerleader at Cherryfield High School in Vermont some years back. She'd been on the dance team at Vermont State University through her sophomore year, but dance and cheering had given way to academics. An undergraduate degree in history from VSU had been complemented by a law degree from Penn, and the law degree put to good use in the corporate world by Evelyn Apparel, Inc., in New York. Intellect and scholastic achievement, however, had not eclipsed physical beauty, and even in three-piece suits and androgynous business wear it was clear that Lauren was gorgeous.
Alone in the dark, when men closed their eyes and stroked themselves, it was Lauren's form that populated their fantasies. Certainly, in any other circumstance, Danny Baldwin might have been living out the fantasy of dozens of lawyers and auditors that worked with Lauren on the twenty-sixth floor of the Lane-Russet Building on Madison Avenue. But Danny himself was still spooked by his friend's physical breakdown that afternoon, and Lauren's beauty was certainly not aided by the fact that she was covered from neck to ankle in the mysterious pink rash.
Of course, the latter drawback seemed to be taking care of itself, the rash lightening and disappearing before their very eyes.
Dr. Cherry still held the needle in her hand, but it was becoming increasingly apparent that she was not going to have to use it. The dark pink splotches on Lauren's body began turning to a lighter shade of pink, and then lighter still, and then so light that Cherry had to strain to see them. The rash lingered a bit longer in some places than it did in other, fading slower at the girl's waist and where her panty-lines might have been, had she been wearing pants -- or, for that matter, panties.
Lauren herself was silent as she watched the rash recede. Since she'd stepped from the last of her clothing, the burning sensation in her skin had cooled, the pain she'd felt disappearing. As her breathing returned to normal, she was able to gain control of her psyche, and for the first time since a half hour earlier, in the conference room, she was able to take stock in what had just happened.
She stood naked in the presence of Dr. Cherry and Danny Baldwin. As two minutes became three, and three became five, no one had said a thing. But the rash that had enveloped Lauren's entire body had completed dissipated, her body returning to the same milky-white it had been that morning. Her skin was perfect, unblemished, without exception.
"Lauren!" a voice shouted from across the room. "Lauren Laframboise? Lauren, are you in there?"
Without further warning, the curtain around the bed was pulled back, and Rachel Wilks stormed into the bay, unprepared for the scene before her.
"Oh, I'm sorry!" she yelped, nearly tripping over her own heels as she stepped backwards, the curtain falling back into place.
"No, Rachel," Lauren croaked, her throat dry and her voice absent. "It's okay. You can come in."
There was hesitation on the part of the red-haired girl on the far side of the curtain. "Are you sure?"
"No, it's fine," she assured her friend. Like Lauren, Rachel was an Assistant General Counsel in the corporate offices Evelyn Apparel, each of them a rung below the Associate General Counsel seated in the corner. Danny was still pale-faced, but his color seemed to be returning as Lauren's own color returned to normal.
More cautiously this time, Rachel slipped into the bay, unsure of what was taking place inside.
"Dr. Cherry thinks I'm allergic to something in those clothes," Lauren explained her nudity as best she could. She didn't fully understand it herself, but Cherry's theory seemed to make sense.
"Well," Cherry said, nodding, "it's a start. I'm going to need to run some tests, if you don't mind. And I'm curious as to why your rash would disappear so quickly."
"Rash?" Rachel asked. Given her late entrance, and Lauren's flawless skin, she had no idea what Cherry was talking about.
Ignoring the redheaded girl, Cherry stooped to lift Lauren's clothes from the tiled floor, and spread them out on the bed beside the naked blonde. After glancing at the tags, she held Lauren's panties in one hand, and her blouse in the other. "But I'm curious as to how you'd be allergic to the nylon and spandex in the underwear, at the same time you're allergic to one hundred percent cotton in your shirt."
"And you said it came on suddenly?" Cherry asked. "Nothing triggered it?"
Lauren shook her head, and glanced in the direction of Rachel first, and then Danny, to see if either of them could think of anything. She had been seated in the conference room with Ginger and Jen Ellison, one of the paralegals, going over the encyclopedic acquisition contract they'd put together as Evelyn Apparel took over Cortland Menswear. She had been drinking water. She didn't remember being stung by anything. And she certainly hadn't been allergic to her clothes when she'd put them on that morning, or even later in the day at lunch.
Her right eye did twitch a bit as she thought of the contract. For the past three weeks, she and her colleagues had done nothing but work on the Cortland acquisition. Hand in hand with Corporate Development, nearly a third of Evelyn Apparel's legal staff had been tied up with the deal -- everyone under Dick Bramley, the company's Deputy General Counsel. And they weren't finished yet; they had until the end of the Third Quarter, that Friday evening at five, to put everything in writing. Technically, it was the company's General Counsel, Jim Grieve, who was running the legal side of the acquisition. It was, in theory, handed to Dick Bramley. But, in practice, it was the young up-and-comer, Lauren Laframboise, who was running the day-to-day tasks of the project. Unfortunately, given that she was standing stark naked in the hospital and that both Rachel Wilks and Danny Baldwin were here with her, they were falling more behind their schedule by the minute.