The current buzz in and around northern New Jersey is similar to that in the fictitious Willy Wonka story.

Those dreaming of dollars — not chocolate — are foraging through their homes and cars searching for an unclaimed Big Game lottery ticket that is worth $23.7 million.

But they don't have much time. This golden ticket, purchased at a convenience store last year, expires Saturday at midnight.

And once it expires, the winning loot will be returned to the state of New Jersey.

"Dude, I looked everywhere,'' said Danny Kelly of Harriman, N.Y. "I tore the house apart, looked under the car mats, in the ashtray, the truck, the glove compartment, under the visors, between the seats."

The winning ticket was sold June 9, 2000, at Krauser's convenience store in Montvale. Store owner Hemang Patel gets his $10,000 commission even if the ticket isn't redeemed.

Theories run amok as to what may have happened to the 3-inch-square slip of paper.

"Somebody had it in their pocket and ran it through the wash," speculated John Giannolla of Demarest. "I do that a lot."

Linda Calabrese thinks the ticket might have been bought by a traveler passing through because the store is near the point where New Jersey's Garden State Parkway becomes the New York State Thruway.

"They probably got back on the road and forgot all about it," she said.

The Big Game jackpot the night of the drawing was $46 million, but because the lump-sum payment option was chosen the ticket is only worth $23,748,052, before taxes. The winning numbers on the unclaimed ticket were 6, 7, 25, 34 and 45, while the Big Money Ball number was 2.

The ticket can be validated any time before midnight Saturday at any lottery agent outlet, said New Jersey lottery spokeswoman Annette Jenkins.

If the prize is not claimed, the money will revert to New Jersey and the other six states that participate in the game: Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, Illinois, Virginia and Georgia. 

"Chances are someone bought it, threw it in a drawer and forgot about it," said Joe Rinaldi of Pearl River, N.Y. "Can you imagine losing out on that kind of money?"

The Associated Press contributed to this report